Mento's May Madness Melange: #1A - Master (of Magic) Blasters

May Madness begins this year with a special feature; the rest of this month will be a little more compact than this. But first, some backstory: One of the few PC games I'm known to obsess over, perhaps to the point of worrying some people, is Simtex's Master of Magic. Master of Magic was a Civilization clone that appeared halfway through the 90s (you could buy a floppy disc version!) with the idea of inserting fantasy elements into what was already a well-established civilization-building strategy-simulation matrix that would go on to produce Sid Meier's Colonization in the same year. Master of Magic included spells to cast, monsters to summon, different fantasy races to rule over, dungeons to raid, treasures to acquire, heroes to level-up and an entirely different alternate universe that you could hop into whenever things got too dull. It was a goshdarned masterpiece, and expanded the Civilization paradigm far more than merely adding hexagons or cultural victories or a handful more historical figures could ever hope to accomplish. On top of everything else, it included a very in-depth combat engine that allowed armies of several disparate units to face one another in an isometric battlefield, controlled tactically like a strategy RPG with spells flying every which way and untold riches to be uncovered for those daring enough to attack a horde of monsters in their own lair. But hey, don't take my word for it. (Or rather, do take my slightly older word for it.)

Since then, possibly due to a new influx of fans from Master of Magic's availability on GOG.com, there's been a fairly recent spate of fantasy strategy games that claim to be in some way directly inspired by Master of Magic and even its successor, or at the very least took a few of its lessons on how to build a kickass fantasy Civilization variant to heart. Today's May Madness Melange looks at three games in particular that seemed to have been developed with my beloved Master of Magic in mind, and in a special one-off format for this feature, we'll also consider how they stack up to the grand-daddy itself.

Here's the eight-fold criteria that I feel best represent Master of Magic and its appeal:

  1. Spells, and lots of 'em. Why play a fantasy version of Civilization if you aren't able to take full advantage of its unique, invaluable resource: Magic, or in the words of Vaarsuvius the Elf: "Telling the Laws of Physics to shut up and sit down." When I'm talking spells, I want conjurations that range from basic-ass fireballs and heals all the way up to global enchantments and summoning damn dragons out of the ether. I want to take a regular catapult unit, cast Invisibility, Flight and Haste on it and scare the bejeezus out of some hapless village militiamen. I want to cast spells that summon volcanoes all across the world that directly grant me power, create a horde of zombies in place of every unit I kill, lift my capital city into the clouds where it cannot be touched and maybe stop time itself. Small thing to ask, right?
  2. A set-piece tactical combat system with strategy n' shit. I don't mind Civ's format of building a big stack of units and throwing them at another big stack of units to see what happens. Really. But it's very easy to grow tired of what is essentially a pog battle. I want to be able to direct all my units individually in battle. I want all those units to have their own specific roles to adhere to. I want to worry about terrain, ranged attack distance, attack and defense modifiers, special unit abilities and all manner of unforeseen wrinkles to cope with. It's what makes each battle in Master of Magic fun and different, at least until you get to the point where you're railroading everything. But that's fun in its own way too.
  3. Ruins and dungeons to explore. Sometimes I want to take a detour, or feel that I'm not quite prepared enough to take on a rival wizard warlord. How to tip the scales in my favor? Well, maybe with a spot of dungeoncrawling. Any given randomly generated Master of Magic map will often be filled with various ruins, lairs, elemental nodes, arcane towers and pits of unspeakable evil that the enterprising (and brave) hero and his army can ransack for Gandalf knows what. Half of the fun is discovering what sort of enemies are lurking inside, and the other half is finding out what treasures are ripe for the riflin' through once the battle's over. (Well, and the battle itself is pretty fun. I guess I suck at fractions.)
  4. Hero and army customization. Hero units in strategy games are usually slightly stronger variants of regular units that the game politely asks you to keep alive at all costs. In Master of Magic, they're customizable heroes with their own level-up progression trees and slots for stat-enhancing artifacts you either come across in dungeons or buy from merchants (or pick off the bodies of other hero units). Likewise, Master of Magic offered a similar progression system for regular troops, albeit to a much lesser extent. Troops get stronger as they fight in more battles, and provide hidden depths of talent when they reach higher levels of seniority.
  5. An extensive city-building feature, that allows for various different types of city layout depending on its location and resources. Do you focus on producing bad-ass martial units by building things like barracks, war colleges and stables? Do you focus on gold, mana or food production with their respective generators (usually marketplaces, shrines and granaries, respectively)? Do you build a city to take advantage of some nearby special resource nodes? Bonus points for allowing the establishment of trade routes and city enchantments, because at that point you're getting into some serious shit.
  6. An array of fantastical races and magic disciplines to invest in. Another benefit of setting one's Civilization game in a fantasy universe is having all those elves, goblins, dwarves, halflings, orcs, beastmen and other monsters wandering about. Most have their own versions of civilization, and their own special traits inherent to their species. Building a bunch of human cities is all fine and good, but maybe I want a Elvish forest as part of my empire so I can supplement my armies with a few skilled rangers, or by entreating with some dwarven lords I might end up with a few war machines. Equally, being able to focus my spellbook towards nature, sorcery, chaos, death or life magics not only extends the game's replayability, but allows me to stick with the preferred type of magical assistance I intend to employ in this run, whether I want to heal my own units or devastate my opponents'. Or slay them dead and raise them as zombies and skeletons to add to my own unstoppable army of the damned. It's all good.
  7. That wonderful feeling of late-game invincibility, usually the result of breaking the game in some way by gaining too much power. I'm not sure how to put it any more succinctly than that, but part of the joy of Master of Magic, and this is entirely from me playing on easier modes like a big wuss, is how omnipotent this game makes you feel. In Civilization, it's easy to feel smug that your technological advancement is allowing you to unlock the secrets of gunpowder before everyone else and laying waste to their non-gun-owning derrieres like it was the Satsuma Rebellion. But in Master of Magic, you can dominate your opponents utterly with not only a superior show of forces but a considerable amount of magical power under your pointy hat. It's fine and dandy to sit outside an enemy capital with a massive army of soldiers to make them sweat a little, but something else when you turn the sky over said capital blood red and start raining meteors down from it. But that's not to say your godlike intimidation is limited to your fellow wizards, oh no. There's a point in every Master of Magic run, early on, where you find a dungeon that's simply far too dangerous for you to cope with: either some wiseguy filled it with dragons, or you get quickly annihilated by a huge army of ranged units that just pick you apart in seconds. Marching right back in several dozen turns later with an unstoppable force of badass monsters, heroes and veteran units hits a level of catharsis generally only reserved for getting home and relieving oneself after a five hour train journey.
  8. I didn't find it boring. This one's pretty self-explanatory: I find a lot of strategy games boring. They never seem to hold my interest in the long run, for whatever reason, and it's the biggest problem I tend to have whenever I play one of these games. My ADD isn't so bad that I can't concentrate on reaching the end of a particularly fortuitous run, but I'm often feeling a sense of unenthusiastic obligation to see it through before that happens. The difficulty balance is sometimes responsible for this too: If I want to play at a level where the computer doesn't cheat, it tends to make them far too easy to predict and overcome in turn. Truly, this is the hardest criteria to meet, and obviously the most subjective.

Lesson here, Bey: You seek the Spell of Mastery, you best not stutter.

Warlock: Master of the Arcane

Warlock: Master of the Arcane (boy, that really puts the "subtle" in "subtitle", don't it?) is a turn-based strategy game from Ino-Co that is based on their Majesty universe of RTS games. More importantly, at least for this feature, it's a game that very deliberately uses Master of Magic as a basis for many of its gameplay systems, which becomes quite evident the more of it you play. The game uses a hexagonal grid, with each city's territory encompassing the six outer grids (and eventually the twelve surrounding them once the population increases sufficiently, and then onto the eighteen surrounding those...). In each hex you can build a new structure, which increases the city's food, mana or gold production rates or allows the recruitment of stronger units. Certain structures also provide "perks": upgrades that can be applied to any applicable unit in your charge for a price. Certain special resource nodes, such as a pumpkin patch or a magical field, can receive special variants of common structures that provide a larger production boost (so for pumpkins, you can make a pumpkin farm that produces a lot more food per turn than a normal farm).

Whoa, hey there fellas! We can be diplomatic about this, right?

For the sake of transparency, I'm playing a regular campaign against three opponents on the "casual" setting, which is second lowest between Normal and Beginner. Two reasons: This is the difficulty level I enjoy most in Master of Magic, where I don't have to be concerned for unfair AI practices and can run rampant, and the second reason is because this is a new game and I'm not going to get taken out halfway through before I get a sense of what it's about. I'll be following a similar strategy with the other two games featured.

The Master of Master of Magic?

Introduction over. How does it compare?

  1. There are indeed spells. A limited assortment, but they slowly grow in number. This element has been somewhat truncated from MoM, but that seems to be for the sake of streamlining, as is the case with many other aspects we'll cover on this list. Having less moving parts makes Warlock considerably less buggy than its spiritual antecedent, so there's something to be said about slimming down the number of spells and other elements to make sure everything doesn't blow up every five minutes. Warlock does retain the idea of an "active pool" and "reserve pool" of magic: the former is how much you're allowed to cast in one turn, while the latter is simply how much mana you've stockpiled thus far. Certain buildings, enchantments and summoned monsters drain the mana supply every turn, while having a lot of territory, certain other buildings and special events increase it. It's standard Master of Magic stuff for the most part, then.
  2. Unfortunately, there is no big strategic set-piece combat. Rather, it takes the Civilization route of having all battles take place entirely on-map, between two units at a time, with damage decided via dice rolls. It's fine (I mean, Civ still uses it, right? Can't be all bad), if not my preference.
  3. There are dungeons, but most are simple monster generators that need to be removed. Others are simply non-combat one-off cash/rewards, occasionally providing new spells or special items. Nothing too exciting.
  4. There are heroes, and they each have their own individual level-up paths. They can also equip items you find, so it feels pretty MoM-y so far. Armies go up levels too. The level-up process has been customized so that the player can select one of three abilities to impart on their promoted unit, allowing for identical units to take on separate personalities and specializations. For instance, two initially identical warrior units might eventually be made distinct from one another by how one has focused on defense increases while the other takes mostly offensive increases - in terms of strategy, the former can lead the way and take the enemy's hits during the opponent's turn, while the latter can charge in afterwards and do all the significant damage. It's simple but elegant, and though there's less overall abilities available it manages to feel more customizable.
  5. The city-building has been modified so that all new buildings are placed within a city's overworld territory, rather than all being inside the one city square. There's a hard limit on the number of buildings based on the city's overall population score and the number of available spaces, some of which won't take buildings of a certain type or have penalties of some kind; desert tiles provide less food but more mana, for instance, so it's best to put mana-production structures there and farms elsewhere. Special mineral spaces are now configured so that special buildings can be built on them (usually stronger variants of pre-existing buildings, such as a more powerful Smithy on top of an iron deposit) before the player can gain any benefit. Of the many differences between MoM and Warlock, this is one where I'm absolutely in favor of Warlock's approach.
  6. Races appear to be limited to three broad categories: humans, undead and beastmen. Humans are simply humans. Undead can mean liches, zombies, skeletons, spirits and all sorts, and have their own rules for healing and support magic. Beastmen seem to be mostly rat-based as far as civilizations go, but also include a lot of other bestial hominids. There are also wandering monsters, from simple wolves and bears to elementals, giant spiders and ogres. Overall kind of lacking (though, once again, seemingly to keep things mechanically simple and streamlined).
  7. As for the invincible feeling, it's already there. I believe I'm considerably more powerful than either of my rivals, neither of whom seem particularly keen on attacking right now. I want to keep progressing up technology/magic trees and taking down more powerful wandering monsters, but it's starting to feel like overkill. Sweet, wonderful overkill. I may just continue progressing in this fashion until I cast the Spell of Unity, which appears to be this game's version of the Spell of Mastery.
  8. I'm definitely not bored yet. It's actually quite fun, partly due to how accessible it is. Because of all the streamlining aspects, and the two easier difficulty modes (as stated, I'm on "casual", which isn't even the easiest setting), it's not hard to get to grips with its few mechanics. I don't feel completely lost at sea because I skipped out on hours of tutorials, which is how most strategy games seem to go. That's an important consideration in its favor.

Additional Info

Warlock's very clearly based on Master of Magic, though has a intrinsic sense of sticking to the core essentials in lieu of many extra customization options and a dense inventory of monsters, spells and the many other appendices that lent Master of Magic its considerable replayability factor. Many elements are de-emphasized in Warlock including the combat, the RPG aspects and the city-building but the elements that it retains are what definitely made Master of Magic stand out in my mind, if perhaps in an obvious "bulletpoint list on the back of the box" sense in some cases. It feels like a modern day budget/portable version of the game: better looking, a lot more stable but far less substantial. However, even with its comparative lack of features, it does at least get the most important part right: The game is fun to play, and provides that same giddy sense of unstoppable powermongering. I mourn the lack of complexity, but I'm sure the game's not lacking for challenge if that's what a player might be looking for with a game like this.

Psyche! Millpool will be ours! Soon, I'll be Queen of Summertime! ...oh, King. King!

I've also noticed that the AI is built the same way: opponents will constantly found new cities a scant few blocks away from the capital (and yours), forcing both cities to rake in less resources and be limited in growth as a result. It's a slightly more effective plan in Warlock though, due to how territories work and how the borders of influence expand ever outwards as the cities' populations grow: creating a town close to your opponent means they're effectively stymied from progressing in that direction, and allows you to picket more land for yourself. It also appears as if allied cities can swallow one another as their borders touch, so it's not like you're able to scupper your own capital's potential. Plus, with how resources work, it's important to ensure that a useful node is within the sphere of your influence by hook or by crook. Warlock does have a few tricks up its sleeve, and is actually at its most compelling when it's introducing aspects that were never even featured in Master of Magic: though it feels as if it's sometimes content to simply try to be a much smaller modern version of the original Master of Magic, the few steps it takes towards being something entirely different are what makes it interesting.

I might go so far as to suggest that Warlock is the Civilization Revolution of MoM, given how that game made certain aspects of that series more accessible and let it move at a faster pace without actually taking too much away despite the relative lack of complexity. Of course, Civ Rev was a version of Civilization built specifically for consoles and Warlock is PC exclusive, so it's not a perfect analogy.

Final Thoughts

What you got for me, Librarian? Nothing. That's what you got.

As I (temporarily) end my run after fifty turns of this campaign, the Mighty Santa Empire continues to grow unabated and has now devoured most of the central continent of the main world. From all accounts, our two rivals (that is to say, the ones that remain) have eked out small empires of their own, but it's clear our librarian friend has but a single city to his name. We've surrounded it utterly, sneaking in under the facade of peaceful intent, and all it'll take is a declaration of war for us to converge on the capital and take it down instanter. Meanwhile, we've discovered bountiful lands in the west, but are still in the process of clearing out its considerable monster population. We'll have to find out if there's any monster generators nearby, and then move some settlers in to create a city and take advantage of the special nodes around here. The only X factor remains the Rat King, holed up in the North somewhere. The meager troops he's so far shipped over to our continent did not survive long. Technologically speaking, I have access to catapults, mages and halberdiers, but my money flow is still a net loss, so I'll be focusing more on buildings which promote gold production and perhaps disbanding a few of my inferior units and replacing them with a smaller number of superior ones. I'm loath to remove any veteran units, but it's not like their forward advance can compete with a trebuchet boulder for sheer destructive power.

Don't worry: Santa gets his.

And then there are the other two worlds to consider. What dangers and mysteries do they hold? And will I even need to plumb their riches and artifacts to utterly destroy what's left of my opponents? Maybe I'll just pop over there for funsies.

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The Comic Commish: The Previous Generation (Jan-Jun 2010)

Welcome to another edition of the Comic Commish, bringing you the greatest hits from the previous generation of consoles. As always, my eternal thanks to Gold sponsor @omghisam and the Giant Bomb crew. The year 2010 meant a lot of things to a lot of people, but for me 2010 was when I finally took the plunge and became the prolific content creator for Giant Bomb that I am today. Well, I say I create content for Giant Bomb, but what I mean is that I upload words and scribbles onto their website and they just sort of tolerate it for the time being.

Anyway, when I'm not aggrandizing my meager role on this site, I'm creating equally underwhelming artwork to represent some of my favorite games of a specific release period. For the month of April, this is the first half of 2010 from January to June. (I always bold these things, like it's never apparent from the title.)

The Comic Commish, Possibly Sponsored by NewEgg (We'll Talk)

Mass Effect 2 (BioWare, 360/PC/PS3, Jan)

The original Mass Effect was a big deal when it came out. It effortlessly created an entire setting with aplomb, dropping players in the middle of an interstellar mystery plot that took the time to flesh out its rogue's gallery of oddball team members, allowing the player to tackle each of its scenarios in any order they wished and punctuating a few memorable scenes with Hollywood-esque explosions and tense decisions. It was one of those games, I'd imagine, that required a long hard look at the drawing board once it became time to create a sequel that could not only live up to its predecessor but potentially even eclipse it.

Beyond fixing the comically long elevator loading times and amending the affront to Isaac Newton's life's work that was the Mako Tank, I wouldn't have thought it possible to improve too much on Mass Effect. What Mass Effect 2 did to succeed in its mission, in spite of the huge odds against it, was to wisely double down on what it felt were the more important aspects and allow everything else to fade into the background like so much space radiation. Inventory management was heavily reduced, the focus on character development was heavily increased. The tactical combat was heavily increased, and the planetary exploration was heavily reduced. The whole game felt like it was directed by endless meetings on what was a priority and what was inessential.

Whether you personally felt Mass Effect 2 was actually more fun than the original is entirely dependent on your attachment to the various aspects that were either emphasized or de-emphasized, but there's no denying that Mass Effect 2 is a significantly more focused product with considerably more confidence than its forebear; in essence, it was the franchise maturing from an insouciant schoolkid with the whole galaxy as their oyster to that young adult planning for college, deciding on what stringent path makes the most sense going forward. I might argue that the characters are a lot better in ME2 - there's certainly a more impressive selection to choose from - or that the tactical squad-based combat is tighter or really that firing probes into Uranus isn't necessary better or worse than doing mad low-gravity flips in a stupid moon jeep, but there's something to be said for a sequel taking such a confident step forward. Especially one with so many expectations to live up to.

Final Fantasy XIII (Square-Enix, 360/PS3, Mar)

Final Fantasy XIII definitely has an unfortunate reputation. This is largely due to how it spends much of its running time spent in what is pejoratively dubbed "The Tube": an endless linear corridor with the occasional twist and turn and amazing looking wallpaper that the player sprints through for the first two thirds of the game. During their time in the Tube, the player (slowly) acclimatizes to the various new features that are introduced in FFXIII: its world of a suspended spherical modern utopia, its mythology of ancient machine-like deities and the unfortunate human thralls they gang press into serving them, its cast of characters, the fast-paced and largely automated combat, the Paradigm system, the Crystarium, hair-dwelling chocobos and Hope's endless whining about his dead mother.

