Well, I since I'm out here in Japan doing it up right, I might as well turn this into a daily series for the rest of this week. Of course, it's not actually me in Japan, but my lascivious bumpkin avatar Goku in Overdrive's Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~ (must include tildes, always) - a visual novel created exclusively for English fans to teach them about Japan's superiority, as if everyone buying this game wasn't already on the same page. Fun fact! Overdrive has created many visual novels over the years, and almost all of them (except this one) are pornographic in nature. That would explain Makoto.
So yeah, I was recently gifted the new Steam release Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~ (I'm only assuming the tildes are important) and who am I to turn down a vacation in the land of the rising sun? I can eat sushi, relax in hot springs and maybe even meet the anime of my dreams?
No seriously, what the hell is this thing? Why am I getting sent even more weird anime games? Well, I guess I ought to find out. Right? It's only polite.
Go! Go! Nippon! Part 01: Wakarimasen...
Boy, that was fun! I can't wait to head out into Tokyo tomorrow to see all the wonderful sights and sounds of Japan! I've retreated into some kind of denial-induced fugue of chirpiness and excitement!
All right, so I may continue my adventures in Japan in the comments, but with way fewer screenshots. I didn't realise how big these things were until I started uploading them, so if any site engineers are reading this... hey. This is an important cultural exchange of ideas and customs, so I'd say it's absolutely worth the bandwidth.
Woof. Reached 4-3 three times trying to get Spelunky's "Speedlunky" achievement. I believe I'm just about done procrastinating, so here we go: The Comic Commish for February, covering the first half of 2009. Whether it's my fault or the industry's, the first half of that year was surprisingly light on releases that I recall fondly. I guess I can't be too surprised, given the tumbleweeds we've been seeing rolling through the first two months of 2014 (though March certainly looks like it might get a bit on the crazy side).
Anyway, I can absolutely blame myself for spending some time creating a Mirror's Edge comic despite being a bit too on the tardy side for this era. Blame the various lists that feature it as a 2009 release due to the slightly delayed PC port. Just so I don't look like a phony, here it is:
So to that effect, and to the additional effect that there weren't a whole lot of games out during these months to base comics on, I've only got two comics for this period. But hey, at least the latter half of 2009 is pretty full, so maybe I'll make up the deficit there. I know I'm going to be checking those release dates a little more meticulously, lemme tell ya.
I'll Admit It, 2009 is Sort of a Blind Spot
The Last Remnant is a game with problems, but with enough innovation that those problems feel more like growing pains in an attempt to implement new ideas than careless errors from an apathetic development team. The player assumes the role of Rush Sykes, a mop-topped anime protagonist who is very insistent with the local monarch David Nassau that they get to rescuing his sister from a shady bunch of villains while simultaneously also dealing with an unstoppable Conqueror that threatens the peace of David's kingdom of Athlum. Rush is a figure like Final Fantasy XII's Vaan, not only in the sense that he's kind of annoying and petulant, but that he plays a cipher role that feels like an outsider removed from the bigger decisions being made, as if to focus the game's attention away from all the interesting political upheaval going on to this smaller adventure running this odd world and investigating a bunch of enormous relics that some ancient civilization left behind. Ancient relics of a bygone era is a trope as old as the proverbial ancient civilizations themselves, but the world of Last Remnant can often feel very alien and almost post-apocalyptic with the amount of enigmatic magical detritus littering the countryside and taking central positions in most of the game's settlements.
Stranger still than these magical whoosits, though, are the myriad JRPG systems introduced in this game. Though superficially similar to a standard party turn-based RPG, The Last Remnant takes a leaf from Langrisser and has each playable unit actually be a "union" of up to five characters. True to their name, these unions act as one entity, and the player issues vague commands (such as "attack" or "defend") for that union to perform that turn with some degree of autonomy. Rather than worrying about magic points or a strict finite number of special attacks, the player is left to the mercy of a "random command generator" which creates a limited selection of commands for them to use based on the situation and their stock of "action points" that accrue after each round of combat. It's weirdly limiting, though it's configured in such a way that many commands are more likely to appear whenever they're necessary and less likely when they aren't (say, if you have a healer, you'll have an option to heal a union way more frequently when they're actually in critical condition). On top of this is how the game decides what characters learn which skills as they grow stronger depending on how you've been using them, how the game will scale difficulty but only to an extent and then there's all the stuff like morale, crafting, granting characters the resources they ask for so they can go craft on their own, and monster capturing to consider. Just going over all these features in my head again is giving me a migraine.
So, The Last Remnant is a game that demands a lot from its player, and doesn't really offer too much in return with regards to a solid story (though it has its moments) or anything approaching a character development aspect that isn't nonsensical. It's certainly unique, though, and that can often be a big plus in a genre as defiantly immutable as the humble JRPG. It has a great rock orchestral soundtrack too, and beyond the small matter of that texture pop-in it looks about as good as you'd hope for a 2008 Square-Enix game. It's also one of a handful of JRPGs available for PC on Steam, which is by far the preferable platform to play it on - hence why I'm counting this as an early 2009 game instead of a late 2008 game, in case you thought I screwed up again. To buy a fully-featured, 40 hour long JRPG for peanuts in one of Steam's regular sales isn't something to turn one's nose up at, as inherently busted as several of its elements may be.
Suikoden Tierkreis is in some ways a pale shadow of the core Suikoden series. Many trademarks of the series - specifically the strategic battles - had to be gutted to make room on the tiny DS cart, it drops the active party from six members to a more conventional four, and it lacks the full 108 "Stars of Destiny" recruitable characters that the series has been using for years as a hyperbolically incredulous bullet-point on the back of cases. The space economy for that tiny DS cart was so severe that they actually had to speed up the dialogue of the protagonist to fit all his sound clips onto the cartridge, hence the above comic's not-entirely-facetious premise. It's worth keeping in mind that Tierkreis is still a Suikoden game, however, and thus belongs to a very well-regarded RPG series from Konami, who usually don't deign to leave their cardboard boxes and monster castles to delve into pure-blooded JRPGs too often.
The game also has an odd personality, which is something you often see with portable spin-offs (just recall back to Link's Awakening for instance, or a more recent example with something like Devil Survivor or the wonderful Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime). The game has more gratuitous German than usual - the hero's called Sieg, the German word for victory, and Tierkreis is German for "Zodiac" - and it focuses on a multiverse story where worlds seep into one another when interfered with. It sets up an eerie antagonist in The One King; a character that I still don't fully understand (he's essentially the manifestation of entropy? Sort of?). Honestly, as much as I didn't appreciate how it dropped many of what I consider core facets of Suikoden, the way it goes off on a really bizarre tangent from the series exonerates it somewhat in turn. There's been no dearth of great DS/3DS RPGs over their lifespans, and I'd like to think Suikoden Tierkreis is one of them.
I introduced this section of the Comic Commish last time, but for those just joining us: here's where I stash some of the comics I've made in my time blogging here that pertain to games released in this period of time. I cannot in good conscience throw them in with the strips made specifically for this month, but I figure it's worth coming back to them in order to (MS) paint a broader picture of what was going on with games released this year. If nothing else, I can use them to artificially lengthen this blog. You know, for all the click-baiting I'm engendering.
Deadly Creatures is an easy game to dismiss, at least on first impression, but - as the game itself proves with its clever narrative - there's a lot going on beneath the surface that's easy to ignore with a cursory glance. The player assumes the alternating roles of a scorpion and a spider, who have an adversarial role for much of the game, and the various other bugs, reptiles and small mammals fighting to survive in an inhospitable patch of the Sonoran Desert. Adding to the complications are two would-be treasure hunters digging up the desert for lost Civil War booty, snippets of their "A Simple Plan" story filtering through to the underworld in which both arachnids spend much of the game. I bring up A Simple Plan because that movie's co-star Billy Bob Thornton plays one of the ne'er-do-wells, with the late great Dennis Hopper playing the other in his final role. A little ignominious, perhaps, but hardly the worst video game-related character he's portrayed (King Koopa: one evil, egg-sucking son of a snake).
Deadly Creatures has surprisingly complex level design, with areas folding over and under each other, and the spider in particular is able to climb walls and ceilings with ease making for a fairly vertiginous platforming experience you don't see too often. The scorpion's side of things is a bit more combat oriented, with many of the game's "duels" playing out tactically in real-time as you try to outmaneuver the opponent and leap in for the killing sting. The combat's a bit QTE-heavy, but the game finds lots of varied opponents for the duo to fight, ranging from weaker wolf spiders to rats to enormous Gila Monsters and rattlesnakes. If you aren't put off by creepy crawlies, or you are and kind of want a game that will make you feel a little uneasy, then Deadly Creatures might surprise you with its quality. Hidden pleasant surprises were what the Wii was all about, after all.
I spoke quite a bit about Zeno Clash when I covered it for May Madness last year, and most of what I said still stands. It's an exceptionally, aggressively weird game both in its structure as a first-person arena brawler and just in general. I've likened it before now to Dark Crystal, just in how everything seems so bizarre but having a few relatable characters at the core who take the more alien aspects of their world in stride makes it a lot easier to come to terms with. It does go to some very dark and strange places, though, and raises far more questions about the nature of its world than it ultimately answers.
I've actually been meaning to play its sequel for a while now, so perhaps I'll get around to it later this month. All of the visceral fisticuffs and androgynous bird monster nonsense is vividly flooding back to me.
The Other Ones!
You know the drill. These are other games from this January to June of 2009 I didn't get around to making a comic for, but can still recommend for those who slept through most of that year like I apparently did.
Flower (thatgamecompany, PS3, February): Flower really begat this whole tedious "is a game/isn't a game" discussion with how very few traditional criteria of a video game are present in its depiction of a flower petal floating on the breeze and activating a world of colors and happy thoughts. It doesn't stop it from being quite an interesting and novel gameplay experience, as limited as it is, and set the stage for thatgamecompany's later Journey which did a lot to silence Flower's detractors.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena (Starbreeze Studios, PS3/360/PC, April): Very much the definitive Riddick experience, including the movies as far as I'm concerned, Dark Athena provides a second adventure for Vin Diesel's space-faring recalcitrant rebel that really doubles down on David Twohy's hostile universe of incongruously gothic spaceships and uncompromisingly brutal fauna. It's easy to argue that the previous game in the series, Escape From Butcher's Bay, is the superior of the two, which is why that game was included in its entirely with a new facelift and some important mechanical upgrades. If Dark Athena is your first exposure to the series, it definitely leaves a good impression.
InFamous (Sucker Punch, PS3, May): Sucker Punch put aside their procyon purloiner to focus on a more serious superhero sandbox game that felt like the next natural step after Realtime Worlds' Crackdown. As well as allowing players to leap around a city, throwing out lightning bolts and taking down entire squads of put-upon soldiers with cool electricity powers, the game indulges in some classic comic book tropes, some motion comic cutscenes and offers a flexible morality system that gradually mutates your powers to suit your behavior, in much the same way as the Jedi Knight games. It's anyone's guess why people are still playing sandbox games where you can't fly (or leap tall buildings in a single bound, at least) and have to drive around like a sucker.
