Mokarimakka! We're still in Kyoto for a second day of anime shenanigans, or shenanimegans, in Overdrive's highly informative if barely interactive visual novel Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~ (tildes wa sugoi). I promised you salacious content, or least heavily implied it, but the game's decided to grow up in recent updates. Instead, continue to enjoy this all-ages appropriate guided tour of Japan's old capitol with Makoto and Akira. (Not the Street Fighter or the psychic dead kid.)
Okaerinasai! On the last episode of our virtual Japanese vacation, as directed by Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~ (~raise your tildes~), we made plans to visit old Kyoto town to cap off what's been an eye-opening excursion to Japan, from its majestic shrines to its bustling metropolitan centers to its naked animes. I hear Kyoto's a very traditional sort of place though, so maybe we'll finally get some peace and quiet.
Yeah, I'm not fooling anyone at this point, am I? Let's get this over with.
Part 05: Kyoto is an Anagram of Tokyo. That's About All My Kyoto Knowledge.
Guys, I'm running out of two things: Tokyo districts that I've heard of, and patience. As we enter the fourth day of this unnecessarily hypersexualised informational visual novel of an ideal Japanese vacation - the exclamation- and tilde-swathed Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~, a product that was seemingly gifted to me entirely to get my dander up - I'm hoping we'll finally get a day where we can focus on the many interesting and exciting locations to visit in Japan, and perhaps a little less on walking in on half-nude anime teenagers.
Ohayou! We're now in Day 2 of our virtual Japanese vacation, courtesy of the edutainment visual novel Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~ (tildes till the end). Today we're heading to Shinjuku, perhaps best known for hosting Kabukicho - Tokyo's infamous red light district. However, this decision was less spurred by wanting to see even more inadvertent creepery (creepitude? creeposcity?) than the fact that I'm semi-familiar with this area due to the Yakuza games, which largely take place in a fictionalized but otherwise identical version of this district.
Who knows? Maybe the game will finally stop being so damn saucy for one day and just give me an innocuously wholesome day of sightseeing and history lessons.
Part 03: JAPANESE PIZZA! YAKUZA 3 CODES INSIDE EVERY BOX! PARTY TIME SONIC THE HEDGEHOG LET'S GO! GEORGE FOREMAN!
Well, I since I'm out here in Japan doing it up right, I might as well turn this into a daily series for the rest of this week. Of course, it's not actually me in Japan, but my lascivious bumpkin avatar Goku in Overdrive's Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~ (must include tildes, always) - a visual novel created exclusively for English fans to teach them about Japan's superiority, as if everyone buying this game wasn't already on the same page. Fun fact! Overdrive has created many visual novels over the years, and almost all of them (except this one) are pornographic in nature. That would explain Makoto.
So yeah, I was recently gifted the new Steam release Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~ (I'm only assuming the tildes are important) and who am I to turn down a vacation in the land of the rising sun? I can eat sushi, relax in hot springs and maybe even meet the anime of my dreams?
No seriously, what the hell is this thing? Why am I getting sent even more weird anime games? Well, I guess I ought to find out. Right? It's only polite.
Go! Go! Nippon! Part 01: Wakarimasen...
Boy, that was fun! I can't wait to head out into Tokyo tomorrow to see all the wonderful sights and sounds of Japan! I've retreated into some kind of denial-induced fugue of chirpiness and excitement!
All right, so I may continue my adventures in Japan in the comments, but with way fewer screenshots. I didn't realise how big these things were until I started uploading them, so if any site engineers are reading this... hey. This is an important cultural exchange of ideas and customs, so I'd say it's absolutely worth the bandwidth.
Woof. Reached 4-3 three times trying to get Spelunky's "Speedlunky" achievement. I believe I'm just about done procrastinating, so here we go: The Comic Commish for February, covering the first half of 2009. Whether it's my fault or the industry's, the first half of that year was surprisingly light on releases that I recall fondly. I guess I can't be too surprised, given the tumbleweeds we've been seeing rolling through the first two months of 2014 (though March certainly looks like it might get a bit on the crazy side).
Anyway, I can absolutely blame myself for spending some time creating a Mirror's Edge comic despite being a bit too on the tardy side for this era. Blame the various lists that feature it as a 2009 release due to the slightly delayed PC port. Just so I don't look like a phony, here it is:
So to that effect, and to the additional effect that there weren't a whole lot of games out during these months to base comics on, I've only got two comics for this period. But hey, at least the latter half of 2009 is pretty full, so maybe I'll make up the deficit there. I know I'm going to be checking those release dates a little more meticulously, lemme tell ya.
