Attempting to gain insight into the Cult of Kingdom Hearts. Cue the pop music.

Get ready to behold the emulated PS2 version in all it's weirdly rendered glory.

Note: There are spoilers, but seriously who cares.

I had to suppress a mild fanboy squeal when loading up Kingdom Hearts the first time for the purposes of this blog; when I saw the "Squaresoft" logo I was reminded this was still the small bit of time left in the aughts before they became Square Enix in 2003. Kingdom Hearts is one of those classic "I should go back and play that" games that have devoted followings and many, perhaps too many, games across various platforms. When I saw the hysterical reactions to the announcement of Kingdom Hearts 3 during Sony's 2013 E3 Press Conference, some of which I'm pretty sure broke the fucking sound barrier, I knew it was only a matter of time until I ended up playing them to see what the fuss was about.

I actually have a black-label release of Kingdom Hearts from back in the day. This was an era where Square was still king, and even though I was never much of a Disney person as a kid, Square had built enough goodwill with me that I was going to give pretty much anything they made a shot. Afterall, this was not long after the years when everything Square touched turned to gold on the Ps1. So, a new RPG from Square? I was there.

It didn't last long with me, though. I didn't know anybody who was all that into it and after playing it for what I can only assume was a few hours of being completely fucking lost, I moved on to something else, hoping to get back to it some other time. That never happened, of course. I went through life preferring the comfort of my turn based RPGs instead, and nothing I ever really saw from the series dragged me back. It didn't help that whenever I did see a Kingdom Hearts fan, they seemed slightly unhinged. It's understandable to be a little judgmental when you're fairly young, right?

So with a fresh pair of grown-up eyes, a bit more patience, and an open mind, I dove into Kingdom Hearts expecting good things. I felt like the first hour of the game or so was a fairly good impression, too, feeling distinctly Square-like. After the tutorializing, though, I was bummed out that Kingdom Hearts became very frustrating, very quickly.

I expected a convoluted story, but Kingdom Hearts doesn't have much of a plot to begin with.

Before we begin I would like to introduce you to the completely nonsensical opening video to Kingdom Hearts, because if I had to deal with it, then so do you.

What, it doesn't make perfect sense to you? I was on board until the bizarrely out of place pop song began playing. Ugh, this game is why AMVs are popular, isn't it?

Aerith lives.

Back in 2003, G4 ended up presenting Kingdom Hearts with the "Best Story" award, leading me to wonder if they considered other games that even had stories, if this is what ended up winning. It's not that Kingdom Hearts has a bad story, there's just very little to it. Going into Kingdom Hearts I had heard all sorts of things about how the series is one of the worst examples of incomprehensible JRPG nonsense and well-worn power-of-the-heart tropes, but the story Kingdom Hearts tells isn't very convoluted or bizarre, it's just very thin, which was a bit of a let down.

The game begins with Sora on a series of stain-glass window islands that more or less teach him the basics of CQC, and after that he's on some island that resembles Besaid to such an extent that Tidus and Wakka are even there, for some reason. Kairi and Riku are your childhood friends, and you're all working on a grand plan to venture out and explore other worlds by building a raft of some sort. Look, they're kids. Let them have their imagination. Sora and Riku are all sweet on Kairi, the girl of the group, and after a tedious scavenger hunt, the Heartless attack the island, the world is destroyed, and the three of them are scattered to other worlds. The beginning mission: Find Riku and Kairi. Donald and Goofy are also on a mission, to find you, wielder of the keyblade, as ordered by King Mickey.

The story never really progresses much beyond this premise, though. Riku ends up finding Sora first, and becomes wrought with jealousy that Sora has been having fun with his new friends, pissed that Sora is out saving worlds instead of looking for Kairi... who he already has found. It turns out Kairi lost her heart in the attack on their home island, and Riku is desperately searching for a way to get her out of her effective coma. The conflict between Riku and Sora never really makes much sense, though, because if Riku is pissed that Sora isn't helping save Kairi, why does he deliberately hide information from the person most capable of saving her life, for hours and hours? Whatever.

Belieeeeve in the powerrrr of lovvee.

My real issue with the plot of Kingdom Hearts is that very little of the game's progression actually moves the plot forward in any meaningful way. Out of all the worlds you go to, a very small amount of them ever directly deal with Riku and Kairi, and the Heartless just become this irritating nuisance you need to get rid of, not really presenting themselves as the world-ending threat the game insists that they are until very very late. You eventually find out that Maleficent is kidnapping the "seven maidens of the purest heart" to open a door to "untold wisdom" aka huge evil, but you don't even directly interfere with this plan in any meaningful way. Most of the princesses have already been abducted, and the two you come across along the way are easily snatched away from under your nose. The party doesn't even really seem to be aware that this is a plan until you stumble across them in Hollow Bastion.

The crux of the game's plot is really caring about getting your best friend back and saving her life, but Kairi is in a vegetative state for the vast majority of the game. She's a total non-entity. In fact, none of the characters ever really grow over the course of this journey like I'd hoped they would. Seeing King Mickey at the end of the game was a great "Fuck yeah!" moment that I didn't think it would inspire in me, but it's a bad sign that a Mickey Mouse cameo at the end of the game inspires more emotion than saving the girl who most of the game was about.

I guess what disappointed me the most is that Kingdom Hearts' story is exactly what it says on the tin, no out-of-left-field weirdness included.

Kingdom Hearts' camera approaches game-ruining levels of bad throughout the journey.

Yeah this seems like the appropriate angle to have this conversation, for sure.

I wanted to dive into a run-down of the individual Worlds of Kingdom Hearts and how I felt about them, but I felt like I needed to get out ahead of what will immediately become something of a running theme throughout this writing: The camera of Kingdom Hearts is borderline non-functional. I do not use these words lightly and I don't mean to sound hyperbolic. What ruined my enjoyment of Kingdom Hearts more than anything else was the fact that I had basically no camera control. Not only is camera control mapped, bafflingly, to the L2 and R2 buttons, but the view of the action is zoomed in so closely behind Sora that it's incredibly difficult to have a good grasp on what's happening around you. What makes this even worse is that it's more or less impossible to even nudge the camera in one direction or another when target-locked.

Last year I remember reading a study about how frustration with video game controls is actually one of the contributing factors to increased aggression in people who play video games. Kingdom Hearts is my proof. No matter where I was, what world it was, what enemies I was fighting, I was always pissed off by my inability to control and have a good view of the action. But it's not like the world design was much of a help.

Wonderland.

Confusion ahead.

Wonderland is the first major area that you're introduced to after meeting up with Donald and Goofy, and is what makes it clear that you're going to be gallivanting around a variety of different Disney themed worlds from the beginning of Kingdom Hearts to the end. The Greatest Hits are all here: The rabbit runs around screaming that he's late. Cheshire Cat acts coy and speaks in riddles. The Queen of Hearts repeatedly threatens people with decapitation. You fight card guards. Etc. etc.

What makes Wonderland so frustrating, and such a poor first impression of how the game will progress for the next 15 hours, is that it really explains absolutely nothing of what you need to do, and doing it is a chore. The entire world only actually consists of about four different rooms, which you will constantly backtrack through to get pieces of a puzzle, all while doing platforming that controls like garbage. The platforming demands such precision, with no clear idea of where you're even going, that this was my first clue I was in for a rough ride. I bashed my head against figuring out The Bizarre Room for far too long, and if you screw up some of the platforming in finding the pieces of evidence for Alice's trial, you'll have to go all the way back through the rooms again. The only thing that made this tolerable was save states. To top it all off, nothing really even happens here that's all that interesting, plot-wise. You fight a boss, do what you will later find out is locking a key-hole that seals the world from danger, and you move on, failing in your mission to protect Alice.

The Gummi Ship Interludes.

Far too easy, time wasting, and ugly to boot. The Gummi Ship.

I don't even understand why these are here. In between worlds you will have to do a few minutes of ship combat that feel about as enjoyable as the combat portions of a 90s FMV game.

Actually, I take that back, because unlike the Sewer Sharks of the world, the Gummi Ship combat is stupidly easy. In fact, that's probably my main complaint with these sections of the game. Flying between worlds feels slow, targeting is too touchy to have that great of control over the action, and in general Kingdom Hearts never really forces you to upgrade your Gummi Ship to get better at it. I went through the entire game never building a new Gummi Ship and always using the default. I was never punished for this and at no point had trouble flying between worlds. Why create a chain of systems to build new ships when the game is never hard enough that you have to do this? It's a waste of Square's time in addition to mine.

In general the Gummi Ship portions feel like a victim of trying to split the difference between audiences, but I'll ramble about that later.

The Deep Jungle.

Oh hey look you guys. Platforming.

The world of Tarzan and Jane has one major point in its favor: It's better than Wonderland. This is only achieved by virtue of not having a giant inscrutable puzzle room and instead having outside areas you just sort of run back and forth between. The Deep Jungle trades puzzles for backtracking.

And backtracking this world has in spades. Multiple times after a story-related event would occur, I would run after them, and end up clearing through the world in its entirety once or twice, trying desperately to find where the hell I was supposed to go, only to discover I needed to talk to Jane again to trigger the next event. This is how, it ends up, the entire world will progress. Something happens, you run through all the areas and wind up back at the camp, there's a cutscene, you talk to someone, you run through all the areas and wind up back at the camp, there's a cutscene, you talk to someone, you run through all the areas and wind up back at the camp, there's a cutscene, a boss fight, then you leave.

In keeping with Wonderland, nothing really happens here that advances the plot in any way either. You learn nothing about the main characters, nothing about the nature of the Heartless, and nothing about your friends.

Agrabah.

The music here is really good, though.

The world of Aladdin is where things finally clicked in my head about what Kingdom Hearts is. I had been in denial about it up to this point, but it was impossible to ignore the reality that this game is really half-RPG, half-shitty kiddy platformer ripped out of the late 90s. Gameplay wise, the crux of Agrabah involves running around the city portions looking for switches to open doors, which you will only really find by (sensing a common theme yet?) blindly running around the areas looking for anything interactable until you stumble upon the solution.

The underground portion of Agrabaha, the ruins, are among my least favorite sections in the game. Falling off the platforms causes you to fall into the waterway at the bottom, and climb all the way back up. I'm still not clear on exactly how I unlocked the boss area. You sort of have to poke at different things in the waterway until a pillar of some sort is destroyed, and this somehow shakes the boss room door open.

On the plus side, Agrabah is where you finally learn what the evil plan even is. Maleficent is collecting the seven princess of pure heart to "unlock the door" to the Heartless dimension, or whatever. This is why Alice mysteriously disappeared, and why Jasmine suffers the same fate. It's also the first world that finally nails the style. The music, world design, and enemy design all play together really well, and even though much of the world is backwards and confusing, it at least has more than about five different rooms to it. So kudos.

Monstro.

I really dug the look of being inside Monstro, but ultimately there's not much memorable about it.

Monstro manages to be the least frustrating world to complete, with little to no necessary platforming or unlock-this-thing-to-get-to-this-place puzzles. Consequently it is also the shortest; I completed it in what felt like twenty minutes, but in reality was probably barely over a half-hour or so.

This world is all about rescuing Pinocchio, who has ran off with Riku for seemingly no reason, as Riku exposes the fact that he's working for Maleficent because of stupid jealousy reasons. Sora is off playing hero and allegedly not taking the matter of finding Kairi seriously enough - whom Riku has already found; she's a vegetable due to having lost her heart - and antagonizes Sora over.. something. To be honest, it's not all that important.

I try to keep pretty lengthy notes as I play through the games I care enough to write about, and my notes from Monstro consist of about two sentences. You fight a weird parasite in Monstro's stomach and then you move on. Ain't much to it.

Atlantica.

Hope you like the Under the Sea theme, because it's going to drill into your ears.

"Okay guys, I have a great idea. Let's take the bad camera controls and simplistic combat, right? Then we put the player underwater for an entire world, adding an extra layer of bullshit with descend/ascend buttons, and slow everything way down so it's harder to actually hit things. Do I get a raise now or what?"

Atlantica is the underwater level, and like any underwater level, it feels awful to control. Yet, because Kingdom Hearts loves to throw in bad platforming all over the place, it has the accidental benefit of having none of those sections. Also, in a pleasant concession to the fact that even the developers know finding your way through Atlantica would be a hellish nightmare, there are direction markers placed throughout the environment that guide you back to the palace, so you actually have a general idea of where you're going. The downsides of this world are obvious, however. Combat is sluggish and hard to control, and prompts don't always appear due to issues with being on the same plane as the object. There is also a point where the game actually decides to tell you what to do next - something of a rarity for Kingdom Hearts - but actually manages to confuse you even more. Ariel tells you to ride the dolphin, as it can lead you through powerful currents you otherwise can't swim through, but the first dolphin you encounter actually doesn't take you anywhere. It just flings you around in circles. You actually have to go to a different area and ride that dolphin. Why is the first one even there in the first place?

The Ursula boss fights take the cake, however. Ursula's second form is incredibly difficult, and the bad swimming controls are partially responsible for this. Timing on her attacks is very tight, and you must stay in constant motion or she will hit you with electricity. She has an attack that sucks you in, which you can swim out of, but you have to move Sora to face in a direction away from her. What's the problem? In high-speed swimming mode, you can only barely turn Sora, so unless you're already facing away from Ursula's mouth, you're likely to just swim right into her on accident, because there's also no real camera control for this fight if you're locked on. Afterwards you seal the keyhole and move on, like always, learning very little in terms of story in the process.

Halloween Town.

So where's the party at?

I don't have much reverence for The Nightmare Before Christmas, but even I can appreciate how much style this world has. The music the great, the characters are alright, and there's very little confusion about what you're supposed to be doing.

Halloween Town's main faults come from its boss fights, that are too long and tedious. The two final boss fights are Oogie Boogie, the first form of which takes place around a giant roulette table. Oogie Boogie throws objects and enemies at you from up top, and you have to land on the appropriate buttons on the wheel to raise the platform to where the boss is, but you can only really get a few hits in before getting knocked back down to the wheel and having to repeat the process, and even when you know what you're doing you will often over-shoot and miss Oogie Boogie's platform altogether. It takes far, far too long.