Red Faction: Guerrilla (Volition, 360/PS3/PC, June): Some unfortunate things happened to the Red Faction franchise after (and some would say before) Guerrilla, but this game remains the peak of Volition's less insane series. And, just to digress a moment, when the game franchise that is set on Mars is somehow your more serious and grounded one, that's quite an achievement. Guerrilla's open-world chaos and fun-to-blow-up destructible environments greatly elevated what was already an interesting and imaginative sci-fi shooter series based around Total Recall-esque Mars dissidents. You can usually buy it on a Steam sale for a song these days, which seems almost as criminal as collapsing a government building with controlled explosions and an enormous sledgehammer.
Prototype (Radical Entertainment, 360/PS3/PC, June): Prototype closely followed inFamous with its presentation of another comic book superhero story set in a large open-world city, albeit with a far darker Todd McFarlane sort of tone. A living biological weapon, each of Alex Mercer's powers were more gross than the next, and morality barely ever entered into the equation. InFamous was probably the better game overall, but they were close enough in quality and release dates to give people pause to consider their options.
Ghostbusters: The Video Game (Terminal Reality, 360/PS3, June): There were a few Ghostbusters games released around the same time to coincide with absolutely nothing else new from the series, in much the same way as that recent Rambo: The Video Game, but it's clear that the developers of the 360/PS3 versions were at least dedicated fans of the supernatural comedy movies in question. The attention to detail with the movie's background paranormal apocrypha, like Tobin's Spirit Guide and the occultist architect of "Spook Central" Ivo Shandor, makes the game a worthy draw for fans already, and it's one of very few Ghostbusters video games to make ensnaring ghosts with the proton pack actually work and be fun. Any Ghostbusters adaptation that gives you an achievement for sliding down the fireman's pole or lets you talk to Vigo the Carpathian (now depowered, and so can only belittle you with childish insults) knows what the Hell it's doing.
Overlord II (Triumph Studios, 360/PS3/PC, June): The Overlord games can be a bit too chaotic for their own good at times, allowing the player to direct entire hordes of rambunctious minions around to destroy idyllic fantasy landscapes who tend to treat your orders as a sort of basic guideline rather than an absolute command. There's plenty of Fable-esque slapstick comedic elements (the story's written by Rhianna Pratchett, who comes from good stock as far as satirical fantasy goes) and a lot of Pikmin-esque hauling upgrades and collectibles around to make it all worth it, though, and Overlord II evolves many of the first game's slightly unstable mechanics in some meaningful ways.
Hey! I played some video games this week. How about that. Sure doesn't sound like something I'd do. Let's humor me in my new endeavors with a pair of not-quite-a-review appraisals.
Remember Me is a game from DONTNOD, so already the developer is scoring points with me by naming themselves a palindrome. More so than that, it's one of these parkour action games for which the template was set by Tomb Raider way back in the day, and ably mixes shimmying across ledges with a hand-to-hand combat system that focuses on a lot of situational techniques. That's the gameplay in a nutshell, anyway. What I feel is more interesting here is the setting and story:
Remember Me is set in near-future Paris after a hell of a lot of catastrophic shit has gone down in the world. The polar caps melted, the oceans rose, the entire globe went effectively bankrupt after all their major ports vanished and the world was wracked with storms and intense torrents of rainfall that it had insufficient infrastructure to deal with (given the storms currently raging in the UK, and that whole polar vortex thing you guys in the US got going on, it feels a little too close for comfort) and there was a massive war or two to monopolize dwindling resources. This is all just flavor text up to this point, and it's really only the tip of the (melted) iceberg as far as the game's information dumping is concerned. The game introduces "Sensen", or the Sensation Engine, which is essentially detective vision but for everyone and allows instantaneous transference of memories and thoughts from one person to another, sorta like how futurists imagine the internet is heading. There's robots everywhere, there's enormous dam-like structures and Mirror's Edge-esque slanty skyscrapers, a whole lot of orange for whatever reason, and there are street hackers going around robbing people's valuable memories and selling them to the highest bidder... it really feels like a world of endless possibilities and stories, cribbed together from so many familiar literary and film sources (I feel like even a semi-obscure personal favorite of mine, Strange Days, got a shout-out). If anything, it feels like the Mass Effect universe: you might recognize the pieces, but the entire package feels like something wholly new.
The game also tries its darndest to tackle some Mature Themes. Capital M, capital T. Let's list them off here: crushing regrets, trauma, the catastrophic effects of global warming, mass vagrancy and refugee migration, civil unrest, devastating continental civil war, some completely unnecessary implied rape, and an even less necessary errant boob on one of the raggedy female mutant enemy models. It's a game made in France, all right. Honestly, I rarely see game worlds this thoroughly detailed, and it really feels as if this game might've considered trying to set up the foundations for a sequel or five with how much effort they put into it. There's much hinted about the world outside the gated metropolis of Neo-Paris, and several characters like the vengeful bounty hunter Olga Sedova, or the celebrity ex-memhunter (the rebellious thieves and hackers of Remember Me, of which the protagonist Nilin is apparently the best) Kid X-Mas, who publicly airs his takedowns of his erstwhile fellow rogue elements on an overwrought MMA-style show of the sort that would probably get a lot of Affliction-endorsed merchandizing. It's rare to see a game focus so much on its world building, outside of a RPG at least, and very much appreciated in turn. Stylistically and tonally, the game almost feels like it could take place in the same world as Binary Domain or Vanquish - there's a lot of shared visual elements that I thought were interesting, especially with the android designs. Very "I, Robot".
But enough about its setting, I want to talk about its combat system a bit before moving on. Though initially something of a headache, Remember Me's combo customization system grows on you as you get used to it. Having the freedom to control what sort of combo you want - healing, tech-boosting or sheer power - is a refreshing approach to dealing with that irritating (for designers) and persistent "dominant strategy" problem: that if you give your players a dozen workable combos, they will narrow that list down to one specific series of moves that best balances input complexity, the time necessary to perform them and the damage output and then use it over and over in lieu of anything less effective. All of Remember Me's combos have fixed button placements dependent on their length, but the "pressens" (individual attacks) can be of four types: regen, for healing; cooldown, which allows you to run the cooldown timer on the game's situational "super moves" faster; power, which greatly increases the damage output if you just need to take an enemy down quickly; and chains, which simply repeats and boosts the previous pressen in the combo. The best part of this system is that it's easy to remember which buttons you need to tap to invoke the five-hit combo or the six-hit combo, so all that's really required is to remember which combo you've stocked with, for example, regen pressens for when you fall to critical health or which you've loaded with power pressens to bring down a tough mini-boss during a brief window of vulnerability. I'll freely admit that it took me a while before I drank the Kool-Aid (or the Winey Jacques, since we're in France) but now I think it's perhaps one of the best realised combat systems of any modern character action game, even compared to Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham series, with its wonderfully fluid flowing moves and dodges, to which Remember Me owes more than a debt of gratitude.
There's trouble in paradise, however. The game seems about as stable as a suspension bridge made of jell-o. At one point in the game you get ambushed by an enemy playing possum, though I can only suppose that was the intent because he was standing in a T-position when I encountered him. One time it simply wouldn't let me pick up a collectible - I hit the button prompt over and over, and nothing doing. Numerous times the game simply kept going when it should have paused due to a cutscene trigger, causing no end of confusion until I restarted from the nearest checkpoint and had the cutscene proceed as usual. These glitches, which are far from infrequent, wouldn't be so bad were it not for the fact that the checkpointing kinda sucks. It's far too arbitrary and will occasionally force you to start multi-part battles from the beginning, but not always? There's several battles with three or more stages you'll need to start from the very beginning should you be overwhelmed, but many more two stage battles that will checkpoint in the middle. It's maddening trying to figure out the logic behind where the game decides you ought to resume after a death, and, of course, no collectibles found after a checkpoint will be recorded until you've hit the subsequent checkpoint that follows. This goes ditto for the combo customization menu, which means you can spend half an hour (I mean, if you're crazy) reconfiguring what regen and cooldown pressens go where in your combos and lose all of that work as soon as you unpause the game and get KO'd by walking off a ledge or a mistake as equally dumb and inevitable. The glitches I can forgive to an extent, because there's always the chance that my particular copy's disc is in some way flawed, but this sort of amateur design and lack of intelligent QA are forever the biggest thorns in my side, more so than any amount of wooden dialogue or ugly textures (of which the game has thankfully very little of either).
However, if I had to categorize Remember Me, it's a game you could very easily fall in love with in spite of its flaws. Remember Me is 2013's Enslaved: Odyssey to the West: an impressive amount of vision, with a few unfortunate flaws that drags down its strengths but doesn't negate them entirely. Sometimes a game's so memorably unique that it rises above its problems, and I can only imagine this game will shine all the brighter when I recall back to it years later and its rougher edges have been sanded away by time and nostalgia. It's entirely fitting then, that Remember Me - a game about the importance of memory - will endure in this manner.
Shufflepuck Cantina Deluxe
Shufflepuck. A word seemingly invented to be said incorrectly in an inappropriate way at an inappropriate time. Or one of the houses of Hogwart's if you're hard of hearing. I don't delve into my old, old Atari ST and Amiga days too often on here, because I'm fairly sure the percentage of readers of mine who have had a similar enough gaming background to understand the references would drop precipitously to the single figures. Honestly, that period is largely a wilderness even to me.
To boil it down to bare essentials, my time on my Atari ST was divided between what I would now consider to be very early DOS CRPGs and simulators, and some very shaky Arcade conversions of numerous brawlers and other action games of the type which were treated with far more fidelity on home consoles. Ninja shit, mostly, but what kid growing up in the 80s wasn't obsessed with Japan's deadliest (mostly fictionalized) killers? Anyway, there were a few odd games that sat in the void between those two larger groups, and that was where Shufflepuck Café fell.
Shufflepuck Café was little more than an air hockey sim, not a far cry from the legendary antecedent of the home console boom, Pong. Instead of a top-down view of the table, however, Shufflepuck used scaling sprites to present what appeared to be a depth of field, providing a more accurate perspective of an air hockey table from the standpoint of a hypothetical person actually standing next to one. That was cool enough at the time, but the developers decided they'd riff on Star Wars a bit and introduce as a setting this watered-down dive full of dubious characters at the edge of the known universe. Characters ranged from the mundane (an entirely incongruous to the setting archetypal nerd character named "Skip") to some truly strange and unknowable Elder Being type entities, and because they occupied that spot at the far side of the table from you it often seemed for all the world as if they were a million miles away. They taunted you when you lost a point, got agitated when you won a point and were an intimidating presence that never made the game any easier to focus on, but in a compelling way I'd never seen in games of this type. If I had to point to another, more instantly recognizable example that exemplified this, it'd be Nintendo's Punch-Out!!. The personalities of your opponents - both in how they act and in how they fought you - and the way they were always front and center in the screen greatly elevated the appeal of an otherwise mechanically interesting single player boxing game.
