Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes Difficulty Curve

A Helpful Visual for your Information
Times like these is when I'm glad I don't have photoshop. I'm pretty sure I'd never use it for anything good. But if my MS Paint mock up is any indication... I feel like this game doesn't have any idea how hard it is or wants to be.

Might and Magic: Clash of Random Chance

This is the second time I've written a blog about a game I have overwhelming feelings against (the first is Okamiden, if you're absolutely curious.) Usually I favor keeping it to myself if there's something I really dislike. Most of the time a good rant is just instant gratification where you can feel good for a few minutes at the cost of accidentally or intentionally putting down a bunch of people at the same time. But in the case of Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes, I want to get to the bottom of this. I feel like there's some fun to be had in this game. The puzzle system seems pretty cool and would probably work great if I wasn't mauled by something I can't control every time I fight a battle. I'm talking about whatever system the game uses to decide troop patterns for my side and the computer's side. This also includes when you reinforce.

There's either a serious problem or I just can't handle the rules of engagement. Giant Bomb, help me out!

More about Chance than Skill

I've put some time into campaign mode. I just reached the third area and I would compare this game to Poker. You can understand some basic combinations and rule sets (like chaining and fusing core units) but ultimately it comes down luck. Or in my case, a whole shit ton of luck. It seems like every battle the computer begins with some cushy set up where it can triple chain a bunch of units and activate it's 4x4 special unit of death on the first turn. On my first turn I have to delete a bunch of units and juggle my much more manageable (or so I thought) 2 block units. Or I'm choked full of 4x4 special units (to the point I never use them anymore because they always get killed). It never seems fair. And I'm not talking about the standard CPU advantage because as a human I'm way more capable. It just seems uneven. And unlike Poker, there's no choice to fold and wait for the next hand. You take those losses and lose those resources, or like I do get so angry I quit out of the game and reload the save file.

The other bad end of this is whenever I reinforce and the spread dumps units all over setups I've been working on. This is especially bad for 4x4 units where it decides who wins and who loses. Without fail, every time reinforcements will choose to bury my special units under an avalanche and not even cases where I can easily delete a guy and create a wall or link something so units move to the back of the line. Facing the computer, you get as much time as you need, so it's not about missing the patterns. I just have nothing to work with. It makes for some really vicious swings where a nice lead can quickly turn into defeat.  This is when the computer opponent gets bunch of special units gift wrapped with everything they need to activate them and I end up throwing middle fingers at game code and something that literally can't care if I win or lose.

Because of this, the experience system means absolutely nothing to me. Why does the Lv.8 guy roll over like a dead log when the Lv.5 guy is like Nemesis and just won't die? The first boss in story mode was a complete joke compared to the random Elf on the side of the road. No, he wasn't a bounty. Just some random guy you could choose to fight. All that matters is how the units are placed at the beginning of the battle. It's almost impossible to build any confidence. Sometimes it's just funny when I managed to buy all the special units for the second campaign before the game introduced them to me.

The Other Very Real Possibility

The other side is that I may be really, really terrible at this game. More than I realize. I can accept that. But I was pretty bad at Super Meat Boy, another unforgiving game. The difference is that I could eventually get better at Super Meat Boy where in Clash of Heroes, I can never get better at random unit placements. Also, no one else seems to have this problem from what I've been able to find. It could be that they understand it's just part of the game and you deal with it. In that case let me know, please!

I had to post about this because there's three other areas left in the game, and if it's going to be like this through the rest of the game I'm not interested. And if this is how it works online with real people then forget that.

Going Overboard: Advance Wars - Dual Strike vs. Days of Ruin

Advance Wars is one of my all time favorite video game series that uses an effective blend of turn based strategy and colorful graphics. This series started a long time ago known as Nintendo Wars in Japan, but it didn't really take off until a release on the Game Boy Advance. To overly simplify things, it's like chess involving tanks, planes, and battleships with a rock, paper, scissors approach to balance. An RPG-toting Infantry division can crack a tank no problem, but if an attack helicopter buzzes them, they're doomed. If a fighter jet finds the attack helicopter... well that copter is toast. The appeal comes from deploying a well balanced attack force along with a quirky Commanding Officer adding some bonus stats and special powers to mix things up. Couple that with some awesome music and a map editor and you're ready to roll.

I'm positive I could play this series forever. Sadly, Advance Wars has always been overshadowed by Fire Emblem which is a similar series with an emphasis on individual units in a fantasy setting. There's no telling if Intelligent Systems will ever release another game in the series. The last time an Advance Wars game came out was Days of Ruin/Dark Conflict on the DS in 2008. And it hasn't even released in Japan yet. To be fair, when the very first Advance Wars came out on the GBA it was right in the wake of 9/11. And considering how war is still part of our everyday lives I can see how an upbeat somewhat cutesy spin on commanding legions of infantry, tanks, and airplanes into combat might rub people the wrong way.

Anyway, I digress. The point of this blog is to take a look at the last two major releases in the Advance Wars on the Nintendo DS and match em' up 1v1 style. Why? Because I like both of them, but they are pretty different. I don't think this will turn into a contest of "which one is superior?" but more why I think both of them matter.

Basic Intel - Need to Know

Dual Strike and Days of Ruin might be in the same series but they are two very different beasts. It's the difference of balls-to-the-wall action disregarding all balance in contrast to a more reserved but better polished experience. The deciding factor comes down to how you like your games.

Dual Strike

At Least He's Honest
Dual Strike, released in 2005, takes the kitchen sink approach and packs the game with as much stuff as they could fit on the cartridge. Looking back on it, it was like a party blowout for characters that were back for a third and final time. They had new faces, an RPG-like progression system, tagging characters in and out, battles on two screens, new units, challenge modes, and a weird combat mode that would totally be a dual joystick shooter... if the DS had any joysticks. There are 27 commanding officers in all. You know how many they had in the very first Advance Wars? Twelve. There is a lot of stuff to do in Dual Strike.

However, this means that balancing the game was impossible. The dual strike system allowed COs to tag in and out and make use of their various abilities, so you could very well pick the guy who buys cheap units for lower firepower... and then switch to the guy who pays more for his units but gets superior firepower. The number of ways to break the game with crazy CO combinations is more than it should be. No one in their right mind should go up against someone using Sami and Eagle together. You could break this even further by equipping skills COs unlocked from leveling up. Some of the new units also didn't work so great in practice like the Piperunner that almost never gets any use unless there are pipelines it can roll on. Considering pipes are impassible objects, you didn't see them much.

I do have to give major props to this series for killing off one of their major villains (an alien? robot? snifit? named Sturm) and actually keeping him dead. You couldn't get away with that in a series like Zelda or Mario.

Days of Ruin (Cause I'm in the U.S.)

 Dust some Fools
Days of Ruin, released in 2008, was a reboot of the series with a new continuity and overall tone. When Advance Wars first came out it had a colorful, anime style to go along with the turn based military strategy. This game tossed all that out for darker and edgier with a decidedly next gen brown color scheme. It also has less content than Dual Strike, scaling things back and reworking the cost of units, Fog of War, and CO Powers. There are a few new units like the Duster plane, Biker Infantry, the Anti-Tank unit and a totally reworked Aircraft Carrier. It plays a lot better at the cost of slight tweaks to unit behavior, less COs, and a brand new cast of characters.

Instead of the simple good vs. evil storyline, Days of Ruin went a more complicated route. It was a survival story in a world totally devastated by meteors. Most of the characters represent various reactions to the end of the world. You have a guy like Waylon, who is ready to party down 'cause rules don't mean a thing in the apocalypse. There's Brenner, who's trying to do right because "where there's life, there's hope". And then you have NPCs like "The Mayor" who is so two-faced and backstabbing that he makes the major villain Caulder look good. It's one of those rare examples where making the game darker actually works in the favor of the story. There's only one character in the entire game who looks like a Mad Max extra and even one of the player characters falls pretty evenly between good and evil because she's the cold and calculating type.

