Ni no Kuni: A Massive Ghibli Pundertaking

Ni no Kuni's been an interesting experience so far, though I suppose I owe it more than such a dismissive euphemism. It's not a game I was sure I was going to like, and some 50 hours later heading into the game's final act I still have yet to make up my mind.

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Space

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a 2011 PS3 RPG from Level-5, a studio that's been making JRPGs for a very long time now. What's interesting is that they knew how to make an amazing RPG right off the bat, due in part to the studio being put together by industry veterans. Dark Cloud, Dark Cloud 2, Dragon Quest VIII and Rogue Galaxy -- their four PS2 contributions to the genre -- are four of the best games in that system's library and sit comfortably with the likes of Final Fantasy X and XII, the third and fifth Suikodens, Personae 3 and 4, Shadow Hearts: Covenant and the many, many other sterling examples of the JRPG format available for the PS2.

Oddly, though, I've found that their recent JRPGs have actually dropped off in quality rather than the expected reverse, as they often seem to be focusing their efforts elsewhere. (Efforts like telling a very British man in a top hat how to solve puzzles, or their very interesting collaborative Guild series for the 3DS eShop, or their multiple non-game related projects.) Though still custodians of Square-Enix's juggernaut Dragon Quest series, DQIX failed to retain my interest (which is odd, because it's probably better than VIII in all respects besides graphically, but man does that game give you a lot to do) and the less said about the interminable White Knight Chronicles pseudo-MMO franchise the better. Because Ni no Kuni has heavy involvement with Studio Ghibli, who were probably a little hesitant about adapting its animation and storytelling into a video game, Level-5 decided to play it safe and build Ni no Kuni on top of their familiar DQ template, factoring in the DQ Monsters Joker spin-off's collectible monster-raising aspects. Even the game's cel-shaded characters, based on veteran Ghibli artist/animator Yoshiyuki Momose's artwork and cutscene animations, are adapted from their traditional hand-drawn concept art in a similar way to Akira Toriyama's contributions to Dragon Quests VIII and IX.

Spare me from all this force-feeding. Also, is this really okay? I don't think diabetes is something a restorative item can cure (though Barkley: Shut and Jam Gaiden might beg to differ).

Now, I don't know if this is something I delve into often, but I'm not a fan of monster raising games in general. I don't particularly care for any instance where you're expected to frequently switch out party members for better ones. I like having party members I can grow used to, to grow fond of, to grow old together with... all right, I'm getting a little too affectionate with virtual computer people now, but I like a static party that develops in fascinating ways as the characters themselves develop in their respective narrative arcs. I also don't mind revolving door scenarios if the temporary characters get at least some time in the limelight, so that their absence becomes all the more poignant (or relief-inducing, in some cases). I don't much care for a bunch of interchangeable goblins and cute critters that, for all I know, are perfectly useless fighters that the developers just threw in for color. Of course, I won't know that until I've spent a few hours raising their levels and then evolving them and then raising their evolved form's levels because they started back at level 1 because of amazing reasons I'm not privy to. This isn't what I want to do for fun. This is agony.

Ni no Kuni has so much going on at the peripherary that I don't even care too much though. I enjoy:

  • The semi-real-time combat system. It's fairly MMOish, perhaps a lot closer to Final Fantasy XII than I anticipated going in, with some interesting strategic counterattack elements.
  • The storytelling. Though it's a little basic and intended for kids, it's still a very layered traditional Ghibli fairytale that gets a bit darker towards the part I'm at. Hell, it started kind of dark. Between it and Guardians of the Galaxy I'm starting to wonder what the deal is with starting your fun adventure times with a harrowing death scene.
  • All the dumb side-stuff. Stuff like stealing emotions from people who have too much to give to those with too little, like some sort of Shang Tsung/Robin Hood hybrid, or working on my alchemy, or chasing down some bounties, or backtracking for treasure chests I couldn't open until recently.
  • How much detail has been put into its world. It's reflected in the fully digitized real-world feelie that is the Wizard Compendium book with all its little secrets and advice.
  • The card game they invented for the game's customary optional casino area that is actually quite a lot of fun, unlike Fallout: New Vegas's Caravan (plus, it's easy to exploit for mucho dinero).

The presentation is top-notch, there's no denying it. I just don't like the core. I still want to see it through to the end and... hell, who am I kidding, I'll probably even 100% the thing. Is that weird?

I just can't help but feel exasperated whenever I'm feeding a familiar (what the game calls recruitable creatures, like wizard familiars) treats so it'll like me more and evolving it only to find out its last form is a lemon, occasionally literally. Still... while I like this cat pirate I'm rolling with now fine enough, I just know that among the hundreds of little guys, there's another creature out there even better suited for my playstyle... dammit. I guess I'll just keep fighting them in the wild until they arbitrarily decide to join me, then I'll probably give them all to that creepy manhole monster to look after. Pretty similar to how I played Pokemon, now I think about it.

Outmanned and Outpunned

Anyway, this is all just an over-elaborate set-up meant to segue into my other topic of discussion today: Games with copious amounts of punnery.

These Welsh-touting fairies are the usual culprits when it comes to the game's goofy sense of humor. There's whimsical, en't it?

Ni no Kuni in particular has a lot of puns. The game's apundent with them. My cup punneth over, in fact. Not only do all the familiars in the game have vaguely punnish names, another aspect the game shares with its Dragon Quest spiritual forebears, but every single monster type in the game -- which includes evolution stages, putting the number in the 300s, though there's many evolutions that can't be caught in the wild and therefore won't appear on a naming screen -- has four "suggestions" for names which are themselves puns. Some are pundamental, simply taking the name of the thing and working it into a regular first name, while others are a little more sophisticated and clearly written by someone with a propunsity for wordplay. Since I always give my monsters dumb pun names in games like these, it's been something of a quixotic quest of mine to try to outdo all the game's suggested names. Often, I'll give something a clever moniker only to find out that its also the name of an evolved form. There's nothing like being on a pun master's wavelength, but a lot of the inadvertent joy (and challenge) I've derived from this game has been from trying to out-pun it. That's probably a little weird too.

Besides the aforementioned Dragon Quest VIII and IX, one of the Legend adventure games I've meaning to get back to -- that would be Callahan's Crosstime Saloon -- was full of the punfortunate things too. The game has such excellent comedic writing in general that it seems a little punfair to focus on that one type of humor, but there's a few instances where it really stands out. Often, two or more characters will just start spouting puns at each other until one of them cries uncle. It's a weirdly endearing trait of the game, and it'll happen no matter how dangerous the situation, which gives the game a pleasingly irreverent tone that seemed to be de rigueur in 90s media (The Last Boy Scout and Hudson Hawk being particular favorites of mine. Bruce Willis has always been great at deadpanning. Nowadays he's just dead on the inside). I'd really like to resume LPing that one, actually. Maybe I can just do an all-jokes (whenever context isn't strictly necessary, anyway) version. In addition, there's plenty of Japanese games with big lists of collectibles that the localization team will tend to have some punning fun with, such as the Boos of Luigi's Mansion or the monkeys of Ape Escape.

Anyway, moving back to Ni no Kuni, I decided to create a fun little quiz for you all. What follows are some familiars from the game with a general description of what they look like and five names: four of these are built-in suggestions proffered by the game's name input screen, and in the midst of those four names is a fifth which I came up with. See which ones you prefer; it can be harder than it first seems to out-do this game's punspicacity.

Quiz Time, Fools. Blaow!

A: Rhinosaur: What appears to be a reptilian-rhinoceros hybrid. Slow and powerful and one of the earliest tanks you can find.

  1. See-Saur
  2. Saur-Spot
  3. JudgeRhino
  4. Squisher
  5. Rhino

B: Firebyrde: A late-evolution bird enemy, found near the start of the game but in a region only the game's airship equivalent can reach. An obvious boon for the game's snowier regions.

  1. Torchy
  2. Firebert
  3. Flamey
  4. Scorchio
  5. Pyreo

C: Naja: A basic cobra-like creature, found in the game's first dungeon. Successive evolutions also play on the word "Naja". (In retrospect I think I may have made this one too easy.)

  1. Carnaj
  2. Minaj
  3. Teenaja
  4. Badinaj
  5. Najartime

D: Pom Pom: A floating toxic ball with a goofy expression, not too dissimilar to Koffing. Future evolutions include Pompeii (which has flame-based skills) and Pomagranite (which has Medusa-esque petrification powers).

  1. Pommie
  2. Pom
  3. Whinger
  4. Pom Pilot
  5. Sook

E: Turbandit: A little guy in a purple turban who wanders around the desert. He's speedy and evasive but not much of a powerhouse, though his future evolutions have a lot of magical oomph. Evolutions named "Turban Myth" and "Turban Legend", for the record.

  1. TurbaGrafx
  2. Bendit
  3. Banjamin
  4. Turbangela
  5. Turbarry

F: Whambat: A giant bat. Reminds me a lot of Golbat actually, with its huge mouth and tiny wings.

  1. Whambo
  2. Whamber
  3. Ridgeley
  4. William
  5. Winfred

G: Purrloiner: A bipedal pirate cat. It stands around grooming itself as an idle animation, and has a little cutlass and everything. Adorable.

  1. Purrcy
  2. Purrcival
  3. Purrince
  4. Purrice
  5. Garrrfield

H: Bougie: A serpentine ghost with a little lantern. Instead of "boogey" it's "bougie", as in bogey.

  1. Bouregarde
  2. Bougart
  3. Boubridges
  4. Bouberry
  5. Boogie

I: Impaler: A tiny imp holding a spear. They spent all night coming up with the name for this one. Oddly, it's one of a handful of creatures that will always chase after you on the overworld, whereas most will flee EarthBound-style once you reach a certain level threshold.

  1. Stabby
  2. Poko
  3. Jibjab
  4. Chevy
  5. Proderick

J: Bone Ranger: The first evolution of the game's skeleton enemy. They get progressively cooler looking as they evolve. The final forms of Bone Brigadier and Bone Baron have an interesting divergent evolutionary path, where the Baron is the considerably weaker of the two until around level 90 when it suddenly becomes one of the strongest familiars in the game.

  1. Skulomania
  2. Skullator
  3. Skelextric
  4. Skellywag
  5. Skelamanga

Answers on a postcard to... I dunno, just write them in the comments. Save yourself a postcard. They're not cheap. Thanks for stopping by, and sorry for all the puns. (I'm not sorry.) (At least, not very.) (Ni no Kuni started it.)


Going Berserk

Hey mangas and, uh, womangas, it's time for another slightly more in-depth article about video game influences. I had a series some years back about video games that were clearly influenced by certain iconic movie franchises, and how the evocative and terrifying H.R. Giger xenomorph of Alien or Escape From New York's grizzled hero Snake Plisskin and the ruined metropolis that was once NYC might have shown up in more than a handful of games over the years.

What I discovered with Kentaro Miura's Berserk -- a manga series I was fortunate enough to blitz through the past few weeks, since I'm struggling to find ways to fill this interminable summer of 80 degree weather and zero releases -- is that it's a lot more fun to come at something highly influential from an after-the-fact perspective. Which is to say, discovering a piece of influential media long after experiencing the media it inspired.

Berserk is a long-form serial manga that's been chugging along now for decades about a warrior named Guts -- so named because he was recovered as a baby from a pile of corpses on the battlefield -- attempting to rid the world of Apostles: humans that have essentially sold their souls to a demonic quintet known as the God Hand in exchange for power. The most striking aspects of Guts' quasi-European medieval world is how commonplace horrific violence and extremely grim misfortune have become, and Guts is regularly beaten to within an inch of his life by the powerful foes he engages. One of the earliest story arcs explains how he came to be this way, and its a truly heartbreaking tale involving his love interest Casca, an idealistic mercenary group known as the Band of the Hawk, and its leader Griffith, a charismatic man Guts once admired for his single-minded determination (this is also the arc that the anime adaptation was based on, which I've yet to see).

While reading through Berserk -- which began in 1990 in earnest, so it's been a presence in Japanese pop culture since the Mega Drive at least -- I started to notice many little story and world details that would later make their way into games, and how the characters themselves were familiar in an opaque way that occasionally threw me for a loop, like small jolts of deja vu. That isn't to say that the following games necessarily took a few particular cues from Berserk or that there aren't intermediary products that added extra degrees of separation, but given the manga's lasting appeal it seems very possible that it would be responsible for a similar aspect or two.

(That being said: Though my tone might sometimes come off as accusatory, there's nothing inherently plagiaristic about any of the following instances. Nothing wrong with drawing from other media for inspiration, as long as you don't overdo it.)

(A final aside: There's spoilers aplenty for the early arcs of Berserk. The nature of a serial manga is that every chapter builds from the last, and there's no real way to discuss later chapters without elaborating on earlier ones to some extent. It's also kind of impossible to talk about how a game was influenced by a certain plot point if I can't discuss the plot point in question. If you feel that strongly about spoilers, I'm cautioning you now.)

Final Fantasy VII

Now you might think the first port of call would be something like Demon's/Dark Souls, given how project lead Hidetaka Miyazaki has often cited Miura's work as an inspiration, but I shall get to that a little later. I'm starting with this one because it concerns the chief characters of Berserk, specifically the triumvirate of Guts, Casca and Griffith.

Casca, Guts and Griffith.

When we are first introduced to the protagonist, Guts, we get a strong sense of his taciturn and cold nature right off the bat as he's terse with some of those he meets and outright mocking of others. He's also carrying an enormous sword that no normal human being could ever hope to lift, let alone swing around, and a thousand yard stare with some obvious history behind it. The early chapters of Berserk sets up the hero and his quixotic quest to take down the demonic Apostles, many of which are powerful human nobles who become even more deadly when they transform into colossal grotesqueries, but ensures that his general mystique remains intact until we get to the Golden Age arc, which is a very long flashback that goes into the backstory of Guts.

Cutting to the chase somewhat, Guts has an eventful childhood as a soldier for hire before falling in with the Band of the Hawk, a fledgling mercenary squad already legendary for never losing a battle. Much of this is due to its charismatic leader, Griffith. Griffith is a preternaturally gifted warrior and tactician who is remarkable for two things: his long, fair hair and androgynous good looks, and his ability to command adoration or fear from everyone he meets. Guts initially joins the Hawks after being bested by Griffith in a duel, but as he continues to fight for him he truly begins to admire his talents and works hard to help him realise his dream of one day owning his own kingdom. Griffith's lieutenant Casca, the only female warrior in the Band of the Hawk, is equally devoted to Griffith and mistrustful of Guts due to his high status in Griffith's eyes. Eventually, Casca realises that Griffith only cares for his dream and that she truly loves Guts for his selflessness and caring nature. Though Griffith is on the surface an attentive and thoughtful leader, it becomes evident that he's actually a very ruthless man who regularly finds ways to exploit or dispatch his political enemies.

Though various events unfold during this long period, it ends with Griffith accepting his fate since birth to become part of the God Hand: a group of extremely powerful demonic entities, practically gods in their own right, who ask that he sacrifice the entire Band of the Hawk to the many Apostles that have gathered to witness his ascension. A handful of the Band of the Hawk are established characters at this point, and watching them all get slaughtered one after the other in a senseless and maddening ritual beyond his comprehension puts Guts somewhat at a loss. He loses his right eye and left arm trying to fight the Apostles off while Casca is brutally abused by the demons and by Griffith himself, now reborn as the demon lord Femto. Both Guts and Casca narrowly survive, though are cursed by the ritual's "brand" and are psychologically damaged beyond repair.

In case you ever wondered why he carried that thing around. Though I suppose "how" is the more pertinent question.

There's parallels aplenty to made between Berserk's and Final Fantasy VII's protagonist-deuteragonist-antagonist triangle: Cloud, right down to his absurd Buster Sword and his initial standoffish demeanor, might as well be a blond Guts (it's even lampshaded somewhat, as the man Cloud's imitating -- the dark-haired Zack Fair -- is a spitting image of Berserk's main character). Then you have Sephiroth, the white-haired, androgynous, unstoppable warrior Cloud once greatly admired before the former goes insane and kills everyone Cloud ever cared about. Tifa emerged relatively unscathed from the Nibelheim incident, unlike poor Casca who regressed to a childlike state in her PTSD, though Cloud had the displeasure of witnessing her get impaled and left for dead regardless. The tragedy of this scenario is all the more potent after reading its much rougher inspirational source, and the way the Jenova entity keeps psychologically torturing Cloud over it through his implanted Jenova cells is not entirely unlike the suffering Guts goes through due to his brand: a glyph on his neck that signifies him as part of the sacrificial ritual and draws evil spirits to him constantly. Both men are haunted by the traumatic events of their pasts, both figuratively and literally.

Final Fantasy Tactics

Final Fantasy Tactics is a game that shines largely due to its many layers. This quality applies both to the game's deeply strategic RPG gameplay as well as its frequently labyrinthine plot about a group of nobles who scheme and assassinate one another for the sake of political maneuvering and the hardworking serfs caught in the crossfire. Whenever I've seen criticisms of its plot, they usually point to the seemingly superfluous supernatural undercurrents that are secretly governing many of the game's events, to the extent that the game goes so far off the rails in its final act that you end up fighting a fake messiah deity in another dimension apropos of nothing. For some, this felt like some sort of compromise that any given Final Fantasy must have demons and monsters and supernatural crystal nonsense for it to actually count as a "Final Fantasy", and that someone higher up told the game's director Yasumi Matsuno -- one of the Japanese game development scene's finest minds as far as constructing game narratives go -- to maybe wedge in the fantasy stuff somewhere between his bickering aristocrats and heraldic warfare.

Now that I've read Berserk, it's become a little more evident to me just where all this Lucavi business actually comes from.

The setting of Berserk is, as previously stated, a quasi-European medieval setting. Prominent running themes include: the powerful and vindictive church, ruled by a host of close-minded cardinals and religious leaders ruthlessly stamping out heresy wherever they see it in an effort to maintain control of the nobles and the peasants that serve them; wars that have been raging for centuries that the comic never actually goes into too much detail about, as if to signify that they've been going on for so long and have become such an indelible part of people's lives that the reasons why and how they started are largely irrelevant, especially for the commoners conscripted or paid to fight them; the honor and nobility of knights, and how easily such virtues can become prideful and fascistic vices; and the Faustian tragedy of sacrificing one's humanity for the sake of power or wealth. These are all prominent traits of Final Fantasy Tactics as well, though I'd say all but the last one are common enough themes for any drama set in the medieval period.

