Recently Played: Dark Souls

I beat Dark Souls. I realize that opinions on this game are cheap and easy to come by, I still feel compelled to write something- anything about an experience like this. Considering all the time and... learning... I put into it, I feel it would be a waste not to put down some of my thoughts even if I end up talking to myself. It's Dark Souls, yo. You probably already have an opinion on the matter even if you haven't played the game yet.

But some of the things this game does is absolutely fantastic. I don't mean to imply it doesn't have its fair share of problems, but even then, Dark Souls doesn't really give a shit about that.

Dark Souls (Everything Trying to Kill You: The Game)

What the fuck is that?

Before I get started it might be important to mention that I didn't play Demons' Souls. So what I might find good or bad could be older than I realize, but I just wanted to give you a frame of reference. One of the reasons I even bothered playing Dark Souls in the first place was the awesome enemy design like the Gaping Dragon, the mimic, and other creatures. The difficulty, the setting, and the "story" are really just secondary in the grand scheme of things. And if there is one thing I can give Dark Souls, it has made me say "what the fuck is that?" probably more than any video game I have ever played. It starts kind of slow with basic skeletons and zombie-ish enemies wielding swords...

But once you get past Undead Burg into the sewers and on to Blighttown, it gets awesome... err... gross. There is a lot of nasty stuff that wants you dead. And since death carries so much weight in this game, I found every new encounter a high tension, who-will-blink-first showdown. Considering how unforgiving this game is, dying is as natural as jumping or running. It might as well be considered a natural ability.

How Hard is Hard?

I won't try to sell this as the hardest game ever or undersell how difficult it is in an attempt to go against the grain. It reminds me of Ninja Gaiden on the X-Box in a lot of ways, and Valkyrie Profile 2 in others. Dark Souls, at the very least, is a high stress, damn unforgiving game that constantly makes war on your patience. I find it hard to play this game for long stretches as it eventually grinds my concentration to dust so I'm making stupid mistakes over and over again. The way bonfires work as checkpoints means you'll spawn miles away from bosses requiring you to play the same part over and over again just to try a fight over. Sometimes you get poisoned on the way. It's a game with some high-ass highs, low-ass lows, and literally nothing in between. Your results may vary.

Blighttown is so deadly it kills the frame rate. For real.

I can say with certainty that Dark Souls is the greatest horror game I have ever played. When you can lose so much in a single death, it's easy to fear for your life even when nothing is happening. That's the true nature of horror and fear to me. Jump scares are cheap and easily over come. It's much harder to overcome fear of the unknown when I've fallen deep into a sewer filled with man eating blobs, bug eyed things that spew poison gas, and rats the size of a fucking school bus. Fear is when you're standing perfectly still in a hallway, nothing is happening, and you're dead afraid to round the next corner. And that's not even mentioning Blighttown, Tomb of the Giants, and other wonderful places to get killed.

But if you play long enough to get into the Dark Souls mindset, you can see ambushes or cheap shots coming a mile away. If there's a dude (most likely an archer or magician) blasting you from the other end of a hallway, you can bet that there are other enemies lying in wait to stab you in the back when you charge forward. Or you can bet that the narrow doorway is probably obscuring a runaway boulder that can push you into a bottomless pit or crush you flat. Narrow walkways will always be covered by snipers or assholes in white robes. Sometimes suspicious video game generosity is really too good to be true. Eventually (if you stick with it long enough) you get wise to the game's tricks before long. Dark Souls can't help itself.

The Dark Souls Flow

Probably the most damning thing about Dark Souls is that the game has no pacing. My game clock says 45 hours, but it felt way longer than that. When you're dropped into a the world with hardly anything but a few suggestions to move forward, there are a lot of opportunities to spin your wheels. The game is so mysterious about how it operates and what does what that it's not going to bother to point you the right direction. Some item descriptions drop hints, some enemies are obviously too powerful sometimes, but there are moments where you can edge your way in the wrong direction despite the odds. I made the grave mistake of picking the Master Key item in the beginning thinking I could get my hands on sweet weapons and armor... only to bypass several areas and reach the bottom of Blighttown way before I was supposed to be there. Unlike games with similar exploration like Super Metroid where you're always getting stuff to go "oh shit, now I can go there", Dark Souls drops no such hints. I certainly didn't do myself any favors with the Master Key. But that was something I had to find out on my own.

I had my moments of weakness and looked up the map of Sen's Fortress and Blighttown. I'll admit it. Not that it really helped. Areas in this game are pretty complex. But there were a few moments when I found it hard to go on. Things didn't really click for me until I got to Sen's Fortress and had a clear objective to conquer that shit. Then it kinda hit again when I got lost inside a tree, got beat up by mushrooms, messed around with the Darkroot areas and got killed by a butterfly. You know, Dark Souls stuff.

The Hardest Boss in the Game: the Third Boss

This also applies to the boss fights, mostly because Dark Souls' engine can't handle group combat. Is it any surprise that the hardest bosses in the game involve two or three guys coming after you at the same time? Smough and Ornstein can be tough if you kill them in the wrong order, but as far as I'm concerned, no boss is harder than the Capra Demon. The last boss of the game ain't got shit on this guy, his two fucking dogs, and his tiny alley where he has you at arms reach at all times. And he's only the third boss of the game. I had an easier time with a crystal dragon the size of a three story building. If you can handle this guy, you can handle anything.

You could argue that an improved engine where you could manage more than one enemy is against the spirit of Dark Souls... but the game could still be tough even if you had the ability to go back and forth between enemies like Batman. It seems like poor form to exploit the weakness of your combat engine in order to make bosses harder. But that may be no small amount of bitterness talking. I just wanted to put that out there that it's odd you can slay monsters the size of cars. But as soon as three dudes are on you it's too much to handle.

The Best of Abominations

Yay! Treasur- WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?

My favorite thing about Dark Souls is the enemy design. I love the monsters in this game. The best would have to be the Mimics that pretend to be treasure chests. Monster Chests are not a new concept in the year 2011/2012, but their design in Dark Souls is pretty terrifying/great. The first one I stumbled on damn near killed me. I had the tiniest tick of health after I tried to open it. Of course, when you attack it they sprout arms and legs and stand nine feet tall. They tower over you and make hideous noises that sound something like demonic giggling and a bird call rolled into one. And they still want to eat you. The only thing that breaks the tension is that Mimics can do a flying spin kick that would be right at home in Street Fighter. Like they were taking notes from Ken.

The Gaping Dragon is also pretty good, but an obvious choice as most people have seen it in the Dark Souls trailers as the wall of teeth that crashes down on the knight guy. Nito the Gravelord is pretty cool as a moving mound of corpses with a sick blade and plenty of skeleton homies. There are also these things found in the magma area that are like cylinders of flesh and teeth covered in eyes that spit acid and look absolutely disgusting. I kept those things at a bow and arrow distance at all times.

Building a Better Deathtrap

Seath, why you so crazy?

At some point Dark Souls is a little too mysterious for its own good. The game is too busy withholding every bit of information to bother with exposition or story. Yeah, you're ringing bells and grabbing souls and other stuff. But I never had a real connection between my supernatural massacre and where I was in the scheme of things. Bosses sometimes get underwhelming intro cutscenes (if they get anything at all). They could use some more personality in the game rather than blurbs on item descriptions. I would have loved if they had any dialogue at all so I could figure out why the half-lady, half-lava spider was trying to kill me. Or why I had to hack a tree fetus to death to defeat the Bed of Chaos (or whatever the hell that was). This game could probably get away with sparse cut scenes without going Metal Gear and give me the tiniest motivation to check out the world's grossest slum.

I do have to mention that the interactions with the random NPCs are pretty well done along with the voice acting. My favorite is the Onion guy who hangs out around Sen's Fortress. He doesn't do much, but his armor is pretty cool and his bumbling nature more so.

This might fall under personal taste, but it's funny how all the enemies in the game just stand around rooted to one spot until you show up and activate them. They don't have routines or patrol routes. They have their one spot in the world until you enter their radius. It certainly works for combat as you can queue up enemies in one big line so you can kill them one at a time. But they never actively seek you out or corner you unless you moved too far ahead and attract too much attention. It certainly comes off kind of silly how a zombie dragon will wait around in one spot while you pump it full of arrows without coming after you or retaliating in some way. Although some of them will chase you to the ends of the earth if you piss them off. Even still, the world is extremely static. If they make a sequel, I hope they would find someway to make things more active. Hopefully without breaking anything or finding new and exciting ways to screw you over.

You Defeated!

I certainly enjoyed my time with Dark Souls. The enemies and various areas you explore were everything I hoped for. Player invasions... not so much, as I never won a single one of those showdowns. So I spent most of my time as a corpse. I am a little sad I got this game after they patched some of the English text. It doesn't feel quite as good without the translation quirks. It's hard to say if I will play another Souls game. But for now, it can have its own merciless corner in the wide range of video games. It's certainly made me appreciate games like Okami and Dead Space for the different levels of challenge.