The Cast - Commanding Officers

Dual Strike

Jake is Mad Fresh, Son
While the story in Dual Strike might be simple, it allows for a lot of awesome characters and general insanity that you couldn't pull off in a more grounded setting. Since every nation (with the exception of Black Hole) is somewhat based off a real world military at some point in history, they go through a lot of archetypes. Orange Star is the U.S. Military, Blue Moon is Soviet Russia. Yellow Comet is Imperial Japan. Green Earth is WWII Europe. Air ace Eagle does the Blitzkrieg, and when his CO meter is charged up he can move most of his units twice in one turn. Drake is the British Navy who can also launch giant tidal waves that steal fuel. You also have Sami, who represents all sorts of Special Forces where a single solitary solider can capture an entire city (or enemy HQ) Rambo style.  But sometimes you get a really dumb character like Jake, who uses so much slang he could be considered offensive.

Most of my favorites are the villains though, like the crazy Black Hole inventor Lash. She seems to have the most awareness about how absurd Advance Wars is without breaking the fourth wall and generally tries to have as much fun as she possibly can. Why is she evil? Because she can make giant ICBM cluster bombs and tanks with legs. She can produce cannons the size of mountains. While safe science is talking about ethics she's busy blowing up Olaf's hometown and installing self-destruct devices in airports just for fun. There's also Jugger, who is basically a webcam with arms and legs with some of the best dialogue in the game. These guys are gloriously dumb sometimes but always entertaining.

Not to mention, there are a shit ton of characters in this game. You're bound to find someone you like.

Days of Ruin

The cast of Days of Ruin is much more low key compared to Dual Strike but that makes them slightly more realistic if you're into that. Lin is probably my favorite example because she tries to do good things but is pragmatic enough to suggest non-heroic actions like leaving civilians behind if they aren't pulling their weight or shooting villains in cold blood when the opportunity presents itself because they had it coming. Some aren't as great though, like Will who falls into the "never say die, never give up" pothole that most designated protagonists fall into. Brenner, while a decent and kinda cool, pulls and Obi Wan. And there's Tasha who can be summed up in one caps lock word, REVENGE.

Probably the strongest aspect of the cast are the villains who are actually really bad guys. They range from complete assholes to complete monsters. Like I mentioned before, Waylon is one of the biggest dicks I've ever seen in a video game. But he's so good at it, it's hard not to like him. Greyfield is a warmonger who goes the extra mile and nukes one of the protagonists out of spite. And then you have Dr. Caulder, who is downright sadistic. Under the guise of science he pits the remnants of humanity against each other just to see what would happen. Meteors weren't good enough for him, so he creates a virus that causes plants to grow out from under people's skin. He also has a bunch of creepy "children" ( Penny and Tabitha) he's ruined through experimentation that they're more weapons than human. It's stark contrast to the villains of Dual Strike who try to be evil but are not very good at it.

Spoils of War - Outcome

The split between Dual Strike and Days of Ruin comes down to whether you like an exaggerated take on turn based strategy or a more focused affair. I think Days of Ruin plays a lot better with a healthier balance across units and COs... but there's something great about the series origin as an expressive, somewhat goofy turn based strategy game where a commander could drop a meteor on the battlefield and that was perfectly normal. Both games have their fair share of missteps what with two of the new COs from Dual Strike, Jugger and Koal, as slightly modified copies of Flak and Adder. It's clear that Flak and Adder were going to get cut from the game but for some reason were hastily slapped back in. Days of Ruin also has a strange flip-flop where a CO in the campaign, The Beast, isn't playable and Isabella takes his place (who never got involved in fighting). Not to mention the difficulty which can be a little uneven in Dual Strike with terrible missions like Crystal Calamity and Pincer Strike, and soul crushingly hard in Days of Ruin with the final stage. Sunrise is probably the hardest mission in the series history.

But the one things both games do well without fail is the soundtrack. Dual Strike might be a little less impressive considering a bunch of CO themes have been carried over three games, but there are some good ones in there. I'll finish this (probably overly long) blog with a selection of my favorites. You know, just in case you're into it.

Dual Strike

Jake's Theme
Koal's Theme
Sami's Theme
Lash's Theme

Days of Ruin

The Owl's Flight
Flight of the Coward - Waylon's Theme
Mr. Bear - Penny's Theme
Supreme Logician - Lin's Theme

Advance Wars 2 (Bonus)

Sturm's Theme

Past Expiration: Star Fox 64

Normally I use Past Expiration to talk about lesser known games from way back that people have little to no chance of ever finding much less playing through again. But today I'm going to cover a game that doesn't need any extra exposure. I'm talking about Star Fox 64 because... I really like Star Fox 64. I think it's a fantastic game. Topical!

Star Fox 64 (Animals locked in Space Combat: The Game)

 The PAL Box Art, just for Kicks
It really doesn't need an introduction mostly because of internet memes about barrel rolls or a space wolf not letting you do things... but I'm going to do it just to be on the safe side.

Star Fox 64 is (for the most part) a rail shooter where you fly an advanced space fighter called the Arwing and shoot down tons of enemies that swarm the screen. The Nintendo spin on this game is that the major cast is a bunch of anthropomorphic animals. You play as Fox McCloud (who is a fox) and lead the Star Fox Team (a gang of other animal mercenaries) to defend the planet Corneria against the evil forces of Andross (who is an ape). The story is good enough to get things rolling, but it's no Shakespeare even if it does have a weird reference to a Shakespeare play. Now, this game is a sequel to the Star Fox game on the Super Nintendo, but you don't have to play it to enjoy this one.

On a more historical note, Star Fox 64 also came packaged with the Rumble Pak. This used force feedback to shake the controller when an explosion went off, your ship crashed into something, or a massive boss rolled past. I didn't think much of it at the time. It was entertaining sure, but kind of a gimmick. Now, try to find a controller today that doesn't rumble when you fire a gun or toss grenades. Or at least a game that doesn't make some use of the controller rumbling in your hand. I couldn't imagine that it would be so widespread as it is today.

Don't You Know It
Awhile ago I mentioned it was a rail shooter and put "for the most part" in parenthesis. While the majority of the game has you flying down a corridor shooting at things, there are a few moments when you can break out in free flight. The game calls this "All Range Mode" complete with a short cutscene and a demonstration of Fox's voice acting. This was somewhat of a bullet point for this game, but people who regularly put in time with flight sims on the PC probably weren't impressed. Even still, the ability to fly wherever you want (in a conveniently box shaped zone) added some opportunities for dogfighting. This was especially true with the Star Wolf Team who acted as direct rivals to the main characters. They were pretty good at showing up, dropping a bunch of one liners, and teaching you how to pull off a U-Turn or a 360 flip by shooting you in the ass.

Now only a few areas in the game made use of all range mode, so it never got old or unwelcome. At the same time, some of the worst levels in the game are entirely all range mode... Like Sector Z. So there's that too.

While blowing through levels collecting power ups and saving your incompetent wingmen over and over again is fine, my favorite part of this game has to be the boss battles. The Nintendo 64 is not the most advanced piece of gaming machinery to ever grace the planet, but they still came up with some memorable fights and crazy enemy designs. For example, there's one boss called Mechbeth you fight in a tank that looks like a giant robotic kite anchored to a train. Why? The player's guide has an explanation for that, but it's pretty weird all the same. There's also the most bizarre submarine I've ever seen, known as the Sarumarine. It's one of my favorite boss fights ever because you're encouraged to abuse the hell out of the game's screen clearing smart bomb. And the captain talks like a pirate too. Other bosses include a fist fighting robot, an Independence Day knock off, a giant clam, the world's most cowardly golem, and a smug ass jerk who pilots a meteor crusher. Any route you took, you were bound to run into something that was fun to shoot to death.

This brings me to one of my favorite parts about early Star Fox games. Route select. In the Super Nintendo version you simply picked which way you wanted to go, which was more of an "easy, medium or hard" selection. Star Fox 64 upped the ante by hiding most of the alternate routes. You had to pull off some feats in order to take a detour to other planets in the Lylat System. Sometimes they were pretty obscure, like saving Falco in the first level and flying under a bunch of rock arches. Other times they made more sense like stopping a doomsday weapon from obliterating an allied base, or crashing an enemy supply train. Either way, there was a ton of replay value going back through the game and trying to find the routes. Of course when this game came out I didn't have the patience for it. Which is why I convinced my parents to buy the Star Fox 64 Official Player's Guide.

What? You Cheater
To give you some perspective, this was back before I knew how to use the internet to its fullest potential. I can't even remember if I knew GameFAQs existed. Cheat Code Central? Anyway. I really wanted to go to places like Sector Y, Aquas, and Zoness. I could save Falco but how was I supposed to know about flying under some stupid rock arches?