The game's final boss, the androgynous angelic messiah Altima shares a lot in common with Femto, including his/her followers' attempts to resurrect him/her.

Berserk introduces the idea of the behelit: an artifact that resembles a jumbled up human face on an egg-shaped jewel that is able to create a gateway between dimensions when activated by a particularly motivated individual. Like the Lament Configuration of the Hellraiser movies, it's primarily used for summoning demons (in this case, the God Hand) and signing a pact with them in exchange for power. Due to the omnipotent nature of fate and causality, a behelit is always eventually found by someone who wishes to sacrifice everything of value to them to attain power, and this power always transforms them into an Apostle who can switch between a human form and a far uglier and stronger demonic form at will. The Zodiac Stones and the Lucavi operate almost exactly the same way, with each Zodiac Stone holder eventually acquiescing to the powerful Lucavi hidden within. Though it's the Lucavi demon in control, with each case it becomes apparent that the type of person who summoned them was also the type of person willing to do anything for the power the Lucavi wield. Invariably, every mortal that would become a Lucavi doomed themselves through their desperation and greed. Given the inclusion of Zodiac Stones and the Lucavi demons with the somewhat more historically accurate medieval trappings, it strikes me that it's more likely the case that the entire world of Ivalice was inspired by Berserk rather than the demons being some shoehorned-in afterthought compromise by a director pressured to add more "Final Fantasy type stuff" to their game's narrative. As if I needed an excuse to appreciate FFT any more than I already did.

Dark Souls

So now we move onto Souls itself. While the setting is once again a familiar case of medieval demons roaming around ruined castles and dark forests vying for what little resources are left in a world clearly on the way out, the Berserk influence is found most strongly in the art design. This is deliberate, and one of the few examples I have on this list where the creator of the series has actually gone on record to state Berserk as one of the primary influences for the game. Though there's bits and pieces in the earlier Demon's Souls, most notably the foreboding Tower of Latria as an ersatz Tower of Rebirth (an eerie and dark prison full of torture devices that held Griffith for a year), most of the Berserk references appear in the second game: Dark Souls.

It's mostly little things, those which fans of the manga are more likely to pick up on. Like how Anor Londo greatly resembles the manga's fallen royal city of Wyndham, or how some of the uglier enemies and bosses are all but Apostles lifted directly from the manga's pages, or how even those thrice-accursed bonewheels got their start in an arc of Berserk -- these are all such commonplace occurrences that it's a little redundant and time-consuming to try to list them all out. There's a number of fan videos like this one that helpfully point out the art similarities, for the curious (though some of the connections those videos come up with seem a tad tenuous).

Guts in his Berserker armor.

The most flagrant and most deliberate homage is Artorias the Abysswalker, who is a spitting image of Guts in his Berserker armor. The Berserker armor is an artifact given to Guts quite late into the manga's timeline, and can transform anyone who wears it into an unstoppable bestial attacker. Wearers aren't slowed down by pain or fear, and any damage they accrue is "fixed" by the armor with some brutal temporary measures. For instance, the armor will react to a broken bone by inserting spikes all around the fracture to keep the bone in place. Whenever Guts is desperate enough to rely on the armor, it's always a dramatic moment because he risks losing his humanity each time, as well as his own life. Most notable is that his fighting style completely changes -- instead of tactically planting himself and swinging his sword in wide arcs, he'll leap into the air while spinning the sword, ending with a devastating downward slash. Artorias is based on this version of Guts, from the intimidating wolf-like armor to his loss of humanity to his unorthodox fighting style. Clearly, Dark Souls's director Hidetaka Miyazaki figured it would make for an interesting fight if the player had to go up against Guts in full berserker mode, and he was right to the extent that it's often considered one of the most interesting and challenging boss fights in the game.

Borderline Examples

Before we move to the final section of this scrutiny, here's a few more games that might've taken a few leafs from Berserk's trade paperback. I'm less confident about these ones, so I'm relegating them to a quickie list. I'm sure there are others, if any fans of the manga want to help me out in the comments below.

  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - One of the central relationships in Berserk is Guts's begrudging friendship with the fairy Puck. Puck is absolutely one of those 80s/90s comic relief sidekick buddies who flits around for little jokey asides and visual comedy, but also has an important job of keeping Guts's humanity intact. He's often his conscience in trying times, and without him the manga might well be too dark to tolerate. Since Ocarina of Time, the Zelda games have given Link his own fairy companion to guide him and speak for the silent hero whenever necessary. Navi, Tatl, Fi and others tend to be the only companions Link ever has through most of his adventuring, and while they can often be annoyingly persistent with their advice, they also make the journey far less lonely.
  • God Hand - It's perhaps a coincidence, but Shinji Mikami's comedic brawler shares its name with a prominent force of evil in the Berserk comics. The hero Gene also has an artificial arm, like Guts, and much of the game's playtime is spent beating up weird looking demons (or getting beaten up by demons, in my case). The tone couldn't be more dissimilar though, I'll say that much.
  • Dragon's Dogma - Borrowing from the same dark fantasy well as Dark Souls to some degree, Dragon's Dogma has a similar "cursed" protagonist in the Arisen and features a lot of similar art design for its monsters and geography. Notably, the game also includes Berserk's and Griffith's armor sets for player characters to use. Whether this is a simple tie-in on Capcom's part or a means for the game to acknowledge its influence is unclear.
  • The Last Story - I mention Mistwalker's Wii RPG The Last Story because it shares a lot of narrative similarities with the aforementioned Golden Age arc of Berserk. To elaborate further would lead to too many spoilers, if simply making the comparison isn't one already, but the grim state of the world and the machinations of a small but tightly-knit mercenary group and the ungrateful nobles they serve skews decidedly close to Berserk's longest and best known arc.

The Berserk Games

Before I wind this down, I figured it was probably worth checking out two games that absolutely were inspired by Berserk. Sword of the Berserk: Guts' Rage and Berserk: Millennium Falcon Hen Seima Senki no Shou (possibly translates to Berserk: Millennium Falcon Arc: Holy Demon War Chapter, thanks to Pepsiman for helping me make sense of it) are two action games based on the Berserk license, the first for the Dreamcast and the second for the PS2.

As always, the Japanese box art is better than the EU/US versions.

Guts' Rage actually came out in the west, surprisingly for a manga adaptation. It even has a full English voice cast and everything. It's set during the Millennium Falcon arc (nope, nothing to do with Star Wars) in which Guts is travelling around with Casca in tow, travelling to the fabled realm of the elves in order to help her restore her sanity. The game creates its own little self-contained story about a town sieged by mutated humans afflicted by the mandragora plant, which feels more like an excuse to have a lot of weird monsters roaming around for Guts to fight. Though it's largely independent from the manga, including a relatively normal audience surrogate outsider character who inquires about Guts's journey to help acclimatize those unfamiliar with the source material, there's a few fan favorite appearances: Nosferatu Zodd, a particularly strong Apostle that Guts has fought a few times who briefly shows up for the game's toughest boss fight, and the enigmatic Skull Knight, an extremely powerful entity attempting to oppose the God Hand who occasionally helps Guts out who makes a small cameo in the epilogue.

As for the type of game it is, it's one of those proto-Devil May Cry brawlers that tried to take the burgeoning character action format in its own direction before the DMC games (and God of War) all but codified the genre. While Guts has some powerful attacks, he's limited by the large size and slow speed of his main weapon: the enormous Dragonslayer blade. Often, he'll need to find a good spot to plant himself and then start swinging, and keep moving when his position is no longer tactically viable. In addition, the player can make use of a "berserk mode" which temporarily makes Guts invincible and a lot stronger, as well as Guts's various gadgets including the cannon concealed in his artificial arm, a few healing tinctures courtesy of Puck's medicinal fairy dust and the handful of throwing knives and bombs he keeps on his person. All of these additional items are in limited supply but will frequently restock after each stage, so the game all but insists that the player rely on their resourcefulness and strategic wits to determine the best time to use them. Generally speaking, the cannon's best reserved for bosses, the knives for ranged units who try to stay out of reach of Guts's melee attacks and the bombs for when Guts gets swarmed by weaker enemies. Because berserk mode fully heals Guts each time it activates, the player can often try to keep fighting to fill its gauge before they run out of health, or opt to use up one of their limited full heal items and not risk dying. Like Chaos Legion, another DMC peer/also-ran that failed to attract much attention, it's not the sort of character action game where you can wade into every enemy encounter with your sword swinging: doing so is likely to get you killed fast. It's a little more thoughtful than it would first appear, and its difficulty appears to have put a lot of people off.

This one's a little more of an enigma, to be sure.

I know very little about the second game, as it was never released outside of Japan, but it appears to be a similar sort of character action game. It's set during the same arc in the manga and while it updates a lot of the mechanics, not to mention the graphics, it seems to be a similar sort of deal. Both games were created by Yuke's, perhaps best known for their wrestling games (they currently develop 2K's annualized WWE series, previously owned by THQ), so there's a characteristic amount of jankiness that brings the two games down a little, but their faithfulness to the tone of the manga is generally considered acceptable by the fanbase from what I've gathered.

Anyway, that's probably more than enough discussion on this site about "some manga thing". I don't usually spend much time discussing non-video game related material here (perhaps I should? GB's slowly becoming that kind of all-purpose site, really) but the number of times I would stop reading and think "Huh, where have I seen this before?" approached a figure that convinced me that I should try to jot all this down for an in-depth blog further down the road. Which is what this is, for the record.

As a final, final note, I would absolutely recommend Berserk to anyone, whether they're interested in the influences behind some of their favorite JRPGs or simply curious about comics with a lot of darker tones and extreme violence. It can be a tough read at times due to how oppressively grim it can get, but it has some amazing art and some really cool and weird ideas and concepts, especially with its villainous Apostles. Guts has something of a whole posse at this point in the manga, and the added number of characters with their own ongoing arcs is adding a lot to the narrative.

(All right, one more final note: Shout-outs to Matt, Pat, Woolie and Liam of the "Best Friends Play" Zaibatsu. I have no idea if those guys still visit Giant Bomb, but I wanted to thank them and their Sword of the Berserk LP for introducing me to the manga.)


Mento + The Mechanics: Part 2

Well, I promised a second part within the week and here it is. I've had some interesting replies already, so I wanted to start by thanking those who took the time to post and also for giving me some food for thought. Especially EVO, for allowing me to consider what does and does not qualify as a game mechanic, and CorruptedEvil, for informing me that many of the most mechanic-heavy games are those from the fighter and character action genres with optimized real-time combat systems that have been endlessly tweaked and updated by talented folk like Shinji Mikami and Hideki Kamiya. I'll be sticking to RPGs for the most part, since that's my wheelhouse, but every now and again I'll try to extend a little further afield into the sorts of games I don't play quite as often. There's certainly a lot of noteworthy but underappreciated mechanics in every genre.

Speaking of which, that's what we're looking at with this feature: Mechanics introduced in games that, for one reason or another, have yet to be fully embraced by the mainstream at large in spite of their merit. I'm highlighting these in the hope that it brings them some small amount of additional exposure, even if it's just to the dozen or so people who read these things. Though this will be the last part for now, I'll be sure to intermittently bring this series back whenever I have a new quintet of game features to, well, feature.

Case #006: Collectible Mapping Conveniences

Having a group of hidden collectibles in a game is far too divisive a topic and too ubiquitous a concept to ever be considered for this blog series, but because they're such a common sight these days (well, until you're searching for the very last one to complete the set anyway) there's a few other mechanics that have sprung up around them. An important one is how an open-world game filled with collectibles may provide the player with some means to track them down.

I didn't even go into SpaceWhippers, all of which seem to have their own ideas of how much they want their maps to reveal.

The most interesting aspect of this whole idea is not that the game feels it ought to deign to tell you where all its carefully hidden objects are, somewhat undermining the point of having a hidden collectible side-mission in the first place, but how every open-world game seems to approach the problem differently. With Bully, Saints Row 4 and Sleeping Dogs, the game only provides you with a map of the game's collectibles upon achieving a certain task - specifically with Bully it's completing all the Geography classes, with Saints Row 4 it's completing a task for Matt and with Sleeping Dogs it's finding and dating each of the NPC love interests. With The Amazing Spider-Man, the player must find a certain percentage of the collectibles on their own before the rest are revealed to them. Others give you an idea of where an item is but only on the player's mini-map, which means the player has to be somewhat close by before they can see them. Sometimes a game uses a distinctive sound to indicate if you're close, like the hidden orbs of Crackdown or the Golden Skulltulas of Ocarina of Time. SNES JRPG the Illusion of Gaia made its collectibles very hard to find, but also provided a location guide for all of them in its manual for the truly desperate.

In creating what many might consider a game mechanic that's simply a way to pad out the run-time of open-world games, designers inadvertently began creatively dealing with a problem that they themselves were responsible for. Instead of being quick to judge a game for having pointless collectibles, judge them instead for how they approach the dilemma of wanting to give players a break without giving too much away of what is meant to be an extended game of hide and seek. Make it too easy and hunting collectibles becomes more pointless than ever; make it too hard and players will abandon it as a snipe hunt. In a sense, it becomes like achievements: pointless busywork for some designers, yet another means to stretch the creative muscles for others. I approach both achievements and collectibles the same way as a result: I'll generally only persue them when the game designers have taken the time to work on them and made it worth my while.

Case #007: Treasure Recovery Runs

The temptation is to lean heavily on mechanics best known from the Demon's/Dark Souls series, because I don't think we'll be seeing the last of its brand of cautious, deliberate RPG gameplay after the laurels they've received. Though this feature is famous for many Souls players due to how indelibly linked it is with the game's progression, Treasure Recovery Runs -- or corpse runs as they're more commonly known -- pre-dates the Souls series and finds its roots in the earliest MMOs (and possibly even older games).

"Finally! Now, is this pit the bottomless kind, or...?"

The idea that a game gives you some chance to recover what you lost is a fascinating compromise, as well as a great excuse for making the game harder than it needs to be. I brought up Post-Combat Rejuvenation last time as another example of how a game would introduce a feature that would appear to be a case of sparing the rod and spoiling the child, when really there's more rods than ever. Importantly, "afterlife" mechanics like these become paramount in lieu of a lives or continues system, which have thankfully all but been relegated to the hazy mists of time. I believe the Mario series persists with lives for much the same reason as my country persists with a monarchy: it's part of the history, but has so little importance that it might as well be an ornament. Shovel Knight, speaking of heraldry and rank, is a game that couldn't really keep using lives even if it is meant to be a deliberate throwback to the NES era. That instead players are penalized with the potential permanent loss of some of their cash reserves is a functional workaround.

But really, the genius of the corpse run is how it makes the journey back to the spot you died all that more momentous and tense. Considering that a second premature death will irrevocably destroy all those resources waiting around to be recovered, there's a lot more to lose even if you're retreading territory you've already conquered at least once. How sure can you be of that once-so-simple jump, or of that seemingly effortless skeleton warrior encounter? If you're going to be forced to repeat parts of the game over and over, it might as well have that added level of tension to shake things up.

Case #008: Challenge Level Indicators

Continuing with the MMO theme somewhat, a lot of open-world RPG areas tend to mix together overpowered monsters with those of a level more suitable for the player's party at that stage of the game. I feel the reasons for this are twofold: the first is to teach players the virtue of prudence, allowing them to size up an opponent and realizing they would be biting off far more than they could chew by approaching them. The second reason is to create a feeling of a verisimilitudinous ecology: a land where there's an apparent food chain and the strong prey on the weak absent the player's interference. If there's a fifteen foot T-Rex prowling around the same area as wolves and human-sized enemies, it's easy to imagine that it is there to predate on weaker creatures, while the weaker creatures do their best to avoid it. It is not necessarily there to be a boss monster for the player's party to fight; rather, it simply exists, ultimately irrelevant to the player's journey and should therefore be left alone.

Woe betide anyone who wakes one of these things up.

However, in creating landscapes with their own ecologies like this, the player's party might find themselves encountering extremely tough enemies far too commonly, and because it's logical to expect that every adversary one encounters in an RPG can be defeated with the right tactics, it's a little too punishing if a group decides to take on a mighty-looking monster and gets instantly wiped out due to the vast difference in strength. What games like Final Fantasy XII and Xenoblade Chronicles have done is create a sort of color-coded system that indicates when a creature is simply too powerful to mess with. Rather than depend on numbers and levels, which don't always mean a whole lot to those trying to gauge an opponent's strength intuitively, a red warning bar over an enemy makes a very clear case that they are not to be trifled with. Since those two games have built much of their infrastructure around MMO mechanics absent the multiplayer aspect, it would be logical to assume such a system also exists in MMOs as well, creating areas filled with monsters of disparate power levels from which low-level newcomers and high-level veterans alike can find worthy foes.

I just love the notion that all these areas I'm visiting can operate on their own with their own rules even when I'm not around, and aren't just dioramas built to engage the player (though that is precisely what they are, by design). It indicates a level of thoughtfulness from the designers, a sense that their world is more than just a series of attractive (and, occasionally, hideous) vistas placed there for a player to look at. It's sometimes hard to justify spending more resources than is strictly necessary when working on level design, but when a designer chooses to create a region like Dark Souls' Ash Lake -- a region less than half of the game's players might ever see -- it demonstrates just how invested they are in building a world rather than propping up scenery around the player.

Case #009: Peripheral Town Crafting

I'm drawing directly from my all time favorite RPG Dark Cloud 2 (aka Dark Chronicle) with this one, but it's a common enough feature. The player is given custodianship of a fledgling village or town and can occasionally come back to provide funding and direction for the town's growth, sort of like a mini-SimCity smack dab in the middle of one's adventure. Some games let you have more control over this municipal growth than others, though there's often a benefit to increasing these player-sponsored towns to their maximum as it tends to unlock a lot of unique opportunities for the core game, such as powerful weapons and the like.

I could do this shit all day. And did, repeatedly.