His second form turns him into a giant that you have to climb on top of and destroy various darkness... nodes of some sort all over his body. This also takes far too long, because you have to stop in the middle of the action and go into first person view - an inclusion that you know is always a good sign that the developers know their default view is inadequate - to have any idea where the circles of darkness even are. This fight combines some of Kingdom Hearts' worst elements: the bad camera, bad platforming, and unclear instructions. Like most of the other worlds, nothing about Halloween Town contributes to the over-arching narrative or builds Sora as a character at all.

Neverland.

Who wouldn't enjoy fighting from this perspective?

The camera angles are at their very worst in Neverland, which takes place primarily on Captain Hook's ship. The areas in the ship are so tiny, and there are so many ladders and posts scattered throughout the environment, it's virtually impossible for the camera to not get stuck on the level geometry, and you may as well forget even trying to manually control the damn thing. It'll just snap back to whatever place it feels like it should be in whenever you hit a wall.

Neverland in general feels like a wasted opportunity. Neverland is a much more vast world than Kingdom Hearts would lead unknowing individuals to believe, and sticking the whole world onto a pirate ship is really disappointing, considering all there is in the Neverland canon. You don't even get the defining-fucking-attribute of being in Neverland, the ability to fly, until the final boss fight of the zone.

Nothing about Neverland is all that bad, necessarily, aside from aforementioned camera issues and a particularly stubborn ladder that Sora will constantly try to immediately jump off of for some stupid reason, but the whole thing sort of encapsulates my biggest problem with Kingdom Hearts: It doesn't make good use of the amazing things in the Disney library. The concept of Kingdom Hearts is amazing, but levels like Neverland make me feel like so much of it has been squandered. I would've much rather Square built original levels if this is the best that they can do with the source material, which leads me to...

Hollow Bastion.

Hollow Bastion is an unexpected blast.

In my mind it is no coincidence that my favorite area of the game is not an existing Disney creation. Hollow Bastion has haunting music that isn't aping from an existing Disney style and is a huge, sprawling zone, actually feeling like it was designed to be a proper video game area instead of shoehorning in half-baked Disney fanservice. With less camera issues due to the larger environments, puzzles that feel satisfying to figure out instead of seeming convoluted, and incredibly satisfying boss fights, the area is genuinely a lot of fun.

Really, the only negative point for the zone would be that you have to run through the whole thing again after completing it the first time, and that some of the late-game enemies, particularly the aerial ones, can be difficult to fight due to ledges.

The boss fights here are all fun, but the fight against Keyblade-Riku is a real test of skill that the rest of the game doesn't come near. All of your abilities are tested in a one-on-one fight, no summons, nothing cheap, in a wide open area so the camera is a non-issue. In a weird way it gave me a Dark Souls feel, with the need to predict his attacks, dodge roll, and read his patterns. No other fight in Kingdom Hearts comes close to feeling like an accomplishment the way this one does. I just doubt any child had a very fun time with it.

End of the World.

Behold the end of Kingdom Hearts: A long, boring combat slog.

Honestly? The less said about this area the better. First of all, I don't understand why it's even called "End of the World" since you travel to several different worlds in what I assume is a great big universe. It should've been called "End of Worlds." Oh well.

If there was a single level that showcased the weakness of Kingdom Hearts' combat systems, End of the World would be it. According to the IGN Wiki Guide to this level, there are no less than twelve bosses you have to fight. Most of the Ansem fights are great fun, only a notch or two below Keyblade-Riku, but the rest? They're pretty dull mash fests. Along the way you'll also deal with several forced encounters with trash mobs, which is only more annoying than the rest of the game because Kingdom Hearts is usually pretty good about not forcing combat with random enemies against your will. It just led to me spamming Thunder spells a lot.

I would like to call attention to one of the areas in the middle of the world, though, because it's sort of odd. There's a series of cliffs and platforms that lead to the penultimate area of the game. What makes this so peculiar is that it's a series of platforms leading downwards. Meaning the entire area can just be bypassed by looking down at where the Bright Glowing Light of Obvious Progression is and just leaping down to it and gliding right over. It's a strange choice. I don't think anyone bothered informing Square Enix that platforming sections don't really work as well when you're going straight downwards. At least the final boss is fun.

I liked the combat overall, but didn't like much of the interface. Or lack thereof.

The skill system is basic, but there's really nothing wrong with that.

A lot of people decry the combat system of Kingdom Hearts for being too mashy and unsatisfying. It's hard to deny the fact that it's mashy in the sort of swarm encounters that the final areas of the game absolutely drown in. Yet, for a game aimed at kids, the combat had more depth than it needed to have, and I can appreciate it. The Keyblades and various equipment make two completely different styles of play very feasible, as either a mage or melee oriented character, and even though the initial skill choices at the beginning of the game are deliberately vague, when you do know what your choices affect, it does allow for very different progression from one playthrough to another.

Spells, summons, a proper skill system; Kingdom Hearts has what it needs to be a legit RPG. It's all passable.

What makes the combat of Kingdom Hearts frustrating, camera aside, is that the AI of Donald and Goofy basically make giving them items totally pointless. They'll just blow them at their first opportunity, often at the exact same time, and there isn't much of a way to control their actions. There's some sort of button to get their attention, but it's unclear what it even does, and it certainly doesn't affect item usage. This problem would be less annoying if you could open the menu mid-combat, but you can't do that, which is a choice I just don't like. I understand the desire to tune the combat encounters, but this could be accomplished in other ways. Some late-game combat encounters go on for a very long time, and you can't even open the character menu to equip new abilities during a fight if you level up. It makes more sense to only equip Donald and Goofy with items prior to boss fights, but there's no way to know a boss is coming, and since you can't open the menu in a fight... you see the conundrum there.

BUT WHAT ARE ITS STATS. THIS IS IMPORTANT INFORMATION.

One minor, but easily avoidable problem is also that the descriptions in the item store are utterly useless. Weapon descriptions may as well just say "It's designed as a weapon! Could be useful!" for all that they include. It's bizarre to me that you have no idea how powerful they are until you buy them, and money is at a bit of a premium in Kingdom Hearts for the majority of the game. I ended up wasting 2800 munny on a weapon that just popped up for Goofy, only to find out it was weaker than what he had equipped. There's no reason this problem should exist!

Oftentimes when quality of life complaints are made about older games, people are quick to pipe up with "Well you're being unfair, judging these games by the standard of today instead of the standard of when it was released." Being released in 2002 does not excuse Kingdom Hearts from having poor tooltips and crappy camera controls. A mini-map would've also been very helpful, and I hear Kingdom Hearts 2 solved that problem. So for that, good on 'em. I just really hope they zoomed out the camera, as well.

I come away from Kingdom Hearts not knowing what audience it's meant for.

Mightier than the Ultima Weapon? I have my doubts.

I get the sense that part of the reason I feel the story suffers so much is that it's trying to split the difference between two audiences. On the one hand: traditional Final Fantasy fans. I mean, this game has Final Fantasy splooged all over it. Various characters, item names, spells, and abilities. Traverse Town is littered with Moogles. The storytelling delivery is even so Final Fantasy for the era that it hurts. The flashback scenes of Sora's childhood with kid-Riku in the cave may as well have been ripped directly from Final Fantasy VII with Cloud's inner monologues, or FFX's scenes with the child Fayth. Yet on the other hand, you have kids that clearly aren't going to understand these references or narrative devices. The game is rated E for fuck's sake. Not even E 10+, straight-up E. A four-year-old could buy this game.

This splitting-the-difference feeling fits with my issues toward the gameplay as well. The Gummi Ship is a perfect example. There exists a system where you can build various Gummi ships with parts you collect throughout the game, and blueprints you can collect to build others, but there's never any push made upon the player to do this, as if the game doesn't want to be too hard because it might alienate the kids. Yet, by not sufficiently creating a demand to build powerful ships, there's no reason for the player to supply them. The end result is a series of gameplay mechanics effectively invalidated. Another example: When escaping Agrabah, you're riding on the Magic Carpet while speeding out of a collapsing cavern. Think of it a lot like the jet ski sequence from the ending of Resident Evil 4. Except, in this case, I quickly realized that it didn't seem like I could lose, so I just stopped steering or controlling the character in any way. I survived with plenty of health to spare.

And the platforming, why does that exist, except that it was 2002 and we were still fresh out of the era where kids games were almost obligated to be colorful platformers? Kingdom Hearts would've been made better if it focused on being an RPG instead of including random gameplay elements to try and please all ages, or at the very least, given you the glide ability up-front, which eases the frustration.

While these aspects of the game feel dumbed down and made easy for the kids, other elements seem unfairly difficult to the young 'uns. The Ursula fights, and the end-game boss fights are legitimately quite hard, several orders of magnitude harder than most bosses. I'm not sure I really believe that the Keyblade-Riku fight was even possible for someone under the age of 10. I doubt a child would discover much of the game's optional content, either. The Curaga spell, which is very useful for the end-game even if you're skilled at the combat to begin with, requires you track down Aerith in the library of Hollow Bastion after you no longer have any reason to go there, and talk to her multiple times. Kingdom Hearts oscillates between being easy to the point of making its own gameplay sequences obsolete, and difficult to the point of being a barrier to entry for kids to complete. Who was it made for?

Kingdom Hearts is beautiful, even today, and cleans up nicely. Its combat is passable, its story is not worthless, even if stretched pretty thin. Its music is fantastic. I don't mean to be completely dismissive of what this game is. With better camera controls, some HUD improvements, ramping up the challenge of certain parts, ditching the platforming... etc, I might've even considered it pretty good. But these complaints add up, and playing it can be aggravating on a level that "But it was 2002" doesn't excuse.

I end up falling somewhere in the middle, and more than a little puzzled that this is the game that spawned millions of sales and a deeply devoted following. Yet after all of this, I'm still curious to play more of the series to see where it goes. I suppose that is to Kingdom Hearts' credit, if nothing else.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 2½ / 5Total Playtime: Around 25 hours.
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A man who never eats pork buns is never a whole man.

There's not a lot of unusual artistic styles in box art design these days.

At what point in time did we stop thinking about games like this as "Grand Theft Auto Clones"? It's something I've been thinking about after finishing Sleeping Dogs. I remember in the ensuing years after Grand Theft Auto 3 came out, the phrase "GTA Clone" was everywhere, applied to virtually any game that emulated the kind of open world crime game that GTA was. Some of the most notable victims of this label would be the True Crime games, the Mafia series, or perhaps most known, Saints Row. But when I think back to those games, I don't remember them being particularly bad. In terms of world design they may have been drawing obvious inspiration from Grand Theft Auto, and they certainly won't be remembered as classics, but it didn't mean they were terrible.

The reason I bring this up is because Sleeping Dogs doesn't really do anything especially innovative or new with the sub-genre of the open world crime game. While it does add its own unique, and beautifully realized setting, and other new systems and touches, this is still just an evolution of the GTA formula from years ago. Again, I stress that I don't mean this as a bad thing, or to take away from anything Sleeping Dogs achieves. Yet, no one really thinks about these games as "clones" anymore. Had this game came out 5 years before it did, I could easily see it being saddled with that label, remembered as "one of the better GTA clones." Somewhere along the line, though, we stopped thinking of these games like that, and the term became a relic of generations-past so quietly that I didn't notice.

Any fan of Giant Bomb for any length of time will recognize this game. Though I don't exactly have the discipline to finish many of the open world crime games - I probably haven't finished a Grand Theft Auto since 3 - I've wanted to dive into Sleeping Dogs for a long time, so when a Humble Bundle came along with it included several months back, I snatched it up. I was especially looking for a nice, well-constructed 10-15 hour romp after playing so many RPGs. Front Mission 4, Xenoblade, Valkyria Chronicles 2; all of these games are, if nothing else, pretty lengthy. I needed to decompress. So when scrolling down my Steam library, it caught my eye yet again. A really good, well-constructed 10-15 hour romp is exactly what I got.

Differentiation in this genre can be hard, but Sleeping Dogs stands out in several ways.

I don't even have an especially powerful PC and this game is still gorgeous in motion.

When Activision canned what was then-known as an upcoming True Crime game, they did so with the rationale that the game simply was, in their view, not going to be competitive in what was already an immensely competitive genre. In retrospect this seems completely nuts, to me. We'll never be able to completely know exactly what special sauce Square Enix added to the mix when they rescued the game from the dumpster, but Sleeping Dogs has one of the most well-realized depictions of an Asian setting I can think of, and certainly the most beautiful depiction of Hong Kong in video games.

One of the biggest criticisms I feel like Grand Theft Auto has come under is that in style those games don't have the flair for doing different settings the way they did in the generations previous. Each one felt like it had something different, whether it was in time, or place, or tone. Where GTA III was an amazing step in its own right, Vice City was a coke-addled 80s Miami fever dream, San Andreas was a boyz-in-the-hood trip of 90s gangsta rap, and GTA IV was a sobering, serious tone that reeled everything back in, GTA V was... present day California, more or less. I never got the chance to play much of it (and I'm probably one of the very few, at this point, since it sold eight hundred bajillion copies) but the setting and tone of the story never really stood out much in the way the past games had. Ultimately, the setting is perhaps the largest part of what makes an open world game feel interesting, as the mechanics shared between them feel so same-y. Sleeping Dogs' Hong Kong feels amazing and fresh in the same way I felt about Vice City, this world that no one was doing this well, this perfect recreation of this place and time, I felt immersed in a way that I hadn't expected this stupid-looking game to be.

Part of what helps that, of course, is the characters and voice acting; the VA genuinely being some of the best I've ever had the pleasure of listening to in a video game. It's hard to describe exactly what this game does differently. Perhaps its the collection of various accents, the way there are so many different distinct voices for all of the characters instead of several repeat actors, a problem that plagues Bethesda games more than any other. Perhaps its the surprisingly well used celebrity talent that lifts it up a notch. Regardless, Sleeping Dogs' characters just feel so much more real than most games I've played, and how much I enjoyed listening to them was a pleasant surprise.

The gun combat, on the other hand, is not as good.

The hand-to-hand combat, too, makes Sleeping Dogs stand out among its peers. Double nice for me is that, since I've never played the Arkham games at all, the whole thing was more or less new to me. Still though, I can't help but feel like the credit that goes to that series for practically inventing that style of countering into chain attacks feel overblown. I digress. Fighting groups of gangsters, learning new moves at the martial arts school, it feels good in a way that no other open world game of this type has managed.