Besides telling you how to go everywhere and kill everything, it also had some extra material in the form of stupid Star Fox 64 lore. Stuff like planetary data (which I'm extremely curious if they did scientific research or just made it all up), information behind bosses and trivia about the enemies you shoot down. It's got some great pictures. It also tells you the names of all the bosses. And it's from Nintendo so it must be legit, right?
Official Confirmation
One of the reasons I bother mentioning the Star Fox 64 players guide is my username. It's so obscure that I usually always get it (like when I came to Giant Bomb). Considering how much fun it is to kill the Sarumarine in the game and how crazy that sub design is, I just went with it.

Always a good sign when people think Lord of the Rings because of the "saru" part. I've heard that saru means monkey in Japanese, so it must be a weird portmanteau of monkey and submarine. But I don't know that for sure. Either way, this is probably more than you ever wanted to hear about the name Sarumarine.

One of the last things I'll mention before wrapping this up is the short, but effective voice acting included in the game. They're soundbites compared to the monologues you can find in games these days. I used to have a link to a database of all the lines from Star Fox 64. My favorites included the train driver from Macbeth and the Area 6 commander. You can probably look through YouTube if you absolutely have to hear it. I think it stands up. It's not outstanding, but it does its job. The only exception would be Slippy's voice which is absolutely terrible. The sound quality is probably terrible compared to today's standards. But show me another game where a boss gets so fed up with fighting you he calls your entire team "cocky little freaks!"

Now that I've got this out of my system, I'll leave you with this.

What Did You Call Me?

Past Expiration: Valkyrie Profile 2 - Silmeria

Past expiration is my little term for talking about a game way past its prime. In this case, we're going to talk about an RPG involving Norse Mythology that came out in 2006 on the PS2. Topical!

It's also one of the most complicated RPGs I've ever played. What this means to you may vary, but when people are beating this game at level 40 and I'm barely scraping by at,level 86, clearly something has gone wrong.

Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria (Complicated RPG Action starring Norse Mythology: The Game)

Nice Logo
By the time I heard about the original Valkyrie Profile for the Playstation, it was already an obscure hard-to-find game. Which is a shame because I liked the character design and the straight faced take on Norse legend involving Valkyries, fallen warriors, and the Ragnarok.  The best I could do back in the day was get my hands on the sequel Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria (used, of course, with no instruction booklet). It's an odd little game. And by odd, I mean completely bewildering sometimes. This has nothing to do with the story which is easy enough to follow, but more with the leveling up system and how you control battles. I can see why this game series is never at the forefront of RPG discussions. You really have to "get" this game or at the least be really into it. If someone was casually jumping into the pool of Valkyrie Profile head first- dude, the water is freezing. The concept sounds simple enough but once you get rolling this game does not let up.

Action, Adventure, Gods

The simplest part of this game? The story. You play as a princess named Alicia of an island bound kingdom named Dipan. They have some serious beef with the gods (that means the big boss of all creation, Odin) and are planning to start a war. Complicating matters is that Alicia contains the soul of Silmeria Valkyrie, one of Odin's battle maidens that collects fallen warriors for the Ragnarok. But she wants to help the mortals win because she's tired of Odin's dismissive attitude of humans and doesn't want to work for him anymore. You go on a grand adventure (meeting other characters on the way) in the pursuit of something called the Dragon Orb that can really screw over reality and disrupt the balance of power. And this is all well and good until the last quarter of the game where things go off the deep end. Until this point you could say that Valkyrie Profile 2 had gone the way of final fantasy including similar characters, similar worlds, and different stories. But nope, shit gets crazy and let's just spoil it, this game becomes a prequel and a sequel to Valkyrie Profile in a single bound.

 Ye Olde Creepy Raper Guy
Mostly due in part to Lezard Valeth. He's this game's creepy raper guy who has one mean obsession for Lenneth Valkyrie (the main character of the first game). He's willing to screw over reality, the gods, time, space, and the game's plot just so he can screw her. Of course, you don't really know about this until the end. He's good at acting nice until things go his way.

Good thing he's got some great voice acting to sell it. And one creepy laugh.

Oh, and you get to kill him. It's extremely hard to pull off, but great.

Level Grinding Can't Save You Now

The meat and potatoes of combat in Valkyrie Profile 2 involves a weird (but fun) system. This is an RPG, so you have plenty of stats, exp, and money to go around. But when it's time to cut stuff up... well... how can I explain this? Basically, you can have a party of four. Each member of your party is mapped to a different button on the PS2 controller. When you press the Circle, Square, Triangle, and X buttons that person will attack. The idea is to string together combos with your party of four jumping in at the right moment to stab, shoot, or cast magic. There are launchers, spikes and other tricks so it's entirely possible to flip an enemy into the air and have 3/4ths of your team completely whiff their attacks. Button mashing will get you nowhere. You really have to wait, coordinate your team, and have everyone attack when the enemy is in the right position.

The first game was turn based, but VP2 adds a little action gauge flavor. It's a 3D battlefield where you can move around and maneuver behind enemies and all that stuff. It's kind of like real time, except enemies only move when you move. The speed of the fight is entirely up to you. The map also shows helpful red zones to let you know the range of enemy attacks. There's a dash move to get around quickly and evade. How many times you can dash, use items, and attack depends on the action gauge I mentioned earlier. You only get that gauge back if enemies attack you, or you move around enough to charge it up. Remember, enemies move when you move so it's hard to get around without something targeting you.

Just in case this isn't making sense, check this video out for a visual demonstration.

Most battles can be won by finding the enemy leader and cutting him down. That's right. You really only need to kill a specific enemy to end the fight and the rest will run away. But as you attack, you can cut off limbs and body parts that sometimes become items. These items can be sold to shop keepers to unlock new equipment. But not every attack or victory will break off items. Sometimes you have to get lucky. And if you're one of those people who like to 100% games... God have mercy on your soul, dude. So, it's kind of a trade off of finishing a battle quick or hacking enemies to pieces hoping for items.

Wait, it Gets Trickier!

 2D Dungeon Exploring Action
Dungeons also have another system just in case you were getting a handle on things. There are these things called Sealstones that modify combat by slapping another rule set on top of the battle system. Rules like "No Blocking" or "Always Surprise Enemies" or "All Attacks are Fire Based" and stat based rules like "120% Attack Boost", "150% Magic Resist" etc. You can find most of these on podiums that broadcast these curve balls into the surrounding area. You can always grab them to remove the effect (like if you were sick of enemies always getting the drop on you) but you can't take them to other dungeons unless you cough up a crystal fee. Crystals are gained after killing enemies and they accumulate painfully slow. The "Turn Attacks into Fire" orb sounds like it could be useful, but if you want to take it to other dungeons you need a whopping 20000 crystals. After 10 hours through the game, you know how many crystals I had? 2000. Yeah. Fuck that.

The systems in this game are dense. Throughout the whole time I always had a feeling like I was missing something. There are boss battles where it was so one sided I thought I was supposed to lose. Then, after my party is quickly wiped out, I get the Game Over screen and realize "Holy Shit! I was supposed to win that one!" After the tutorial dungeon, this game starts kicking you in the ass hard. I haven't even mentioned the whole releasing warriors souls. You often find weapons that you can turn into party members (because of the whole Valkyrie leading the dead thing.) When these characters are a certain level, you can "release" them into the afterlife and they give you some cool items... usually. So you can wage that decision war whether or not you want cool items, or a party member to fight for you. And this is entirely your decision. The game never drops hints or tells you when you should pull this off. The possibilities to fuck up your game is endless. Endless.

I *AM* the World's Worst Valkyrie Profile 2 Player

The end result of this is the massive mountain I had to climb to beat this game. My party was about level 86 or so at the final boss. Getting through this game was like pulling teeth. And to make it worse, after I beat the game, I looked up some information and apparently you can finish the game at level 40. The super hard bonus dungeon that appears at the end of the game? Level 50. I don't understand it myself. I can't even get into the bonus dungeon because of the skill check boss at the entrance. And it sounds especially pitiful after hearing that some people beat this game with only one character through the entire game. One character!