Besides Dark Chronicle's Georama system, which makes an entire secondary game out of its town-building, the most prominent example is probably the Suikoden series. In each Suikoden the player finds a base of operations and builds it back up from a ruin (or in the case of IV, an empty ship) to a mighty fortress. In part this is because every Suikoden has the player engaging in warfare, and it's not feasible to expect an entire army to be walking around just behind the player character every time they make camp or delves into a dungeon. The player also has a huge number of recruits to find, and not all of them are going to be warriors, so a base of operations affords vendors, decorators, spies, tacticians and other miscellaneous roles that can contribute to a war effort a place to hang out. Watching one's base grow in any Suikoden game (or Skies of Arcadia, for that matter) can be pretty special.

In other cases, like with Tales of Vesperia's Aurnion or Xenoblade Chronicles's Colony 6, the player is usually expected to stump up increasingly larger payments to increase the town's size, and with each new investment comes more utilities and services. You might also see cases like Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter's Fairy Village, which requires the player to choose how the town expands, and then extreme cases like Terraria where the player is solely responsible for the construction of a town of NPCs. When this element is done right, the player can enjoy an entirely separate, usually optional and far more calming type of gameplay to take a break from the monster bashing and dungeon diving for a while.

Case #010: Significant Enhancement Collectibles

I'm going to bookend this entry with two sets of mechanics governing collectibles, because I'm often in a bind to explain exactly why I occasionally bother to hunt the things down, and why I only seem to do so in certain games. Significant Enhancement Collectibles are those which give you a stronger reason for wanting to seek them out, beyond it simply being a thing you can do.

For as goofy as these little guys are, they're also priceless for the permanent stat boosts.

As far as I'm concerned, concept art isn't sufficient. What is perhaps more sufficient is songs from the game's soundtrack you can listen to (e.g. Saints Row 2, Shovel Knight), permanent stat boosts (e.g. Fallout 3, Crackdown, Sleeping Dogs, inFamous), a special bonus should all of a certain collectible be found (e.g. Bully) or additional backstory and worldbuilding details to peruse (e.g. Mass Effect's codex, anything with audio logs, the trophies of Super Smash Bros.). Though your mileage may vary on the value of any given reward for finding collectibles, cases like those above are at least more than simple TACOs: Totally Arbitrary Collectible Objects (you can thank Anachronox for that contribution to the gaming lexicon by buying the new Humble Bundle, which contains it along with Thief Gold and, uh... Daikatana).

It's the job of every game designer, I figure, to invest purpose into each collectible Easter egg hunt (which may or may not involve actual Easter eggs). To give a better reason for players to want to seek them out than simply "because they're there". Some players may well enjoy seeking them out for that purpose alone, but others will appreciate a slightly bigger carrot at the end of that stick. This is all, of course, assuming that collectibles are necessary in the first place. Since every open-world game seems to have them regardless, it's probably within one's professional pride to make them a worthy addition. If nothing else, you can always make a little puzzle or game out of recovering them, like the Riddler trophies of the Batman: Arkham series. In cases like those, figuring out how to reach the collectible can be its own reward.

The Bit At The End

All right, that's another five mechanics (or, if I'm being a little more honest, features that can encompass all sorts of mechanics) down. As before, feel free to post in the comments with your own answers to this question: What are some of your favorite less-utilized game mechanics, perhaps unique to a single game?

I'm going to try to get less general in the future, looking at some mechanics that maybe never left the singular game or franchise they originated in. I'll also endeavor to peek outside my comfort zone of RPGs and open-world games to seek some worthy candidates along the roads less traveled. Wouldn't hurt me to play more games of other genres anyway, especially if I intend to write about games as a whole. Wouldn't do to present only a small sample of the many flavors out there. As always, thanks for your views and comments and I'll be back with something different next week. I won't be shelving "Mento + The Mechanics" indefinitely though, trust me on that.

(Apologies to the guy who said he appreciated that I don't get too pretentious with these. Might've gotten a little too close to the line a few times. Good thing I dropped the whole "dichotomy between the player's desire to create and to destroy" business from the city-building stuff.)

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Mento + The Mechanics: Part 1

I've spent the past few weeks kind of hopping back and forth on comics and LPs, so I figured it's about time to get back to my usual weirdly wordy worldly musings. One of the core aspects of any game, and very close to my heart as a (*former*) game designer, are game mechanics. Mechanics are the building blocks working behind the scenes of every game, from video to board to card, and range from hundreds of tiny, imperceptible tweaks to a game in development to make it feel just right, to the big, brash and obvious features that tend to show up as items on a bulletpoint list on the back of the game's case. Somewhere in the middle is the really novel and interesting stuff, the mechanics that seem like genius ideas in retrospect but were so often a gamble borne of convenience or desperation.

These are the mechanics that I'm fascinated by. Every now and again, I want to compile a group of five in particular and discuss their implementations in the game(s) in which they appear. Specifically, I want to focus on those that don't get used too often, because with some of these I feel the only reason they aren't as ubiquitous as something like cover mechanics or regenerating health is that they were simply overlooked by the critics and focus testers of the day. (My crusade of late, if the Legend LPs weren't evidence enough, is to raise the profile of things that deserve it.)

So here we go, the first five:

Case #001: Radial Text Input

Beyond Good & Evil was a transcendent experience that many to this day can't quite articulate to those who have yet to play it, who may well be apprehensive about jumping into a game that's over ten years old at this point. They might point to the way the game jumps around from platforming to puzzle-solving to stealth to hovercraft races to shoot' em ups to photography, but while the game's eclectic personality and great characters and plot were definite pluses, the game was also filled with lots of little ingenious mechanics that enhanced peoples' experience in ways they might have not even consciously observed.

Spiraling into the opposite of madness, if you have analog controllers.

One of these was admittedly a very minor touch, but whenever the game required that the player input some text, it did so with a radial menu of characters that the player would twist the analog stick to select between. It was fast, it was easy to figure out and it was an intelligent means to get around the usual problems of inputting text with a controller rather than a keyboard.

Now, I'm crediting Beyond Good & Evil, but I'm sure I've seen this text input system in earlier games, perhaps stick- or trackball-based Arcade titles that let triumphant players input their initials in the same manner. What still confuses me to this day is how it never caught on, even after being featured in a game as high profile as Beyond Good & Evil (though it seems only critically so, as the game itself didn't sell too well initially). Previous gen consoles had their own built-in functionality for inputting text that would be summoned whenever a game deemed it necessary, but they were the same old virtual keyboards that were ideally suited for a pair of hands to navigate rather than a controller, which seemed like a failure of design. (Well, "failure" is perhaps harsh, how about "missed opportunity"?) That the new consoles persist with the same tools is discouraging, but perhaps to be expected.

Still, I can always hold out hope that text input tools more germane to an analog-stick controller will emerge at some point, whether they're radials or something even more inspired.

Case #002: Empathetic Battle Music

A staple of any RPG soundtrack is the battle theme, which are usually quite busy little numbers that need to be catchy or at the very least tolerable due to how often a player is likely to encounter it accompanying the various foes their party is forced to fight. Most games tend to have a few themes that get shuffled around depending on where you're at in the game and who you're fighting (bosses, and especially story NPC bosses, tend to have their own themes too). What's slightly less usual, and might require a bit more work from the sound designers and contracted musicians, is having multiple battle themes that the game switches between mid-fight, to highlight how the fight is going.

We got 'em on the ropes now!

Empathetic Battle Music is when the music changes to reflect the player's status in a battle. It might suddenly get triumphant and jaunty when the player is clearly winning, or very tense and dramatic when they aren't. This not only has the benefit of making every fight feel more cinematic and eventful, but also serves as a useful heads up for just how well/badly a battle is going and that perhaps the player ought to go all out/heal up. The challenge for designers is how to determine exactly when a player is in trouble or about to win, and will usually draw from certain variables like the total party health and that of the enemy forces. If a player character goes down, it's bad news. If the boss takes a knee and looks haggard, it's time to celebrate a little. You might also have different themes depending on if you initiated battle with a sneak attack, or were ambushed by enemies instead, but this isn't quite as dynamic.

This type of soundtrack enhancement isn't actually all that common, though I'm sure everyone (that is, everyone who regularly plays RPGs) has come across it before. Skies of Arcadia and The Last Remnant immediately spring to mind for me. The Last Remnant even subverts it in an interesting way, changing the final boss music when he powers up to signify that he now has the advantage. Skies is probably the Ur example though, and having it seamlessly switch from tense to normal to uplifting made every battle feel momentous.

Case #003: Turn Order Manipulation

Sticking with JRPGs for a little while longer, I was momentarily thrown off during Giant Bomb's recent Quick Look of the new UbiArt RPG Child of Light when they gushed over its clever turn interruption system. It occurred to me that while such a system is a common sight for a guy like me who plays more JRPGs than is probably healthy, it's yet to really break into the mainstream.

Grandia 2. Still has perhaps the best battle system with this feature, if not one of the top five systems of all time. (Note the bar on the bottom right.)

Turn Order Manipulation is when a game puts much greater emphasis on manipulating the turn order of the player's characters and those they fight. Usually, we see cases where there's a specific turn order (that may or may not be revealed to the player) based on variables such as stats that govern alacrity or the amount of effort expended with that character's previous attack. Sometimes spells and special attacks need charging up, sometimes people have status effects that slow or increase their turn speed and sometimes you just have cheap enemies who seem to act twice as often. However, while those are fairly regular occurrences, what's less common is giving players direct control over their turn order, willfully choosing to delay their own turns for some later benefit.

There's many games for which this is applicable. Child of Light uses a similar system as Grandia and the Atelier Iris games in that there's a brief window between selecting a special action (like a spell or a strong charge-up attack) and performing it that can be interrupted by a fast character with a regular attack. Radiant Historia lets the player queue up turns by allowing them to postpone their attacks (or using a special ability that removes an enemy unit's turn), allowing for chains of combos that increase a damage percentage modifier with every hit. Xenoblade Chronicles will occasionally reveal the deadly outcome of a particularly brutal enemy attack via the protagonist's innate precognition, and leaves the player to figure out how to prevent it from happening. We're seeing these new turn dynamics more and more often in games, but it still feels like there's further realms to be explored.

Case #004: Unusual Inventory Systems

Switching focus to Western RPGs now, because in JRPGs your inventory is almost always bottomless, there's usually that moment every now and again where you have to pause what you're doing and manage the crap you've let accumulate in your inventory. Most Western RPGs insist on an encumbrance or flat item limit, and hitting that limit is usually a good sign that you should probably return to a safe area with vendors to resupply and regroup. Most systems like these are governed in such a way to give players ample breaks, even if they're not cognizant that they need one, as well as an opportunity to touch base with NPCs who might have additional quests and vendors who might have new stocks of equipment for the player to peruse.

This is what's on my screen every 15 minutes while playing Might and Magic.

However, as functional as these limits actually are, it can sometimes be a little tiresome to frequently stop play to juggle items around. The best instance of turning inventory management into a mini-game of sorts is with the common "Tetris inventory" variant, with larger items requiring additional room forcing the player to find some way of twisting items around to ensure everything fits. Diablo's probably the most vivid example of this, as players frequently find themselves moving around 2x3 armors and 1x4 swords to delay the next town portal for as long as possible.

Unusual Inventory Systems appear when a game is keenly aware of the amount of time players will be spending in their inventories, and trying to either alleviate the hassle or make the whole micromanagement aspect more palatable by finding an interesting way to spin it. Games like Dungeon Siege and Torchlight, both of which owe more than a little to Diablo and its inventory puzzles, provide additional animal members of the party whose job it is to ferry extra loot around. Currently, though, enough isn't being done to find a truly novel inventory system that would actually make it fun to micromanage one's spoils. At least, out of the games I've played already (I hear the later Mega Man Battle Network games take an interesting jab at it). As this aspect is something so ubiquitous to loot-based RPGs, an interesting new approach is overdue. I mean, people take chances with lockpicking mini-games all the time, right? (And stay tuned for more on them as this blog series continues.)

Case #005: Post-Combat Rejuvenation

This is a nice and simple one to see us off. Sometimes the issue with random encounters in JRPGs is that not only are they tiresome for the player, they're equally enervating for the player's party. It often feels as if the goal of these random encounters is to grind the team down so that they're unprepared for the boss. A lot of games made after the NES era addressed the problem by adding more conveniences for players, such as pre-boss save points and items which can fully restore the party at save points (for a moderate fee), or just make it so that certain save points provide the same benefit for free.

No health? No problem!

The fact is, it's hard for a designer to balance the difficulty of encounters when you have no idea if the particular assortment of monsters you're configuring will be met by a party at full health or one that is worn down and at a strong disadvantage. Often, the difficulty of normal battles has to be lessened so the player can survive them in a compromised state. This just adds to how tiresome most random encounters are, as a healthy party can simply tap the attack command over and over to get through them without much hassle.

When you have Post-Combat Rejuvenation, a mechanic that always fully heals the player's party once combat is over, the designers can start balancing every enemy encounter knowing that the party will always face it at their full strength. This means they can make the game more difficult, creating more tactically challenging scenarios without damaging (and in fact enhancing) the player experience. It's even more subtle than it seems, because many players will see a full restore after every battle as some sort of amelioration of the game's difficulty, and believe the game is being more generous when the reality is probably anything but.

The Bit At The End

I'll be following with a Part 2 later in the week, with additional entries whenever I find myself with a quintet of gameplay mechanics I'd like to see more often. For now though, I'll leave the floor open to you duders: What are some of your favorite less-utilized game mechanics, perhaps unique to a single game?

I'm really only talking about those that have yet to truly take off that you'd be happy to see in more games. My next five are already set in stone, but if I end up agreeing with any of your submissions, I'll add it to a future entry in this series with a credit.

At any rate, my thanks for your views and responses and I'll be back with Part 2 soonish. (And yeah, I promise I'll make the next one less RPG-focused. Gotta love those RPGs though, right? Man, I want to play some Divinity: Original Sin already.)

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The Comic Commish: The Previous Generation (Jul-Dec 2011)

Hey one and all to another installment of the Comic Commish, a monthly series where I look back on the best games on the previous generation of consoles and then violate their memory with crude stickpeople drawings. My eternal thanks once again to @omghisam, who was also kind enough to give me a copy of Shovel Knight recently too. (I suspect he might be a secret billionaire, or maybe this is all coursework for training to become a social worker.)

Anyhoo and anyhow, we'll look at three comics I created especially for this feature as well as a whole bunch of crap I've covered in the past. Because of the sheer volume of "Revisited" strips this month, there's not going to be a "The Other Ones" section. Seriously, I must've drawn a comic for every goddamn game that came out during this period. Speaking of which, today's entry covers the latter half of 2011, from July to December. Certainly was a busy November that year (and, of course, we also saw Giant Bomb favorite Dark Souls released during this time).

It Was a Struggle to Find Three Good Games I Hadn't Already Made Comics For, Honestly

Captain America: Super Soldier (Next Level Games, Multiplatform, July '11)

Although Captain America: Super Soldier gave Cap his own game for the first time in years -- it was made to tie-in with the first Captain America movie (though with an unrelated plot), which by most accounts appears to have been overshadowed by its sequel -- it seemed suspiciously similar to another well-regarded superhero game from a couple of summers ago, namely Rocksteady's excellent Batman: Arkham Asylum. Still, if you're facing a strict deadline for a licensed game tie-in and you gotta imitate someone in order to cut down on the lengthy concept-focused early stages of development, it's probably a good idea to take after the best. A wave of "[BLANK]-clone"s is how almost every new genre began, after all.

So the Captain America game isn't actually too bad. It takes after Asylum with its combo-heavy flowing combat and partially non-linear exploration, and adds in a healthy dose of Prince of Persia-ish acrobatics, taking advantage of Cap's enhanced physicality and finesse. The shield also finds a few novel applications, though the game doesn't lean on it as hard as you'd expect from a Captain America game. The game's plot, in which Cap is parachuted into a Hydra base to foil their most recent scheme, has a pleasing self-contained quality to it as well -- not just that the story is a one-off outside of the established Marvel movie canon, but that the Bavarian castle itself is isolated and full of surprises as Cap delves ever deeper underneath it. One of the better hidden qualities of the Castlevanias and Metroids that have more or less codified this sort of exploration-heavy action game is having a well-realised location with various points of interest that you can use as landmarks, getting a better sense of the overall structure and where everything is relative to each other the more of it you explore, though Captain America is perhaps a little too linear and devoid of backtracking to really suit the lofty label of "SpaceWhipper".

It's still surprisingly solid, given that it rushed to tie in with a movie (and that superhero video games are generally quite pap regardless for whatever reason), but then again with that sort of template to work with it would've been hard to mess it up.

Dungeons of Dredmor (Gaslamp Games, PC, July '11)

Before they were superseded by the hotness that is Early Access open-world survival games that barely work as intended, it felt as if the PC Indie brigade had fully embraced the concept of the "roguelikelike": a genre of game that takes elements from the venerable and crushingly difficult series of dungeon-crawlers fashioned on the ancient home computer RPG Rogue, chiefly the permanent nature of the demise of one's character and a slow and painfully earned gradual understanding of the game and its various mechanics and cheap tricks, and transplants them outside the confines of the typical ASCII odorous mildew dungeons (mostly) and into all sorts of other formats both new and familiar. The Binding of Isaac (which was also released around this time, see below), Spelunky, Rogue Legacy and so on are different interpretations of the core mechanics of Rogue.

Dungeons of Dredmor ain't that. It's a true roguelike, right down to the simultaneous turn-based movement with enemies, the crazy amount of careers and items and abilities a character can use and how you can be merrily going on your way and making good progress before bumping into something, like a monster zoo or a boss creature, that just immediately kills you and wastes hour of progress. Don't let its cheerful graphics and goofy European sense of humor lull you into a false sense of security: Dungeons of Dredmor is intended only for the truly dedicated and cautious, like most good roguelikes.

Pushmo (Intelligent Systems, 3DS, October '11)

An early success of the 3DS eShop, when Nintendo was in dire need of something to prop up the relatively new console's lackluster library, Pushmo puts the player in the sumo geta of Mallo, a good-natured little round thing of tremendous strength and moderate jumping ability. Pushmo, or Pullblox as it is known elsewhere, requires that you use Mallo's abilities to climb structures made out of individual colored blocks, which can be pulled out of the background in order to create platforms. It's a simple gimmick, though one that quickly leads to complex puzzles once they become larger and switches and ladders are brought to the fore (or, indeed, pulled to the foreground).