Anyway, years passed and I kind of forgot about it. Occasionally I'd remember, and wonder if slamming a virtual puck around a table while a repeating loop of music not entirely unlike the Star Wars Cantina song (but dissimilar enough to not be litigation-prompting) played in the background was anything like as fun as I recalled. Sometimes I thought I might have imagined it. The internet, once that became a major permanent pillar in my life, confirmed the veracity of my memories yet I never felt the compulsion to actually try it again, just in case it turned out to be super lame.
Well, the fine folk at Agharta Studio clearly didn't think it was super lame, because they recreated an experience exceedingly similar to my own memories of playing against Chinese bootleg "Lank Skullrunner" and "Drewablanka" type characters in a bar filled with luminous illegal interstellar intoxicants that would probably kill a human being were they to even look at them too closely. Shufflepuck Cantina Deluxe, a title that both homages the original game and suggests that someone might owe George Lucas an apology, is a fairly new Steam release I acquired recently in a Groupees bundle (though not the one I highlighted a week back, alas. Had I known there was a better bundle coming along...). It's every bit the Atari ST game I remember, only with a whole heap of progression mechanics, acquirable special moves and a whole host of fancy 3D character models which skew even closer to the lifeforms from a certain galaxy that's far, far away from our own. Yeah, that one.
I actually quite like it. I think it'd be a harder sell without all that aforementioned nostalgia to prop it up, but even though it stretches itself way too thin with the amount of times you need to beat everyone to move on with the game, it's a lot of fun. I mean, it's air hockey. Against robots and alien strippers who aren't Twileks but sort of look like them. There's also a Japanese guy wearing Han Solo's trademark black vest who calls himself a smuggler. I've not met the owner of the establishment (very clearly the end boss), but if he turns out to be a giant gross worm alien you would need some state of the art microscopy technology to register the surprise on my face. Despite all this, I've found myself loading it up for a few games between streams and during podcasts and the like, edging ever closer to the next mini-quest requirement or new purchasable upgrade. It's not a game you'll want to play in long stretches, certainly, but it's a little addictive for short bursts.
I'd say it was one of those games I used to dub as "neostalgia" (before I realised that one cannot simply make neologisms happen without some groundswell of support) - when an updated game not only doesn't suck, but manages to live up to the impossibly high standards of one's romanticized, rose-tinted view of the original. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a similar case, and now we have Shufflepuck Cantina Deluxe to add to that short list. Effusive praise indeed, but whether or not anyone without that requisite nostalgia base would be in the same desert sail barge as myself is another matter entirely.
So what am I playing next week? Well, everyone seems to be getting into that interesting 3DS JRPG, so who am I to buck the trend? Tales of the Abyss 3D it is. Maybe I'll throw in a few more Indies from my Shame Pile here and there for color. I did just buy a whole bunch of those Level-5 eShop games (currently on sale! Buy Crimson Shroud!), so maybe I can get my Indie fix without having to put the 3DS down? The world is full of possibilities. I mean, I can only assume, as I'll be too busy craning my neck down at the 3DS screen to notice any of them.
Oh right, I'm still doing those stupidintelligent average IQ monthly comic commission blogs. Well, I guess I'll see you all there to highlight what the first half of 2009 had to offer. It was a good year, if I recall.
All right. I want to make something clear: I tend to do these Bundle lowdowns as a way of highlighting the cream of the (very) Indie crop, rather than admonishing a bunch of amateur game designers for even trying to compete with the big boys. One of those things makes me seem like an underdog supporter, while the other makes me seem like a jerk kicking sand in people's faces. Though the first half of the Groupees Bundle Yourself bundle wasn't, shall we say, quite up to par, there's no reason the second half cannot be.
Then again, I'm starting to see the wisdom in just blogging about the big Indie names as they make their Steam debuts to rapturous applause. Lord knows I'd rather be playing them instead, on the whole. But I'll always maintain that it's never worth counting out Desura or its bundles completely, and it's often the best way to check out a lot of Steam Greenlight games beforehand to see if they can cut the mustard. Escape Goat, Tales of Maj'Eyal and Knytt Underground were all Desura-only games initially, and took a while to get out of the Greenlight gulag despite being quality Indie games.
It's very possible that the other four games in this bundle might include some bangers, is all I'm saying.
Bundle Yourself: Part 2: No Bangers, Sorry
You remember those slide levels in Super Mario 64? There were only two of them, yet it felt like I spent half the game trying to emancipate them of their Power Stars due to how challenging it was to control a careening 250lb plumber zipping down a toboggan run. Well, in case you thought those slide sequences were far too easy and mundane for you, here's Orborun.
Orborun puts you in the chassis of a spherical robot, sent to challenge some of the most devious high-speed translucent plastic obstacle courses this side of F-Zero GX. The target is to simply make it to the goal at the end of the stage, but in order to earn the most star prizes you have to do it as quickly as possible while collecting as much hard-to-reach collectible junk as you can. Earning stars (and a piece of highly treasured Zetium should you get all three stars for a course) unlocks bonus stages and new cosmetic upgrades for your robot.
Hey, guess what? Nothing in this game is remotely simple. Even if all you wanted to do was make it to the end and get a single star for every stage, the game's still not going to let it be a walk in the park. I might've said this was a bit like the Super Mario 64 slides, but it's actually a bit closer to the bike levels in the various Battletoads games: it's less a process of controlling your speed, gracefully taking corners and judiciously picking your moments to accelerate than it is about trying your best to guide an object hurtling at supersonic speeds down courses devised by sadists.
Though you wouldn't be able to tell from all my grousing, Orborun's a lot of fun. It's graphically and musically unremarkable (which I'm fine with, since it isn't the focus), but there's a lot of ingenuity with the course design, as occasionally cruel as it is. The star ratings really make you think about the "ideal path" to follow, and there's a lot of longevity in hitting your head against a particularly devious track again and again to maximize your score. The game has a handy restart button that you'll be tapping a lot while chasing higher ratings, so it's only as frustrating as you'll let it become. I haven't provided too many reasons to buy this bundle yet, but Orborun is one of them.
But never mind the actual fun stuff, you want to hear me complain about obtuse bullshit again, don't you? Say hello to Project APT. It's a point and click adventure game, though that's kind of disingenuous as it's entirely led by keyboard controls. The player explores a rundown apartment complex full of some really bizarre instances in order to do... something.
I've made it sound like another arty Hippocampal type of experience, but the interface is actually quite straightforward: explore rooms, find items, use items to get other items, use those items to solve puzzles and move on. The game has no directions, but will give you hints on what sort of item needs to be used where. There's very much a Roberta Williams logic to some of the puzzles, but fortunately there's very few of them to actually solve before the game is over. Maybe that's not a "fortunately" statement, but I digress.
If I had to guess, the game saw how Lone Survivor distilled the Silent Hill experience into a smaller yet equally disturbing 2D inventory-based adventure game and decided to follow suit. It's got a macabre vibe and is full of Silent Hill's trademark symbolism and weirdness for the sake of weirdness. The ending provides some context to the odd sights you've seen and odd puzzles you've solved, but most of it is left to the player's intuition to figure out. In this regard, it's probably not quite as successful as Jasper Byrne's spooky enigma, but it's definitely on the same staticky radio wavelength.
It has a few problems though. There's no saving, but there are deaths, so you'll find yourself starting over a lot. This, plus the protagonist's languid gait artificially stretch an interesting five minute Newgrounds browser horror game into an interminable half hour chore. It might make for interesting Spookin' With Scoops fare, but no more so than any of the other odd little Indie horror adventure games @patrickklepek's shown off in the past. Like the previously covered Loot Hero, it feels like a freely available portfolio booster created over a weekend than a game anyone ought to be charging money for. Not awful, but not exactly a substantial package either.
Siege of Inaolia
Sigh. There's a reason I don't go into Early Access stuff often. I don't sign up for betas either. I've been in game development, and there's nothing particularly fun about staring at an unfinished game with all its cracks and fissures on full display and concentrating too much on what still needs to be done than trying to derive any enjoyment from a half-baked game. I don't really understand the mindset of wanting to freely test a studio's game for them either, but then I was fortunate enough to skip the tester phase of my game design career, as unfortunately truncated as it ended up being.
In case I'm being too opaque with that off-topic tirade, Siege of Inaolia is a game very obviously in an Alpha state. I don't believe games should be sold in their Beta state, let alone Alpha, but I guess if there's a market for it I can't really complain. I suppose it's like a hands-on "watch your pizza getting made while you wait" approach to pre-ordering, but I've yet to see much in the way of accountability from these ambitious Indie games trying to finish their project through generous donations from players already sold on the idea alone. Great if you want to take the risk and buy in, but you better hope there's another thousand or so people who are thinking the same way.
Siege of Inaolia, lest I digress about selling Alpha builds any further, is a 3rd person real-time action RPG with skill trees and the sort of tactical combat that involves kiting and the like. Like an action CRPG made in the 90s (or with a 90s sensibility, if we're talking Risen or Divinity II), essentially, though it's not quite there yet. There's no story mode or anything, just a barebones horde mode with two stages, a single playable character (a warrior type) and a bunch of ugly enemies to hit over the head repeatedly. It's at least playable and mostly stable, but it's about as far from a complete product as you could hope to find.
So really, I can neither cast aspersions nor encourage what little there is because there's really nothing here yet. There's no telling how different the final product will be, or if everything will still look the way it does or if anything of the current level-up/skill/combat systems will persist in the final build. All I can say for right now is to not bother right now and perhaps come back in a year's time. Maybe they'll have something closer to a Beta by then. And, hey, for the record I dug Venetica so don't think of me as unilaterally down on dodgy small studio CRPGs.
Now this is an interesting one. Space Slice is, if I had to nail down a genre, a platformer exploration game set around planetoids and gravity wells. While not quite one of my beloved SpaceWhippers, there's a free-roaming element in which your little alien fellow, Zynth, has to earn a vast amount of a resource named Nihilium in order to call out mechanics to fix his spacecraft.
While you can do this from simply exploring and killing little bug monsters everywhere, the fastest (if not necessarily the safest) way to earn money is to find and defeat huge alien monsters in mildly strategic boss fights. You can buy a bunch of upgrades from merchants, dipping into your valuable supply of Nihilium, but these items will eventually wear out and vanish through heavy use. As the bosses get more lucrative in their payouts, they end up needing more of these consumable items to damage effectively, so there's a little bit of a Monster Hunter type investment/preparation element going on.
Really, though, this is a very laid-back game where you're whizzing around planets, finding new life and new civilizations and kicking them around for their valuable elemental currency. Checkpoints are frequent and your guy has a decent health bar to boot, and your little robotic guide will show you the way to each of the game's boss encounters in case you get lost. I've noticed a lot of Indie games experimenting with planet physics (that recent Gravity Ghost QL comes to mind), presumably inspired by Super Mario Galaxy, and this one's a breezy and low-stress interpretation of that concept. If you can get to grips (as it were) with the game's odd gravity well traversal - hint, smaller planets have less gravity, which means higher vertical leaps - it should keep you entertained for a few hours.
