By Mento 5 Comments
Hey guys. I gotta say, I'm a little out of it this month. Vinny's recent career shift into comedy manga cartoonist has really overshadowed these MS Paint comics I once happily produced for you all. It's hard to compete with such layered satire. I'll do my best though, because you all deserve it. So does @omghisam, my erstwhile gold sponsor and fellow fan of extremely anime animes, and the many excellent games of the previous generation which I'm showcasing here as always.
Speaking of which, today we're covering the second half of 2009. A hell of a lot of great games were released in the US during this period of time, making up for the relatively dry first half of that year. There's going to be a long list of recommendations at the end so, uh, try to stay calm?
The third game in the Mario & Luigi series of portable RPGs is easily its best, and the culmination of the series's offbeat charm and self-effacing candor that has allowed it to become the secret greatest Mario spin-off franchise. Bowser's Inside Story splits its time between the Mario brothers, who find themselves embedded deep within the viscera of Bowser, the King of the Koopas, and on Bowser himself as he rampages across the continent petulantly battering his disloyal legions who now answer to a usurping Fawful, making his long overdue return after his dark horse turn in the original Superstar Saga.
The game itself borrows the template originally devised by the Squaresoft/Nintendo crossover Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super Nintendo (AlphaDream has more than a couple ex-Squaresoft employees), with RPG combat that drops the damage back and forth to single figures to keep it easier to follow but adds a wrinkle in that most attacks require some additional timing from the player in order to hit effectively, or even at all. The game feels simplified without actually being easier, a coup pulled off by trendsetting RPGs like Dungeon Master and Square's own Final Fantasy: with less distracting complications to consider, the overall experience feels purer as a result.
However, the most effective weapon in Bowser's Inside Story's arsenal is its sense of humor; it's peerless in this regard in the grander Mario ludology, and squeezes a lot of mileage out of Bowser's childish tantrums, Fawful's cackling Engrish and the always gormless and cowardly Luigi. Bowser's internal regions are suitably gross but at the same time lend themselves to a lot of imaginative puzzles, and the way the game ties the two teams together by letting the Marios power Bowser up during crucial moments can be very clever. The DS has no dearth of excellent RPGs, and Bowser's Inside Story might well be at the apex of that long list.
Half-Minute Hero looks, sounds and plays like a classic JRPG, but is in actuality a curious breed of puzzle game. Your tiny hero only has thirty seconds to save the world, but can't simply walk right up to the boss and take them down before that time limit expires. For one, the boss is usually hiding behind several dungeon instances and a barrier or two that cannot be overcome with sheer brawn. Most of the game's stages are set up in a way where you need to suss out the solution to reach the bad guy, find the various power-ups littered around the map, balance the amount of money you're making to that you're having to spend to rewind time and then ensure you're at the minimum required level to fight the boss (the game helpfully tells you when you're ready) and take them out before that timer finally ticks down to zero.
Though the game demands a certain amount of alacrity from the player, there's actually plenty of time to cautiously poke around. You'll no doubt fail a few times, but as you piece together the critical path from checking around the map and talking to NPCs, you'll eventually formulate a winning strategy with hopefully some cash left over for new upgrades - the only things that stick with you from stage to stage, unlike your experience and gold. Cleverly, the game branches frequently, letting you try alternate solutions to stages and finding more upgrades in branching paths. Jumping between multiple paths lets you collect new treasures without raising the difficulty level, and having twice as many upgrades makes the tougher later stages far easier to cope with. The RPG elements are in truth largely incidental - grinding is necessary for taking on the boss, but there's no real strategy where combat is involved: battles occur automatically, with the hero simply charging in until they or the enemy is defeated.