Also, fuck the Capra Demon. Fuck him.

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The Sarumarine Awards of 2011!

Due to limited time and money on my part, I'm not qualified to make any real "best of" list. I've missed plenty of promising looking games in favor of other promising games, so all I really feel comfortable with is handing out some awards for some of the things I thought was pretty great (or terrible) in the year 2011. It should go without saying that this is merely my humble opinion, and your results may vary. You know, video games! So without further adieu...

HEADS UP: There are spoilers for Dead Space 2 and Portal 2, if you're worried about that kind of thing.

Best Evil English Accent Award: Queen Myrrah - Gears of War 3

"You're not worthy!"

If you live in the United States, the short hand for villainy is a slick English accent all because the US and England have had some serious beef in the past. This is especially true if an English accent makes zero sense in the context of the video game world it appears in. The clear winner of this year I found was Queen Myrrah from Gears of War 3. As the leader of a vicious underground monster horde, she uses her accent to spit game about genocide, the dominant species, and people named Fenix young and old alike. Her mannerisms get extra mileage in multiplayer where she has plenty of amusing one liners and at least one hilarious laugh that is completely out of character as she vaporizes targets with the Hammer of Dawn.

A round of applause for voice actress Carolyn Seymour. Clearly there is nothing more evil than Killer Underground Monster British.

Runner Ups: Katherine Marlowe - Uncharted 3, Wheatley - Portal 2

Grossest Moment Award: Isaac Clarke's Do-it-Yourself Eye Surgery - Dead Space 2

God Isaac. Stop moving!

If you don't know this about me, I don't deal well with eye horror. Sticking anything sharp and metal in the soft tissue used to look at things is enough to make me wretch inside. So it was especially tough to play through Dead Space 2 when the story suddenly demands Isaac jam a long, steel needle into his right eye. This scene gets extra points as a playable sequence where you have to carefully guide the needle into a very unwilling Clarke laying down on a bed. Why is this in the game? Something to do with those crazy Markers. It gets even worse if you fail this part, as the machine goes haywire and tunnels out Isaac's eye socket in gut wrenching fashion.

If you want to see how bad it can get, blame Hamst3r for linking a funny (and still disgusting) parody of the 5 Gum commercials using the worst case scenario of DIY eye surgery.

Runner Up: Stuff with the Night Mother Coffin - Skyrim

Handheld Hat Trick Award (Music, Gameplay, Story): Ghost Trick - Nintendo DS

Ghost Trick is a game that came out of nowhere to kick some ass and lay down some amazing character animation for a quirky puzzle game on the DS. It does what it says on the tin, involving ghosts, tricks, phantoms, and detectives. How that all runs together as the story unfolded threw me for a loop over and over again until I couldn't wait to see how it all played out. To be fair, this is a very "one and done" sort of game with zero replay value except to relive the magic over again. But Sissel, red headed girls, blue skinned hitmen, and Pomeranians make for a compelling mystery about truth and identity. Avert that fate, ghost that trick, and detect those phantoms.

Will Smith and Norm Chan's Stare of Disapproval Award: Okamiden - Nintendo DS

I really can't express how much I hate Okamiden without going overboard or sounding unrealistically mean. It has one of the worst final boss battles I've ever seen (with terrible execution to boot). So instead I'll let Will Smith and Norm Chan of Tested.com express how I really feel deep down inside about this game.

Favorite Franchise with No Release in 2011: Advance Wars

Ah... Good times. Good times.

One of my favorite game series, handheld or not, is Advance Wars that first came out on the GBA in 2001. The mostly bright and colorful take on managing armies of tanks, planes, and soldiers had shown me lots of good music and quirky characters. I've taken the lack of news about a new installment after Days of Ruin/Dark Conflict pretty hard and can't help but wonder if we'll ever see another one. It's easy to be a pessimist on this one considering Intelligent Systems also makes the far more popular Fire Emblem series. And I've come to accept the knowledge that if they ever do make another one, I'll probably have to buy a 3DS to enjoy it. Either way, sad to see nothing Advance Wars related this year. The wait continues.

Wishful Thinking/Runners Up: Blast Corps. and F-Zero

The Dead Space Quality Achievement Award: Modern Warfare 3

Iron Lady is the best mission in the game.

The Dead Space Quality Achievement Award is given to a game that does nothing new in terms of graphics, gameplay, design or pushing limits... but still manages to be a solid, fun experience anyway- much like when the first Dead Space came out. Modern Warfare 3 has nailed this middle ground as one of the many installments in the Call of Duty series. It's a modern military first person shooter that needs no introduction... but I would be lying if I said I didn't have any fun on the last outing of Captain Price's mustache and other random soldier dudes who keep stumbling into frame. It's big on spectacle as a roller coaster ride with bottomless explosions and all the plot holes you can come to expect. It also has the triumphant return of the AC-130 mission (one of my personal favorites) and the same mulitplayer with a few tweaks here and there. It is what it is.

Whether you hate or tolerate this series, I can take solace in the fact that I'm done with Price and I won't have to care about one of these games unless maybe they come out with Call of Duty: AC-130.

Best Rock Band DLC Song Award: Otherside - Red Hot Chili Peppers

I will find any excuse to use this

I find it incredible that someone somewhere is still releasing DLC for Rock Band. Week after week, they’re still putting out songs for people to download. One of my favorites this year was Otherside from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Whether it’s guitar, bass, vocals or drums, this song is an amazing release that I couldn’t wait to get into. Maybe a little low key compared to some of the shred fests... but I love it. I know how tricky taste in music can be, so I don't mean any disrespect to the truck load of other releases in the year.

Runners Up: Edge of Seventeen - Stevie Nicks, Betus Blues (Retro Remix) - dB Soundworks

Awesome Co-op Action Award: Uncharted 3

I couldn't find a good picture. So here's LEGO Drake.

Uncharted 3’s campaign was solid with some great character moments... but nothing on the level of Among Thieves. I was surprised to enjoy the Co-op campaign much more with it’s crazy, non-canon plot that ends in a gun battle at an airport with most of Uncharted’s major villains. If they had somehow thrown Marlowe and Talbot in there it would have been one of my favorite moments of the year. But along with an arena mode involving various objectives, I’ve had tons of fun jumping, shooting and climbing with two other people in pursuit of body counts... I mean treasure.

Runner Up: Beast Mode - Gears of War 3, Co-op - Portal 2

Most Memorable Set Piece Award: The Tormentor Tumble - Dead Space 2

Tormentor... IN SPACE

For the most part, Dead Space 2 did away with boss battles in favor of scripted moments involving rampaging necromorphs. My favorite moment involved a hulking monster known as the Tormentor that shows up while Isaac is trying to deal with a persistent gunship and insane Unitologist people. Shit gets kinda crazy when both of them get sucked out into space and tumble into a gunship for a final scuffle. The motion, soundtrack, and spectacle for this part is awesome as they all spin around in a vacuum until you take the shot. If you fail, the Tormentor re-creates the cover of the original Dead Space with Isaac's body.

Runner Up: The Sinking Cruise Ship - Uncharted 3

Standout Character Award: Cave Johnson - Portal 2

Good job, robots.

In a game series known for a crazy computer called GlaDOS, it's an achievement to somehow one up her with an even more memorable character in the sequel. The only trace of Aperture Science CEO Cave Johnson in Portal 2 is in the form of old portraits and prerecorded messages as you follow his career in crazy science. But I found myself kinda moved by his final speech he delivers in his failing health due to his relentless drive for progress (or whatever that means to him). J.K. Simmons, as the voice of Cave, did a great job to overcome my mental image of him as J.J. Jameson and the psychiatrist from Law and Order: SVU.

Runners Up: Herschell Biggs - L.A. Noire, Cicero - Skyrim, Charlie Cutter - Uncharted 3

Quick Categories

And that will do it for the year 2011. I will probably play more games before the year is out, but this topic will make a good representation of some of the fun (and horror) I've seen so far. By the time Christmas rolls around, hopefully I will have my hands on Dark Souls and Fortune Street. I can't wait to get into those.

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The Guess that Quick Look Game

Guess that Quick Look

Hey, I don't want to frighten anybody, but Giant Bomb has done a metric crapton of Quick Looks. The majority of the time they're having a little fun showing off the latest release or a game that caught their interest. I have my fair share of favorites, mostly due to hilarious commentary. But how well do you remember your Quick Looks? Would you be able to know the game going by one joke or off hand remark? There's one way to find out.

I'll give you a somewhat notable line from Jeff, Vinny, etc, and you name the game from the Quick Look. I'll sprinkle in hints (of varying helpfulness) for most of them to be generous. As for the difficulty rating... it's like the Rock Band system. It doesn't mean a damn thing in practice so don't sweat it.