Well, this part wasn't quite the inadvertent condemnation of Indie games that the last part was, but there's still only a couple of games really worth playing in this bundle. Goes to show, it's hard to sort the wheat from the chaff by appearance alone especially with the huge number of bundles like this that get released on a weekly basis. Hopefully I've given you pause for thought regarding purchasing decisions, but then it's not like throwing a couple bucks to support Indie developers is ever a bad thing regardless of how middling their games might actually be. From small acorns grow mighty oaks, and all that.
Thanks for stopping by, and I'll probably be heading back to some big AAA games for a bit. Only so much Indie I can take in one month. (Dammit if I haven't been meaning to finally get around to Thomas Was Alone after that Mike Bithell guest spot on Bombin', though. Well, back to my Steam library I go.)
Hey all. In lieu of any big ongoing daily series this year for Steam or Desura games (since I've decided to go back to the drawing board to be a little less predictable) I'm still going to run these Bundle Boggle features intermittently whenever an interesting Indie bundle crosses my path.
This week I'm looking at Groupees' current Bundle Yourself collection: a group of Desura games with some interesting concepts behind them. Of course, ideas aren't anything if you don't have the substance to back them up, and a lot of Desura-only games (that is to say, those that have yet to pass through Steam's Greenlight system, not that they make it particularly easy) I've played of late could only talk the talk. Still, these Desura bundles are always interesting games to blog about at the very least. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised by a few of them?
Bundle Yourself (It's Pretty Damn Cold) (The Weather I Mean): Part 1
I'm a little lost here.
I'm sure many of you will recognize this game from a disastrous(ly funny) Unprofessional Fridays segment in which Drew unwittingly purchased what appeared to be one of his beloved mundane simulators only to be treated to something which was either an air commerce sim in which the player vicariously assumes the roles of a passenger, a flight attendant and the captain of an air liner, or some sort of student art project gone horribly awry. Perhaps both.
In case you didn't see the episode of UPF in question or lack the premium membership with which to do so, Air Control is an incredibly, nay, ludicrously rough approximation of an airline simulator with various stages of "interactive" "fun". "Scare quotes". The player is given very little instruction for each episode of the game, and all of them can be skipped by finding the nearest door or tapping a button if the player feels like giving up. Tantalizingly, there's often a few things you can do in each sequence which almost feel like objectives, such as collecting discarded seat cushions during one of the "flight attendant" stages, but the game doesn't deign to tell you about any of them, nor is it particularly concerned about keeping track of your progress if indeed there is any progress to be made.
It would seem the game is an extremely rough alpha currently, with a few abortive game modes provided to give players and investors an very opaque idea of the width and breadth of the eventual final product. Presumably these sequences will have hoity-toity elitist features like "goals" and "graphics" and "fun" implemented in a later build. As it stands now in its currently purchasable state, Air Control's good for a quick laugh, like Soda Drinker Pro, but unlike the King of All Fizzy Beverage Simulators AC doesn't appear to be in on the joke. Whether that makes it better or worse is entirely subjective. If the developer makes it through enough Unity tutorials to get the game in anything resembling a semi-coherent finished state, it may well end up being considerably less enjoyable than it is currently.
Really, though, who can even say with this game? Maybe I fell for some obtuse joke or elaborate scam by buying it, playing it, and subsequently discussing it on the internet.
(Also, in case you were wondering, the game does keep going beyond the screen Drew was stuck at: you play as a passenger and get to mess around with one of those seat terminals, pressing random buttons until you accidentally find a link to the game's Greenlight page. Great.)
Astro Emporia is a space-trading game deconstructed to its base elements. Unlike, say, Elite, which had you buying low on one planet and selling high on another in the midst of fun space battles with a fuchsia inter-dimensional alien empire, mining runs on asteroids and the occasional shoot-out with the cops once it became known you were carrying contraband across the cosmos, Astro Emporia is simply a ferrying simulator. Just the "buy low, sell high" part, in other words. If anything it's the old space trader model recontextualized as a mercantile puzzle game.
It's a simple game to understand, as long as you don't get intimidated by all the numbers and commerce factors, as everything is randomized to some degree. The planets you trade with, for instance, change their inventories, prices and preferred import products every turn, and it's down to the player's savvy and a certain amount of luck in order to buy a product at the lowest value and find a way to sell it off for a high profit as soon as possible. The whole game is simply buying and selling and choosing where to go next for some more exciting buying and selling.
There's a few intricating factors, such as how there's never a guarantee that the planet you're travelling to will be able to purchase your inventory (it needs to be on their list of items, which of course changes each visit) and there's also a gradually increasing loan you need to pay off eventually, though whether you cut deep into your early finances so you don't need to worry about it or wait until you're making so much cash that the loan becomes trivial even with all its accrued interest is down to player choice.
Despite these intricacies, I found this game exceedingly tedious. There are enough space trader games out there that manage to pull off a compelling economy to jump into like an interstellar Torneko Taloon, and includes a whole bunch of fun stuff like shooting things and exploring new star systems to boot. I cannot really recommend Astro Emporia, except perhaps to those who only play space trader sims for the dry import/export elements, and those people are probably far too deep into EVE Online to even reach at this point.
I legitimately have no idea what this game is. Far as I can make out, it's a "satirical contemplative game" (their words, not mine) in which the player, as a vacationing astronaut, has to defeat an army of invading bug alien monster things. Or he doesn't. You can just faff off and do whatever if you'd prefer. If the game has a clear goal other than "collect some objects somewhere", I've yet to find it in any of its large labyrinthine hell-scapes. You spend time hovering through these areas with your spacesuit's manned maneuver unit's thrusters, but there's no apparent impetus to shoot anything or avoid danger (neither weapons or hostile creatures appear to exist).
The game's quite clearly an art game, of the type I saw a lot back when I covered the LA Game Space: deliberately obtuse and inexplicable (the tutorial even admits as much), the game doesn't particularly care what you do. Its mission statement appears to be a passive one of "make your own interpretation of what you're seeing and doing", as if the very notions of transparent goals and accessible gameplay were somehow offensive to true creativity within the interactive medium. They have a semblance of a point, of course, but I don't know many more "interactive art installations" like this I can take.
The game seems to have a lot of issues regarding its utilization of the Unreal Engine, though whether the intense slowdown and terrible texture popping is an intentional part of the "contemplative experience" or not is anyone's guess. Either way, I couldn't get too far into the game before the framerate bottomed out, and this happened minutes into every playthrough regardless of which direction I chose to arbitrarily float towards. Oddly, this problem only got truly untenable when colliding with a wall (well, the iron bars that make up walls) than when flying around the middle of an area with a thousand flashing billboards and bug monsters hanging around.
I ought to give the benefit of the doubt to the designers, in part because they were intentionally going for something unplayable and in part because someone with a better PC that can handle its framerate might get more out of it, but it's not a game I can really recommend. Or really call a game for that matter. It's definitely something, though.
(Currently rated 8.4 on Desura. There are times where I simply cannot fathom the human race. I guess the old adage of the art world still applies: either truthfully admit you don't get it or pretend with all sincerity that you do.)
(Equally possible that I'm just missing something. If anyone's made heads or tails of the thing, please feel free to leave a comment.)
Loot Hero is an action RPG, though not exactly the most fully-featured action RPG imaginable. It's scarcely even a mobile game, in fact, or one of those free browser games you'd find on Kongegrate or Armor Games. The gameplay essentially boils down to holding down the button to charge forward with your lance. You'll automatically damage enemies, and they you, on collision. It's not unlike the sophistry of Half-Minute Hero's elaborate combat engine in fact.
In order to get past the bigger enemies, you need to purchase incremental upgrades for your hero with the loot you earn from running all these minions of darkness down. These range from such tactical options as Attack (do more damage), Defense (have less damage done to you), Critical (do even more damage, sometimes) and Speed (hurry along this whole fruitless endeavor).
The game isn't particularly challenging, nor does it require anything more than to hold a button down and occasionally run back and forth to grind a bit to be in a fit shape for some of the bosses. There's very little to the upgrades: everything but Speed just makes the game that little bit easier. Once the big bad dragon at the end of the game is defeated, everything levels up to match your level and you keep going from the start again.
From a certain perspective, Loot Hero is kind of a parody of the genre in the same manner that Progress Quest or Candy Box are. They recognize the tropes, boil them down to their core essence and lets you laugh at the futility of it all. Your little guy's sprite actually changes whenever he gets an Attack (weapon) or Defense (armor) boost, as if the additions you're making weren't simply buying a slightly higher number but actual new equipment with no-doubt exciting names like Adamantium Plate and Excalibur, or whatever the lance equivalent of Excalibur might be. So too do the achievements kind of give away the joke a little with how ludicruously grindy some of them are.
I don't wish to condescend if the satirical element was unintentional, so all I'll say is that the game is a very basic facsimile of an RPG that won't keep you entertained for more than ten minutes. The music and pixel art's pretty good though. That's not some condescending kiss-off either; I quite liked the way the little guys bobbed up and down and flew off the screen once slain, the amount of detail that went into some of the bosses, and the joyful little soundtrack is fun (it's also freely available for purchasers of the bundle, as one of the unlockable stretch goals).
Well, these first four games were kind of a wash, but I have high hopes for the next lot given what I've heard and seen. There's an interesting looking action RPG that's in Alpha, some sort of odd space game that superficially resembles Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, some kind of Super Monkey Ball thing with robots and a bizarre point and click adventure game. I'll have some first impressions of all those for you in Part 2.
(Disclaimer the first: I apologize for the title. This blog was originally entitled "Indie Metroidvanias" but something about that combination of annoyingly prevalent video gaming-derived neologisms must have set off something deep in the ol' psyche and caused me to go fugue for a moment. Just so we're all copacetic: we're only expounding on the first two words in that list.)
(Disclaimer the second: In an effort to curb the further proliferation of a term no-one seems to like but everyone instantly comprehends, I'll be calling this type of exploratory platformer action game "SpaceWhippers" going forward, regardless of whether or not it actually has whips or is set in space. It's equally stupid terminology, if not more so, but since it has yet to take off to the same omnipresent extent it should therefore be easier for us all to cope with. You all brought this on yourselves by complaining about the term in discussion. You made this happen.)
Indie SpaceWhippers are perhaps the most prolific genre of Indie games after the more puzzley-oriented platformers like Braid or The Swapper, and those strategy types where you defend places with towers in a tower defense-y sort of way. The reason for this is fairly self-evident, and is also the reason why there's so many Indie horror games bumping around (in the night): major studios no longer give a shit about them, but it's clear that a huge audience of us still do. You'd be hard-pressed to find any game with this specific make-up from any larger studio made within, say, the past five years. I mean, we had that Order of Ecclesia DS Castlevania, and Shadow Complex had a bunch of people behind it, but for those jonesing for a big map of collectibles and power-ups behind arbitrary barriers that can only be destroyed long after you first come across them, the Indie market was pretty much the only place to go. And the Indie market was in turn, as always, eager to please (as long as it's a 2D platformer if you wouldn't mind, because those are relatively easy to put together).