I'll Admit It, 2009 is Sort of a Blind Spot
The Last Remnant is a game with problems, but with enough innovation that those problems feel more like growing pains in an attempt to implement new ideas than careless errors from an apathetic development team. The player assumes the role of Rush Sykes, a mop-topped anime protagonist who is very insistent with the local monarch David Nassau that they get to rescuing his sister from a shady bunch of villains while simultaneously also dealing with an unstoppable Conqueror that threatens the peace of David's kingdom of Athlum. Rush is a figure like Final Fantasy XII's Vaan, not only in the sense that he's kind of annoying and petulant, but that he plays a cipher role that feels like an outsider removed from the bigger decisions being made, as if to focus the game's attention away from all the interesting political upheaval going on to this smaller adventure running this odd world and investigating a bunch of enormous relics that some ancient civilization left behind. Ancient relics of a bygone era is a trope as old as the proverbial ancient civilizations themselves, but the world of Last Remnant can often feel very alien and almost post-apocalyptic with the amount of enigmatic magical detritus littering the countryside and taking central positions in most of the game's settlements.
Stranger still than these magical whoosits, though, are the myriad JRPG systems introduced in this game. Though superficially similar to a standard party turn-based RPG, The Last Remnant takes a leaf from Langrisser and has each playable unit actually be a "union" of up to five characters. True to their name, these unions act as one entity, and the player issues vague commands (such as "attack" or "defend") for that union to perform that turn with some degree of autonomy. Rather than worrying about magic points or a strict finite number of special attacks, the player is left to the mercy of a "random command generator" which creates a limited selection of commands for them to use based on the situation and their stock of "action points" that accrue after each round of combat. It's weirdly limiting, though it's configured in such a way that many commands are more likely to appear whenever they're necessary and less likely when they aren't (say, if you have a healer, you'll have an option to heal a union way more frequently when they're actually in critical condition). On top of this is how the game decides what characters learn which skills as they grow stronger depending on how you've been using them, how the game will scale difficulty but only to an extent and then there's all the stuff like morale, crafting, granting characters the resources they ask for so they can go craft on their own, and monster capturing to consider. Just going over all these features in my head again is giving me a migraine.
So, The Last Remnant is a game that demands a lot from its player, and doesn't really offer too much in return with regards to a solid story (though it has its moments) or anything approaching a character development aspect that isn't nonsensical. It's certainly unique, though, and that can often be a big plus in a genre as defiantly immutable as the humble JRPG. It has a great rock orchestral soundtrack too, and beyond the small matter of that texture pop-in it looks about as good as you'd hope for a 2008 Square-Enix game. It's also one of a handful of JRPGs available for PC on Steam, which is by far the preferable platform to play it on - hence why I'm counting this as an early 2009 game instead of a late 2008 game, in case you thought I screwed up again. To buy a fully-featured, 40 hour long JRPG for peanuts in one of Steam's regular sales isn't something to turn one's nose up at, as inherently busted as several of its elements may be.
Suikoden Tierkreis is in some ways a pale shadow of the core Suikoden series. Many trademarks of the series - specifically the strategic battles - had to be gutted to make room on the tiny DS cart, it drops the active party from six members to a more conventional four, and it lacks the full 108 "Stars of Destiny" recruitable characters that the series has been using for years as a hyperbolically incredulous bullet-point on the back of cases. The space economy for that tiny DS cart was so severe that they actually had to speed up the dialogue of the protagonist to fit all his sound clips onto the cartridge, hence the above comic's not-entirely-facetious premise. It's worth keeping in mind that Tierkreis is still a Suikoden game, however, and thus belongs to a very well-regarded RPG series from Konami, who usually don't deign to leave their cardboard boxes and monster castles to delve into pure-blooded JRPGs too often.
The game also has an odd personality, which is something you often see with portable spin-offs (just recall back to Link's Awakening for instance, or a more recent example with something like Devil Survivor or the wonderful Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime). The game has more gratuitous German than usual - the hero's called Sieg, the German word for victory, and Tierkreis is German for "Zodiac" - and it focuses on a multiverse story where worlds seep into one another when interfered with. It sets up an eerie antagonist in The One King; a character that I still don't fully understand (he's essentially the manifestation of entropy? Sort of?). Honestly, as much as I didn't appreciate how it dropped many of what I consider core facets of Suikoden, the way it goes off on a really bizarre tangent from the series exonerates it somewhat in turn. There's been no dearth of great DS/3DS RPGs over their lifespans, and I'd like to think Suikoden Tierkreis is one of them.