But don't worry. This isn't a contest. At the very end I'll list the answers in a spoiler box so you can see how well you did. They'll be matched up by numbers. Really, this is just a clever way of sharing some of my favorite Quick Looks while practicing in bad art programs. Links will be provided if you need a reminder or see it for the first time. Good luck!

The Gimmies (Easy)

The Knight is site engineer Dave Snider, for those Wondering

The Singles (Medium)

The Last One is a Real Doozy
Ryan is pretty good at the off hand remark

The Doubles (Hard)

Welcome to the doubles. To make things harder, you'll only get two parts of a conversation. Here you'll have to name both commentators (A and B) and the game they Quick Looked. Oh, and the Wild Card at the bottom is a line I picked out of a random video on Giant Bomb. It could be office vids, mail bags, Endurance Runs, or reviews. It's worth all the cookies.

Watch out for the Wild Card

Done? How well did you do? Find out below in the spoiler box. If you missed a bunch, you can get a refresher course by clicking on the links in the answers and watching some quality content for the second (or first) time.

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Recently Played: Gears 3, White Knight 2

I was very tempted to call this "Nothing in Common" but recently I've been playing two games that couldn't be more different. One is a third person shooter with chainsaw bayonets featuring Ice-T on the XBox and the other is a painfully straight faced JRPG with giant knights on the PS3.

Gears of War 3

If you don't know about Gears of War 3 and haven't made a decision on it by now, we have the technology to catch up. But I'll try not to spend a whole lot of time recounting everything on Epic's latest chainsaw romp through the amazingly fucked up world of Sera. The story is alright. The unlock system is crazy. The Digger is my favorite new weapon. But I will spend time talking about my new favorite addition.

Beast Mode, Terrorize

I love Beast Mode. One of the things I like the most in video games is when you can play as the villains in any capacity. Campaign mode is fine, but when you have a mode like this where you can take the Locust monsters for a spin, it's a great time. It does take a bit of time adjusting to the controls of the locust. A lot of them don't handle like the main game, but have the same concepts. The Bloodmount is especially weird as you control the mount while an AI locust guy sits on top of you with a Hammerburst firing away. The Kantus can't take cover but has re-spawning Ink Grenades and a team healing move. It's a lot of fun to rip through defenses and destroy everything in your pursuit to wipe out the COG.

Nothing Runs like a Berserker

Playing as a Berserker is the obvious highlight as it's just as indestructible as it was in the first Gears of War. You can tear through any barrier, turret, decoy and Silverback without so much as flinching. Even if your vision is limited, having that telltale sound of a Berserker charge while running is just fantastic. But I think my favorites include the Serapede and the Armored Kantus. I don't always get to the final tier (because there are some good people out there) but the Armored Kantus' spin ball move ala Sonic the Hedgehog had me laughing for a long time when I used it to kill an enemy. Not to mention, two of those Gorgon Pistols are mean. And if you're feeling especially helpful, you can heal the team.

The only problem with Beast Mode? It takes FOREVER to find a game. It's not nearly as popular as Horde or standard multiplayer modes... and I guess I can see why. But man, Beast Mode is so worth the wait.

Hail to the Bots

Online Versus mode in the Gears of War series has been kind of tragic in the way that so many awesomely ridiculous weapon designs like the chainsaw bayonet, the torque bow, the Mulcher, the Digger... have always been tossed aside for one weapon: the shotgun. All of the games I've played so far with people (a handful at the most) have been nothing but Dances-with-Shotguns. The way people play you'd think no one started with an assault rifle, never mind the other weapon pick ups. Which is why I felt compelled to mention the greatest thing in Versus is the option to play with bots. It's nice to have the computer to play around with and experience the various maps, guns, and modes.

Dig Deeper into the Digger

The computer is cold, impersonal strings of code and that's probably the best part. Nothing is personal. It's pretty well rounded (even for AI) and make use of everything on the map. This is probably my mindset, but they play Gears in the way I imagined it. They snipe, chainsaw, mulch, dig- everything. And on Insane they're no slouch. Not to say they don't have their shortcomings, as they do exhibit some stupidity. But it's nothing you won't find online like teammates ignoring you when you're down and out only a foot away. But they keep things fresh with gunfights at a distance instead of rolling across the map to point blank range for a one-hit kill with the Gnasher or sawed off. I can just mess around, shoot guys, or chainsaw them when I have the chance. I hope this trend continues where games offer bots for the bulk of the multiplayer mode without stripping away features like Black Ops.

Probably my favorite moment so far is playing as Queen Myrrah and sticking Marcus Fenix with the Bayonet charge. Her follow up line was "That was oddly satisfying."

White Knight Chronicles II

White Knight Chronicles II is a weird game in a lot of respects. It's not exactly a straight sequel as it includes the first White Knight Chronicles packed in on the same disc. It seems kind of generous... except that the sequel part has zero tutorial and a long list of vaguely informative help topics. If you didn't play the first game, it doesn't throw you a bone in the least. The only real way to ease into it is start from square one and play through the first game where it takes the time to explain stuff to you. And that's what I ended up doing. Maybe I was drawn in from the idea of two games for the price of one (or the neat looking Knight designs) but I took on White Knight Chronicles I and II without really planning on it. My roommate seemed pretty excited about this game when it was first announced forever ago.

This game is... okay. Mediocre at best. But it has mad customization with armor, class and spells- and I love that stuff. The downside of White Knight Chronicles II is that it reuses every area from the first game, you just visit them in reverse. Yeah...

Standard Concept Fantasy

Mr. Sheffield, Ladies and Gentlemen!

The most crippling part of this game is the story. It's rote fantasy that does absolutely nothing new. You can predict everything that happens from the word go. Prophecies, princesses, black knights, betrayal, fake betrayal, spunky kid heroes that never says die, yelling names, old mentors, and characters taking themselves way way WAY too seriously. The only thing I can say that was kind of interesting is that one of the characters is voiced by Charles Shaughnessy who played Sheffield from the American sitcom "The Nanny" starring Fran Drescher. It's just the stuff they're involved in is so boring. Guess what guys, there's good and evil, and they got beef. I can assure you those prophecies play out just fine, too.

The coolest thing this game's story does is present a giant city on top of an even larger monster that moves around a crater. They call it Greede, and it's pretty neat.

So one of the reasons I gave this game a try was the customization. You start by creating your own character (that has zero impact on the plot and hangs in the background during cut scenes) with some Mass Effect style options. I made mine look as pissed off as possible which payed off much later when my guy was loitering in the background looking disapproving of everything going on. While this avatar character won't do anything of value other than slaughter tons of monsters, it does give you the choice to use every character class. Other party members are restricted to certain skills. And they do have a nice range of choices. You got your sword master, mage, healer, archer, along with cool choices like axes, gigantic swords, lances. They all have their specific uses but you can get by with just about anything.

Go Go Knights of Legend!

New Knight on the Block

The bright spots show up deep into the game. It's no instant gratification. I'm talking about the option for a few of your characters to transform into towering knights that can slaughter smaller monsters and take on giants with ease. They have a lot of systems in place (MP and Action Chips) that make it so you can't whip these Knights out every other fight, but it's fun to transform Power Rangers style and mess shit up. The first game only has two Knights, while the second adds a third. It never got old for me at least, and the Knights are perfect for bosses. I will say that White Knight is pretty good about making things huge. The downside is that they reuse a lot of enemy times or reskin the basic giant enemy frame. Hate wasps, spiders, wolves and golems? Because you'll kill a shit ton of them before the game is over. The Knights can help with that.

White Knight Chronicles won't set the world on fire. And if you aren't bothered by painfully predictable JRPG tropes, it's a decent game.

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It Could be a Game: Black Lagoon

I'm a guy with many tastes, but I have most of my fun with video games. And a lot like an ill fated metaphor about combining ice cream and pizza, I tend to wonder if other things I enjoy just might make a good game. Considering the crazy range of play styles and tone from one title to the next there is certainly a whole lot of room for just about anything you can throw at it.

So this blog post is about something that could be a game. Take careful note that I say could, because as the saying goes. You could, but should you? Safe money and sanity says, no, but I want to have fun with it anyway.

It Could be a Game: Black Lagoon

Like most Video Game characters, Revy is really only good at Killing People

Right up front Black Lagoon is an anime/manga series about a gang of pirates that operate out of a city in Thailand made up of mobsters, cartels, psychopaths, and drug dealers. The tone is very dark with a dash of grey morality kinda similar to Grand Theft Auto without the cheeky parodies of American culture. The action is very 80s what with torpedo boats taking out attack helicopters, unlikely displays of dual wielding handguns, and nearly indestructible women sometimes dressed up in maid outfits. I won't drag on about the plot because we have the technology if you want to know more.