I love SpaceWhippers. Can't get enough of 'em. However, they're deceptively difficult games to get right: there's a lot of hidden design rules that need to be obeyed, more so than perhaps in most other genres due to how specific the SpaceWhipper formula can be. I wrote a little while back that the actual specifications of a SpaceWhipper (I might have referred to it by its inferior former name at the time) could do with being a bit more broader for the sake of accessibility, but there's still a huge number of considerations that need to be properly addressed before a game of this type can really start to coalesce into something respectable. Most of these involve what you can and can't do within the formula, and that's where a few of these Indie games can trip over their own feet in their enthusiasm for the format. At the same time, it's in bucking these laws that many Indie SpaceWhippers can break the mold in some really exciting ways.
I'll be covering this and a few other Indie SpaceWhipper games in more detail below, but Valdis Story: Abyssal City - which I completed this week - was one example where the studio behind it had clearly played a fair number of games in this genre, but still made broke quite a few unwritten rules of the format. They trapped collectibles in an area which permanently seals itself off after you've done what you needed to in there (not much of a spoiler, but there was a load-bearing boss down there). They weren't as transparent about completion % as they perhaps could be. The transportation system was very limited, which meant a lot more tiresome backtracking through whole areas. There was no way to either label or have the game automatically label areas in which a power-up was necessary to grab an item or open the way to a new area. Valdis was also rife with typos and the like too, so there was a certain feeling of carelessness to the whole package which did it no favors. It's a fairly solid SpaceWhipper in the Dust: An Elysian Tail or Guacamelee model of combo-heavy combat and minimal platforming mold, but quibbles like these are the sort of things that build up and persist in one's memory long after the game is over. No SpaceWhipper - even the big AAA developer studio ones - is entirely perfect, but there's a lot of smart tricks that Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night pulled off which most inexperienced game designers might simply overlook, and that's even more often the case when a project only has one or two designers on the team in the first place.
Still, though, as critical as I am about some of these smaller SpaceWhippers, it's a little renaissance that I'm quite thankful exists. As long as its clear that I only want games of this format to improve going forward, I don't think this blog will come off as too negative. If nothing else, most of these games at least look and sound really damn fantastic.
Cave Story (2004-12-20)
Cave Story's really only partly inspired by SpaceWhippers; it takes a few elements from the genre and then goes off the beaten path just a little. While it does have power-ups and stat boosts ensconced in the landscape and places to visit and revisit, the game's mostly a linear affair that has you teleporting off to consecutive areas to follow an ongoing story arc.
Cave Story is particularly memorable for three reasons:
The first and most evident is how the weapons in the game work: the first thing the player does is steal a gun from a sleepy old man in order to defend himself, and it's little more than a pea-shooter. By killing enemies and avoiding damage, the gun steadily grows more powerful. In a sense, the game rewards you for keeping out of the way of enemies but doesn't punish you too severely in turn for failing to do so, as you take minimal damage (which can be quickly restored) but are momentarily weaker until you climb back up that upgrade ladder. It's a great little system and perhaps the most notable innovation (well, in this context at least, as something similar has been in shmups since forever) that the game brings to the table.
The game was originally in Japanese and the developer had no intention of getting it localized or released in Western territories, or rather if he did it was slightly beyond the scope of a small Doujin game developer making a fun little SpaceWhipper shooter about rabbits and robots. However, its quality inspired quite a few fan translators, like Aeon Genesis, to create a translation patch so people could follow its quite elaborate story. Importantly, though, the translation allowed for the third memorable aspect...
The game's considerable number of secrets. All good SpaceWhippers have secrets of course, but in Cave Story's case they all relate to story twists and other in-game events. There are characters that can be saved with a little extra work, for instance, as well as regions and new abilities that can be found if the player's a little attentive to sub-textual clues and NPC hints, or is just the type to probe anything suspicious for the sake of discovery. The game's entirely playable if you don't understand a word, but to get the most out of it you sort of need to understand what's going on in the world around you. In that respect, it's not unlike a certain other mysterious pixel-based game I'll feature a little bit later in this blog.
I overall didn't like Cave Story too much, perhaps because I felt cheated by the number of bridges I was burning without realizing it (I'm sorry, Curly Brace. If only I'd known). It's still a neat game and if you're not too bothered about having a graphically updated version (which doesn't add a whole lot), you can find it for free on the internet easily enough.
An Untitled Story (2007-08-26)
Another trailblazer in what would become a valid market (read: Indie developers will actually start to get their stuff sold on Steam and other places), An Untitled Story is a very rough looking SpaceWhipper from one Matt Thorsen, who is himself something of a prolific name in the pre-big Indie renaissance era and beyond. He created the simple yet fun Jumper series, one of many games name-checked by Super Meat Boy via an unlockable character, and the intensely tricky platformer MoneySeize, which might well have been Thorsen returning the favor to Team Meat. Most recently, Thorsen made the Ouya hit (which aren't two words you often see together thus far into the system's tenure) TowerFall - one of a wave of really cool local multiplayer games we've been seeing of late. Along similar lines, I kind of want the Giant Bomb crew to check out something called Starwhal for the next UPF, but I'm digressing really hard right now you guys.
Back to An Untitled Story. Like Cave Story, it's completely free on its developer's site, and while it's graphically not the most intense visual experience you'll ever sigh in wonder at, it ticks off all the correct boxes for a SpaceWhipper: There's power-ups to collect in out-of-the-way places, you explore more of the map as you grow stronger and earn new abilities and there's a giant map with many interconnected regions to go explore once you feel like you can survive them. Thorsen definitely did his homework, though I have to say it's probably the hardest game on this list to complete. I'm not sure I ever reached its conclusion.
Aquaria perhaps set the template for the Indie SpaceWhipper, in how it has some glorious art and sound design but the actual core tenets of the genre are understandably a little bit diminished due to the smaller development team. That development team does include Derek Yu, however, he of the compelling yet entirely unfair Spelunky. Aquaria doesn't quite share the challenge level of her little brother, but it's still got an array of tough boss fights and clever little touches that it takes a while to discover.
The most notable thing about Aquaria is that it's a SpaceWhipper that lacks platforming of any kind. As with another entry on this list (the one about maddeningly entangled dark globes, up next) the protagonist is free-floating throughout the entire game. This doesn't eliminate instances where you have to make your way through rooms filled with traps and obstacles, or most of the other challenges often posed by platformer games, but it does mean that you don't have to worry about gravity nearly as much.
Aquaria's also impressively big, given its small team. While the whole "barriers and power-ups" dynamic is a little threadbare, the game makes up for it with its oodles of aquatic beauty and a really intriguing plot about a forgotten Cthulhu-esque deity at the bottom of the ocean and its influence on the annihilation of innumerable underwater civilizations, most of which left ruins behind for the protagonist Naija to stumble across. A good SpaceWhipper needs a good mystery behind it to spur the exploration, and Aquaria is no slouch in that regard.
I'm sure there were more SpaceWhippers from the Indie community between 2007 and 2011, but I'll be darned if I can recall any. Maybe they took a break to collect themselves, possibly across a wide area with a variety of power-ups, because they would come back in force and then some over the next couple of years. If you haven't noticed yet, each one of these Indie SpaceWhippers tries to add their own twist to the Metroid blueprint. In XBLA/PSN hit Outland's case, we have a polarity-switching gimmick akin to Treasure's Ikaruga, where switching one's color from orange to blue and vice versa allows you to damage certain enemies or progress through similarly-colored barriers. Often these switches require split second timing, and so Outland is a curious amalgamation of a SpaceWhipper and a bullet hell shooter. It's not quite as severe as most bullet hell games, but Outland isn't shy about throwing out waves of enemy projectiles to weave yourself through. Its inspirations are apparent, but it's ultimately a unique combination of genres.
It probably doesn't deserve to work as well as it does. Rather than a deeper emphasis on combat, the game derives its challenging encounters from the player's ability to switch their color palette on the fly, and many of the game's more difficult instances come from getting to grips on the necessary timing. It's still also every bit a classic SpaceWhipper, with open-ended areas to explore once the requisite yadda yadda yadda. You've heard me explain what goes into a SpaceWhipper often enough now, so take it as read that Outland follows most of the basic rules for one. Or take it as orange. Or blue.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (2011-08-03)
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet isn't perhaps the Indiest of Indie SpaceWhippers, since it apparently took two whole development studios to put together, but its Henry Selick-esque sci-fi shoot 'em up has an eclectic mix of genres that provide something that, like many games on this list, wasn't something you saw a whole lot full stop, let alone from major studios and publishers who are generally already too scared of their own shadow planets to make something this eccentric.
ITSP bucks the SpaceWhipper trend in many meaningful ways but is still the same genre deep down: paths are blocked until the necessary power-up is found, room-based instances of enemies or puzzles need to be cleared before more areas become accessible and you grow stronger by poking around every nook and cranny for upgrades. Sure, you float around and shoot stuff in your dinky UFO, but it felt like the setting of this game was your oyster the moment you were dumped into it. A dark and foreboding oyster, perhaps, but one that compelled you to dig deeper into its secrets.
I guess I can't really move on without talking about the Lantern Run either. While a considerable departure from the measured pace of the main game, the Lantern Run offered something akin to a multiplayer co-op version of the self-destruct escape that usually punctuates any of Samus's adventures like a big exclamation point. Girlfriend can't help but blow up any planet or space station she happens upon, whether it was an inadvertent happenstance or deliberate sabotage. The Lantern Run has become infamous on Giant Bomb for many reasons, largely because we frequently saw everyone involved in the multiple failed attempts at their most raw (and let's not fill the comments discussing that one particular unfortunate instance. I am a mod now, please recall).
Unepic's humor is atrocious. You might wonder why I would lead my discussion of this SpaceWhipper with a scarcely relevant knock against its comedy, but it's really the first thing that hits you when playing the game. It has some of the worst referential humor and gross comedic sexual politics of any interactive product I've played this side of a Postal game. It's a shame, because it serves to overshadow many of the game's finer qualities.
Those finer qualities tend to include how impressively expansive the game is, and how each screen is comprised of multiple corridors filled with traps and monsters and treasures. It feels like a colossally-scaled dungeoncrawl adventure, almost like a 2D platformer version of a roguelike (an actual one, like NetHack) in which there's crafting, spell management, armor and weapons, leveling and skills, vendors to purchase some or all of the above from and plenty of disparate locations within the castle to explore. It's a game packed to the gills with features and content, and there's plenty to explore and backtrack to as you grow more powerful.
However, the game sort of peters out like a damp squib towards the end. The final "boss" is a juxtaposition of a speedrun through a tricky forest stage while simultaneously holding off an invasion using summoned creatures in a manner not unlike the tower defense that I despise so much - the goal being to juggle the two modes, making progress through the first while ensuring that you don't lose control in the latter. The worst part is that there's nothing to prepare you for any of this, beyond making sure you're as overpowered as possible by fully exploring the rest of the game for the best gear and spells. No strategy elements existed up until this point, and because this is the final obstacle of the game it's also the most difficult sequence of the game. Were there a bit more a build-up, say with a few similar instances, I might even say it was possible to do without frustrating oneself to the point of quitting. Figures that a game with a bad first impression would end on a similarly sour note.