There were plenty other little touches throughout the game that I enjoyed. The direction markers in-world that display where you need to be going made car travel the least confusing of any games I've played from this genre, and the way they're marked with different colors depending on the type of objective you're going to is one of those "You really didn't have to do that, but it's nice that you did" things. The tutorial on gun combat is also a neat setpiece - and coincidentally probably the only time I actually thoroughly enjoyed the gunplay - doubling as a CSI-like crime scene reenactment. It's those stylistic touches they didn't have to do that I'll end up remembering.

So what was wrong with Activision, eh?

I cared more about the overall story, and the characters therein, than I thought I would.

Though it's a well-worn scenario, Wei Shen is really a phenomenal character.

What I enjoyed most of all throughout the story, and sadly what it doesn't really make good on in the end, is how so many of the characters are initially painted as sympathetic, internally conflicted figures. Wei, chief among them, has a kinship with the people he has gone undercover to infiltrate, making him far and away the best person for the job, but also the most likely to grow dangerously attached. He does, of course, and this can be seen from a mile away, but even though that can be immediately guessed, his story along the way is touching.

Sent undercover to bring down the Triad organization known as the Sun On Yee, by boss cop Pendrew and Wei's handler Raymond, things predictably spiral out of control as Triad bosses come and go, people are slaughtered, the chairman of the Sun On Yee is killed, and outright war erupts. For most of the game, though, it's not some sort of balls-to-the-wall war through the streets. (Which is good, because when the game does reach that point, it suffers tremendously, but more on that later.) Wei mostly spends his time making contacts, weaseling his way up the ladder, and protecting Jackie, a childhood friend. On the side, you'll deal with Inspector Teng, a female cop who doesn't appreciate you rampaging through her city, and your bosses, who repeatedly berate you for disobeying orders and caring too much about your newfound Triad connections.

"Broken Nose" Jiang is another one of my favorite characters. It's a bummer you don't spend much time with her in the end.

I don't care for just giving long-winded plot summaries, and it's a game you should really experience for yourself, so I'll just say that the popular image of this game as being purely stupid-fun lulled me into a false sense of what this game's tone really was, in a way I really enjoyed. After a scene in which Jackie kills someone who was about to hurt Wei, Jackie spends most of the car ride back freaking out, unable to get a grip after what just happened. He deliriously rambles about the look in the man's eyes, the feeling in the pit of his stomach, how he never expected things to escalate as far as they did. Wei responds by telling him, in a way that you suspect is trying to convince himself as much as Jackie, the feelings go away with time if you just stop thinking about it. Later, in the next mission you do with Jackie, he's still fucked up about it, and only wants to do less dangerous, low-key missions. He starts talking about what he wants his future to be, and soon realizes he wants out as quickly as he got in. Perhaps to some, this character evolution is rote, but they still had impact for me.

Pendrew begins as an interesting, complex character, and then the game ruins him.

It's frustrating that the plot doesn't maintain that level of quality, because the characters that are good are so good, and it's because I ended up caring so much about the story that I was so upset when the last couple hours fuck things up so hard. Everything is about building up to a Sun On Yee election, and then shit goes sideways, Jackie is killed, you're outed as a cop, and suddenly everything you've spent hours building up to, everything you've been interacting with these characters about, stops mattering. It's just a bunch of fight scenes, you find out Pendrew screwed you from behind the scenes by outing your cover and killing Uncle Po himself, and the game kind of abruptly ends with Pendrew going to jail and Jiang leaving you in peace. Then credits. I cannot overstate how abrupt and unsatisfying the ending of the game really is. It's basically just a bunch of incredibly short cutscenes awkwardly stitched together. It feels so detached from the rest of the narrative.

What is arguably most disappointing, though, is how all moral greyness is robbed from Pendrew's character and he's turned into a cartoonishly selfish villain and literal murderer. Why? Pendrew starts the game as a character who bends rules and even though he is a dick from time to time, his motivations are largely sympathetic and his overall goal is hard to argue with. When he bickers with Raymond about Wei being the right person for the job, he's not wrong. When he lectures Wei about getting too attached, he's not wrong. But then the story removes any of this and morphs him into a sociopath. There's no longer any conflict about is he good or bad, is he right or wrong. Perhaps what is most egregious about this, though, is that it was totally unnecessary. The story could've had a perfectly satisfying conclusion without dealing with Pendrew in any way whatsoever. Very little about the game is concerned with dealing with Pendrew, so for the ending to suddenly swerve into that was just shitty. At least these are better complaints to level against Sleeping Dogs than talking about "ludonarrative dissonance."

Sleeping Dogs doesn't really break any new ground, but is still far above average.

Yakuza does karaoke minigames better, but hey, I can't argue with the inclusion.

I know a lot of people like to champion this game as being one of the best open world games of the last generation, but part of me feels like that's a hard argument to make. The actual contents of Sleeping Dogs' mission design can be fairly repetitive, and are largely standard for the genre. Tailing missions. Racing missions. Shoot-out-the-window-while-my-homie-drives missions. These missions are what they are, they are executed well enough, there's nothing offensive about them, but what makes Sleeping Dogs special is not any of these things.

What makes Sleeping Dogs special is that it can include a lot of the standard mechanics of open world games, but wrap them in a gorgeous and unique setting, while lifting some of the best trappings of other games and including them for flavor. Stunt-position hijacking is, while not unique, a great addition to a game of this type. Environmental special attacks have been in a plethora of other games, but are delightfully brutal and make each encounter feel less same-y. Parkour is nice, but Assassin's Creed has this in spades. The way you can sort of strafe from side to side in a vehicle like you're playing with bumper cars is a silly contrivance, but is incredibly fun and minimizes the frustration that car chases in other games typically have. It can be easy to nitpick Sleeping Dogs, but if last year's Game of the Year Awards from various publications proved anything, it's that a game can be considered one of the best of all time by doing little more than finding the right concoction of expected mechanics with only a little bit new added to the pot. There's nothing wrong with that. Games are supposed to be fun, and Sleeping Dogs is loads of fun.

But where Shadow of Mordor adds a stand-out system on top of its bog-standard mechanical formulas, Sleeping Dogs is merely doing things you are probably already familiar with, and just doing them really well. This is why I can't really consider this game anything other than solidly above average. And that's okay! The story may falter, and some mission types (including, sadly, the relationship missions) are utterly forgettable, but the act of playing Sleeping Dogs is never a hassle. The music is good, the fighting is satisfying, the characters are deceptively interesting, and Hong Kong has never been more fun. Sometimes that's all you need. That, and a little bit of corny music.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 4 / 5

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Valkyria Chronicles 2 is a tragic example of a game being inferior to its predecessor in almost every way.

I always really liked that dumb gear-thing on top of the machine gun.

Note: There are spoilers. Don't read if you're super sensitive to them.

I first binged on the original Valkyria Chronicles back in the Summer of 2011, basically playing through it in some incredibly lengthy (and deeply unhealthy!) marathon sessions over the course of just a few days. At the time I thought it was a really fantastic game, with some rough edges, but nothing that couldn't be iterated on successfully in a way that had the potential to become one of the greatest and most unique SRPG series ever created. The then-novel blend of turn based strategy with real-time third person shooting controls within the turns, the class system, the large maps and phenomenal art style; while I thought it fell into some really absurd difficulty spikes as time went on, I came away from it thinking it was really something special, even if it occasionally had some infuriating flaws.

Being something of a binge-session player, though, by the time I was finished with Valkyria Chronicles, I was more than ready to set the series aside for awhile. So, when I told my friend who first got me into playing Valkyria Chronicles a few years back that I was finally diving into its sequel, he basically told me "Oh, btw, it's the worst one of the three. Enjoy." My reaction was basically "Ugh, you motherfucker, why have you gotten me into this series whose only North American sequel is apparently mediocre?"

Sadly, Sega (remember when they made video games?) decided to restrict the sequel development to the PSP for whatever reason, which was yet another layer of "Eh... I dunno..." that caused me to kick the can on continuing down the path of the series. I've just never been much of a handheld person; for me my interest in handhelds has a direct relationship with the complexity and length of the game itself. After already experiencing the original on the PS3, I wasn't all that excited to stare at a low-res, four-inch screen for forty hours. Especially having a PSP saddled with a barely functional D-pad due to an unfortunate cotton candy mishap. Long story.

So with a little creativity, a CFW'd PSP, and an emulator, I was able to mitigate the "PSP-ness" of the experience in a way that finally tipped the scales on me grabbing the PSN version and diving in. I'm glad I did, because it gave me much-needed motivation to finish it.

The story and general plot structure are just awful, and at a certain point, nonsensical.

Roaming around the Academy works well enough. At first.

At first blush, setting this story in a military academy, with the story and missions separated between months à la Persona, seems perfectly appropriate and a decent way to set a consistent pace. In between missions given by your instructor, you roam around campus, talking with party members, you can level up your classes at the training grounds, you upgrade weapons and gear at the R&D building; all of that makes sense and grounds the story in a way such that it doesn't require much explanation. You know what high school is, you know what a military is. Chances are you also have a passing familiarity with the general archetypes the characters fall into as well.

Each month you're given a general description of what's going on in the story at that point, and a set amount of missions to complete before the next main story thread is advanced. Once you've completed the requisite amount of missions for the month, and cleared out the red exclamation mark conversations on the Academy overview map, a story battle takes place where the narrative is advanced, and then the month cycles to the next, and you repeat the process. This is, on paper, just fine. After the first few months, though, it becomes clear that the way the story is told, and the story they're actually trying to tell, feel incredibly disconnected from one another.

When you're not dealing with the story, you're dealing with this dumb shit.

See, in the background to the high-school class rivalries and whatnot, there's a civil war that's broken out across the country of Gallia. The Archduchess is a Darcsen, and many of the common-folk don't like those dirty impure darc-ies, and as part of the official military, even as cadets, you're obliged to fight the civil war and attempt to maintain order. But the story doesn't really focus on this for a really long time. Even though you will continue to see cut-scenes play out in the background covering the political machinations of the villains and the advancement of the civil war, something like half of the calendar year deals with covering a tournament between the classes of the Academy to determine which group has the biggest soldier dicks. Meanwhile, half the country is under siege and there are mad scientists facilitating mass slaughter of the Darcsen.

Ostensibly, the filler missions in each month are dealing with eliminating the rebels, but there's no real story to virtually anything you're doing there. They serve merely as repeatable missions with barely any context as to why you're fighting. Eventually the civil war storyline takes front and center after you've already gone through most of the year, and the narrative does the equivalent of skipping like thirteen chapters. Suddenly, Lanseal Academy gets attacked, it's exposed that a bunch of people had been experimented on by the corrupt headmaster to be turned into artificial Valkyria, and the main characters brother is one of them, fighting for the villains. Oh, and the rebels also take over the capitol of Gallia. This all happens in incredibly fast succession in like two cut-scenes-worth of time. Before you know it, suddenly Class G is at the forefront of retaking the country out of fucking nowhere.

Say hi to Avan. He's an idiot.

Even more jarring is that, in between missions where you are clearly marching around the Southern half of the country on a now-linear story, you still appear back at the Academy (which has officially shut down, yet you're still going to classes for some reason?) to roam around chatting with people about school politics and relationship problems, hanging out in the R&D building, and doing drills on the yard to level up classes. I know there's something to be said in video games for suspension of disbelief. Afterall, I don't give a fuck about the reality of, like, the Resident Evil 4 merchant or something, but for a story that is suddenly taking itself seriously, it is downright jarring to constantly change settings.

And as I was warned, none of these characters are all that good. They are largely grating anime archetypes who take almost nothing seriously. Somewhat ironically, considering all the shit they get for basically being fantasy Jews, the Darcsen characters are the most interesting and humanized, and I continue to like the general idea of the Darcsens even if they're clearly not treated with the seriousness they deserve. There's also a melee unit named Alexis who is sort of the Naoto Shirogane of this game. She's pretty cool, and the reality of who she is is treated very lovingly in a less preachy way than Western games usually manage. Beyond these, I can think of very few characters that didn't get on my nerves. Except for Jaochim. He looks cute in a tuque.

The core VC gameplay is improved, but there's some pretty glaring hardware limitations.

The maps are just too small, and too repetitive.

So yeah, it's immediately clear once you get into a battle exactly how much of a PSP game Valkyria Chronicles 2 really is.

Map sizes are dramatically scaled back from its predecessor, as is the amount of units you can field at once: A maximum of five in a single area, as opposed to, like, nine from what I remember of the first game. A dramatically reduced field of battle reduces how much thought can really go into the fight in the first place. The game attempts to compensate for the individually small map sizes by segmenting the battlefield into various separate areas that you can travel to through base-camps or other environmental means. This is far too little of a gesture, though, and is honestly more of a hassle than anything, because you now constantly have to keep an eye on every single camp of every single map, turning strategy to tedium. Some battles are little more than trying to juggle units back and forth between various areas because the PSP restricts you to a total of six units to choose from.

Valkyria Chronicles 2 also commits the sin of liberally recycling levels, changing very little except where you start, and what weather effects are present.

It's lucky, then, that the core gameplay of the series remains fully intact. It may lack the detail of the original game, and the PSP controls may make certain moves a bit wonky, but the "BLiTZ System" (don't you love whenever a developer will coin some silly name for their gameplay systems? I unironically do) remains as solid and novel as it ever was. Adding to that is that the game introduces a completely new class, and new class permutations on existing roles, that improve on one of the biggest flaws of the first Valkyria Chronicles: that the class balanced was completely fucked. In 2, Scouts are not nearly as overpowered, Engineers are made more useful and survivable, and the addition of a hulking melee unit encourage you to slowly advance the line as opposed to rushing around the map with buffed Scouts.

The Armored Tech class of melee units are a new, and good, addition to the game.

The drawback to this, beyond the addition of far too much grinding and farming which I'll touch on in a moment, is that the PSP has such limitations that the increased depth of the combat systems can't really be taken advantage of. Wanting the player to move more methodically through battles is a wise change, but the size of the maps are such that there's no reason not to grab a couple melee units and rampage through the tiny areas all on their own. Increasing the class diversity with more optional class upgrades is a wise thing, but with only 5 units available in a single area at once, and only six overall, you can't really take advantage of such diversity. One of the only nice changes over the first game that remains unimpeded by the PSP itself is that there is no longer perma-death; units are merely removed from a few battles if they're gravely injured. But battles are so fast in contrast to the first game, this is barely a hindrance.

