Sparky's Update - The Hot Sauce Boss, Recliners, and AC IV

Holy mother of God.

Fellow mod @mb and I have been discussing hot sauce off and on for several months now, and he very generously offered recently to mail me a bottle of sriracha and Hoy Fong garlic chili sauce. I got the package today, courtesy of Momma Sparky (it's severely icy out and I don't drive, so... yeah, grown ass man getting his mail delivered to him by his mom. Laugh all you want).

First off, I've gotta say, I'm super impressed with the way it was shipped to me. As someone who has had a few objects sent to me broken via Amazon or other marketplaces, this was master class shipping. The two bottles of hot sauce inside had tape around their seals, were bubble wrapped, and placed in a delicate field of packing peanuts, which I again confused for circus peanuts and had to stop eating halfway through the box in order to visit a local hospital. Packing peanuts, you will forever be my downfall! Seriously, it's nice to see the care put into this package, even in something so simple as the shipping materials. Awesome stuff.

For those of you living in the sticks like me, sriracha is this mythical hot sauce of which I hear lots about but never get a chance to try, since local supermarkets carry very limited, very generic forms of hot sauce (here in town, you can only find tobasco, Tapatio, and Cholula). I've been on a quest to try new hot sauces and hot sauce spreads, and it's been a riot, but up until now, sriracha has eluded me. Now, I'd never heard of the Hoy Fong garlic chili sauce, but MB offered to throw it in and mentioned it was really good stuff, so like the greedy, hungry monkey I am, I jumped on the chance to try some.

First up was the garlic chili sauce. I was super curious about it, since garlic's by far my favorite seasoning for just about anything - soups, meat, chili, you name it and I probably load it with garlic. Well, not cereal, because I'm not a fucking monster. Be reasonable. Anyways, let me set the scene for you. There, on my vaguely yellow-cream cheap countertop, scarred from many battles with knives, forks, sporks, and overly hot mugs of tea, sat the bottles of sriracha and garlic chili sauce. Between them, a box of generic brand saltines, a baggie of shortbread cookies from Costco (seriously, Costco Christmas cookies are the fucking best, no joke), and a small cup full of cottage cheese. These were to be my palate cleansers. I'd thought about using the hot sauces on quesadillas, but MB warned me that cooking with sriracha could lead to some pretty horrific (and hilarious) results. Since I didn't want to fumigate my apartment, I decided to just go ahead and man up. Out came... the tablespoon.

Why not a teaspoon? Simple. I'm not a nancy, you nancy.

I lifted the garlic chili sauce to my nose. If my nostrils could purr, they most certainly would have. My stomach gurgled in anticipation - or possibly from SARs. I have no way of really knowing. I dipped the spoon into the waiting vat of garlic chili goodness, and lifted it to my mouth, noticing not for the first time a little bit of drool hanging from the corner of my mouth. By that point, I'm sure there was a little puddle on my shirt from all the salivating. Into the Grander Canyon that is my mouth went the spoon, and I fell in love pretty much immediately. You know Her? This was like that, except with hot sauce and no douchey Joaquin Phoenix in sight.

Seriously, Ho Fong garlic chili sauce is pretty fucking amazing. It's hot, but it's not so hot that it overpowers the taste of the garlic or the chilis, both of which blend together surprisingly well. You'd expect one to dominate the other, but the two flavors seemed to almost alternate, taking turns making my tastebuds the happiest... things on Earth. There wasn't much of an aftertaste either, which is pretty awesome. The last new bottle of hot sauce I tried before this had a horrendous burnt wood taste to it that made me immediately chuck the bottle out. It was well and truly awful. But this, this left a mild taste of chili and garlic in my mouth, with neither causing any sort of residual stinging or loss of taste. For something with a little bit of a kick, that's neat.

Then came cottage cheese, cookies, and a couple of crackers. I'm not going to bore you with those details, except to say BUY ALL THE COSTCO COOKIES. They came in a red tin with no discernible label. Trust me, dudebro, best decision you'll make outside of double wrapping it with that girl with the mouth sores.

Then came time for the sriracha. This was a much bigger bottle, roughly the size of a one liter pop. This was it, the main event, the title fight, the showdown between the immovable fat guy and the unstoppable, seemingly impossible-to-find hot sauce. Someone had to come out on top. I hefted the bottle in one hand and looked at the spoon in my other. I sneered at the spoon, tossed it into the sink, and twisted the end of the bottle open. I aimed it at the back of my mouth hole, and gave it a hefty squeeze.

Nothing. Of course I'd forgotten to take out the little paper-plastic doohickey to open it up. So, yeah, I did that really quick. Round one, sriracha's bottle top - 1, Sparky - 0.

Round two, fight!