Polytron's pixelly SpaceWhipper is something of a wolf in sheep's clothing. Fez is ostensibly a collect-a-thon, with the be-hatted protagonist Gomez running around collecting golden cubes via his ability to shift his perspective of the world around him by 90 degrees. Twisting what seems to be a 2D map around on its axis leads to all sorts of discoveries, and in some ways feels like the next logical step after Paper Mario's various methods on turning a 2D platformer made in a 3D era on its head. Or at least around its head. You know what I mean.
Obviously, or perhaps unobviously, Fez isn't all it appears to be on the surface. Hell, you learn this quickly enough by shifting Gomez's village around and seeing what lurks on the previously hidden sides. Fez's true depth as a game filled with hidden cryptograms and nebulously defined mechanics come to the fore once the discovery of the first "anti-cube" is made. From there, the player either continues hunting for the golden cubes - which is rarely as difficult as finding a new area and exploring it thoroughly - or going hunting for these elusive darker cubes, understanding the tricks to coaxing them out from their hidey holes via hitting some combination of directions hinted at by an ideogram or some other meta-puzzle. It's not uncommon, from what I've both heard and experienced first-hand, to end up with entire sheets of notepad paper filled with notes and observations. The effect has been diminished in the years after the game, now that full documentation on all its secrets can be found across the internet, but it's one of those cases - like a new Souls game - where being in on the ground floor does wonders for the game's appeal.
Hell, it's still great fun today. If you're a fan of games that employ logic puzzles - the type that you have to write down and think through, rather than the usual adventure game "use everything on everything else" spiel or most Indie puzzle games' insistence on moving boxes around - then Fez is worth a look into. Cut yourself off from any guides if you want to make the most out of the experience.
Dust: An Elysian Tail (2012-08-15)
Dust: An Elysian Tail was created by a single game designer - Dean Dodrill - over a number of tense years when he was struggling to make ends meet while also ensuring he had as much time as possible to work on his dream project. The amount of blood and tears put into Dust really shows, with its numerous novel features and carefully crafted presentation. The game melds a combo and juggle-rich combat system with the standard SpaceWhipper exploration, but does so in a manner where the alacrity of your character and the way he whizzes through the air is as conducive to getting through areas quickly as it is to pounding enemies in a satisfying manner. The game moves along at a pleasingly brisk pace as a result, but still has an impressive amount of content stretched across various nodes that the player can access from a world map, not unlike Order of Ecclesia or Metroid Prime 3.
I don't mean to keep harping on this game. I did rate it pretty highly on my 2012 GOTY list (spoilers: it came second), so its worth the accolades. Though it's hard to pick a singular favorite on this list of SpaceWhippers - as I've stated previously, they each feel very different due to the novel spins they introduce to the genre - I think I'd be safe in saying that Dust is my overall top preference. Don't be put off by its "furry agenda"; the game is a very solid SpaceWhipper and it really takes a playthrough of your own for the true depth of quality to become apparent. I can all but guarantee that twirling through the air and spitting out dozens of projectiles with the combination attacks never gets old.
Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit (2012-09-25)
Hell Yeah! is an odd duck, or rabbit, because it chose as its inspiration perhaps the most forgotten Metroid game of them all: that of the Game Boy sequel Return of Samus. The chief goal, rather than simply progressing through to an area's boss and procuring a new power-up (though this is definitely still a secondary concern), is to scour the area thoroughly for a series of monsters to destroy. The game's humorous introduction puts Ash, the eponymous Dead Rabbit, on something of a tear against all those who oppose him, or at least dare to embarrass him by talking smack about his rubber ducky. He's nothing short of a logomorph Laharl from Disgaea, proving his worth against the other vile creatures of the underworld through might and intimidation.
Having the focus switch from finding the boss to finding every critical target on the map changes the player's priorities to more overtly exploration-based goals. Rather than choosing to chase optional objectives by leaving the beaten path, it's now become the chief intent. New areas don't open up until Ash has slain a specific number of creatures, and because most of the game's power-ups need to be purchased there's little reason not to look everywhere for resources. It's not a system most SpaceWhippers opt to build their games around, but works in Hell Yeah's favor due to the amount of humorous content there is to be found with his many, many nemeses.
But sure, Hell Yeah! has its issues as well. The game's pretty lousy about checkpointing and I bumped into a few bugs here and there too. It gets a bit more frustrating as you head through tougher areas and need to deal with its few foibles even more frequently. Still, though, I highly recommend the game for its bizarre sense of style and humor if nothing else. You even get to put all the monsters you've killed to work on making you stronger! I can say with full impunity that Samus never thought to do that with all those dead Omega Metroids.
Knytt Underground (2012-12-18)
Knytt Underground is actually the last in a long run of Indie SpaceWhippers from Swedish developer Nifflas, though it's also his most fully fleshed-out and currently the only Knytt game on which he has put a price tag. Knytt Underground sets itself apart in two major ways: the first is the sheer size of the game. The world map is an enormous 30x48 square grid, which each of those squares being its own screen. That's 1440 screens total, for the mathematically disinclined. Of all the SpaceWhippers I've ever played, and there's a been a lot, none of them took me quite as long to complete as Knytt Underground. Not even Portrait of Ruin, with its absurd number of different painting sub-worlds combined with its already substantial main castle map.
The second notable aspect is Knytt's utter lack of combat. The game has something of a pacifistic streak in that regard, and neither you nor your fairy familiars have much in the way of defending themselves. Rather, the parts of Knytt Underground which are more overtly a video game instead set up puzzle-platforming instances where you need to use your wits, jumping ability and the game's uncommonly complex physics engine to get around elaborate traps. Most of these involve turning into a ball (which, in and of itself, isn't exactly unusual to SpaceWhippers) and using the gravity and momentum of an area to carry you past danger. Failure or death leads to being dropped off at the entrance of the area, rather than anything too permanent.
You might think with a lack of a health system or any consumables or equipment, since those would only strictly be necessary if you were fighting incrementally tougher monsters, that there wouldn't be a strong enough reason to explore a map this vast. The game is not lacking for stuff to find, though, whether they be quest items, trinkets or story-important valuables. There's definitely enough here to keep a SpaceWhipper enthusiast glued to the screen for hours. I've reviewed it in more detail here, if you need any further prompting from me to go check it out.
I was fairly mixed on Guacamelee. I loved its presentational style, its whole mariachi and Lucha Libre world of vibrant colors and Mexican soul. Like Grim Fandango, it really takes those tenets and crafts an interesting (if a little generic in Guacamelee's case) adventure around them, rather than focus directly on their novelty too much. Its combat can also be quite fun, with the various moves the hero Juan (or alternate choice Tostada, if you were like me) learned doubling as both an extension of the combo and juggle heavy combat system that recalled Dust: An Elysian Tail and as a means of reaching new areas through previously indestructible barriers.
The game was also rather kind on the SpaceWhipper side of things, perhaps to the point of being overly simplistic: every barrier in the game is color-coded, and these colors are displayed on the game's map, so you would instantly know which areas were now accessible after collecting a new wrestling move and breaking your first red, blue, green or whatever colored tutorial barrier. That's not to say that the game isn't a bit sneakier with some of its other hidden treasures, but it also doesn't want you to go out of your way to make notes or remember that there was a power-up you couldn't reach and ought to come back for eventually.
Conversely, the game was very adamant that you mastered its elaborate combat as soon as possible, because the bosses steadily ramped up in difficulty and, perhaps more annoyingly, switched from cases where you could figure out the boss pattern and defeat them using what you had learned to bosses that required split-second reactions and a lot of skill. I don't mind a challenge that required pure skill - hell, I'm as much a fan of Dark Souls as anyone - but to drop a boss as insidiously tough as Javier Jaguar on a player when they'd been stumbling through the game on a gentle difficulty curve up until that point seemed a tad harsh. Some challenge inconsistency issues aside, though, Guacamelee is a wonderfully conceived SpaceWhipper with a fun combat engine and many convenient outs for players who perhaps don't appreciate too much backtracking and note-taking in their SpaceWhipper adventures. It looks and sounds great too, its dumb internet meme references notwithstanding. Hey, they included a reference to Giant Bomb, so I ain't buggin'.
Valdis Story: Abyssal City (2013-09-08)
So now we come full circle to Valdis Story. It's not a bad game by any stretch: as with Guacamelee and Dust, it's clear a lot of thought was put into its combat engine, even if it's not quite as complex in that regard as those two games. It's got plenty of RPG elements, looks and sounds great with its Skullgirls'-esque quality animation and over-the-top "anime metal" soundtrack and it certainly isn't lacking for places to see and quests to complete.
It all feels a bit too much like the development team had bitten off more than they could chew. A successful Kickstarter project, it's clear that the scope of the project grew exponentially as it surpassed its goal, and the stretch-marks can often be all too apparent. Typos and minor bugs are rife in the game, and some elements feel a little half-baked, as if the game spent a bit too long in development and rushed through quality control to appease its many backers as soon as possible. Kickstarter's often been criticized for being too kind on its project creators and in turn being insufficient in looking out for the many gullible but idealistic sponsors that want to put their money towards something that sounds far peachier than it often ends up becoming, but so rarely does one consider the extra strain even successful projects puts on developers who ask for the crowdsourcing. As more money flows in and additional stretch goals are provided to compensate, the project can become a juggernaut too big for a small team to deal with. I feel that's possibly what happened here.
Valdis Story isn't a complete write-off, of course. As I said in the first paragraph, there's many positive factors to the game which make it worthy of your time. I just hope people take its lessons to heart about how wildly successful Kickstarters can lead to unconsciously bullying developers into going above and beyond to a potentially detrimental degree. Sometimes too much is too much. Actually, I believe that's always the case. Logical statements are logical.
So that was a hell of a lot of SpaceWhippers to get through. I kept adding to the list I had as I recalled more and more of them, but this is still really only the tip of the iceberg. It's a testament to the lasting appeal of Metroid and Castlevania that even though those two series have either dried up entirely or gone in an unfortunate God of War direction, there's still so many proponents out there building and buying these games that it's almost an industry in and of itself. I can't wait to see what games like Chasm, La-Mulana 2, A.N.N.E., Axiom Verge and the Strider remake do to keep this relatively obscure sub-genre reinvigorated.
All hail the SpaceWhipper! And now you never have to read that word again. Isn't that wonderful?
Player choice is one heck of an idea. It's also a bit ambiguous as far as fancy meta-ludology talk goes. I mean, the player really has all sorts of choices before even taking into account the game's breadth of narrative or progression options. They could even choose to stop playing, which is perhaps the sort of concern that should be at the forefront of a developer's mind before making any design decision.