Much like Persona 3 Portable, once again due to the hardware itself, the game is restricted to a more visual novel style of presentation when outside of battles, with only animated cut-scenes sprinkled throughout. Much of the charm of the character interaction is lost when it's just moving character portraits and static backgrounds. Perhaps with other games it would be unfair to hold this against the game, but when you've already see what the game can be like on a better platform, it's hard to not feel disappointed.

Valkyria Chronicles 2 is longer and grindier than the first game for no good reason.

The way you upgrade classes needlessly pads out the game.

I'll try to keep this short, but it nevertheless demands attention: Valkyria Chronicles 2 is far more grindy than the first game. After about 7 hours or so into the game you reach the point where you should begin to give more consideration to upgrading your units to their advanced forms. Each advanced form requires a certain number of materials and awards dropped from various missions you can access in the briefing room. This sounds fine, but in reality takes ages and will stress your patience immensely. The end result of trying to upgrade your units is repeatedly running missions you've already done farming for random drops, padding out the game's length by hours upon hours.

When I was doing this, I thought to myself "This can't possibly be the way you did this in the first game. This is incredibly fatiguing." It had been a few years since I played Valkyria Chronicles, so I hopped over GameFAQs to read some leveling guides, and as it turns out, this was in fact not how classes used to work. You would merely level up, and upon reaching level 11 each class would automatically transition to the elite version of said class. No farming of random items required. So I have to ask: Why would they do this? A greater diversity of classes and abilities is always welcome, but if this is how it's achieved, I will happily take the more simple leveling system of the first Valkyria Chronicles any day of the week.

Uh, I think I disagree, Drill Sergeant. Thankfully a high level isn't necessary.

Another thing I discovered with re-reading those guides is that the original game tapped out at Level 20 for all classes. Valkyria Chronicles 2 goes up to Level 50. I know there's multiplayer, and perhaps that's why all of this factors in, but couldn't the multiplayer and single player character stats just be separated, instead?

In the end, this game is not substantially longer in terms of hour count than the first game of the series, but it sure as hell feels that way due to how much of the content is superfluous busywork that was never required before now. The first game progressed in a linear story, where things were constantly happening in that narrative, and repeating any of it was very rarely needed. You never got bogged down in menus and level management. In 2, this is largely how you spend your time. Doing filler missions to progress the month to the next story mission, only to be saddled with yet more filler missions and overly-complex class advancement. Greater character development for the backup cast doesn't make up for the sheer amount of tedium the game presents you with in-between the good parts.

The gameplay remains the shining jewel in an otherwise very disappointing package.

"Why does the professor always say that?" "I dunno, it's his thing. Smile and nod."

It is something of a lucky break for Valkyria Chronicles 2 that the core gameplay of the series remains so enjoyable, and so rarely done, because without the battle system that I absolutely adore, the game would simply be forgettable, perhaps only memorable for how tiresome and cliche it was. I find myself bewildered by the changes from the first game that do nothing but exhaust the player in a way the previous game was actually rather respectful toward the player's time; something I care a lot about.

It's a classic example of a game almost categorically inferior to its predecessor, in large part due to the platform, but I shouldn't give the devs a free pass. Boneheaded decisions regarding class advancement hold back the game just as well, and the story veers wildly back and forth between being one-part a story of school rivalries, one-part the tale of a lost family member, one part civil war epic. None of these mix in a way that makes sense. Any individual one of these things can be done well, but you have to pick one and stick with it, and this game doesn't do that. Where Valkyria Chronicles was a pleasant surprise, something new and legitimately innovative in a way that excited me, Valkyria Chronicles 2 is an unexpectedly huge disappointment for me.

When asked about bringing over Valkyria Chronicles 3, Sega cited "poor sales of the prior game in the series" as why they had no interest in doing so. Perhaps not being on the PSP would've improved its chances.

If-I-Had-To-Give-It-A-Rating-I-Guess: 2½ / 5

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Ridding my high school of monsters, an evil conspiracy, and searching for Ashley's boyfriend all in one night.

And if Sum 41 doesn't pique your interest, I don't know what will.

I have a somewhat shameful admission: I un-ironically really like The Faculty. If you check out of this blog right then and there, I don't blame you, but let me be clear: I know The Faculty isn't particularly good in terms of raw movie quality. I like the movie because it creates an absurd horror scenario that is very small scale, told from the perspective of a teenage ensemble, and that despite the fact it can be snarky or occasionally tell jokes, the movie overall is not actually meant to be funny. The body snatchers conspiracy in Harrington High School is played straight, it's trying to be legitimately scary, not slapstick, and it wants you to take its somewhat immature main characters seriously as they survive the ensuing days.

That juxtaposition, of an inherently silly main scenario, told with deadly seriousness, is something not done enough. So why am I rambling about a horror movie from the 90s?

Video games are my preferred entertainment medium, so I'm somewhat saddened by the fact that, unlike a lot of other mediums, there's actually very little teen horror in this business, let alone young adult horror that is told seriously or even just told well at all. Teen movies are a dime a dozen, whole channels are built on the concept of teenage entertainment on television, and Goosebumps is a classic go-to example of scary stories for children, but in video games, there's not really an equivalent amount at all. In fact, the only example of this I can think of lately is up-coming PS4 exclusive Until Dawn, a game about a group of friends who cross paths with a serial killer while on vacation. As high hopes as I have for it, I doubt it'll set the world on fire.

Obscure is an example of this highly specific kind of story that I missed out on back in the day. Originally released in late-2004 in Europe, the game centers around Leafmore High and a group of students locked in their creepy school overnight. Ashley's boyfriend Kenny has gone missing, and its up to a small group of friends to find him. Be still my beating heart.

This game did ______ before ______ was a thing.

You can swap between characters in the cast, and only the player character is who appears front and center in the story.

Anyone remember when Heavy Rain was on the scene, and one of the biggest things touted about it was that it was a very malleable narrative that responded to the player's failures, but didn't outright end because of them? How losing a character meant other characters would naturally swerve into those story beats themselves, instead? Unfortunately Heavy Rain didn't exactly pull that off all that well, but it struck me while playing Obscure that this game totally does that concept in a way that isn't shit and keeps things from becoming overly convoluted.

Being an ensemble cast, you can change characters at the press of a button, each bringing something special to the table. Ashley is a tough girl, so she does more damage with weapons. Josh is an aspiring journalist, giving him greater observational skills that allow him to tell you if there's anything left to pick up in the room. Shannon wants to be a doctor, so she heals better. Kenny is an athelete, so he can sprint. Stan is a slacker, who can pick locks way better than the rest of them. But more importantly, and more relevant to the point I was getting at in the above paragraph, when a character dies, there's no game over. The story continues without them, merely switching control to another character, and necessitating a trip back to your group's gathering point to grab another partner.

The black mist around the enemy's face? Shine your flashlight on it to stun and weaken enemies. Sound familiar?

What makes this play out so well in the story is that, whoever the player character is is the person who takes center in story cutscenes and events. Those cutscenes aren't baked in; they're dependent on who you're playing as, so any scene can subtly change depending on who you're controlling, or who is no longer alive. The game only ends if all the kids die.

Oh, and how I mentioned the partner thing? Obscure is a fully two-player cooperative horror game years before that became, for good or ill, a de-facto standard.

As the story progresses, you eventually come across Kenny trapped in what is a series of secret laboratories underneath the school and uncover more of the conspiracy that surrounds the school's upper-administration. I won't delve too deep into the story bits as, par for the course in this genre, it's fairly thin to begin with so if you're at all interested you should just experience it yourself. One bit I will poke at, however, is that the crux of the evil monsters is that they're developed from a creepy evil flower harvested from Africa (*cough*) and one of the attributes of said flower is that it creates a black corruption in its subjects. This affects the environment, and makes the enemies incredibly sensitive to light. Crank your flashlight up to a higher setting and you can weaken enemies before inflicting killing blows. Alan Wake came out over 5 years after Obscure, and that was that game's whole damn gimmick. To add salt in the wound, in Obscure, you also don't have to collect stupid batteries. Suck a D, Alan.

Obscure is a blast from Survival Horror Past with a lot of little touches I really enjoy.

Eat your heart out, Spencer Estate.

There was a recent Jimquisition titled "We Need More Spencer Mansions" that talked about how the idea of a very small-scale setting, replete with individual rooms, hidden areas, meaningful backtracking, all connected with a consistent design aesthetic, as being something of a lost art. After playing Obscure, I can't help but think more than ever that this is true. That sort of environment creates an incredible sense of intimacy, of knowing the environment inside and out, that allows horror games especially to play with expectations and lull you into thinking you know the game better than it does. It draws you in much moreso than a bunch of disconnected themed areas that you trot through once, never to return, as if it's a theme park ride.

Obscure takes place exclusively in a High School. And that's okay. Rad, even. In fact, Obscure draws loads inspiration from its survival horror predecessors. One example of this: You pick up CDs that serve as your save items, meaning your saves are very much limited in a similar style to the ink ribbons of Resident Evil.

Yet, despite borrowing a lot of design decisions and clearly being inspired by the classic survival horror games of the era, Obscure takes the edge off of some of the most frustrating bits. Though you aim and fire in a manner incredibly similar to Resident Evil, you can move and shoot. There are fixed camera angles, but they pan along with you, and the enemies typically surround themselves in a black aura that spreads around them as they move through the environment, so you don't have the Resident Evil problem of running around a corner right into the loving embrace of a zombie. There are also three different "gathering points" that you can fast travel to to quickly move to the center of the larger area, making running over to another building of the school less of a hassle than backtracking typically can be.

Once in awhile there are really great shots like this that have so much more ambiance than a behind-the-back angle would.

Add to that other little stylistic choices that are small, but I appreciate as nice touches. There's little situational dialogue depending on the characters. There's more environment interactivity than you typically get in a survival horror game. You can use sticky tape to attach various flashlights you collect in the game to different weapons (lolDoom3) so you don't have to choose between one or the other. When your character is picking a lock, the AI companion will immediately stand guard behind you with his or her weapon at the ready to protect from interruptions. When running past chairs you brush them out of the way. The boys can push heavy objects faster than the girls can. You can bust open glass doors to reach through and unlock them or bust open windows so the light shining through stuns the enemies. Monster Energy is a healing item.

I'm also a stickler for good footstep noises in horror games (seriously, it's a really important thing you guys), and Obscure passes the test.

There are so many small things to like about Obscure, and it is yet another reminder that despite the common talking point that "there's something out there for everyone!" there really is nothing like this being made anymore in this style.

However, being something of a European Special, the production is weird in spots.

I'm down with the kids, homie.

The development team behind Obscure was located in France, and unfortunately, it shows. Documents scattered through the environment will often have really awkward prose and strange word choices, the voice acting for about half the characters is incredibly stilted, almost as if English was not the native language of the people coaching the voice actors, and even certain item names will just be straight-up misleading.

An example of this mid-way through the game is when you're first given grenades, useful against the "Stage 3 Mutants" that are large hulking beasts which, in groups of more than one, can easily kill a character off. The odd thing about them is that these weapons are referred to as "Light Grenades" which made me think of it as something it wasn't. You would assume, perhaps, that these things were one of many different forms of grenades, and you would find grenades with heavier damage or a larger blast radius down the line, but no. What Obscure refers to as a "Light Grenade" is really just a flash grenade, or a flash-bang. I would think this was just victim of literal translating, but when I asked a french-speaking friend, he referred to such grenades as "dazzle grenades" so I don't understand how that naming convention happened.

Hmm...

Soundtrack-wise, the music is bizarre and doesn't fit the mood in any way whatsoever. The music was largely performed by the children's choir of the Paris Opera which I just straight-up don't understand as a creative choice. Later in the game the music becomes more distorted and remixed, which better fits, but a more appropriate choice would've been to restrict the music to non-vocal tracks.

There are also some weird gameplay imperfections that crop up from time to time. Obscure uses a sort of Metal Gear Solid-esque inventory system, by pressing down shoulder buttons and cycling through a list of items on the right (weapons) or the left (general use items). This normally works fine, and is actually sort of a novel fit for the genre, but you collect a lot of general purpose items along the way, and story progress items like keys, or boltcutters, aren't used automatically. This is a bit annoying, because Resident Evil solved that problem ages before, and scrolling through a dozen items in the heat of the moment is clumsy.

Animations can also be a bit spazzy, and characters just sort of unceremoniously flop to the ground upon death, with basically no fanfare whatsoever. The latter issue wouldn't be so bad, if the game made it more clear exactly how damaged each character was without having to go into the menu to check their portraits. For a game so forward-thinking in other areas, these are odd missteps.

In general, though, Obscure was a pleasant surprise for me, and I really liked it.

You know, if you're dumb enough to walk into that situation, I can't help you, Kenny.

I grew up on three kinds of games as a kid, more than any others: Console RPGs, survival horror games, and strategy games, with the occasional import. A Nintendo Kid I was not.

As such, it does sort of warm my heart to have a game like this be genuinely good. A game that abides by a design that everyone threw in the trash to chase after Resident Evil 4's success. I took a brief glimpse at Obscure 2, out of curiosity for what was to come, and it sadly did what every game of those years did: Saw that Resident Evil 4 was massively successful in-part because of a behind-the-back camera and thought "let's just throw that in our game and change nothing else and we'll do better, yay!" like the lazy thinking that pervades all too much game development. I will surely play through that someday soon as well, and I hold out hope there is a certain je ne sais quoi about it, too.

Because there is still something special to be made in design like Obscure's. I've never believed that it's an invalid design, simply different. It reminds me a lot of when polygonal graphics rose up and everyone looked at 2D graphics and thought "Pff, why would I play this silly outdated nonsense? Everything about the hottest and latest trends are categorically superior!" and later, 2D games found their place, not as something archaic and outdated, but as something we can still do fun and interesting things with if we really try.

Obscure is a game that, if you hold fondness for the pre-RE4 era of Survival Horror, or teen horror movie camp, you should check into. (Paging @yummylee!) It costs only seven dollars on Steam, can run on a potato at this point, and cleans up nicely. Like any good horror game, it doesn't outstay its welcome, easily completed inside 5 hours or so, with a fair amount of replay value. You don't have much to lose by trying.