Some of the appeal comes from a Japanese salary man out of his element who still finds time to survive using his head and carefully chosen words instead of mountains of bullets. I'll get around to that later. Some of the danger is that this would be a licensed game dooming it to indifference or a quick cash in. Although, there are always exceptions to the rule.

Tons of Guns, and Quirky Weapons Too

Guns? Yes. All of the Above

People who are familiar with Black Lagoon might find it a dead ringer for a third person action game or a sandbox type where you explore a city. But before we get that far, one thing Black Lagoon has going for it is a healthy selection of weapons. For me, most action games live and die with their selection of guns or tools of destruction. This is especially true in first person shooters where your "character" is really just a floating gun with a helping hand for reload animations. One of the show's more defining characteristics is the considerable detail spent on the various guns that are fired off from episode to episode. Everything from Berettas, to Browning Automatic Rifles, to Desert Eagles, to Kalashnikovs are well represented.

And then there are a few special weapons that were the partial inspiration for a blog like this. The kind of stuff that makes me wonder why this hasn't appeared in a video game yet.

The Umbrella Shotgun and the Suitcase SAW

Short explanation, Black Lagoon likes to take a lot of Japanese character types and put dark spins on them. Roberta the maid is no exception. But the important thing is her concealed weapons in the form of a combat shotgun umbrella and an LMG in her suitcase. I don't know how we've gotten this far without a game featuring some sort of concealed combination like this. C'mon video game industry. New Hitman game? Novelty Team Fortress 2 item for the Heavy? Someone get on this. It would be awesome.

Roanapur: A Little Slice of Hell in East Asia

Someone Has Already Thought of This

The setting of Black Lagoon certainly leaves a lot of options for game play. Roanapur is a fictional city in Thailand overrun with crime and drug trade. There's no illusion of order as the police are completely useless and the criminal element kill each other day in, day out fighting for territory. The only thing keeping the streets from becoming a war zone is a tight balance struck up by the various mafias. It's not the most original setting as a city of sin and crime, but the international element allows a lot of interaction from all over the world. Setting it in the 90s allows for plenty of soldiers left behind from the Cold War and Communism to apply their training for personal profit.

The natural reaction is something like GTA, which the accompanying image I found on the internet shows someone agrees. I have a different, less obvious idea, which leads me to...

Black Lagoon feat. Dialogue Trees

I would be totally cool with an adventure game where you navigate the trigger happy world of Black Lagoon with nothing but a lot of smooth talking. Adventure games are hot now, right? Give it to Telltale. The main character, nicknamed Rock, of this series is really just a normal white collar guy trying to hold onto his soul in a city where people solve their differences with gunfire and grenade launchers. He gets away with a lot of shit using nothing but a cool head and a lot of talking. It would be fun trying to get away with the same stuff through careful use of dialogue trees.

Use [Coat] on [Mad Russian Lady]

Or in the case of the game giving you options (including massive failure), make a big a mess as you possibly can.

Sometimes there are No Right Answers

Of course, if you want shooting there are more than enough blood thirsty characters in this series to put together a battle of any kind. You could even make it Uncharted-like to take advantage of all the jumping and diving regularly featured in the show.

This is Probably a Bad Idea

Torture mini-game! ...what? Too far?

But there's really no reason to limit game play to one character when there are plenty of quirky people you could rotate around... and that brings me to (probably) the most uncomfortable part of Black Lagoon, Hansel and Gretel. They're a pair of murderous pre-teen twins (maybe) that kill people with axes and a machine gun. They're all kinds of fucked up. And yet... I would be lying if I didn't think playing as them could be fun. Stalking people, luring them into a false sense of security, laying waste to bars and automobiles with a machine gun... and they would be weak to sniper rifles. I don't know what that says about me as a person, but if done poorly it would really cheapen their characters and probably show up on a news program.

Although, this concern probably depends on your familiarity with Hansel and Gretel and your tolerance for violence. I just can't remember many games where you play as murderous children beyond saving with a really, really fucked up past.

The Conclusion?

Black Lagoon could be a video game. It has everything it needs. Should it though? Probably no, considering how most licensed games turn out. The fact that there isn't an actual Black Lagoon game is evidence enough of that. Still, there are a lot of parts of the show I wouldn't mind getting borrowed for other games. If there is one thing from this blog that I would make real, it would be a shotgun umbrella. Preferably for a stealth game. That would be sweet.

That's not how you Active Reload, dude.
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53,596 HOPOs and 600 Songs Later...

So, if you don't know this about me, I like to play Rock Band. Actually, I like to play a whole lot of Rock Band. Recently I got the HOPO-cidal Maniac achievement (a crazy reference to a Dead Rising about killing an absurd amount of zombies) which gives me a pretty good idea how much I've put into Rock Band 3 alone. This isn't even counting the ton of DLC and spin off games involving LEGO, Beatles, and AC/DC. It's a perfect excuse to write something up about one of my favorite music-type games and talk a little about the years of songs, solos, and dumb band names.

The Bands

Flying Battery from RB2

When I make a band it usually involves two things: Top Hats and Gas Masks. Not together though, because it clips something awful and looks really terrible. The character creator doesn't give you a whole lot of options from the start, but the clothing is when you can really make members stand out. It's also a trivial aspect that doesn't affect how well you can play a song or modify your score... but I love customization so I'm glad it's in there.

I do really hate how the Top Hat (Male) automatically gives you long hair like you're trying to be Slash. Can't a guy just have a top hat? I mean really.

Band Names:

  • Trail of Woe (RB1)
  • Animal Coitus (Roommate's Favorite Suggestion- Google at your own risk)
  • Flying Battery (RB2 and 3)
  • The Jackjaws (RB2)
  • Back in Brick (LEGO)

The Songs

The most compelling reason why I keep coming back to Rock Band is the damn impressive stream of DLC songs (the meat of this blog) that have been rolling out ever since the first Rock Band launched in 2007. I would have never expected any company to be so consistent. The biggest DLC snafu I can think of (that affected me, at least) involved Rush's Moving Pictures that got pushed back a few weeks or so. But when it came out, it was totally worth it.

In all, the game says I have 602 songs across five different releases and DLC. That's a hell of a lot. But there are so many good songs that keep coming out I have a hard time turning down stuff like "Bad to the Bone" and "Edge of Seventeen" when they're right there. So here's a list of highlights, disappointments, impulse purchases and party favorites for your consideration.

Big Favorites

Now when I make a list like this, I don't mean to snub the literal thousands of other great choices. These are just go-to songs. The tunes I can easily think of when starting up a game of Rock Band. It's also nice that I can play these songs (and their solos) and get decent scores without feeling like I was flailing around too much.

  • "Highway Star" by Deep Purple
  • "Green River" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • "The Hellion/Electric Eye" by Judas Priest
  • "Kickstart My Heart" by Motley Crue
  • "Ghostbusters" by Ray Parker Jr.
  • "Runnin' Down a Dream" by Tom Petty

Big Surprises

People may feel differently, but Rock Band does offer exposure to a lot of songs you probably wouldn't give the time of day otherwise. I never knew I liked these songs until navigating a note chart or stumbling through lyrics when forced to sing.

  • "Antibodies" by Poni Hoax
  • "The Way That it Shows" by Richard Thompson
  • "Electric Crown" by Testament
  • "Hillbilly Deluxe" by Brooks & Dunn
  • "Use It" by The New Pornographers
  • "Knight on the Town" by Kula Shaker

A special mention goes out to "Sin Wagon" by the Dixie Chicks, because I bought it with the intention of someone getting drunk and tricking them into singing it. Unfortunately, this backfired and I got to sing it. But it has crazy hammer ons and pull offs and pretty fun to play for a country band most people have their reasons to despise nowadays.

Impulse Purchases

Songs regularly go for two dollars or less on the XBLA Marketplace. That's the right threshold for me to think "what the hell" and download songs based on the short preview or a few seconds of YouTube videos. I usually always, always regret it either because the song is way too hard. Or it's not really fun or because none of my friends want to play them with me. You know, because they have standards.

Peace Sells... but Who's Buying? [Album] by Megadeth

  • Yup. I enjoyed Peace Sells on Rock Band 2 so much that I decided to buy the album- because I can go for some Megadeth every now and then. But I had gone crazy and forgot just how insane the guitar parts are. I play on expert and I can barely squeeze by any of these songs. "Devil's Island" is especially bad with a murderous solo just seconds into starting the song. It is fun to watch people suffer on drums though.

"Runnin' Wild" by Airbourne

  • I saw someone describe this band as not-AC/DC so I gave a listen and I was fine with the lyrics. The guitar part is okay. It's really more of a guilty pleasure. But no one, and I mean no one, will play this song with me. And when the AC/DC track pack came out it got ignored fast.