I introduced this section of the Comic Commish last time, but for those just joining us: here's where I stash some of the comics I've made in my time blogging here that pertain to games released in this period of time. I cannot in good conscience throw them in with the strips made specifically for this month, but I figure it's worth coming back to them in order to (MS) paint a broader picture of what was going on with games released this year. If nothing else, I can use them to artificially lengthen this blog. You know, for all the click-baiting I'm engendering.
Deadly Creatures is an easy game to dismiss, at least on first impression, but - as the game itself proves with its clever narrative - there's a lot going on beneath the surface that's easy to ignore with a cursory glance. The player assumes the alternating roles of a scorpion and a spider, who have an adversarial role for much of the game, and the various other bugs, reptiles and small mammals fighting to survive in an inhospitable patch of the Sonoran Desert. Adding to the complications are two would-be treasure hunters digging up the desert for lost Civil War booty, snippets of their "A Simple Plan" story filtering through to the underworld in which both arachnids spend much of the game. I bring up A Simple Plan because that movie's co-star Billy Bob Thornton plays one of the ne'er-do-wells, with the late great Dennis Hopper playing the other in his final role. A little ignominious, perhaps, but hardly the worst video game-related character he's portrayed (King Koopa: one evil, egg-sucking son of a snake).
Deadly Creatures has surprisingly complex level design, with areas folding over and under each other, and the spider in particular is able to climb walls and ceilings with ease making for a fairly vertiginous platforming experience you don't see too often. The scorpion's side of things is a bit more combat oriented, with many of the game's "duels" playing out tactically in real-time as you try to outmaneuver the opponent and leap in for the killing sting. The combat's a bit QTE-heavy, but the game finds lots of varied opponents for the duo to fight, ranging from weaker wolf spiders to rats to enormous Gila Monsters and rattlesnakes. If you aren't put off by creepy crawlies, or you are and kind of want a game that will make you feel a little uneasy, then Deadly Creatures might surprise you with its quality. Hidden pleasant surprises were what the Wii was all about, after all.
I spoke quite a bit about Zeno Clash when I covered it for May Madness last year, and most of what I said still stands. It's an exceptionally, aggressively weird game both in its structure as a first-person arena brawler and just in general. I've likened it before now to Dark Crystal, just in how everything seems so bizarre but having a few relatable characters at the core who take the more alien aspects of their world in stride makes it a lot easier to come to terms with. It does go to some very dark and strange places, though, and raises far more questions about the nature of its world than it ultimately answers.
I've actually been meaning to play its sequel for a while now, so perhaps I'll get around to it later this month. All of the visceral fisticuffs and androgynous bird monster nonsense is vividly flooding back to me.
The Other Ones!
You know the drill. These are other games from this January to June of 2009 I didn't get around to making a comic for, but can still recommend for those who slept through most of that year like I apparently did.
Flower (thatgamecompany, PS3, February): Flower really begat this whole tedious "is a game/isn't a game" discussion with how very few traditional criteria of a video game are present in its depiction of a flower petal floating on the breeze and activating a world of colors and happy thoughts. It doesn't stop it from being quite an interesting and novel gameplay experience, as limited as it is, and set the stage for thatgamecompany's later Journey which did a lot to silence Flower's detractors.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena (Starbreeze Studios, PS3/360/PC, April): Very much the definitive Riddick experience, including the movies as far as I'm concerned, Dark Athena provides a second adventure for Vin Diesel's space-faring recalcitrant rebel that really doubles down on David Twohy's hostile universe of incongruously gothic spaceships and uncompromisingly brutal fauna. It's easy to argue that the previous game in the series, Escape From Butcher's Bay, is the superior of the two, which is why that game was included in its entirely with a new facelift and some important mechanical upgrades. If Dark Athena is your first exposure to the series, it definitely leaves a good impression.
InFamous (Sucker Punch, PS3, May): Sucker Punch put aside their procyon purloiner to focus on a more serious superhero sandbox game that felt like the next natural step after Realtime Worlds' Crackdown. As well as allowing players to leap around a city, throwing out lightning bolts and taking down entire squads of put-upon soldiers with cool electricity powers, the game indulges in some classic comic book tropes, some motion comic cutscenes and offers a flexible morality system that gradually mutates your powers to suit your behavior, in much the same way as the Jedi Knight games. It's anyone's guess why people are still playing sandbox games where you can't fly (or leap tall buildings in a single bound, at least) and have to drive around like a sucker.