If-I-had-to-give-it-a-rating-I-guess: 4/5

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Xenoblade puts a nice coat of paint on JRPG conventions, but unfortunately the color of that paint is beige.

Note: As always with discussing RPGs, there will be spoilers. I'll try to avoid the most egregious ones, but what I talk about is what I talk about, so consider yourself warned if you care about such things.

It is exceptional box art, I can admit.

JRPGs are a genre of games always looking for a hero to come along to lead them to the promised land. Once a dominant genre of games, it's always seemed to me like JRPG fans are fighting an uphill battle for mainstream acceptance, with mainstream critics often having only the slightest of experience with the genre ("I played FF7 and it was good! Is it like that? Are there espers?") and many others looking at it like the genre itself is some sort of stodgy relic of the past.

In a lot of ways the criticism the genre gets is sort of unfounded, anymore. Despite the popular conception that the genre plays to similar mechanical tropes that have somehow gone universally unchanged since the 90s, JRPGs these days are probably the most mechanically diverse genre outside of, like, puzzle games. Even aesthetically I have a hard time thinking of a more creatively varied major genre in games today. So when Xenoblade was making waves back in 2011, I was all-ears. I grew up with the genre, I love those games, and will always be open to playing new ones.

And make waves this game certainly did. It sits at a 92 on Metacritic, and reviews glowed about this game with such lines as "This is a landmark achievement in the genre. As of its release, you can no longer talk about great RPGs, or maybe even great games, without also talking about Xenoblade Chronicles." "Xenoblade Chronicles is like a collage of all the best elements taken from the JRPGs that came out in the 2000's." "Probably the best Japanese RPG in years, and hands down the best of this generation." "It's one of the best games on the Wii, it's one of the best RPGs in this generation, and more than that, it's one of the better JRPGs ever made."

Which makes me wonder, what the hell game was I playing?

Xenoblade has a good story, when it's not cock-blocking the player with bullshit filler.

Meet Shulk, and his totally-not-clingy girlfriend Fiora.

Xenoblade opens with a short monologue setting up the history of the world very succinctly: In ages past, there were two great giants, the Bionis and Mechonis, fighting an eternal battle. Eventually, these two titans fatally wounded each other, falling into a deep slumber, and life flourished on top of them both. On Bionis, organic life, and on Mechonis, the detestable Mechon, which more or less kill innocent organic life on sight. In the prologue, you're told that the life of the Bionis (the Homs chiefly among them) are in a constant state of war with the Mechon, with only one sword capable of truly destroying them: The Monado. A great battle is won against the Mechon signalling a hopeful end to the conflict, and time leaps forward a year to our hero, Shulk, in his hometown of Colony 9.

I like stories with simple beginnings, where the characters have a very basic goal in mind, and the story balloons out of control and becomes several orders of magnitude more complicated as time goes on. Xenoblade's story uses this exact style of plot progression. Shulk is a weapons researcher (aka, a geek) studying the Monado, with his two best friends Fiora and Reyn. Eventually the Mechon not-so-surprisingly invade, kill Fiora, Shulk discovers he is capable of wielding the Monado, and he and Reyn set off on a quest to kill the faced Mechon that murdered Fiora. Xenoblade starts off as a revenge quest, and that's all well and good.

This is the first actual zone of the game. It's massive, which is par for the course.

In the beginning I was pretty enraptured by what the game shows you. The UK voice acting gives the game a distinct flair that most Japanese RPGs lack. The soundtrack is easily one of the best soundtracks composed for an RPG in recent years, and even made me set aside my growing contempt for Japan's obsession with the violin. (Seriously, violins are great but you can give them a rest, guys.) The zones are gorgeous and every aspect of the map is used for some purpose, with secret areas tucked away, high level monsters to come back to down the road, and travel within a zone being instantaneous. The characters all have simple, but sympathetic motivations.

However, it quickly becomes apparent that there are simply way too many sidequests. Each area will have several of them right out of the gate, most of which are the worst parts of MMO quest design. "Collect five Dance Apples for me!" "Could you please go kill four of the M64 Mechon? They scare me!" If you raise your affinity with an area enough, accomplished by doing the menial bullshit tasks they're not interested in doing themselves, you could get more meaningful quests, but this requires the player to be comfortable doing hours of petty busywork before you get any of the good stuff. If you don't want to miss things, it's pretty much a Guide Dang It situation. (I completed the game not managing to unlock more than the base three skill trees for all my characters. Why? Because the game gives absolutely zero indication that there even are additional skill trees to unlock, let alone where to find them. Each character also requires separate questlines to unlock them. Hope you have that FAQ open.)

Makna Forest is where the plot finally begins to become more complex.

Eventually I wised up and stopped forcing myself to finish out sidequests. I would pick them all up, hope I completed them on the way, and if I didn't, well, fuck it. This had an unfortunate side effect, however, of making me realize how unbelievably thin the story is for the first 25 hours. Not that much actually develops until you reach the High Entia. Once there, you uncover a plot to assassinate Melia, the Empress-in-waiting, and get attacked by a secret order dedicated to killing the holder of the Monado. It all gets very compelling, leading to climactic scenes where the Mechon launch an assault on the High Entia, and Shulk and his party must rush to Prison Island, where they can unlock the hidden power of the Monado.

BUT WAIT. Because this is where the game starts integrating the shitty filler into the main plot progression. Immediately after all of this goes down and you're heading to Prison Island, you have to drop everything you're doing and fix the teleporter that can take you to there by running all over the Eryth Sea and flipping switches and grinding away at a bunch of enemies in the way. Scenes that build up to a great moment in the story have their tension completely ruined for no reason except to pad out the game by another hour or two. Why couldn't I just rush straight to Prison Island, as the game insists the characters do? How does it make more sense that it takes them hours to get there? You mean to tell the the assault just continues for hours while my characters are off fucking about playing tech support?

Pacing in storytelling is key, and the second half of Xenoblade forgets this completely.

Mandatory quests like this serve no purpose except to waste more of your time.

What Xenoblade has in its story is the equivalent to a studly guy that has a huge cock, with no idea how to use it. Whenever Xenoblade gets going with telling me its story, I always end up wanting more than what it's willing to give me at the time.

The second half of the game is plagued with examples of anemic pacing and tension killing goose chases. Once Shulk and the party reach the Mechonis, everything about the level progression becomes a series of finding elevator switches, fixing power supplies, and generally running back and forth across drab-looking rustic brown environments because of course you can't just progress to the next part of the story, that would allow you to save a few hours of running around pulling levers, and we can't have that, can we.

What pissed me off about this is that there's clearly such a deep story here that the game is waiting to tell me, yet it acts as if it's terrified to sew up plot threads and move on to the next one. The Metal Face arc spans the first 35 hours of the game, and it's told through the same confrontations again and again. Metal Face shows up, insults you, you kick his ass, he insults you again and runs away. And this happens over, and over, and over. Another example is when the group discovers the Machina village (the Machine-like people who live in the shadows of the Mechonis, and also despise the Mechon) and talks with the Machina chief. He asks Shulk to kill Egil, the leader of the Mechon, who is his son. This comes as a shocking moment, but the tension is squandered yet again. Shulk says he'll need time to think about it, and in the mean-time goes off in search of an item that can heal Mecha-Fiora. When he returns, he is asked again if he will kill Egil, and Shulk says he'll sleep on it. The next morning, he's asked again, and says he still needs more time to consider it. WHY. WHY ARE YOU BELABORING THIS POINT.

Once you reach Agniratha, the Mechonis capitol where Egil lies in wait, you again have to find four separate towers to fix the teleporter to meet the supposed big-bad. There's no other word for what this is: padding. Straight up.

"In other words, the plot of every JRPG ever!"

Thankfully, the plot goes nuts in the best possible way from this point forward. Dickson turns evil (and this is actually very subtly foreshadowed, in contrast to a lot of Xenoblade's other predictable plot turns) and you realize Shulk was dead all along and never truly existed. All sorts of crazy shit takes off here, and I really enjoyed it, because it was finally when the game stopped beating around the bushes and told me what was really going on. Surprisingly, everything more or less makes sense within the logic the game creates, too. (Except, Lorithia's motives don't really make much fucking sense, but whatever.)

But then Xenoblade does that thing. That old JRPG thing that no one ever likes. The last areas of the game suddenly shoot up like eight levels and unless you've been significantly overleveled the entire time, you're going to have to stop and grind before you can actually handle the last slew of bosses, of which there are shitloads. Xenoblade never seems to waste an opportunity to make you spend more hours doing busywork, and for a genre so focused on story, it's an unfortunate contradiction.

At least the climax of the story is pretty phenomenal.

Where Xenoblade draws mechanical inspiration it does so better than I expected.

Xenoblade makes no attempt to hide its MMO inspirations, even using much of the same language.

One of the most recent things in video games I'm always pleasantly surprised by is when people say "It's like a single-player MMO, sort of" and this doesn't turn out to be a bad thing. Some of the first combat tutorials in the game openly talk about "aggro," "buffs," and "debuffs" in a way that only make sense if you have MMO experience. In fact, the combat system itself works best if you play it like you would the "Holy Trinity;" with a healer, tank, and DPS/support. Reyn is explicitly meant to be a tank, with several abilities that raise aggro, while Shulk is meant to avoid damage with abilities that imply he does best with positional attacks and abilities that cause aggro reduction. Sharla is a healer. Riki casts several DoTs. Dunban is like an evasion-tank.

They call it the Holy Trinity for a reason, because it works, and Xenoblade makes moving from combat encounter to combat encounter as little of a hassle as possible, which is nice. You heal up super fast in between battles, the UI is unique, but still very simple, and all party members level up at the same rate, solving the age-old JRPG problem of characters becoming useless over time because they're not in the active party. Status effects and damage over time spells also come in super useful, which stands in contrast to so many other RPGs. The game also does some smart things in subverting gameplay and story segregation. Because Shulk can see visions in the plot, this is integrated in the battles, giving you the ability to quickly react to attacks that will likely kill your party members otherwise, also solving an old, often JRPG-specific thing, of sudden or unfair deaths, and even if you do die, you're quickly resurrected at a nearby monument with minimal time loss. Outside of battle Shulk will often see visions of future quests, tipping you off as to what collectibles you're picking up are important or not. This at least makes the egregious amount of sidequests a little easier to swallow.

The dreaded TROUT enemy. Most fearsome of all Mechon.

There are also several small ways the game tries to take the edge off the grinding, by giving you generous EXP rewards for discovering new locations, landmarks, and secret areas all over the map, and an achievement system that similarly heaps on EXP and skill points for engaging in certain amounts of crafting or questing. As far as JRPGs go, this is considerate stuff. (It's only a shame that the main level progression isn't nearly as respectful of your time.)

That being said, though, there are many more instances here where Xenoblade again buckles under the weight of its own side-systems. There is a crafting system that allows you to create various gems that allow you to attach several fairly potent effects onto your weapons and equipment with crystals that you collect from monsters or mine from the environment, but this system is way more complex than it ever needed to be. From the Collectopaedia (a menu that gives you rewards based on how many of the collectibles you gather from a certain zone) you're given plenty of high power gems, and the gem crafting menu itself is a terribly organized nightmare, making actually finding the gems you want to use a hassle, particularly when you need to swap between them based on your encounters. In general there is very little rhyme or reason to the way items are organized, and the sheer number of items is another negative side effect of how many filler sidequests there are in the game.

But I don't mean to be so negative in this case. The act of playing Xenoblade is actually pretty fun. Combat flows really well, picking characters that synergize better with one or the other encourages you to experiment with your group lineup, and in general the positional nature of many of the attacks means you're always engaged with movement or helping your allies. There is very little downtime in Xenoblade's combat and that's a fantastic thing.

Xenoblade is an alright JRPG, but not at all one of the best games in generations.

I'm hoping this line had more impact in Japanese, because otherwise this is George W. Bush levels of insight.

When I think back to some of my favorite JRPGs, I just think of games that were paced way better than this game. That abided by a more consistent schedule in telling its story, more respectful of my time, with mechanics that were not so bloated. Final Fantasy X's plot structure perfectly matches its journey, the nature of the pilgrimage allowing for significant story events and character development to happen at a regular pace. Persona 4's murder mystery, and the nature of its school calendar and unique dungeons attached to every character, has a story that doesn't feel unevenly told (there's some tonal weirdness in the last month, but it doesn't really get in the way). Suikoden 2 never wasted my time with its stories of rebellion and political intrigue. Lost Odyssey does a better time letting you savor the environments you are in just enough before moving on, instead of lingering for hours upon hours.

Xenoblade is a beautiful 25 hours surrounded by monotonous dozens of others that simply could've been better. It is not a bad game. I don't even believe in the ever pervasive idea from some mainstream critics that all JRPGs would be better if they were shorter just on principle. That's bullshit. But sometimes that is the case, not because long games are bad, but because there are times when your storytelling comes at a trickle like Xenoblade's so often does. Xenoblade feels like a game that had an additional game just randomly attached to it, completely incongruous to its desire to tell you a world-crushing, twisty story. Sidequests are wonderful, but those sidequests should have meat to them, and not be given prominence over your main story. (Seriously, when unlocking the Colony 6 reconstruction sidestory, the game outright tells you "Hey, come back here and do this stuff during breaks in the story!" Why would you sideline the main plot of your own game in such a way?)

People were already declaring this game one of the greatest JRPGs ever made before it even got here. The myth surrounding Xenoblade, that it was an incredible game being kept away from us for too long, that it would be one of the JRPGs that revived the glory days, seems odd having played it alongside other JRPGs of the last decade and beyond. I don't think the game is bad, overall, but this shit's just a JRPG, you guys. It is by no means a revolution. It's strange to me that it ever got such a huge following.

Thanks for reading.

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Revisiting the last true Front Mission that North America was blessed with.

I don't really know what's going on with this cover either, so...

When I was but a wee lad my dad used to import games for the Ps1 on the regular, which led to me picking up a certain affinity for games that the rest of North America often wouldn't get in any form whatsoever. Front Mission 2 is one such example, a game I tried navigating my way through as a 8 year old, with varying levels of success. You'd be surprised how far a determined 8 year old can get through Japanese menus. Nevertheless I didn't ever complete the game, and when North America finally saw the release of Front Mission 3, I was hooked on the series and stuck with it throughout the years, until it sadly shriveled up and died on the Ps2 grapevine like so many other series that just couldn't make the transition out of that generation.