In a similar vein as Bowser's Inside Story, one of the game's strongest points is its goofy sense of humor and ruthless evisceration of common RPG clichés. You'll encounter a sympathetic "beautiful evil lord", clearly based on Psaro of Dragon Quest IV and the string of gothic, moody, slightly effete anti-heroes that followed, who eventually becomes the star of his own mode within the game. Likewise, there's a princess with a legion of followers with her own off-shoot as well. The various bosses are humorously given the flimsiest motivations for why they want to destroy the world, and your confidante - the pragmatic Goddess of Time - is as lazy, standoffish and avaricious as she is occasionally helpful. Though originally a PSP exclusive, enhanced digital ports have become available on XBLA and Steam since then, so it's easy enough to track down.
Borderlands is a novel combination of a Diablo style looter and an FPS, with a cel-shaded post-apocalyptic presentation and a sense of humor people will either find lacking or entirely up their alley. As an example, if that "up your alley" got a lascivious chuckle out of you, you are very much in the latter group. Behind all its superficial Mad Max parodies and scatological jokes, Borderlands knows precisely what it's doing regarding the instilling of that psychological compulsion to find color-coded loot and make one's various numbers ever higher that made Diablo such an addictive game back in the 90s. The addition of the fast-paced first-person shooter gameplay only serves to enhance the overall enjoyment of actually playing the game more than its spiritual antecedent's frequently mindless clicking could ever hope to manage.
The real appeal of this combination of genres is that the monster and bandit kills feel earned, despite the emphasis on increasing damage output and finding better loot, because you're the one outmaneuvering them and carefully aiming those devastating headshots. It merges the skill-based satisfaction you get from something like Call of Duty with the equally satisfying feeling you receive when you find a weapon in a chest that's far superior to the one you're holding. Most genre hybrids struggle to find a sufficiently pleasing communion between its two parents, but Borderlands presents a rare case of a "best of both worlds" situation.
It's not perfect of course (I didn't care much for most of its boss fights), and the length for which it can keep your interest will vary from person to person. I was fine after a single playthrough with one character class, but others might beat (and have beaten) it several times on multiple difficulty levels with every character available. When those hooks dig into you, they dig deep. There's always the equally good sequel as well, though I got my fill of that one a lot sooner for whatever reason.
As is now customary, we're going to look at a few comics I made previously for games released in this period. I promised three new ones with each of these features, so I can't simply give these a lick of paint and hope no-one notices. I'm not Hanna Barbera.
Before they remastered NES favorite DuckTales, WayForward also updated a certain other game for Nintendo's inaugural console, albeit one that didn't quite make as much of a splash. A Boy and His Blob updates David Crane's A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia, a game about a boy and his alien friend who is able to assume various utilitarian forms in order to help the boy through a confusing and occasionally hostile world. The Wii remake has some incredible visuals: an animation style that looks like it was lifted directly from one of those heartwarming Studio Ghibli movies about kids and their otherworldly pals. What A Boy and His Blob doesn't quite prepare you for is how challenging some of the later stages can become, where the game is far more demanding on the player's skill level than it is on their ability to work out the customary jelly bean puzzles. Also, yeah, this game has a hug button. Why wouldn't it have a hug button?
A Boy and His Blob shares its excellently animated, mostly dialogue-free sense of whimsy with Amanita Design's Machinarium, the game that put the Czech Indie developers on the map. A point and click graphic adventure game set in a rusty metropolis filled with mechanical life, the game relies on simple ideograms and character animations to convey its story and characterizations, with the puzzles being the usual sort of "using an inventory item on a hotspot to get another item you need elsewhere" business. The game alleviates the common problem of these games, which is to have you walking around with half a theme park's Lost and Found in your inventory and having no clue as to what goes where, by compartmentalizing the game into several smaller sections. After solving what needs to be done in one area, the game moves onto the next with most of the now superfluous inventory items stripped away. As a result, the game moves at a pleasing clip, rather than dragging its heels with too many abstruse puzzles.
The Other Ones!
And here's the rest. Didn't bother making comics for these, there's simply too many to get through. Make no mistake: they're all still every bit as commendable.
