Monthly Roundup, September 2013

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

Pikmin 3

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

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

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

System Shock 2

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

Ken Levine likes his wrenches.

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

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Brothers' puzzles and platforming never get very creative.

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

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

Rayman Legends

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

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

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

Looking Ahead to October

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

Posted by dankempster

Congratulations on clearing so much of your backlog this month, and best of luck in polishing off more of it in October. I haven't played any of the games you spent most of your September with, but I'm in a similar position with System Shock 2 - I also bought the game on Steam after playing and enjoying the BioShock games, but haven't got around to actually playing it yet. Your description makes it sound like something I should prioritise, though, so I'll try and devote some time to it before the year is out. Out of interest, how long did it take you to get through the game, roughly? Is it an eight-to-ten-hour campaign a la BioShock, or do its RPG trappings result in a lengthier play-time? If it's the former, I might be able to squeeze it in before I inevitably become absorbed in Pokémon Y when it releases on the 12th.

Posted by MajorMitch

@dankempster: According to Steam I played System Shock 2 for 14.6 hours, which sounds about right. That would also count time "lost" to dying, which I did a number of times (turning up the difficulty could make it take longer in that regard too). It might also be worth mentioning that I tend to explore every room and trash bin, so you could probably do the game faster if you didn't explore as much, but I think 12-15 hours is a good rough estimate :)