Even if it is a little hard to see past its problems (and make no mistake: they are legion) the core game isn't actually all that bad. Battles are brisk yet strategic; they tend to conclude fairly quickly, though whether it's the enemies that got wiped out or your own team is often dependent on your reflexes and situational awareness. The Crystarium simplifies the Sphere Grid of FFX and the License Grid of FFXII in such a way that you're still able to customize your characters in a myriad number of directions, but the manner in which you can do so is far less abstruse. The game reserves all its open-world exploration and side-questing for the end-game, and there is a heck of a lot of it to get through even if you don't see neither hide nor hair of much of it for most of the playing time. The characters... well, I have more trouble defending the characters. They aren't a particularly memorable bunch overall, though Lightning's a far more preferable protagonist than the equally reticent Squall (I also like Oerba Yun Fang a lot; Final Fantasy has an appealing tendency for aloof spear-wielders).

It's next to impossible to sell Final Fantasy XIII with a tagline like "it starts to get good at the 30 hour mark, I swear" and is deservedly considered the weakest of the post-SNES, non-MMO Final Fantasy games. Even so, there's a considerable level of pedigree behind any given Final Fantasy game - visuals, music, atmosphere, unique combat/development systems and what have you - and XIII doesn't entirely squander it all with its numerous foibles.

Nier (Cavia, PS3, Apr)

Nier's a similar case as Final Fantasy XIII in that it's a divisive game of highs and lows, but with Nier those zeniths and nadirs are all the more pronounced. Nier's combat is mostly uninspired character action hack and slash, with the occasional incongruous bullet hell sequence during boss fights, and a few special magical attacks courtesy of a friendly sentient book that follows the protagonist at all times. Its side-quests are largely insipid time-wasters, especially where any fishing or gardening is concerned. It can be visually lacking in a lot of areas, though its stark minimalism can often work in its favor too. Nier also takes to perplexing flights of fancy, switching up its basic combat-focused gameplay to a Resident Evil-styled fixed-camera jaunt through a spooky mansion, or randomly shifting to a text adventure format, or bouncing to a side-scrolling platformer. Its plot becomes increasingly labyrinthine and convoluted, going far beyond the original goal of rescuing the hero's kidnapped daughter from an evil enigmatic being known only as the Shadowlord.

Despite all of its madness, Nier has some considerable power in its corner: It's endlessly inventive, it makes the most effective use of new game plus playthroughs I've seen in a video game, it has an incredible emotional soundtrack (from Keiichi Okabe, his studio Monaca and cavia's in-house composer Takafumi Nishimura) and the story is never afraid to hit you hard where it hurts whenever it feels like it. You can fault Nier's gameplay and you can fault Nier's insanity, but you cannot fault Nier's heart. It's the least "designed by committee" game you'll probably ever play, for better and for worse.

Revisited

(Fair warning, this month's "Revisited" is as quiet as this part of the Comic Commish's going to be for a long time. Because I started creating comics for every weekly blog around the start of 2011, and how I'm almost always around six months behind the curve, we're going to start seeing a lot more "previously seen" items here. I might have to be judicious with what I use.)

3D Dot Game Heroes (From Software, PS3, May)

Before (well, alongside concurrently) From Software was trying to kill you over and over with their merciless Souls games, they revisited a few of the cultural touchstones they drew from when creating the worlds of Boletaria, Lordran and Drangleic in 3D Dot Game Heroes's loving blocky homage to ancient JRPGs. The chief influence is, of course, the Legend of Zelda: from its multi-chambered puzzle dungeons to its emphasis on exploration and item acquisition. In addition, however, there are innumerable other nods and in-jokes that refer to timeless RPG and adventure games. The game's a classic example of modern, on-point From Software: a core adherence to many old-school game design philosophies with many modern trappings and fresh ideas bolted on top. It also has a bananas sense of humor as well, an element of From's games generally not seen too often in the dour Souls trilogy: For instance, in order to log a monster in your journal's bestiary, you have to actually hit them several times with the book in question. This becomes comically ridiculous when you're having to log bosses by whacking them over and over with a hardback. (Editor Note, which is actually just me: Oh hey, this was the first "regular" comic I ever made for this site. It's also first alphabetically in my GB comic folder.)

Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon (Namco/Tri-Crescendo, Wii, Mar)

Fragile Dreams is about as melancholy as it gets, and by "it" I specifically mean atmospheric post-apocalyptic horror survival anime RPGs. So what I'm saying is that of all the many atmospheric post-apocalyptic horror survival anime RPGs out there, this is possibly the most downbeat and lugubrious, just so we can all be perfectly clear on that going forward. Honestly, Fragile Dreams is one of those problematic games that succeeds through its sheer oddness and creativity, not unlike the above Nier. You'll recognize elements from Silent Hill, Dark Souls and Tri-Crescendo's earlier Eternal Sonata, and if the juxtaposition of bright and cheerful anime funtime adventures and starkly grim and lonely treks into the darkness that constantly prey on your nerves sounds like the sort of thing you want to be a part of, then by all means try Fragile Dreams out for yourself. Just beware of Chickenhead.

The Other Ones!

As always, here's a selection of games I didn't cover this time, but are absolutely worth a look-see. You could even consider these games too awesome to be belittled with a gently mocking comic strip, if that helps you sleep at night.

  • Bayonetta (Platinum, 360/PS3, Jan): Kamiya's usual mix of skill-based, balls-hard character action and hyperstylized badassery isn't generally my cup of tea, but Bayonetta was an enjoyable enough entry level gateway for the Devil May Crys and Viewtiful Joes the outspoken Japanese designer is known for. The enemy designs are truly bizarre and Bayonetta's array of foot-pistol-assisted combos and over-the-top summons add flair to a game certainly not lacking in it. If your patience for character action games hasn't dissipated after a hundred lackluster God of War clones, Bayonetta's probably the best the genre has to offer you. And, unlike Devil May Cry, no-one seems to mind that the newest sequel's given her a new shorter hairstyle.
  • Darksiders (Vigil, 360/PS3, Jan): Though its third game remains sadly lost in the ether as of writing, the Darksiders series started strong with a McFarlane (that would be Todd, not Seth) take on the apocalypse and its four pale riders that melds with an oddly familiar set-up of passing through dungeons looking for maps and compasses and a special piece of equipment that would allow you to reach additional parts of said dungeon currently inaccessible. Darksiders wore its various influences on its sleeve, but made for a compelling whole all the same.
  • Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth (Capcom, NDS, Feb): The Ace Attorney series' first spin-off featured the permanently standoffish Miles Edgeworth in cases that were significantly more interested in the investigation parts of the original games, rather than the chaotic courtroom scenes that punctuated every case. The game introduced its own deduction mechanic in the Logic system, allowing Miles to figure out aspects of the case by linking two matching clues together. It's an odd departure for an already odd series, but still managed to retain much of what makes the Ace Attorney series such compelling fun. It's a shame the sequel was never officially localized.
  • Deadly Premonition (Access, 360, Feb): I should probably just post the whistling theme and call it a day. Here you go. Let's move on. (For serious, there's two whole Endurance Runs to sell you on this game if you need them.)
  • Just Cause 2 (Avalanche, 360/PS3/PC, Mar): Just Cause 2 is an exercise in function over form. Its function is to be fun (to put the fun in function, you might even say. If you're an asshole). The finer details about Agent Rico Rodriguez's sojourn into the fictional unstable Southeast Asian island nation of Panau and his cooperation with various rebel forces to bring down the residing despotic leader is largely incidental to blowing shit up and having a riot with the grappling hook mechanic.
  • Alan Wake (Remedy, 360/PC, Apr): Alan Wake's feckless eponymous protagonist is thrust into a nightmarish landscape shortly after entering a small town in this extended video game homage to Stephen King novels and the Twilight Zone, which also borrows a few elements from Japanese horror games in setting up a disquieting environment where nothing's quite as it seems. Though running through endless amounts of forests illuminating possessed hicks got old after a while, the obvious affection this game has for its inspiration sources becomes contagious after a while.
  • Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Nintendo, Wii, May): Super Mario Galaxy's sequel had one hell of a hill to climb to match its original, and unlike Mass Effect 2 took the simpler if less impressive route of simply providing more of the same, excepting the occasional addition of a dinosaur or faceship. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is an easy recommend, but it definitely wasn't interested in trying to replicate the giant leap forward its antecedent made. "Resting on their laurels" is perhaps a more apt description of what went on here.
  • Picross 3D (HAL, NDS, May): Picross 3D, or Picross Rittai, attempts to do something which traditionally never works as well as intended; that is to say, taking an incredibly popular puzzle game format and disturbing its carefully considered balance of elements by introducing a major new feature, in this case an entire third dimension. Just think how every variant of Tetris pales in comparison to the original. Fortunately, adding a third dimension doesn't diminish Picross's core appeal whatsoever. You do need some pinpoint stylus accuracy though, I'll tell you that much.
  • Singularity (Raven, 360/PS3/PC, Jun): Singularity begins as a tense survival horror with guns, but it quickly becomes apparent that the game has designs on BioShock's throne with its alternate reality sci-fi storyline, its mix of first-person supernatural and technological gunplay and a deep attention to detail in building its world of a Soviet experimental facility that switches between a timeline where it remains a dangerous dilapidated relic of a war long since lost, and one where it (and its charismatic leader) became the savior of a victorious Soviet Empire. It's a little rough but, overall, I think I probably prefer it over where BioShock would eventually end up.
  • Transformers: War for Cybertron (High Moon Studios, 360/PS3/PC, Jun): Transformers nostalgia is a hard sell these days. Most of the kids who watched the original 1984 series (and the 1986 motion picture) were well into their 30s by 2010, and subsequent generations of the Transformers franchise saw fewer and fewer audience figures. On top of that, the Michael Bay movies made a proper mess of the original series' chronology and characters, and War for Cybertron - which stayed true to the Takara franchise's roots - would seem almost incomprehensible to those familiar with the movies. It's definitely commendable that High Moon Studios took great measures to stay faithful to the source material, and managed to create a moderately enjoyable third-person shooter around it. The cultural impact of what is essentially an extended toy commercial might not seem like much to many, but for the generation of kids who watched Optimus Prime pass away in front of their eyes it meant a whole lot.

Farewell until next time, good duders, and thanks for stopping by. More of 2010 to come in May, should I manage to take a breather between all the Steam games (uh oh, did I just give something away?).

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What I Learned at PAX East This Year

...from someone who watched almost the entire thing while moderating the chat. Man, they don't warn you about this when you become a mod. So stoked for E3...

Anyway, if you haven't yet seen the Giant Bomb panel, the Royal Rumble event earlier today or the 404ing It panel slightly less earlier today, go check them out first. This list might not make a lot of sense otherwise, and all of those things are more entertaining than this is. Have fun!

  1. Smite.
  2. The Black Dragon eats Ultimo Dragon for breakfast.
  3. We will never truly know the reason why Cornelius is sticky. Theories abound, however.
  4. If you gift John Drake a refreshing Diet Coke, for Smite's sake serve it in a can and not a glass bottle.
  5. Nothing makes Max Temkin laugh harder than horrific workplace injuries.
  6. Giant Bomb was the only panel I saw, throughout the entire three days of streams, where people discussed Indie games in-depth. At PAX. Titanfall, conversely, got approximately 7 hours of coverage, despite already being out.
  7. (Gearbox's very own) Dave Lang's real-life bat-tech is somewhat lacking. His ability to cut the angriest of promos, however, is beyond reproach.
  8. If you need a new SSD, computer case or one third of whatever stream you're watching completely obfuscated, Newegg's gotcha covered.
  9. We need more Vinny pins in the Giant Bomb gift shop. Repeat, we are all out of Vinny pins.
  10. SMITE.
  11. Eric Pope is a sick and deplorable human being.
  12. For that matter, babies should not be picked up that way.
  13. Never turn your back on Dr. Tracksuit.
  14. PAX Q&As are never not awkward and uncomfortable.
  15. Don't worry, the Benq lady does not think you're an "old person" and is very interested in your fighter game accuracy quality assurance responsibilities.
  16. Poor Maggie.
  17. Mac and cheese might be "a black thing".
  18. #NavarroWolfOrder
  19. Planetside 2 does not discriminate against women who are terrible drivers, though they certainly don't mind the stereotype either.
  20. SMITE!!
  21. Persona 4 Arena, which I played whenever I wasn't keeping an eye on the stream, is a lot better than I was expecting. These Arc System Works fighters utilize an effective "tier" system for players - it's very obvious when going through its tutorials that there's plenty of features and systems that may take a lifetime to master. At the same time, it moves pleasingly fast and will very happily accommodate any player who mashes buttons or is overly dependent on the hadouken maneuver, at least to an extent sufficient for its story mode. Speaking of which, the story mode is excellently written, smartly and subtly configured for each viewpoint character and adds some great, congruous (that it is to say, it's the sort of Engrishy rap that suits the series well) music to the franchise. It also meshes the P3 and P4 characters together well and sets up some interesting hooks for P4A2 that doesn't go so far to devalue the whole game with obnoxious cliffhangers. Questions are raised, a shadowy behind-the-scenes guy is briefly introduced, possible answers are forthcoming. I dig the attention to detail to Persona's universe; it isn't just some fighting game that borrowed the characters because they looked cool.

See you next expo! When the next one rolls around, come hang out in the chat, though try to be civil. I think MB came close to his personal record for chat bans this year, and he's always trying to break that thing.

29 Comments

Loyalty and Languor

Perhaps one of the most natural behavioral phenomenon in our gaming habits is that of loyalty: that we'd be happier to play a sequel or iteration in a series we have experience with because we're acquainted with both the standard of quality of its games as well as having a general sense of what's expected of us in terms of mechanics and controls. Launching into a new game in a series we're already familiar with feels both comfortable and simple, and I don't know about you guys but "comfortable and simple" is often the guiding principle behind anything I elect to spend my free time on. It's possibly why I'm such a shiftless layabout.

Our own Patrick Klepek has often talked about his recent attempts to diversify his playing habits, getting out of ruts and the like by embarking into alien and untested territory, but it's oddly difficult to take that sort of path without a conscious effort. Normally, it feels like, we see a game that's either a direct sequel to something we enjoyed or is so similar as to be worth the gamble and plump for that option rather than risk the unknown. I suppose there's also the factor of choosing a safe bet for our coin; opening our wallets for something new that might be potentially unplayable is not always an enticing prospect.

I've noticed, though, that while the last five games I've chosen to play were due to a certain loyalty I held towards something, though the type of loyalty being exhibited was meaningfully different for each. When I choose new games to play, I'm usually doing so with a background of experience and certain ingrained prejudices. Sometimes I can put all that aside to try something new and exciting, but usually I'm using that background to take educated guesses on what I'll end up liking. That's true, to some extent, for all five of these games:

Tales of the Abyss

I swear I'm almost done talking about this game.

My playing Tales of the Abyss is the quintessential example of what I mean by loyalty to a game series. I've played at least seven of the core games from Namco Bandai's colorful action RPG franchise, which is more than enough to anticipate what one might expect from a Tales game. I chose to play Tales of the Abyss because I knew almost precisely what I was in for, and was already entirely sold on its usual blend of anime monkeyshines and frantic real-time combo-oriented combat before I had even booted it up the first time. This is opposed to the many other JRPGs I have sitting in the backlog, which I decided not to play either because I was less certain of the quality of their content or was simply too lazy to want to bother learning any new tricks. It's very possible that this has something to do with how I often select a new game to play when I'm about two hours away from falling asleep, but that's perhaps a concern for another time.

I probably don't need to write any more in-depth analysis about Tales of the Abyss. That eight thousand word monster blog I wrote a few weeks back is more than sufficient coverage on the matter. I bring it up to point to an example of wanting to play a game in a long-running series I'm familiar with for reasons that might well be as frivolous as wanting to complete every game in the set. I know that's often been the reason I start a new Castlevania or Zelda. I play games like this because I know I'm going to enjoy them too, of course, but with some of these more venerable franchises it's often that you're no longer in it for something surprising and unpredictable. My mind's not going to be expanded by witnessing another group of animes fighting to save the world from a well-intentioned extremist with a mix of impractical weapons, particle effects and moxie, but I'm cool with that.

All in all, though, it's probably best I don't let this become the only deciding factor behind the games I choose to play, because I tend to burn out pretty quickly when that happens.

Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward

It's fair to say I'm a fan of this series now, though. I do hope that third one happens.

Conversely, I hold very little such loyalty to the Zero Escape series. There's only been two games so far, after all, and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors - as narratively mad and grammatically incorrect as it was - didn't grasp me as being from a series to watch. Rather, my loyalty in this case was to the genre itself; the kind of chiefly Japanese story-driven game that uses a blend of graphic adventure inventory puzzles and visual novel dialogue-focused decision-making. There's a scant few of these in the West, the best known of which is probably the Ace Attorney series and the various games from CING, and I'm eager enough about them to track down any that manage to slip through the culture barrier and see a localization (and, rarer still, a European localization).

I'll admit to some degree of knowing what to expect from Virtue's Last Reward from playing its immediate precursor 999, though the game turned out to be significantly improved compared to the original. Well, at least in a mechanical sense. You could now freely jump between alternate branches in the story without starting over; there was no repetition of the game's "escape the room" puzzles, which cease to be fun once you figure them out once; the game does all the boring math parts of the Nonary Game for you; there's more of an emphasis on following a "bad" ending all the way to its dire conclusion because of the hints (and, in some cases, literal passwords you need to write down) that you'll need elsewhere. While I thoroughly enjoyed VLR, I had no such guarantee that I would have liked it as I had with Tales of the Abyss. It's more that I took a chance based on the type of game it was, rather than knowing precisely what I would be in for. In this particular case, the decision to buy and play VLR was spurred less by loyalty to its series than to a loyalty for a game genre that's sorely under-represented in the West.

Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall

Dragonfall had a lot of fun with its ragtag group of characters though, I could tell.

Shadowrun Returns is a rare case where I played the original game and felt there could be a lot of potential further down the line should it see frequent updates and some clever user mods, and this was reflected in a review of mine that rated the game higher than it probably deserved. This is more like a loyalty to a single game than to a series, and it's becoming more common as we see more and more Early Access games on Steam (and, for that matter, a long history of MMOs with all their incremental improvements). We'll buy one of these games, try to see past its present problems to envision the grand product it might one day become, and then subconsciously declare our loyalty to that imagined ideal by coming back to it every so often as the dream edges ever closer to being the reality.

Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun Returns was never released as an Early Access game, but it was clear from its half-baked and tutorial-heavy built-in quickie campaign that they clearly had future plans for additional campaigns and stories within the same engine. That included campaign, Dead Man's Switch, simply felt like a beginner's guide to both the game and the wider universe/setting it represented. Because Shadowrun - a table-top game that melds fantasy and cyberpunk sci-fi - has a rich and detailed history with around 25 years of constant development, there's a lot of information to introduce to a neophyte shadowrunner and as many RPG systems and glossary terms and quirks to acclimatize them to in equal measure. Dead Man's Switch does an able job of introducing the shamanistic magic system, the Matrix-y cyberspace "decking", the use of drones and summoned elemental spirits and futuristic stim drugs in combat. It teaches you about the setting's history in which our modern world is hit with the sudden and cataclysmic resurgence of magic and learns to adjust, about the corporations that run everything, about the pantheon of new deities and metahuman races that awoke into this new era. But ultimately, the Dead Man's Switch campaign was too short and too perfunctory to be much of a draw back when the game first came out last November.