Pushmo's a game all about discovery. Either on a micro level -- figuring out the path to the end of each individual stage becomes an addictive joy in the later levels, once the player overcomes their intimidating height -- or on a macro level, once you've discovered one of the game's many versatile tricks. These range from finding out simple but understated mechanics, like how to push out a block by grabbing onto its side, to figuring out the exact limits of Mallo's jumping ability. All these discoveries slowly emerge and become part of your repertoire heading forward, giving you a very distinct feeling that your ability to play the game has greatly improved at, coincidentally enough, just around the same time that Pushmo begins to truly test your resourcefulness. The game's also bolstered somewhat by the charming pixel art that some of the "mural" stages are based upon, which then inspired many user-created stages of repurposed NES/SNES sprites. Of course, there's usually no way to know if a certain piece of pixel art will lead to a stage that can be solved, and some end up being entirely impossible (though fortunately it's equally impossible to upload these stages, as the creator must demonstrate that their stage can be solved before it will be accepted).


I apologize in advance for the sheer volume of these things this month. I mean I did label this blog "Comic Commish", though, so maybe you're the ones who should be apologizing to me. Sorry, I didn't mean that.

Shut up.


Bastion (Supergiant Games, PC/XBL, July '11)

Supergiant Games's inaugural release Bastion is an isometric brawler/shooter with a handful of RPG elements. The gameplay is largely perfunctory though, and serves as a binding agent for the many aspects of Bastion that truly stand out: Its music, its writing and its whimsical, watercolor-inspired art style. Supergiant feels like a studio built by artists, whether they're the drawing kind or the writing kind, and although I didn't much care for some of Bastion's design decisions, its presentation is absolutely top-notch. I'm happy to hear that their follow-up Transistor is more of the same, with perhaps a bit more emphasis placed on gameplay.

Chantelise (EasyGameStation/Carpe Fulgur, PC, July '11)

Chantelise was the first game I ever portrayed in my inimitable (except for five year olds) MS Paint style, and the positive response was a little surprising. In a sense, this is the game to blame for my many doodles over the years. Chantelise itself is another EasyGameStation doujin (Indie) game that mercenary translation team Carpe Fulgur picked out to follow the success of Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale. Chantelise was actually an earlier effort from EasyGameStation, and is overall a less satisfying, polished and interesting game than Recettear. It has its unique charms, however, with each small action stage set up as a challenging gauntlet through a series of enemies to the exit, and the player must pass through several of these stages (and a boss) to complete each area. It's extremely easy to die, which means the player needs to maintain a deliberate approach and learn from their fatal mistakes. The addition of The Tower of Druaga-esque puzzle treasures, which requires a lot of experimentation (and arbitrary guesswork) before they'll appear, makes an already thoughtful game more so. Not bad for a bunch of prancing animes.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (Shadow Planet Productions, 360/PC, August '11)

A shmup metroidvania. Despite the fact that it can be summed up by two of the most annoying portmanteaus in video game terminology, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet's distinctiveness -- both in its design as an open-world exploration shooter and in its Henry Selick-style silhouetted graphical presentation -- is a factor that strongly works in its favor. The player's UFO is an odd little entity with its own rules governing its flight and maneuverability, and the various Metroid-like tools that expands the player's traversal capabilities are imaginative and fun to use in equal measure. The game doesn't skimp on an oppressive atmosphere either, as it often feels like the very walls themselves are poised to reach out and grab you. The most prominent feature of the game is its infamous "Lantern Run", however, a frantic gauntlet that demands the most on-point teamwork (and a huge dollop of luck).

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal, Multiplatform, August '11)

Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the newest (so far, and not including mobile games because why would you ever) Deus Ex, was a pleasant surprise. Deus Ex: Invisible War left the impression that Ion Storm's innovative IP that blended shooters, stealth, RPGs into a multi-directional approach to every situation -- which was based somewhat on the earlier System Shock -- was dead in the water, its cyberpunk aspirations doomed to obsolescence like so many 28.8k modems. Human Revolution managed to turn that notion around and create a very close facsimile to the original, while updating it to a more modern TPS format. It has a fascinating protagonist in the brooding but driven Adam Jensen, an array of interesting mechanics and hacking/lockpicking mini-games, settings full of secrets to find and secondary characters with sidequests to give you and a few optional objectives (in the form of achievements) to really test those of a more discreet and pacifistic nature. It slips up a few times, specifically with the forced boss battles and a half-assed conclusion, but given the lackluster nature of remakes and how much of a fluke the original game had begun to seem in retrospect, it's almost a miracle that this game is as competent as it is at recapturing Deus Ex's essence.

Dead Island (Techland, PC/360/PS3, September '11)

I've never been particularly fond of zombie stuff. I've played and watched a lot of zombie media simply because there's so much of it that the law of averages had to come into effect eventually. There's some I've enjoyed; plenty more that I've been apathetic about. I'm still sore that Capcom transplanted the innovative resetting-focused and time-sensitive mechanics of the fifth Breath of Fire game into some annoying zombie survival game full of NPCs that never listen to you, and then once they were done with Breath of Fire they tossed it away for their scavenger-like F2P mobile game division to ruin. Dead Island, from Deep Silver, is one of those few zombie games that I actually found myself quite invested in for a time. Its first act is super engrossing, as the player darts their way around a corpse-infested beach resort while making occasional trips back to base to restock, build wonderful new toys from various scraps lying around and find a few more objectives to chase after. The game gets considerably worse after that opening act, due to diminishing returns and some truly awful game design that suddenly decides that super fast zombies and enclosed corridor-focused areas are somehow a good combination moving forward, but it's not so bad that it mitigates the fun of those opening few hours. More like a marathon that's energizing for the first half and enervating for the second.

Driver: San Francisco (Ubisoft, Multiplatform, September '11)

If I'm largely apathetic about zombies, then I'm usually downright antipathetic towards realistic driving games. That is, the ones that don't involve banana skins or chopping other cars in half or giant anthropomorphic clocks with their own theme tunes. Driver: San Francisco is that and it isn't that. While it contains the usual open-world driving game elements you'd find in any given Burnout or Need for Speed, much like prior Driver games, the whole thing is tied together with a completely bonkers plot about a SF detective who falls into a coma and finds that his disembodied spirit can freely travel between drivers in other vehicles, and uses that to his advantage in whatever race or high speed pursuit he might be undertaking. You can beat a race by being the fastest driver like some kind of wuss, or you can beat a race by dispossessing the guy in the race car and switching to a bus in the oncoming lane, and then jack-knifing the thing to take out as much of your competition as possible. The actual driving parts are entirely competent, which is as much as I can really ever say about a driving game as a decidedly non-driving person, but the additional supernatural elements really transform what might be another drab racer into something rather special. I think this was probably the first open-world driving game I bothered to 100% since The Simpsons: Hit & Run.

The Binding of Isaac (Headup Games, PC, September '11) (The little guy is my 3D Dot Game Heroes avatar, btw.)

Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl's The Binding of Isaac is one of those Indies that I'm fairly sure everyone owns at this point. BoI is a novel mix of a roguelike and The Legend of Zelda, in which the rooms of a typical Zeldarian dungeon are randomized, as are their contents. The player -- as bawling child Isaac -- must navigate their way through each floor to a boss fight and the exit to the next stage, finding permanent power-ups and helpful resources along the way. The essence of a true roguelike is that of a long and painful period of discovery, as I previously stated with Dungeons of Dredmor. This largely related to BoI's many distinctive (and usually quite disgusting) enemies with their own attack patterns to observe and memorize, but also with its vast number of collectible items. It's important to keep track of what item does what once it's been discovered, though it's probably just best to keep a guide open nearby. BoI also doesn't skimp on the difficulty, and every victory feels earned. As soon as you start descending into the very challenging optional bonus areas like Sheol and the Cathedral, the game becomes that much more tense (and, if you can pull a victory off, satisfying).

Dark Souls (From Software, PC/360/PS3, October '11)

What is there even left to say about Dark Souls at this point? With so many hours of footage on the site, and so many comparisons that have been made to this game by those that have come after, Dark Souls stands as perhaps one of the most important games to emerge from the previous generation. Its success took almost everyone by surprise, excepting perhaps the true sun worshippers who swear by the game's predecessor Demon's Souls, and it will continue to influence game design decisions for years to come. An action RPG, the game rewards those who take their time and pay attention because it deigns to explain very little about its world in any immediately obvious manner. Its intimidating mystery can be captivating and off-putting in equal measure, as is its harsh, baptism-by-fire difficulty. Its gothic presentation, deliberate and layered combat and a host of memorable boss encounters make it a remarkable game by any metric. That it has a legion of passionate fans that frequently worry me with their over-zealousness probably makes a better case for it than anything else.

To the Moon (Freebird Software, PC, November '11)

To the Moon is a visual novel, though it hardly resembles one. The game looks like it was crafted from one of those RPGMaker programs, with every character represented as a 16-bit avatar in a world that wouldn't look out of place on the Super Nintendo, but for the vast amount of detail in its pixel art. Far from being any sort of monster-bashing, treasure-looting adventure, however, the player is thrust into a story about a dying man who wishes to see his dream of travelling to the moon fulfilled. The player, as a couple of engineers who search through the man's dreams to find the source of this bizarre desire as well as lending commentary on his long life in the manner of a Greek chorus, only needs to concern themselves with the simple goal of finding an object that can transport them further back through the man's memories. The actual game parts come about with some tile-flipping puzzles between each memory jump, but are largely throwaway and unnecessary. The plot becomes both engrossing and touching as the player slowly pieces it together from scenes of the man's life, and it has a tremendous ending that somehow finds a happy ending to a life of tragedy. As someone who plays a lot of games for their stories, its remarkable to find a tale so well-realised that the actual gameplay parts that are ostensibly the draw are simply there to keep the plot moving along and are otherwise entirely superfluous. That we've reached a point now where we see video games where the story is emphasized over the gameplay is pretty exciting indeed, and I say that as someone who loves to delve into the mechanics of a well-crafted game.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (Naughty Dog, PS3, November '11)

With Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, something felt a little off. Either it was sloppy gunfight encounters, or a tiresome padding middle section, or a lot more QTEs during fights with larger goons, or simply diminishing returns from it being too similar to the previous game, I couldn't say with any certainty. Still, though, if your game is only a little worse than Uncharted 2 the chances are it's still safely above average compared to the rest of the PS3's library. Much of Uncharted 2's cinematic elements and mix of stealth, traversal and gunplay are accounted for, and the game takes some interesting risks with the mercurial nature of the new character Cutter and some odd chase sequences with the tricky henchman Talbot, who is apparently fond of drugging people. It also has some very memorable set-pieces, one on board a cargo plane and another on a sinking cruise ship, and a protracted section devoid of the usual gunplay and acrobatics where Drake almost expires in the vast Rub 'al Khali desert. It's missing some of the solid core of 2, but none of its gloss.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda, PC/360/PS3, November '11)

Each new iteration of the Elder Scrolls franchise brings with it an indication of just how far PC games have come since the prior installment. With Daggerfall, they somehow managed to take Arena and greatly expand its geography, creating an immense procedurally generated game world that I'm sure still holds records for how long it might take a hypothetical player with too much time on their hands to cross a virtual world on foot. With Morrowind, they proved that you could make a visually arresting game filled with polygonal models without your computer exploding, wisely focusing on one of Tamriel's more distinctive regions in order to make any potential ugliness feel endemic to the setting. With Oblivion, the series shot into the stratosphere with a much more urgent (though, ironically, far less time-intensive) main plot about the invasion of inter-dimensional demonic beings. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is as much of a big step forward as any of its forebears, creating a world where words have power if you yell them real loud (a lesson previously taught by Pee-Wee's Playhouse) and steamlining many of the problematic elements that have been deep-rooted within the series since the beginning, like so many unwanted barnacles. Rather than focusing on an evolution of graphical finesse (though it looks a lot better, especially the character design) or some amazing new feat of processing power, the game felt like it had spent those handful of years since Oblivion working on its faults and putting out a game that felt more solid than any Elder Scrolls game had since, well, forever. "The most stable and mechanically sound Elder Scrolls" doesn't seem like the most thrilling epithet, but given the series's buggy reputation -- an unfortunate byproduct of its persistent over-ambitiousness -- it's a very positive one. Also you can shout at dudes and they go frickin' flying, man.

Super Mario 3D Land (Nintendo, 3DS, November '11)

While Super Mario 3D Land wasn't entirely a breath of fresh air, compared to the New Super Mario Bros series it was a fragrant meadow breeze on a warm Summer's day. In November. A new compact form of Mario's 3D adventures (such as those enjoyed in the semi-recent Super Mario Galaxy games) intended for the 3DS system, Super Mario 3D Land saw the series back on form, with a whole bunch of innovative new ideas for stages and the trademark mechanical near-perfection of a series that has saved many a Nintendo console from early retirement, which now included the 3DS itself. Though the plot is as immaterial as ever (oh, Peach gets kidnapped? And now there's a bunch of weird leaves that turn people into tanookis?) the game soldiers on with some great level design, including a new game+ mode which greatly enhances a lot of the otherwise far too easy stages by expanding on their ideas and upping the challenge (and a new game++ featuring Luigi which is somewhat less thrilling). It's not quite Mario leaving his comfort zone with some paradigm-shifting new adventure, but it's not the same old cookie cutter New Super Mario Bros either. For one thing, people clearly gave a shit when making this.

Assassin's Creed Revelations (Ubisoft Montreal, PC/360/PS3, 11/11)

Assassin's Creed: Revelations is perhaps when the Assassin's Creed series, which had been firing on all cylinders at this point, started to wobble a bit and lose altitude. Set in the picturesque city of Constantinople (now Istanbul), a region that merges middle eastern and Renaissance Europe architecture in much the same way as the game merges the story of Altair, a middle-eastern assassin and protagonist of the first game with Ezio Auditore, the Italian stallion who the series had been following ever since. The game was intended to tie up the life stories for both characters, setting the stage for a new protagonist for what would become a very disappointing sequel. Many of Revelations's additions were either unnecessary or unwanted, including: a hook which made traversing the city easier, but also meant that if you wanted to go explore the city prior to the story missions (one of which would provide you with the hook), you'd frequently find yourself in the frustrating position of trying to reach a building's footholds but missing by inches; tower defense sections which are as awful as anything else tower defense related; and sections where the player delves into ostensible protagonist Desmond Miles's backstory while jumping around on a bunch of cubes in a weird cyberspace environment, which is doubly damned by its uninteresting screensaver-esque surroundings and uninteresting voiceover narration regarding the milquetoast main character and whatever pointless bartending story he was yammering about. A lesson in the dangers of having an annual iterative series where new additions are often forced rather than natural, and one that Ubisoft probably didn't bother to learn.

Rayman Origins (Ubisoft Montpellier, Multiplatform, November '11)

Though I may take the occasional swipe at Ubisoft, there are cases where they're very much capable of putting out some excellent games. Rayman Origins, which transports the limbless wonder back to his 2D platformer roots sans the ludicrous lagomorphic larcenists who took over the reins of the Rayman series at some point, is the first to use the UbiArt engine: a 2D engine that allows artists to create whatever fanciful designs they wish and be reasonably assured that they'll work in-game as intended. As such, the capacity to include some incredible looking artwork was made available to the artists at Ubisoft Montpellier, and the engine has gone on to be used in various other platformers and action games with distinctive art styles. Rayman Origins is an example of a finesse platformer, like Super Meat Boy or Dustforce, in which the player is required to simply reach the end of the stage but is usually expected to get the rhythm down pat and then reattempt it for faster runs. Various extra elements are unlocked for those who grab as many of the Lums as possible, which often serve to direct the player towards the most efficient course, improving their flow and, by extension, their lap times. It's probably also worth saying that the sequel, Rayman Legends, not only enhances the gameplay and makes it more exploration-driven (my particular favorite as far as platformer game design philosophies go) but also includes most of the previous game's stages as optional bonus areas. It might be worth skipping straight to Legends if you've yet to play either.

Saints Row: The Third (Volition, PC/360/PS3, November '11)

The evolution of Saints Row was a double-edged sword, in that a lot of compromises had to be made for the benefit of forward motion. To put it figuratively, the hot air balloon that is Saints Row had to toss out a lot of ballast in order to increase its upward momentum, and unfortunately some of that jetsam was actually quite important to a significant section of the series' fanbase, including myself. Saints Row: The Third doubles down on the game's trademark insanity, but changes the venue from the immaterial, "non-canonical" and deliberately goofy side-missions (called activities in-game, which always struck me as an ironically casual term) and puts it front and center as the tone of the main story. This had the benefit of enlightening casual fans and neophytes of the series' customary Looney Tunes madness, who either didn't see the side-stuff or simply ignored most of it, at the cost of greatly devaluing the now surplus-to-requirement activities, which were deposed as the main focus of the series's more ingenious game design and were summarily abandoned to the wayside. The resulting package was a focused burst of Saints Row silliness in an open-world now largely bereft of purpose outside of the main story. Activities still existed, but were mostly banal and unimaginative (especially compared to those of Saints Row 2, still the series peak) and were usually based on missions you'd already played. The city wasn't quite as big or as fun to explore, because it no longer needed to be to contain the game's much more compact focus, and the game leaned hard on the protagonist's sociopathy for laughs, rather than a worrying (and somewhat justified by the absurdly violent gameplay) trend in their behavior that the game would occasionally turn a mirror towards for the occasional "who is the real monster?" moment. Saints Row: The Third still has plenty to recommend it, and is probably the preferred choice for people who don't much care for the open-world aspects (or doesn't have the 40+ hours free to spend doing dumb shit for the hell of it) of a game like GTA V and just want to experience the story. Still, it felt like a much smaller and less satisfying game overall. The Red Faction: Armageddon to SR2's Red Faction: Guerrilla, if you want an analogy from another franchise of Volition's: two series undone by having a tighter focus.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Nintendo, Wii, November '11)

The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword is, in some ways, the unfortunate antithesis of the original game, choosing to entrench its players in an hours-long extended tutorial for its prologue rather than presenting a suspended floating world of mystery and letting players explore it at their own pace (like, say, Skies of Arcadia, of which the early images of this game vividly reminded me). The game does eventually open up, and although many of the sections are quite linear, there's a certain amount of open-ended questing that the series had been missing for a while. It also looks stunning for a Wii game, with a graphical style that seems to borrow from the darker and weirder Twilight Princess and the far brighter and Ghibli-esque Wind Waker in equal measure to find a pleasing middle ground between those two extremes. It's perhaps the least interesting of the core console Zeldas, but it's still a core console Zelda and that places it far above many of its contemporaries. Just, I dunno, it perhaps could use significantly less explaining everything. Or at least make it optional and not the focus of the first four hours of runtime. Good lord did that Skyloft section run on for far too long.