"Surfing with the Alien" by Joe Satriani

  • Do you like trills? Because holy shit, Joe here has them in fucking spades. The worst part is that I know who Joe Satriani is and I know his reputation and I still bought this song because I like how it sounds. I think I've beaten it twice overall. This song is hard. God damn hard. It is pretty funny to load it up in LEGO Rock Band and watch all those bricks come screaming down the note highway. Silly brick people, trills are for experts!

"Afterlife" by Avenged Sevenfold

  • I bought this song purely for the novelty of (at the time) one of the craziest solos in Rock Band history. Little did I know that literally EVERYONE AND THEIR MOTHER had also bought this song. Online, Afterlife was picked almost every single time because it was the only DLC song two or three players had in common. Luckily that trend toned down before I had the urge to delete it and waste two perfectly good dollars.

Good Songs to Torture Me With

It's inevitable with track lists that there are going to be a few songs that you don't like. I'm not talking about those. I'm talking about songs I can't even stand. When they show up in random set lists, I have zero motivation to play or even do well. If I was trapped in a room with these... things... I would produce a rope from thin air and hang myself. To be fair, these are all on-disc songs that I have no option to delete, with a few exceptions.

HOWEVER, I don't mean to start shit with other people. Music, like art, is one of the more subjective things in the world. I don't like the songs in this list, but that doesn't mean I think less of other people for enjoying them. It's just my opinion. Go your own way. Anyway you want it. That's what you get. You oughta know.

  • "Welcome to the Neighborhood" by Libyans
  • "Visions" by Abnormality
  • "Maps" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
  • "Electric Version" by The New Pornographers
  • "Oh My God" by Ida Maria
  • "One Armed Scissor" by At the Drive In

Biggest Live Disappointments

You can't always get what you want... but it still hurts when it doesn't happen. Harmonix has been pretty good about representing songs in a game play format for plastic instruments... but sometimes they have to fall back on Live versions of songs for various reasons. And when they choose a Live version over the Studio version... man. It should go without saying that I'm just being damn picky at this point. These are minor annoyances that I wish I could live without.

"Hallowed be Thy Name" by Iron Maiden

  • This was pretty crushing for me. While it is great to have Iron Maiden in Rock Band... the cost of including a few live versions affected one of my favorite songs in a terrible way. Hallowed be Thy Name performed live really screws with all the singing practice I put in with the studio version. I could have lived with a live version of "The Trooper" or "Powerslave" or "Run to the Hills." Not this one.

AC/DC Live Track Pack

  • Apparently AC/DC is pretty protective when it comes to distribution of their music... which makes an entire track pack of live songs a pain in the ass. I know I should feel lucky to even have songs like "Back in Black" and "Shoot to Thrill" in a music game... but shit gets ridiculous on the plodding ten minute version of "Jailbreak" and the nine minutes of "High Voltage." Not to mention the fucking absurd intro to a simple song like "Highway to Hell." I'm sure the concert they used for this track pack was great... but what a bummer not to have the studio versions. Brian Johnson's voice is pretty rough here.

"Breaking the Law" by Judas Priest

  • I don't have anything outstanding to say about this other than if they ever release "Diamonds and Rust" or "Heading Out to the Highway" and it's a live version... I'll be shaking my fist.

Songs I Will Never Ever Escape

To wrap this section up, I wanted to make some kind of comparison with other Rock Band fans. In parties I've been to, these songs always get picked more than a few times. I wish "Highway Star" was this popular.

  • "Hungry Like the Wolf" by Duran Duran
  • "Maps" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
  • "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden (Before it was dropped)
  • "Welcome Home" by Coheed and Cambria
  • "Nine in the Afternoon" by Panic! at the Disco

The Suggestion Box

If Guitar Hero ever lets go of The Eagles and they release "Hotel California" or "Life in the Fast Lane" or maybe even "Get Over It" that would be fantastic. Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar" would also be great if the world ever ends and that kind of thing becomes possible. I'm sure billions of DLC suggestions are already out there... so I'll leave you with some odd ball Rock Band Network suggestions complete with YouTube links if you're really interested.

Red and Black from the Bayonetta Soundtrack

  • I'm all for video game music on Rock Band. Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV is a great start, so I'd like to continue that plan with Red and Black from Bayonetta. You usually hear it during boss fights with Jeanne and it has an awesome piano track with synthesizers and a fucking fantastic bass line. I'd love to see it playable.

Dead Batteriesby SnappleMan (a remix of Flying Battery Zone from Sonic and Knuckles)

  • I heard this on OCRemix a long, long time ago, but I still think it's perfect. It has great bass and it's just as fast as the Genesis song it's based on. I'm not sure how drums would work out, but guitar would be fun.

Red Fraction by Mell, the opening to Black Lagoon

  • A guilty pleasure song. It has some pretty heavy guitar, synth, drums, and ridiculous (somewhat entertaining) Engrish lyrics as the opening theme to an anime called Black Lagoon. There's a longer, more techno-ish version called the I/O Mix which would also work pretty well in my opinion.

Keep Quiet by The Protomen from Act II: Father of Death

  • If I had to pick one band I could expect to see on the Rock Band Network soon, I would pick these guys. They're a band that puts a dark spin on Megaman who have been around for awhile. Act II: Father of Death is very 80s (very unlike their debut) and would work fantastic for Rock Band. One of my favorites, Keep Quiet, even has some harmony going on.

Sturm's Theme from Advance Wars

  • Now to be totally ridiculous. I would take a remixed version of Sturm's Theme in a heartbeat if Betus Blues (Retro Remix) is any indication.
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Recently Played: Valkyria Chronicles

My roommate introduced me to Valkyria Chronicles when it first came out a few years ago. I got about halfway through before stopping on account that I had a nasty habit of beating his games before he did. But I really enjoyed my time with it. I think it's what Advance Wars should have been if when it was brought to a console, although Valkyria Chronicles is more like a crossover of Advance Wars and Fire Emblem as you fight in a faux World War II with a squad of quirky characters.

Also, if you looked at the box art by now you can probably tell it's got all the hallmarks of anime, for better or worse. I got it for less than twenty bucks, which means I made a killing because I had a great time leading my squad to victory over and over again.

Valkyria Chronicles (Advance World War II Wars: The Game)

That Lady up top is Trouble

I was somewhat tempted to turn this into a Past Expiration (where I talk about lesser known games) but the Valkyria Chronicles series is still kicking around on the PSP. The PS3 debut, however, didn't sell very well which probably prompted them to move the franchise to a handheld. The Valkyria Chronicles I played is a turn based strategy game with action elements and a small (very tiny) dash of cover based shooting. You have a team of guys and gals that you assemble yourself (plus a few regulars who play into the story) and move them one at a time around a battlefield taking shots at enemies, healing allies, and taking cover behind sandbags. You also get to use a few tanks that make a big splash with mounted machine guns, mortar rounds, and the all important tank cannon. Later on you get other fun things like Flamethrowers (tank mounted ones!) Gatling guns and grenade launchers. This game has crazy customization (from weapons to personnel), which is one of the reasons why I love it so much.

Somehow, this sounds Vaguely Familiar...

The story pulls heavily from World War II, mainly the European Theater, but is more of a fantasy version with different countries and technology. You can still draw a lot of similarities what with fancy military uniforms and some major events like a people persecuted to the point they're rounded up for labor camps and executed when they outlive their usefulness. But the fictional spin is less with avoiding stepping on toes and more about getting away with some spectacular scenes by the end game. Like a massive land battleship that can plow through front lines, gates and castles like it's no big deal. This game has an awesome collection of over sized tanks and cannons you couldn't get away with in a traditional World War II setting. Another point is that you don't play as any of the major sides. Instead you focus on a small independent nation caught in the middle of the conflict known as Gallia. To take it further, you don't even play as a the main military. Your team is an old tank and bunch of scrappy volunteers that make up Squad 7 of the Gallian Militia.

They also have Physics. Yeah...

Considering the anime styling of this game, it should come at no surprise that there is plenty of melodrama, relationships, and ladies with guns. But extremely skilled ladies. You can find women filling the roles of everything from captains, ace snipers, anti-tank units, and shocktroopers armed with submachine guns. You can make your entire squad women if you want to take it that far. It's not as creepy as it sounds, and characterization does hit about even. For example, on one hand you have Yoko, a middle aged mother who joined up to protect her kids. And on the other hand you have an enemy commander Selvaria, a woman with comically over sized breasts who wields a light machine gun when she isn't blasting your army with ancient artifacts. She would probably be a good character if her design wasn't so terrible. Also, female scouts and shocktroopers wear skirts instead of pants.

But the story is decent, but it probably won't melt anyone's heart. And lets not forget the most important lesson of all- War is bad.