The Berlin Campaign, which was later renamed Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall, is the long-anticipated second campaign from the original developers that would not only cut away the no longer necessary slow-burn tutorials and introductions, but would also be enhanced by several months' worth of new additions and tweaks from the design team. It promised a lot, whether directly or implied, and my loyalty to the idea of a Shadowrun game, or really any table-top adaptation, that chooses to focus on delivering module-based content was strong enough to convince me to try it out when it was finally released earlier this year.

Ultimately I was a little underwhelmed in just how minor and scattered the improvements ended up being, but Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall will not be the last time I buy into a game's lofty ambitions and stick with it. Heck, I've already spent money on several Kickstarters at this point. Maybe that loyalty will be more easily misplaced compared to the loyalty I hold for games that actually exist in their finished form, but I guess time will tell. (I should disclose for fairness's sake that I was bought this game and its expansion ahead of time as a gift, so me playing it and discussing it here is related to an entirely different kind of loyalty in addition.)

South Park: The Stick of Truth

There once was a maiden from Stoneberry Hollow...

With South Park: The Stick of Truth, there was certainly no loyalty towards other games created under the South Park label. That would be crazy. South Park has had a long and troubled history of video game adaptations, which range from ambitious but flawed attempts to recreate the subversive show to egregious shovelware designed purely to bank on its name and large fanbase for a quick buck.

Still, the new South Park RPG from Obsidian Entertainment promised for a long time to reverse that unfortunate trajectory for South Park video games. The first clear sign that things would be different this time around was the enthusiastic participation of Matt Stone and Trey Parker: the creative leads behind the TV show. The second was their choice of developer in Obsidian - though occasionally criticized for their lack of quality control, Obsidian has been responsible for many of the best RPGs in the past generation of consoles. Fallout: New Vegas and Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer are regarded as some of the better CRPGs to come out in recent memory, and Alpha Protocol has plenty of admirers as well (don't pay any mind to all this effusive Obsidian praise by the way, it's just Rorie's my boss is all).

The Stick of Truth ended up not disappointing. It's easily one of my favorite games to be released this year, and not only does an incredible job at recreating the look, feel and sensibility of the show but crafts a very playable turn-based RPG at the core of it all that recalls something like the deceptively strategic (and similarly trigger-enhanced) Paper Mario/Mario & Luigi RPGs. The game was created by evident fans of the series, featuring an endless conga line of references and in-jokes I'm sure even the showrunners had long forgotten about, and there's very little holding back on some of the more fucked up conceits the show's creators have probably toyed with at one point or another. It seems as if Matt and Trey excel rather than falter whenever they're faced with a new medium to play with - just look at how well the big budget South Park movie turned out, despite worries that it would just end up being a longer and more expensive episode of the show (looking at you, Futurama movies) - and South Park: The Stick of Truth might well be the best South Park related product for years, including recent seasons of the TV show.

In this case, the loyalty was to the show, its creators and to the developers, rather than (and really in spite of) earlier games from this franchise. And to think, we might've moved away from this last generation of consoles with that tower defense game and Tenorman's Revenge as the only South Park video game portrayals. Shudder.

Persona 4 Arena

Persona story-writing rule #6: When in doubt, add an enigmatic robot girl.

Finally, we come to the game I'm currently playing. My loyalty in this particular situation is to the original Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 which introduced Yu Narukami Charlie Tunoku, Chie Satonaka, Yosuke Hanamura, Kanji Tatsumi, those three other chicks and that monkey bear thing. Subsequently, my decision to play Persona 4 Arena has very little to do with Arc System Works and their various series of incomprehensible twitch-gameplay fighters. I have no idea what a guilty gear is, or why the blaz is blue, but I am so on board for watching all these sassy teens go on further adventures and continue to bounce off one another. It takes a fantastic story and cast to make me really depressed about finishing a game, and by the end of Persona 4 I was practically bawling because it meant the end of my interaction with all these wonderful characters. Make no mistake: I can be the wussiest wuss that ever wussed when it comes to this sort of thing, especially where my anime highschool buddies are concerned.

While I've yet to become enamored with P4A's combat - I don't think a single imparted rule of the tutorial lessons has stuck with me, besides which of the four attack buttons makes a Persona appear and which do not - I'm enjoying the goofy plot of a resurrected Midnight Channel that is forcing this group of friends to throw down against one another with insulting marquee banners and illusionary passive-aggressiveness, despite them all feeling assured that the TV World Murderer case has long been put to rest. it's also weird hearing Yu's voice (he's played by Adachi's VA Johnny Yong Bosch, which is true of the original game as well even if his dialogue was limited to the occasional grunt and yelp) and weirder still to see how the few featured members of Persona 3's cast have matured in the three years since the events of their game. I'm definitely enjoying all the parts where I'm not fighting, that's for sure.

So, in summary, we have:

  • A game from a series I'm intimately familiar with, which held very few surprises but was still an enjoyable experience all the same, if largely in a comfort food sort of manner. I feel unreasonably happy that there's a big list of Tales games out there that I can tick another entry off of, as odd as that might sound from a fan of the series. Darn obsessive completionist tendencies.
  • A game from a sub-genre that I appreciate, even though (or perhaps especially because) they're thin on the ground. See also: SpaceWhippers, Pikmin-esque team strategy-puzzle games, whatever you'd call Dark Cloud (dungeon crawler slash building sim?). I'd probably buy any game that exhibited any of those genre traits, even if I didn't much care for its other aspects.
  • An expansion for a game I had high hopes for after playing its original content, and was slightly sorry to see that it had yet to realise its full potential. Still, this may well blossom into purchasing a second Shadowrun game should Harebrained Schemes find a way to procure funding for a new and improved engine.
  • A game that - going by previous trends - I should've stayed the hell away from, but gave a chance anyway because of the pedigree of its source material and its development team. A game that ended up being the best one on this list, by the by.
  • A game that is a pseudo-sequel to a game I really enjoyed, despite knowing full well that I wouldn't be too into its gameplay.

Each of these decisions was spurred by a loyalty to someone or something, and a sense that I would get some degree of satisfaction out of it based on their reputations and my experience with their predecessors. It's hard for an original game to ask for a lot of faith from a prospective audience who don't yet know it from Adam, and harder still when so many purchasing decisions are derived from familiarity and loyalty, even if we get there from a multitude of directions.

I'm thinking after P4A is done I might dig into my Steam folder and try a few games where I have no idea what to expect. I don't mind if my gaming gets a mite habitual once in a while, but it takes some introspection like this to recognize the little hole I've dug for myself for what it is.

So, how many game purchasing decisions have you guys made so far this year that weren't based on prior experience with either a game's series, its developers, a fondness for the source material it was based on or any other similar determining factors? Has Giant Bomb helped you to discover new games you might have never given a second glance to, or just helped you decide on games you were already certain you'd like for one reason or another?

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Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall review

(Once again, the site is prohibiting me from adding reviews to the game's page, so here it is in blog form until the engineers fix whatever's up. This review's probably one of my more pettier critiques, but then having an indignant tone is what makes reviews fun.)

Though marginally superior to Dead Man's Switch, Dragonfall still feels like squandered potential.

Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall is the new campaign from the original developers of Shadowrun Returns, Harebrained Schemes. The long-awaited "Berlin campaign" is a full expansion, providing a new 15+ hour campaign and various additions to the game's editor assets, and was released on Steam, GOG and the Humble Store for $15. It requires the original game to play.

The campaign itself is a little better put-together than Dead Man's Switch, the campaign that originally came with Shadowrun Returns. Though approximately of an equivalent length, it's far less interested in holding your hand through its early stages and has that self-assured confidence of a Hollywood comic book movie sequel: you know the setting, you know the deal, so let's have fun this time around. Moving the action to Berlin makes for an interesting cultural change from the Seattle-based previous games, and helps to fill in more of Shadowrun's distinctive setting that combines fantasy and technology in a near future where magic has suddenly returned to the world. Dragonfall is specifically focused on dragons and their role in the Shadowrun universe as devious and avaricious corporate kingpins and crimelords eager to seize the human world's resources for themselves.

Dragonfall's strengths include: A homey hub area named the Kreuzbasar, full of colorful NPCs that gradually reveal more about themselves as they get used to your presence and recognize your contributions to their small part of the city of Berlin. You perform odd jobs for the various vendors in the area, and the game hits you hard when the inevitable invasion of your sanctuary occurs by the antagonist's forces. Your team of shadowrunners also have distinctive personalities and, like in Neverwinter Nights, also slowly reveal their backstories as their trust in you grows after missions. Eiger, Glory and Dietrich are fun characters to interact with, and the game also provides a cocky decker (Shadowrun's equivalent of computer hackers) NPC early on in case you need one.

Dragonfall's weaknesses include: Still not enough item variety, still not enough mission variety, dependence on many tropes lifted directly from BioWare's book of tricks, such as "big decisions" which go on to effect the world as seen during the text epilogue, and there's still a heck of a lot of bugs. For instance: I noticed that one the Kreuzbasar NPCs simply restarted her dialogue over from your first meeting, though it caught back up when you next encountered her; darkened "fog of war" areas will sometimes take a few moments before they light up after you walk into them; the icons for interactive hotspots seem to flicker in and out of view, causing no amount of paranoia that you might have missed something important; the HUD would sometimes refuse to pop-up in combat, greatly restricting that character's combat options; and many other minor graphical and mechanical glitches. I didn't see anything too serious, like freezes or anything game-breaking, but the sheer number of them still present was a little dispiriting this many months after the original game's release.

Additionally, there's a few odd decisions being made with the game's use of skill-enabled advantages: those extra dialogue options that occur when you have a specific stat high enough to invoke it. For instance, there's an opportunity to sneak into a well-guarded corporate laboratory for decker builds via a busy maintenance worker outside the side-entrance. Having the requisite amount of decker skill to converse with her ("here's the problem") then generates two secondary skill-checks for moderately high strength and charisma stats respectively; either one of which would then allow you to proceed further with this dialogue tree and, eventually, sneak into the building without a fight. Because deckers don't rely on either strength or charisma, and thus would have no reason to build them up, it seemed very unlikely anyone could get into the building this way without cheating or knowing ahead of time and building a gimped character with stat distributions all over the place. Most skill checks are better utilized, but there's a few consecutive ones like the above that seem a bit uncoordinated.

The game introduces sniper rifles and grenade launchers, but nothing new as far as decker equipment goes. Deckers have always had exactly five options for decks: each one more powerful than the last, and require more money to buy and more decker skill to use. There's no variety. Likewise, even with the new weapon types, there's still very few options per level of skill and it usually comes down to a binary choice (e.g. more accuracy or more damage?) when each tier unlocks. I didn't play as a magic-user, but I imagine they have a similar utilitarian assortment of spells rather than the dizzying variety of your average D&D-derived RPG like Icewind Dale or Neverwinter Nights. It's fair to make the assessment that the game's more focused on its storytelling and mission design than it is on loot and equipment, which ought to be more of a means to an end than the focus anyway, but it wouldn't hurt to have more options in battle all the same. (It would be perhaps fairer still to point out the relatively small size of the development team behind the game, who probably needed to make certain aspects a priority out of a deadline-based necessity.) An RPG without loot just feels a bit barren, especially when there's the capacity to make fungible assets out of computer paydata packets, which the game doesn't do often enough, not to mention the many remnants of the pre-Awakening world that could be of value to somebody. There's a humorous chain of minor fetch quests concerning the acquisition of a DVD player and a monitor that can be hooked up to one, both of which are priceless antiques at this point in time. It recalled that episode of Cowboy Bebop where they spent half the running time trying to track down a working Betamax player.

Though the structure of Dragonfall includes an open-ended middle act in which the player can select between several missions in order on to raise the funds necessary to move onto the final act of the campaign, the whole experience still felt a bit too linear. Most missions are designed with a certain character level in mind - though it's worth pointing out that levels work a little differently in Shadowrun, so perhaps "karma total" (where karma is the game's de facto experience/building point system) is more apropos - so we have a series of missions that can only be taken in a certain order. The openness of this part of the game is therefore somewhat specious in nature. The previous campaign had this issue as well, and I suppose there's no easy workaround for this type of instance: the alternative would be to create several options off the bat that are either wildly imbalanced, causing consternation for any player who accidentally opts for the hardest of the missions presented, or they gradually become less challenging as players earn karma and become stronger the more of them they complete.

Overall, I was disappointed in Dragonfall not because of its content but because how little I felt it improved on the original game. When I originally reviewed Shadowrun Returns, I might have boosted its score slightly because I sensed a great deal of potential in its malleable engine and capacity for developer/user mods. I hoped that a new campaign would bring with it a huge number of important updates and fixes that had been generated in the months since the game's release, but given the relative lack of new assets (beyond some new setting-specific tilesets) and its many persistent bugs it seems neither of those things have transpired. It's not entirely fair to ask an expansion to change the user experience to a meaningful degree, as like most DLC it is simply meant to be more content within the same confines, but the price point - almost equal to the original game - and the amount of potential inherent to the format have shifted my expectations somewhat. It's still a solid strategy RPG with some great writing and character development, and feels truer to the Shadowrun setting than any games prior, but it feels like Dragonfall is perfectly content to rest on the original game's laurels than address any of its shortcomings to a significant extent.

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Get Thee to a Nonary: Ambidex Edition

I wrote a blog about Chunsoft's Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors back when I played it last year, and having just beaten its sequel - Virtue's Last Reward - I feel compelled to follow up on my musings with some more waxing lyrical on AI bunnies and unlikely heretofore untapped powers of the human mind in nonet form. So to that effect, here's another nine talking points about VLR and the Zero Escape series as a whole.

1. Visual Novels, Revisited

Over the past year, I can't say I've really played as many graphic adventure games as I'd have liked. My intent was to play a lot more this year, and the List of Shame I devised is packed with ringers from that particular genre. Visual novels are a type of adventure game too, in a manner of speaking, though usually more passive with a comparative lack of player interaction necessitated to further their stories. Whereas an adventure game requires that you solve a few puzzles before progressing onto the next part of the game, many visual novels simply keep on going regardless of the player's input. Conversely, visual novels are also designed with the potential for many diverging paths, with player choices - even if it's as limited as selecting one of a few possible options, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book - branching the story off in different directions.

Visual novels and the graphic adventure games of the west have always been at least aware of each other, and share a similar antecedent. The earliest Famicom adventure games, for instance, told a very linear story and included the occasional puzzle simply as a matter of course, as if they saw what text adventures were doing and simply evolved and refined the elements (the storytelling, the decisions that could potentially generate alternate paths) that appealed to them most - which is, technically speaking, also what the early Sierra graphic adventure games did, only emphasizing a different set of preferences. A recently translated GameCenter CX episode features the Famicom adventure game Oishinbo: The Ultimate Menu 3-Course Showdown, which is a perfect example of what adventure games were like in Japan at the time: though the player is running around trying to solve a puzzle ("what is the best possible meal for the situation and how would one procure its ingredients in time?"), most of this is done by simply talking and examining every hotspot in the game until the game moves forward on its own. Very rarely is the player required to make decisions and solve puzzles in a situation where they aren't simply facilitating the next part of the story. When the player is given real agency, it's a multiple choice decision that either leads to the next part of the story or a premature game over. There's no need to worry about one's inventory quite so often as a result. The NES saw a handful of Western adventure games too, the ports of Shadowgate and Maniac Mansion perhaps best known of that small group, but the divide between the two approaches to this genre was quite concrete even back in those primitive days.

The Zero Escape games feel like a combination of the two philosophies, in a similar fashion as the Ace Attorney games: there's a quite obvious distinction between when the game wants you to read/listen to a lot of text and make the occasional decision, and when it wants you to run around searching for items and using them to solve puzzles. For Zero Escape, these sequences come when you emerge into a new puzzle room and must solve its riddles before you are allowed out, at which point the game switches back to text box after text box and all the juicy plot revelations that follow. It's an interesting attempt to combine the two types of adventure game in a way that might not necessarily be to everyone's liking (I could see how someone would dislike either one of the two modes, and be dissatisfied with the whole as a result), but I tend to view it as a "best of both worlds" compromise.

Anyway, considering the only other visual novel I've played recently was that scarcely interactive Go! Go! Nippon! virtual vacation game, it's safe to say Virtue's Last Reward was phenomenal in comparison. I do intend to play more graphic adventure games and visual novels this year, however. A lot more.

2. The Puzzles

The Puzzles were definitely the weakest element of 999, and it's gratifying to see that not only have they been improved quite a bit but there's no longer any repetition; due to the way the game's branches work, there isn't a single scenario where you have to complete a previously beaten room again, unless you specifically choose to do so. The game branches in such a way that you have one in three choices for the first real puzzle room (after the tutorial puzzle, at least) and for each of those routes, another three possible rooms. All of which are unique.

In addition, the puzzles themselves seem significantly more involved, but also far less abstruse. The only truly "how the hell was I supposed to figure that out?" moments are reserved for each room's second password; an optional objective necessary to uncover some secret information about the game, its characters, its references and the science (or pseudo science, in some cases) it drops on you. I found trying to discover the "blue password" (as opposed to the green password, which is needed to escape the room and continue the game) made for some of the more fun lateral thinking exercises the game had in store.

The best part is that the game actually justifies this new system to an extent, in much the same way 999 somewhat justified all its repetitive elements. Sometimes I wonder if they introduce all this weird parapsychology stuff simply so they could have an out to deflect complaints about this slightly more problematic aspect of the game.

3. The Characters

I'd heard complaints about Clover's characterization, and they weren't kidding. She's been given the inexplicable half-nude fashion sense of any non-leading female Zero Escape character, and become considerably ditzier as a result. I sort of get what they were going at, though: her name of Clover, or Yotsuba (short for "four-leaf clover") in Japanese, has a certain connotation of having an oddball, carefree attitude. If you've ever seen that Yotsuba manga (and if you spend any amount of time on Tumblr, it feels as inevitable as DanganRonpa spoilers and Dr Who gif collages), the eponymous main character is also something of a sweet nutcase.

Of course, the biggest concern is how this Clover diverges from the shy but fiercely intelligent child of 999, who would surprise Junpei and the others with her occasional bursts of maturity and cunning. As for other characters, Alice feels as superfluous as Lotus did; a hyper-intelligent woman incongruously dressed like a Middle Eastern stripper who is only around - the game admits as much in both cases - because they're necessary to solve a single piece of the grander puzzle (or, more cynically, for some T&A).

The rest are fine though: we have two love interests in the standoffish and enigmatic Phi and the warm and maternal Luna, an elderly man Tenmyouji and his adopted grandson Quark who are involved in one of the game's more insane twists, a dubious character in a top hat named Dio who the game really wants you to buy as the villain and my favorite character, K, an amnesiac in a robotic suit who could well be anyone at any time. There's also Zero himself, who generally makes himself known to the group through his intermediary: a particularly sarcastic AI program that resembles a geisha rabbit and makes no end of bunny puns. Apparently, the punning was the localization team's solution for how Zero frequently added a rabbit-like "-usagi" suffix to its speech.