Even still, this game was fun when I wasn't doing 7 damage to a boss with 10,000 HP. I wish I could have gotten the mechanics down better so fights weren't quite as headache inducing. Special attacks are pretty cool though. It also helps that the Norse angle pushes this game away from standard fantasy stories I have a lot of trouble getting into.

If anyone else has played this game I'd love to hear what you think of it. Tell me what you did. Maybe I'll find out where I went wrong. I don't know, maybe this game is just hard. Either way, it's tough to find a combat system like this anywhere else.

Recently Played: Portal - Still Alive

Let's just say I'm excited to see what Portal 2 is all about. So in anticipation of the upcoming release next Tuesday (most likely earlier for PC), I went back and played the original Portal. I've played it before on a friend's PS3 with the Orange Box and another friend's much better laptop, but this time I played the X-Box Arcade release titled "Still Alive."

Consider this sentence your one and only reference to cake. You're welcome.

Portal: Still Alive (Quirky Puzzle Game: The Game)

 "Fast thing goes in, fast thing goes out."
I probably don't have to explain anything about this game. What hasn't already been turned into a meme has become common knowledge to the point of a Citizen Kane "It Was His Sled" moment. Personally, I think it suffers from overexposure. But just in case I'll gloss over the basic idea of Portal.

The most important thing to know is that this is a short, quirky game. It uses a first person perspective that doesn't involve shooting anyone or killing monsters. It's a First Person Puzzler. The puzzle part involves a device called the Portal Gun that shoots two different colored portals you use to create gateways between Point A and Point B. Hence, "Portal." You can pass through these portals as freely as you want, throw boxes through them, or use some crazy physics involving momentum to launch yourself across the room. Other things like rockets and bullets can also pass through the portals, so placement of your orange and blue holes in the time-space continuum becomes very important later on. The nice thing about Portal is that it rolls out all these concepts to you in a gradual fashion, so you can play around and get use to the crazy things you'll do later.

Of course, one of the first things I did was place a portal on the floor and the ceiling so I could fall forever at terminal velocity. The other thing was slap two portals in a corner so I could chase myself around in a circle. You can do a lot of dumb things with a Portal Gun. Most, if not all, of them are a lot of fun.

 Escape is not part of the testing procedure
One of the things I've grown to enjoy the most about Portal is the story. At the beginning it doesn't seem like the game has one. You play as a seemingly nameless woman in an orange jumpsuit running through obstacle courses trying to get to the next elevator. Meanwhile a computer voice tells you inane things about safety protocols at Aperture Science and occasionally hints about game play. The puzzle game evolves into an escape attempt that leads to a battle with the Computer AI that's been leading you through all the tests. Apparently all the people at Aperture Science have died a long time ago. All those moments before where you were sent up against automated turrets and deathtraps were actually real. There was no control. Just the computer named GlaDOS and a lot of neurotoxin.

It's a nice surprise that most everyone knows about by now. And that song by Jonathan Coulton.

Some would say that this game is pretty funny. Humor is something that really depends on the person, but I do think that the dialogue and design choices give the game a lot of personality. I don't know many games have auto turrets that apologize while opening fire on you and say "good bye" with a cheerful voice as you kick them over. GlaDOS (the only character with an actual speaking role) is also pretty entertaining. She has a HAL 9000 complex where it gets tough balancing computer logic and human emotions. For her, it very difficult to distinguish the difference between science, the mass murder of co-workers, and recipes for baked goods. The character you play as is literally the only person she can interact with in the Aperture Science facility. She wants to kill you, and she kinda doesn't.

Still Alive Version

The X-Box Arcade release I played through was Portal with some extra challenge maps. The maps are pretty good. They aren't insanely hard like I thought they would be, but the main difficulty is scoring well with a combination of minimum steps, minimum portals, and maximum speed. It's one thing to play Portal while looking hard at a room and it's another thing to try and play as precise as you can, as fast as you can. I'm not one to sweat about scoreboards so I probably won't kill myself to get gold. The achievements are all a real pain in the ass but at least someone made them challenging.

It's a decent version if you have no other option. The frame rate is kinda shaky and there are a lot of short loading screens peppered throughout the story mode. It didn't bother me but I definitely noticed. The game play is the same and all the mind bending portal tricks are still in there. Listening to the developer commentary makes it sound like a really impressive game how they had to handle collision detection moving from portal to portal, and the way you can watch yourself come and go at the right angles. And maybe its my TV and settings, but holy shit, the subtitles are huge. They take up half the screen.

Since it takes a little more than an hour to play through Portal start-to-finish, I'm ready for more. Good thing there's a sequel coming out soon.

Recently Played: Okamiden

After playing bits and pieces of it over the past few weeks, I've finished Okamiden. It's about 15-20 hours. Probably longer if you're looking for every secret and collectable. I don't like it, but this is due more to my tastes than the game being completely broken or anything.

To give you an indicator of how I view the whole Okami thing. I thought the PS2 game was good. I don't think it deserves the endless praise it's accumulated over the years... but it's a decent game. I loved the art style, the brush motif, and the enemy designs. At the same time it's almost stupidly easy with so many in-game fail safes that it's damn near impossible to see the game over screen unless you're really, really trying. Not to mention it has some pacing issues, and if you aren't into parodies of Japanese folklore as old as the hills... you probably won't get much out of it either.

I don't know if there's ever a graceful way to complain about a game, but I will try as hard as I can. Right up front, I want to say that this game is perfectly playable. It's probably even fine. And if someone had not played Okami on the PS2 I could possibly see how they might love it. If you like cute things and children, you're in luck. I wanted to get that out of the way, because that's about all the nice things I can say about Okamiden.

Okamiden (Okami Plus Kids,  Minus Everything Else: The Game)

Here's Your "Tale of Genji" Reference. Enjoy
This game is not for me. Period. It somehow manages to hit everything I don't like about character design. On top of that, it has a story awkward enough to muck up the plot of the first Okami. The first game was basically one big affectionate parody of Japanese mythology, so at least it had direction. Okamiden doesn't have that base to build on and the story is as simple as good vs evil plus kids. Maybe because of that, it ends up reusing a lot of events from Okami to the point of being uncomfortable.

It feels more copy-paste than a play on nostalgia. There are new areas, but the split feels pretty uneven by the end of it. The worst involves taking one of the most awkward parts of Okami and developing it into a major plot point that stretches through the last half of the game. And they don't even have a pair of twin clockwork owls wearing top hats and monocles to justify it.

A lot of it feels lazy, especially the cast. Most of them involve taking a character from Okami and making a kid version of them. You play as Chibiterasu, who is a young Amaterasu. You have Kuni, who is basically a young Susano. You have Kurow, who is basically a young Waka. Etc. It's a lot like Baby Mario and Baby Luigi syndrome only spread out to most of the major cast and trying to pawn them off as brand spanking new characters. Maybe I could enjoy this if it was a Muppet Babies deal. Except these kid versions follow character arcs similar to their older counterparts. Yes, I know that Kuni is boastful and cowardly and by the end of the game he'll learn what bravery means and actually become a hero. Yes, I know that Kurow is mysterious but helpful and will show his true colors when it really matters. And that sounds really harsh, but I cannot treat younger versions of older characters like they're new or something special. I'm one of those guys that hates Baby Mario and Baby Luigi when they show up as characters in Mario Kart. And I get the same feeling here.

Also perplexing is the way they make the top screen the center of the action where you fight enemies and navigate the land. Whenever you use the celestial brush to draw symbols to use abilities, there is a pause as the entire top screen shifts down to the lower screen. When you're done using the stylus, everything shifts back to the top screen. It sounds kind of petty to harp on a few seconds of transitions... but considering how many times you use the Celestial Brush throughout the game, those few seconds add up. It gets old quickly, and I really wonder why they didn't just make it so you could effortlessly shift back and forth between brush abilities and the action. It's like a thorn in your foot you can't get out. You will live, but it will bug the shit out of you if it's not already causing extreme pain.

Fuck You, Kabuki Puppet!
Overall, the game is tougher than Okami. I actually died a few times. Combat walks a fine line between bearable and tedious, because a lot of enemies have annoying invincibility frames that stretch out fights. It's also been simplified to button mashing. You get three weapons throughout the game. Three. But the worst part is the boss battles. Holy shit.