I aimed it at the back of my mouth hole (again), and gave it a hefty squeeze (again). This time, glorious hot sauce hit the ol' taste buds, and my mind was a-whirl. Sriracha isn't easily described in basic culinary words, and since I don't know any fancy ones, you'll have to excuse my poor vocabulary here. It only has a mild bit of the taste of ordinary hot sauce - I still can taste some chiles (I forget offhand if chili or chile is the accepted Americanized version - thoughts? I don't think it matters), but they're subdued, in the background. What I did notice - and this is the part that's hard to explain - was a mild... hmmm... sweet smokiness? Smoky isn't the right word here, but it's the closest I can come to describing it. It's a tender, garlicky taste, almost like a spicy broth of sorts. Combine that with the taste of chili, and it's pretty damn good. I can imagine this is the sort of sauce that will see a lot of play on a lot of different meats in my cooking - I'm particularly curious how it will taste as a dipping sauce for chicken as well as a topping for hamburgers, but I've also got this distinct feeling it will go well with elk bratwursts, which I'm excited to try at some point.

So which do I prefer? That's kind of a silly question, since they're both good, but I can't help but think that I liked the garlic chili sauce just a touch better. The sriracha is terrific, that's for damned sure, but the garlic chili sauce nails the combination of heat and flavor that I like so much without leaving me sweating or tasting nothing but the hot sauce. It's something I'm definitely going to stock up on if I see it. It seems like it will go well on a lot of things, but I'm particularly excited to try it on my Tex-Mex foods. I'm practically drooling at the thought of cooking it into some quesadillas or grilled burritos. I must say, both knock my previous contenders of top hot sauce out of contention, though I still quite like both 7 Mares and Zaaschila.

So once again, thanks, MB. This was a ridiculously cool thing for you to do, and my taste buds are in debt to you.

I Own a Recliner!

...and that's pretty much it. Oh, details? Well, as I mentioned in my last blog, one of my planned purchases for the year was to buy a recliner. I had expected it to take a few months, but after I posted an ISO in my local Facebook garage sale/used items page, I was tipped off to a person selling a mildly used recliner for $50. I didn't expect it to be in such great shape, but it is. Mind you, it's a little small, and truth be told, it's not the comfiest recliner in the world, but it's a thousand times better than my old computer chair. I played six or so hours of games yesterday, just sort of basking in its awesomeness - all without any of the pain I've come to associate with sitting in a computer chair for a fraction of that time.

Speaking of games...

Assassin's Creed IV - Some Brief Thoughts

I want to save most of this for a review. But after playing ACIV almost to its end, I've gotta say that I wish I'd played it further before adding it to my Top Ten of 2013 list. It doesn't really hurt anything to be on there, as the story and characters are good enough to merit a mention. But there are a couple of late game missions that are well and truly awful. I never want to have to follow another bureaucrat at a distance again - seriously, fuck that. As awesome as the naval missions are, the tedium of the eavesdropping and foloowing missions drag down the experience so badly that at several points, I thought about giving up on the game. Hopefully, Ubisoft takes its user feedback to heart and actually manages to change up the fundamental gameplay enough to allow for new, more interesting types of on-land missions. Time will tell.

I really, really hate how much some of the ship upgrades cost in terms of cloth and wood. That shit gets ridiculous and tedious fast. Dropping the zeros on some of that shit would have gone a long ways towards lessening my teeth grinding throughout the end part of the game. A quick-find for Templar Hunts would have been super useful too. Oh hey, how about a tool you could buy with in-game currency that allows you to target the nearest object or side quest of your desire instantly? That'd be kind of neat.

If you measure stories by the acceptable Hero's Journey method, the "resurrection" point of ACIV is quite terrific. I'm not going to spoil anything here, but Edward Kenway is a perfectly decent character and that point in the game brought him nearly as high in my esteem as Ezio's outing in Revelations (yes, I claim Brotherhood is still the best game in the series, but I liked Ezio's characterization better in Revelations).

Anyways, I enjoyed most of what the game had to offer, but it's still distinctly stuck in the usual mire of AC problems. At least it's not as straight up annoyingly messy as ACIII was.

And that's it for this week, folks! How's your new year going? Catching up on any terrific games?


Sparky's Update - New Year's Resolutions for 2014

As I prepare to drop trou and wave my king-sized derriere in the general vicinity of 2013, I'm reading up on a few blogs and GOTY lists I've missed out on from the bajillionty users I follow here on Dat Giant Bomb Dot Com. Amongst them was a blog by @mento (the freshmaker, if you were unaware) reflecting on his gaming resolutions from last year as well as a few resolutions for this coming year. If you haven't read it, go there now and read it. Seriously, why the fuck would you be reading my dross ahead of his? GO NOW.

In any case, I thought I'd follow suit and lay out some general resolutions for this coming year. I managed to do well with one of my non-gaming resolutions from last year, which was to feel physically better. I haven't exactly lost weight, but I'm on a good exercise plan, I'm working out each day, and while it feels like I've been sick or injured throughout most of 2013, I feel better in general than I did this time last year. So first and foremost is my resolution to continue that trend - keep working out, eat healthier, keep active. Pretty simple stuff.