Engaging the Enemy

I wish Giant Bomb had a page for the action gauge. The heart of this game is the strategy and that plays a huge part. Most missions are taken on with a team of 8 or 9 soldiers (plus your tank), but you'll always have 30 or so in reserve if you need reinforcements or your soldiers get killed. That's right. Valkyria Chronicles has permanent death, Fire Emblem style, for characters who aren't critical to the story. If you don't rescue them by 3 turns or an enemy gets to them first, they're gone forever. It's in the best interest that you deploy a well balanced force, as you have five different classes to pull from. Scouts have the largest gauge so they can move all over the map but don't take many hits. Shocktroopers do the dirty work, with submachine guns and decent health. Lancers are your anti-tank soldiers with rocket launchers, but they're unwieldy things and almost never hit people. Engineers are your medics, they can also fix tanks and barriers. Lastly, snipers hang back and shoot from far away (mostly because they have tiny gauges and can't move very far). Winning battles gets you experience, and you can spend it to level up an entire class. This is really nice, so you can swap out soldiers left and right without anyone falling behind.

Oh God, Please Hit this Time!

They nearly have a rock-paper-scissors balance that reminds me of Advance Wars... but due to the mechanics of aiming and shooting. Any class can take out another class if they have a good angle and plenty of luck. It's just usually not a good idea to send a Scout up against Shocktroopers, Engineers against Lancers, etc. Once you aim you have all the time in the world to pull the trigger. Enemy units only shoot at you while you're moving... so the rest is up to the dice rolls behind the scenes. And that's one of the unfortunate parts of this game when starting out new. At the beginning, your militia has zero training and really crappy weapons so completely missing targets is very common. This is especially bad for snipers who will seem, at first, like the worst marksmen in the ENTIRE WORLD... until you buy them better rifles and level them up until they're killing every target in one, clean head shot. That also goes for the other classes, but not as bad since they have machine guns and grenades to pick up the slack.

For that reason, I understand if someone couldn't get into this game. It's kinda frustrating until you level up your squad and get better equipment.

There's also a point system in place for battles that you spend to move your forces around. Troops use one, while tanks use two. When you run out of points, your turn is over until you get new ones the next time around. You can also end turns early and save up points, but that's not really a good idea until later when you get Special Orders that work a lot like CO Powers from Advance Wars. You learn them throughout the game that allow you to do things like boost offense or defense, heal your squad, or call in mortar or artillery strikes. The offensive ones are crazy expensive though, so they're more entertaining than practical. The Artillery Strike hits every enemy on the field... but it's six stars. You could move your tank three times. Or six soldiers with that amount. The best ones I found were the orders that can rescue wounded troops without risking another soldier to save them.

It's like a Book. Hard.

Rattatattattattata. Bang

Usually I don't worry about graphics. I'm not that picky. But Valkyria Chronicles does go for some visuals that work toward other objectives than looking pretty. The events of the game are told like a history lesson out of a book. Chapters and menus are like turning pages with graphics that take on a cell-shaded color penciled look. It's a lot like watching an illustration in motion with sound effects popping up comic book style for explosions, tank engines, and gunshots. Characters are very bright and vibrant, which is nice considering this is basically a war game and usually war games get the Next-Gen Brown look complete with smoke and blackness. Even deserts, dry lifeless places, look pretty good with yellow, orange and red shades against black outlines. I'm not very good at this, but there's plenty of screenshots on the Valkyria Chronicles page if you're curious.

My dumb header up there also brings me to the difficulty. When you get near the end of the game, things get shit hard. Part of that is justified as your squad is the militia and treated little more than cannon fodder for the main military, so you get sent on plenty of suicidal missions. But then it just gets really, really hard. The game thinks nothing of starting you on the low ground while the enemy has several levels above to shoot down at you, including a woman who can snipe your troops halfway across the map- with a light machine gun. Or randomly deploy enemy reinforcements that can scurry over and capture your camp before you know what's going on. Or put Lancers in a spot to destroy your tank and cause a game over because Welkin can't die. And when you go up against bosses, it will never be as simple as "Shoot X until Victory." There are always multiple stages that will come down to the wire. Because of that, the last boss in this game is a pushover compared to pretty much everything else you've faced up to that point. Not that it hurts the game. It works toward a pretty satisfying end.

I also bought some of the DLC to check it out only to find that... holy shit. The DLC is also fucking hard. There's one mission in particular "Edy's Detachment" where you're defending an area completely surrounded by tanks and all. If one enemy enters your area, it's over. Oh, and there's also a mortar strike on your position every single turn that destroys the sandbags you use as cover. It's a major bummer... because it's obviously tailor made for people addicted to difficulty so there no choice to just enjoy the content. "Behind Her Blue Flame" is also fucking hard where you play as the bad guys with the worst equipment known to man.

Squad 7, Move Out!

While the DLC is a bummer, the main game is pretty entertaining not to mention long. There's a huge glossary in there that fills you in with all the random trivia of the Valkyria world. Some of it is hit and miss, and the ones I enjoyed most was about the crazy tanks you fight. Like I said before, if Advance Wars ever gets another game on a console, I would want it to be something like this.

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Recently Played: Arkham Asylum (and the Joker)

Getting caught up on good games always gives me a great feeling, and not just because I only spent 20 bucks on Arkham Asylum with all the DLC included and the "Play as Joker" mode for challenge maps... but that always helps. Since I'm several years behind it may come at no surprise to many of you that this is a damn fantastic game where you play as Batman and regularly take on mobs of prisoners and kick their asses.

With Arkham City coming out in the near future, I thought I would get caught up with the PS3 version of the game because I wanted to play as Mark Hamill and beat up security guards. I mean, play as the Joker.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (Metal Gear Batman: The Game)

Nothing Could Possibly Go Wrong at this Point

There's really no getting around it. This game is basically Batman and Metal Gear Solid combined to perfection. You spend the entirety of the game exploring Arkham Asylum on an island you can't leave because the Joker has taken over. They even have a moment in the game where the Scarecrow screws with your game Psycho Mantis style. You even have radio contact with an ally who feeds you information. The major difference is that you're Batman and the sneaking has less to do with survival and more to do with picking off enemies one by one until they're all terrified of you. Making this easier is a whole list of gadgets and batarangs you've come to expect of things involving Batman.

Also, I was born in the eighties so I got to know and love Batman: The Animated Series. Seeing the major voice talent come back to do a well made video game almost makes it too good to be true. But it works so well.

Take On Twenty Dudes at Once

To be fair, there are only a few moments in the game where you actually face twenty guys at once, but the combat works so well that large groups are the most fun to take down. Basic combat uses the four face buttons. Square is a good ol' fashioned punch, Triangle is a counter move that is critical when an enemy can't wait his turn, X is used to jump over enemies if things get too hairy, and Circle stuns enemies with a cape flourish that allows you to lay into them. How you target enemies works by simply pushing the control stick in the direction of an unfriendly. Complementing this is quick taps of the shoulder button that toss batarangs or grapple enemies with grappling hooks. You can get pretty creative with it. But the main draw is keeping a combo going without getting hit, that let's you toss guys around or take them down with a one-hit-KO.

I admit getting used to this took me awhile. But as soon as I adjusted, crowds of enemies were like face punching buffets rather than intimidating mobs. And that's how it should be, because you play as Batman. The only time you really have to watch out is when guys have assault rifles or sniper rifles. Guns kill Batman pretty quick. Mobs of prisoners also change this up with Stun Batons and knives that make attacking them head on useless. Every move is important, and you will use them.

The Other Stuff a Batman Does

The other two parts of this game involve investigation modes where you find a critical clue and then track it around the island and sections where you sneak around a room full of guys with assault rifles and take them down. I didn't find it as enjoyable as combat, but that's really a minor complaint. It does mix things up and keep it fresh as you chase the Joker around Arkham. The "Sneaking around a Room" reminds me most of Metal Gear Solid except you can't shoot guys from across the room if you have a clear shot. Batarangs really only knock guys down, and if you aren't quick they'll get right back up. Still, placing explosive gel and blowing floors and walls out from under unsuspecting goons is a lot of fun. Not to mention using gargoyles to zip around a room as enemies fire blindly into the ceiling. Hearing them panic is a lot of fun. Of course, once they're on to you, they also like to buddy up and watch each others backs. There's definitely some finesse to it.

The Weakest Part

He Looks Big, but there's not Much of a Fight

The one thing I had the most problem with in Arkham Asylum is that this game doesn't really know how to do boss battles. I'm not the kind of guy to demand boss battles in every game, but I often find them to be the best part of an adventure. Considering Batman has a whole gallery of crazy characters like Scarecrow, Clayface, and the Joker, it was a little disappointing that you never go toe-to-toe with them like you do with random enemies. The closest you get to a real boss fight is Poison Ivy and that was fine. The rest (even someone as intimidating as Bane) is reduced to playing the part of the matador as you make them charge headlong into a wall so they're stunned, and then attack them repeatedly. How do they make these fights harder? A mob of lesser enemies jump in.