Specifically, though, we're talking about the instances in games where the player is able to affect the story or their own character's development in a way solely of their choosing, preferably from multiple discrete and readily apparent options. Do they pick a mage or a fighter? If they need cash, do they help the village for a quest reward or pillage it for its valuables directly? Do they drop the nearly expended assault rifle for the less powerful SMG, or risk the chance that they'll find some ammo for the former soon enough? Ideally, games should have as many of these as possible, and be balanced in such a way that the solutions to these dilemmas have equally valid outcomes.
Balance is never an easy thing to get right, though, so sometimes a game will simply present the illusion of choice. The mage and the fighter can coalesce into the same class with the right stat management, or by using a weapon that scales with magic power or, conversely, self-buff spells which enhance the fighter's ability to take hits and lead the charge. They can both rob the village and help it, due to the NPC villagers' inattentiveness towards the status of their belongings and how they're really more concerned with the ogre stealing their children than they are with the three gold pieces they hid in a boot back in their home. And yeah, spoilers, there'll probably be another chance to grab an assault rifle later if you forsake the one you're holding now.
The following games have two things in common: I played them this week (or watched someone play them, at least) and they have an interesting approach to player choice. Specifically, they go out of their way to suggest that player choice is largely an illusion and that the course of history flows as it must. The future refuses to change, and all that.
Bioshock Infinite's a new Bioshock, as made evidently clear by the reappearances of various characteristic tropes established in the first two games and their DLC side-content. There's a lighthouse, there's an enigmatic leading man, there's an innocent damsel or several in need of saving and there's an enormous and scientifically implausible utopia led astray by the socially destructive philosophies of its leader. The repressed lower classes taking down the idealistic and morally bankrupt upper classes. Fireballs and swarms of creatures summoned from one's hands. Looting food out of trashcans for minimal health gain. It's all here and accounted for. There was even an Extra Credits episode that took the game to task for being so blindly unwavering to the franchise's pre-established formula, as if the new setting would put it at risk of confusing people.
Bioshock Infinite already anticipated all this, though. It knows precisely what it's doing, adhering so closely to the existing Bioshock model. Maybe this is a narrative crutch to excuse some lazy parallel game design, but the nature of Bioshock Infinite and of Bioshock in general is inexorably linked to the idea of player choice. The game presents a plethora of options for each of its combat encounters, ranging from taking down enemies with special "magical" attacks a la vigors or plasmids, the numerous anachronistic guns, and using the hazardous environment or even their own antagonism against them, reflecting their bullets or press-ganging hostile machines to fight on your behalf. But you still need to kill all the enemies to continue. The story only proceeds once each of these encounters are dealt with, regardless of how you choose to conclude them.
Without getting into the game's ending, which is trippy no matter how you slice it, the game's central conceit is that things tend to proceed as they must and it's difficult to "break the circle". Numerous allusions to such are given throughout the game, though it's nigh impossible to comprehend their relevance the first time through. The narrative elements of fate and choice also apply to the player's experience as well, through as linear a tale as can be expected of the shooter genre. With these games, the story's often less of a concern than the gameplay after all (which I actually found kind of disappointing in many respects, but then I've never been a particular fan of FPS games in the first place and this is really neither the place nor time). Infinite's got something of a subversive, knowing edge to it and to its narrative limitations, and discovering that Ken Levine would rather work on a movie than games for a while came as no surprise given the underlying message of Bioshock Infinite: If everything's going to end up in the same place with the same people, regardless of the route it takes to get there, then why even present the illusion that the player has any say in where the story is going?
Probably not a common reaction. I'll be darned if it doesn't go out of its way to either pontificate on the mundane pointlessness of life, the numerous problems that game designers must face in their craft or, most vitally for this blog, the limitations and illusions of player choice. Each successive ending that veers from the correct story, i.e. the one the narrator helpfully sets out for you to follow, leads to denigration of the player (well, specifically towards the protagonist Stanley, who is the entirely mute player cipher), endless contemplation on the nature of things and plaintive downer conclusions. I'd give you examples, but that would detract from the core of the game. Knowing one of Stanley Parable's endings before playing it would be like eliminating one of the better designed boss encounters from an action game - it's ostensibly the purpose of playing it in the first place, even if you wouldn't know that going in. It is, ultimately, the source of one's enjoyment of the game. Well, supposedly at least, because as you might've already ascertained from that opening statement I really didn't enjoy playing The Stanley Parable.
That's not to cast aspersions on the game itself, which has definitely been made with a lot of care and attention, and its vocal performance from the narrator is absolutely wonderful. It's simply a case of encountering a game that clearly wasn't right for me, that while chooses to interact with me on a comparative intellectual level does not do so with full regard to my mental state, which is generally shaky at best. So while I'm suffering through its many amusingly fatalistic interludes and diatribes on the meaninglessness of video game logic and of life in general, I stray ever closer to simply turning the game off and curling up the fetal position until I'm forced, via hunger or bathroom urgency, to resume the pathetic charade I call my existence.
Boy, I'm super cheery today. Thanks The Stanley Parable. You should all play it, especially if you felt motivated to get anything done today.
But I suppose I can spend a few more minutes here to discuss how this game pertains to the blog's central topic before I end up having a mental breakdown by giving any more thought to it. You see, the most important lesson The Stanley Parable has to impart is that player choice in video games, especially interactive fiction, is generally immaterial at best and a deceptive fallacy at worst. You can follow the game's clearly defined linear path, you can follow a different yet equally deliberate linear path to what you feel is an ending that's a better fit for your "subversive personality", or you can break it somehow and force it to start over or end abruptly absent any kind of resolution. TSP is a game in which all these considerations are anticipated and prepared for, with alternate endings for each decision made, even for the ones that would appear as if you've pulled the wool over its eyes. It's an impressive feat of covering all of one's bases, and might suggest that the original designer has spent a considerable amount of time doing game testing for a living, but what's important to note is that by doing this the game kind of inadvertently ruins all other games for you. It does this overtly in a few of its sequences, parodying a few major games and game features, but it's largely in the way it means to lift the veil over one's eyes that makes the experience nothing short of a thorough deconstruction of our favorite hobby. As a game designer, or at least someone who was one for a sufficiently long enough time to learn a thing or two, it's not like I hold any delusions as to the construction and the myriad technical hurdles concerning game development. I know how the sausage is made, so to speak. Yet it's still dispiriting to be reminded of gaming's current shortcomings, even in the lighthearted satirical manner that The Stanley Parable exhibits. Maybe that's what's bumming me out the most about all this.
You know what? I think I will assume that fetal position I was talking about earlier. I'll just leave all this in the word processor until I feel well enough to come back. See you soon, everyone.
Now Dark Souls is perhaps one of the least constrained games in recent memory, even compared to the many open-world games available like Skyrim or GTA V. Those games had far stricter storylines to follow, for one thing, and while Dark Souls does ask that you defeat certain bosses in a certain order to reach its end, it doesn't give you any particular guidelines for doing so. Almost to its detriment, even. So how does player choice and the illusion of same factor into From Software's gothic RPG series?
Well, in this case the player choice is illusionary simply because everyone who completes the game feels like they chose the correct path from a pool of multiple inferior ones. That the way they defeated the game is ideal; the rest all pale imitations of the "One True Path". It is an illusion, of course, because we know enough about the nature of Dark Souls (and to much the same extent its predecessor Demon's Souls) that the player is entirely free to choose whichever build and weapon and tactics suit them best and could still feasibly power through to the end regardless of the level of challenge presented. Tanking isn't for everyone, not everyone likes the weird little awkward lunges that the halberd makes nor do they necessarily appreciate the weapon's speed, not everyone's going to go fight the Moonlight Butterfly or go through the Catacombs immediately just because they happen to be accessible early in the game and people are still going to assume there are stats other than Endurance worth pouring their stat points into. And that's fine. But for some reason, so many of us have convinced ourselves of which is the better choice of equipment or the dominant strategy for a specific boss encounter based on the study of their AI and statistical weaknesses made by dozens of previous players, that we'll scream and yell, internally or externally, at those still in the midst of their journey to "play it right, goddammit".
This was never made more evident this past month than by watching the streams of Patrick Klepek, Jeff Green and Brad Shoemaker (the last of whom is playing Demon's, rather than Dark). Jeff especially, since he would often take to the Twitch chat or a NeoGAF thread on the topic in times of need. Everyone had an idea of what he ought to be doing, but so often these pro-tips would clash and contradict each other as everyone scrambled to put forward their preferred method for getting through a particular scenario. Whether Patrick was cognizant of this discordance or not, his laissez-faire approach to the game and its many advisers served him well, but a small fraction of his viewers would constantly wonder how much of the game he read up on in advance, especially when he would proceed to breeze through difficult encounters with ease. The grandest trick that Dark Souls pulls has nothing to do with its well-hidden treasures or illusionary walls, but in how it convinces players that their path, either divined by the ongoing internet groupthink or entirely of their own conception, is not only the correct one but the sole correct one. We know, deep down, this isn't true. So then why do we scream at Brad to go after the Crescent Falchion instead of attempting to fight the World 4-1 boss again?
That's enough words for today. I'm still too depressed from this morning. Good thing we have Unprofessional Fridays to look forward to later today, I could use it. Thanks for stopping by, and I'm sorry it was such a buzzkill. I'm usually so chipper I swear.
Hello again everyone. Though I usually spend a few paragraphs setting up this feature and what it's about, I'm going to talk about how crazy all this moderator business has been. If you want the usual opening spiel, go check out one of the previousComicCommishes.
So yeah, I was made one of the two new mods last week. I can't really talk about that process, beyond saying that the current moderators kind of decide between themselves who gets the figurative purple nurple, but now I'm zapping spambots and keeping the peace in chatrooms and such. It's cool and all, but it's probably going to end up cutting into my blogging time. I'll keep up the Commishes, of course, since I owe my friend for his generous donation but some other features might be falling to the wayside. Just a heads up, I guess.
Anyway, we're covering the second half of 2008 this time. This is also when we're entering the beginning of Giant Bomb in its current incarnation as an expansive video content/wiki website. Probably goes without saying, but feel free to click the games' links to see if Giant Bomb's Bomb Crew had anything to say about them. This is a recommendations list, after all, and those are some good second opinions.
I Spent Way Too Long On Some Of These
Looking past its ending, and the latter third of the game where it become a 24/7 Super Mutant Jamboree, Fallout 3 was a compelling combination of the original series's post-apocalyptic, semi-satirical setting and Bethesda's trademark sprawling if broken open-world exploration. Some of the complexity of the original Infinity Engine (or close enough to IE, anyway) RPGs was diminished, as was the quality of its writing, but there's so much to see and find and shoot and craft and whatever else you want to do that you could potentially spend hundreds of hours in the wastelands surrounding the irradiated ruins of Washington DC. It also proved that Bethesda could take their big open world RPG template and create a game that was not necessarily about dragons and magic and still make it work. I've no doubt purists will be arguing the pros and cons of 3 and New Vegas against 1 and 2 until our world is eventually blown up as well, after which whatever mutated beings that are left will probably be arguing if the current world is better or worse off than Fallout's. Gotta keep your spirits up with ribald debate in the nuclear wastes, I suppose.