4. The Rest

The most striking part of VLR is that there's clearly some more budget behind it. Rather than static portraits, characters now animate with some fairly decent stylized 3D models. I played the 3DS version, but I imagine the Vita version is even more impressive-looking. It does make me wonder if this extra expense didn't cause some of the worry about not being able to fund a potential sequel (see below for more thoughts on that).

I also wasn't aware that it had an English dub, since I seemed to have played through the whole game with the Japanese dub and English subtitles without realising there was an alternative. Turns out it's because the European version didn't even bother including the English dub, which seemed a little unusual. I'm sure the dub was entirely competent, but I suppose it's a matter of having different publishers and localization teams with different priorities. Weird decision, but I suppose most Europeans will be using their native language's subs to follow the story anyway, regardless of whether the audio is English or Japanese. Might as well have it so the characters' lips are syncing to the words they're saying.

5. Science and Not Science

999 introduced a few paranormal theories to its narrative, some of which were relevant to the plot and others simply red herrings presumably meant to disorient you. Whenever one of these theories or thought experiments showed up, one or more of the characters would explain the basics to the protagonist, because these were real ideas (well, hypothetical science fiction concepts that had been made by real people previous to the game's inception, at least) with some degree of thought and elaboration behind them. They were never really tied in to the game's individual puzzles either, despite randomly appearing during the exploration of a new puzzle room, they just had some relevance to the game's overarching storyline.

Virtue's Last Reward does the same thing, and while it's still as weirdly jarring as ever VLR at least focuses on particular strains of crazy germane to its own outlandish story. VLR's plot is considerably stranger and more far-fetched than 999's on the whole, but at the same time keeps its internal logic more consistent. For an example of what I mean, 999 introduces the theory of Ice-9 (actually a concept devised by sci-fi writer Kurt Vonnegut based on some real-life theoretical chemistry) but doesn't do anything with it. It just kind of notes how much of a neat idea it is and lets it hang around there all detached from anything else like an awkward partygoer who doesn't know anyone else at the hootenanny. VLR makes use of everything it introduces, whether it's Schrodinger's Cat or E = MC2 or the prisoner's dilemma or a virus based on a mathematical principle that makes people want to murder themselves like in The Happening.

Point is, even though VLR is quantifiably crazier overall, it doesn't feel as wasteful with the science (real or imagined) it features. It uses everything in its kooky parapsychology toolbox to tell its story, rather than just inserting whatever its director Uchikoshi was looking up on Wikipedia that day.

6. The Bottom Line. Well, the Two-Thirds Down Line.

Overall, I liked VLR a lot. I don't know if I'm completely on board with where the series is going, which would be straight to Crazyville on a rocket, but the storytelling itself is as sound as ever. The series is known for creating multiple "dead end" plot threads that exist only to provide a bit more backstory for certain characters and help the player realise the wrong choices that led them to that point, and this one made for some really clever and/or emotional scenes, taking full advantage of a narrative mechanic that allows you to have two characters facing their own imminent demise to draw a lot of pathos from it. They do die, of course, but that doesn't have to be the end of the story; just rewind and try something else.

As previously stated, I'm a fan of VLR's puzzles and how they allowed for one obvious solution that let the less invested players to continue the story while also including a far trickier variant for the die-hards and puzzle savants to work out for some potentially revealing factoids. The visuals are also significantly better and the game felt really substantial for whatever reason. I'm sure I passed the 30 hour mark, which wasn't something I anticipated from a visual novel, albeit a visual novel with over a dozen "escape the room" puzzles.

I might liken the nature of the first two Zero Escape games to the first two core Assassin's Creed games: The first felt like a purer expression of what the creative lead intended, a more grounded plot and the benefit of being an entirely original IP and thus having that novelty value, but the second improved on almost every single mechanical aspect of the game's composition and felt more like the series was finally finding its legs in that sweet spot between the idealism of its creative lead and the practicality of molding that idea into a game that would be fun to play.

7. Sequel Strife

The Zero Escape series is currently facing the worrying prospect of being postponed indefinitely, which would be a general bummer enough already except for the fact that the second game has sort of re-engineered the mythology of the series to befit a trilogy in order to tie up all the loose ends and explain everything. There's a lot of unanswered questions that a hypothetical third game would presumably address, given what little we've been told about it, as well as being an effective bridge between the events of two previous games. The fact that the third game doesn't appear likely, even with this eleventh hour quest from the internet to save it, is something of a downer, but at the same time, it's equally unfortunate that the second game's story decided to rely so heavily on needing a subsequent entry to fully explicate on everything, because that just seems like a very flippant way of convincing the people behind the funding that a third game would be a necessity; a bluff that was unfortunately called by the publishers and producers of the series.

Still, it's not like campaigns like this haven't worked in the past. Operation Rainfall was a rousing success, and Kickstarter and Indie Gogo have helped a lot of games get off the ground, so there's precedents aplenty. I'll remain optimistic that something will come along last minute and save Zero Escape 3 and whatever goofy subtitle they decide to go with this time. Hopefully it won't have to involve teleporting one's consciousness back in time and finding a way to make the previous games more lucrative.

8. Spoiler Space!

Here we discuss the game's plot in detail, its ending and its various twists. Just scroll right past unless you've already beaten the game, and likewise try not to fill the comments with spoilerish stuff either.

So... the moon, huh? And they explained the lack of gravity with the effects of the Radical-6 virus. Doesn't really explain why people occasionally went into slow-motion mode regardless, like Quark or Sigma on one of the "everybody dies" threads, or how Luna and the various recordings weren't all sped up (unless they were all configured specifically to run slowly so people could follow them) or why everyone killed themselves in one of the grislier endings (including Luna!) if they're all already infected. It also raises some questions about how Dio managed to sneak into a moon base, or why Akane and Zero expected Tennmyouji to keep his trap shut about their extraterrestrial location.

Talking of whom, I thought it was a little nuts the guy was actually Junpei, and had been living under an assumed name in the post-apocalpytic Earth salvaging from the decaying remains of civilization like one of those surly Russians from the Metro series. At least root beer floats apparently survived? I'm guessing he sort of gave up on chasing Akane around the world when it became difficult just to survive.

Then there's K, who is apparently Sigma's clone and "spare", presumably created with the same technology that allowed Dio and the other Myrmidons to exist. K's face-concealing armor is explained to be a heavy exosuit that allows him to develop bones and muscles normally on the Moon, though this would suggest that he would be even more sluggish if he was under the additional effect of Radical-6 (and he'd have to be for the ploy to work, or he'd be fast-talkin' like some 1930s journalist).

There's also the matter of Phi, who remains a mystery going into the third game; a deliberate decision by the series's director. Some wild theories abound, but my favorite is the idea that she's an alternate universe Santa who just so happened to be female in that particular branch. As the person who seemingly has the most knowledge of quantum mechanics, and is usually the one explaining it all to Sigma, she did emphasize at one point that the events that split reality into alternate timelines don't have to be human decisions but could just be events that happen at the atomic level. That suggests to me that she's aware that she might be the result of an errant chromosome deciding to be an X instead of a Y during her conception, and is either the Santa from another universe who found a way to cross over to help Akane or is and always has been the Santa from VLR's reality; in which case, VLR is set in an alternate universe to 999. I suppose the reason why this theory all ties together so soundly in my mind, and perhaps an unfortunate coincidence for the director of the series hoping to make it a big shocking reveal, is because Bioshock Infinite already explored the idea with the Luteces. Huh, maybe I should've marked this for Bioshock Infinite spoilers too. How do you do a spoiler tag within a spoiler tag?

I'd talk about the super secret ending, in which Kyle/K is apparently taken over by an additional unknown character which seems to exist simply to set up the next game, but it seems kind of pointless without having the necessary context to understand it. I'm guessing this character is perhaps another version of Sigma who is involved with that Mars base Nonary Game that the game alludes to several times, or perhaps that super meta suggestion people have made about it being the player themselves, but there's no way to know for sure. Secrets! Who needs 'em? I mean, besides this series?

9. The Future

So what else do I want to cover in the future? I still have Last Window and Another Code: R, the few remaining CING games I've yet to discover (well, there's also Again, but that seemed a bit too overwrought for its good from that QL Vinny and Ryan did). I've been meaning to catch up with the new Phoenix Wright game, especially with that Layton crossover already out over here. Speaking of whom, it might be getting close to my annual Layton adventure. I believe the Last Specter might be next.

There's also all the adventure games I keep picking up from Steam: Edna and Harvey, The Whispered World, The Book of Unwritten Tales, Wadjet Eye's Gemini Rue and Primordia, Pendulo's The Next Big Thing and too many Telltale episodic games than I can recall. I gotta find time for some of these, this pile's getting ridiculous. Anyway, whenever that time arrives, I'll let you all know with some more loquacious ramblings. Until then, keep on pointing and clicking.

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The Comic Commish: The Previous Generation (Jul-Dec 2009)

Hey guys. I gotta say, I'm a little out of it this month. Vinny's recent career shift into comedy manga cartoonist has really overshadowed these MS Paint comics I once happily produced for you all. It's hard to compete with such layered satire. I'll do my best though, because you all deserve it. So does @omghisam, my erstwhile gold sponsor and fellow fan of extremely anime animes, and the many excellent games of the previous generation which I'm showcasing here as always.

Speaking of which, today we're covering the second half of 2009. A hell of a lot of great games were released in the US during this period of time, making up for the relatively dry first half of that year. There's going to be a long list of recommendations at the end so, uh, try to stay calm?

Rift!!!!

Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (AlphaDream, DS, September)

The third game in the Mario & Luigi series of portable RPGs is easily its best, and the culmination of the series's offbeat charm and self-effacing candor that has allowed it to become the secret greatest Mario spin-off franchise. Bowser's Inside Story splits its time between the Mario brothers, who find themselves embedded deep within the viscera of Bowser, the King of the Koopas, and on Bowser himself as he rampages across the continent petulantly battering his disloyal legions who now answer to a usurping Fawful, making his long overdue return after his dark horse turn in the original Superstar Saga.

The game itself borrows the template originally devised by the Squaresoft/Nintendo crossover Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super Nintendo (AlphaDream has more than a couple ex-Squaresoft employees), with RPG combat that drops the damage back and forth to single figures to keep it easier to follow but adds a wrinkle in that most attacks require some additional timing from the player in order to hit effectively, or even at all. The game feels simplified without actually being easier, a coup pulled off by trendsetting RPGs like Dungeon Master and Square's own Final Fantasy: with less distracting complications to consider, the overall experience feels purer as a result.

However, the most effective weapon in Bowser's Inside Story's arsenal is its sense of humor; it's peerless in this regard in the grander Mario ludology, and squeezes a lot of mileage out of Bowser's childish tantrums, Fawful's cackling Engrish and the always gormless and cowardly Luigi. Bowser's internal regions are suitably gross but at the same time lend themselves to a lot of imaginative puzzles, and the way the game ties the two teams together by letting the Marios power Bowser up during crucial moments can be very clever. The DS has no dearth of excellent RPGs, and Bowser's Inside Story might well be at the apex of that long list.

Half-Minute Hero (Marvelous AQL, PSP, October)

Half-Minute Hero looks, sounds and plays like a classic JRPG, but is in actuality a curious breed of puzzle game. Your tiny hero only has thirty seconds to save the world, but can't simply walk right up to the boss and take them down before that time limit expires. For one, the boss is usually hiding behind several dungeon instances and a barrier or two that cannot be overcome with sheer brawn. Most of the game's stages are set up in a way where you need to suss out the solution to reach the bad guy, find the various power-ups littered around the map, balance the amount of money you're making to that you're having to spend to rewind time and then ensure you're at the minimum required level to fight the boss (the game helpfully tells you when you're ready) and take them out before that timer finally ticks down to zero.

Though the game demands a certain amount of alacrity from the player, there's actually plenty of time to cautiously poke around. You'll no doubt fail a few times, but as you piece together the critical path from checking around the map and talking to NPCs, you'll eventually formulate a winning strategy with hopefully some cash left over for new upgrades - the only things that stick with you from stage to stage, unlike your experience and gold. Cleverly, the game branches frequently, letting you try alternate solutions to stages and finding more upgrades in branching paths. Jumping between multiple paths lets you collect new treasures without raising the difficulty level, and having twice as many upgrades makes the tougher later stages far easier to cope with. The RPG elements are in truth largely incidental - grinding is necessary for taking on the boss, but there's no real strategy where combat is involved: battles occur automatically, with the hero simply charging in until they or the enemy is defeated.

In a similar vein as Bowser's Inside Story, one of the game's strongest points is its goofy sense of humor and ruthless evisceration of common RPG clichés. You'll encounter a sympathetic "beautiful evil lord", clearly based on Psaro of Dragon Quest IV and the string of gothic, moody, slightly effete anti-heroes that followed, who eventually becomes the star of his own mode within the game. Likewise, there's a princess with a legion of followers with her own off-shoot as well. The various bosses are humorously given the flimsiest motivations for why they want to destroy the world, and your confidante - the pragmatic Goddess of Time - is as lazy, standoffish and avaricious as she is occasionally helpful. Though originally a PSP exclusive, enhanced digital ports have become available on XBLA and Steam since then, so it's easy enough to track down.

Borderlands (Gearbox Software, PC/360/PS3, October)

Borderlands is a novel combination of a Diablo style looter and an FPS, with a cel-shaded post-apocalyptic presentation and a sense of humor people will either find lacking or entirely up their alley. As an example, if that "up your alley" got a lascivious chuckle out of you, you are very much in the latter group. Behind all its superficial Mad Max parodies and scatological jokes, Borderlands knows precisely what it's doing regarding the instilling of that psychological compulsion to find color-coded loot and make one's various numbers ever higher that made Diablo such an addictive game back in the 90s. The addition of the fast-paced first-person shooter gameplay only serves to enhance the overall enjoyment of actually playing the game more than its spiritual antecedent's frequently mindless clicking could ever hope to manage.

The real appeal of this combination of genres is that the monster and bandit kills feel earned, despite the emphasis on increasing damage output and finding better loot, because you're the one outmaneuvering them and carefully aiming those devastating headshots. It merges the skill-based satisfaction you get from something like Call of Duty with the equally satisfying feeling you receive when you find a weapon in a chest that's far superior to the one you're holding. Most genre hybrids struggle to find a sufficiently pleasing communion between its two parents, but Borderlands presents a rare case of a "best of both worlds" situation.

It's not perfect of course (I didn't care much for most of its boss fights), and the length for which it can keep your interest will vary from person to person. I was fine after a single playthrough with one character class, but others might beat (and have beaten) it several times on multiple difficulty levels with every character available. When those hooks dig into you, they dig deep. There's always the equally good sequel as well, though I got my fill of that one a lot sooner for whatever reason.

Revisited

As is now customary, we're going to look at a few comics I made previously for games released in this period. I promised three new ones with each of these features, so I can't simply give these a lick of paint and hope no-one notices. I'm not Hanna Barbera.

A Boy and His Blob (WayForward, Wii, October)

Before they remastered NES favorite DuckTales, WayForward also updated a certain other game for Nintendo's inaugural console, albeit one that didn't quite make as much of a splash. A Boy and His Blob updates David Crane's A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia, a game about a boy and his alien friend who is able to assume various utilitarian forms in order to help the boy through a confusing and occasionally hostile world. The Wii remake has some incredible visuals: an animation style that looks like it was lifted directly from one of those heartwarming Studio Ghibli movies about kids and their otherworldly pals. What A Boy and His Blob doesn't quite prepare you for is how challenging some of the later stages can become, where the game is far more demanding on the player's skill level than it is on their ability to work out the customary jelly bean puzzles. Also, yeah, this game has a hug button. Why wouldn't it have a hug button?

Machinarium (Amanita Design, PC, October)

A Boy and His Blob shares its excellently animated, mostly dialogue-free sense of whimsy with Amanita Design's Machinarium, the game that put the Czech Indie developers on the map. A point and click graphic adventure game set in a rusty metropolis filled with mechanical life, the game relies on simple ideograms and character animations to convey its story and characterizations, with the puzzles being the usual sort of "using an inventory item on a hotspot to get another item you need elsewhere" business. The game alleviates the common problem of these games, which is to have you walking around with half a theme park's Lost and Found in your inventory and having no clue as to what goes where, by compartmentalizing the game into several smaller sections. After solving what needs to be done in one area, the game moves onto the next with most of the now superfluous inventory items stripped away. As a result, the game moves at a pleasing clip, rather than dragging its heels with too many abstruse puzzles.

The Other Ones!

And here's the rest. Didn't bother making comics for these, there's simply too many to get through. Make no mistake: they're all still every bit as commendable.