- Shatter (Sidhe Interactive, PC/PS3, July): Shatter's a psychedelic Breakout throwback in much the same way as, say, Resogun is a psychedelic Defender throwback or Pac-Man Championship Edition DX is a psychedelic Pac-Man throwback. I suppose this whole glowy neon lights and particle effects being added to old Arcade games model really started back with Geometry Wars, or perhaps even whatever it is Jeff Minter does when he's not tending to his llamas. Regardless, Shatter has some good additions beyond superficial laser light shows for its Breakout reimagining, with some clever physics manipulation involving magnetically repulsing and attracting the ball to change its trajectory, as well as perspective switches from horizontal to vertical to a weird semi-circular tube configuration. The stand-out aspect by far is its superb electro soundtrack, created by Indie musician Module. Just go take in the audio majesty that is Argon Refinery, if you need an example.
- Little King's Story (CING, Wii, July): Little King's Story is an odd departure for CING, who usually content themselves with humorously overwrought adventure visual novels like Another Code, Again and Hotel Dusk: Room 215. Or at least, they did until they were unfortunately closed down a few years back. Little King's Story is an entirely different sort of affair: a real-time squad-based strategy puzzle game that immediately invokes something like Pikmin, a comparison helped in some part by its cute and colorful countenance. It also contains a kingdom building sim element, though it's fairly basic - you simply use the spoils of your adventures to build special structures once they become available, and these structures expand the quantity and variation of units you can use as well as having other benefits. It's a deeply weird game, and much of its appeal is in seeing which odd tangent it goes off on next. As the Wii U is the only "next gen" (gotta ween myself off saying that) console with backwards compatibility, Wii games still retain their value going forward. If a Nintendo platform's not your system of choice, there's always that Vita port that's supposed to be OK.
- Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady, PS3/360/PC, August): The Arkham games have become something of a franchise juggernaut since their debut with Arkham Asylum, and it probably goes without saying at this point that the game ably emphasizes everything that makes the Batman character great: His deductive intelligence, his fierce martial ability, his gadgets, his predilection for stealth and intimidation, a rogue's gallery of colorful villains and the grim and gritty atmosphere of post-1980s Gotham. Not that you see much of Gotham outside of the titular mental institution, as Asylum wisely keeps all the action locked away on its titular facility's solitary island. It's a limitation that works in the game's favor, as its sequels would find out, because there's still an immense number of locations and secrets to explore yet you don't have to run (or float, I guess) a couple miles each time you want to backtrack with a new piece of kit or traversal ability. Happily for an OCD completionist like myself, there's lots to find and do between chasing down supervillains.
- Shadow Complex (Epic Games/Chair Entertainment, XBLA, August): Shadow Complex seems like a SpaceWhipper having its 3D cake and eating it 2D, as its able to combine a lot of 3D gunplay elements within its 2D explorational platformer in ways more meaningful than simply having polygonal objects on a 2D plane. Enemies appear in the background, and the hero can target them as he runs left and right. We haven't really seen this exact arrangement replicated since, oddly enough, though Shadow Complex's core SpaceWhipper gameplay has certainly inspired a lot of fellow small studio games of this genre, the most recent being the new Strider remake. It's five years old, but it's probably still the best game of its kind outside of one the better portable IGA Castlevanias.
- Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (Level-5, DS, August): Layton's second outing is every bit as charming and clever as the first, but introduces what we now refer to as "matchstick fatigue". Well, maybe it's just me that calls it that. The Professor Layton games all have excellent presentation, great little mystery plots that get solved entirely without your help and more Mensa puzzles than you could shake a Riddler cane at. It's best to pace these things out, though, because their success has necessitated a lot of retreading of familiar territory. But hey, this one is set on a train for most of its playtime, and who doesn't like a good mystery set on a train? The Lady Vanishes, anyone?
- Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (Naughty Dog, PS3, October): Uncharted 2's the undisputed (at least I'd like to hope so) gem of the Uncharted trilogy, a game that sees Nathan and chums on fine form as they globetrot around picturesque locations to stop a psychotic Russian military commander from taking over the world (how unfortunately prescient). It has less of the dead weight that dragged down its predecessor and successor, and its combat is an able mix of clever stealth sections, rapid brute forcing and "hold your ground" bunker survival sequences. You've also got the requisite Tomb Raider-esque puzzles and traversal to enjoy in equal measures. It's a game built to appeal to everyone, without losing any of its vitality for the sake of wider audience accessibility. There's a reason it got voted 2009's GOTY, after all.
- Demon's Souls (From Software, PS3, October): What can be said about Demon's Souls at this point that wasn't hammered home by Brad and Vinny's recent playthrough of From Software's breakout gothic hit? It's a Western-styled RPG built upon their King's Field series, which saw a lot of innovative additions that not only elevated it beyond From's earlier flawed ludology but allows it to stand head and shoulders above most RPGs in general. Working with (or against) other players, forcing the player to gradually comprehend the dangers around them in the harshest way imaginable, a very in-depth combat system that greatly favors split-second timing and patience over simple button mashing and a passive approach to lore and worldbuilding that lets players decide just how much they want to invest in the specifics of this grim, foreboding land. Just... don't get too obsessed with the crystal lizards. They aren't generally worth the high blood pressure.
- Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time (Insomniac Games, PS3, October): The third of the Ratchet & Clank Future games, the franchise rebrand that occurred once the series hit the PS3, is perhaps the best R&C game ever made. It keeps the two heroes separated for a while, letting Clank focus on some devious time-based, clone-making puzzles while Ratchet fulfills the more overtly action-oriented magnet-rail and gunplay sequence quota. There's also an expansive galaxy to explore in your own ship, with lots of little one-off planetoid stages that reminded me a bit of Super Mario Galaxy. The plot's the same goofy Saturday morning cartoon show the series has always been, with the same deceptively sharp writing and characterization. You can't really go wrong with any R&C game (well, Deadlocked and All 4 One weren't too great), but this one's my clear favorite. I would recommend you play Tools of Destruction and maybe Quest for Booty first though, since they all tie together narratively.
- Risen (Piranha Bytes, PC/360, October): Risen's a classic CRPG made in the modern era, a evolution of the well-regarded Gothic series of CRPGs that most of Risen's development team once worked on. You're simply dumped on an island and given the briefest of directions, and eventually must choose between factions and carefully consider developing your character based on desired skills and abilities. There's not enough character building points to learn everything, so you prioritize what's necessary or suited for whatever type of character build you're going for. My favorite part of Risen is that it feels like a classic RPG through and through: There's a big island, not a whole lot of restraints (other than the difficulty of some monsters), no inventory limit and lots to see and do. Just keep in mind that it can be a bit rough around the edges, given that it's a big RPG produced by a relatively small European studio.
- Assassin's Creed II (Ubisoft Montreal, 360/PS3/PC, November) : Assassin's Creed would finally come into its own with the second core game, and the introduction of Ezio Auditore da Firenze. The Italian rapscallion is a far more charismatic lead than the dour Altair ever was, and the game engine's been heavily modified to include far more mission variety. Italy is a particularly attractive part of the world, especially around the Renaissance, and the plot surrounding the anti-Pope Rodrigo Borgias and Ezio's quest for revenge feels a little more relatable than a Templar headhunt. The game also does a handful of interesting things with the modern day Desmond Miles, though the series would end up squandering a lot of the mad twists that conclude this game. If you were looking to jump into the giant haystack that is the Assassin's Creed franchise, II is probably your best bet. (Then Brotherhood, then directly to IV if most accounts are anything to go by. The rest you can try should you find yourself heavily invested in the series, though Revelations and III aren't all that great.)
