By Mento 6 Comments
Hey one and all to another installment of the Comic Commish, a monthly series where I look back on the best games on the previous generation of consoles and then violate their memory with crude stickpeople drawings. My eternal thanks once again to @omghisam, who was also kind enough to give me a copy of Shovel Knight recently too. (I suspect he might be a secret billionaire, or maybe this is all coursework for training to become a social worker.)
Anyhoo and anyhow, we'll look at three comics I created especially for this feature as well as a whole bunch of crap I've covered in the past. Because of the sheer volume of "Revisited" strips this month, there's not going to be a "The Other Ones" section. Seriously, I must've drawn a comic for every goddamn game that came out during this period. Speaking of which, today's entry covers the latter half of 2011, from July to December. Certainly was a busy November that year (and, of course, we also saw Giant Bomb favorite Dark Souls released during this time).
It Was a Struggle to Find Three Good Games I Hadn't Already Made Comics For, Honestly
Although Captain America: Super Soldier gave Cap his own game for the first time in years -- it was made to tie-in with the first Captain America movie (though with an unrelated plot), which by most accounts appears to have been overshadowed by its sequel -- it seemed suspiciously similar to another well-regarded superhero game from a couple of summers ago, namely Rocksteady's excellent Batman: Arkham Asylum. Still, if you're facing a strict deadline for a licensed game tie-in and you gotta imitate someone in order to cut down on the lengthy concept-focused early stages of development, it's probably a good idea to take after the best. A wave of "[BLANK]-clone"s is how almost every new genre began, after all.
So the Captain America game isn't actually too bad. It takes after Asylum with its combo-heavy flowing combat and partially non-linear exploration, and adds in a healthy dose of Prince of Persia-ish acrobatics, taking advantage of Cap's enhanced physicality and finesse. The shield also finds a few novel applications, though the game doesn't lean on it as hard as you'd expect from a Captain America game. The game's plot, in which Cap is parachuted into a Hydra base to foil their most recent scheme, has a pleasing self-contained quality to it as well -- not just that the story is a one-off outside of the established Marvel movie canon, but that the Bavarian castle itself is isolated and full of surprises as Cap delves ever deeper underneath it. One of the better hidden qualities of the Castlevanias and Metroids that have more or less codified this sort of exploration-heavy action game is having a well-realised location with various points of interest that you can use as landmarks, getting a better sense of the overall structure and where everything is relative to each other the more of it you explore, though Captain America is perhaps a little too linear and devoid of backtracking to really suit the lofty label of "SpaceWhipper".
It's still surprisingly solid, given that it rushed to tie in with a movie (and that superhero video games are generally quite pap regardless for whatever reason), but then again with that sort of template to work with it would've been hard to mess it up.
Before they were superseded by the hotness that is Early Access open-world survival games that barely work as intended, it felt as if the PC Indie brigade had fully embraced the concept of the "roguelikelike": a genre of game that takes elements from the venerable and crushingly difficult series of dungeon-crawlers fashioned on the ancient home computer RPG Rogue, chiefly the permanent nature of the demise of one's character and a slow and painfully earned gradual understanding of the game and its various mechanics and cheap tricks, and transplants them outside the confines of the typical ASCII odorous mildew dungeons (mostly) and into all sorts of other formats both new and familiar. The Binding of Isaac (which was also released around this time, see below), Spelunky, Rogue Legacy and so on are different interpretations of the core mechanics of Rogue.
Dungeons of Dredmor ain't that. It's a true roguelike, right down to the simultaneous turn-based movement with enemies, the crazy amount of careers and items and abilities a character can use and how you can be merrily going on your way and making good progress before bumping into something, like a monster zoo or a boss creature, that just immediately kills you and wastes hour of progress. Don't let its cheerful graphics and goofy European sense of humor lull you into a false sense of security: Dungeons of Dredmor is intended only for the truly dedicated and cautious, like most good roguelikes.