  • Shatter (Sidhe Interactive, PC/PS3, July): Shatter's a psychedelic Breakout throwback in much the same way as, say, Resogun is a psychedelic Defender throwback or Pac-Man Championship Edition DX is a psychedelic Pac-Man throwback. I suppose this whole glowy neon lights and particle effects being added to old Arcade games model really started back with Geometry Wars, or perhaps even whatever it is Jeff Minter does when he's not tending to his llamas. Regardless, Shatter has some good additions beyond superficial laser light shows for its Breakout reimagining, with some clever physics manipulation involving magnetically repulsing and attracting the ball to change its trajectory, as well as perspective switches from horizontal to vertical to a weird semi-circular tube configuration. The stand-out aspect by far is its superb electro soundtrack, created by Indie musician Module. Just go take in the audio majesty that is Argon Refinery, if you need an example.
  • Little King's Story (CING, Wii, July): Little King's Story is an odd departure for CING, who usually content themselves with humorously overwrought adventure visual novels like Another Code, Again and Hotel Dusk: Room 215. Or at least, they did until they were unfortunately closed down a few years back. Little King's Story is an entirely different sort of affair: a real-time squad-based strategy puzzle game that immediately invokes something like Pikmin, a comparison helped in some part by its cute and colorful countenance. It also contains a kingdom building sim element, though it's fairly basic - you simply use the spoils of your adventures to build special structures once they become available, and these structures expand the quantity and variation of units you can use as well as having other benefits. It's a deeply weird game, and much of its appeal is in seeing which odd tangent it goes off on next. As the Wii U is the only "next gen" (gotta ween myself off saying that) console with backwards compatibility, Wii games still retain their value going forward. If a Nintendo platform's not your system of choice, there's always that Vita port that's supposed to be OK.
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady, PS3/360/PC, August): The Arkham games have become something of a franchise juggernaut since their debut with Arkham Asylum, and it probably goes without saying at this point that the game ably emphasizes everything that makes the Batman character great: His deductive intelligence, his fierce martial ability, his gadgets, his predilection for stealth and intimidation, a rogue's gallery of colorful villains and the grim and gritty atmosphere of post-1980s Gotham. Not that you see much of Gotham outside of the titular mental institution, as Asylum wisely keeps all the action locked away on its titular facility's solitary island. It's a limitation that works in the game's favor, as its sequels would find out, because there's still an immense number of locations and secrets to explore yet you don't have to run (or float, I guess) a couple miles each time you want to backtrack with a new piece of kit or traversal ability. Happily for an OCD completionist like myself, there's lots to find and do between chasing down supervillains.
  • Shadow Complex (Epic Games/Chair Entertainment, XBLA, August): Shadow Complex seems like a SpaceWhipper having its 3D cake and eating it 2D, as its able to combine a lot of 3D gunplay elements within its 2D explorational platformer in ways more meaningful than simply having polygonal objects on a 2D plane. Enemies appear in the background, and the hero can target them as he runs left and right. We haven't really seen this exact arrangement replicated since, oddly enough, though Shadow Complex's core SpaceWhipper gameplay has certainly inspired a lot of fellow small studio games of this genre, the most recent being the new Strider remake. It's five years old, but it's probably still the best game of its kind outside of one the better portable IGA Castlevanias.
  • Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (Level-5, DS, August): Layton's second outing is every bit as charming and clever as the first, but introduces what we now refer to as "matchstick fatigue". Well, maybe it's just me that calls it that. The Professor Layton games all have excellent presentation, great little mystery plots that get solved entirely without your help and more Mensa puzzles than you could shake a Riddler cane at. It's best to pace these things out, though, because their success has necessitated a lot of retreading of familiar territory. But hey, this one is set on a train for most of its playtime, and who doesn't like a good mystery set on a train? The Lady Vanishes, anyone?
  • Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (Naughty Dog, PS3, October): Uncharted 2's the undisputed (at least I'd like to hope so) gem of the Uncharted trilogy, a game that sees Nathan and chums on fine form as they globetrot around picturesque locations to stop a psychotic Russian military commander from taking over the world (how unfortunately prescient). It has less of the dead weight that dragged down its predecessor and successor, and its combat is an able mix of clever stealth sections, rapid brute forcing and "hold your ground" bunker survival sequences. You've also got the requisite Tomb Raider-esque puzzles and traversal to enjoy in equal measures. It's a game built to appeal to everyone, without losing any of its vitality for the sake of wider audience accessibility. There's a reason it got voted 2009's GOTY, after all.
  • Demon's Souls (From Software, PS3, October): What can be said about Demon's Souls at this point that wasn't hammered home by Brad and Vinny's recent playthrough of From Software's breakout gothic hit? It's a Western-styled RPG built upon their King's Field series, which saw a lot of innovative additions that not only elevated it beyond From's earlier flawed ludology but allows it to stand head and shoulders above most RPGs in general. Working with (or against) other players, forcing the player to gradually comprehend the dangers around them in the harshest way imaginable, a very in-depth combat system that greatly favors split-second timing and patience over simple button mashing and a passive approach to lore and worldbuilding that lets players decide just how much they want to invest in the specifics of this grim, foreboding land. Just... don't get too obsessed with the crystal lizards. They aren't generally worth the high blood pressure.
  • Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time (Insomniac Games, PS3, October): The third of the Ratchet & Clank Future games, the franchise rebrand that occurred once the series hit the PS3, is perhaps the best R&C game ever made. It keeps the two heroes separated for a while, letting Clank focus on some devious time-based, clone-making puzzles while Ratchet fulfills the more overtly action-oriented magnet-rail and gunplay sequence quota. There's also an expansive galaxy to explore in your own ship, with lots of little one-off planetoid stages that reminded me a bit of Super Mario Galaxy. The plot's the same goofy Saturday morning cartoon show the series has always been, with the same deceptively sharp writing and characterization. You can't really go wrong with any R&C game (well, Deadlocked and All 4 One weren't too great), but this one's my clear favorite. I would recommend you play Tools of Destruction and maybe Quest for Booty first though, since they all tie together narratively.
  • Risen (Piranha Bytes, PC/360, October): Risen's a classic CRPG made in the modern era, a evolution of the well-regarded Gothic series of CRPGs that most of Risen's development team once worked on. You're simply dumped on an island and given the briefest of directions, and eventually must choose between factions and carefully consider developing your character based on desired skills and abilities. There's not enough character building points to learn everything, so you prioritize what's necessary or suited for whatever type of character build you're going for. My favorite part of Risen is that it feels like a classic RPG through and through: There's a big island, not a whole lot of restraints (other than the difficulty of some monsters), no inventory limit and lots to see and do. Just keep in mind that it can be a bit rough around the edges, given that it's a big RPG produced by a relatively small European studio.
  • Assassin's Creed II (Ubisoft Montreal, 360/PS3/PC, November) : Assassin's Creed would finally come into its own with the second core game, and the introduction of Ezio Auditore da Firenze. The Italian rapscallion is a far more charismatic lead than the dour Altair ever was, and the game engine's been heavily modified to include far more mission variety. Italy is a particularly attractive part of the world, especially around the Renaissance, and the plot surrounding the anti-Pope Rodrigo Borgias and Ezio's quest for revenge feels a little more relatable than a Templar headhunt. The game also does a handful of interesting things with the modern day Desmond Miles, though the series would end up squandering a lot of the mad twists that conclude this game. If you were looking to jump into the giant haystack that is the Assassin's Creed franchise, II is probably your best bet. (Then Brotherhood, then directly to IV if most accounts are anything to go by. The rest you can try should you find yourself heavily invested in the series, though Revelations and III aren't all that great.)
  • Dragon Age: Origins (BioWare, 360/PS3/PC, November): Dragon Age: Origins is BioWare doing for its forte of elves and dragons what it recently did for sci-fi with Mass Effect: In a similar fashion, Dragon Age feels both familiar and new, a dichotomy brought about by some clever worldbuilding and inspiration sourcing. You'll see shades of Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire everywhere you look, but the muddy realm of Ferelden - a medieval nation beset every so often by immense hordes of demonic terrors - is quite well realised, and the individual stories you come across while attempting to recruit political factions for a big counterattack create a lot of smaller, memorable adventures in the style of a series of D&D modules. Dragon Age 2 squandered some of the series's appeal, but Origins is a fantastic RPG that caters to all levels of player experience.
  • Rabbids Go Home (Ubisoft Montpellier, Wii/DS/PC, November): Most Rabbid games seem fairly disposable on first glance, like UbiSoft's own variant of Mario Party or any number of lesser mini-game collections. Rabbids Go Home is an entirely different lagomorphic beast, with a story focused around collecting garbage from the humans and using it to build a giant tower to the moon. The hows and whys of the Rabbits' plan isn't important; being a willful participant of the madcap chaos of steering a shopping cart into as many piles of objects as possible while terrorizing the milquetoast humans with your kleptomaniac rampage is both fun and funny. If only I could portmanteau those two words.
  • Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers (Square-Enix, Wii, December): I was a little cold on Crystal Bearers and eventually abandoned it once it became clear I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going, but as an even more divergent entry in a spin-off series known for a few odd decisions (multiplayer action RPGs? In my Final Fantasy?) it has merit in its sheer weirdness. Less an RPG than a, I don't even know, throwing shit around simulator, Crystal Bearers has a goofy, self-aware "anything goes" charm about it that has you wildly jumping around from one mini-game sequence to the next while greatly emphasizing experimentation with its combat. You pick things up, throw them at the enemies chasing you around the level and hope for the best. I kind of wish I gave it more of a chance, but at the same time I do wonder what the developers were smoking.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo, DS, December): Spirit Tracks is the third and presently final entry in the Wind Waker Zelda sub-series, and the second game for the DS after Phantom Hourglass. It continues on after the events of its two predecessors, but fast-forwards a hundred years into the future after Link, Tetra and her pirates colonize a mysterious island filled with train tracks which then prospers enough to become the Kingdom of New Hyrule after a few generations. While the game follows the usual Zelda spiel of locating dungeons, plundering new gadgets, defeating bosses and moving onto the next den of evil in the sequence, there's lot of oddly engrossing Densha de Go! styled train sequences. Acquiring new rail routes and carefully escorting NPCs for rewards become important factors for progression as the game proceeds, and Zelda herself is given way more attention in her character development than usual, continuing Wind Waker's trend of crafting a Hyrulian princess with some personality for once. Just be sure to play it on its native DS, because the 3DS's mic isn't exactly sufficient for some of the game's musical panflute sequences (the panflute standing in for the usual ocarina).
  • The Saboteur (Pandemic Studios, PS3/360/PC, December): The Saboteur initially seems like the sort of open-world also-ran you saw everywhere last generation (and possibly this one, if InFamous: Second Son's accolades end up leading to more imitators): the sort of game where you run around a large city (in this case, Paris) and free regions from enemy control by performing the same handful of tasks over and over, while occasionally following a main storyline revolved around personal vengeance. However, there's a few interesting elements aiding The Saboteur that help set it apart in that well-populated genre. The first is that it's a historical representation of Nazi-occupied Paris in the midst of the second World War, and the player character is an embittered Irish racecar mechanic determined to bring down the Nazi occupying forces with as much grit and grace (and TNT) as he can muster, which isn't a setting you see exploited too often outside of FPS games. The second is that the game makes terrific use of color, displaying Nazi-occupied sectors as noirishly monochromatic and drab with a few splashes of red here and there in swastikas and propaganda posters. Liberating a region brings color back to it, creating a very vivid impression that your efforts are having an effect. It's not too subtle, but it works, and I had a lot of fun running around taking down guardtowers and other Nazi structures than I might've otherwise anticipated.

All right, that's it. Thanks for sitting through a second incredibly wordy blog in a row. I'll be back with the first half of 2010 in the middle of April some time.

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A Delve Into the Abyss

The Abyss Beckons

I've always wondered how group photos like these are organized. "Less significant characters, to the back. Yes, that means you."

I've spent what feels like the best part of a month playing Tales of the Abyss, the eighth main series title in Namco Bandai/Tales Studio's venerable action JRPG franchise originally released in 2005 for the PS2 (2006 in the US) that was recently ported to the 3DS which also marked its European debut. What's often an issue when discussing any one of these Tales games is how difficult it is to avoid talking about how many of its core elements are shared between its predecessors and successors, due to how the series has evolved in a far more gradual and incremental fashion akin to Dragon Quest than in the much more experimentally diverse and discrete leaps between, say, any two given adjacent Final Fantasy games.

That isn't to say Tales is staid and formulaic, at least not entirely. The series is beloved by many because it sticks to its guns in some fundamental respects while returning to the drawing board for those facets which need to be refreshed: specifically, the cast of characters, the setting and some tweaking of tertiary mechanics that perhaps didn't pan out as satisfactorily last time. By allowing certain immutable elements, like the core combat systems and item naming conventions (though Tales is hardly alone in the latter - this is a particularly common trait among JRPG series to maintain a uniformity), the franchise feels lived in and familiar, which is the sort of tactic that can maintain a fanbase without repulsing them in turn by serving up the same dish over and over to diminishing returns. Like Zelda or the IGA Castlevanias, there'll always be a mix of visitors that will be satiated after a few entries, perhaps occasionally coming back to the series every once in a blue moon when a particularly well-regarded sequel transpires, and those on its wavelength that are salivating for each new iteration regardless of how homogeneous they are perceived by those outside the zealous fanbase.

This game came out nine years ago. I'm only just now playing it. I told you guys my backlog was hardcore.

Still, even with the numerous elements unique to Tales of the Abyss, it's way too easy to drop a couple hundred "this is a feature implemented in earlier Tales games" or "this reference calls back to Tales of ___". So... screw it. I'm going to do a full analysis of this game from top to bottom, throwing in as many allusions and references to the other Tales games as frequently as I deem germane. This'll include a deeper look at the lore, the setting, the characters and the finer mechanics of the various RPG systems in play. But, you know, in a typically frank and irreverent manner. Trying to talk around its dumber moments or how it entirely lifted ideas from earlier entries would be almost impossible, and I wouldn't have a whole lot of fun writing that sort of 'beating around the bush' scrutiny. Nor, I can imagine, would it be that much fun to read either. (I should also state here that there's spoilers up until the end of the first act of the game, which is only when the plot really starts to kick off.)

Tales of the Abyss can be awfully trite at times, the plot moves glacially at certain points and there's a veritable exhibition of very common tropes that appear frequently in the Tales series, and by extension to JRPGs in general, but Tales has always been more interested in inventing characters and letting them develop than it is in its greater schemes and stories. A lot of the story beats are the same old power struggles and wrong decisions spurred by good intentions, but it's in creating a likeable ragtag team of protagonists, putting them through these familiar rigors and letting them discuss these experiences among themselves that the Tales series usually flourishes.

Of course, each new team of Tales heroes and heroines are carefully designed from a gameplay perspective as well. Characters fulfill basic class roles as they would do in any party-based RPG, though Tales is fairly unique in how each character's fighting style is tailored to suit their personality. Tales' chaotic real-time combat plays out similarly to one of those arena fighters like Anarchy Reigns or Ehrgeiz, with each character given a list of special attacks named Artes that consume varying amounts of a "Technical Points" stat (a slightly convoluted means of allowing weapon skills and magic spells to draw from the same mana pool, which regenerates to some extent after each normal attack and the battle's conclusion); a foundation of frantic free-for-all chaos upon which greater layers of general team AI strategies are spread. Certain characters are predisposed for the front lines, of course, but whether they're there to run interference and aggro enemies while the player's magic-user does all the heavy lifting damage-wise, or if you've set those magic-users to support and healing while you, as the melee fighter, go to town with your best combos will often change depending on the story circumstances, the type of opponent(s) being faced or just your preferred playstyle. When discussing either their role in the plot or in battle, the characters adhere to broad archetypes but are nuanced sufficiently to set themselves apart as unique entities, even as the overall cast of the Tales series grows and grows. It's a factor that always been instrumental to the success of these games, and one the designers seem to always pay keen attention to above all else.

The Tale of Tales of the Abyss

Tales of the Abyss is set on Auldrant, a world locked in a seemingly endless war between two vaguely European sovereign states that between them comprise of most of the globe's five continents. The third, much smaller kingdom is that of Daath: a theocratic ersatz Vatican City that mediates the peace and not-so-secretly controls the two other factions with an immense prophetic scripture called the Score.

The Score is an all-encompassing and absurdly detailed divination regarding everything and everyone that was transcribed from a group of floating rocks during the Dawn Age, an ancient time of unparalleled technological advancement, that everyone follows without question. In exchange for utter obedience to the Score, the people and nations of the world are promised untold prosperity. As such, the fragile peace between the two empire-nations has been kept in check, until the Score decrees that the two must come to blows once again.

Now I'm fairly sure those last two paragraphs set off about five or six JRPG cliché warning klaxons in your head, but it's the nature of any Tales game to stick to a few common themes and find ways of shaking them around by the foundations a little, if never toppling them entirely. For instance, the game zigzags on the veracity and potentially nefarious nature of the Score quite a few times, setting up villains and heroes that adhere to and reject it in equal measure. The game also has a wild conclusion to its first act, spurring a complete moral shift for at least one of its characters and features an entire team of recurring villains that each get a surprising amount of screentime for their individual backstories that properly frames their motivations, among other factors.

Science Time with Professor Anime

The setting of TotA is unusual among Tales games because it leans so much more heavily on the game's bizarre invented science regarding fonons - an elemental matter I can really only compare to midichlorians given the number of times they've been used to explain away some scientific implausibility in a fantasy world that probably shouldn't be trying to apply scientific scrutiny to itself in the first place. The fonons are in both organic and inorganic matter and are instrumental in keeping the body's atoms held together(?). And there's a chain of seventh fonons that circle the planet like an accretion disc named the Planet Storm that civilizations have been drawing on to power their technology. And then it just gets weirder. The discovery that the entire world is suspended several thousand feet in the air, including the oceans, in order to keep the continents away from the now toxic surface of the planet is a bizarre twist, though given that something very similar happened towards the end of Tales of Destiny in reverse it's perhaps more that Tales is playing around with its own mythology a bit. Then there's a whole bunch of hooey about "isofons" - replicating a person or object by copying their fonic data and creating a duplicate from wandering fonons - and the game starts veering towards Parts: The Clonus Horror territory.

Where's anime Bill Nye when you need him?

Without getting too deep into all this pseudo-science (which is gradually explained to a main character ignorant of much of the world due to his sheltered upbringing) lest I inadvertently start spoiling things, Abyss immediately sets itself apart from its brethren by just how deep into its own lore (or up its own ass, if you'd prefer) it's willing to get. It's a fascinating, if absurdly detailed, narrative decision that aids the verisimilitude of what might well have been another batch of JRPG made-up "lifestream" hokum, and also helps to emphasize the point that there's a hell of a lot of weird business going down that most of the world's scientific community is only barely cognizant of, but are itching to discover (or rediscover, I suppose, given that all the ancients had this figured out at one point). When you start seeing the requisite "how the hell did they do this?" scenes when encountering ancient super-advanced machinery, such as the enormous light pillars keeping the tectonic plates afloat, it comes from a place of knowing just enough about the world's grasp of science to understand how far beyond the current level of technological advancement much of these ancient gizmos really are. It almost feels like a Jules Verne world (though I'm probably putting way too much stock into this game with that comparison) because the science tries to be as sound as it can be despite its entirely fictitious nature. Maybe Star Trek would be a better comparison: a show that supposes the existence of certain outlandish fantasy elements like the ability to travel at faster than light speeds by warping space, or creating food and supplies out of photons, but most everything else must have some degree of scientific plausibility for that world to operate effectively and come off as realistic to us, the viewers. At least that was always the case for the Next Generation, where they weren't bumping into mobster planets and Greek gods every other episode.

The game's also way more into eschatology than usual. It's not surprising to discover some sort of doomsday scenario in a JRPG which inevitably comes to pass during the game's events, but the Score's foretelling of a time of desolation is a central plot point and comes to define a lot of the characters' motivations as they attempt various means to escape the fate that the Score has preordained for the world.

And then there's the Kabbalah influences. The Jewish Kabbalah's one of those insane (in its complexity and scope that is; not to denigrate anyone's religious beliefs) mysticism things like Gnosticism that is as every bit as ripe for a JRPG adaptation as Norse or Greek mythology. Xenogears is a particularly well-known example of a JRPG that gets deep into wacky Judeo-Christian concepts while also balancing it with a bunch of mechs and a plot that moves one word box an hour. In Abyss's case, the entire world of Auldrant is represented as a physical manifestation of the idea of Kabbalah's Sephirot trees: a set of ten virtues that denote the divine potential of humanity, with chaos and toxicity surrounding it on all sides and threatening to smother those virtues in vices - in-game, this is represented by the floating Outer Lands being held up by literal trees of light referred to as Sephiroth gates, with the Qliphoth (a Kabbalah term referring to poisonous outside forces) as a sea of toxic "miasma" mud generated by the sick planet's core. Kabbalah involves a lot of complicated theological hoo-ha, and the game seems to simplify a few of its concepts, borrow its glossary and generates a largely facile facsimile with which to build its world around, but even so it's an impressively deep cut for a source for inspiration you rarely see exploited too often, even given the reputation JRPGs have for pontificating on too much spiritual twaddle.

Cast (Into the Abyss) (That Was a Thing I Did There)

As previously stated, any given Tales game puts most of its emphasis on its brand new cast of characters, developing them with backstories and complex motivations, and fleshing them out with various optional "skit" conversations between party members. Abyss only has six playable characters, a slightly lower number than usual for the series, but they're certainly a memorable bunch! (/movie trailer). I've included a "Pantheon Position" paragraph to discuss that particular cast member in the extended universe of Tales characters. Certain traits tend to repeat quite often, though even with my incessant critiquing I'm not above acknowledging a new twist on a character archetype whenever it emerges.