Front Mission 3 is a classic, rightfully released as a Ps1 classic on the Playstation Store (and, really, if you like grid-based strategy games, you have no excuse for not picking it up at the low price of six dollars) but when 2004 rolled around and the Playstation 2 was well into its ass-kicking phase, Front Mission 4 dropped, promising bigger maps, better graphics, proper voice acting, and more complexity, from gameplay to narrative. Me being a nerdy teenager at the time, I gobbled that shit up. I remember it more-or-less trumping Front Mission 3 in every category, and the game has stuck with me as one of the most distinctive tactical RPGs I've had the pleasure of experiencing.

The rest of North America wasn't such a fan. A somewhat middling reception, along with Front Mission 5 being a wrap-up that tied all previous stories together (some of which were never released in the West to begin with), led to FM4 being the last of the traditional Front Mission games to see release outside of Japan. So what happens when I decide to dust off my old copy and take a trip down memory lane? Well...

Big Mechs & Political Intrigue. Who can resist?

Elsa is the lead character of the Durandal arc, and is aggressively French.

One of my favorite things about this game is that it's a complete and utter parade of foreign accents, most of which are surprisingly adept affectations in comparison to most other accents in media. Let's start simple: The world is divided into a handful of different conglomerations of states. The U.C.S. is largely just a union of North and South American countries. The E.C. is effectively the European Union. Outside of that is a country called Zaftra, which is more or less the USSR. The main plot follows the UK-based special Wanzer research team codenamed "Durandal" as they're tasked with investigating a conspicuously well-planned attack on several German military bases.

Upon investigating, the Durandal gets all sorts of roadblocks from the Blauer Nebel, an elite German Special forces unit led by a bishy fellow named Wagner, and everything goes shit-sideways for them. They're consistently framed for unprovoked attacks, what evidence they can come up with that the Zaftrans are involved is destroyed by German authorities, and eventually they're grounded and forced to go rogue in a desperate effort to prove that German military personnel are covering up a conspiracy to destroy the self-sufficiency of the E.C. and pit them in a war against the U.C.S. all for the economic benefit of Zaftra.

Predictably, the main character of the Venezuelan plot is an all-American tough guy with a heart of gold.

Around the time that the conspiracy begins coming to light, you're immediately thrust into the B-plot, a group of U.C.S. soldiers fighting to crush a rebellion in Venezuela. The three of them (Led by Southern United States native, Darril) are slackers, regretting ever signing up for the army in the first place, cutting corners whenever possible. By happenstance they fall upon the stash of gold from the Venezuelan dictator, decide "FUCK IT, WE'RE OUT", and become deserters ending up in wacky misadventures as they attempt to escape the country with the gold in tow.

And yes, basically everyone involved in this along the way has a distinctive voice. Elsa is French as fuck. Renges is outwardly hispanic. Chaeffer is the whitest white geek that was ever white. Latona is Ukrainian, and sounds it. The Durandal in general is surrounded with British accents. Bosch, Wagner, and everyone else from Germany speaks with every German affectation you can conjure. Eventually, Darril and his friends fall into a group called the la Alianza de Libertad Venezolana. Guess how they sound. And I don't mention this to laugh at it, it all actually works out super well; I love the voice acting. It's never slapstick, and it's effective at establishing a sense of place for a story that is mostly told in visual novel-esque scene transitions and very few proper cutscenes.

Darril and the guerrillas team up, and in time discover the Zaftrans, for some reason, instigated the Venezuelan conflict as well.

Look, we're all prone to certain biases. I'm a sucker for tales of political intrigue, for war stories and convoluted espionage. Front Mission 4's story is that in spades, eventually tying the two plot threads together in a way that makes sense (...sort of) and pours over it all sorts of sexy mech action. Though its plot is straightforward, it's not yet another save-the-world tale; the world will go on with or without the war, regardless of what the Durandal accomplish. It's a diverse cast of characters, to boot, in a moment in time where character diversity is rather en vogue. If a near-future sci-fi story of war and spies sounds at all interesting to you, I would wager Front Mission 4's story will be as fun of a romp for you as it was for me even the second time through.

Maybe Darril's story of friendly fuck-ups going AWOL is why Battlefield: Bad Company didn't do much for me.

The gameplay systems are fairly in-depth, but the game doesn't do them all justice.

Most objectives are just "kill all enemies" but sometimes it mixes it up.

Battles take place as you would expect: on a grid based battlefield set in turns. When engaging in combat, it zooms in between the selected units all Fire Emblem-style and lets the action play out, with very little loading times involved, which is a plus. Characters acquire skills appropriate for their inherent class, and level up along a predetermined skill list, though this can be so heavily augmented later in the game with optional "computer upgrades" that you can really just turn anyone into whatever you want them to be. For instance, Beck (the character in image to the side) is intended to be a missile/support unit who sticks to the back and calls in air support. I decided to turn him into a sniper instead and very rarely use the support backpack. You can't tell me what to do!

Equipped skills will randomly proc in battle, and are an incentive toward any kind of playstyle you can imagine. "Rapid Fire" will multiply shots fired by 1.2x and up. "Double Assault" can either cause you to use both guns, or allow you to use both a gun and a melee weapon in the same turn, depending on the tier you choose. You can "Snipe" certain specific body parts to quickly incapacitate enemies. Other abilities reduce the AP cost of an action, or add various damage types to the base weapon, such as "Fire" "Impact" or "Piercing." There are EMP backpacks that can inflict several different status effects, sensor backpacks that allow you to shoot missiles at a unit from anywhere on the map, air strikes, jet packs, missile jammers, and on and on.

With each skill activation, a damage modifier stacks onto it, rewarding a careful domino-style activation of battle links.

The best thing about the battle system, though, are Battle Links, which tie characters of your choosing together. Say I link Darril with Luis, Renges, and Thammond. Once I make Darril attack the enemy, a chain of attacks are activated from the other three, going in order of their speed stats. This turns battles from straightforward "walk up to this guy, shoot him" to "carefully place allies around the enemies" using the main linked characters to light the fuse that blows the enemies to hell. This allows for a great diversity of builds, too, since not every party member has to go face-to-face with each enemy.

Premier machine gun unit Elsa. Wasting Zaftran fools as usual.

All of this is a ton of fun, but there are more systems involved in the battles than the game seems to know what to do with. You can rig an EMP backpack to jam missiles, but there's only one or two stages in the game where this is useful at all, and I completely ignored it and did just fine. In fact, the EMP backpack in general is just not worth it. The accuracy of it is incredibly low, and missing means your melee character the backpack is assigned to just wasted a turn doing jack shit. Sensor backpacks mean that you can hit the sensor range with your missile unit(s) from anywhere on the map, but you don't move around the map so quickly that it's worth wasting power slots on a character to use. Once again, I ignored this mechanic completely, and almost never had any trouble keeping my missile unit on pace with the others.

There is one large issue though, one that isn't just a difference of style: Machine guns are OP. For reals. Shotguns are shorter range, lower accuracy even at a shorter range, and and there's no discernible power difference to make up for this. When given the choice between equipping a machine gun or a shotgun, there's almost no reason not to go with a machine gun. They require one less Action Point to attack with, so in theory you could attack more times on average than a unit with a machine gun, but in practice the lower accuracy and shorter range completely negates this advantage. WHY WAS THE GAME BALANCED THIS WAY, SQUARE ENIX? WHY?

At it's core, though, Front Mission 4 is an RPG from Japan, and you know what that means.

Buying the best gear, or even just better gear, costs a pretty penny when you're gearing out multiple characters.

The only major bummer about this game that I recognized on this playthrough is that there's some serious grinding involved if you intend to consistently keep your groups in up-to-date gear. There's really no way around it. Even if you nailed every battle in the game without ending on a single casualty or loss of limbs (which is very unlikely) you're going to need thousands upon thousands of dollars extra to keep everyone in top shape, and this will only come from optional battles called "Simulations" that you can do in-between story missions. Though some are genuinely fun and challenging, it gets more than a little old spending hours grinding away just to be able to procure better gear for the story missions.

And it's a pretty gnarly spiral to get trapped in if you don't. At the end of every battle you get your cash reward, but deducted from that amount are "maintenance" costs, caused by losing units or body parts. And those costs are a huge sum. Just losing one character and a wanzer part or two can easily cut your reward by more than half, and you're only more likely to lose parts if you don't keep your units equipped with the hottest-latest.

Wagner's theme creeps up on you throughout the final confrontation/speech. It perfectly fits the mood.

Yet, with some of the rougher trappings you expect from this genre, and from Japanese games in general, comes all kinds of positives. The music, largely composed by a fellow by the name of Hidenori Iwasaki is pretty fucking good. At least, I thought so at the time. I still think some of the tracks are phenomenal and it's a shame that composer never got much more work. From the music that plays in wanzer and pilot upgrade menus (remixed into a more poppy dance track in Front Mission 5 that is similarly awesome) to a great piece of final battle music. The tracks in Venezuela also take on a more traditional "South American" style that matches the setting.

It's hard to put into words, but there's something about this combination of modern sci-fi strategy that made it special then, and is even rarer in games today. I miss your breadth, Ps2.

Even after revisiting teenage memories? Yeah, Front Mission 4's still pretty good.

Show of hands, who loved the Suikoden games? Any fans of the Dark Cloud games around here? Onimusha? I always liked those, who else did? Dynasty Tactics used to be my jam, what about you? Why am I mentioning these things? Like Front Mission, these series and others found a home on the broad audience of the Playstation 2, and went quietly into the night along with the system itself, either never seeing the light of day again, or only doing so in terrible spinoffs or re-releases. Even great series like Persona, a series that still exists, will end up taking seven whole years between 4 and 5. I used to love the weird single-player Sims consoles spinoffs, too, and then after the Ps2 generation, those just died off, replaced by a simple outright port of 3, and God only knows if we'll see 4 on consoles at all.

Front Mission is the kind of game that seems like it could only last exist on the Ps2. A time when the games selling a few hundred thousand copies would be considered good enough to continue development on yet more games. But those days are gone. Front Mission Evolved is the most recent Front Mission game to see release outside of Japan, and it's a garbage Armored Core knock-off. No doubt the name will be drudged up and slapped on a shitty mobile game in a manner reminiscent to the recent Driver boat racing mobile game Ubisoft just made. You know, Driver. That boat racing franchise.

Front Mission 4 is a really good game, but more broadly, it's been a consistently great and distinct franchise, that no other series has come close to replicating. From an era of gaming that so many other unique franchises have been lost to us in a similar manner. Hell, mourning those games no longer really existing wouldn't sting that much if someone had come along and done what they did, and did it better. So I suppose until someone does do just that, we have emulators, to scale up those games and enjoy them as we remember them. Maybe someday someone will come along and bring those old ideas back.

Uh, yeah, Elsa? Tell Square Enix.

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Sexuality, Tactics, and "The Bioware Formula." Truly, this is the age of Dragons.

Despite playing games on the regular and maintaining a presence on boards like this that discuss current gaming events, I have pretty huge blind spots. I've never played any of the Uncharted games. None of the God of Wars. Never beaten a single Metal Gear Solid. It wasn't until 2011 that I finished my first Assassin's Creed. I fell off of GTA around San Andreas, for whatever reason. I had never played Minecraft until, like, a month ago. I play games all the time, but I tend not to follow the hottest-latest. Dragon Age: Origins was one of the many things that just sort of passed me by. When everyone else was seemingly obsessed with it, I was spending my nights with Final Fantasy XI and recovering from recently removed wisdom teeth.

Oh, hello. I didn't see you there.

It wasn't until much later on, probably around the time of Dragon Age 2's release, that I figured I had missed something big; the sort of game people talk about being "important." I picked up the 360 copy in anticipation of diving into the series as a whole all at once, and then Dragon Age 2 sort of set the internet on fire, and not in a good way. Listening to various rants of the game being repetitive and dumbed down, the awful "Hamburger Hepler" crap, "when you press a button, something awesome has to happen." It was the Summer of 2011 and hating on EA was in full swing. I didn't even want to bother. I wrote off Dragon Age: Origins until I was given hope that the series was ever going to be in an upswing again because the last thing I wanted at that point was to fall in love with a series that I knew just ended up going to shit.

2014 and Inquisition seems decent. Dragon Age: Origins pops up in a Steam sale, and I have a new computer. It turns out Dragon Age: Origins is pretty good. Who knew.

Dragon Age: Origins rewards patience and careful consideration, which is nice.

Party positioning is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING.

Right off the bat, this game was no joke. I was aware of the game's difficulty before getting into things, but I wasn't expecting party positioning to be so paramount to most of Origins' combat encounters. If you refuse to pause, put thought into building a decent macro set for your companions respective AIs, or carefully position your group depending on their strengths, you will get wrecked.

Unfortunately though, I have the @mooseymcman problem of being more motivated to talk about what irks me about these systems more than what I loved. As much as I appreciate the game's insistence that positioning in the battles matter, many of these encounters aren't exactly all that fair. There are numerous times where new combat encounters begin with you just being immediately surrounded, which isn't very fun to try and fight your way out of. In fact, one of the most common enemy placement layouts that consistently pissed me off was "Here's a few strong melee fighters backed up by a long line of archers that will kick your shit in because they're impossible to get to without swallowing a dozen or two arrows first."

I found Morrigan's stunned expression amusing because I am a child.

(It's a shame that my arrows seemed nowhere near as effective. In general, being an archer sort of sucked, actually.)

In an average fight where enemies are laid out naturally through an environment, positioning yourself around them, and having that go so well for you, can feel incredibly satisfying. Just throwing your entire party at another group of enemies isn't a particularly effective way of fighting, due to friendly fire or other ability ranges, and people just have a tendency to mash up against each other and get stuck. That itself doesn't bother me, because that's what would happen if two guys, a mage lady, and a dog just decided to blob themselves together onto someone else. It would be messy and ineffective; you'd constantly be getting in each others' way. So when you can position your party members into a great formation, it feels fantastic. Like a puzzle where everything fits together beautifully, even if it does lend itself to lame strategies like "just draw these enemies together and use Cone of Ice constantly."

Your group does not always get along, and your opinion matters.