The tipping point for me was the third boss of the game that involved fighting a giant Kabuki puppet. Defeating it was kind of annoying. Then you fight the Kabuki Puppet two more times. What's especially bad is that you have to play connect-the-dots to defeat the puppets. Only by the second and third fight they're throwing up barriers you have to counter with fire and exorcism magic on each dot. There's no way to simply hit all the dots in one go... so you end up doing tons of screen shifting as you're forced to hit each individual dot before connecting them all. If you aren't fast enough the boss recovers and you get to do it all over again. It doesn't get much better from there.

One boss is even a palette swap evil version of the main character that comes out of nowhere. There is nothing I hate more than palette swaps trying to be passed off as an original character. It's fucking lazy.

The writing is also not so great. Almost perplexing really. Not that Okami was a pinnacle of game script writing, but Okamiden feels like they aren't even trying. Kurow is the best/worst example. How do you like your Highway to the Danger Zone references in a game about mystical Japan? What about "hella bad"? Do you like a character who uses so much slang he's one dawg away from- AW SNAP! DROP A BOMB ON IT? What does "I didn't know he'd be so diesel" even mean!? What does Vin Diesel have to do with any of this?

I could go on, but I've probably already overdone it. It just feels like Okamiden has no soul. It's going through the motions without actually leaning anything from the game it's supposed to be a sequel for. In my mind, sequels should do something new or add to the experience. Okamiden doesn't even give you more of the same. It just feels gutted.

Let's Do This! Playing Suikoden V

Change of Plans

 I had some grand designs about Suikoden V and a faux-Let's Play, but due to some technical difficulties... why don't I just tell you about the first two hours of gameplay instead?

Suikoden V is a turned based RPG with some... interesting character design. The staple of this series involves the 108 Stars of Destiny. What that means is there are 108 characters (for the most part) you can recruit to your cause as you fight for truth, justice, and all that jazz. Yeah, Suikoden has always had a truckload of characters. It's kind of like a "Catch-Em-All" situation as it can effect how good your ending is at the end of the game. But this is made a little trickier because there are always a handful of characters you can miss out on forever if you weren't in the right place at the right time. If that kind of thing bothers you, I guess an FAQ is always an option. But I find it kinda cool and gives you some motivation for exploring after every other major plot event.

Of course, two hours in, I haven't done a whole lot of fighting because these games have always been pretty long. 40 to 50 hours (yes, even if you're running through as fast you can.) Most of my time has been spent getting to know a few of the hundred characters in this game and laying down the basic plot. And it's pretty good so far. There's some interesting stuff involving a Queendom, politics, Runes, and some really, really annoying nobles. Since you play as a member of royalty, you get to grapple with all this shit first hand.

But the heart of this game has always been its characters. Suikoden has always been kind of anachronistic and schizophrenic. In addition to swords and magic, there are elevator technicians, iron chefs, snipers, samurai, beavers, dwarfs, and hand puppets. You never know what you might find. I think it's pretty awesome.

People You May or May Not Learn to Care About
You play as this guy, the prince. Unfortunately, since the game takes place in a Queendom, being a prince means he's nothing but a figurehead that gets to run errands for the queen. He gets to go to towns like Lordlake where everyone hates him because the place got nuked by the queen and turned into a desert. Fun!

The Giant Bomb wiki tells me he his official name is Freyjadour... and that's pretty fancy. Since this series usually lets you name the main character, I called him Mylar. Cause I felt like it. Like most RPG player characters, he don't talk much but he's into some freaky shit. I mean, he's mostly silent except when dialogue choices come up.

He also uses a really bizarre weapon that's some kind of cross between nunchaku and a staff. It can shift back and forth between a three-piece nunchaku version when he needs some flashy moves, or straighten up into a staff when he needs some distance hitting people in the face. I have no idea how that works.

This is Georg. He's pretty chill outside of battle and normal as people go in this game. He's a newcomer who gets to ask a lot of questions you might have about the Queendom of Falena. I like him.

It also helps that he's a fucking killing machine that cannot be stopped. As one of your party members early on, he will kill the majority of the monsters gunning for you. Sometimes, when the mood strikes him, he won't even bother doing damage and just instantly kill whatever he's attacking.

Basically he's a tutorial fail safe that I expect won't be in my party for very long. Still, a pleasure to watch as he destroys everything. He was also in Suikoden II... but I didn't get far enough in that game to see him. That's a damn shame.

Lyon is the prince's bodyguard. She's about the same age as him if a little younger. She's also ready to die for the prince at the drop of a hat... and that's kinda weird.   Appropriately clingy for a bodyguard and especially concerned for the prince's honor as well as his health.

She's okay. The best part about her is her weapon which is a switchblade sword. The grip is just as long as the blade and it looks pretty cool. I'm not sure if that would work in real life, but this is Suikoden, yo.

Co-Op Attack: Characters with certain relationships (brothers, family, rivals, etc.) will often have combination attacks when they're in the same party. Lyon has one with the prince, where they double team an enemy and kick the crap out of it. It's pretty useful... when Georg isn't killing everything with one swipe of his blade.

 Lady Sialeeds
Sialeeds here is the prince's aunt who has a really terrible character design. The only thing weirder than her choice of clothing is her hair, which collects on the right side of her face like a parasite. I'm sure someone, somewhere has already mastered cosplaying Sialeeds (complete with crazy hair) but I'm not brave enough to check Google to confirm. I can feel it in my bones.

...anyways. She throws a pair of chakram warrior princess style and uses really terrible magic. Status effects don't work like they do in Persona 4. Meaning, they never work. She's also kind of a jerk among friends. Hates lizards.

Co-Op Attack: She's got a funny attack with the prince. Basically, he charges headlong into the enemy while she sits back and watches. After he does all the work, she throws her chakram once and calls it a day. Hilarious.

Queen Arshtat
Queen Arshtat here is the big boss of Falena and the prince's mother. She responds to rebellions in her kingdom by nuking it with an orbital strike from the sun. And while that's a killstreak I wouldn't mind having, the Sun Rune that lets her pull that off also makes her ego trip like nobody's business. She gets a serious god complex and enjoys talking down to her son, her husband, her family and everyone else who isn't her.

Everyone is an ant, and she is the magnifying glass. It gets hard to tell where Arshtat's personality begins and Sun Rune psychosis ends.

Also... that's a crazy crown on her head. You'd need magic to get that to balance right.

Arshtat's husband and the prince's dad. That doesn't make him a king or anything. It just gives him the authority to command Falena's closest thing to a special forces outfit known as the Queen's Knights.

He's also pretty jovial and reasonable as the right hand to a queen who often threatens to make Falena walk on the sun... literally. He shows his affection for the prince by putting him in a headlock and refusing to let go until the prince cries mercy.

Apparently he's from another country who won some ancient games to marry the queen or something... I'm still working on it.

Little princess Lymsleia. She's the prince's lil' sis and really, really loves her bigger brother. Often rampages through the castle where the royal family lives to get what she wants. She's not bad for a little girl. Usually kids walk a fine line between completely adorable and completely annoying. So far, she hits the happy medium.

Miakis is the princess' bodyguard. She doesn't seem all there but it's hard to tell if she's an airhead or faking it. She's pretty good when it comes to jokes or comic relief. In a battle she uses a pair of knives to cut things up.

Really, the thing that stands out the most is her fighting pose that sorta reminds me of the crane style from Karate Kid.

Co-Op Attack:
Miakis has a carbon copy of Lyon's co-op attack with the prince. Which... I guess makes sense if they're both bodyguards. Maybe it's a standard formation or something.

Kyle is one of the Queen's Knights but his real job is standing up for the right of men everywhere to get with women no matter who they are or where they're from. He's solid in a battle, but his skills for detecting beautiful women and searching them out is top notch. Too bad he fails with the follow through and gets zero results (so far).

Two Guys You Will Love to Hate
The Barows boys. Salum (older) and Euram (younger) Barows. Two stuck up nobles with personalities bad enough to choke the life out of someone. Although, this is probably done intentionally. Probably. I sure goddamn hope.

As a challenge, see how far you can get in this cutscene before turning it off or hating the shit out of these guys. Since I had to watch the whole thing to progress the game I hate the shit out of them.

They're one of the two major factions warring over Falena behind the scenes. Knife-in-Back syndrome is especially bad in this country, and these two guys don't help at all.