Red Faction: Guerrilla (Volition, 360/PS3/PC, June): Some unfortunate things happened to the Red Faction franchise after (and some would say before) Guerrilla, but this game remains the peak of Volition's less insane series. And, just to digress a moment, when the game franchise that is set on Mars is somehow your more serious and grounded one, that's quite an achievement. Guerrilla's open-world chaos and fun-to-blow-up destructible environments greatly elevated what was already an interesting and imaginative sci-fi shooter series based around Total Recall-esque Mars dissidents. You can usually buy it on a Steam sale for a song these days, which seems almost as criminal as collapsing a government building with controlled explosions and an enormous sledgehammer.
Prototype (Radical Entertainment, 360/PS3/PC, June): Prototype closely followed inFamous with its presentation of another comic book superhero story set in a large open-world city, albeit with a far darker Todd McFarlane sort of tone. A living biological weapon, each of Alex Mercer's powers were more gross than the next, and morality barely ever entered into the equation. InFamous was probably the better game overall, but they were close enough in quality and release dates to give people pause to consider their options.
Ghostbusters: The Video Game (Terminal Reality, 360/PS3, June): There were a few Ghostbusters games released around the same time to coincide with absolutely nothing else new from the series, in much the same way as that recent Rambo: The Video Game, but it's clear that the developers of the 360/PS3 versions were at least dedicated fans of the supernatural comedy movies in question. The attention to detail with the movie's background paranormal apocrypha, like Tobin's Spirit Guide and the occultist architect of "Spook Central" Ivo Shandor, makes the game a worthy draw for fans already, and it's one of very few Ghostbusters video games to make ensnaring ghosts with the proton pack actually work and be fun. Any Ghostbusters adaptation that gives you an achievement for sliding down the fireman's pole or lets you talk to Vigo the Carpathian (now depowered, and so can only belittle you with childish insults) knows what the Hell it's doing.
Overlord II (Triumph Studios, 360/PS3/PC, June): The Overlord games can be a bit too chaotic for their own good at times, allowing the player to direct entire hordes of rambunctious minions around to destroy idyllic fantasy landscapes who tend to treat your orders as a sort of basic guideline rather than an absolute command. There's plenty of Fable-esque slapstick comedic elements (the story's written by Rhianna Pratchett, who comes from good stock as far as satirical fantasy goes) and a lot of Pikmin-esque hauling upgrades and collectibles around to make it all worth it, though, and Overlord II evolves many of the first game's slightly unstable mechanics in some meaningful ways.
Hey! I played some video games this week. How about that. Sure doesn't sound like something I'd do. Let's humor me in my new endeavors with a pair of not-quite-a-review appraisals.
Remember Me is a game from DONTNOD, so already the developer is scoring points with me by naming themselves a palindrome. More so than that, it's one of these parkour action games for which the template was set by Tomb Raider way back in the day, and ably mixes shimmying across ledges with a hand-to-hand combat system that focuses on a lot of situational techniques. That's the gameplay in a nutshell, anyway. What I feel is more interesting here is the setting and story:
Remember Me is set in near-future Paris after a hell of a lot of catastrophic shit has gone down in the world. The polar caps melted, the oceans rose, the entire globe went effectively bankrupt after all their major ports vanished and the world was wracked with storms and intense torrents of rainfall that it had insufficient infrastructure to deal with (given the storms currently raging in the UK, and that whole polar vortex thing you guys in the US got going on, it feels a little too close for comfort) and there was a massive war or two to monopolize dwindling resources. This is all just flavor text up to this point, and it's really only the tip of the (melted) iceberg as far as the game's information dumping is concerned. The game introduces "Sensen", or the Sensation Engine, which is essentially detective vision but for everyone and allows instantaneous transference of memories and thoughts from one person to another, sorta like how futurists imagine the internet is heading. There's robots everywhere, there's enormous dam-like structures and Mirror's Edge-esque slanty skyscrapers, a whole lot of orange for whatever reason, and there are street hackers going around robbing people's valuable memories and selling them to the highest bidder... it really feels like a world of endless possibilities and stories, cribbed together from so many familiar literary and film sources (I feel like even a semi-obscure personal favorite of mine, Strange Days, got a shout-out). If anything, it feels like the Mass Effect universe: you might recognize the pieces, but the entire package feels like something wholly new.