An early success of the 3DS eShop, when Nintendo was in dire need of something to prop up the relatively new console's lackluster library, Pushmo puts the player in the sumo geta of Mallo, a good-natured little round thing of tremendous strength and moderate jumping ability. Pushmo, or Pullblox as it is known elsewhere, requires that you use Mallo's abilities to climb structures made out of individual colored blocks, which can be pulled out of the background in order to create platforms. It's a simple gimmick, though one that quickly leads to complex puzzles once they become larger and switches and ladders are brought to the fore (or, indeed, pulled to the foreground).
Pushmo's a game all about discovery. Either on a micro level -- figuring out the path to the end of each individual stage becomes an addictive joy in the later levels, once the player overcomes their intimidating height -- or on a macro level, once you've discovered one of the game's many versatile tricks. These range from finding out simple but understated mechanics, like how to push out a block by grabbing onto its side, to figuring out the exact limits of Mallo's jumping ability. All these discoveries slowly emerge and become part of your repertoire heading forward, giving you a very distinct feeling that your ability to play the game has greatly improved at, coincidentally enough, just around the same time that Pushmo begins to truly test your resourcefulness. The game's also bolstered somewhat by the charming pixel art that some of the "mural" stages are based upon, which then inspired many user-created stages of repurposed NES/SNES sprites. Of course, there's usually no way to know if a certain piece of pixel art will lead to a stage that can be solved, and some end up being entirely impossible (though fortunately it's equally impossible to upload these stages, as the creator must demonstrate that their stage can be solved before it will be accepted).
I apologize in advance for the sheer volume of these things this month. I mean I did label this blog "Comic Commish", though, so maybe you're the ones who should be apologizing to me. Sorry, I didn't mean that.
Supergiant Games's inaugural release Bastion is an isometric brawler/shooter with a handful of RPG elements. The gameplay is largely perfunctory though, and serves as a binding agent for the many aspects of Bastion that truly stand out: Its music, its writing and its whimsical, watercolor-inspired art style. Supergiant feels like a studio built by artists, whether they're the drawing kind or the writing kind, and although I didn't much care for some of Bastion's design decisions, its presentation is absolutely top-notch. I'm happy to hear that their follow-up Transistor is more of the same, with perhaps a bit more emphasis placed on gameplay.
Chantelise was the first game I ever portrayed in my inimitable (except for five year olds) MS Paint style, and the positive response was a little surprising. In a sense, this is the game to blame for my many doodles over the years. Chantelise itself is another EasyGameStation doujin (Indie) game that mercenary translation team Carpe Fulgur picked out to follow the success of Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale. Chantelise was actually an earlier effort from EasyGameStation, and is overall a less satisfying, polished and interesting game than Recettear. It has its unique charms, however, with each small action stage set up as a challenging gauntlet through a series of enemies to the exit, and the player must pass through several of these stages (and a boss) to complete each area. It's extremely easy to die, which means the player needs to maintain a deliberate approach and learn from their fatal mistakes. The addition of The Tower of Druaga-esque puzzle treasures, which requires a lot of experimentation (and arbitrary guesswork) before they'll appear, makes an already thoughtful game more so. Not bad for a bunch of prancing animes.
A shmup metroidvania. Despite the fact that it can be summed up by two of the most annoying portmanteaus in video game terminology, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet's distinctiveness -- both in its design as an open-world exploration shooter and in its Henry Selick-style silhouetted graphical presentation -- is a factor that strongly works in its favor. The player's UFO is an odd little entity with its own rules governing its flight and maneuverability, and the various Metroid-like tools that expands the player's traversal capabilities are imaginative and fun to use in equal measure. The game doesn't skimp on an oppressive atmosphere either, as it often feels like the very walls themselves are poised to reach out and grab you. The most prominent feature of the game is its infamous "Lantern Run", however, a frantic gauntlet that demands the most on-point teamwork (and a huge dollop of luck).
Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the newest (so far, and not including mobile games because why would you ever) Deus Ex, was a pleasant surprise. Deus Ex: Invisible War left the impression that Ion Storm's innovative IP that blended shooters, stealth, RPGs into a multi-directional approach to every situation -- which was based somewhat on the earlier System Shock -- was dead in the water, its cyberpunk aspirations doomed to obsolescence like so many 28.8k modems. Human Revolution managed to turn that notion around and create a very close facsimile to the original, while updating it to a more modern TPS format. It has a fascinating protagonist in the brooding but driven Adam Jensen, an array of interesting mechanics and hacking/lockpicking mini-games, settings full of secrets to find and secondary characters with sidequests to give you and a few optional objectives (in the form of achievements) to really test those of a more discreet and pacifistic nature. It slips up a few times, specifically with the forced boss battles and a half-assed conclusion, but given the lackluster nature of remakes and how much of a fluke the original game had begun to seem in retrospect, it's almost a miracle that this game is as competent as it is at recapturing Deus Ex's essence.
I've never been particularly fond of zombie stuff. I've played and watched a lot of zombie media simply because there's so much of it that the law of averages had to come into effect eventually. There's some I've enjoyed; plenty more that I've been apathetic about. I'm still sore that Capcom transplanted the innovative resetting-focused and time-sensitive mechanics of the fifth Breath of Fire game into some annoying zombie survival game full of NPCs that never listen to you, and then once they were done with Breath of Fire they tossed it away for their scavenger-like F2P mobile game division to ruin. Dead Island, from Deep Silver, is one of those few zombie games that I actually found myself quite invested in for a time. Its first act is super engrossing, as the player darts their way around a corpse-infested beach resort while making occasional trips back to base to restock, build wonderful new toys from various scraps lying around and find a few more objectives to chase after. The game gets considerably worse after that opening act, due to diminishing returns and some truly awful game design that suddenly decides that super fast zombies and enclosed corridor-focused areas are somehow a good combination moving forward, but it's not so bad that it mitigates the fun of those opening few hours. More like a marathon that's energizing for the first half and enervating for the second.
If I'm largely apathetic about zombies, then I'm usually downright antipathetic towards realistic driving games. That is, the ones that don't involve banana skins or chopping other cars in half or giant anthropomorphic clocks with their own theme tunes. Driver: San Francisco is that and it isn't that. While it contains the usual open-world driving game elements you'd find in any given Burnout or Need for Speed, much like prior Driver games, the whole thing is tied together with a completely bonkers plot about a SF detective who falls into a coma and finds that his disembodied spirit can freely travel between drivers in other vehicles, and uses that to his advantage in whatever race or high speed pursuit he might be undertaking. You can beat a race by being the fastest driver like some kind of wuss, or you can beat a race by dispossessing the guy in the race car and switching to a bus in the oncoming lane, and then jack-knifing the thing to take out as much of your competition as possible. The actual driving parts are entirely competent, which is as much as I can really ever say about a driving game as a decidedly non-driving person, but the additional supernatural elements really transform what might be another drab racer into something rather special. I think this was probably the first open-world driving game I bothered to 100% since The Simpsons: Hit & Run.
Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl's The Binding of Isaac is one of those Indies that I'm fairly sure everyone owns at this point. BoI is a novel mix of a roguelike and The Legend of Zelda, in which the rooms of a typical Zeldarian dungeon are randomized, as are their contents. The player -- as bawling child Isaac -- must navigate their way through each floor to a boss fight and the exit to the next stage, finding permanent power-ups and helpful resources along the way. The essence of a true roguelike is that of a long and painful period of discovery, as I previously stated with Dungeons of Dredmor. This largely related to BoI's many distinctive (and usually quite disgusting) enemies with their own attack patterns to observe and memorize, but also with its vast number of collectible items. It's important to keep track of what item does what once it's been discovered, though it's probably just best to keep a guide open nearby. BoI also doesn't skimp on the difficulty, and every victory feels earned. As soon as you start descending into the very challenging optional bonus areas like Sheol and the Cathedral, the game becomes that much more tense (and, if you can pull a victory off, satisfying).