Infinite Undiscovery is one of a great many seventh generation console RPGs which I only begrudgingly recommend due to my sponsor's (@omghisam, since I forgot to drop a shout out earlier) predilection towards goofy examples of that genre. Infinite's got a lot of problems, but is still a fairly decent RPG in the mold of the more recent Star Oceans (they share a developer) or perhaps a lesser Tales game. A bunch of stalwart heroes, and a considerably less courageous bard who happens to look like the leader of the heroes and is summarily drafted in as a decoy, travel around the world destroying the magical chains that are holding the moon in place and disrupting the natural order of things. Yep, another one of those realistic JRPG plots. I actually kind of like the twists and turns of Infinite's bizarre story, and the combat, crafting and character development systems are fairly good if largely forgettable. If you're a fan of really odd JRPGs and don't feel like they're represented much these days, either due to publishers balking at the idea of localizing some of Japan's crazier games or because this genre seems to have all but entirely migrated to the handheld market, then maybe check this one out. I can't imagine it's commanding a high price tag these days. (If you're wondering about the Achewood thing, click here.)
Valkyria Chronicles, along with Ratchet and Clank Future, was one of the first PS3 exclusives to really make me sit up and notice the system. While it is essentially a fictional anime take on World War II, Valkyria doesn't deserve such a simple and reductive descriptor. The actual means with which Valkyria presents its strategic, turn-based gameplay in a world full of armed skirmishes, cover positions and mad dashes across the field of vision of a sniper nest or gun turret embankment wouldn't work without a bit of real-time danger, so the game somehow manages to factor that in too. What it creates is this idiosyncratic combination of the strategic and the reflexive, where your every action point counts. The player can choose to keep moving the same overpowered unit with diminishing returns - the tank, for instance, costs twice as many "command points" to use, and characters have smaller movement bars each time you select them in the same turn, so it instead asks that you think tactically, using every soldier and exploiting every advantage afforded to you. The net benefit of all this is that each map mission feels like a cross between something like Fire Emblem and a Medal of Honor game. There's really nothing else out there quite like it, though that's partly Sega's fault for not bringing games very much like it (say, Valkyria Chronicles 3) over here.
Right, so here's a new category for this Comic Commish going forward. A few years back I used to make comics regularly for the games I'd played that week, as such many of the games of the last generation have already been rendered into glorious MS Paint stickpeople stories. Obviously, it would be lazy for me to include them in the three comics I make each month for this thing, so instead I'm giving them their own separate section where I can re-upload the comic and talk about it with all the other recommendations.
This month I only have one "previously featured" game, but we'll be seeing way more for the Comic Commishes to come.
I just had a pal of mine ask about Tales of Vesperia as it seems to be in the new XBLA sale for Gold subscribers, so this is as much for him as it is for everyone else: Vesperia's great. I would recommend it as the gateway to the Tales series, partly because it's cheaply available for 360 right now but also because it has the most relatable and down-to-earth plot of a series that's admittedly quite outrageously anime at times. I kid about dress up contests, but the main character Yuri (who is a boy, if that's not clear) is actually a well-defined and deep character with internal struggles which aren't so much "I hope senpai notices me" than "I should probably stop murdering people and claiming it as justice before I alienate the far more good-hearted people I travel with". It's around this point in the Tales series when they finally figured out how to make their 3D real-time combat system fun (Symphonia, which would be my second choice for the Tales newcomer intro game, was a bit rough in this regard) and it's a super long JRPG with a lot going on in the sidelines. It's also got some really nice cel-shaded graphics business going on too. Thoroughly recommended, and I'm almost a little apologetic that I had to talk about Infinite Undiscovery instead in the main article this month. (It also behooves me to tell you all that Dark Souls is also in the same sale, in case you still haven't taken the plunge into darkness. The 360 Dark Souls is not the best version, but it's certainly more competent than the PC port.) (Also The Witcher 2 and FFXIII-2 is in the same sale, so if you like RPGs Microsoft apparently has you covered this month.)
The Other Ones!
Here's a few more games from this particular period of time that I thought were pretty neat. Of course, you're free to suggest your own in the comments (I'm going by initial Western release, either US or Europe) - I've no doubt missed several, either deliberately (I never played them or thought much of them) or accidental.
Siren: Blood Curse (Project Siren, PS3, July) - The Siren series has always felt like this odd little brother to Silent Hill, built by many of the same staff including project lead Keiichirou Toyama. It's significantly more difficult than its spiritual predecessor though, as much of the gameplay revolves around the characters' ability to see through the eyes of their immortal zombified foes and use this advantage to avoid them at all costs. The series takes a chilling look at rituals and customs of smaller Japanese villages, in much the same way as Fatal Frame games, and manage to concoct several really quite disturbing stories of all-powerful supernatural entities. Though Blood Curse is really just a reimagining of the original PS2 game, it made the series more accessible to a wider audience through its presence on PSN. (I think I still prefer the second game on the whole, but given that it never came out in the US it kind of seemed like the "hipster" choice.)
Braid (Number None, 360, August) - Braid's a great little indie puzzle-platformer, released back when that combination of words didn't automatically elicit sighs of ennui. If anything, Braid's probably the reason why so many clever little puzzle-platformers with often melancholy stories exist. It launched Jonathan Blow as a figure to watch in the Indie game industry and does a fine job respecting the player's intelligence with its puzzles. The symbolism of its ambiguous ending sticks with you, as well.
Mount & Blade (TaleWorlds, PC, September) - Mount & Blade is a labor of love from a husband and wife team from Turkey that eventually managed to reach completion in 2008. It feels like it's been around a lot longer, though, due to the amount of hype early builds had been generating for years prior. Though definitely a bit rough around the edges, especially graphically, Mount & Blade presents a really compelling "medieval simulator" that allows players to fight in huge battles, develop characters and organize their own mercenary units, eventually growing a reputation for getting things done and becoming embroiled in the feudal politics of the game's fictional take on Europe. That it builds from a small party of warriors going around bashing bandits to allowing you to lead entire factions into wars against one another is one of Mount and Blade's most fascinating strengths.
Disaster: Day of Crisis (Monolith Soft, Wii, October) - Disaster's a really appealing mess of light gun sequences and motion control mini-games which are framed with a completely ludicrous action movie story of a man trying to rescue his dead partner's sister from ex-paramilitary terrorists while about half a dozen massive, consecutive natural disasters occur around him. Though the stages of the game can be very hit or miss (the driving sections fall squarely in the latter), they're always funneling you towards the next big stupid action scene. Neither the plot nor the action sequences are ever predictable, though, and it makes for an exciting game that I'm not too guilty about loving to pieces. It's worth keeping in mind that I'm kind of an unapologetic Monolith Soft fanboy these days, so take this appraisal with a grain of volcanic ash.
Dead Space (EA, 360/PS3/PC, October) - Dead Space launched what might have been the last big AAA horror game series to make much of a visceral splash, though it's lost its way somewhat in recent times depending on who you ask. Predicated on violin-screeching jump scares and absurdly gory body horror, Dead Space is a taut, suspenseful sci-fi third-person shooter that earnestly tries to be more Alien than Aliens, despite being a shooter from EA. Like BioShock, it's not simply a matter of running through corridors shooting monstrosities to literal pieces, but taking time exploring the surroundings, comprehending what has occurred from the subtext of audio notes and visual cues and enjoying a standard sci-fi horror tale. We aren't getting an Event Horizon game any time soon, so this'll have to suffice.
Saints Row 2 (Volition Inc., PS3/360, October) - Though perhaps dated by most people's standards of the sandbox city game, especially compared to its sequels, Saints Row 2 properly defines what the sandbox genre should be all about: unbridled chaos, entirely directed by the player's whims. There's a veritable plethora of activities to partake in, most of which are so hilarious and fun that you'll be sad when you've played through them all (though others were a bit more like a chore for completionist types), and the world is full of collectibles and incidental mayhem to busy oneself with. The plot's a bit on the dry side, especially compared to how insane the main story of 3 and 4 would eventually become, but the Saints Row series has yet to equal the sheer scale of what the player can get up to in the well-realized city of Stilwater. I think only Just Cause 2 pips it in open world content, and as fun as that game's grapple mechanics were it did not have side-missions where you chainsaw protesters in half in a police uniform to improve the ratings for a sleazy Cops knock-off TV show nor any where you're throwing celebrity stalkers through an airplane engine.
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (Konami, DS, October) - The last of the great 2D Castlevanias, Ecclesia takes the series back to its roots somewhat by presenting a series of sequential areas to explore, rather than dumping you in one huge castle and calling it a day. The tattooed and enigmatic Shanoa adopts a system not unlike the Sorrow games' Soma Cruz's soul absorption that allows her to acquire and employ the enemy's skills and attacks against them, and the game has you flitting around area to area with the requisite action platforming, back-tracking and exploration this and its peer series Metroid are known for. It's also a bit more challenging than most portable 2D Castlevanias have been, though if you've been gorging yourself on Indie 2D platformers with their inherent masocore leanings in lieu of any new 2D Castlevanias to play, I'm sure you'll manage.
Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts (Rare, 360, November) - There was a conversation going on in the chatroom of the most recent UPF, spurred by Brad's checking-in of Rare's Viva Pinata, about why precisely this spin-off game needed to use Banjo and Kazooie beyond the nostalgic fanbase when it chose to facetiously crap on its heroes' platformer legacy and instead present a game all about various vehicle-based missions. Though a perfectly serviceable game that presented a fairly innovative challenge with its almost puzzle-like approach in tasking players to create specific vehicles for specific objectives, to say it rubbed Banjo Kazooie fans the wrong way would be an understatement. Anyway, the nature of the conversation was why Rare couldn't have used any other member of the stable of characters they created for Diddy Kong Racing (which, allow me to remind you, was a game that also involved driving numerous vehicles around) to headline the game. Bumper the Badger's due for a breakout role, darn it. (Also, yes, these exciting deliberations are precisely the sort of thing you are missing out on without a premium membership. Sign up today! Sorry, site plugs are written into my moderator job contract.)
Mirror's Edge (EA DICE, 360/PS3, November) - Mirror's Edge was pretty divisive when it came out, and is probably still a bit divisive today, but its first-person parkour shenanigans were actually a lot better and more accessible than they had any right to be. The whites and reds of its stark visual design and the suspenseful roof leaping and disarm counters made for a game with a cool atmosphere that rewarded players who took the time to get to grips with its fiddly mechanics.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (Atlus, PS2, December) - Probably doesn't need much of an introduction from me, but the last sixth gen game to really rock the pillars of heaven was Atlus's RPG/Dating Sim hybrid Persona 4. An almost obscene amount of great character moments, challenging strategic turn-based combat and a bizarre story that twists and turns as the months roll by. But hey, there's around 100 hours of content on this very site that can vouch for its quality. Go watch that series (or hell, play the game) if you've been incarcerated for a minor offense or flying to Mars or somehow have a month of free time to fritter away on anime teenagers. You'll be glad you did.