The game also tries its darndest to tackle some Mature Themes. Capital M, capital T. Let's list them off here: crushing regrets, trauma, the catastrophic effects of global warming, mass vagrancy and refugee migration, civil unrest, devastating continental civil war, some completely unnecessary implied rape, and an even less necessary errant boob on one of the raggedy female mutant enemy models. It's a game made in France, all right. Honestly, I rarely see game worlds this thoroughly detailed, and it really feels as if this game might've considered trying to set up the foundations for a sequel or five with how much effort they put into it. There's much hinted about the world outside the gated metropolis of Neo-Paris, and several characters like the vengeful bounty hunter Olga Sedova, or the celebrity ex-memhunter (the rebellious thieves and hackers of Remember Me, of which the protagonist Nilin is apparently the best) Kid X-Mas, who publicly airs his takedowns of his erstwhile fellow rogue elements on an overwrought MMA-style show of the sort that would probably get a lot of Affliction-endorsed merchandizing. It's rare to see a game focus so much on its world building, outside of a RPG at least, and very much appreciated in turn. Stylistically and tonally, the game almost feels like it could take place in the same world as Binary Domain or Vanquish - there's a lot of shared visual elements that I thought were interesting, especially with the android designs. Very "I, Robot".
But enough about its setting, I want to talk about its combat system a bit before moving on. Though initially something of a headache, Remember Me's combo customization system grows on you as you get used to it. Having the freedom to control what sort of combo you want - healing, tech-boosting or sheer power - is a refreshing approach to dealing with that irritating (for designers) and persistent "dominant strategy" problem: that if you give your players a dozen workable combos, they will narrow that list down to one specific series of moves that best balances input complexity, the time necessary to perform them and the damage output and then use it over and over in lieu of anything less effective. All of Remember Me's combos have fixed button placements dependent on their length, but the "pressens" (individual attacks) can be of four types: regen, for healing; cooldown, which allows you to run the cooldown timer on the game's situational "super moves" faster; power, which greatly increases the damage output if you just need to take an enemy down quickly; and chains, which simply repeats and boosts the previous pressen in the combo. The best part of this system is that it's easy to remember which buttons you need to tap to invoke the five-hit combo or the six-hit combo, so all that's really required is to remember which combo you've stocked with, for example, regen pressens for when you fall to critical health or which you've loaded with power pressens to bring down a tough mini-boss during a brief window of vulnerability. I'll freely admit that it took me a while before I drank the Kool-Aid (or the Winey Jacques, since we're in France) but now I think it's perhaps one of the best realised combat systems of any modern character action game, even compared to Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham series, with its wonderfully fluid flowing moves and dodges, to which Remember Me owes more than a debt of gratitude.
There's trouble in paradise, however. The game seems about as stable as a suspension bridge made of jell-o. At one point in the game you get ambushed by an enemy playing possum, though I can only suppose that was the intent because he was standing in a T-position when I encountered him. One time it simply wouldn't let me pick up a collectible - I hit the button prompt over and over, and nothing doing. Numerous times the game simply kept going when it should have paused due to a cutscene trigger, causing no end of confusion until I restarted from the nearest checkpoint and had the cutscene proceed as usual. These glitches, which are far from infrequent, wouldn't be so bad were it not for the fact that the checkpointing kinda sucks. It's far too arbitrary and will occasionally force you to start multi-part battles from the beginning, but not always? There's several battles with three or more stages you'll need to start from the very beginning should you be overwhelmed, but many more two stage battles that will checkpoint in the middle. It's maddening trying to figure out the logic behind where the game decides you ought to resume after a death, and, of course, no collectibles found after a checkpoint will be recorded until you've hit the subsequent checkpoint that follows. This goes ditto for the combo customization menu, which means you can spend half an hour (I mean, if you're crazy) reconfiguring what regen and cooldown pressens go where in your combos and lose all of that work as soon as you unpause the game and get KO'd by walking off a ledge or a mistake as equally dumb and inevitable. The glitches I can forgive to an extent, because there's always the chance that my particular copy's disc is in some way flawed, but this sort of amateur design and lack of intelligent QA are forever the biggest thorns in my side, more so than any amount of wooden dialogue or ugly textures (of which the game has thankfully very little of either).
However, if I had to categorize Remember Me, it's a game you could very easily fall in love with in spite of its flaws. Remember Me is 2013's Enslaved: Odyssey to the West: an impressive amount of vision, with a few unfortunate flaws that drags down its strengths but doesn't negate them entirely. Sometimes a game's so memorably unique that it rises above its problems, and I can only imagine this game will shine all the brighter when I recall back to it years later and its rougher edges have been sanded away by time and nostalgia. It's entirely fitting then, that Remember Me - a game about the importance of memory - will endure in this manner.
Shufflepuck Cantina Deluxe
Shufflepuck. A word seemingly invented to be said incorrectly in an inappropriate way at an inappropriate time. Or one of the houses of Hogwart's if you're hard of hearing. I don't delve into my old, old Atari ST and Amiga days too often on here, because I'm fairly sure the percentage of readers of mine who have had a similar enough gaming background to understand the references would drop precipitously to the single figures. Honestly, that period is largely a wilderness even to me.