Of course, they get a little creative when it comes to fights with Scarecrow and Killer Croc. Killer Croc's "fight" doesn't work so well for tension or difficulty. The boss battles aren't enough to ruin this game, but it does stand out considering how well everything else works. The last fight with the Joker, while crazy, doesn't really make much use out of what he's become at the time.

Play as Mark Hamill, Beat Guys Up

Don't Mind Me, I'm About to Go on a Rampage

In the grand scheme of things, the ability to play as the Joker in challenge maps on the PS3 is a minor deal. He's a little harder to play as considering he doesn't get health upgrades and has less gadgets than Batman... but it's the Joker. Voiced by Mark Hamill. And he's so entertaining to watch. All of his moves are appropriately silly what with a salute that turns into a karate chop to the neck and poking guards in the eyes as a takedown. Not to mention his brutality has some great swings from harmlessly kicking a guy in the nuts to snapping a guard's neck after beating him in the head- repeatedly. He also has a ridiculously over sized revolver (with one shot, reloaded between rounds) and is the one time in Arkham Asylum where you can just shoot a guy dead. And the laughing... I love Mark Hamill's Joker laugh. And you get plenty of that, often brought on by takedowns or chattering teeth stuffed with explosives.

By the time I had unlocked all the Challenge maps I was ready for a game where you play as the Joker and just terrorize people with his low tech insanity. Maybe a mode where you free roam Arkham Asylum attack guards would work better? Probably not. It reminds me of something I heard a long time ago where someone proposed making a GTA style game where you play as the Joker. Six stars calls in Batman. Or something. Playing as Joker is a lot of fun, that's all.

The Last Laugh

On an somewhat subjective note, I didn't really care for much for the enemy character design. With the exception of the lanky Joker, everyone looks kinda chunky in this game. Even Scarecrow looks pretty ripped from what I can remember, and his whole shtick is an average guy who uses biological warfare to get what he wants. The character bio screen probably made this stick out the most, because it has much better art of Batman and his enemies. Of course, this has more to do with the engine the game was made with and I'm sure you can only do so much. I don't want to make a huge deal out of it, because the game was fun enough that I quickly got over it. Not to mention I was a big fan of the Animated Series. Even with the voice talent from that show, this is just another take on Batman including character design and tone.

Either way, I had a lot of fun and I'm excited for Arkham City. Initially it sounds kind of crazy they'd just change part of Gotham into a penal colony... but hey. It's Batman.

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Past Expiration: Okami

For those who don't know, Past Expiration is my little term for talking about a game way past its prime. In this case, an adventure game based on Japanese folklore with heavy influence from Legend of Zelda. Topical!

Okay, so I might be pushing it with this one. Okami isn't exactly an obscure game. Many have probably heard plenty about it either through news about the now defunct Clover Studios or general word of mouth. Not to mention it was also released for the Nintendo Wii in 2008. But I'd still like to cover it because I enjoy this game and... well, it also didn't sell very well. So there's that too.

Also, this new editor is god damn killing me, so excuse my (most probably) funky looking blog entry.

Okami (Nippon Mythology Brushwork: The Game)

Japanese Box Art Always Wins

If you think too hard about this game it's actually pretty bizarre. Okami is basically one long affectionate parody of Japanese Shinto mythology from the Nihon Shoki, Kojii, and other stories where you play as the sun goddess Amaterasu. For a Western comparison, it would be like making a game where you play as Jesus and go on an adventure poking fun at the stories from the Bible. In that respect it probably didn't help the game find an audience... but I doubt that many people outside Japan are that familiar with the subject matter so that's really just speculation on my part. Either way, the game trades more on comedy than anything else. Even the title is a Japanese visual pun. Okami, depending on how it's written out, can mean "wolf" or "god" but sound similar enough when spoken. And to be fair, the main character you play as is both.

So it should go without saying that this game is pretty damn Japanese.

"Amaterasu, Origin of All that is Good and Mother to us All..."

In Okami you play as the sun goddess Amaterasu as she takes the form of a white wolf to rid the lands of demons that have ravaged the land of Nippon. You play as a wolf because gods and goddess often work in mysterious ways... and it also plays to the game's title pun I mentioned before. The only weird part about this was the marketing, which I distinctly remember just how hard developers and PR people tried to downplay or sidestep the fact you play as a sun goddess. A lot of them were going the route that a divine being can be genderless and stuff like that... but in the game characters pretty obviously refer to Amaterasu as a goddess. Repeatedly. There's even a blind priest you run into who can see people's spirit and envisions Amaterasu as a gentle maiden. It showed a lack of confidence at the time... but considering they were pitching this game to the Western world, I guess I can understand. As someone born in the United States I can attest that we Americans love violence in our entertainment more than just about anything you can think of, for better or worse.

I digress, but anyway, the majority of the events in the game are based on mythological events. Characters and demons of legend, etc. Only everything plays out slightly differently and comes off as a "true story" played for funny epic journey. It's like that basic truth that no two people can tell the same story the same way. Everyone puts their own spin on it. For that reason, this game leans hard into narrative. It has a shit load of text and unskippable cutscenes that kind of hurts the game's pace at times. So if you're not a patient person, or don't like reading, you should probably ignore Okami. Or buy the Wii version where they let you skip scenes the first time around.

For me, I enjoyed the story even if got a little long winded. I thought it was fun.

Live by Brushwork, Death by Artwork

Careful, She Spins Webs

The main selling point of this game is the game's art style and the Celestial Brush mechanic that plays off it. If you haven't seen screenshots, Okami's basic look is a Japanese painting come to life. I think that phrase was said or written a hundred times before this game came out, but it really does look pretty damn good. I mean, art has always been a subjective thing... so if you're into graphics so realistic you can see the sweat on your character's face... you won't find it here. Everything is stylized, for great effect I find. And manipulating the world with the brush mechanic is a lot of fun. Basically, you hold down a shoulder button to drop a canvas effect on the screen and paint symbols to use abilities like firework bombs, call down lightning, and repair broken objects. You gain these abilities throughout the game Zelda-style for use in a dungeon, to defeat a boss, or move the story along. How often you can use this depends on your ink, which leads me to the next paragraph...

Upgrading Amaterasu's abilities like health and ink power plays out in an RPG fashion, but getting there doesn't rely on how many X you've killed in someone's basement. You gain praise, because Amaterasu's strength depends on belief, from helping out the people of Nippon with their problems and purifying cursed zones and dead land. You get a lot of scenery porn as you do this, restoring a black and brown muddy area with a long montage of exploding color. You can dump praise into categories like health, ink, astral pouches to increase Amaterasu's strength as you see fit... or just horde it all together if you like to challenge yourself because... I'll just be brutally honest here, this game is stupidly easy. I mean it reminds me of L.A. Noire in the way that you progress even if you've completely fucked up. If you had to pick a game that a portrays a goddess as an unstoppable force... this would be a pretty good example.

A Matter of Taste, I Guess

The definition of a game, or what it tries to do, has expanded so much since Okami came out that I have a hard time deciding if the complete lack of difficulty is really such a bad thing. Take a the 2011 release, Child of Eden, where "losing" or "failing" to pull back to a Game Over screen seems counter-productive to the title's parade of trippy visuals. Most of the enemies in Okami will take a long, long, long, long time before winding up for an attack or start coming after you. And it's pretty entertaining just to see how badly you can curb stomp a gang of imps or take down a towering boss like Orochi. The game gives you plenty of options. You can chop a demon fish in half, blow it up, pull off an Izuna Drop with a well timed counter attack, set them on fire, shoot them to death with rosary beads, etc. And in the unlikely event you run out of health, Okami has you covered with an item known as the Astral Pouch that will revive Amaterasu instantly. True, you have to fill it up with food to make it work each time... but that's not hard to do. Items are plentiful as well, and it's entirely possible to win a fight without attacking by dropping a bunch of area bombs picked up in a dungeon. There's never really a point in Okami where the pressure is on. You will miss entire enemy attack animations because you will kill them so fast they never had a chance to try. Honestly, how many of you who beat the game knew that Lechku and Nechku have special attacks where they maniuplate time? I bet you killed both of them before it ever came to that.

If you like your games low impact, or play to enjoy an adventure or meet quirky characters, you're in luck here.

The Bossest of Bosses

You Also Fight Orochi like... Three Times throughout the Game

The part I like the most about Okami has to do with its enemy design, which ranges from pretty cool to completely off the wall. You don't have to look much further than late game bosses, Lechku and Nechku for proof of that. Please click those links and check those dudes out, because they are sophisticated twin clockwork demon owls with top hats, canes, and monocles. They control time. Naturally. They can also be a Sly Cooper shout out because I can't think of many other games with clockwork owls that feature so prominently as villains. You also have the eight headed Orochi with each one wearing a different helmet and displaying some personality. The lightning head is always off his mark in cutscenes (either because he's blind or dumb) and the water head just wants to splash-splash all day. But both of them are still part of a demonic being that demands sacrifice from a nearby village.