Worrying about how your opinion on things impact your companions is also a nice change of pace from the Mass Effect games, where you can more or less be a huge cock to everyone and nobody really does anything of consequence about it. Knowing that how I handled certain matters impacted my standing with Alistair, for instance, made me given great consideration to certain decisions, because I liked and respected Alistair quite a bit and wanted him on my side. Torturing Morrigan with helpful fetch quests was also a devilish delight.

As nice as it is that the focus on keeping your ragtag group of misfits together and on the same page adds an element of self-doubt to much of the decision making in the game, though, your standing with the group is all-too-easy to manipulate with gifts. I couldn't help but feel like that aspect of the game was far too easy to, well, game.

I have a love/hate relationship with Bioware's approach to sexuality.

Let's back up for a second to Mass Effect 3. When it was revealed there would finally be gay male relationships in the game I was super psyched. (Though, to be fair, my initial reaction was probably something more like "It fucking took them long enough!") Gay dudes get short shrift in a lot of romance set ups in games, and this goes without saying. But then I played Mass Effect 3 and realized my Kaidan had died back in the first game. I was subsequently left with nothing but Steve Cortez as a gay romance option.

Cortez is also, in my opinion, one of the worst characters Bioware has ever written. His defining characteristic is crying over his dead husband, you spend barely any time with him before you end up making out in a nightclub, his character looks like some poorly cobbled together re-hashing of Jacob's body from ME2, and the actual scene with him at the end is atrocious. It was after I had finished the game that I realized I had basically just been pandered to. I went with the gay character solely because I was gay, and Bioware knew a great number of us would do exactly that, so they get to wax on about how progressive they are for including gay romances when the only explicitly gay guy in the game is embarrassingly written. The praise for them felt incredibly un-earned, and it left a pretty bad taste in my mouth.

Zevran turns out to be a great character, his bisexuality treated very matter-of-factly.

So going in to Origins with the intent on once again romancing another dude, I was sort of expecting the worst. Thankfully Zevran winds up being a very charmingly written character, with a great deal of back story, stand-out voice acting, and fantastic sense of humor. I learned far more about Zevran's life as a member of the Crows, and his personal life in Antiva, than anything I ever learned about Steve Cortez.

The concept of a character who's raised from birth to treat sex in an almost utilitarian fashion is sort of awesome, giving a unique perspective on sex and sexuality that most other video game characters don't really bother with. This isn't some sort of wounded boy who keeps his sexuality to himself, or overcomes some sort of contrived, overly saccharine ordeal; Zevran was merely raised to think of sex with guys or girls as equally valid pleasures and chuckles at someone who's restricted to a single sex, or treats sex as too sentimental.

I like to think the butt pirate joke here is intentional, but I could be wrong.

Honestly, most of the sexual relationships in Origins feel like a breath of fresh air. Not because they're treated "seriously" or "maturely," but very specifically because they are not. Not across the board, at least. Each character has a very distinct approach to how they appreciate sex. Alistair is a virgin due to years of being under the purview of the Chantry, so takes it hyper-seriously. Wynne appears like a wholesome old lady until she makes remarks to Alistair about how she used to enjoy fooling around with other Circle members to blow off steam, but doesn't enjoy flaunting it. Zevran treats it as harmless fun, and most conversations end up loaded with innuendo.

Affection meter aside, hokey sex-music aside, the varying approach to the importance of sex (and how quickly it can occur depending on the person) sort of sneaks up on you as a nice, pleasantly realistic touch.

The Bioware formula of RPG may be a bit predictable, but that's not inherently bad.

Alistair reminded me a great deal of Carth from Knights of the Old Republic.

Some allowance, of course, should be made for the fact that Dragon Age: Origins came out in 2009. The complaints about Bioware's formulaic plot structure weren't really in full-swing then as they are these days, particularly in the wake of Mass Effect 3. It's probably why they've felt the need to change the structure of their games with the more open-world nature of Inquisition.

Despite trying to accept the game for what it was, though, Origins lays that traditional Bioware formula on pretty thick right out of the gate. You're an every-man (or woman, as the case may be) who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it turns out you have a particular talent that makes you into a special someone, and you have to go about resolving the great crisis with a list of priorities you can do in any order. Add in some moral choices, conversation trees, and some snark, and you have The Bioware RPG.

Though there are obvious patterns to these beats, I don't think it's fair to hold it against these games, or that adherence to a certain formula is even all that new. The Tales series is an example of a long-running RPG series that sticks to certain familiar concepts, systems, graphical styles, and character tropes (TV Tropes would call those games "cliche storms") but those games are also beloved, and the formulaic structure of the series at the very least ensures a reliable baseline level of quality. It may not blow your mind or be all that innovative, but you can be sure what you're getting is tried and true. That it works, and works well. The important stuff is the details of the story itself, afterall, not necessarily how its packaged. Though complaining about the familiarity of it all may be easy, complaining about it also feels rather pedantic.

Final Fantasy is a perfect example of how certain core tropes and very familiar gameplay systems guaranteed a high level of quality for many years, despite having unique worlds.

The world of Dragon Age is still exquisitely detailed, its characters well-realized and acted. Learning how the Chantry, Templars, and Mages all interact, how The Blight comes and goes, or how The Grey Wardens are structured, is not negatively impacted or reduced in any way just because of the narrative structure of how plot elements are doled out to you or how certain gameplay systems are present in most Bioware games. These things and others remain highlights of Dragon Age that are incredibly compelling to learn about, and are merely told in a manner that feels familiar to the player.

In a lot of ways, how Bioware has structured many of its games feels like a marrying of JPRG plot tropes with CRPG gameplay systems. Innovation can be overrated.

To be honest, though I really liked Origins, I don't think I love it as much as some do.

Parts of Dragon Age feel amazing. That Bioware had the balls to release a game like this as one of their flagship games in 2009 is sort of incredible in itself. Yet, and I just feel really bad for admitting this, I don't think the combat was that great. The systems at work have the potential to combine in ways that demand careful strategy and party placement, but the actual combat encounters themselves do not always play to those strengths. Playing Origins, I kept getting Mass Effect 1 vibes; the combat was just super uneven in that same Mass Effect 1 way of dying constantly, and not always feeling like I had a very clear, fair understanding of why.

Random encounters traveling across the map feel like annoying time-wasters.

Many class abilities also seem sort of pointless. Sure, I could use Morrigan as a shapeshifter; were I a complete idiot. Her animal forms pale in comparison to using her as a straight-forward mage, and my experience of playing as an archer prior to getting animal familiars to fight alongside me felt sort of miserable. Healing can also be a chore. Either bring Wynne with you, or make an unholy number of potions and keep them on your hotbar at all times for spamming, because one of those things will be necessary, if not both. This wouldn't be so bad, if it didn't take so long to travel around collecting potion ingredients from different stores.

And sections of the plot are simply a slog. Two in particular: The Fade section, and most of the Dwarven city. The Fade section of the Circle of Magi plot completely blindsides you, and takes forever, dragging the game down with a shitty puzzle section where you have to fight totally alone, and depending on your class and when you decide to take that part of the game on, it could be a pulling-hair-out level of frustrating. As for Orzammar: though I love a good political intrigue story, the game actually spends very little effort fleshing out the back story of the two political factions, instead sending you on various combat encounters in the Deep Roads that simply take far too long and seem tonally out of place, delving into weird horror stories from out of left field instead of the far more compelling plot to resolve Orzammar's throne itself.

Oh, and is there a concept page for "strategically obfuscated nipples"?

On some level it feels unfair to say my overall opinion of the game is soured simply because of two sections, but those two sections are two of the major plotlines of the game, mostly consisting of combat that is not always well-balanced.

I adore the characters, I love the world, and I was intrigued by the plot elements that didn't involve the Fade. The universe is dark and compelling, and I am eager to see more of Dragon Age's world. In these respects, I come away from Origins feeling much like I did with the first Mass Effect; I love it more than it probably deserves to be loved, but I love it nonetheless for what it does so well, despite its flaws.

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Summoner: Of an era, though a not altogether good one.

More people will probably recognize Summoner by it's PS2 boxart. Which, to be fair, is way better.

Having a PC capable of playing actual games has been a super cool experience, despite it being entry-level stuff. I haven't really had any kind of a gaming PC since I was a little kid and played the usual assortment of first person shooters. The Quakes, the Dooms, the Hexens of the world. Played Everquest a bit as a kid. Nothing fancy. Since then, though, it's been almost exclusively console games for me. It still mostly is, and probably will always mostly be; nothing wrong with that afterall. But still, the flexibility the platform provides, particularly for on-a-whim purchases has been quite pleasant.

I did pretty much the same thing with putting a PC together as I did when I bought one of those cheap knock-off NES/SNES twins: Put something together competent enough that will allow me the ability from then on to pick up games as I see them on the cheap and play games at least a couple years old really smooth. Think of it as an investment that can be iterated on, upgraded, and refined over the years instead of something I blow all my cash on up front instead.

As opposed to garage and yard sale hunting, though, in this case it's constantly taking advantage of the myriad of bundles, flash sales, and outright giveaways that have blanketed the fucking PC platform these days.

Enter: Summoner. Not exactly pushing the bleeding edge, but I guess this is what I get for purchasing anything even remotely appealing that gets as low as $1.24.

Having fond memories of Summoner's Playstation 2 roots definitely helps.

Summoner's origins are sort of weird. Despite being a fairly traditional sort of CRPG, it had it's debut as a PS2 launch game, not even actually coming out on the platform you would think it's far better suited for until months later. I remember playing it back then and loving it quite a bit, but judging from my memories (which are at this point from 14 years ago) I didn't get much further than about a third of the way through the game, if that.

Say hello to our hero, Joseph, his stats, and his very peculiar cheekbones.

Let's get the plot setup out of the way: Joseph grew up in a little village called Ciran, and he was born with the mark of the Summoner. Every so often, these individuals are born to play out a particular prophecy in the ongoing Cold War between the Gods of the world, though much of the details of these legends have been lost to time. When trying to experiment with his power, Joseph summoned a demon that burned his village to the ground, and so he swore never to summon again, keep his power a secret as best he could, and live out his life as a simple farmer.

However, gosh darn-it, things just don't work out that way, do they? Eventually a neighboring nation known as Orenia, led by an Emperor who sought to be a God himself, declared war on Joseph's home country of Medeva, and marched in search of the Summoner's power. And so the story begins. From there, Joseph and his companions seek out the varying Rings of Summoning to fulfill the prophecy that a Summoner would one day put an end to an evil Emperor's reign and bring peace to Medeva.

There are twists and turns along the way, of course, but it's a straight-forward premise. It's straight-forward for a reason, though. It works surprisingly well. The writing is solid, and the mythology of the world is more in-depth than you would initially expect from "launch title RPG." Despite that, Summoner doesn't often rise above the promise of its first several hours.

At the very least, Summoner makes a great first impression.

Before I turn into a Debbie Downer, I feel like it's important to note Summoner really does start off pretty effectively. Events move just quickly enough, the game wastes very little time over-explaining what is going on when things open, and the tutorials are short and to the point. The first major city you come across (Lenele, City of Gods) is huge and has side-quests bursting out the ass. The music is good, dialogue is witty and informative, there's a stealth section that isn't total garbage, and you're sent off on your first major quest in the plot after being shown all the mechanics you'll need.

What's better than a skeleton with one head? TWO heads.

In small to medium scale engagements, the combat also works pretty well. In a similar manner to The Witcher, Summoner has an atypical combat system based around chaining attacks together with increasingly precise timing. Cumulatively based on how many Chains you've performed with that particular character, you unlock other chain attacks that have particular attributes. For instance, Joseph has a chain combo that, when activated, will heal a bit of the entire party, or a Chain Push that increases the effectiveness of the next chain attack, such as a Chain that expends Action Points (used for spells and skills) for increased damage.

It's a simple but effective combat system that maintains a sense of constant engagement in otherwise by-the-numbers CRPG dicerolling gameplay, and encourages you to fight with different characters throughout the game to unlock their specific Chains.

The music is also pretty great almost across the board. Each track slowly builds to such a great, distinctive sound, that play so well to their respective environments. The Khosani Labyrinth track is a great example of this, slowly building to the memorable tune of the dungeon. The second Iona Island track opens ominously, the drums leading into a distorted theme that subtly incorporates elements of the original Iona theme that exactly fits the state of the scene. The composer of the music apparently did very little other work, which is a shame. His music perfectly created the mood and atmosphere of the game that I will remember when I look back on this game in the future. It did the game more favors than probably anything else.

A kind soul uploaded the OST to YouTube in this handy-dandy playlist. It's solid background music.

Bad news, though: Summoner's boobs are totally not real.

The last save time on file was 21 Hours, 42 Minutes, just before the final boss area, so total gametime was around 22 hours, not counting deaths or the couple crashes I had where I lost about an hour and ahalf. Reasonable length for an RPG of the era excluding those errors, I guess, right? Here's the rub: While Summoner makes a great first impression with its environments, there's a metric fuckton of backtracking and revisiting areas. In fact, an entire leg of the plot is just outright re-used in the final act of the game, requiring you to do a slightly different series of boss-hunts that you had to do in the beginning, in more or less the exact same locations.

Ikaemos Swamp is thankfully one of the least offenders, requiring only two lengthy visits.

Not even counting the amount of backtracking and revisiting of areas you would have to do to complete most of the sidequests, there are huge areas that the game requires you to trudge through over, and over, and over again. The Lenele Sewers (yes, there's a sewer level that is as frustratingly mediocre as you could imagine) require you to make the same run through them at least four times, and that's not counting sidequests. Iona Island, multiple times. Ikaemos swamp, twice. Lenele is revisited in various states tons of times.

This goes on and on. There's a frustratingly low amount of truly unique environments to the game, and the length is padded out by probably around a third of my total playtime, perhaps more, by making you run through the environments almost in their entirety multiple times, with enemies always respawning when you revisit. This gets very monotonous, very fast.

There are several other (at times, minor) annoyances, too. The run speed is far too slow for many of the large areas, only compounding the backtracking problem, and the map does a very poor job of telling you where things are. The hotkeys are weirdly bound; I can't figure out for the life of me why R is what brings up the stat screen. S doesn't bring up the spell list, despite that being what you're going to want to open up the most, that's instead bound to C (for 'cast'). On the rare occasion spells will also just randomly not cast for any discernible reason, too. The icon will come up, you hover over another character you wish to cast on, and can spam left-click all you like, but it just won't work sometimes.