What is there even left to say about Dark Souls at this point? With so many hours of footage on the site, and so many comparisons that have been made to this game by those that have come after, Dark Souls stands as perhaps one of the most important games to emerge from the previous generation. Its success took almost everyone by surprise, excepting perhaps the true sun worshippers who swear by the game's predecessor Demon's Souls, and it will continue to influence game design decisions for years to come. An action RPG, the game rewards those who take their time and pay attention because it deigns to explain very little about its world in any immediately obvious manner. Its intimidating mystery can be captivating and off-putting in equal measure, as is its harsh, baptism-by-fire difficulty. Its gothic presentation, deliberate and layered combat and a host of memorable boss encounters make it a remarkable game by any metric. That it has a legion of passionate fans that frequently worry me with their over-zealousness probably makes a better case for it than anything else.
To the Moon is a visual novel, though it hardly resembles one. The game looks like it was crafted from one of those RPGMaker programs, with every character represented as a 16-bit avatar in a world that wouldn't look out of place on the Super Nintendo, but for the vast amount of detail in its pixel art. Far from being any sort of monster-bashing, treasure-looting adventure, however, the player is thrust into a story about a dying man who wishes to see his dream of travelling to the moon fulfilled. The player, as a couple of engineers who search through the man's dreams to find the source of this bizarre desire as well as lending commentary on his long life in the manner of a Greek chorus, only needs to concern themselves with the simple goal of finding an object that can transport them further back through the man's memories. The actual game parts come about with some tile-flipping puzzles between each memory jump, but are largely throwaway and unnecessary. The plot becomes both engrossing and touching as the player slowly pieces it together from scenes of the man's life, and it has a tremendous ending that somehow finds a happy ending to a life of tragedy. As someone who plays a lot of games for their stories, its remarkable to find a tale so well-realised that the actual gameplay parts that are ostensibly the draw are simply there to keep the plot moving along and are otherwise entirely superfluous. That we've reached a point now where we see video games where the story is emphasized over the gameplay is pretty exciting indeed, and I say that as someone who loves to delve into the mechanics of a well-crafted game.
With Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, something felt a little off. Either it was sloppy gunfight encounters, or a tiresome padding middle section, or a lot more QTEs during fights with larger goons, or simply diminishing returns from it being too similar to the previous game, I couldn't say with any certainty. Still, though, if your game is only a little worse than Uncharted 2 the chances are it's still safely above average compared to the rest of the PS3's library. Much of Uncharted 2's cinematic elements and mix of stealth, traversal and gunplay are accounted for, and the game takes some interesting risks with the mercurial nature of the new character Cutter and some odd chase sequences with the tricky henchman Talbot, who is apparently fond of drugging people. It also has some very memorable set-pieces, one on board a cargo plane and another on a sinking cruise ship, and a protracted section devoid of the usual gunplay and acrobatics where Drake almost expires in the vast Rub 'al Khali desert. It's missing some of the solid core of 2, but none of its gloss.
Each new iteration of the Elder Scrolls franchise brings with it an indication of just how far PC games have come since the prior installment. With Daggerfall, they somehow managed to take Arena and greatly expand its geography, creating an immense procedurally generated game world that I'm sure still holds records for how long it might take a hypothetical player with too much time on their hands to cross a virtual world on foot. With Morrowind, they proved that you could make a visually arresting game filled with polygonal models without your computer exploding, wisely focusing on one of Tamriel's more distinctive regions in order to make any potential ugliness feel endemic to the setting. With Oblivion, the series shot into the stratosphere with a much more urgent (though, ironically, far less time-intensive) main plot about the invasion of inter-dimensional demonic beings. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is as much of a big step forward as any of its forebears, creating a world where words have power if you yell them real loud (a lesson previously taught by Pee-Wee's Playhouse) and steamlining many of the problematic elements that have been deep-rooted within the series since the beginning, like so many unwanted barnacles. Rather than focusing on an evolution of graphical finesse (though it looks a lot better, especially the character design) or some amazing new feat of processing power, the game felt like it had spent those handful of years since Oblivion working on its faults and putting out a game that felt more solid than any Elder Scrolls game had since, well, forever. "The most stable and mechanically sound Elder Scrolls" doesn't seem like the most thrilling epithet, but given the series's buggy reputation -- an unfortunate byproduct of its persistent over-ambitiousness -- it's a very positive one. Also you can shout at dudes and they go frickin' flying, man.