- Dragon Age: Origins (BioWare, 360/PS3/PC, November): Dragon Age: Origins is BioWare doing for its forte of elves and dragons what it recently did for sci-fi with Mass Effect: In a similar fashion, Dragon Age feels both familiar and new, a dichotomy brought about by some clever worldbuilding and inspiration sourcing. You'll see shades of Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire everywhere you look, but the muddy realm of Ferelden - a medieval nation beset every so often by immense hordes of demonic terrors - is quite well realised, and the individual stories you come across while attempting to recruit political factions for a big counterattack create a lot of smaller, memorable adventures in the style of a series of D&D modules. Dragon Age 2 squandered some of the series's appeal, but Origins is a fantastic RPG that caters to all levels of player experience.
- Rabbids Go Home (Ubisoft Montpellier, Wii/DS/PC, November): Most Rabbid games seem fairly disposable on first glance, like UbiSoft's own variant of Mario Party or any number of lesser mini-game collections. Rabbids Go Home is an entirely different lagomorphic beast, with a story focused around collecting garbage from the humans and using it to build a giant tower to the moon. The hows and whys of the Rabbits' plan isn't important; being a willful participant of the madcap chaos of steering a shopping cart into as many piles of objects as possible while terrorizing the milquetoast humans with your kleptomaniac rampage is both fun and funny. If only I could portmanteau those two words.
- Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers (Square-Enix, Wii, December): I was a little cold on Crystal Bearers and eventually abandoned it once it became clear I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going, but as an even more divergent entry in a spin-off series known for a few odd decisions (multiplayer action RPGs? In my Final Fantasy?) it has merit in its sheer weirdness. Less an RPG than a, I don't even know, throwing shit around simulator, Crystal Bearers has a goofy, self-aware "anything goes" charm about it that has you wildly jumping around from one mini-game sequence to the next while greatly emphasizing experimentation with its combat. You pick things up, throw them at the enemies chasing you around the level and hope for the best. I kind of wish I gave it more of a chance, but at the same time I do wonder what the developers were smoking.
- The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo, DS, December): Spirit Tracks is the third and presently final entry in the Wind Waker Zelda sub-series, and the second game for the DS after Phantom Hourglass. It continues on after the events of its two predecessors, but fast-forwards a hundred years into the future after Link, Tetra and her pirates colonize a mysterious island filled with train tracks which then prospers enough to become the Kingdom of New Hyrule after a few generations. While the game follows the usual Zelda spiel of locating dungeons, plundering new gadgets, defeating bosses and moving onto the next den of evil in the sequence, there's lot of oddly engrossing Densha de Go! styled train sequences. Acquiring new rail routes and carefully escorting NPCs for rewards become important factors for progression as the game proceeds, and Zelda herself is given way more attention in her character development than usual, continuing Wind Waker's trend of crafting a Hyrulian princess with some personality for once. Just be sure to play it on its native DS, because the 3DS's mic isn't exactly sufficient for some of the game's musical panflute sequences (the panflute standing in for the usual ocarina).
- The Saboteur (Pandemic Studios, PS3/360/PC, December): The Saboteur initially seems like the sort of open-world also-ran you saw everywhere last generation (and possibly this one, if InFamous: Second Son's accolades end up leading to more imitators): the sort of game where you run around a large city (in this case, Paris) and free regions from enemy control by performing the same handful of tasks over and over, while occasionally following a main storyline revolved around personal vengeance. However, there's a few interesting elements aiding The Saboteur that help set it apart in that well-populated genre. The first is that it's a historical representation of Nazi-occupied Paris in the midst of the second World War, and the player character is an embittered Irish racecar mechanic determined to bring down the Nazi occupying forces with as much grit and grace (and TNT) as he can muster, which isn't a setting you see exploited too often outside of FPS games. The second is that the game makes terrific use of color, displaying Nazi-occupied sectors as noirishly monochromatic and drab with a few splashes of red here and there in swastikas and propaganda posters. Liberating a region brings color back to it, creating a very vivid impression that your efforts are having an effect. It's not too subtle, but it works, and I had a lot of fun running around taking down guardtowers and other Nazi structures than I might've otherwise anticipated.
All right, that's it. Thanks for sitting through a second incredibly wordy blog in a row. I'll be back with the first half of 2010 in the middle of April some time.