Batman: Arkham City (Rocksteady, PC/360/PS3, November '11)

Batman: Arkham City was iterative first and foremost, and its additions -- like with Assassin's Creed Revelations -- often served to detract from the core gameplay rather than enhance it. Still, Arkham City was one of those sequels that decided that having more of everything -- more terrain to explore, more Riddler trophies to find, more villains to meet -- was the preferred course, and it's hard to argue with that logic, even if it did mean frequently spending a full, dull five minutes gliding over Arkham City to the next waypoint. Personally, as someone who has always believed that the true appeal of the Batman Arkham series is deducing the Riddler's various puzzles rather than the timing-focusing group combat or freaking out the superstitious and cowardly lot that are the villains' thuggish henchpeople in extended stealth sequences, I was in hog heaven. There had to have been almost 300 of the things! Shinies!

All right, I'm going to go collapse in a corner somewhere. Enjoy the rest of your Summer everyone! The Comic Commish will be back in August to check out the first half of 2012. We're on the final stretch now, folks.


The Legend Continues: Mission Critical

Hey Space Cadets, I decided that I wanted to keep playing some of those adventure games I briefly looked into during E3's usual "anything but E3" series of mine. I've been on an adventure game kick of late, and Legend's stuff is so well written and thematically interesting that I figured it was worth showing more of it off.

Mission Critical is a sci-fi themed adventure that, unlike most of Legend's other games, is based on an original story penned by writers from within the studio rather than being based on a novel, or series of novels. It's also the first Legend game to feature FMV actors, though they're only used sparingly for exposition cutscenes. It's not quite the FMV digitized actor nightmare that adventure games were lamentably evolving towards heading into the late 90s.

Before I resume, I'll recap the story so far (though you are very welcome to go back to the original thread and check it out there):

The USS Lexington and USS Jericho, a warship and science vessel respectively of the progress-focused Alliance, have reached the end of a long and trying journey across the cosmos: the planet Persephone, in the Deneb Kaitos star system 68 light years from Earth. Though the details of the mission are top secret, known only to Captain Dayna (played by Star Trek TNG's own Commander Worf, Michael Dorn) and his first mate Lt. Com. Jennifer Tran (played by Manhunter/Desert Hearts' Patricia Charbonneau), they still find themselves ambushed and outgunned by the sudden appearance of the Geneva-class UNS Dharma, a powerful warship of the enemy UN forces (yes, the UN are the enemies in this game).

The UNS Dharma handily defeats the USS Lexington, and demands the unconditional surrender of the entire crew. Knowing the critical importance of the mission, the Captain knocks out an officer (the player) assuming the enemy captain would overlook a single casualty and provides them with a note explaining the circumstances, leaving Tran to record a few logs to instruct them on what needs to be done to fix the ship and complete the mission. He then carries over a live warhead in the crew shuttle to the UNS Dharma, destroying the enemy vessel and the crews of all three ships.

After fixing a hull breach and averting a catastrophic engine meltdown due to a malfunctioning coolant system, the protagonist's next task is to get the ship's main computers and sophisticated AI back online. We've also discovered some worrisome reports that points to a turncoat officer as the one responsible for setting up the ambush. The officer in question is dead, along with the rest of the crew, but I doubt we're quite done with that sub-plot just yet.

Anyway, let's get down to it:

Part 3: To Hell With Ship Repairs, I'm Going To Write That LP About the Sassy CPU

Well, now that we're no longer at risk from being disintegrated by a faulty engine core, what say we get around to fixing our computer buddy?
First though, I take a gander at the only floor we haven't visited yet (well, besides the Weapon Bays. Ain't much going on down there though.) Deck 6 contains the shuttle bay and the cargo bay.
This cargo bay is packed floor to ceiling with all kinds of fun looking stuff, but the only thing we need here (and the only reason to ever visit) is for that Multitool in the bottom left corner. Unsurprisingly, a Space Swiss Army-like device will be pretty useful.
Man, shuttlebays always give me the creeps. It's like a big empty room with a giant door that will kill you if it opens. We don't need to be here yet, since there's no shuttles left to take us anywhere.
Right, so if you recall last time, we weren't able to access the computer room because this corridor got torn the eff up. Fortunately, we have a cutting tool that allows us to squeeze past the worst of it.
Miura, the paranoid hacker dude that he was, left a four digit password lock on this door to stop us passing through. Given that we've already raided his stateroom and found the programming code that allowed us to generate Pi to a thousand places, finding out that the answer was "3141" wasn't exactly breaking the Enigma code.
Sweet Win 2k burn there.
I caught another screenshot of Tran, this time mid-duckface. I swear I'm not doing this on purpose. She gives us more details on the mission itself, now that we're pretty much done fixing the ship. Turns out they found an alien "marker" on Persephone (oh no way, I hear you exclaim) and since the UN is focused on maintaining technological standstill, they're likely to reduce any high-falutin' alien super-advanced whoosits that might lie underneath the marker to slag. That's why we need to get there first.
The computer's a lot more chatty now that it's back online, and freely provides as much additional exposition, backstory and technology talk as you could want.
You can even get deep into an interesting discussion about emergent AIs and whether or not it's possible to actually create a computer-based sentient life-form. Essentially: Yes it is, but it needs to be the focus of the computer's design. As in, it needs all the capacity for rational thought and learning that a human has, which means multiple databanks and processors dedicated towards that express purpose. Our ship's AI ain't going to be sentient anytime soon, for the same reason a toaster won't.
But let's get back on track here. The next task is to get navigation back online so we can communicate with the other ship, the USS Jericho. We'll need their lander to reach Persephone. We've also been informed to contact the Erebus Colony to report our situation to the higher ups within the Alliance, since they'll have the release codes to activate the lander.
But because there's always a "but", we'll need to replace some electronic parts on the dish that the ship uses to make long-range communications. Guess what that means?
I didn't screencap the reply to this first query, but it's basically "Nope. Sucks to be you." At least we can find the parts easily enough, as we found a storeroom on Deck 2 filled with all sorts of oddly-named gizmos.
Or so you'd think. The EC2001's been borrowed for that Holovideo VR thing in the mess hall. Sure, let's just add more walking around.
It took me a while, but there's a very small spot on the VR system where you can emancipate the required EC2001 from the rest of the system's hardware. I did manage to rip out its cables during my awkward scrambling, though. Looks like no-one's going to get to enjoy "Welcome to This Horse's Anus" any time soon.
So this sucks, I now gotta go out into space to actually fix the dish. I mean I guess it was inevitable that we had one of these tense spacewalk sequences, right? Doesn't mean it won't be vertiginous and eerie.
Ah, right. This is a problem. There were no oxygen tanks in the suit locker, and I can't really go out into space without one. I'm no scienceman, but air seems important. Fortunately, we don't have to worry about it right now, because the ship just told me that an antimatter bomb has been activated somewhere on the ship. ...Wait, what?

Part 4: Giant Bomb and Space Linkin'

So yeah, we already knew Poole was the culprit. Using the multitool we picked up, I've taken apart that suspicious spaceship model and found all sorts of interesting things. The first is this note that Poole left for his brother back on Earth, explaining his motivations for betraying the Alliance. Essentially, his parents got turned into pink goo by prototype nanomachines, so he's kind of anti-technology as a result. It's nice they bothered to humanize the guy, really.
Also in the package is this binoculars device, which I ascertained immediately had something to do with the Medical Officer's safe, as well as a sub-space transmitter and a little blue key.
The safe was actually a red herring. The only things in there was a weird headset, an ampule and some instructions about an experimental drone interface device. None of it seemed to have anything to do with the bomb though. I'll admit it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out where this blue key goes. Given Poole's propensity towards airship models, I guess it should've been more obvious.
The second model contained the bomb itself, here stopped for dramatic emphasis at close to 20 minutes. Hey, I wasn't going to wait around for it to say "007".
Yeah sure whatever lady computer, I'll just carry around a 1 kiloton yield explosive in my briefs. That'd make for one hell of a pick-up line.
So now that the second imminent disintegration threat of the day has been taken care of, it's time to look at this manual for the Hype/Telecon system I obviously stumbled upon far too early. I'm not a fan of this "the user goes insane and then dies" Known Shippable they've got listed here. That's frickin' Early Access for you.
Since I'll have to do it eventually, I go down to the Weapon Bays and ensure all the drones are coordinated with the Hype/Telecon system. I recognize the "inevitable heroic tragic death by experimental superhero drug" trope when I see it.
Excellent. I don't know why I didn't do this sooner.
Ah, right. That spacewalk I've been putting off.
Remember when I said how embarrassed I was about taking my sweet time finding that bomb? That's nothing on the half hour I spent wandering around on the ship looking for an oxygen tank. I even tried cutting a few things with this cutting torch, which has its own oxygen tank now that I look at it closely. Surely not...
What's this tiny thing going to be good for? Like five minutes? Like I need more things to be trepidatious about.
Well, here goes absolutely nothing. Literally.
Phew. So after we get the dish working, the oxygen tank decides it's had enough and goes out for good. The next part is navigating a route through a series of beacons to establish a link to Erebus base.
It's actually kind of neat. There's various nodes to select, each either takes you closer to the goal or further away. Some simply terminate. By using this starchart, you can see how much closer you're getting to the target star system.
Until finally, you reach the Erebus Colony and can send a message.
The Jeffrey Jones-esque Admiral Decker (actually avuncular character actor Henry Strozier, who was in Contact and has had multiple voice roles in Legend Entertainment games, including Lord Xar of Death Gate) gives us a direct order to pull out of the system and wait for back-up, but I'm too much of a big damn obstinate hero to go for it (and also it leads to an early game over anyway). He finally relents and gives us the codes to activate the Jericho's lander, as well as sending the computer more details about the mission. He also gives us the official breakdown of the Hype/Telecon drone interface system, in case we hadn't found it yet.

So now we've made up our mind: The mission must be completed! And we'll almost certainly be killing ourselves one way or another in the process! Stay tuned for additional parts to come.

Oh hey look, here's another one:

Part 5: Keeping Up With the Droneses

Now that I'm done swinging my giant balls around, I guess it's time to do that thing where I inject poison into myself so I can tell a bunch of robots how to fight, dang it. Admiral Decker gave us a pretty decent idea that there's more UN ships on its way, just in case the Dharma didn't succeed.
This is like the least wisest thing I've done so far. Day's still young though.
Ohhh shit it's kicking in.
So this is when the game reveals its hand: there's an entire hidden RTS mode. It's actually kind of neat, though I suck at it.
The Hype/Telecon system means I can control drones directly in real-time environments, whereas every other drone is beholden to its programming. I'm also able to think so quickly that I effectively slow down the passage of time, allowing me to make split decisions faster than the enemy drones can. It's simply a matter of telling each of my nine little buddies what to do.
Drones have three types: nimble fighter drones, strong but slow attack drones and sluggish bomber drones who are best used against capital ships. Once a drone has met with an enemy, both health bars steadily drop. I can actually tell a drone to escape the battle if their health drops to critical, at which point they go repair themselves back at the capital ship (for us, that's the Lexington).
There's other little details, like setting drones in formations that lets them gang up on smaller groups, and ensuring that a drone stays behind to protect the capital ship from ship-to-ship missiles, but it's fairly perfunctory stuff. It's still surprisingly deep for a point and click mini-game, and there's difficulty options if you just want to whizz past it (or let the computer play for you).
After the above eight training scenarios are completed, the actual UN reinforcements show up. Nice of them to wait until I figured this shit out. The actual skirmish is only about as tough as the training exercises, except for...
...the fact that you immediately have to fight another battle afterwards. The first encounter is against two destroyers, with about six drones apiece. This second fight, against a Helsinki-class cruiser, is a bit tougher. It has sixteen drones to our nine and is more powerful to boot. It's actually not too bad, despite the numbers, but the danger comes from losing too many drones in the first skirmish. They don't come back.
Eventually, though, we incinerate the Helsinki with a wave of bomber drones after all its fighter drones are taken care of. Take that, Finland!
This is my favorite thing about leaving combat: I always forget to unplug the headset from the tactical console, so I imagine I get three paces away before it just pops out.
Now that we're reasonably assured that no more ships will show up, I establish a link to the Jericho and use the codes Decker gave me to bring the lander across.
This means getting down to the shuttle bay to let the thing in.
Importantly, this means more looting! As well as this spool of wire and gas cartridge, we also snag a probe and a probe launcher (it's like Worf's big purple space bazooka from Star Trek: Insurrection, coincidentally enough) with which to launch said probe.
Also we get all the oxygen we could ever want. Hooray! I get them attached to my EVA suit and cutting torch pronto.
Before we leave for Persephone, using the autopilot's already laid course, we decide to get all morose about the gravity of the situation. So we're going down to some weird alien planet, upon which there'll be a race to see if we die from radiation poisoning, lack of food, oxygen deprivation or a painful death from all those toxic experimental brain-altering drugs we took. Look on the bright side: at least we don't have to keep wandering around corridors all day.
Ah, the old "taking away all the junk we don't need, leaving an arbitrary assortment of junk that we've somehow deduced as necessary" process. I love it when adventure games do this. So cathartic.

Next time: Aliens and shit! Finally!


Shovel Knight Impressions

Fecal-Lord: how's dat shovel?

Mento: I'm digging it so far

Fecal-Lord: pretty deep eh?

Mento: Decided to take a mid-game break. Don't want to beat it in one day, someone spade a lot of a money for it.

Mento: It's kind of easy so far, but I don't doubt it's getting harder. I was about to throw in the trowel on that Mole Knight stage.

Mento: I'll get the scoop on the later stages tomorrow, i think

Mento: Mote bought me it for some reason

Mento: So I'll be reviewing it at some point to thank him. This is only like my seventh 2014 game so far.

Mento: At least the top ten will be easy to write this year

Fecal-Lord: you must have some dirt on him

Mento: Oh, we're dredging up the puns again?

Mento: I'm going to have to burrow your wordplay when I start writing the review

Fecal-Lord: most definitely!

Fecal-Lord: people will appreciate the layers

Mento: I just hope Mote won't mined.

Fecal-Lord: on the hole he should be OK with it

Mento: I'll ask him about adding puns to the review, gouge his interest

Mento: I hope it doesn't bore him

Mento: I'm running out of these. I'm having trouble unearthing any more synonyms for digging

Mento: Not that I'm trying to sift the blame for all this

Fecal-Lord: it will pail in comparison to the Color a Dinosaur review

Fecal-Lord: but who cares what the readers fracking think

Mento: Nah, I'm out now. 'Soil I got

(Actual review coming soon.)

(Also, sorry.)


Mento Miscellany 01/07/2014

Hey guys and gals, welcome to a new Mento Miscellany: the only blog made of 100% reconstituted video game parts. Actually, it's what I put up when I have lots of little things to talk about instead of one big central theme and, man, has the past week given me plenty to discuss.

I guess the first port of call, before I start getting into all the fun stuff, is welcoming the new hires Dan Ryckert and Jason Oestreicher, the latter of whom I'm probably going to end up calling Joustin' Ostrichrider because I'm a child and this is what children do. There's been a small wave of disappointment accompanying the tsunami of elation that comes with hiring two guys who clearly "get" Giant Bomb, and both tides are understandable. Many of us put ourselves out there and threw our hats into the ring when that call for new blood went up on the Giant Bomb forums, and even those who didn't nominate themselves still had their own ideas for who Giant Bomb should hire that they were hoping to see come to fruition, but from the first moment I knew it was Dan -- which, to be clear, was pretty much the same time as the rest of you. They don't tell the mods shit, for the record -- I absolutely understood why. I've been following Dan's content over on GI for a long while, and he's one of those choices like Justin/Griffin McElroy or Danny O'Dwyer where they're practically Bomb Crew in all but name only.

I previously wrote something flippant here about how we could try a little harder to make ourselves GB caliber to the extent Dan is if we want to be considered for next time, but given the amount of heated discussion about the suitability and diversity of future applicants, it wasn't really helpful or necessary.

Video games!

Picking Up Steam, New GOGs in the Machine

It's preview season over on Mento's Blogs of Madness (we're not calling it that), because instead of playing games I spent all of the past week watching SGDQ (that would be Summer Games Done Quick, the big charity event put on annually by those obsessive kooks in the speedrunning community), and most of the first half of this week catching up on site content I missed. I don't really have much to say about SGDQ itself, other than I'm super proud that we banded together as a community to give Jeff Gerstmann a hard time in the name of charity and Yoshis everywhere. Truly, our derision knows no borders either. There were some great speedruns, and I'd recommend everyone check out our timestamp-filled thread for a glance into the glitch exploit insanity that goes on every year. I'd recommend the amusing, RNG-forsaken Super Ghouls and Ghosts run to start you off. Educate yourself on Metal Wolf Chaos, Treasure Master, Goemon 64, whatever the fuck that Goosebumps game was and Ninja Baseball Bat Man too while you're at it.

Anyway, in lieu of any actual games I did play that I can talk about, here's a list of what I found myself owning once the GOG and Steam sales had concluded. There were a lot of magnanimous gifts this year, from GOG and some pals of mine both, so I hope to at least do something with those to demonstrate my gratitude. (If any of you want to send me dumb shit to cover, by all means do so. It's not like I have any pride, after all.)