So yeah, I thought I would write something to salvage this grand disaster. Hard to say if I will write anything else about this game. That depends on some other factors, but yeah. I like it so far.
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Recently Played: MadWorld

In my continuing mission to write about a game I've played recently comes MadWorld for the Wii. I've been writing a lot about Wii games, mostly because it's pretty easy to find decent games for a low price on that console. Today we'll take a look at a stylized black and white game that specializes in style and violence... and not much else.

MadWorld (Have Chainsaw, Will Slaughter: The Game)

 Jack has some red on him
I like MadWorld, but it definitely has some problems. There's a lot of little issues that come together over the course of the game that really bring the experience down. Most of this can be defined by one word: repetitive. I like the setting of an over the top reality TV show that markets death as entertainment like the world has come full circle back to the Roman Gladiator games. The presentation hits some great beats with a handful of stereotypical characters you'd expect from a bad television show. And if reality TV is about watching ugly people do uninteresting things, MadWorld has taken it to the extreme of watching ugly people kill each other. A subtle example with the expectations of the audience can be found in the points rankings for killing. Chainsawing a man in half (as extreme as that sounds) is considered "Routine Violence." Routine. Standards are tough.
Most of the things I like about this game have nothing to do with playing it. Gameplay wise, MadWorld spreads itself pretty thin and variety dries up quickly. But I'll get to that later.

The Announcers

To start on a high note, my favorite part about the game is the two Deathwatch combat commentators Howard Holmes and Kreese Kreely. They talk about all the mayhem you cause while playing as Jack, and what makes them so great is that they have Greg Proops (Whose Line is it Anyway?) and John DiMaggio (Bender from Futurama, Marcus from Gears of War) providing the voices for the two chatterboxes.

 Fucking Awesome
They make a team that is a joy to listen to. Both of them turn in some great performances and play off of each other well. In accordance to the theme of MadWorld their characters are complete dirtbags- but they're entertaining dirtbags. Best of all, you never see them in game so you can foster the mental picture of Bender and Greg Proops talking with each other. HOWEVER: Repetition, the major problem with this game, hurts these guys in the long run. Since there is no programmed limit to their commentary, they will often say the same thing over and over again as you slam soda bottles in a guy's mouth, or throw dudes into a circular saw, or do anything that involves killing. What starts out funny the first time will quickly die as they tell the same joke about Mad Juice for the hundredth time. Still, to hear Greg Proops and John DiMaggio work together is very cool.

The Soundtrack

Surprisingly enough, I really enjoyed the soundtrack to MadWorld. I'm no connoisseur of rap or hip-hop, but the posturing and boasting usually associated with hardcore rap works well with the all the shit going down in each level. They do some cool stuff like a guy rapping to Japanese instruments, your basic rap-rock fusion, and fun with trumpets and other brass. Most of my favorites are the stage themes, but the boss battles are also pretty good. I imagine most of these are guilty pleasures as I'm pretty sure people who listen to rap regularly probably won't be impressed. Even still, I listed some of my favorites below if you're really interested.
It's a Mad World
Let's Go
Look Pimpin
HOWEVER: Each song only has two verses and they're kinda short. It's obvious they were designed to loop over and over again (fitting with the repetitious theme). It's kind of a bummer they aren't proper songs like something you'd find in No More Heroes. And that has some amazing music.

The Gameplay

The gameplay is hardest hit with the lack of variety. The entire game can be summed up by one basic murder combo and a few unique execution set pieces. The flat tire + signpost + rosebush combo will be burned into your brain by the time you finish the game. Most of the joy of moving on to a new level involves finding the new environmental weapon that you can jam a guys face into and the Bloodbath Challenge mini-games. Now, the mini-games are pretty good. They usually involve timed challenges where you throw men into speeding trains, a gigantic jet turbine, turn people's heads into a golf ball with a golf club, and more. But even this runs out before the final area and you'll start revisiting challenges you've played before. Not even the good ones either.
It's also damn unfortunate that movement controls are worked into basic moves like dodging and throwing an uppercut. The game is insanely picky about what qualifies as a vertical motion and a horizontal motion. Most of the time I want to do a backhand (horizontal motion) I do an uppercut. This is especially bad on a few quick time events during boss battles. Jude the Dude and The Shamans are a standout. Both of them require vertical and horizontal movement that the game will inevitably fail because it can't tell the difference. It requires pretty damn deliberate movement that is hard to pull off when you're busy fighting for your life. Luckily, MadWorld isn't so technical that it makes ore breaks the game. It's just fucking annoying.

And the... What the Fuck?

 When it's time to play, it's time to pay
If you don't know about this guy, all these cutscenes will tell you everything you need to know about The Black Baron. In game, he's the host of Deathwatch and introduces all the Bloodbath Challenges with the help of his woman, Mathilda. And as you've probably noticed, he's a stereotype of a black pimp with enough slang to choke an English professor. ...yeah.
But... he's so blatantly offensive that I don't know how anyone could possibly take him seriously. Every time he shows up and opens his mouth he's quickly killed in a variety of ways. The game goes the extra mile to kill him over and over again. If that's not enough, he's also the final boss so you can beat him up once and for all. They take this stereotype and destroy him again and again until there's nothing left. And if to make matters worse (better? more complicated?) the announcers suggest he's actually a white guy in black face.
If anything, the Black Baron is too absurd for his own good. He does work for the purpose of cementing a TV show so terrible that the people who take part it in are indifferent to everything, everyone, and even themselves. It will be really interesting when Anarchy Reigns comes out and the Black Baron makes another appearance.

Had Enough?

Really, MadWorld needed a lot more of just about everything to be a really outstanding game. It's not complete trash, it has a lot of nice ideas, but it wears out pretty quickly. You can unlock Hard Mode after you beat the game, and I think it would have fared better if that was the default difficulty. Enemies actually attack you rather than line up, waiting to be killed, and the bosses become challenging.
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Recently Played: No More Heroes 2 - Desperate Struggle

No More Heroes 2 online for 15 dollars means a sure sale for me. I beat it recently, so I thought write it up.

No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle (Better Beam Katana Action: The Game)

 Travis becomes surprisingly human this time around
My roommate introduced me to the first No More Heroes back when using the Wii Remote speaker to simulate a one-sided phone call was a novel concept. I thought it was a decent game with some personality and some great boss characters, but I wasn't compelled to beat it after Bad Girl because the final boss kinda paled in comparison to the rest of the cast of killers. Not to mention, boss fights took forever. You really had to wail on dudes to kill them. With No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle the gameplay has been tweaked to become damn near perfect. It's really fun cutting up guys and performing suplexes when the mood strikes you. Bosses are just as tricky, but they no longer take three hours to kill.  The game plays better... at the cost of assassins not being as memorable as the first batch.
Then there's Travis Touchdown... who actually develops as a character by the end of the game. I'm not sure if that undermines the concept No More Heroes was going for in the first place, but it's interesting none the less. I'm still on the fence about it.

Hackin' and Slashin'

If you don't know (although it seems unlikely), this game is brought to you by Suda 51 who also had a hand in the extremely bizarre Killer7. Usually these games have tons of personality and style while being a little rough when it comes to gameplay. Desperate Struggle has mostly ironed out that issue. Assassin ranking challenges roll out one after another. You no longer have to grind quirky mini-games to get enough cash to kill guys. What mini-games there are have been turned into NES-style 8-bit throwbacks that I found completely awesome. For the most part, they're optional. Cash will get you clothes, weapons and upgrades for strength and stamina, but it's entirely possible to play through the game without touching any of it. Not that it's recommended. Bosses might not take fifty million hits to kill this time around, but they have plenty of highly damaging moves that will catch you unaware the first time out. What I'm saying is that a little breathing room is nice.

Kill, Killer

Like No More Heroes, this game is a boss game. Fighting expendable henchmen is not the heart of the matter, but rather like an appetizer before the main course. The best part is the quirky boss encounters that come in the form of the Assassin Ranking Battles. Of course, these people are not so much assassins but loud, noticeable psychopaths with crazy weapons. You have a guy with a boombox that transforms into mechanical hands, a girl who uses anti-material rifles with scythe blades attached to the butt stocks, an old man with a gold plated luger that shoots money, and much much more. I enjoyed the cast of killers that Travis goes up against. There are a few standouts, a few familiar faces, and some bland ones. Overall, the assassins are fine but maybe not as memorable as the first game. You may feel different.
Also, I really miss the boss intros that used the artificial voice, a quip from the assassin and a mean guitar lick.