Luke fon Fabre

"Mr Midriff"

I think this outfit's a male equivalent for revealing female armor that doesn't protect anything that needs protecting.

Luke's a petulant noble youth from Kimlasca's fon Fabre family, second only in power to the Royal family. He was kidnapped as a child by Malkuth, the rival empire, and as such has been locked away in the family mansion for his own safety until he comes of age. A lifetime of confinement has made him both ignorant of the world and just kind of an entitled ass in general.

Luke as a child.

Even though his character goes through a drastic development arc due to accidentally nuking a town (hey, shit happens), he never quite settles on being a likable character. He's either too arrogant or too self-effacing, and painfully earnest in both incarnations of the character. It's apparently the unfortunate fate of every JRPG protagonist to be the oblivious straight man.

In combat, Luke's a tank. Unfortunately, that means he's also every bit as slow as a panzer, as most of his sword artes require some build-up time. He has the most diverse range of strike artes (as in, the ones that involve hitting things) but a lack of alacrity doesn't make him a whole lot of fun to play as.

Pantheon Position: Luke's fairly novel due to his bratty incarnation, and it's an interesting experiment to pull on the player to see how much they can tolerate following this spoiled rich kid around as he alienates everyone he comes into contact with. After the change he's pretty much every other Tales protagonist: Well-meaning, impulsive and a little slow.

Asch the Bloody

"The Luigi"

Asch never changes out of his Order of Lorelei robes, even after he's cut ties. Maybe he thinks the no-neck look is in?

Asch is also Luke. It's complicated. As the customary broody temporary character, Asch only joins the party at brief intervals when his and the party's immediate goals match. He's antagonistic throughout the entire game due to his disdainful opinion of Luke, and is seemingly irritated by every little thing he does. Like other temporary Tales characters, such as Kratos or Flynn Scifo, he's considerably more badass than anyone in the core team. You get the impression that he stays away just so the game can retain some degree of challenge.

Asch fights identically to Luke, but right up until the end of the game vastly overpowers him with his wide range of strike and magic artes.

Pantheon Position: Very much adheres to the Tales temporary character core personality model: He's powerful, but kind of a dick.

Tear Grants

"The Schoolmarm"

TVTropes calls this hairstyle "Peek-a-Bangs". I don't like TVTropes's naming conventions a whole lot.

If Luke has the thankless job being the humorless buffoon hero, Tear has the equally unenvious role as the strict but caring foil that steers him on the right course. A military singer priestess (sort of?), Tear's a special agent of the Order of Lorelei - the official church of the world of Auldrant. Attuned to the McGuffin-esque Seventh Fonon, a rarity among magic-users, Tear fulfills a convenient healer role in the group. When she's not sternly reprimanding Luke for screwing up again, she's acting coy around cute creatures, her "thing". Just imagine Azumanga Daioh's Sakaki-senpai with even more bangs and the ability to not-so-softly kill things with her song.

Tear's the healer, which means she stays at the back and helps out. Her Fonic Hymns are an unusual twist on magic artes, but not so unusual that they don't feel like regular spells with the requisite charge times and glowy pyrotechnics.

Pantheon Position: Tear's a healer, which is the standard female deuteragonist role, but her temperament as a cold, business-like soldier gives her some space to come into her own as the typical compassionate and thoughtful foil to the brash, inconsiderate hero in a much more believable fashion. Tear's arc is far more interesting than Luke's, though also oddly parallel: She was also raised in seclusion, given a very specific role in the salvation of the world as detailed by the Score and she's not entirely sure of who's in the right and how much she can trust those around her. She's also forced to fight almost everyone who had a hand in raising her, which is when we start seeing cracks in her detached veneer.

Guy Cecil

"The Yellow Dart"

The coolest motherfuc- wait, is that a dog collar?

My man, the Yellow Dart. Guy Cecil is a talented swordsman and servant of House Fabre, and one of Luke's few friends growing up. Guy's past is shrouded in secrecy for much of the game so I needn't delve into it here, but let's just say a smartly dressed fellow with an unusual swordfighting style working as a footman in a regal household is probably not all he claims to be. Guy's also a big fan of machines that run on fonic power and is intensely curious about how they work, in case he wasn't cool enough already without adding some Donatello to the mix. His humorous (but eventually tragic) character quirk is his severe aversion to women, at least while they're in close proximity.

Such a cool nickname.

Guy fights similarly to Luke, but greatly favors speed and combos over raw damage and high defense. Instead of tanking his way through most battles, Guy's more about hit and run tactics and has a very useful self-heal in case of emergencies. He's extremely adaptable and the easiest character to play as in combat.

Pantheon Position: Guy seems to have been created last second to give the player another swordsman (usually the Tales "class" with the most built-in artes) with a different speed/power distribution in case they wanted a change of pace. Story-wise he most closely resembles Loni from Destiny 2, or perhaps Chester from the original Phantasia - that sort of supporting "best friend" role that's largely incidental to most of the story beats. Of course, Guy has a secretive backstory that gets a lot of plot mileage, and he's easily the funnest character to play, so to call him inessential would be wildly inaccurate.

Jade Curtiss

"Above This Shit"

I like how few characters have overly elaborate costumes in this game. Most of these are standard uniforms. Also, yeah, that's a guy. Named Jade.

Jade's a Malkuthian Colonel and a sinister looking guy who on first impression comes across as cold and ruthless. Mildly sociopathic, even. The best part of Jade's character is that none of these apparent traits are inaccurate, and you spend the entire game wondering when he'll double-cross you, or at the very least leave you in an icy bathtub without your kidneys. The reveal that Jade's chequered past paints him as someone who once had to redeem himself after a mistake assuages the player's concerns that's he on the level, but not entirely. Jade's already a fantastic presence due to him being in his 30s and very impatient with his youthful companions' BS, which means I immediately identify with him, but the added wrinkle of being a potential supervillain who interferes with corpses certainly helps.

Jade's your standard mage nuke in combat, with most the game's most devastating spells. He can also summon a spear with the power of his goddamn mind and can perform a few magic-enhanced combos with it. He's suited for distance, ideally, but he's there for pure damage in whatever form it's required.

Pantheon Position: Jade both fulfills the "socially awkward mage" and "grouchy old man" roles common to Tales, like a cross between Rita and Raven for the Vesperia fans out there. He's been given the outward personality of a recurring scientist villain though (think: a much more grounded Hojo from Final Fantasy VII), presumably to change things up a bit and keep the player guessing, since party members betraying you and departing forever are certainly not uncommon to Tales. He's prone to inappropriate jokes (of the gallows humor kind, rather than the lascivious anime kind) and deadpan sarcasm, and is continually exasperated by the rest of his team and their youthful antics. I'd probably invoke Ricardo from Innocence had anyone actually played that game, because there's very few situations where he seems happy to be in most scenes unless there's some schadenfreude to enjoy.

Anise Tatlin

"The J in JRPG Stands For Jailbait"

She only looks sweet and innocent. It's all a facade. All of it.

Anise is the game's comic relief character, a man-hungry 13 year old eager to marry into wealth and somewhat more worldly than she lets on. She's also the bodyguard of the fey Fon Master Ion, the highest official in the Order of Lorelei, and leaves the fighting to her enormous war puppet Tokunaga. She's essentially Cait Sith, right down to the combat marionette and covetousness (and a certain other shared aspect that would be too telling to reveal). As creepy as her attempts to intermingle with men twice her age might seem, she's always rebuked and it's usually played for comedy. But, as you all know, anime is as anime does.

In combat, the tiny girl is inexplicably the strongest and slowest physical attacker. She's also an intermediate spellcaster, so she has a bit more variety than most of the other characters. I suppose an accurate description of her combat role would be a juggernaut: slow to act, but hard to stop. The various unique accessories she can use - which changes her puppet to resemble various Namco Bandai properties as diverse as Wonder Momo and The Prince of All Cosmos - also gives her something of a wild card edge.

Pantheon Position: Every Tales has their oddball character, one who takes a bit of practice before you understand their combat role fully. Combining a slow heavy-hitter with a magic user is inspired, because both modes take their time to get going. I'd hate to do this to Anise, because she's a lot of fun, but she most closely resembles the infamous Marta of the Symphonia sequel, simply because she's worldly, opinionated and utterly convinced of her own irresistible nature. Whether it's because she hits on everyone who looks like they might have a fortune stashed away, or because of her puppet's constant rictus grin, I just kind of get skeezed out whenever she's around.

Natalia Luzu Kimlasca-Lanvaldear

"Princess von Kickass"

I don't even know what's going on with that Elizabethan ruff collar. It looks like a satellite dish giving birth to a giant head.

Natalia is the regal and compassionate princess of Kimlasca, and Luke's betrothed. She's also Luke's cousin, so I don't even know what this game is saying about monarchy but it's probably accurate. Natalia's as naive and opinionated as Luke, but considerably more bearable to be around, and of all the characters is the happiest to be running across the world every five minutes for the next plot coupon. That makes one of us, I guess?

Natalia's an archer and the only true long-range unit. Most of her strike artes either stop enemies in their tracks or knock them back if they get too close, so she's a great character to control if you don't like to get hurt. She's also the party's second healer, so you can't really ask for better support.

Pantheon Position: Archers tend to get the short shrift in their character development, and I'm only guessing it's because they're usually treated as support characters both in and out of combat. Chelsea and Nanaly weren't particularly important characters in their respective games (Destiny and Destiny 2, for those asking) and the archers since then haven't really stood out much either. Natalia's healing elevates her support role to something practically indispensible, but she's given very little plot development beyond a certain mid-game twist that resolves itself fairly quickly. She's best utilized as a counterpart to Luke: a Royal who actually acts close to the ideal, rather than an entitled little brat.

Mieu

"The Squeaky Mascot"

Some committee worked all night to maximize this... thing's cuteness.

Mieu's a cheagle, a race of semi-intelligent woodland critters that the Church of Lorelei holds in great esteem, for some reason. In broader terms, he's the team mascot and the conduit for the Sorcery Ring - the quintessential Tales item that allows the player to perform several field actions to get past obstacles or find hidden treasure chests. He says cute things and is cute and everyone just kind of tolerates having him around, except for Luke. Mieu is inexplicably tied to Luke due to some variant of the Wookiee life debt, but the hatred Luke feels for this fuzzy little annoyance is palpable. I think I got like three Star Wars references in that last sentence by mistake.

Mieu doesn't appear in combat. He's a lover, not a fighter.

Pantheon Position: Almost all Tales games have a mascot character, with varying levels of importance to the plot and to the fighting. For instance, Vesperia's Repede was a serviceable member of the party in battles as well as the "cute thing" certain characters would fawn over (though I'd hesitate to call Repede "cute). Mieu's just this trope obnoxiously dialed up to 11, since his only job is to be the Sorcerer's Ring equivalent.

Fon Master Ion

"Androgyjesus"

Man, do we have a lot of Ion fanart in our database. Clearly, someone has a type.

The Fon Master is the one of the highest ranks in the Church of Lorelei, second only to Funkmaster. Ion is like a young, bishounen John Paul II; a saintly ideal for the Order he represents. For much of the game he follows the party around, partly to dispense advice to a conflicted Luke, partly to use some very specific fonic artes when the plot calls for it but mostly so he can get kidnapped a lot and spur everyone onto the next dungeon.

Pantheon Position: Ion's that quintessential guest character, one who never fights but is there for color commentary for skits and the like. The guy also has "martyr" written all over him, considering his kindness and how he faints every time he has to exert himself, but don't let that concern you.

Emperor Peony Upala Malkuth IX

"Loveable Jerk"

The King of Kimlasca, King Ingobert VI, is your standard JRPG King, right down to imprisoning the party at a crucial juncture due to misinformation and composing operas about lost children, but the laid-back Emperor of Malkuth is a different matter entirely. Though he's kept his kingdom on the straight and narrow with his wisdom and foresight, the dude would clearly prefer looking after his pet rappigs and teasing his old friend Jade over doing any actual work. In New Game+, he even gives everyone Power Ranger costumes for the hell of it.

Pantheon Position: Peony reminds me a lot of Destiny's Max, largely because he was an off-beat authority figure who kicked ass whenever he was on screen. His friendship with Jade is an important part of the latter's backstory, but that's about it beyond being the far more chill and open-minded of the two rulers the party is forced to co-operate with often. He doesn't appear often enough in the plot for my liking.

Van Grants

"Definitely Not the Bad Guy"

Despite looking like a samurai Ming the Merciless, Van is introduced as Luke's sword instructor and mentor and an all-round cool guy. He seems to be Luke's only true ally early on, and frequently disappears around the world to stop the Oracle Knights (the stormtroopers of the Order of Lorelei) from doing bad things. The game really doesn't want you to think that he's a megalomaniacal nihilist obsessed with ending the control the Score has over the world by blowing it up and killing everyone. Let it never be said that a Tales villain's motivations aren't completely sympathetic.

Pantheon Position: Vesperia's Alexei immediately comes to mind, right down to the obvious heel turn twist, but almost all of Tales's main antagonists were well-intentioned extremists who bordered outright psychopathy a little more closely than anyone was ever willing to admit.

The Six God-Generals

"Oh, It's These Guys Again"

The six "God-Generals" (I have no idea what that means, but it sounds intimidating) of the Order of Lorelei are a group of recurring villains loyal to Van and Van alone. Though they seem like a disposable team of flamboyant villains, each has a deeper link to the plot or one of the six main characters in some way that eventually emerges as the game progresses.

We have Legretta the Swift, a gun-kata badass who regularly gives the party a run for its money. There's Largo the Black Lion, a hulking beast of a man with a giant axe who is nonetheless cool and calculating. There's Sync the Tempest, a mysterious masked fonic user who looks and sounds exactly like Fon Master Ion as if we wouldn't figure that out. There's Arietta the Wild, a former bodyguard of Ion and another tiny girl who uses monsters to fight for her (I have no idea why the Order of Lorelei doesn't hire adults to protect their most important official). Lastly, we have Dist the Reaper, a malevolent scientist who flies around in a jet-powered throne and sounds exactly like James from Team Rocket, because that's how you make a goddamn JRPG villain. The sixth is actually Asch, but he bails on the group almost immediately once he cottons on to what they're up to.

Pantheon Position: Most recurring villains in the Tales series either existed as a collective group that were fairly nebulous on an individual case by case basis, or they were simply independent recurring villains that didn't necessary align with one another. Symphonia's Desian Grand Cardinals are a good example, since they were largely autocratic and many were instantly forgettable once they had been dispatched; the few with a bit more story importance didn't really fall in with the rest. The Six God-Generals are each as important as each other, and none of them feel like superfluous "boss-fight bait" because of their ties to the heroes.

The Black Wings

"The Recurring Bosses That Aren't"

The Black Wings are another bunch of recurring villains, except they don't really do much to you besides inconvenience you a couple times. A troupe of circus performers who are secretly a crack team of international thieves is a trope as old as Final Fantasy IX, at the very least, but they're a colorful trio that tend to pop up whenever Asch is in the vicinity. How a humorless grump like that guy fell in with a bunch of gaudy Pirates of the Caribbean extras with their own Namco Bandai theme park hideout is anyone's guess.

Pantheon Position: It's odd you never get to fight the Black Wings, because the idea of a group of comical villains who are really only looking for ways to get rich quick than try to conquer the world has been around for ages, both in and outside of Tales. I brought up Team Rocket earlier, for a classic example, but these guys reminded me a lot of the flamboyant and oddly technological Scorpion Army from Secret of Mana, right down to their leader's vaguely dominatrix get-up.

Abyssal World Tours: Gaze Into Our Group Deals, And See What Gazes Back

Finally, I just want to take you on an around-the-world trip through Auldrant. Sometimes the locations have as much personality as the cast, and Tales usually never disappoints when it comes to at least a couple of interesting high-concept towns and cities. Usually, though, they usually rely on a few archetype templates and shift a few elements around to make them fit into the new world's style and history.

It's surprising how often they do this, in fact. Characters and locations both.

Baticul

"Not a Pokemon"

Everyone loves riding the cable cars.

Baticul is the capital of the Kimlasca-Lanvaldear kingdom, and is home to Luke, Natalia and Guy. The city is built upon a cylindrical man-made structure that sinks deep into the earth, and was originally a smaller town built around an enormous crater caused by a falling fonstone - the immense glowy crystals that float in the sky and are instrumental to how the world's technology works. Baticul's a vertical city, which is a great visual metaphor for a nation with the haves and have-nots (though the divide isn't quite as pronounced here as it is in, say, Vesperia's Zaphias) as well as just being an impressive sight in general.

Baticul contains the game's obligatory Coliseum: the home to optional bosses and some of the best weapons in the game, designed to test the limits of the player's fighting prowess. The cameo battle, in which a group of characters from earlier Tales games fights the present group, is both a trial by fire and a symbolic passing of the torch. Can the new heroes hold a candle to the old guard, or will they get burned? How many more flame puns can I make before I'm fired? From, uh, blogging?

Like many of Abyss's place names, Baticul is a word associated with the Jewish Kabbalah (or at least some of its apocrypha), though oddly it refers to the "vice" of atheism. Its title is "The Capital of Light", though with much of it being in a big hole in the ground I'm not sure it's an apt slogan. Probably a tourism industry thing.

Grand Chokmah

"Try Our Chokmah Chicken"

Looks like Balamb Garden, but it's not.

Grand Chokmah is the capital of the Malkuth empire, a gleaming marble city surrounded by a man-made waterfall. The port is built like a fortress, and can completely shut down all of its borders in times of emergency, which is great for the city but not so great if you need to get in for whatever reason. It's because of this that it's one of the last locations the party gets to visit, but the Malkuth capital is rather instrumental to the plot for obvious reasons.

Grand Chokmah's like Baticul in that it's set up as an ideal place to live, and the gem of that particular empire's crown. Grand Chokmah, as with most of the Malkuth Empire's architecture, is far more reminiscent of Ancient Rome than Kimlasca's relatively modern steampunk trappings: both nations have an equal technological level of advancement, of course, or else it would be too much of a hard sell to convince players that their war has been in a stalemate for an untold number of years prior to the game. It just seems like Malkuth hides it better, or at least that would be the case if it didn't build enormous fortress-sized tanks and let them roam around the countryside.

Chokmah, or Chochma, is one of the ten Sephirot or "virtues" of Kabbalah and represents wisdom. It's definitely one of the chillest cities in the game. Its title is "The Floating Capital", referring to its unique artificial structure.

Daath

"The Peaceful Theocratic Nation of Daath Does Not Welcome Daath Invaders"

There's a reason Luke's running away from the cathedral instead of towards it.

Daath is an immense cathedral that houses all the members of the Order of Lorelei, the game's central religion, with a smaller city built up around it that really only caters to the clergy and those passing by on pilgrimages. It's an austere place, though the cathedral itself is so immense that there's a running joke of having priests everywhere ready and willing to escort visitors back to the entrance should they become lost. Anise and Fon Master Ion reside here, as do a significant proportion of the God-Generals and Oracle Knights.