While Super Mario 3D Land wasn't entirely a breath of fresh air, compared to the New Super Mario Bros series it was a fragrant meadow breeze on a warm Summer's day. In November. A new compact form of Mario's 3D adventures (such as those enjoyed in the semi-recent Super Mario Galaxy games) intended for the 3DS system, Super Mario 3D Land saw the series back on form, with a whole bunch of innovative new ideas for stages and the trademark mechanical near-perfection of a series that has saved many a Nintendo console from early retirement, which now included the 3DS itself. Though the plot is as immaterial as ever (oh, Peach gets kidnapped? And now there's a bunch of weird leaves that turn people into tanookis?) the game soldiers on with some great level design, including a new game+ mode which greatly enhances a lot of the otherwise far too easy stages by expanding on their ideas and upping the challenge (and a new game++ featuring Luigi which is somewhat less thrilling). It's not quite Mario leaving his comfort zone with some paradigm-shifting new adventure, but it's not the same old cookie cutter New Super Mario Bros either. For one thing, people clearly gave a shit when making this.
Assassin's Creed: Revelations is perhaps when the Assassin's Creed series, which had been firing on all cylinders at this point, started to wobble a bit and lose altitude. Set in the picturesque city of Constantinople (now Istanbul), a region that merges middle eastern and Renaissance Europe architecture in much the same way as the game merges the story of Altair, a middle-eastern assassin and protagonist of the first game with Ezio Auditore, the Italian stallion who the series had been following ever since. The game was intended to tie up the life stories for both characters, setting the stage for a new protagonist for what would become a very disappointing sequel. Many of Revelations's additions were either unnecessary or unwanted, including: a hook which made traversing the city easier, but also meant that if you wanted to go explore the city prior to the story missions (one of which would provide you with the hook), you'd frequently find yourself in the frustrating position of trying to reach a building's footholds but missing by inches; tower defense sections which are as awful as anything else tower defense related; and sections where the player delves into ostensible protagonist Desmond Miles's backstory while jumping around on a bunch of cubes in a weird cyberspace environment, which is doubly damned by its uninteresting screensaver-esque surroundings and uninteresting voiceover narration regarding the milquetoast main character and whatever pointless bartending story he was yammering about. A lesson in the dangers of having an annual iterative series where new additions are often forced rather than natural, and one that Ubisoft probably didn't bother to learn.
Though I may take the occasional swipe at Ubisoft, there are cases where they're very much capable of putting out some excellent games. Rayman Origins, which transports the limbless wonder back to his 2D platformer roots sans the ludicrous lagomorphic larcenists who took over the reins of the Rayman series at some point, is the first to use the UbiArt engine: a 2D engine that allows artists to create whatever fanciful designs they wish and be reasonably assured that they'll work in-game as intended. As such, the capacity to include some incredible looking artwork was made available to the artists at Ubisoft Montpellier, and the engine has gone on to be used in various other platformers and action games with distinctive art styles. Rayman Origins is an example of a finesse platformer, like Super Meat Boy or Dustforce, in which the player is required to simply reach the end of the stage but is usually expected to get the rhythm down pat and then reattempt it for faster runs. Various extra elements are unlocked for those who grab as many of the Lums as possible, which often serve to direct the player towards the most efficient course, improving their flow and, by extension, their lap times. It's probably also worth saying that the sequel, Rayman Legends, not only enhances the gameplay and makes it more exploration-driven (my particular favorite as far as platformer game design philosophies go) but also includes most of the previous game's stages as optional bonus areas. It might be worth skipping straight to Legends if you've yet to play either.