Then you have the very last boss of the game, Yami, which seemed like a personal challenge of the design team to see how many different bosses they could squeeze into a transforming sphere. Some of them are funny, like Yami's dreaded slot machine form. Which tells me he doesn't take Amaterasu seriously if he's going to whip out the one-armed bandit during their fight to the death. It's clear at that point that he's just fucking with you. It also helps that all of these bosses aren't hard at all so it's easier to appreciate their design while they jump around and animate. Ninetails is also pretty neat considering it has nine tails that whip around while it darts and dodges over the boss area.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Looking back at this game has really soured my opinion of the DS sequel Okamiden. I mean, I didn't like it in the first place, but I didn't think it was absolutely terrible. But when you go from fighting twin clockwork demon owls to a... catfish... when your last boss goes from Yami to... I won't spoil it... the laziest thing they could possibly do, I start to realize I really hate that game. The kind of effort that went into Okami compared to Okamiden is night and day. Maybe a spiritual sequel would have worked better.

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Past Expiration: Dark Cloud 2

For those who don't know, Past Expiration is my little term for talking about a game way past its prime. In this case, an RPG randomly generated dungeon crawler slash town builder that was released in 2003 for the Playstation 2. Topical!

Dark Cloud 2 (Fantasy Back to the Future: The Game)

He's an Inventor, She's a Princess: They fight Crime

I have to admit I don't remember how I was introduced to Dark Cloud 2. I may have rented it back in the days when you actually visited a store to rent games. But for whatever reason I remember that it had a strong opening and a crazy invention system that involved creating items and weapons by taking pictures of objects and combining them. So I took it upon myself to track down a copy and play through it to the end. And this is a great little game. Well, not little. This game is long and dense. It's one part dungeon crawler, one part Sim City with plenty of story to fill out everything else. You might consider it a slow burn, but once things get moving there is a lot of fun to be had.
 
Well, unless you hate randomly generated dungeons. Then you're flat out of luck there. 
 

Story Keeps on Slippin' Into the Future

 No Such Thing as a Good Clown
This game is pretty easy to sum up in a sentence. A young inventor named Max and a princess from the future named Monica team up to restore the land through use of time travel. If I had to be more specific (and I do) it starts in an isolated town called Palm Brinks where no one has gone outside the walls in a really long time. You play as Max right off (and eventually Monica) when the circus comes to town with some really shady clowns and discover that the world is pretty fucked up at the moment. After a tutorial dungeon in the sewer and shaking off a bunch of carnival freaks, you learn that the only way to save the future is to rebuild key areas in the past. How they get this done involves amulets known as the red and blue Atlamillia. Max can travel to the future with his, while Monica can use hers to go back in the past.
 
That means you get a whole system dedicated to planting trees, placing houses and other environmental stuff. The closer you can stick to history, the better off the future will be (and you'll also get some helpful upgrades). Of course, Emperor Griffin, the guy responsible for wrecking the past has plenty of soldiers to harass you throughout the game. You meet friendly faces and get to the bottom of all this time distorting nonsense. There's also a time traveling train involved. Doc Brown would be proud.
 
Overall the game is pretty lighthearted. I did appreciate that Monica is no damsel in distress and will frequently hold her own in and out of cutscenes. Max is pretty chill for a main character and doesn't get annoying after 20 plus hours of game time. There's also a great villainous clown known as Floatsam early in the game.
 

Crawl, Crawler

The RPG action part of the game involves exploring randomly generated dungeons. Every area you visit and revisit will be different every single time. The only constant is the type of enemies you'll find in a particular section. When it comes down to fighting, fleeing and using items, it plays out like an third person action game. Max and Monica play similarly with both a melee and projectile attack. The difference between them really depends on how you upgrade their weapons, but I played most of the game with Max because his special move is an awesome Mech called the Ridepod that you can customize throughout the game. It can LAY WASTE to most of the enemies in a stage no problem. Whether you're feeling Metal Gear or Main Battle Tank, Max has the guns to bring it. Also, as you upgrade his weapons he becomes the long range master equipped with rapid fire pistols or a fully automatic sub-machine gun.
 
 Gatling Guns would work Better
Monica was more of my melee master. She has some really great swords... and that's about it. Her projectile attack involves some magic that hardly does any damage (if you're lucky) and becomes situational at best by the end of the game as higher level enemies develop immunities. Not to mention, her special mode involves transforming into enemy monsters... but they're so weak, slow and overall pathetic that I never stuck with it long enough to find out if she got anything better. It also doesn't help that you have to jump through some serious hoops wooing enemies over with care packages in order to get more monster transformations. I found it damn near impossible to see if it ever paid off.... because enemies never develop immunities to tank cannons. Nope.
 
However, the game is pretty good about keeping you from blowing through a dungeon with one character. There are stages that pop up where you can only use one character only. Luckily, all you need to do is find a key and then the exit. So if you weren't giving Monica the time of day, you're not totally screwed if she's too weak to fight. It also has you keep track of weapon condition, ammo, fuel so you can't one button it through an entire stage. You can buy supplies at shops... but it can get pretty pricey.

Build a Wrench, then Build a Town

The other part of the game involves inventing things and rebuilding towns. The invention system uses a camera Max carries around. He can take pictures of objects like windows, barrels, stop lights, trumpets, and store it in a photo album. Then you combine three objects you've taken photos of and see if it results in an item or weapon you can make. Of course, doing this repeatedly with random objects will result in frustration. Your best bet is to look around town and get "inspired" by books and people that give you a useful combinations. And since you can whip out the camera anytime, anyplace, it gets really tricky figuring out what can be used for an invention or not. There's one combination that uses a hallway chandelier right before the final boss confrontation. Some even use certain frames of an enemy's attack animation. It can get pretty crazy. But sometimes you can create a trumpet gun made from a fountain, a rapper, and a tree.
 
 Gonna Build a Town
More importantly (as in, required to move the story along) is rebuilding towns in each area of the game. You get materials from dungeon crawling and things called geostones that allow you to make houses, trees and other stuff. It will also give you conditions to fulfill in order to repair the future. Stuff like, putting a fence around a house, or putting a bridge over a body of water. It's sort of like Sim City with the overhead view but without the income tax and water works. Each area has different materials to build with, like the coastal town that uses large docks to build on. You only have to hit a certain percentage to fix the future, but if you go 100% you get items that increase health for Max and Monica. Mercifully, the game is not really picky about each objective, so you can build some ugly ass towns and still get through the game. The only time building gets frustrating is when you don't have enough geostones to figure out what each objective is. When the game tells you to put "??????" next to "??????" you'll want to give it the middle finger.
 
Once you've put a town back together, you'll also need to move people in. Ghost towns don't count in the world of Dark Cloud 2. Most of these people are recruited from Palm Brinks, the starting area. And just like Suikoden or Majora's Mask they'll all want something before going along with your crazy plan to save the future or whatever it is you plan to do. This varies from simple actions like answering questions and more annoying tasks like upgrading a piece of junk weapon or figuring out complicated math problems. Yeah.

Lost FOREVER and Time Distortion Golf

Dark Cloud 2 is also not afraid to use the greatest of gaming fears, losing something forever. One of the worst offenders is a guy who wants you to take photos of certain events, characters, or boss battles. The majority of his requests are events you will only see once. So if you didn't catch that elephant rearing up to smash you to pieces... tough luck. Or when that effeminate fish pulls a big goofy smile. The list goes on. Certain weapons also fall under that category too. My best advice is to just roll with it. This game is not so hard that you'll regret missing out on some content. And luckily a lot of the missable stuff is side quests and other junk you can live without.
 
The other thing I have to mention, because it gets really damn bad, is a mini-game where you try to fix time distortions with a game of golf. They justify it with a piece of time and space rolling around where it shouldn't and Max or Monica can't touch it because it's dangerous. The end result is a golf game where you try to hit a color changing ball into a vortex. But since every dungeon is randomly generated, there are countless times where you just can't win because you can only hit the ball a number of times before it disappears. What keeps you from trying over and over again is that you can only play this game after killing every enemy on the stage. Even if you're power leveled, it takes time. Way too much time just to figure out that you can't possibly hit a ball up and down a hallway, bend around a corner, and cross a gap because the stage isn't set up right. And winning gets you gold cards that can buy pretty cool stuff too.
 
I guess it's not gamebreaking, but I still found it really annoying.
 

Final Thoughts

Dark Cloud 2 is a really cool game. At first I was afraid it would be too hard to balance town building mechanics and exploring dungeons for materials and boss fights. It seemed awkward at first but I got used to it as I went on. I appreciate all the crazy names they give each level of a dungeon, and the level of customization in costumes and pieces for the Ridepod is awesome. Slap a rotor and some cannons on that thing and you're good to go. Don't forget the voice box that gives your mech plenty of one liners.
 
And remember, clowns are always trouble.
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