  • Shovel Knight: The gem of the Steam haul, generously provided by a pal of mine. I'll be sure to review it later this week, though that means playing through it first. The things I must suffer through... (I'm pretty stoked about this one, no joke. Thanks @omghisam!)
  • Harvester: This is more the sort of thing I'm usually gifted. Harvester's an extremely odd FMV adventure game that appeared during an FMVinny segment some months back. I know very little about it and I intend to keep that way until I've played it in some manner of Brief Jaunt later this Summer. I'm going to have to figure out how this GifCam program works, aren't I?
  • Long Live the Queen: Both Harvester and Long Live the Queen were bequeathed to me by longtime buddy (and the guy who introduced me to Giant Bomb, no less) @teflonbilly, so my thanks to that guy too. From what I can tell this is a Princess Maker satire where the young heroine you're creepily grooming keeps getting bumped off by scheming nobles the moment your back is turned. I look forward to spending a few months raising a little princess into a proper lady with a poison dart in her neck.
  • BattleBlock Theater: I bought this one. It's been a long time since I was a regular member of the Newgrounds community (jeez, it's coming up on 15 years since I joined that site), but I still like The Behemoth's goofy sense of humor and the comic book presentations in their games, if not generally the gameplay itself. BattleBlock seems to be all about the 2D platforming and collectibles though, and I don't see how anyone could mess that up too much. (It's super nuts that NG regular Stamper's the one narrating this thing. If you've ever seen the Street Fighter 2 animation he did, it's a wonder he's allowed in polite society.)
  • Jagged Alliance 2 Gold: One of those games regularly lauded as a leader of turn-based strategy RPGs for the PC. I'm looking forward to grabbing some mods and seeing what kind of mercenary monkeyshines I can get up to.
  • SteamWorld Dig: I've played my fair share of digging simulators. Not just the big resource gathering games like Terraria, but brief freeware fare like Utopian Miner and Dig-N-Rig where the order of the day is to mine until you hit a limit, turn the ore into gold, turn the gold into upgrades and then dig even further. I'm excited to play a much more polished version of that dynamic.
  • EYE: Divine Cybermancy: It was less than a pound sterling and seems too weird to ignore forever. I felt that way about Cargo!: The Quest for Gravity too though, and we know how that turned out. Actually, I'm not sure how that turned out either. I don't think these games are meant to "turn out" in any way that you're supposed to be able to anticipate.
  • Realms of Arkania Bundle: Technically not part of the sale haul, since I bought this in a BundleStars bundle that happened concurrently, but I might as well add these old-ass Amiga RPGs and the slightly more recent updated version of the first game to the pile of stuff I'll probably end up ignoring forever. Here's to wise purchases, everyone.

In fact, speaking of which, here's the GOG harvest for this year's Summer sale:

  • Tex Murphy Collection: So after the rousing success that was my Legend Entertainment round-up (scroll down to the bottom for another inconsequential announcement!), I decided to think ahead for a change and buy this collection of early CD-ROM sci-fi detective adventures for next E3. Though I've always maintained a vague peripheral acknowledgement that the Tex Murphy games exist, it wasn't until recently when the franchise belatedly stepped under into the noirishly-framed streetlight with the inexplicable sequel Tesla Effect that it's firmly on my radar again. I'm planning on doing a lot more adventure game stuff over the next year, since it's still a genre a tired old man like myself can get into and create fun coverage of easily enough. Plus, the funny ones kinda do my job for me.
  • I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: Talking of laugh-a-minute point and click games, I also picked up this adventure game adaptation of Harlan Ellison's grim post-apocalyptic novella which features an AI so resentful he makes GlaDOS look like BonziBuddy. Wait, I guess that little purple ape was a vindictive little prick too. Bad analogy.
  • Master of Magic: Putting my money where my mouth is after the May Madness "Master (of Magic) Blaster" mini-series, after which I concluded that nothing has to yet to take MoM's throne. I've owned a functional CD copy of the game for decades, but having one that runs instanteously without having to recall a bunch of DOSBox codes was worth double-dipping. Fuck it, Master of Magic is worth double-dipping full stop. Triple-dipping, even. Everyone go buy five copies, and we might resurrect Simtex yet.
  • Magrunner: Dark Pulse: One of a handful of free games that GOG gave away. I suspect most people have a copy of this game now. Seemed kind of like a cool first-person physics puzzle game from what I saw of it during Giant Bomb's coverage, but of course I'm more curious about the Lovecraftian overtones the late-game is purported to exhibit.
  • Omerta: City of Gangsters: Ditto as above. I'm less enthused about actually playing this one, being fairly apathetic towards sim games and Prohibition period gangster business alike. I won't dismiss it entirely out of hand though, especially since it was free.
  • Still Life 2: Another freebie. Might just wait to pick up the first in some bundle down the line, despite it looking like a procedural police drama where there presumably isn't some big overarching plot to worry about. Better to be safe than sorry though. I've got so many adventure games to sift through at this point that I can afford to put this off for... I dunno, like a decade?

Super Shenanigans and Nintendo Nincompoopery

So when I'm not spending money on games I fully intend to maybe, perhaps play at some point before the last protons in the universe burn out, I'm usually busy at work on our wiki. I've taken on a rather burdensome albatross with this Super Nintendo project, one originally conceived by the more senior wiki editor @starfoxa and kindly supported by even the even more senior editor @bobafettjm in his weekly "Wiki Update" series (go here and peruse his last few entries -- it's an interesting glimpse into what we editor folk get up to. If you happen to do a lot of wiki editing yourself, by all means elaborate on it in the most recent update's comments). I'm slowly working my way through a chronological list of releases for Nintendo's most beloved platform (well, for a very specific age group at least), ensuring each has the requisite screenshots, releases, overview text and header image for their wiki pages, and discovering all sorts of bizarre Super Famicom exclusive oddities among the crappy licenses and sports games.

I'm not sure if this is something I intend to turn into a regular feature down the road, but I want to go into a little detail on each game within a month to share what I've found. It's sort of like a little Super Chrontendo feature, though without Doc Sparkle's dulcet tones and clever editing. I'm working on 1993 right now, so I'll show you the relatively quiet month of January of that year and see what people think. If there's sufficient interest, I'll hop back to 1990 and start with the launch of the Super Famicom in Japan. I doubt I'll get into as much historical detail as Doc Sparkle's Chrontendo or Jeremy Parish's (currently of USGamer) Game Boy World series, but there's still a lot to be gleaned from observing a console's release history alone. Trends and whatnot.

~January 1993~

(NB: Each month begins with what I call the "American block"; a group of games that don't have a specific release date because game releases in the US either didn't keep track of that information (unlike Japan) or that the US is simply so large that any new game would be released in stores across the continent gradually, thus lacking any singular release day. Likewise, release dates in Europe were even less specific, with all the various languages and import tax laws of numerous countries to consider. The "Japan block" follows thereafter.)

  • California Games II (January 1993): Epyx's ubiquitous series of Cali-based sports-related mini-games, perhaps best known for having completely indecipherable controls, found their way onto the Super Nintendo in short order. This is the sequel, which introduced events like hang-gliding and jetskis with which to endlessly injure your surfer dudes and babes in some kind of petty rebellion against their youthful good looks and gorgeous surroundings. I mean, uh, because no-one could figure out which buttons to press to stop them falling over. That was the excuse we all went with in the end, right? (You think I'm kidding, but I remember the DOS version being pretty brutal with the violent crashes and depictions of death. Jocular YouTube personality JonTron recently featured the series on his show, if you need further proof.)
  • The Hunt for Red October (January 1993): They made a scrolling shoot 'em up based on the taut political 1990 movie based on a Clancy novel, to no-one's surprise. As if to fully honor the in-depth pointed commentary on the Cold War and futility of such a vindictive conflict, there's a bonus mode where you can shoot battleships with the Super Nintendo's brightly-colored plastic bazooka the Super Scope while listening to Sean Connery intone something momentous in that Siberian-by-way-of-Edinburgh accent.
  • Elfaria (01/03/93): We'll be seeing a lot of JRPGs as this feature goes forward, as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy had already turned the genre into a powerhouse at this point in time. Though we in the West only saw a handful of official releases due to the expense of converting a large amount of story and menu text into English, there are a lot of fan translators like Aeon Genesis busy at work ensuring that we can all enjoy the full SNES library someday. Well, besides for all the aforementioned crappy license games. Oh, and the Mahjong and Shogi and Go games too, probably don't need so many of those. Elfaria is one of those games that simplified the whole turn-based JRPG format in order to appeal to a wider audience of younger and less experienced players, similarly to Mystic Quest. The game's graphics, created by manga artist Susumu Matsushita, have a unique cartoonish countenance to them and sort of gives the game's cutscenes a timeless Disney/Bluth quality. I know I appreciate Elfaria's art direction over the usual Akira Toriyama foreheads, who along with Final Fantasy's Yoshitaka Amano really implanted this idea in a lot of developers' minds that every successful JRPG should have a prominent and distinctive manga artist leading its art design.
  • Alien vs. Predator (01/08/93): Before we ever saw all those terrible AvP movies, the whole notion of pitting Ridley Scott's predatory alien against John McTiernan's extraterrestrial predator had already been explored in a comic book series from Dark Horse Comics created shortly after the two franchises were introduced by their respective inaugural movies. This SNES brawler, which isn't to be confused with the much more palatable AvP Arcade brawler from Capcom, was actually the first video game to feature this interplanetary crossover grudge match. I believe it was also the first game to allow the player to play as the Predator, too.
  • Burai: Hachigyoku no Yuushi Densetsu (01/14/93): Often I'll come across a game with so little information available for it that there's a temptation to just wing it. Fortunately, that temptation passes and I simply stick with what little I have. Burai, not to be confused with Burai Fighter for the NES (probably not much chance of that, though. Right?), is from what I can tell an adaption of a RPG made for CD-based systems like the Sega CD and PC Engine-CD. The header image in this case is a place-holder, since I'm sure the CD versions of the game -- which included anime cutscenes -- have far better material for a good background image. I'm just focused on the SNES right now, though.
  • Europa Sensen / Operation Europe: Path to Victory 1939-1945 (01/16/93): There were a number of WW2 strategy simulation games for the SNES, and many never made the leap across simply because they focused exclusively on the Axis side. Understandable, given that was the side Japan itself was on during the conflict, but hardly marketable to overseas territories who were either Allies all the way or just kind of want to forget the whole sorry affair ever happened. Operation Europe was one of the few that allowed you to play as Japan's then-enemies, controlling Allied forces as they wage war across the European theater. This game is particularly dense with the strategy sim stuff, even taking into account troop deployment and logistics. Fun for wargaming nerds, but the sort of in-depth computer game the SNES wasn't really the ideal platform for.
  • Dragon's Earth (01/22/93): Dragon's Earth is weird. From what little I played for it to gather screenshots, it's like a fantasy take on Bullfrog's Populous games. There's villages of people to co-ordinate, but the chief goal is to use them to search out artifacts necessary to take down surrounding evil forces, including one or more particularly persistent dragons who won't let you take too many breathers. There's a few shades of ActRaiser about that premise too. Human Entertainment were fond of taking chances back then, creating a lot of the Super Nintendo's more memorable experiments like SOS, The Firemen, Clock Tower and Fire Pro Wrestling (which did pretty well for them in the end).
  • Makeruna! Makendou / Kendo Rage (01/22/93): My heart goes out to the poor localization team who had to find a way to "American up" a video game where a highschool girl who can transform into a superhero has to use her katana to navigate through hordes of supernatural Japanese creatures to get to school on time. With the exception of a few unnecessary name changes, they sort of left the plot entirely intact, which was considerate of them. But for a very strict time limit, Kendo Rage is a fairly standard side-scrolling action platformer game, not a million miles away from other prominent games featuring ninjas and katanas. But, you know, with a highschool girl wearing a knock-off Sailor Moon costume.
  • Might and Magic: Book II (01/22/93): Though we think of JRPGs as being entirely separate from western CRPGs, they share the same origins. One of those origins would be Wizardry, and to a lesser extent the stylistically similar Might and Magic games. An obscure developer/publisher combo tried adapting this 1988 DOS sequel into a SNES game, with mixed results, in order to cash in on brand recognition. There are a few classic western RPGs that saw similar adaptations, quite a few of which were never released outside of Japan, which strikes me as a little odd.
  • Populous II: Trials of the Olympian Gods (01/22/93): Another iconic PC game originally from a western developer (that would be Bullfrog, who I mentioned just above), Populous II didn't make as huge a splash when it came out due to it being largely the same as the previous game, only with more Ancient Greek business. Oddly enough, the original home computer game featured an expansion pack that featured Japanese mythology instead of Greek. I don't think that stuff made it into this version, which was adapted by a Japanese developer, but I'd have to get a lot deeper into it to know for sure.
  • Ushio To Tora (01/25/93): "Ushio and Tiger". Apparently this is based on a manga about yokai (Japanese spirit creatures, and frequent enemies in any given Japanese game), and specifically the begrudging companionship between a yokai hunter and a particularly powerful yokai he's forced to ally with. To make things confusing, this game was released the same year as a completely different NES adaptation published by the same developers. This one's more of a boss rush-oriented action game, similar to GeGeGe no Kitarou: Fukkatsu! Tenma Daiou (which is also based on a manga about yokai).
  • Namco Open (01/29/93): The SNES had an ungodly amount of golf games. At least the rules of golf are easy enough to pick up, but many of these games are far more in-depth on technical details than others, and you end up spending a dozen shots trying to sink the ball if you're wading into one of the less beginner-friendly ones. Namco Open sits somewhere in the middle as far as complexity goes, but it doesn't seem like a particularly good golf game anyway. That would be because Namco didn't actually make it; rather, they gave those duties to notorious devs-for-hire TOSE, who would frequently put out rushed, mediocre products for whoever was dumb enough to hire them on the cheap.
  • Nobunaga Kouki (01/29/93): January 1993 really is a snapshot of where the SNES was at during this stage of its life. There were a handful of very successful, very influential games around this time, and Koei's Nobunaga's Ambition series was one of them. Part of an endless parade of imitators, Nobunaga Kouki (Kouki means "chronicles", it's not like Yoshi's Cookie or anything) builds on Koei's template to create yet another strategy war sim set during Japan's Sengoku era.
  • Super Bikkuriman (01/29/93): Bikkuriman is one of those especially Japanese phenomenons, a collectible superhero sticker series borne from capsule machines and candy stores. Its success led to various video game adaptations, including separate PC Engine launch games for both its Hu-Card and CD incarnations. This Super Famicom adaptation is actually a fighting game, though like many licensed fighter games it was a far cry from your Street Fighter IIs and Mortal Kombats. Closer to that Ranma 1/2 game, if anything.
  • Super Soukoban (01/29/93): Soukoban, or Sokoban, or Warehouse Worker, goes under many names in the west and is perhaps the most prominent type of puzzle game that's usually found on Game Boy after Tetris, Pipe Dream and those Looney Toon games where you walk out in and out of doors all day. I'm talking about games like Boxxle, where the goal is to push crates around mazes into the right positions without screwing up and getting them trapped somewhere. It's so ubiquitous it appears as a mini-game in Tales RPGs, among others. This one is a particularly harsh variant, because you're given a hard limit on how many times you're allowed to push each box.
  • World Class Rugby (01/29/93): The SNES had rugby games, who knew? I didn't know it had proponents in Japan, but this sports simulator -- based on a European computer game -- was licensed and produced by publishers in Japan before it eventually saw its way back to Europe again. Rugby is, as we all know, American Football for non-wusses, though despite being so brutal its UK teams often have the most well-educated players of any national sport. It's considered very upper class, for whatever reason. I figure that factoid's more interesting than anything I can say about this SNES rugby game, which is pretty much limited to "it's a SNES rugby game".

That's all the releases for January of 1993 and believe me when I tell you that, despite all appearances, this could be considered a very slow month for the SNES during these peak years. If anyone's interested in hearing more little blurbs and asides about the SNES and its immense library of mostly drivel, feel free to leave some feedback. I grow less fond of my beloved childhood console by the second.

Lingering Legends

I haven't forgotten about the Legend Entertainment series I put on during E3. As well as the four games I've already covered somewhat, there's also three others:

  1. Companions of Xanth (1993): I grew up with the Xanth series, but it wasn't until I thumbed through the first book again a few years back that I realized just how outrageously misogynist they are. Actually, I think I had an inkling back then, even though at the time women were these scary people who liked things I didn't like and couldn't possibly be reasoned with. Fortunately, I (more or less) outgrew that sort of thinking, and Xanth's only lasting influence on me has been my proclivity towards constant, awful puns. This game leans hard on the books' sense of wordplay, and of all the novels to be featured in a Legend game this one has the most influence from the author whose works are drawn from. One of the offical Xanth books was actually written in tandem with this game, telling the same story with a slightly different outcome.
  2. Shannara (1995): Terry Brooks's Shannara series is a lot more traditional fantasy than most of what Legend adapted. The game follows suit, lacking anything too interesting to write about besides the usual elves and wizards, albeit elves and wizards that live on a post-apocalyptic Earth. It's still a well regarded series with a lot of world-building and depth though, and one that's about to receive an imminent TV adaptation if the internet's anything to go by (and when has it ever been?).
  3. John Saul's Blackstone Chronicles (1998): This is one I really wanted to get up and running, seeing as its based on a horror series with presumably lots of goofy Phantasmagoria-esque effects and jump scares. It's a bit too recent to emulate effectively though, not the sort of thing you can easily get working on DOSBox for a bit of LP action. It's the last adventure game Legend Entertainment ever produced, before they were repurposed by GT Interactive and Atari into creating Unreal games and other such uninteresting material.

I'm going to put this out to you guys: Which of the seven Legend Entertainment games -- of the four I've already started and the three I've yet to check out -- should I cover in more detail? I'm definitely eager to keep delving into these games. In the case of a split vote or, more likely, no votes whatsoever, I believe I'm going to persist with Callahan's Crosstime Saloon and deluge the site with even more puns than usual. Consider it Mentozuma's Revenge for ignoring my request. I'd also like to see what Mission Critical's end-game is like, because I've heard it gets weirder and more Michael Dorn-y the further you get in.

If you're interested in seeing more of these games then by all means, just like the SNES feature above, please tell me so. Otherwise I'll just keep on producing weird new content that'll appeal to you fine folks as best as I'm able. Toodles!


The Comic Commish: The Previous Generation (Jan-Jun 2011)

Welcome everyone to the newest Comic Commish, my monthly thank you to user @omghisam who was kind enough to pay for my Gold membership. I alluded to this briefly last time, but we're now entering the period of time when I began blogging on Giant Bomb on a regular weekly basis, and had gotten into the habit of illustrating my adventures with any games I happened to be playing during those seven day periods. These days I generally reserve my MS Paint shenanigans to this monthly series, but I must've made hundreds back in 2011 and 2012. As a result, we're going to start seeing a lot more games in the "Revisited" section as we count down the last four episodes of this feature. Like a lot more. I might even have to start curating it, heaven forfend.