The evolution of Saints Row was a double-edged sword, in that a lot of compromises had to be made for the benefit of forward motion. To put it figuratively, the hot air balloon that is Saints Row had to toss out a lot of ballast in order to increase its upward momentum, and unfortunately some of that jetsam was actually quite important to a significant section of the series' fanbase, including myself. Saints Row: The Third doubles down on the game's trademark insanity, but changes the venue from the immaterial, "non-canonical" and deliberately goofy side-missions (called activities in-game, which always struck me as an ironically casual term) and puts it front and center as the tone of the main story. This had the benefit of enlightening casual fans and neophytes of the series' customary Looney Tunes madness, who either didn't see the side-stuff or simply ignored most of it, at the cost of greatly devaluing the now surplus-to-requirement activities, which were deposed as the main focus of the series's more ingenious game design and were summarily abandoned to the wayside. The resulting package was a focused burst of Saints Row silliness in an open-world now largely bereft of purpose outside of the main story. Activities still existed, but were mostly banal and unimaginative (especially compared to those of Saints Row 2, still the series peak) and were usually based on missions you'd already played. The city wasn't quite as big or as fun to explore, because it no longer needed to be to contain the game's much more compact focus, and the game leaned hard on the protagonist's sociopathy for laughs, rather than a worrying (and somewhat justified by the absurdly violent gameplay) trend in their behavior that the game would occasionally turn a mirror towards for the occasional "who is the real monster?" moment. Saints Row: The Third still has plenty to recommend it, and is probably the preferred choice for people who don't much care for the open-world aspects (or doesn't have the 40+ hours free to spend doing dumb shit for the hell of it) of a game like GTA V and just want to experience the story. Still, it felt like a much smaller and less satisfying game overall. The Red Faction: Armageddon to SR2's Red Faction: Guerrilla, if you want an analogy from another franchise of Volition's: two series undone by having a tighter focus.
The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword is, in some ways, the unfortunate antithesis of the original game, choosing to entrench its players in an hours-long extended tutorial for its prologue rather than presenting a suspended floating world of mystery and letting players explore it at their own pace (like, say, Skies of Arcadia, of which the early images of this game vividly reminded me). The game does eventually open up, and although many of the sections are quite linear, there's a certain amount of open-ended questing that the series had been missing for a while. It also looks stunning for a Wii game, with a graphical style that seems to borrow from the darker and weirder Twilight Princess and the far brighter and Ghibli-esque Wind Waker in equal measure to find a pleasing middle ground between those two extremes. It's perhaps the least interesting of the core console Zeldas, but it's still a core console Zelda and that places it far above many of its contemporaries. Just, I dunno, it perhaps could use significantly less explaining everything. Or at least make it optional and not the focus of the first four hours of runtime. Good lord did that Skyloft section run on for far too long.
Batman: Arkham City was iterative first and foremost, and its additions -- like with Assassin's Creed Revelations -- often served to detract from the core gameplay rather than enhance it. Still, Arkham City was one of those sequels that decided that having more of everything -- more terrain to explore, more Riddler trophies to find, more villains to meet -- was the preferred course, and it's hard to argue with that logic, even if it did mean frequently spending a full, dull five minutes gliding over Arkham City to the next waypoint. Personally, as someone who has always believed that the true appeal of the Batman Arkham series is deducing the Riddler's various puzzles rather than the timing-focusing group combat or freaking out the superstitious and cowardly lot that are the villains' thuggish henchpeople in extended stealth sequences, I was in hog heaven. There had to have been almost 300 of the things! Shinies!
All right, I'm going to go collapse in a corner somewhere. Enjoy the rest of your Summer everyone! The Comic Commish will be back in August to check out the first half of 2012. We're on the final stretch now, folks.