To boil it down to bare essentials, my time on my Atari ST was divided between what I would now consider to be very early DOS CRPGs and simulators, and some very shaky Arcade conversions of numerous brawlers and other action games of the type which were treated with far more fidelity on home consoles. Ninja shit, mostly, but what kid growing up in the 80s wasn't obsessed with Japan's deadliest (mostly fictionalized) killers? Anyway, there were a few odd games that sat in the void between those two larger groups, and that was where Shufflepuck Café fell.
Shufflepuck Café was little more than an air hockey sim, not a far cry from the legendary antecedent of the home console boom, Pong. Instead of a top-down view of the table, however, Shufflepuck used scaling sprites to present what appeared to be a depth of field, providing a more accurate perspective of an air hockey table from the standpoint of a hypothetical person actually standing next to one. That was cool enough at the time, but the developers decided they'd riff on Star Wars a bit and introduce as a setting this watered-down dive full of dubious characters at the edge of the known universe. Characters ranged from the mundane (an entirely incongruous to the setting archetypal nerd character named "Skip") to some truly strange and unknowable Elder Being type entities, and because they occupied that spot at the far side of the table from you it often seemed for all the world as if they were a million miles away. They taunted you when you lost a point, got agitated when you won a point and were an intimidating presence that never made the game any easier to focus on, but in a compelling way I'd never seen in games of this type. If I had to point to another, more instantly recognizable example that exemplified this, it'd be Nintendo's Punch-Out!!. The personalities of your opponents - both in how they act and in how they fought you - and the way they were always front and center in the screen greatly elevated the appeal of an otherwise mechanically interesting single player boxing game.
Anyway, years passed and I kind of forgot about it. Occasionally I'd remember, and wonder if slamming a virtual puck around a table while a repeating loop of music not entirely unlike the Star Wars Cantina song (but dissimilar enough to not be litigation-prompting) played in the background was anything like as fun as I recalled. Sometimes I thought I might have imagined it. The internet, once that became a major permanent pillar in my life, confirmed the veracity of my memories yet I never felt the compulsion to actually try it again, just in case it turned out to be super lame.
Well, the fine folk at Agharta Studio clearly didn't think it was super lame, because they recreated an experience exceedingly similar to my own memories of playing against Chinese bootleg "Lank Skullrunner" and "Drewablanka" type characters in a bar filled with luminous illegal interstellar intoxicants that would probably kill a human being were they to even look at them too closely. Shufflepuck Cantina Deluxe, a title that both homages the original game and suggests that someone might owe George Lucas an apology, is a fairly new Steam release I acquired recently in a Groupees bundle (though not the one I highlighted a week back, alas. Had I known there was a better bundle coming along...). It's every bit the Atari ST game I remember, only with a whole heap of progression mechanics, acquirable special moves and a whole host of fancy 3D character models which skew even closer to the lifeforms from a certain galaxy that's far, far away from our own. Yeah, that one.
I actually quite like it. I think it'd be a harder sell without all that aforementioned nostalgia to prop it up, but even though it stretches itself way too thin with the amount of times you need to beat everyone to move on with the game, it's a lot of fun. I mean, it's air hockey. Against robots and alien strippers who aren't Twileks but sort of look like them. There's also a Japanese guy wearing Han Solo's trademark black vest who calls himself a smuggler. I've not met the owner of the establishment (very clearly the end boss), but if he turns out to be a giant gross worm alien you would need some state of the art microscopy technology to register the surprise on my face. Despite all this, I've found myself loading it up for a few games between streams and during podcasts and the like, edging ever closer to the next mini-quest requirement or new purchasable upgrade. It's not a game you'll want to play in long stretches, certainly, but it's a little addictive for short bursts.
I'd say it was one of those games I used to dub as "neostalgia" (before I realised that one cannot simply make neologisms happen without some groundswell of support) - when an updated game not only doesn't suck, but manages to live up to the impossibly high standards of one's romanticized, rose-tinted view of the original. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a similar case, and now we have Shufflepuck Cantina Deluxe to add to that short list. Effusive praise indeed, but whether or not anyone without that requisite nostalgia base would be in the same desert sail barge as myself is another matter entirely.
So what am I playing next week? Well, everyone seems to be getting into that interesting 3DS JRPG, so who am I to buck the trend? Tales of the Abyss 3D it is. Maybe I'll throw in a few more Indies from my Shame Pile here and there for color. I did just buy a whole bunch of those Level-5 eShop games (currently on sale! Buy Crimson Shroud!), so maybe I can get my Indie fix without having to put the 3DS down? The world is full of possibilities. I mean, I can only assume, as I'll be too busy craning my neck down at the 3DS screen to notice any of them.
