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.


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.


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.


My spoilerific issues with L.A. Noire after just finishing it.

I rarely buy games based on critical reception. I pretty much never do that, but after seeing such rapturous praise for LA Noire, I decided it looked pretty interesting, that I could get into it, and enjoy it.
I had trouble finishing this game, though. Not in a "this game is too difficult for me" kind of way, because if there's anything LA Noire isn't, that would be at all difficult, but in a "this game is incredibly repetitive, what is even going on" way.  I basically took a two and ahalf month hiatus from the game from after it's release, just as I had started the Vice desk. So a few days ago, I finally picked it back up and decided "I'm going to finish this, so at least I will be able to articulate why I don't like this game."
I had no idea what I was in for.
This game went right off the fucking rails after the Vice desk. Suddenly everyone, literally the entire city, hates Cole, because he cheated on his wife with a character I had never even heard of aside from a mention or two in conversation up to that point, and I get demoted to Arson. Really? I understand why they came down so hard on him, the conspiracy, and everything, but it seemed entirely unbelievable. Even the entire notion of Cole cheating on his wife, a woman I have never seen or heard anything of up to this point so why the fuck should I even care about her, was completely out of left field. 
And the fact that Elsa was so critical to the endgame was crazy in and of itself. She's a catalyst for the ending and unraveling the redevelopment fund conspiracy, and she's introduced to me, the player, in the final hours of the game? These omissions are just plain lazy, and for a game that tries to put slow paced narrative at it's forefront, it's completely inexcusable. 
The fact that I was suddenly playing as a different character in the end, however, is one of my biggest problems. The game has spent the entire narrative getting me attached to Cole, and then I'm suddenly playing as someone else in the eleventh hour. There was no reason at all that they couldn't have written the story in such a way that Cole unravels the conspiracy on his own, or even that I only play as Kelso for a single chapter, as opposed to right up until the ending of the game. 
Even the way that you unravel the conspiracy was silly and everytime I found a new clue I basically just thought to myself "Oh right, this is a video game." Why can Kelso use police phones? I know he's an investigator for an insurance company, but as far as I understand it, that doesn't suddenly give him the right to use police phones and police resources. Why is there a film reel laying right out in the open handily detailing for me everyone who is involved in the suburban redevelopment fund?  And why would receipts for the lumber be conveniently placed on top of it all giving me the incredibly helpful information of exactly who it was I was supposed to be pursuing? And why is it that everytime I enter someone's apartment, the most important documents I need are just laying right out in the open, requiring no searching whatsoever, and it immediately tells me what the important bits are?
For such a carefully laid out conspiracy, they did a pretty shit job of covering their tracks, what with leaving important documents out in the open and film reels being loose. I'm not even going to get into the fact that the gameplay is stupefyingly simplistic. The game tells you where all the clues are, it tells you the important information, it tells you everything, and the cases end regardless of how good or bad you did in them anyway!
After I beat it, though, I wasn't thinking much about the game, I was thinking about the nature of game reviews. Can they be trusted, pretty much at all? Think about the process of game reviews. You get an early copy, you get a few days to poke around with it, finish it, and write up a review. It doesn't leave a great deal of time for introspection or critical analysis. It doesn't really lend itself to nitpicking until after the fact, when the job of the critic is already over.
LA Noire doesn't seem like the type of game that was built to withstand the test of criticism. Aside from the amazing tech in facial animations and the beautiful recreation of 1940's Los Angeles, there doesn't really seem to be a whole lot there. The gameplay is simple, the story gets increasingly ridiculous before just going full bullshit at the end, and it just got me thinking, "I feel like I've been let down by critics." 
Because this feels like it was a game built to wow you and coast you gently toward the ending. It feels like a game tailor made for game reviewers. It has amazing tech that impresses you out of the gate, the gameplay isn't at all demanding, the story is okay as long as you don't think about it too much, and it's a nice gentle ride toward the end that's pretty much impossible to fail at. In my view, it's a game made for people who review games, not for people who play them repeatedly. For people who don't have a lot of time on their hands, not for people who are going to really have the time to spend with it and really think about what it is the game is actually presenting.
In short, I just feel really disappointed, not only by some of the baffling decisions in the game's writing, but also in how simple the gameplay is, and how much I feel let down by reviewers, who seem almost universally in love with the game. A recent bombcast started to criticize the game a little more, and now that I've finally finished the game, I think that's a great thing. But I'm a little sad these thoughts weren't considered before Brad basically instantly labeled it a top pick for GOTY.