Because the Order of Lorelei isn't quite as materialistic as the Catholic Church, thus more befitting a fictional religion based somewhat on a form of Jewish mysticism more akin to Buddhism, it's rather dull and ascetic in nature. The cathedral's not exactly fun to visit due to all its plain corridors, and the rest of the town's just a single road of street vendors leading up to the cathedral.

Daath (or Da'at, or Daas) is the eleventh Sepirot, usually kept off the diagram for whatever reason. It represents the culmination of the other ten, and thus is the holiest. Daath is simply referred to as the Headquarters of the Order of Lorelei; it doesn't really need much more than that. Dull place, but understandably so given the circumstances.

Engeve

"We're Just Farmers. Sorry."

Engeve is that evergreen RPG staple of the peaceful tiny village where most journeys seem to start. Though the story really begins in Baticul in Luke's manor, the game only kicks off once Tear accidentally teleports Luke and herself halfway across the world. Engeve is the source of most of Malkuth's food, and is an agrarian settlement of very little importance. It's only really here to sell the party some cheap basic armor and to set up a chance meeting between Tear, Luke (a Kimlascan noble deep in enemy territory) and the Malkuth military (which is when Jade shows up, naturally).

Engeve's a stone's throw away from Cheagle Forest, where the party acquires Mieu and is the first real dungeon of the game. Most of Engeve's problems are related to the wild creatures in the forest as well as the cheagles themselves. Other than that, it's just your basic starting town. Can't beat the classics, I suppose.

Engeve's name doesn't have any obvious relation to Kabbalah, at least none that wouldn't be a stretch or a severe localization mishap. Maybe it's simply too minor. It's referred to as The Grocer's Hamlet.

St. Binah

"Tree Bien"

I suppose it does have a big wall around it. Still, Citadel?

St. Binah's a bit more interesting. Just as Engeve is the source of the Malkuth Empire's supply of cooking ingredients, Binah is the home to most of the curative herbs and medicines. Because the game has an interesting (if underexplained) ecology feature where completing side-quests and solving problems in certain locations drops the prices of specific export goods, each of the early towns has a link to one sort of purchasable item. In St. Binah's case, this includes all the healing consumables. St. Binah's otherwise a lot like Engeve: peaceful and dull, at least to begin with.

St. Binah also fulfills the requisite "town built around a giant tree" JRPG trope, which I believe might be a Shinto thing. I'm not saying it's not a factor in Western RPGs (Icewind Dale's Kuldahar immediately springs to mind), but there's so many towns like it in a wide range of JRPGs I could name off the top of my head. Vesperia's Halure, for instance, or the Nopon Village in Xenoblade.

Binah's another Sephirot, and one that represents understanding and empathy from what I can tell. The town's referred to as The Citadel, which might give the wrong impression. I mean, unless the tree is the citadel. Can trees be citadels?

Kaitzur

"The Happiest Demilitarized Zone On Auldrant"

Glory to Arstotzka!

Kaitzur's not so much a town as the name of a region that includes one of the two official land borders between Kimlasca and Malkuth (most of their territories comprise of entire continents, and the only other shared border is the autocratic merchant city of Chesedonia, below). It's a fun place that's very much just two military camps right next to each other, but it's also where you can see the divide between the two architectural styles most clearly.

Kaitzur is one of those apocryphal vices of the Kabbalah I mentioned earlier, this time for ugliness. I'm not sure that's a particularly fair "sin", but perhaps they mean ugliness of the spirit too. Or the ugliness of war and hostilities, which I suppose would be more the case here. There's a long side-quest involved with two enemy military officers that fall in love that doesn't go anywhere fun, one of which is stationed in Kaitzur, so that might tie into that "war is pretty crappy, you guys" definition too. Kaitzur's title is simply "The Border Fortress". A lot of these titles are far more straightforward than I remember them being.

Chesedonia

"It's Not Easy, Being Chese"

Being the leader of a city built on trade has its benefits.

Chesedonia's a central hub for commerce and one of those locations you'll be revisiting a lot due to the amount of goods available there to purchase. It's also a separate nation, of sorts, perhaps a bit closer to Hong Kong given its autonomy and focus on trade. It's also your requisite desert trader town, back during a more innocent time when the worst thing we'd associate with the Arab world was occasionally getting ripped off on a counterfeit Persian carpet in a dusty bazaar.

Chesedonia's home to Din's Shop, among other locales. Din's Shop is a recondite trading simulation type affair that Final Fantasy XII would eventually borrow, to a slightly more intelligible degree. You simply drop off all your trade goods there, each contributing points to different types of product (consumable, sword, helmets, accessories, etc.) and upon hitting an invisible number would "unlock" a new tier of item you could purchase. You would then pay a small or large optional amount to improve the quality of the payout, and be given items dependent on how many trade goods you donated and the money you paid. It's super convoluted and absolutely requires a guide, but it's also where you can get some of the best items in the game, some of which are available way earlier than they ought to be. I'd say it represents one of Abyss's more interesting one-off contributions to the series, though it's possible some form of it existed in one of those obscure Japan-only entries like Rebirth. Hell, I've still got plenty of the ones that actually got localized left to play before I start jumping into the fan translations.

Chesed is a Sephirot that represents mercy, lawfulness and kindness, and Chesedonia is referred to as "The Center of Trade". Also noteworthy to a lesser extent is the Desert Oasis: a small settlement deep in the Zao desert adjacent to Chesedonia which also has a handful of amenities.

Keterburg

"Ketel One"

Luke and the gang stop by Keterburg for some much needed supplies.

Keterburg's your classic Christmastime village, a cosy little Malkuthian vacation resort up in the mountainous and snowy continent of Sylvania. It's the town in which both Jade and the Emperor grew up, and Jade's sister Nephry is currently its governor. Keterburg's an odd place for a number of reasons: It contains the only casino in the game, a Tales staple often prone to exploitation; it contains a pair of odd wealthy twins with color-opposite interior decoration who never feature in the story or any side-quests whatsoever; it contains a four-floor luxury hotel with a hot spring and a famous restaurant, which only exist to give female characters swimsuits and waitressing mini-games; and if you bother to dig up the ludicrous 200,000 Gald investment fee, you can bankroll your very own "Labyrinth House": a mini-game that plays a lot like Tower of Druaga, but curiously isn't the one classic Namco game represented as an optional dungeon (see Nam Cobanda Isle, below).

I like Keterburg a lot. It's not a novel construct, as it's almost identical to Symphonia's Flanoir, but it's a town with a lot of mystery and amusing interludes. The rest of the continent of Sylvania is no joke, with one of the most confusing dungeons and the game's optional superboss, but Keterburg really feels like a calm resort town away from the terrors and politics of the world.

Keter, or Kether, is the first of the Sephirot and represents where humankind is closest to God. It's the northernmost Sephirot on the diagram of same, importantly, just as the arctic Keterburg is the town furthest north (and thus is presumably supported by the most northern Sephiroth gate). It's known as the Silver City, which a tourism slogan if ever I heard one. Precisely what I'd expect from a fantasy Aspen.

Sheridan

"You Want Airships? We Got Airships!"

Airships! This one's propelled by pointy things!

Sheridan's one of two functionally identical towns belonging to Kimlasca which researches and develops technology based on fonstones and fonic artes. Sheridan's the more practical of the two, constructing various machines and vehicles that run on fonic power. It's here that the party acquires the Albiore II, the game's obligatory airship, and befriends the salt of the earth community of elderly mechanics and builders.

Sheridan's home to some of the stranger side-quests in the game, such as tracking down "music discs" that you can play in a house built around a giant stereo, and investing a million Gald (which is a lot no matter how you slice it, in case you thought late-game inflation would make that amount trivial) in order to build a bridge between Sheridan and Belkend which you never end up seeing. It's otherwise just a town full of Cids, to break it down for Final Fantasy fans.

Sheriah is one of those vices again, seemingly the naming convention for any territory of the Kimlascan empire (the name Kimlasca itself is one too). Sheriah refers to rejection, which is always a bummer around Valentine's (or almost every day if you're unemployed). Its title is "The City of Craftsmen". Hey, they're saving all that creativity for their actual work.

Belkend

"Joke Deemed Too Easy After First Draft Edit"

Belkend's the sister city of Sheridan and is more focused on research and development. They also have an enormous labyrinthine laboratory where most of the discoveries are being made, and was also the headquarters for Van and the God-Generals for part of the game. Importantly, this is where we learn a lot about the world's science as it pertains to fonons and the like, and where most of the pertinent information regarding replicas can be found. Belkend is often affectionately referred to Expositionville, by no-one but me.

I also like the look of Belkend. I posted a list a short while back about cities that feel like they're made entirely out of steel, and Belkend has a lot of iron walkways and metallic structures for little other apparent reason other than that they look cool. It's a bit of a chore coming to this place, since the guy you always want to speak to is at the back of the laboratory, which means passing through the whole town and then through several identical-looking rooms until you find the guy you want.

Belkend doesn't have any obvious correlation to one of the Kabbalah vices, at least not without some potentially specious guesswork. It's title is "The City of Fon Machines". Guy really likes coming here.

Yulia City

"Not Named After the Brunette from t.A.T.u. Not That Anyone Would Think That."

I bet you can watch some kickass concerts here.

Yulia City's the classic example of a hidden city, where the most secluded and concealed town in the world is somehow also the most knowledgeable and savvy about the rest of the globe. Usually these towns are filled with elves or ninjas, or elf ninjas, but in this case it's a subset of the Order of Lorelei that keeps records of the Score and its interpretations, away from prying eyes. It's situated in the Qliphoth - the name for the immense toxic sea that became the world after the core destabilized, and the reason why the ancients of the Dawn Age elevated the landmasses away from the venomous atmosphere that rises off that endless ocean of pollutants. Yulia City was left behind as a sort of shielded monitoring station, keeping tabs on the underworld in case things ever sorted themselves out. Since then, it's been the most carefully preserved remnant of that ancient era and something of a mythological enigma to those living obliviously thousands of yards above.

Yulia City's where Tear was raised, and features a lot of translucent walkways and people dressed in flowy robes. It's that sort of place, generally speaking, like Final Fantasy VIII's Esthar. There's also very little to do here except pop by for a bit of exposition about the ancients now and again. It looks cool, at least.

Yulia City's name isn't based on Kabbalah but rather the in-game world's own mythology. Yulia was the legendary scholar and priestess who originally translated the Score, and regarded as the most powerful fonic arte user of all time. The city was named in her honor as a bastion of ancient technology and wisdom. Its title is "The Watcher's Home".

Akzeriuth

"The Mining Town, Where You Can't Tell Your Akzeriuth From a Hole in the Ground"

Akzeriuth is the ill-fated mining town that causes the central plot of Tales of the Abyss to kick off after becoming infested with miasma. The miasma is a side-effect of the planet being a bit colicky, and its evacuation and investigation becomes the first big political cooperation between the two empire-nations in a long while. Luke inadvertently blows it up after Van tells him to. I mean, shit, nobody's perfect.

Needless to say, you aren't in Akzeriuth for very long, and there's not a lot there you can see and do with it being a simple mining settlement. After the first act, it simply ceases to exist.

Akzeriuth possibly comes from the Kabbalah term for cruelty, the vice. Its fate is certainly a cruel twist. Its title is "The Mining Town" (and presumably "A Big Hole That Used to be a Mining Town" from then on).

Nam Cobanda Isle

"We're Not Subtle"

Nam Cobanda Isle is Abyss's Tales-specific recurring in-joke town, usually named for the publisher that brought the game into existence (that would be Namco Bandai). There's no stores or anything plot-relevant here, it's just a place where various people dressed like cats and cows (or are actual hybrid creatures of some sort; the game leaves this to the player's imagination) build weird homages to Namco properties. You can ride down an elevator that resembles Pac-Man, play a mini-game that greatly resembles the Namco side-scrolling arcade classic Dragon Buster, watch the game's anime cutscenes through a "memory device" or marvel at the clockwork depictions of Mappy and Xevious. It's a little (all right, a lot) fanservicey, but these hidden locations are always fun for the obsessive types.

In case you hadn't figured it out, Nam Cobanda is Namco Bandai with the space moved to the left a bit. There's no grand Kabbalah inference here, though I'd be a little terrified at the coincidence if there was. In Japan, the island has the even less subtle moniker of Namcot Island, referring to Namco's old name for its home console development division. It's simply referred to as the Hidden City, though "city"'s pushing it. It's more like a cave filled with Namco dioramas.

Choral Castle

"Vacationing South of the Border"

Choral Castle is a summer vacation home of Duke Fabre that was summarily abandoned once the peace between Malkuth and Kimlasca broke down, as it's only a handful of miles away from the Kaitzur border. When the party wander into it, it's become a home to all sorts of monsters and ghosts and is one of the game's handful of puzzle dungeons. It's also implied to be the place where Luke was kidnapped from as a child. Still, though, you'd think they just leave a few servants behind to keep the place in good condition, rather than abandoning it to the elements just because Darfur was about to go down a little ways to the north.

Isle of Feres

"Closed For Repairs"

The Isle of Feres was destroyed before the game begins and was home to several characters during their childhoods. It's resurrected late in the game as a replica landmass and given the ability to float, which allows it to act as Van's mobile HQ for the latter half of the game. It also has Malkuth's trademark Greco-Roman architecture, so when you visit it in its dilapidated state it kind of feels like you're walking through the ruins of Pompeii. It's also a horribly confusing mess of burned out buildings and crumbling pillars and I hated it. I hate a lot of things.

Eldrant

"Foreboding Floating End-Game Dungeons? In My JRPG? It's More Likely Than You Think"

Finally, we come to Eldrant, the final location of the game. To say too much about it might be telling, but like so many final dungeons in the Tales series (and Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Mana, if we're really being inclusive) it dramatically rises out of the sea and kind of floats around being ominous until you're done with all the side-questing and just decide to finish the damn game already. Eldrant is supposedly the name of the ancient promised land, sort of like an El Dorado for Auldrant (I can only assume that's where the name comes from), but is a similar case to Feres in that it's actually the destroyed island of Hod semi-resurrected through replica technology. It's a bit lackluster compared to other final destinations of Tales games, alas, though they certainly don't make it seem small and insignificant.

Anyway, that's probably more about Tales of the Abyss than needed to be written for a "What I Played Recently" blog. It's just... when you spend so many hours on a game, getting to know it thoroughly, it kind of feels like you have to go the extra mile when discussing it. I dig the Tales series a lot, but they don't half build these things to last you a while. I believe I've overindulged enough for right now, so I'll probably be back to covering Indie stuff and other smaller titles for a spell after this. Thanks for learning all about the wonderful world of this nine year old JRPG? I guess? See you soon.

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Tappingo Review

(Reviews are a bit... squirrely right now, so I'm going to leave this here and turn it into a review later when the site lets me. Tappingo's okay! Turns out! Probably not much competition for something like Picross e4, but still an interesting take on the ol' numbers and pictures format.)

Tappingo joins an increasingly populated list of worthwhile 3DS eShop purchases.

I'm a big fan of Picross. The venerable numerical picture game has long since been a mainstay puzzle sub-genre for Nintendo consoles especially, making its debut (in the West, at least) with Mario's Picross for the original Game Boy. Since then, every subsequent Nintendo portable has been the home for some manner of mathematical paint-by-numbers, and the 3DS has an embarrassment of riches in this regard with the Picross e series, the Virtual Console version of Mario's Picross and the backwards compatible Nintendo DS games Picross DS and Picross 3D.

Tappingo isn't quite a Picross game, however. It's clearly inspired by that puzzle format, but takes a slightly different approach that adds an extra wrinkle in requiring some foresight to plan out the puzzle, yet at the same time is far more relaxed towards errors and player experimentation. Tappingo instead embeds the numbers within the puzzle, and automatically fills in lines of color depending on the direction you tap the number: ideally, you want the number of panels it fills in to match the original number on the panel. With longer numbers, it's easy to identify which of the four cardinal directions you'll want to send the line, but the myriad of "ones" and "twos" will give you more pause for thought. More often than not, you'll need to set a perpendicular "blocker" out to stop a line from going too far, and there's cases where a small network of interlacing "ones" need to be set out in a specific order for the rest of the puzzle to work. There's a good chance this all sounds like overly complicated gobbledygook, but it's the nature of puzzles like these that the player can instinctively pick up the rules after a few easy tutorial stages and be tapping away like a madman (or madwoman) to complete puzzles as quickly as they can. Tappingo's greatest strength is that it reaches this intuitive point relatively early, and the puzzle-solving flows as rapidly as you'd like: there's rarely cases where you'll be stumped for too long, and though you might have to undo the last few moves to rectify an erroneous line, it'll never be to an extent where you might wish to restart the whole stage from scratch.

The unfortunate side to this is that it makes the game far shorter than its immense 104 puzzle inventory might suggest. Even the more difficult puzzles can be blown through in less than ten minutes once you're in "the Tappingo zone", though given that the price point is so low it's an entirely acceptable value to time ratio. There's other issues too: the nature of the game is that when you undo a move, the various lines that were being kept in check are then free to keep expanding, which means they also need to be undone. As will any lines that are emancipated from those undone lines. A single mistake could see you undoing the last half a dozen or so moves, depending on the situation. I couldn't find a simpler, instantaneous "undo" button, so undoing moves usually required that I send the line back to its origin point each time, hence all these snafus. The puzzle variety is also somewhat lacking; though the game begins with some fan-service with a few old-fashioned Nintendo controllers, the later puzzles depend on some rote animal and mythological themes. Oddly, almost a dozen puzzles are the same forward-facing animal visage with the barest of alterations made to separate them all into different species. It's a little disappointing, and suggests that the last few pages of puzzles were rushed to meet a deadline. It's clear from a designer standpoint that a single Tappingo puzzle requires more planning than a Picross puzzle due to the lattices of lines that need to be carefully considered before the puzzle can work, so here's hoping a sequel is given the extra development time it's due.

Overall, Tappingo represents excellent value and presents a new twist on Picross for fans of the format. There's no dearth of Picross games either on the eShop service or in physical cart form if they are your wont, and I'd probably still recommend most of them before trying Tappingo if you're new to the genre, but this is a game that tries a new angle with an established formula and all but succeeds despite the few issues laid out in the previous paragraph. It's certainly not an expansive game, but for less than three bucks - a rarity given eShop's often overambitious asking prices - you can't really go wrong.

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Spelunky Debunky

"So It Begins" - Beat the Tutorial. - 08/01/2013

Much has been said of Mossmouth's Spelunky of late. Originally a PC game, Spelunky began as a procedurally generated side-scrolling platformer inspired by the intensely difficult Atari 8-bit game Spelunker. Initially free, designer Derek Yu would incrementally update the game, adding new surprises and tweaking various aspects until it all culminated in a HD release in 2009. An enhanced version was eventually ported to XBLA in 2012 with a new graphical art style that dropped the pixels and assumed the cartoonish demeanor we largely associate with the game today, with additional ports the following year to PC and PSN that added a Daily Challenge mode and additional secret characters to find.

"Mines Shafted" - Reached the Jungle. - 08/01/2013

To say the game is naught but a crushing, frustrating challenge would not entirely be incorrect, but such a facile appraisal does a disservice to the game's many nuances. There's never any guarantee that you won't die despite being careful or packed to the gills in power-ups, or that the randomization factor won't unjustly screw you over from time to time, but every spelunker death that transpires in Spelunky is player-derived. Even an exploding frog setting off an irate shopkeeper is something a cautious player can immediately take into their stride and work around as best they're able.