Oh right, I'm still doing those stupidintelligent average IQ monthly comic commission blogs. Well, I guess I'll see you all there to highlight what the first half of 2009 had to offer. It was a good year, if I recall.
All right. I want to make something clear: I tend to do these Bundle lowdowns as a way of highlighting the cream of the (very) Indie crop, rather than admonishing a bunch of amateur game designers for even trying to compete with the big boys. One of those things makes me seem like an underdog supporter, while the other makes me seem like a jerk kicking sand in people's faces. Though the first half of the Groupees Bundle Yourself bundle wasn't, shall we say, quite up to par, there's no reason the second half cannot be.
Then again, I'm starting to see the wisdom in just blogging about the big Indie names as they make their Steam debuts to rapturous applause. Lord knows I'd rather be playing them instead, on the whole. But I'll always maintain that it's never worth counting out Desura or its bundles completely, and it's often the best way to check out a lot of Steam Greenlight games beforehand to see if they can cut the mustard. Escape Goat, Tales of Maj'Eyal and Knytt Underground were all Desura-only games initially, and took a while to get out of the Greenlight gulag despite being quality Indie games.
It's very possible that the other four games in this bundle might include some bangers, is all I'm saying.
Bundle Yourself: Part 2: No Bangers, Sorry
You remember those slide levels in Super Mario 64? There were only two of them, yet it felt like I spent half the game trying to emancipate them of their Power Stars due to how challenging it was to control a careening 250lb plumber zipping down a toboggan run. Well, in case you thought those slide sequences were far too easy and mundane for you, here's Orborun.
Orborun puts you in the chassis of a spherical robot, sent to challenge some of the most devious high-speed translucent plastic obstacle courses this side of F-Zero GX. The target is to simply make it to the goal at the end of the stage, but in order to earn the most star prizes you have to do it as quickly as possible while collecting as much hard-to-reach collectible junk as you can. Earning stars (and a piece of highly treasured Zetium should you get all three stars for a course) unlocks bonus stages and new cosmetic upgrades for your robot.
Hey, guess what? Nothing in this game is remotely simple. Even if all you wanted to do was make it to the end and get a single star for every stage, the game's still not going to let it be a walk in the park. I might've said this was a bit like the Super Mario 64 slides, but it's actually a bit closer to the bike levels in the various Battletoads games: it's less a process of controlling your speed, gracefully taking corners and judiciously picking your moments to accelerate than it is about trying your best to guide an object hurtling at supersonic speeds down courses devised by sadists.
Though you wouldn't be able to tell from all my grousing, Orborun's a lot of fun. It's graphically and musically unremarkable (which I'm fine with, since it isn't the focus), but there's a lot of ingenuity with the course design, as occasionally cruel as it is. The star ratings really make you think about the "ideal path" to follow, and there's a lot of longevity in hitting your head against a particularly devious track again and again to maximize your score. The game has a handy restart button that you'll be tapping a lot while chasing higher ratings, so it's only as frustrating as you'll let it become. I haven't provided too many reasons to buy this bundle yet, but Orborun is one of them.
But never mind the actual fun stuff, you want to hear me complain about obtuse bullshit again, don't you? Say hello to Project APT. It's a point and click adventure game, though that's kind of disingenuous as it's entirely led by keyboard controls. The player explores a rundown apartment complex full of some really bizarre instances in order to do... something.
I've made it sound like another arty Hippocampal type of experience, but the interface is actually quite straightforward: explore rooms, find items, use items to get other items, use those items to solve puzzles and move on. The game has no directions, but will give you hints on what sort of item needs to be used where. There's very much a Roberta Williams logic to some of the puzzles, but fortunately there's very few of them to actually solve before the game is over. Maybe that's not a "fortunately" statement, but I digress.
If I had to guess, the game saw how Lone Survivor distilled the Silent Hill experience into a smaller yet equally disturbing 2D inventory-based adventure game and decided to follow suit. It's got a macabre vibe and is full of Silent Hill's trademark symbolism and weirdness for the sake of weirdness. The ending provides some context to the odd sights you've seen and odd puzzles you've solved, but most of it is left to the player's intuition to figure out. In this regard, it's probably not quite as successful as Jasper Byrne's spooky enigma, but it's definitely on the same staticky radio wavelength.