The Awesome
 Reaper, reaper, that's what people call me
My favorite boss out of the bunch is probably 4th rank Margaret Moonlight mostly because she's such a hodgepodge of ideas that somehow... work out just fine. And her damn song. Her boss fight was also pretty entertaining despite chasing her all over the roof of a grocery store. Not to mention her weapon of choice involves two sniper rifles that look like a cross between a Barret and a scythe. Which is crazy. I'm glad we have the concept art on the site to help wrap my head around that one.
Her boss song "Philistine" is a definite guilty pleasure in this game. It's not a great song, but it's funny and pulls the double duty of characterizing Margaret instead of the cutscenes that usually sandwich a boss fight. I'd like to think Margaret is way better at killing people than carrying a tune.
The Cool
 "Do you remember me. Question mark."
Dr. Letz Shake walks a fine line between awesome and a disappointment. Originally he was the unfought 5th rank boss in the first No More Heroes. He had some of the greatest scenes in the game where you were teased and blocked twice from a boss fight. The tantrum Travis throws after finding out he ranked up without actually killing anyone was solid gold.
Now that Letz is actually a boss... well, expectations will always fall short of reality. Dr. Letz Shake is pretty funny with his phallic design and verbal tick. But unlike Margaret, chasing him all over the room was not fun. Especially with all the waiting between his countdowns and earthquake attacks. I really wanted this to be more fun but... what can you do. Question mark.
 The Terrible
 Fuck you. He shoots money.
Probably the blandest bland that ever blanded, I can't really figure out what's going on with Million Gunman. It should be awesome enough that he has a gun that shoots money. It should be awesome enough that he has enough money to use as ammunition... but when it comes down to it... The dude has zero personality. Zero.
Considering how things go in No More Heroes 2 is, this might be completely intentional. Rich white man is rich. But as it stands, he is such a boring boss fight. It also doesn't help that he repeats his very few lines of dialogue over and over again. The only thing saving this encounter from being a total chore is that you fight him with Shinobu. His boss theme wasn't bad either. But man... lackluster character to be sure.

The Motherfucking Frustrating
 Why is this guy such a bitch?
I found it odd that throughout the entire game, there was no boss harder than Matt Helms (well, not including the final boss). He's only the third boss (fourth if you play your cards right) but for whatever reason, I died on him dozens of times. No More Heroes 2 started out strong, but came to a grinding halt as soon as I got to this guy.

I realize it may be a fluke, maybe I was off my game, but man... I beat 2nd rank Alice in one try. Fighting Matt Helms was like headbutting a fucking brick wall. There's really no good way to approach him. At a distance he throws fire bombs that double as landmines, and up close he just cracked me in the face with his axe whenever I tried to roll out of the way. In the end, I got lucky and beat him with one little pixel of health left. He feels more like a boss from the first game than anything else. Do not want.
Honorable mentions go to New Destroyman for having the best cutscenes and Alice Twilight/Moonlight for being a predictable but good fight. The final boss is a real bitch with some really cheap moves... but I didn't really expect otherwise. The less said about that, the better.

The End of Travis 'effing Touchdown?

Lastly, we have Travis. The way I see it, he's not a good character by any stretch (not that this game makes it a point or anything) but he's entertaining with the things he says. At least the guy is enthusiastic about his goals and murdering people. However, toward the end of the game he kinda (ever so slightly) shifts toward character development which is a tall order considering how terrible he is. Essentially he's cool with killing hundreds of thousands of people in order to have sex with a woman who may or may not be french. Which works in the context of the game because it's all about being completely over-the-top with just about everything. It's a little jarring to hear him going on about "we're people too" and feeling sorry for bisecting other assassins. Maybe I found it a little unconvincing. It's hard to say. No More Heroes was pretty adamant about NOT having a sequel... but here we are. Maybe by the third game, Travis will move from cartoon character to full fledged human being. That might be interesting to see.

Great Music Though

Aww, true dat. 
Kill or Be Killed
Boys in the Bank
Steel Diamondback 
Losing Bowel Control

So... what?

I really like No More Heroes 2. It certainly gave me a lot more drive to complete it than the first one. The revenge plot probably helped. There's plenty to get caught up on if you hate Travis as a character or don't enjoy fountains of blood or blatant boob/butt jiggle physics on nearly all of the female characters- but that's No More Heroes. It's completely unapologetic about being as ridiculous as possible.

Going Overboard: Sakura Wars - So Long, My Love

If you don't know about Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love and have some time to kill, then you're in luck! Today I wanted to talk about the dating sim / strategy game that came out on the PS2 and Wii last year because, while it's not the hottest thing around, it's still pretty entertaining in a lot of different ways. You'll get to know a bit about the wonderful world of steam powered mechanized combat. Also relationships. And theater productions. There's a lot of that too.
I originally didn't want to write so much about an PS2/Wii game but... I got carried away. Whoops.

Sakura Wars So long, My Love

US Cover Art: Decent Representation of the Game
So, I know a bit about the Sakura Wars franchise. It started as a release on the Sega Dreamcast that spiraled outward into the kind of merchandise blitz you'd expect of a popular property...  but only in Japan of course. This surprising (almost shocking) US release is actually the fifth game in the series that coincidentally takes place in New York, New York during the late 1920's. It follows an alternate time line where the world has been revolutionized by steam powered everything. Steam powered cars, clocks, cell phones, computers and (most importantly) mechanized suits built for fighting demons. Yes, there are plenty of demons that absolutely despise everything about humanity. Oddly enough, they also fight in steam powered machines. 
I should point out right up front that this game is pretty silly and very glass half full. It's more concerned about spectacle than it is rationalizing why Times Square can suddenly transform into a launch pad for a giant airship. Don't expect the story to explore what it means to be human or the complex relationships between man and women. However, this also makes it extremely awesome because it can get away with a lot of ridiculous stuff without losing face. It's also extremely colorful. I guess your mileage may vary, but I can dig it. I don't need every game to be as fucked up Silent Hill 2, or as dancing-with-chainsaws as Gears of War.
After all, turn based mech combat!

But the meat of this game is the dating sim element. It's kinda like Persona 4, only instead of unlocking more powerful persona you're encouraging your team of mech pilots to fight better in turn based combat. Instead of traditional RPG level building by slaughtering X number of monsters, you're building camaraderie to make your team a well oiled demon killing machine. That involves lots of dialogue. It's an interesting system that is mostly timed (make your choices fast) and sometimes NOT answering and keeping silent is the best choice. But this ain't no Mass Effect, sometimes choices aren't all that clear and you end up doing something you didn't intend. An unfortunate problem from translating Japanese to English, really.
Mechs, as Promised
I guess I should mention that these pilots you're talking with? They're all women of varying age that you can make moves on at the appropriate (or inappropriate) time. Hand waved with an explanation that the vast majority of good steam powered mech pilots are all women. It requires spirit energy that most men don't have. Or something. The only man who fights in this game is also the player character, Shinjiro Taiga. Due to a Japanese gag of "theater troupe" and "combat troupe" sounding insanely similar when spoken but different when written out, this entire operation is hidden by a theater production on Broadway. That's right. By day they're live on stage, by night they fight demons in mechs. Of course, due to some elaborate launch sequences, it's not so much Black Ops and more like Superman disguising himself as Clark Kent with a pair of glasses and a nice suit.

Let's meet the cast, shall we?

The Team (also known as Star Division)

Shinjiro Taiga

 Shinjiro, doing his Thing
You play as this guy. He's one of those plucky "never say die, never give up" types that fashions himself as a modern day Samurai. Really, this just means that he has a pair of insanely sharp swords he cuts stuff with. He's a new graduate of the Imperial Japanese Navy who gets sent to New York to captain the Star Division. It's one of those Anti-Demon World Coalition deals.
He has a million different names because everyone goes out their way to avoid saying Shinjiro. I think Shinjiro is a pretty badass name, but instead you get Shin, Shiny, Shinster, Shinmania, Shinmillion, etc.
Fujiyama Star: "Star" is the name of the mechs the heroes use in this game. They're kinda shaped like trashcans but it works because it seems like a plausible early robot design. Kinda. Shin's uses a pair of giant Katanas (one with a reverse grip) and it looks pretty cool for being the Mario of the game.