"Jungle Jammed" - Reached the Ice Caves. - 08/01/2013

Furthermore, the game has bones aplenty to toss your way, like so many ambulatory skeletons. Each stage has a clear, if not immediately evident, path to the exit. Bombs and ropes are plentiful if you're sure to check crates and earn enough money to keep your stockpiles up. Every item has its use in the hands of a skilled and experienced player, even those as ridiculous as the camera or teleporter. Sacrifices are encouraged, whether it's a bomb in the right place or a human offering on the altar of Kali. Risks are rewarded just as commonly as playing too cautiously will still lead to an early demise.

"Seen a Lot" - Completed 50% of the Journal. - 08/01/2013

As the player sees more of what Spelunky has in store, their approach aligns ever closer to the correct course. As they enter new areas and learn what to avoid (which is to say, pretty much everything), they become stronger. They don't need persistent upgrades or power-ups that carry over from game to game; they become better at the game through practice and knowledge.

"Her Favorite" - Won the Kapala from Kali. - 08/01/2013

Of the many items in the game, few are as instrumental as the Kapala. Earned by collecting sixteen points worth of "favor" - an invisible stat that the player is never privy to but can easily calculate in their head with some experimentation - the player's tactics then shift completely: rather than take a largely pacifistic route to the exit, taking detours only for valuables, the player is then compelled to murder every living creature for their precious blood. As the hit point indicator ticks ever upwards, into the teens and beyond, the player's feeling of invincibility is the sort of encouragement that can either carry them all the way to the game's conclusion, or leave an overconfident corpse impaled on a patch of forsaken spikes somewhere.

"Ice Creamed" - Reached the Temple. - 08/01/2013

Reaching the Temple itself is no mean feat. Though the Ice Caves are considerably easier to navigate should a player be sporting a cape or jetpack, it's far too easy to fall into the endless abyss or be undone by an errant exploding UFO or a playful Yeti. The Temple, of course, contains some of the most malicious traps of the entire game, including the nefarious "Thwomp" traps that can grind an inattentive spelunker to paste nigh instantaneously.

"Made It" - Completed the game. - 08/01/2013

Though passing the ultimate battle with Olmec in one piece is something of a coup, the game won't let you rest on your laurels. I reached this point of the game after a single day, hence all these achievements being marked with the same date, but it's really only the tip of the giant golden sentient statue head. If you can see that enormous ancient Mexican countenance, you've only reached as far as the Simpsons' basement: there's still the caves of the Moleman lying deep beneath.

"Eternal Life" - Obtained the Ankh. - 13/01/2013

When resuming the game a few months ago, inspired by Patrick Klepek's forays in his daily series, I decided to venture on what is known as the Path to Hell. A convoluted series of treasures and hidden stages, the Path to Hell requires the player go out of their way to a great extent but at the same time prepares them in turn for the additional travails ahead. The player earns the Wadjet Eye by opening a locked chest in the Mines with a nearby key, which allows them to see valuables; they also then have an easier time locating the entrance to the Jungle's elusive Black Market, which allows them to stock up on all manner of valuable items either bought or stolen, which includes the Ankh. Up to this point, the player has done nothing but greatly increase their chances of succeeding in their fight against Olmec, should they ever feel that the Path to Hell is still beyond them. It's an inspired piece of game design to allow the gentle first half of an intense optional game completion route to be so beneficial, as players will happily adopt it into their playthroughs as standard and will be prepared should they ever feel confident enough to take the next crucial step.

"City of Gold" - Reached the City of Gold. - 23/01/2014

The Path to Hell only meaningfully diverges in the Caves, as it requires that the player deliberately off themselves in a specific stage to recover the otherwise useless Hedjet headpiece in order to continue on the Path. There's only two specific reasons to ever sacrifice the Ankh and whatever weapons you were carrying, and both those reasons involve the City of Gold. The City of Gold is a secret stage in the Temple, always accessible from 4-2, in which every block is packed with gold nuggets. High score pursuers, such as those going for the $500k achievement or the score-focused Daily Challenge, endeavor to reach the City of Gold with as many explosives as they can carry. The City of Gold is, ostensibly, the spelunker's chief reason for entering these doom-laden catacombs to begin with, so by reaching this gilt metropolis the player feels as if they have accomplished the game's narrative's core task. Importantly for those on the Path to Hell it is also where the Necronomicon can be found, which is required for the final step to enter Hell itself.

"Casanova" - Rescued 10 or more damsels in one game. - 29/01/2014

To digress here a moment from all the Hell talk, we'll discuss the game's damsels. The damsels have a hit point total of four, the same as the player character and most of the human enemies, and can be thrown around and used as bait for arrow traps. They can even be sacrificed on altars for the greatest favor boost possible, tied only with a co-op partner or hired hand. The game pokes some gentle fun at their disposability, but it's also making a statement about the necessity of the hoary game trope of a passive companion to rescue, whether unintentionally or not. The damsels are less a deliberately sexist inclusion (from either gender perspective) than part and parcel of the game's adherence to the adventure movie serials of the like Indiana Jones was based on, who in turn inspired the original Spelunker and many other archaeologically-inclined action video game franchises. As such, the frequent abuse they receive almost seems satirical. It's also worth noting that were one to provide the damsels with the dignity and support they deserve, that player is putting themselves at a distinct disadvantage due to the relative difficulty of escorting them safely to the exits, wasting bombs and ropes to extricate them from their remote spawn locations and all but eschewing entirely the invaluable rewards from Kali altars. New players go out of their way to save them; experienced players view them as tools to be used as they see fit. It's a little dispiriting in its dehumanization, but then it's every spelunker for themselves down there.

(As an aside: I would be so down with a "zero damsel death" achievement though. I can't imagine it'd be too difficult, unless the game decides that leaving them behind is tantamount to abandoning them to die.)

"Public Enemy" - Killed 12 or more shopkeepers in one game. - 17/02/2014

The shopkeepers remain an ubiquitous bane for any player, regardless of how lawful they intend to be. A great many things will draw a shopkeeper's ire, and attempting to fight one without a shotgun or bombs from a vantage point is practically suicide. Shopkeepers have an obscene ten points of health, which means they can survive most non-instant death traps including a Tiki statue or a shotgun blast (it would, in fact, actually take three of either to bring one down). A shopkeeper becomes irate if an item is carried out of their store, or attacked in any way. This is fine, as most creatures leave shopkeepers alone (except carnivorous mantraps, but shopkeepers will actually survive that ordeal intact and not hold you accountable) and thus the player would almost certainly be responsible for either of these trigger states being set off. However, the shopkeepers are also triggered when any part of their "store", which includes the surrounding walls, is damaged. This can be caused by a great many number of things, but most often by rolling boulder traps in the Mines, exploding frogs in the Jungle and UFOs in the Caves. They also don't like it when the damsels and hired hands in their care (read: indentured servitude) are harmed by anything or anyone, and wandering creatures are usually far less kind to them. Due to how a shopkeeper then becomes present at the exit to every level, lying in wait with a loaded shotgun, killing twelve shopkeepers becomes a challenge one does not necessarily need to go out of their way to complete than it is one they have to accomplish just to stay alive. Blasting through the seven shopkeepers present in the Black Market certainly helps meet that number sooner, though.

"The Entire Gang" - Rescued all 8 hidden characters. - 17/02/2014

One of the best developments during Patrick's series was discovering and then employing Fobwashed's amazing custom Patrick Klepek spelunker sprite. The game offers you several different characters with which to plumb the depths of Spelunky's environs, but the paltry four choices of the original Brown adventurer, Red turban warrior, Green go-getter heroine and Blue Colin Northway explorer aren't nearly enough variation. The XBLA version has an additional eight characters who need to be found before they can be used, and it's one of those processes like filling the journal that starts at full-speed and then peters off slowly until the very last few items, which require a considerable amount of work.

For instance, the Yellow hard-hat adventuress, the Purple pirate queen, the Light Blue polar pioneer and the Lime mariachi can all be found randomly while playing the game, one appearing in each respective area. A moonlighting Meat Boy can be found by those braving the secret Worm level, and the Black Van Helsing vampire hunter by venturing into the Jungle's Haunted Castle. The Jungle Warrior is given to those strong enough to defeat Olmec and the very final character Yang, he of the tutorial, is only unlocked upon defeating Yama himself. It's no mean feat to find all eight, and even more of a tall order to find the additional eight characters added to the PSN and PC versions (though Yang is still the hardest). All the same, no matter how many trials you went through to unlock a new character, you can't really beat one fashioned in your own image by an inspired and talented fanbase.

"Ironman" - Completed the game without using shortcuts. - 17/02/2014

Tunnel Man remains a decisive figure in the Spelunky community. His shortcuts aren't actually necessary, as jumping ahead to a later stage interrupts the development process of one's character (all the early money and easy power-ups from the Mines can really help further in the run) and entirely negates any chance of reaching Hell. In addition, he always asks for useful tools and, in his final appearance, asks for the Key from the Mines. Escorting this key from the early stages all the way to the end of the Caves - a process known as the Key Run - is one of the game's first major challenges for novice players. It's a huge help to have that Temple shortcut unlocked, because there's a lot about the Temple you want to be savvy about before wasting a fifteen minute run to get all the way there only to be vanquished by the first Thwomp or Anubis psychic blast or lava pit you happen to walk into. It's also quicker and easier, though certainly no picnic, to beat Olmec and complete the game from the Temple shortcut with next to no items if one's careful enough. Completing the Ironman run is a sure sign that you're ready for the game's more elusive and flagrantly unreasonable challenges.

"To Hell and Back" - Completed the game the hard way. - 17/02/2014

It's fair to say that the playthrough I had on the 17th of February, the one that unlocked all four of these achievements, was something of a major breakthrough for me. It was shortly after Patrick had already defeated Yama himself, but all the same it felt like the additional time I'd put into the game, relearning the patience required to play it and the advice (usually of the "don't do this" variety) I'd gleaned by example from daily Spelunkin' With Scoops streams, had finally paid off. Yama's an odd boss fight, because there's a few ways he can defeat you due to your inexperience. Most of these deaths involve his spike-, vampire- and lava-filled stage. However, a fully kitted-out hero with a jetpack, shotgun, bombs (you earn an extra 24 right off the bat by defeating Yama's two henchmen) and the amulet found in the first Hell level makes him almost trivial. The fact of the matter is, though, that reaching Yama is such a monumental achievement that it's easy to psyche yourself out the first time you clap eyes on Yama's hideous visage. You've gotten so far and have only a small distance left to go, like the last 300 yards of a marathon. I doubt anyone has reached Yama without feeling their heart trying to pump its way out of their chest. To die at that moment is one of the worst feelings in the world and, unfortunately, one of the easiest to make happen. Of course, the inverse is equally applicable. My only advice is to find a stable hiding place underneath a brick and toss a tactical nuke's worth of explosives towards his hands, and subsequently at his floating head, and try not to think too hard about how much of a bummer it would be to tumble off into a lava bath.

"Seen It All" - Completed 100% of the Journal. - 20/02/2014

Completing the Journal - and Big Money, below - felt like sweeping up in a lot of ways. There were more achievements left, of course, but I could not for the life of me ever see myself completing them. Filling in the Journal does require that you meet (and kill, preferably) every creature in Hell, as well as collect the Amulet and Vlad's Cape and emancipate at least one of those spinning metal ball and chains from its mooring. It also requires that you visit the Worm, Haunted Castle and Mothership levels at some point for their unique enemies and treasures, as well as introduce yourself to Old Bitey in a flooded Jungle stage. At this point, though, after defeating King Yama, it's not so much the next challenge tier than it is simply retracing your steps for everything you missed. For a completionist like me, that's generally good enough for an achievement. I can probably say I enjoyed unlocking this one the most, if only because it indulged my OCD tendencies.

"Big Money" - Obtained 500000 gold. - 20/02/2014

Big Money's no problem if you're a proponent of the Daily Challenge grind. It's entirely possible that you've gone to the City of Gold with a few dozen explosives and made it happen just in the process of attempting to best your friends on the leaderboards that day. If not, it's a challenge like "Seen It All" that doesn't require any extra difficulty to accomplish. You can earn it before you're even able to reach Hell, if you were so inclined, and I don't believe you need to complete the game once you've hit the golden figure. Though heading out of the Mines with a scant $50k or so might seem discouraging while in pursuit of this achievement, considering you probably felt like you picked up every shiny bauble in the passing, it's worth noting that inflation is a hell of a thing as you head towards future stages. The City of Gold, the huge rewards for beating Olmec and/or Yama and the somewhat dubious process known as "Ghost Mining" means there's more than one feasible path to becoming a half-millionaire.

"Speedlunky" - Completed the game in under 8 minutes. No shortcuts. - 24/02/2014

Speedlunky's the second most difficult achievement in the game, though on an initial glance of the achievements seems like the hardest. Eight minutes, two minutes per world, sounds like no time at all. If one were to rush through any stage, even 1-1, it's easy to picture oneself taking way too many arrow hits or surprise spiders and struggling to escape the easiest area in one piece in a respectable time, let alone in any condition to take on the rest of the game at the same pace. But the biggest obstacle of them all as far as Speedlunky is concerned is the intimidation factor. It sounds impossible. It isn't.

I don't want to get all "Spelunky Sensei", but I figure if you've read my self-aggrandizing anecdotes thus far I owe you something in return. Speedlunky is doable. It requires a bit of patience and a lot of skill, of course, but we'll assume at this point that you've completed To Hell and Back and have reached the point in the game where Speedlunky is the next logical target. You know all the stages, you know all the tricks, you know all the dangers. What's important about the first part of Speedlunky is to take the Mines at a brisk, but not sprinting, pace. Find damsels, collect money that's close at hand, forget about the key and chest unless they're right in your path and just head to the exit in a timely fashion. Bombs and ropes are invaluable, so don't use them for anything. Crates are the only thing worth taking a detour for. The only power-ups you really need are the compass (this is the only truly essential piece of kit, so I'd recommend grabbing ~$4k from 1-1 and keep an eye out for stores), a cape or jetpack (to quickly move through the Caves), spring boots (they let you leap over Tiki statues, and just seem to increase your speed in general) and a mattock (or Matlock, depending on whether or not you're Dave Lang). I'd say a mattock is the one item worth carrying with you at all times, more so than a damsel or even a shotgun: you shouldn't be trying to take on enemies anyway, just darting over/under them. Don't be tempted to go for the Kapala either, unless those altars and damsels fall square in your path. I shouldn't need to say it, but don't piss off any shopkeepers either (though if they have a jetpack...).

The Jungle's a little harder to navigate without incident, and might take you a little longer, but maintain that cautious but zippy pace. You ought to pass through the Mines in 90-120 seconds and the Jungle in 120-150 seconds. At this point, you hopefully have a compass, a cape/jetpack and a moderate stockpile of bombs (let's say around a dozen). The Caves can be beaten in about 30 seconds, thanks to how open they are. The Temple's intimidating, but it's only three stages (Olmec is always on 4-4) and can be navigated as quickly as the Jungle. It might also be worth bombing/mattocking your way down a story or two if you have those items to spare and the exit's right beneath you. Ideally, you want anywhere between two and three minutes left on the clock for Olmec, which is where the mattock and bombs come in handy: as usual, quickly build a big trench at the opposite side of the stage from Olmec, and then coax him into it. That's all there is to it, though being lucky enough to find the necessary items and pulling all of this off are different matters entirely. Good luck.

"Low Scorer" - Completed the game without collecting any treasure. - 01/03/2014

Low Scorer is the actual most difficult task in Spelunky, at least out of all the ones that earn you achievements, and unlike Speedlunky there are no specific rules to follow to make it easier. It's distressingly easy to accidentally pick up some money, whether because it was hidden in tall grass/treetops/snow, or an explosion threw some your way or you mined a gem from a block you were digging into. If you hit a Dark Level, you might as well restart then and there, because the low visibility, valuable scarabs and free money from lit torches make those places even more of a nightmare than they usually are. Low Scorer is much more about having a fortunate run than learning what needs to be done and pulling it off adroitly, and I can say with some veracity that it's one of the most frustrating experiences you can put yourself through. But ultimately, once again, entirely possible. Just watch your step.

"Good Teamwork" - Completed the game with at least two players. - 02/03/2014

It's an odd thing that Spelunky's co-op mode is actually easier than the single player, because we've grown accustomed to games like New Super Mario Bros. Wii where it's all too easy (and fun) to sabotage other players, should the option to directly interact with one another be available. More so, playing a co-op game on your own with two controllers feels like it ought to be the most convoluted thing in the world, and a big reason why I saved it for last.

In reality, even with the "two controller one player" method this is one of the easier accomplishments on par with perhaps Big Money or just beating Olmec in general. The second player can be immediately sacrificed for an item (or Kapala) and left to hover as a ghost until 4-3, at which point the player can clear a way to the exit, rescue them from the coffin and carry them into the Olmec battle. The standard tactic of digging him a trench to drop Olmec into is made no more difficult by having a companion, as you can simply sit them on the opposite side of the trench to watch the fireworks. The only real pitfall that can trip you up during this process is leaving the second player outside the screen for too long, which kills them for whatever reason. Of course, if you have a second human being of a relative skill level helping you, then this achievement is practically trivial. At least compared to Speedlunky and Low Scorer anyway.

"Addicted" - Played Adventure mode 1000 times. - 02/03/2014

I'll admit it, I hit around 850 total playthroughs in pursuit of every other achievement. That meant grinding the last 150 through killing myself over and over for about twenty minutes. Not the most ignominious thing I've ever done in pursuit of an achievement, but not exactly one of my proudest moments with this game either. I guess I can be somewhat pleased that I was skilled enough that I didn't unlock it naturally in the process of getting everything else, except I don't need to be any more pleased with myself right now. Already at dangerous levels of self-satisfaction after nailing Low Scorer.

All Achievements - 02/03/2014

So that was Spelunky for me. I wrote a half-assed blog a little while back where I gathered many of the tweets I'd made while playing Spelunky on and off since the start of the year, as I felt (and still feel) that they encapsulated the Spelunky process: one part deliriously happy that some major goal had been met, ninety-nine parts indignant about a death I could've either easily avoided or had no chance whatsoever to elude.

If Spelunkin' With Scoops didn't convince you to pick up the bullwhip and fedora and leap into an endless cycle of death then I'm probably not going to either, but all the same I'd happily recommend Spelunky to anyone. It's incredibly trite to call anything the "Dark Souls of X" these days, but very few games are able to ensnare a player by treating them so horribly initially and then revealing that the scolding and abuse is simply part of the process towards betterment and the pursuit of heretofore-thought impossible goals. Like a training montage in a kung fu movie, you might see your teacher smash a boulder with his pinky and believe for all the world that such a task is beyond you. Some hours of rigorous training, jump cuts, and maybe a Joe Esposito/John Cafferty power ballad later and you'll wonder how you were ever so useless.

Olmec ain't shit. Yama? More like yo' mama. Go show Spelunky who's boss. I did, and I'm about as coordinated as a drowsy puppy running across a waxed floor.

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