And the path-finding? Atrocious. For a game built around chaining combos, the ability to stand still and maintain the chain is sort of key. Instead, at even the slightest movement, and particularly when on inclines, characters will constantly move around, reshuffling party placement and resetting the Chain back to 1.

It can be incredibly difficult at times to get the party members to focus their efforts.

By far the most infuriating thing, however, is how hard it can be to get your companions to pay attention to a single enemy. Once they've decided to attack a particular target, that's usually it. You can take control of the party member and manually direct them over to another enemy, but as soon as you take control off of them, they'll often just turn right back around and resume fighting whatever they were before.

In small scale engagements, this can be managed fine. However, when you're swarmed, there's really no mitigating things. Any party placement and aggro management falls the fuck apart immediately. It becomes every man and woman for themselves, and half of the party usually can't deal with shit on their own. It's also impossible to just blitz right by people, because as soon as someone is targeted, they will not leave them alone. You have to slowly and methodically deal with each enemy. Fine on the first way through an environment. Less fine on your third or fourth.

Enemies are also not well-scaled when the party is split up for plot reasons. All of the "you can only use ___ character(s)" sections were by far the worst of the game.

Summoner is ultimately somewhere in the middle, but there's something endearing about it.

Oh, stop teasing me!

Maybe it's not a completely fair thing to hold in Summoner's favor, but can you imagine a new RPG series coming out today as a launch title? Perhaps it's an example of the soft bigotry of low expectations, but for this game's specific place in time, Summoner is a lot more than it probably had any right to be, or even needed to be.

The hype of the Ps2 was marching along with or without Summoner afterall, and after last year's new console launch, you do sort of have to give a certain amount of slack to launch games. Summoner isn't without it's problems, but I'd still take a game of this depth and type over a Killzone: Shadow Fall, Ryse, or "New" Super Mario Bros. when it came to picking up a new system. At times it can come off as bog-standard fantasy, but the world is well realized enough, the writing solid, and many environments have effective atmosphere.

For those who are patient with the era it's from, and who are way into this particular genre, Summoner at least has plenty of time for being $4.99 at full price on Steam. It's a game that I very much want to love, despite a myriad of issues. Prior to Dragon Age, it's the sort of game that just sort of faded away for awhile, and the universe of Summoner just feels unusually fleshed out and distinct from other series. I can imagine some alternate universe where Summoner became an actual franchise beyond its two games, but it just couldn't close the deal.

At least we'll always have the music.

Perhaps now I should blog about something that better makes use of a modern PC.

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Journeying Through my Backlog: Dewy's Adventure (what?)

The very long and difficult journey through my backlog continues, with a game almost no one has probably heard of. I feel like I'm going to doom this blog series to early irrelevance if I play games like these, but this is the curse. This is the vice. A person who buys too many games ends up with good games, and bad. You can't just forget the turkeys, you know? Playing mediocre games can help keep a person grounded. A way to remember what makes the good games so good.

Despite this, I'm happy with myself for showing the discipline to stick to my idea of blogging my way through each and every one of the games in my console backlog. So after my fifty hours worth of time with Dark Souls, I wanted something a little shorter, a little more colorful, a little more low-key. Dark Souls had frayed some of my nerves and I needed a colorful adventure to be the counterbalance. Enter: Dewy's Adventure.

Early blog spoiler: Do not buy Dewy's Adventure.

What, this doesn't look like a GOTY contender to you?

I wish I could say that I don't remember why I bought Dewy's Adventure, but that would be a lie. Years ago, I remember seeing a review of the game on X-Play (which was a great show for many years, despite the rotting in the last few years of it's life) and thinking "Eh, you know, I want to buy that game someday!" and for some reason the game stuck in my mind. After doing some post-2010-Christmas shopping on Amazon, I noticed this game and picked it up for $11. As it would turn out, that was about $648 too much.

Here's the long and the short of the story: The evil Don Hedron has taken over the world and captured the most of a group of liquid people, and stole six of the fruits of the Great Tree, or something like that. The game's hero, Dewy, is the magical blue seventh fruit, who the Great Tree calls forth to save the world from the evil Black Liquid of Don Hedron.

Yes, it's a dumb excuse plot, but whatever, right? The gameplay consists of Dewy, being water, manipulating the temperature of the world and gaining powers through the temperature, fighting his way through the world to rescue his people. The game is bright, colorful, has a very soft, faded art style, and each world has a fun theme to it. All of this is well and good. Here's the catch: You can only move Dewy by tilting the world with the Wiimote, and it's as much of struggle as that sounds.

Maybe I would've judged this game differently back in the day (it was released in 2007 afterall), but everything about this game is my problem with the Wii in microcosm. Imprecise motion, certain movements just not registering at all, waggle motions being thrown in all over the place just to make the laziest use of the Wii as possible. Worse is that there's very little variety to the forms you attack in, and all it's tricks are exhausted by the end of the first world.

I refuse to believe anyone under the age of 13 ever beat this game.

This level sucks. The worst part? When you sit still for awhile, the camera zooms in so close you can't tell where you have to jump.

The controls are a fucking nightmare. I don't know any other way to say it. The second world I played was called "Icy Island" and demanded precise platforming skills and cautiousness on a surface that kept slinging me all over the place. In ice form Dewy just sort of bounces around like a goddamn pinball, and if water form Dewy falls into the ice as it turns back into water, it's instant death. I had to retry almost all of the stages in that world multiple times, and it took me about four times as long to complete that world as it did any other part of the game.

Apparently this was turned into a mobile game in Japan. It deserves no better.

I never thought I would have a "throwing the Wiimote across the room" moment ever again, but this game managed to bring out anger in me that Dark Souls never did, which is just kind of fucked up. I've developed a pretty thick skin for some of these bad motion control moments in games, but the most ridiculous part of all of this is that Dewy's Adventure is meant to be a kiddy platformer. There is no way some 9-year-old out there didn't eventually say "screw this thing" and leave after the millionth time you accidentally slide to your death because the camera is so zoomed in you can't see where you're tilting to.

I have no idea who this game is even meant for. The controls are so flaky and sluggish, so intensely frustrating, that not even adults would have the patience for them, and yet it's built as this colorful, childlike adventure full of smiley faces and weird orgasmic happy noises. Worse, not to be too judgmental toward the Wii, but the system's library isn't exactly wanting for E-rated games. Don't get me wrong, I can see the appeal of a happy, short, colorful adventure like this. There's absolutely nothing wrong with games like that, we all need a palette cleanser once in awhile, but the Wii has quite a few games that execute on that idea better than Dewy's Adventure.

After 8 hours, I ended up rage-quitting on the final boss.

You guys like boss rushes? After getting all of the magical fruits, the final stage opens up, where you have to fight two duplicates of every miniboss in the entire game. If you die at any point, you have to start at the beginning. After you manage that, you have to fight a copy of every major boss in the game in succession, and you have to ace all of those fights too. The final boss has multiple health bars, and completely incomprehensible attack patterns, and once you beat him, he turns into a second form with three more health bars.

That kind of difficulty spike is insane, and I was not going to sit there fighting a 15-minute, poorly controlled fight against a boss with multiple forms that I essentially have to complete perfectly.

In a way, it's good that this sort of game came up so early in this capital-J Journey through my backlog. I can't waste hours and hours on games that I just don't even care about anymore. I have to be able to put a game down and move on if I'm just no longer interested. I have dozens of games to get through, and not enough time in my life to spend hours and hours on ones like Dewy's Adventure. I put in nearly 8 hours and came to an informed conclusion. I gave it more than it deserved. It's time to move on to the next game in the stack.

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Journeying through my backlog: Dark Souls

I have a problem with buying games and never playing or completing them. Yeah, I know, it's not exactly a major vice, but it frustrates me to see a ton of games resting on my shelf, or tucked away in boxes, that I've never gotten around to playing yet, even when I've heard such good things about them. "So," I thought to myself "how can I encourage myself to play through these games so I don't feel like I'm wasting all this money that I don't have?"

Blog about them, of course. Duh. And thus the journey through all of the random games I've bought in the last few years began.

Of all the games, why Dark Souls?

Playing on the Ps3, if you were curious.

I loved Demon's Souls. So I'm not really sure why I never got around to Dark Souls. Something about it always intimidated me, the lack of hub-based gameplay, the fixed-use magic system, the length that I knew it would take to complete it. I always kept putting it off. For a long time, too; Amazon lists my order of this game from October 3rd, 2012. What the fuck was I waiting this long for?

Vinny getting back into Dark Souls gave me the inspiration I needed, so one afternoon I just said "Fuck it", cracked open the case, and started playing. I fell pretty deep into it, too. After playing a ton of it, I started reading various wikis, having Let's Plays on in the background, all kinds of nonsense. When I just wanted to play a little bit of it, I'd fall into hours and hours. I never seemed to put the controller down once I started.

There's no real getting around it, either; the game is long. If I was going into it completely blind, and not looking up a proper order to do the areas in, I probably would've spent another ten hours on this game than the fifty I already did to complete it.

What impressed me most? The level design is kind of incredible.

This is only a portion of the game, and it's all so organic-looking, dense, and weathered that it feels like a real country that grew with time, not one just built for a video game.

It's such an oddly specific thing to come away from a game like this and feel most impressed by, but despite all my concerns about the lack of a central hub of the game before I started playing it, I rarely felt like I was being asked to waste time trekking over huge amounts of space.

Everything about this game's world is designed in such a way as to weave back in on itself at almost all times. There are shortcuts, just-out-of-view ladders, optional locked doors, all of which allow you to save time after you've completed an area proper. In fact, depending on items you pick up along the way, buy, or start out the game with, you could just skip huge portions of the game and never notice. That's really fucking awesome.

The game is, in a way, both linear and incredibly flexible, depending on your knowledge of the environment and the items you have. If you have a high level in a certain covenant, you can almost entirely skip the Demon Ruins. Start off with the Master Key, and you can cut out the most annoying part of Blighttown completely and just run straight for the boss area, or start the back-end of Darkroot Basin instead of entering from the Undead Parish.

The game rewards you for exploration, but doesn't necessarily punish you if you don't. My first time through the Catacombs I just straight up missed a large section of the level and a hidden bonfire, but nothing about that prevented me from just moving on to the next area and doing my business there. It's just this nice, awesome thing that you can find if you like, but if you don't, hey, whatever.

Related to this are the combat encunters, which all feel fine-tuned enough to present just enough challenge to every fight. Not all of them are fair, mind you, (we'll get to that in a second), but throughout the game I always felt like enemies were put where they were for a very specific reason. That archer you just passed is going to harass you in a fight just around the corner if you don't get rid of him; you just don't know that yet. There's a necromancer just behind the wall that's going to revive these skeletons, and there's only so many of them in one room so it doesn't get too crazy, but can still kick your ass.

By far, what I marveled at in every new area, was just the obvious painstaking detail and work that was put into every fight, and every shortcut, and every blind turn. Everything works together like a finely tuned machine. In my opinion it is, if nothing else, the best level design of the generation.

This game isn't always the "Hard but fair" some make it out to be.

Not my best decision.

Playing strictly as a one-handed weapon, Miracle-using Cleric can be sort of a nightmare sometimes. Dark Souls is more flexible in terms of what kind of play-styles are viable for most encounters than in Demon's Souls, but it could still be a lot better.

I could be going through an area with very little problem taking out enemies with my preferred weapon (a fully upgraded Divine Falchion, if you were curious. Good, flexible damage, scales with faith, very low stamina usage) and then a boss battle will just have absolutely none of it. Playing without a lot of armor meant me being stunlocked by even the weakest of enemies, and The Duke's Archives? It's full of magic-resistant enemies which meant that place was a slog, in spots, despite a fully upgraded weapon and being about 25-soul levels beyond where I probably should've been.

"But Marokai!" You're probably thinking, "Why don't you just throw on some armor and use a more conventional weapon?"

Fuck that. I understand some enemies being resistant to some damage types, that's totally cool, but the final boss was nearly unbeatable for me before I decided I was sick of getting the floor wiped with my robed body, and threw on Havel's armor. I then beat the final boss on my second heavy-armor attempt. It's not like me playing with very light armor and using a one-handed weapon is some sort of specifically gimped playstyle. I was playing as my role. I shouldn't have to become a tank for certain encounters to suddenly become pushovers.

And one hit kill moves? Double fuck that. None of that is fair. Trying to cross the red drake bridge is infuriating when the fire will suddenly go from doing one-third of your healthbar to instantly killing you at full health. I only got past that part because I got lucky and the drake somehow killed itself, or something. I don't know. All I know is that it disappeared sort of out of nowhere. Getting Havel's ring was similarly rage-quit worthy, because 90% of his attacks you can block and survive, but if he hits you with a two-handed attack, it doesn't matter how much stamina you have, it's just over. I don't call that "hard but fair." That's just "be perfect or you die."

Thankfully, these moments were few and far between. The vast majority of fights are totally hard but fair, and can be won with most conventional playstyles. But if the answer to a certain spot is "well just dodge everything and never get touched" then something has gone wrong, there.

I love this game a whole lot. But I think I can set it aside for now.

I was all amped up to play a few hours of the game with new characters. I thought it would be cool to play six hours or so as a Sorcerer, and see how that was like. Even considered trying to speed through the game as a Pyromancer, because it seems like that class is stupidly good. But that fever lasted about an hour and ahalf into a new Pyromancer character, when I was grinding against Havel (ew) for his ring, and kept dying over and over again because I just got unlucky and dodged at the wrong half-second.

This game is really great. I loved a lot of my time with it. Part of it just feel like old-school game design that just don't exist anymore, and I think that's really awesome. Specific parts of how this game is built are just outright incredible. But I don't want to do that fifty hours again. I just can't, guys. Maybe that makes me a pussy; but whatever. I love the idea of playing through this game with different styles, but some parts I just don't have patience for again. I don't want to fight Smough and Ornstein another time. I think my nerves just need time to rest.

But despite that, playing this game was a great experience as a first-time run. It's an "important" game, I think, whatever that means these days, and I'm happy to look at it resting amongst the rest of my games and know that I completed it. Still, I think I'll move on to something a little more colorful and cheerful for the next game in my backlog.

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