June's Comic Commish covers the first half of 2011. The most significant video game event of this period is the launch of the Nintendo 3DS in February (Japan) and March (Europe and US). It had a rough start, but like its predecessor the DS it managed to rise above its gimmick and course-correct itself quickly enough, and can currently boast the most diverse and interesting library of exclusives of any current gen console. The considerable competition from the PlayStation Vita and iOS/Android mobile devices continues to keep it on its toes.

You're About to Read Some Guy's Opinions on Twenty Video Games. Congratulations, in a Way.

Radiant Historia (Atlus, DS, February '11)

It took a while before I managed to convince myself to go through the trouble of importing Atlus's Radiant Historia from the States last year, and I'm very glad I did. Everything about this game is top-notch: the grid-based tactical combat system; the time-looping non-linear story; the various catastrophic dead-ends written to accommodate poor decisions; the morally-conflicted protagonist, Stocke; the violin-heavy soundtrack from Yoko Shimomura; a variable level of challenge that is ready to punish you should you ever let your guard down (these are the same folk behind SMT: Nocturne, after all) and an overall presentation that, despite concerning the fate of the entire world, seems more intimate and more invested in its cast. Many of the side-line plots concern secondary characters, with false endings that range from settling down with one party member to being murdered by another after you coldly betray their trust. The way some of these bad endings take place years later, though can still be fixed through Stocke's time-travelling gift, means the writers can have fun going off on all sorts of tangents. People often use "Choose Your Own Adventure book" derisively when discussing games full of potentially deadly dilemmas, but the writing and tone of Radiant Historia really makes it worth exploring the repercussions of every clearly calamitous decision.

The game's not perfect, of course. There's far too much repetition early on, as you'll grow less and less fond of having to once again pass through the Gran Plains region that separates the main city Alistel from the rest of the world, and several of the more interesting characters are underutilized because they simply don't appear until much later into the game, or are unavailable on one of the two core story branches. That there is only one significant split in the story is a little disappointing too, but then the sort of migraine-inducing timeline flowchart that would result from multiple decisions might be a little too much to navigate otherwise. It's a game that uses its combat, characters and central time-travelling gimmick very cleverly and, for as much I love JRPGs, clever isn't often a trait one can sincerely attribute to them.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (Falcom, PSP, March '11)

I'm actually still in the process of playing Trails in the Sky, so its inclusion here may be a bit premature. The Legend of Heroes series has an interesting history: the first five games were created for NEC PC platforms, with the first two for the PC-8801 and the subsequent three for the PC-9801. While it doesn't quite line up precisely, the PC-8801 could be considered early 8-bit DOS (maybe throw in the Commodore 64) while the many upgrades of the PC-9801 carried it from a 16-bit PC to a fully CD-ROM compatible Windows 95-tier system -- so, say, starting with the Atari ST and Amiga or 16-bit consoles like the SNES and Genesis and going all the way up to Saturn and PlayStation and beyond. For a bit more detail, since I've digressed enough already, check out Hardcore Gaming 101's enlightening breakdown on Japanese home computers.

The purpose of this little history lesson is to set up the fact that The Legends of Heroes is a very traditional turn-based JRPG series, one that has persisted to this day because Falcom is the sort of company that respects and caters to its fanbase's old-school wishes, and will presumably continue to do so. Compare this with Square-Enix, who have only just realised that their core appeal lies the type of game that might be considered "Classic Square", like Bravely Default, and have pledged to create more games with that sensibility moving forward. Trails in the Sky, the sixth core Legend of Heroes game, evolves the formula a little, but is content to simply be a well-written RPG with a bit of a tactical streak that otherwise does very little to divert from a format established in the 8-bit/16-bit heyday. It's a game for people who enjoy the older style of JRPG, without feeling too backwards or too basic in the process.

One welcome addition to Trails in the Sky has been the inclusion of the Bracer Guild. Though from all appearances a sidequest distribution service, there's some degree of varied nuance in the tasks it requests of players, and there's a lot of benefits to be had from running around and solving everyone's troubles. What's also remarkable, and may well end up quashing any chance of the third chapter being localized, is the sheer amount of text in the game. Characters converse deeply and often, many minor characters will change their dialogue after each major story event, and for a game that's simply the first part of a trilogy that makes up Legend of Heroes VI as a whole, there's quite a bit of meaty gameplay to get through. This first chapter also has the uneviable job of setting everything up, from the complex central relationship between optimistic ditz Estelle Bright and her mysterious stepbrother Joshua, to the mythology and geography (both political and literal) of the Liberl Kingdom, its regions and its antagonistic neighbors. A game that plays (and looks) like a PS1 game released in 2011 might sound like a hard sell, but there's a lot to be said for focusing on what matters in the genre you're representing, forsaking expensive graphics and elaborate gimmicks in the process.

But hey, here's that disclaimer again: I've still got a ways to go before I'm done with this one. It might get a whole lot better or a whole lot worse, but give or take a few big twists in the story I don't suspect that I'll walk away feeling much different about it.

Portal 2 (Valve, PC/360/PS3, April '11)

Valve had their work cut out for them in following 2007's surprise hit Portal with a sequel that could be bigger and better, and it was fair to be skeptical about just how well the original's game sparse few hours of near-perfect gameplay could be stretched out to fill a much longer game without incurring diminishing returns or repetitious puzzle set-ups. Also problematic was taking the neatly tied-up arc between the calmly menacing GlaDOS and the mute and resourceful Chell and untying it for a sake of a much longer narrative that goes into far more detail about their backstories and that of the mysterious Aperture Science facility.

While I won't say that it handled every new element perfectly, Portal 2 is everything one could feasibly expect from a good Portal sequel. It does expand on the world's history in a meaningful and intriguing way. It is enhanced by the inclusion of new characters like the scatter-brained Wheatley and the absurdly prideful and irrational Aperture CEO Cave Johnson. It does create several new gameplay features congruous to the sort of mad science Aperture might have otherwise concocted alongside their Handheld Portal Device, like the momentum- and jump-boosting paints. It absolutely creates a terrifying new nemesis in the leopard print Animal King. Though the fears many of us had about the game's pacing issues and reiterative puzzles were substantiated to an extent, the game does succeed more often than it fails.


Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (Capcom, DS, January '11)

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is (still) the newest IP from Shu Takumi, creator of the Ace Attorney games, and like those games Ghost Trick balances the levity of life with the morbidity of murder with a surprising amount of deftness. The pointy-haired protagonist Sissel finds himself deceased after the game's opening, and does everything he can to help others avoid a similar fate. Well, more like they die anyway and he helps them reverse it, via the time-travelling powers all ghosts have. It's a very convoluted set-up (that does eventually get explained, somewhat), and opens the way for some ingenious poltergeist possession puzzles that are contingent on some precise timing, as the player watches and plays back a brief scene again and again in order to find a way to redirect the outcome, diverting its usually fatal conclusion towards a more palatable outcome.

Takumi may have created a new world with new rules, but he still brings over a lot of his old habits: completely bizarre tertiary characters; a knack for goofy running gags; some colorful cartoony visuals with some truly outstanding rotoscoped animations; and the occasional mood shift towards the touching and melodramatic. Sometimes I wonder if the best Japanese games of the last decade haven't all been the result of a handful of auteurs like Takumi (or Shigeru Miyamoto, or Koji Igarashi, or Keiji Inafune, or Hideki Kamiya, or Keita Takahashi, or Shinji Mikami...), and whether or not I actually have a problem with that.

You Don't Know Jack (Jellyvision, MUL, February '11) (That would be the head of Lollipop Chainsaw's Nick, incidentally)

I must admit that I'd only known about Jellyvision's irreverent pop culture quiz game You Don't Know Jack tangentially for many years, due to not being a big PC gamer in the CD-ROM era nor having easy access to a predominantly American institution. Giant Bomb, has it has done for many fantastic games, introduced me to its madcap charms with their hilarious Quick Look of this 2011 reboot. Since then, I've been trying to play it in any legal means that I can, whether it's the truncated Facebook version or the recently released 90s compilation on Steam.

There's not a whole lot to say about the mechanics of You Don't Know Jack beyond "you answer trivia questions and try to outscore your opponents", insomuch as most of the actually remarkable stuff can only be sufficiently conveyed by playing it firsthand. Like how many general knowledge questions are answered in the most digressive roundabout way possible, or the running gag of the producer starting each "TV show" with a string of malapropisms, or host Cookie Masterson's vaguely sociopathic anecdotes, or the many strange and wonderfully named bonus rounds with their own special rules. The truth is, I've seen about as much of the core game as anyone else who has watched that Quick Look (the 2011 game is still not available here, though many of its questions ended up in the Facebook game), but can still heartily recommend it. Given how often Giant Bomb has championed it themselves, I feel like I'm probably preaching to the choir here anyway.

De Blob 2 (Blue Tongue Entertainment, 360/PS3/WII, 2/11)

It's an odd coincidence, but as soon as the Splatoon trailer began during E3's Nintendo conference (sorry, "Digital Event") I and a great many of my fellow users in the Giant Bomb chat (and, if I recall, at least one of the Bomb Crew commentating over the event) assumed it was some sort of continuation of the De Blob series. A game that is unashamedly about having fun in a brightly colored world in lieu of anything particularly cinematic or narratively complex, De Blob 2 has your titular amorphous entity coloring himself different hues and spreading those pigmentation to the local environment in order to thwart a cabal of monochromatic spoilsports. It was vaguely open-world but not really, vaguely a platformer and a shooter but not a particularly involved variant of either. It was accessible, it was visually striking and it was fun, and that's all it really intended to be. Given the amount of positive feedback I've seen Nintendo receive from their E3 showing filled with likewise colorful and fun games, it's a fairly compelling case for a developer to make.

Gray Matter (Wizarbox/Spiders, PC/360, February '11)

Jane Jensen became the next important female figure in adventure gaming after pioneer Roberta Williams with her Gabriel Knight series, about a lazy and irritable writer who frequently found himself embroiled in supernatural cases in part due to him being the latest in a long line of "schattenjagers"; Shadow Hunters, those that pursue and defeat the mythical creatures of the night. Gray Matter is her long overdue return to adventure games (as a writer, anyway, as she's worked on several interstitial games as a designer and director) after the third Gabriel Knight, Blood of the Sacred Blood of the Damned, crashed and burned due to being mired in the worst excesses of the FMV generation of graphic adventure games. Instead of fancy effects or digitized actors, Gray Matter goes back to 3D models and a relatively down-to-earth tale about fledgling magician Samantha Everett and her new employer Dr David Styles, a brilliant and reclusive neurobiologist who became obsessed with the afterlife after his beloved wife passed away.

Set in the picturesque university town of Oxford, England, the game splits its time between Samantha and David, exploring their very different backstories and present motivations, occasionally touching on their initially terse but burgeoning mentor/pupil relationship that progresses as the game's story unfolds. Many of Samantha's missions involve discovering a means to join a very exclusive circle of local magicians, while David's missions are more concerned with his research pertaining to various myths about ghosts and "clinging on" in an attempt to contact wayward spirits via their tenuous connections to the physical world. Like many adventure games, the key is in the quality of the writing and the puzzles, and Gray Matter doesn't disappoint in either regard. At the same time it can be a little too slow-paced and dour for its own good.

Outland (Housemarque, XBL/PSN, April '11)

Outland takes a polarity-switching gimmick usually reserved for shooters like Silhouette Mirage and Ikaruga and uses it to frame its vaguely SpaceWhipper platformer. As if to homage its spiritual forebear, many of the enemies in the game attack with bullet hell style waves of projectiles, which the player has to either avoid or switch polarities in order to render them inert. Switching polarities also creates new paths while removing old ones, forging a parallel with Metroid Prime 2's light and dark worlds (or Guacamelee's land of the living/land of the dead, another Indie SpaceWhipper which perhaps owes quite a bit to Outland). Outland's a relatively uncomplicated SpaceWhipper beyond the palette switching, and looks incredible due to its stark use of bold color and dark shades.

Hunted: The Demon's Forge (InXile Entertainment, PC/360/PS3, May '11)

I created a comic for Hunted: The Demon's Forge, but I'm not entirely sure I can recommend it. This is what I meant by "curating the Revisited section" at the offset. Hunted does its best to convert the Gears of War system of cover and arenas to a fantasy world of elves and orcs, creating little set-piece battles in each new area between the two squabbling protagonists and a veritable horde of green-skinned monsters, but that only means it falls into the same traps of repetition and overwrought, action movie silliness. Replacing guns with bows and lancers with swords isn't sufficient, and the game suffers from lacking GoW's budget (far less spectacle, for one thing). You might presuppose that there is no clever or unique means to recreate Gears of War in a fantasy universe, at least in a way that doesn't just feel like a fantasy paint job, but The Last Story proved it could be done (quiet, VGK). It just required a bit more imagination than this, and possibly fewer tribal tattoos and nu-metal tracks.

The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings (CD Projekt RED, PC/360, May '11)

I'm eagerly anticipating the next Witcher game, due to be released early next year, and it's largely due to its immediate predecessor The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings. Fantasy universes are hard to do right these days, because the temptation is to lean hard into Tolkien territory like so many games before and draw from the strength of Tolkien's worldbuilding by retaining almost all the same elements and simply switching the names of locations around to avoid the lawyers. To create a believable and entirely disparate fantasy universe takes a considerable amount of effort and skill, and it's to the Witcher's benefit that it has a fairly well-regarded series of novels to draw its characters and world from. The writing in the Witcher games is sharp, its combat is layered and asks that the player use every trick in the book to succeed (like a late-game Baldur's Gate 2 fight, or absolutely any fight in Troika's Temple of Elemental Evil), its scenarios can be absurdly grim at times and it's all Geralt and Dandelion can do but to quip about how messed up everything is. Witcher 2 in particular had some strong graphical chops and a lot of free open-world shenanigans, and it looks like the sequel will wisely double down on both of those aspects.

Puzzle Agent 2 (Telltale Games, PC, 6/11)

Puzzle Agent 2 follows the further adventures of Nelson Tethers where the previous left off, revisiting the adorable little factory town of Scoggins, MN in an overarching plot that borrows elements of Fargo, Twin Peaks and the Twilight Zone to spin a bizarre narrative about mysterious gnome-like creatures that is held together by a series of Layton-esque brainteasers. The puzzles are fun enough, but the draw is Graham Annable's world of dubious characters, frequently switching from the muted greys and browns of a strait-laced FBI agent on a mission concerning an eraser production facility in a sleepy little burg in the mountains, to the brightly-colored and maniacally animated absurd flights of fancy that the put-upon Tethers finds himself involved in. The sequel does sort of require that the player first acquaint themselves with the original game, as much of its continuing story is dependent on previous knowledge, but it's still every bit as fun (and brief, alas).

Red Faction: Armageddon (Volition Inc., PC/360/PS3, 6/11)

Like Hunted: Demon's Forge, Red Faction: Armageddon isn't a game I'm quick to recommend to anyone. It took the best feature of the open-world Red Faction: Guerrilla and transplanted it into a generic third-person sci-fi shooter complete with hordes of pointy aliens to shoot down and a very linear path to follow. The new ability to fix broken areas is less motivated by throwing something new into the mix than it is a means to undo the player's path of destruction should it happen to include taking out the one path needed to get to the next area. It does see a few imaginative uses, such as fixing bridges during a protracted sequence where the player escorts some soldiers and their trucks, but most of the time it's only really used to fix the destructible steel walkway you just tossed an alien into so you can walk over it to where the arrow wants you to go next. Besides the atrocious writing, it's an all-right TPS if you're into those. Just a significant bummer after the excellent game that was Red Faction: Guerrilla.

The Others!