It has a few problems though. There's no saving, but there are deaths, so you'll find yourself starting over a lot. This, plus the protagonist's languid gait artificially stretch an interesting five minute Newgrounds browser horror game into an interminable half hour chore. It might make for interesting Spookin' With Scoops fare, but no more so than any of the other odd little Indie horror adventure games @patrickklepek's shown off in the past. Like the previously covered Loot Hero, it feels like a freely available portfolio booster created over a weekend than a game anyone ought to be charging money for. Not awful, but not exactly a substantial package either.
Siege of Inaolia
Sigh. There's a reason I don't go into Early Access stuff often. I don't sign up for betas either. I've been in game development, and there's nothing particularly fun about staring at an unfinished game with all its cracks and fissures on full display and concentrating too much on what still needs to be done than trying to derive any enjoyment from a half-baked game. I don't really understand the mindset of wanting to freely test a studio's game for them either, but then I was fortunate enough to skip the tester phase of my game design career, as unfortunately truncated as it ended up being.
In case I'm being too opaque with that off-topic tirade, Siege of Inaolia is a game very obviously in an Alpha state. I don't believe games should be sold in their Beta state, let alone Alpha, but I guess if there's a market for it I can't really complain. I suppose it's like a hands-on "watch your pizza getting made while you wait" approach to pre-ordering, but I've yet to see much in the way of accountability from these ambitious Indie games trying to finish their project through generous donations from players already sold on the idea alone. Great if you want to take the risk and buy in, but you better hope there's another thousand or so people who are thinking the same way.
Siege of Inaolia, lest I digress about selling Alpha builds any further, is a 3rd person real-time action RPG with skill trees and the sort of tactical combat that involves kiting and the like. Like an action CRPG made in the 90s (or with a 90s sensibility, if we're talking Risen or Divinity II), essentially, though it's not quite there yet. There's no story mode or anything, just a barebones horde mode with two stages, a single playable character (a warrior type) and a bunch of ugly enemies to hit over the head repeatedly. It's at least playable and mostly stable, but it's about as far from a complete product as you could hope to find.
So really, I can neither cast aspersions nor encourage what little there is because there's really nothing here yet. There's no telling how different the final product will be, or if everything will still look the way it does or if anything of the current level-up/skill/combat systems will persist in the final build. All I can say for right now is to not bother right now and perhaps come back in a year's time. Maybe they'll have something closer to a Beta by then. And, hey, for the record I dug Venetica so don't think of me as unilaterally down on dodgy small studio CRPGs.
Now this is an interesting one. Space Slice is, if I had to nail down a genre, a platformer exploration game set around planetoids and gravity wells. While not quite one of my beloved SpaceWhippers, there's a free-roaming element in which your little alien fellow, Zynth, has to earn a vast amount of a resource named Nihilium in order to call out mechanics to fix his spacecraft.
While you can do this from simply exploring and killing little bug monsters everywhere, the fastest (if not necessarily the safest) way to earn money is to find and defeat huge alien monsters in mildly strategic boss fights. You can buy a bunch of upgrades from merchants, dipping into your valuable supply of Nihilium, but these items will eventually wear out and vanish through heavy use. As the bosses get more lucrative in their payouts, they end up needing more of these consumable items to damage effectively, so there's a little bit of a Monster Hunter type investment/preparation element going on.
Really, though, this is a very laid-back game where you're whizzing around planets, finding new life and new civilizations and kicking them around for their valuable elemental currency. Checkpoints are frequent and your guy has a decent health bar to boot, and your little robotic guide will show you the way to each of the game's boss encounters in case you get lost. I've noticed a lot of Indie games experimenting with planet physics (that recent Gravity Ghost QL comes to mind), presumably inspired by Super Mario Galaxy, and this one's a breezy and low-stress interpretation of that concept. If you can get to grips (as it were) with the game's odd gravity well traversal - hint, smaller planets have less gravity, which means higher vertical leaps - it should keep you entertained for a few hours.
Well, this part wasn't quite the inadvertent condemnation of Indie games that the last part was, but there's still only a couple of games really worth playing in this bundle. Goes to show, it's hard to sort the wheat from the chaff by appearance alone especially with the huge number of bundles like this that get released on a weekly basis. Hopefully I've given you pause for thought regarding purchasing decisions, but then it's not like throwing a couple bucks to support Indie developers is ever a bad thing regardless of how middling their games might actually be. From small acorns grow mighty oaks, and all that.
Thanks for stopping by, and I'll probably be heading back to some big AAA games for a bit. Only so much Indie I can take in one month. (Dammit if I haven't been meaning to finally get around to Thomas Was Alone after that Mike Bithell guest spot on Bombin', though. Well, back to my Steam library I go.)