Gemini Sunrise

(Not Pictured) A Cowboy Hat
Looks like Gemini, sounds like Ge-mini (like Mini Cooper). She's from Texas doing the cowgirl thing and dreaming of becoming a Broadway star. Rides her horse around New York without violating any traffic laws or sanitation rules. She's one of the first girls you have a chance of befriending once hitting New York soil... but becomes playable insanely late in the story. You won't use her much. For a country mouse in the city, her personally isn't all that annoying... HOWEVER-
Her voice actor uses a very exaggerated Southern accent. It's really hard to listen to her for any length of time. It leads to a lot of "Skip Dialogue" A button mashing events.
Rodeo Star: Her fire themed orange-and-red mech has a gunblade. Yes, very Squall from Final Fantasy VIII. The revolver isn't built into the blade, but sits on top of it. No Guardian Forces though *rimshot*.

Cheiron Archer

Swears to beat out the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth out of you
Looks like Chair-on, sounds like Karen. She's a lawyer from Harlem that has a short temper and a fiery personality. Her gimmick is justice and the law but in battle she's more judge, jury, and executioner to a worrying degree. Her character as a whole is completely crippled by her introductory chapter where she tries to sell out her neighborhood (Harlem), her friends, and her family to a corrupt corporation and THE MAN. They try to show it as a "blinded by mindless devotion to justice", and you do get plenty of opportunity to show her what's what in a mock trial...
But it's really unsatisfying. She's such a complete dick that you just want to punch her in the face. By the time she gets better it's really a case of "too little, too late." Not to mention she's fairly worthless in battle. Slow and short range movement. If this was a more traditional RPG she would be off the team.
Highway Star: Of course a character as bad this has to have an awesome Deep Purple reference (and one of my favorite songs). Plus, he mech's weapon is a chain whip Road Rash style. It's also painted jet black. That's kinda cool. Right?

Subaru Kujo

Guess and Win a Prize
Subaru is an eccentric genius who tries to transcend gender roles by talking in the third person. "Subaru is Subaru. Nothing more, nothing less." However, because of the limitations of translating Japanese to English, Subaru gets referred to as "she" by pretty much everyone. I'll even lapse into "she" just for simplicity sake of writing this damn thing. But really, her gender is supposed to be a complete mystery and you can spend the entire game trying to coax the truth out of her. However you roll, Subaru looks pretty good in a suit, or a dress, or a kimono. She also likes paper fans reinforced by steel razors.
As you can probably guess, being a perfectionist genius means Subaru has zero social skills and zero patience for other people. She will frequently trash talk you in the beginning of the game to a nauseating degree.
Random Star: Subaru probably has the coolest mech in the game. It uses giant weaponized paper fans for an area attack, stands at attention when not active, and moves around Flash Step style. Yeah, that's a TV Tropes link. I can't think of another way to describe it. Sorry.


Rosarita Aries

Never Not Shooting
Here's the token loli character. She's a ten year old bounty hunter that uses gold and silver revolvers. There's a black hole where her stomach should be so she's a big eater. In the event that she can't find any food, she has a backup plan to eat her pet ferret Niccolo. Loves Pancakes. Hates bad guys (which is a broad term for her). For the most part, she solves all her problems with a hail of lead and fires at the slightest provocation.
I guess she's not as annoying as you would think. Her voice actor puts on a tolerable Spanish accent (much better than Gemini's accent anyway). Has a weird phobia of failing others due to some family history involving her father and a raging river. At least her gold and silver revolvers are pretty cool. But Revolver Ocelot she is not. Don't expect any awesome gun tricks.
Shooting Star: HA! Get it? Shooting Star! Cause she uses guns! Yeah. Even with that terrible pun, her mech wields some pretty badass double barreled revolvers the size of bicycles. I'm not sure how it works, but long range is always nice in a fight.

Diana Caprice

Heart of Glass
Lady. Doctor. Doctor lady. Diana will be your healer for the game. She's kind of sickeningly nice when you first get to know her. She loves birds so offering up fried chicken is a bad way to break the ice. Vegetarian. Not to mention she's kind of a friend to all living things and birds crowd around her Disney style. This is explained in her introductory chapter and you can take it as you will. For the most part, Diana is a wallflower who is more into peace than war and would probably faint if someone sneezed on her. Also a big fan of dollhouses.
As nice as Diana is, her "sad" expression is one of the best in the game. Maybe I just find it cathartic since she comes off holier than thou.
Silent Star: Her blue mech uses magic water as weapons. Okay. It's more like water at such a high pressure it can cut steel. She's not into guns and swords so I guess it's the least she can do. Her armor is also about as durable as tissue paper so she's a 
conscientious objector to the very core. Also, steam powered robotic birds!

Ratchet Altair

Nice Suit
Ratchet here is more of a guest star party member. You only see her in combat during the tutorial and one other time. She starts out as captain of Star Division before having some problems with her spirit energy and becomes mission control...
Okay, I can't stand it. Her last name is identical to Altair from Assassin's Creed. Do you know what her mech's weapon is? Throwing knives. Yeah. Throwing knives! The only thing missing is an option to stab a demon mech in the face with a wrist blade and it would be a blatant reference. Without it though... it's just a coincidence. A damn eerie coincidence.
She looks nice in a suit though.
Silver Star: Ratchet uses a silver-ish mech. Like I said before, it uses throwing knives. I guess all the other weapons were taken at that point.
If you're curious, I went with Subaru because I like mysteries and black hair. There's also other supporting characters like people who help run the theater and Michael Sunnyside. He manages Star Division from behind a desk. He's also way into Japan and has a house in the middle of Central Park. Because he's filthy stinking rich. He also has bottomless nicknames for Shinjiro.

Other Stuff (...like Combat)

 Shinjiro Moving Out
When you're not chatting it up with your pilots and other people, you do combat missions. It's turn based but moving and attacking is more like Valkyria Chronicles. Everyone has an action gauge they spend by moving, attacking, healing, and using special attacks. This gauge often changes in size depending on how your team is feeling. If someone isn't properly motivated, they'll have less of a gauge and won't get much done. If they're in the zone though, they can skip halfway across the battlefield and rip an enemy a new one. 
The gauge is separated into blocks and certain actions use more blocks than others. Defending, for instance, only works if you have two blocks in your gauge. If you only have one, you'll just have to leave your rear exposed until the next turn. Attacking only uses one block, and you can chain five in a row. The tutorial is pretty good about spelling this all out. Best of all, it's optional if you've already cut your teeth on this kind of thing. 

Ground combat is what you would expect. But there's also flight combat. All the Stars can transform into a flying mode when taking on enemies that are the size of Godzilla or King Kong. Most of this takes place in cylindrical shaped battle areas (with the boss in the middle). So it's more like flying around a key target instead of free flight like All Range Mode from Star Fox 64 or straight up combat sim Ace Combat. There are a few variations on this cylinder style flight, but for the most part it handles like ground combat except it's a pain in the ass to target things in this mode. The game gets picky on deciding when you're in proper range of enemies. Battles are not very hard, but they're long. Not to mention, if Shinjiro gets killed it's game over regardless how well your other teammates are doing.
Combat gets more complicated with Command Styles that shift the emphasis on attack, defense, and balance. This often changes the amount of blocks it takes to do things like defend, charge, etc. Since you can shift this at any time as long as it's Shinjiro's turn, you can abuse it if you want to. It's not gamebreaking, but it helps.

Victory Pose!

I said before that I'm kinda blown away this game was even released in the US (for two consoles no less). Mercifully the Wii version doesn't try to force any motion controls and it's all just good old buttons and analogue sticks. You do some screen pointing, but that's about it. The game does suffer from a criminally small soundtrack. Expect to hear the same handful of tunes over and over again until you develop Pavlovian reactions to them. There's also a lot of cinematics for special attacks and boss intros that might wear on you overtime. Good news is that you can kind of skip them (more like shorten them just a bit). The instruction manual mentions you can skip cut scenes.... after you beat the game once. So there's that too.
This is probably more text than the game deserves... but it's kinda charming in a weird way. Probably because I knew what to expect and wasn't disappointed. That doesn't keep a lot of it from being cringe worthy. But I don't know where else you'd find such an odd mix of theater productions and steam powered mechs.