  • Dead Space 2 (Visceral, MUL, January '11): I remember being quite harsh on what I perceived was the downward trajectory that Dead Space 2 was taking the franchise towards when I initially blogged about it, but I suppose I was still way wide of the marker given the vitriol surrounding Dead Space 3. Regardless of any early warning signs, Dead Space 2 is a fantastic game that takes the Alien/Aliens sequel route of choosing to emphasize gory action over lonely, claustrophobic scares, but still stands on its own as an equally quality product via a completely different set of criteria. Well, maybe the gap isn't so pronounced in Dead Space's case, because the actual gameplay is fairly identical save for a few welcome improvements and tweaks. Some might say that Dead Space 2 is where the series lost its way, with the narrative focusing too much on including all the extracurricular animated movies and light gun games leading to that lackluster sequel. Others might say it's the series peak, with everything only going downhill afterwards. All I can say with any certainty is that I never want to go through that eye surgery sequence ever again.
  • Venetica (Deck13 Interactive, PC/360/PS3, January '11): I believe I've talked about the phenomenon of "European jank" before now; that intrinsic shoddy quality that seems to embody most games made in mainland Europe (France excepted, since they have a better game industry than even the UK does) yet somehow does nothing to diminish their charm and, frequently, the breath of fresh air of creativity that tends to follow them. Metro 2033, STALKER, Mount and Blade, Serious Sam, Hard Reset, EYE: Divine Cybermancy and way more Steam titles than I can even recall have all felt like unpolished, vaguely broken computer games that nonetheless carry the torch for the weird, the unmarketable and the archaic. Venetica's an CRPG in this style, with Kingdoms of Amalur action combat and a completely nuts story about the mortal daughter of Death going on a rampage to avenge her fallen beau across a fictionalized Venice. It has Gothic's fingerprints all over it, but it's an interesting if not always particularly well-made slice of European oddness.
  • Avadon: The Black Fortress (Spiderweb Software, PC, February '11): That isn't to say that the Americans can't produce RPGs that felt like they ought to have been made two decades ago either, which is probably the least kind way to put that Avadon, like much of Spiderweb's output, is a very deliberate throwback to the tactical RPGs of the early home computer age. For those of us who grew up with Ultima or the Gold Box or, heck, Wizardry, Spiderweb has been the best source of new blood for a relatively desiccated sub-genre of strategic CRPG. It's also quite substantial, having not been split up into multiple chapters like the majority of Spiderweb's RPGs (such as Geneforge or Avernum).
  • Gemini Rue (Wadjet Eye, PC, February '11): Dammit, I knew I forgot to go back and finish something. Gimme another week, okay? I'm good for it.
  • Mortal Kombat (Netherrealm Studios, Multi, April '11): I'm not one for fighting games at all. Too much training is required to understand and appreciate any given fighter game fully, which in slightly less fair terms means doing the same thing over and over and finding out your reaction speed isn't actually all that any more. Mortal Kombat doesn't really require that you go to that length to appreciate it however, because a lot of its charms are in its macabre sense of humor, its easy to pick up mechanics (but still challenging to master, one can only presume), its unusually strong single-player narrative and the violent and creative fun of its challenge tower. I suck at it, naturally, but then I sucked at Mortal Kombat 2 and 3 and still liked those quite a bit. I feel like it's rare to have a game so focused towards catering to its own fans like this yet can also be so accessible to newcomers at the same time. That kind of multi-tasking is usually reserved for games like Super Smash Bros which, I'm sure many will tell me, is not a fighting game and is therefore incomparable.
  • Terraria (Re-Logic, PC, May '11): Never boarded the Minecraft bandwagon. I can acknowledge its appeal readily enough, as I was as obsessed with Lego as a child as anyone else, but having a completely directionless and ugly world of cuboid exploding cacti didn't appeal too much on a personal level. I'll admit that I was also somewhat dissuaded after hearing about the level of timesink it can become, especially for a completionist like myself who want to see and find and pick up everything. Terraria, despite not looking that much better, addressed what I considered to be my number one barrier to getting into Minecraft, which is to constantly have goals to chase and, most importantly of all, an "ending" of sorts where one can happily switch off the game once the strongest monster had been defeated and the best equipment had been found. Maybe Minecraft has those too, but it's never been a clear selling point. Of course, I did end up sinking a considerable number of hours into Terraria (Steam suggests it's close to 60 hours), and new updates continue to move the goalposts ever further away, but by that point it was already too late for me. Give me a pickaxe and some torches and I'm ready to go digging when you are.
  • Alice: Madness Returns (Spicy House, PC/360/PS3, June '11): The sequel to the strange PC game American McGee's Alice, based on the already purposefully abstruse Alice in Wonderland novels, once again misses the point by trying to make Alice in Wonderland weirder than it already is. I guess having a Disney version of the book made it far too palatable and tame for some, and so adding harrowing scenes from a Victorian London sanitarium and oodles of colorful violence and grim mechanical steampunk flourishes was the only way to recreate the level of subversiveness for a new generation (hey, worked for Return to Oz). Maybe I'm reading into it too much. For all its silliness, Alice: Madness Returns is an eclectic mix of character action, platformer and adventure game with a considerable amount of imagination under its top hat. Were it a little more amusing, I might even make a Psychonauts comparison. It certainly delves into psychological trauma just as frequently.
  • Shadows of the Damned (Grasshopper, 360/PS3, June '11): I've slowly been getting more and more enervated by each subsequent release from the eccentric Goichi "Suda 51" Suda, to the point where I'm not sure I ever intend to play Killer is Dead. Shadows of the Damned can be an exercise in eyerolling frustration, either with the game's action or the game's script, but for the most part is a reasonably solid Resident Evil 4 third-person shooter with some trippy visuals. Just... I dunno, you might want to try patiently working through the "giant boner" turret sequence as quickly as possible to enjoy the rest of it.

All right, I'm beat. Thanks for stopping by, and get ready for even more next month. My aching fingers...


Mento's Alternative to E3 Day 3: The Legend Adventure Quest Part 4

Well, it's the final day of E3 2014, which means it's also the last day where I get to put something up to distract people from all that industry razzle-dazzle. Seems a little pointless to keep making distractions for something that's no longer on, after all, but then I'm hardly an expert at this sort of thing.

Something I am an expert at, or at least I'd like to think so, is adventure games. I've saved the most interesting of Legend Entertainment's ludology for last, which is entirely a coincidence since I was doing these chronologically. It's only fitting that, for a blog that runs parallel to an event that focuses on the far future, today's entry will involve some time travel. But that's not the only odd thing about this game, oh no.

Callahan's Crosstime Saloon

1997's Callahan's Crosstime Saloon is based on a book series from erstwhile folksinger and current humorist Spider Robinson, the first novel of which shares its name with this game. Callahan's is the sort of friendly place where people can sit down to drink fine booze with good company. Being the odd place that it is, lost souls are drawn here from literally all walks of life, including aliens, vampires, time-travellers, figures from Irish Celtic folklore, and Long Islanders. Callahan's is the sort of joint where visitors are free and even encouraged to share their woes with others, whether it's the jovial proprietor Mike Callahan or any of the colorful regulars. There also seems to be a lot of emphasis on making really terrible puns too, so I'm already feeling at home.

The game's got an unusual, partly non-linear structure where the player can take part in three unrelated adventures in any order before more of the story becomes unlocked, and it actually feels a little backwards compared to some of the more recent Legend Entertainment games we've covered, what with its lack of a map and many conveniences. Nevertheless, the writing, humor and voice-acting is all top-notch, and it's a fine looking game, which each "screen" being a fully 360-degree panoramic view the player can move around and explore. The semi-realistic human characters mesh jarringly with the more fantastical elements, providing what I can only imagine to be the desired effect from a setting like Callahan's that frequently mixes the bizarre with the mundane. If I had to criticize, it would be the game's occasionally abstruse graphic adventure puzzles, which can veer a bit too close to Roberta Country for my liking. Still, even including the three games we've already looked at, it's rare to find this level of imagination and craft in an adventure game. Callahan's Crosstime Saloon would have source material too weird for a big studio to risk banking on these days, and too well-made for Indie devs to pull off (if the games I've played for Steam May Madness were any indication, as fun as they were). A product of its time, let's just say.

No long-winded introduction videos to screencap today, so we'll jump right in with Part 1.

Part 1: Hey, Did a Riddle

Welcome to Callahan's Crosstime Saloon! Love that Irish pub shingle. It's feeling very Cheers-y already.
Because this is a game about a bar in upstate New York, it begins with this trippy cosmic sequence.
In it, two alien creatures discuss the ongoing creation of the universe and its imminent lack of funding from its shareholders unless one of the wobbly blobs can convince everyone that the universe can create something of infinite value. I probably should've paid closer attention, it sounded important.
We then zoom in on a familiar planet, and further in to a bar sitting off a forgotten interstate.
We're introduced to our hero Jake Stonebender. An itinerant, wisecracking folksinger and the protagonist of the books (and thought to be a stand-in for the similarly bearded and wiry author Spider Robinson), Jake's an amicable fellow if not a particularly brave or agile one. But then no-one ever expects great heroics from an adventure game character.
Jake doesn't even mind that we've commandeered his body for the sake of this adventure game. Nice of them to give us permission, you know?
So the first concern is getting our bar tab paid off. That means taking part in Doc's Riddle contest. The game believes it's easing you in softly with this prologue task, but it's actually kind of tough.
The rules of the riddles are explained. We get a bunch of clues that we must connect, rebus style, to create the answer. The ten answers are all linked by a theme, so once we know what the theme is it'll be slightly easier to guess the rest.
In case it's a bit too much, there's various folk around here offering to give you some help. Ideally, though, we want to solve these ourselves. I mean, why else would you play an adventure game?
I'm going to leave this screen up here so you can all have a go. I'll warn you now that the following screenshot has several answers filled in, so pause here for a while if you want to have a go at guessing them.
The theme becomes obvious enough once you've solved a few, but 70s American rock bands were never really my forte. I'm might have to cheat a little to guess the rest of these.
Most of the folk around here are friendly and well-known by Jake. This mysterious hobo is neither. Presumably he'll play a part later on.
Despite making some odd noises, Squish here is cordial enough, though obviously no help when it comes to Earth music.
Just tapping on everything in the bar, I eventually find my way up to the roof. Nothing here yet, though if I need to take off into space in a hurry this would probably be an ideal landing zone for a UFO. That I'm completely serious about this should give you some idea of how odd this game gets.
Mike "Mickey" Finn is the tall fellow we saw earlier. From the first book, he's a mechanical alien sent to destroy the Earth. The good-natured folk of Callahan's soon convinced him to drop the idea. Here he is being indignant about Star Trek's Data. How many more references to Star Trek are we going to come across in this series, anyway?
Eventually, I do manage to solve all the riddles. I didn't even cheat too much, though I had to use a thesaurus for some of these clues before the answer would click. I've still never heard of "Sockors".
Doc humors me by asking if he should keep the blackboard around, but I'm tired of staring at that thing.
Instead, I go talk to Josie. Josie's a chocoholic who wants me to help her rescue a cocoa bean grove in the Amazon that's thought to produce the world's best chocolate. The legendary grove is going to be destroyed tomorrow, according to history. Oh yeah, Josie's also a Time Cop from 50 years into the future. Still, seems like fun.

Part 2: (Big) Apples and Offices

She's off the clock, so we can't mess around with her temporal wizardry too much. Instead, we zoom back to this morning and take the subway to central NYC. Check out all these colorful New Yorker stereotypes!
Some of these guys are practically animated photos. Digitized extras, I imagine.
Most of them don't have any purpose though, beyond absolutely appalling strings of puns like this. This must be what it feels like to read one of my blogs.
The only place we can go is the nearby office building of Faxon-Casteroga. These are the guys about to cause the deforestation of the particular grove we're interested in, so our first plan is to persuade them to maybe... not do it? Hey, it might work.
Though, uh, as you can see, we're having trouble finding the right floor.
Great, I guess we can continue this adventure game already. Way to read directions, Jake.
Obviously enough, the secretary for the executive we want to see is not buying any of our tricks. I haven't heard about Ben Wa for years, that's sort of a risqué reference. (Look it up.) (Or ask your parents.)
Because we're jerks, we took some application forms from a nearby box and are facetiously filling them in.
We do get a pair of photographs from HR for our troubles. And there was a guy outside peddling fake IDs...
This guy's a great sleazy Leo Getz type character. All we really need from him are a couple of fake passports. As for why we need them, I'm not yet sure. But hey, adventure games are all about doing stuff for no reason because we might need to later.
I'm reading some of the memos on the bulletin board behind the secretary. They're pretty good. Here's a list of terms Faxon-Casteroga employees are meant to use when talking to the press.
For me, biting rainforest destruction satire was one of those things that defined the 90s, along with neon pastels in video game advertisements and European electro.
These are just unforgivable.
If you sit in front of this bank of monitors long enough, you get some priceless artsy commercials about pencils. They make as much sense as that Mr. Plow commercial.
Back on the streets again, because I'm having trouble to figure out what to do next. I accidentally engage with another one of these wordplay NPCs.
Finally, I notice that I can jam open one of these tiny vents with a bamboo rod I recovered from a potted plant. The employee chatter draws the ire of the irritable Mr. Kiscolon.
Once he chastises his employees, we can finally interrogate him about the cocoa beans.
Dick Cheney will not be swayed by the Chocolate Alliance, unfortunately. That means Plan A is a bust.
However, after swiping some airline tickets (with a ridiculous non-sequitur puzzle I won't be reiterating here) and with those fake passports in tow, we use the hotel's free airport limo trips to get us on a plane to Brazil. Adeus, NYC!

Part 3: The Flight for an Amazon Bean

Guzman here is our pilot on what appears to be a plane held together with Elmer's Glue.
These safety rules are not inspiring confidence.
Anyway, it doesn't take long for Guzman to figure out we're not who we say we are, and threatens to fly around in circles until the local authorities arrive at the airport. Our mission is clear: We must eliminate Guzman! Even if he is a lovable goofball!
Josie's looking pretty sheepish. Though she doesn't have a plan to get us out of this mess, she does explain that she can fly the plane if push comes to shove. She's never successfully landed one, but there's always a first time, right?
After poking around the plane for a few items, chiefly this wrench and navy jelly, I convince Guzman to let us have some air because it's getting stuffy back here. Once the door's open, I loosen the safety handle he used to keep himself in the plane with the rust-clearing jelly and the pipe wrench.
It's simply a case of asking him to close the door because it's too drafty. For some reason, he obliges once again. The travails of having to be both the pilot and flight attendant.
Said travails also includes falling out of a plane because someone sabotaged the safety handle. He's got a parachute on, it's fine. It's all fine.
We can spend a few fun moments prying his fingers from the door...
...though he'll never let go if we do it one a time like a sociopath.
Josie refuses to land while Guzman is still with us, so clearly we need a clever plan to force him to let go.
Or I could just whack his hand with the pipe wrench. I don't think we're getting a Christmas card from him this year either way.
It'll be fine. We have all those soft, bouncy trees to break our fall in a worst case scenario.
Once we've landed, I take the opportunity to steal anything Guzman was protecting, including this medical kit from the glove box. Let's see if we can't cause more trouble in South America.

Part 4: Brazil Bush

I reach for this useful looking map (in fact, the game says I can't continue without it) but I get caught immediately.
I... uh oh. I'm not sure I'm going to walk away from this.
Oh, phew.
"Ethyl and Fred". The jokes are getting worse, I swear.
After some clicking around a few more alternate timelines where I get murdered by crooked Brazilian cops, I finally decide to open this medical kit I've been carrying around.
We have morphine, so I'll just dip this push-pin (that we received along with the plane tickets) into it to create a makeshift poison dart.
And then it's simply a matter of loading it into that bamboo pipe and sending this poor Alaniz fellow to sleep.
We steal his map and nutcrackers (actually, I just grabbed the nutcrackers, and the game decided to take the map too just in case). Josie's not going to be much help just yet, but at least we know our way around.
I click on the colorful bird and immediately regret it.
Yep, saw that coming.
Deeper into the jungle, we find this temple. There's a pedestal in front of the closed entrance.
All right, a Picross puzzle was perhaps the last thing I expected to see. But man, I'm so glad it's this instead of sliding blocks.
I probably could've gone for a higher level of difficulty (it offers you easy, normal and hard) but I'm kind of in a hurry. Maybe I'll buy that new PicrossE game on 3DS to make up for it.
Ah, paraprosdokians. A useful tool in any comedy writer's belt.
Yeah, the designers of these elaborate lock systems never seem to think that part through. I feel like this joke applies to any given Resident Evil game too.

Part 5: Romancing the Toblerone

We've finally breached the temple, and thus closer to the end of our little Mayan adventure.
Remembering some of the gold pebbles from the Picross gate puzzle outside, we stick them in this statue to get access to its inner chamber. We're tomb raiding now, folks.
We grabbed the cauldron and bellows, but there's not much else to do here. What we really need to do is get to the inner courtyard, which is where the cocoa bean grove resides. Someone unhelpfully stuck a big tree in the way though, alas.
So yeah, apparently you can find Guzman's parachute in the jungle with his walkie-talkie still attached. Deducing the code to the jeep's radio, we summon it over with the worst Brazilian accent imaginable and steal some useful tools from the trunk. Probably goes without saying that I had to cheat to figure this part out.
We get an over-elaborate description of jacking up the tree blocking the exit. I enjoy the writing in this game, though, so I ain't buggin'.
Here we are, in the mythical cocoa groves of the finest chocolate ever tasted by man. Given everything we've been picking up, it's becoming clear that we're going to have to make ourselves a candy bar of this stuff.
The chocolate gourmet brochure that we've been carrying since the beginning of this mission details the process of producing chocolate, giving us some idea of what to do. Unfortunately, I've only gotten as far as finding the beans. We now have to wash them somehow.
This involves heading back into the plane and opening some of these crates with the tire iron we picked up. Eventually, we come across a coaxial cable. The rest all contain high-grade electronics, mostly so we can crack wise about what an expensive waste of time satellite TV is.
Guzman eventually catches up to us after we wash the beans using a combination of the cable, cauldron and the grove's well. He takes our map away, preventing us from leaving the temple, but we chase him off by telling him to bring Kiscolon here. We've bought a little more time before they level this place, at least.
The next few steps are simply following the chocolatier recipe. The bellows are patched the gauze we emancipated from the medical kit, and we use it to roast the beans.
We now have to crush the bean's nibs into a paste before we can continue. We don't have any big industrial crushers, but we do have this dumb moving door puzzle.
The smushed nibs are then combined with a sugar cane, "conched" until just right, poured out into the empty medical kit box and then cooled. We now have the tastiest (if not particularly visually appealing) chocolate bar in the world.
Unfortunately, the moment we step outside the temple, we bump into Kiscolon, Guzman and some other workers preparing to dynamite the temple.
However, not even the obstinate millionaire is immune to the pleasures of a damn good piece of chocolate, and the two of us just make creepy orgasm noises as we nibble on this block of heaven.
Finally, I snap out of my sugary reverie, and we're sent back home to NYC. From there's it's a quick trip back to Callahan's.
Due to hopping back almost a whole day, it's pretty much the same hour we left when we arrive back in Callahan's. I'm hailed as a hero for saving the chocolate grove, though I'm sure no-one else has any idea of what she's talking about.
Thank you.
All's well that ends well, I suppose. The first adventure of Callahan's is brought to a close. Oddly, I get to keep the tire iron, the morphine, the pencil and, of course, the legendary chocolate bar. Since I know I can do any of the first three adventures in any order, I suppose I'll just be pointlessly carrying them around for a while.

This seems like a perfect time to bring Jake Stonebender's puncanny pundertakings to a close, and with it this feature on some of Legend Entertainment's less than legendary (but still quite excellent) graphic adventure games. I hope I've inspired some interest in these games, if probably not quite to the extent that it inspires a massive groundswell to convince GOG to start listing them. A guy can dream, at least.

For more information on these games, and on many other PC adventures, check out the following pages from Hardcore Gaming 101. Site administrator Kurt Kalata literally wrote the book on graphic adventure games, so you know you're in good hands:

Thanks for choosing to ignore E3 with me, and I'll see you all again next year for another four-part series where we childishly pretend a huge expo isn't going on and filling the rest of the site with interviews, trailers and livestreams. As always, please feel free to leave some feedback if you're into the idea of me continuing any of these games further. I'm really enjoying these, and would use any excuse to keep playing them at this point.

Until then, here's a favorite saying of Ryan's that seems pertinent: "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here!"

Day 0Death Gate
Day 1Superhero League of Hoboken
Day 2Mission Critical
Day 3Callahan's Crosstime Saloon