Now, on to the stuff you really (don't) care about. Gaming resolutions, moa fucka!

Play Down My Steam ListIt'd be pretty foolhardy for me to say "play more Steam games than I buy," because let's face it, that's just not usually in the cards. That said, I'd really like to cut down the list as much as I can. Will this finally be the year I play through a Total War game? Will I finally finish up all those little adventure games I've bought through the years (Kaptain Brawe, I'm glaring in your general bland direction)? Time will tell. I'm not going to be totally pissed about screwing this one up, particularly if I find more great indie adventure games this year. But I really wouldn't mind finally pulling the trigger on the numerous games I've had sitting in my library for years. We'll see.

Don't Buy a PS4 or Xbox OneThis seems a little odd, but I have other purchases I need to prioritize this year. First up is buying a big comfy recliner. I've been using the same computer chair for my console gaming for years now, and it's seriously starting to hurt. I've gotta buy something a bit more padded and made for longer sessions. This will probably happen in February or March, depending on how much I can scrimp and save in the next two months.

Second up is a new TV. My parents generously offered to buy me a new one this last year and I didn't take them up on it. I'm kicking myself for that now, but I had the best of intentions in declining it. Guilt is a motherfucker. Anyways, Ihis one will happen come next Black Friday, unless I find a spectacular deal before then.

Finish Off My Console To Be Played List... AgainOne of the biggest surprises for me this year was finishing off my on-disc to-be-played list. Sure, I had a couple of packaged games in Twilight Princess and Xenoblade, but I have/had no intention of playing those. For a brief, shining moment somewhere between Xillia and GTAV, I managed to not have any on-disc games that I hadn't played. It was a really good feeling.

Now, Black Friday and a couple of busy weeks turned that on its ear. I'd like to whittle the list down to nothing again, as well as start playing out all the countless PS1 RPGs I've bought on PSN. I'm probably not going to be able to finish all my digital console purchases, but I'd like to make a big of a dent as I can.

I'd also like to see a few games to (further) completion, including playing the other half of Tales of Xillia, more Disgaea D2, possibly finishing off Rainbow Moon, and seeing if I can't finally get through the end of Joe Danger. I'm also planning to revisit some PS2 classic RPGs in order to do some reviews (I've decided that the RPG Retrospective is better suited as reviews rather than a blog feature).

And finally...

Blog and Review GamesI seriously dropped off in terms of writing here on Gee Bee, and I'd like to do better in 2014. I'd like to do more opinions and themes in blogs and leave the thoughts on games to actual reviews. We'll see how that goes. I'd also like to start up some kind of a new series, but I'm not sure as to what quite yet.

And that's it for this one, folks. Have a great New Year. Thank you all for reading and your continual support. In the aforementioned blog Mento wrote, he included a list of terrific bloggers and content providers here on the site. If you haven't subscribed to those users already, please do. There's a great amount of content being provided here by the community.

Finally, let's play out this fucking horrible year in style.


The Sparkiest Buzzsaw Awards of 2013

Welcome, one and all, to this year's installment of the newly redubbed Sparkiest Buzzsaw Awards, wherein I assign a bunch of games and non-game stuff (and things, can't forget the things) random and not-so-random arbitrary awards that absolutely no one cares about. Who will win the not-at-all coveted Best Use of Chinchillas? How about the even-less-desirable Sparky's Choice of Hot Sauce? Throw some tires up on your corrugated tin roof, because there's a Sparky tornado of love comin' through your trailer park heart!

In prior years, I awarded rewarding awards towards all the games I've played throughout the year. Since I'm slowly sobering up (2 1/2 hours free of sparkling grape juice!) and I'm no longer certifiably clinically insane (take THAT, Judge McPherson!), I've decided to throw that out the window and just give out awards to whatever I feel like. OCD - way to be!

If you're looking for my favorite games I played this year, go look in my lists. I'm not going to regurgitate that nonsense here.



Best iOS Games I Played This Year

5. Worms 3

There's not much new to Worms 3, and it strips out a lot of the features in Worms Reloaded, but it's still incredibly solid, stable Worms gameplay on the iPad. The controls are pretty great too.

4. Clash of Clans

Terrific basic strategy elements and a basic upgrading system make Clash of Clans one of the easiest recommendations for the iPad.

3. Simpsons Tapped Out

A metric ton of updates and some pretty funny writing help this one stand out, despite the tepid game structure. The introduction of some mini-games would go a long ways towards keeping me coming back to this one.

2. Clumsy Ninja

Some neat ragdoll physics meet a trainable ninja in this oddball game, and I love it. You drag, push, throw, and drop a caroonish ninja around, and as you do so, he becomes more and more skilled. It sounds kind of stupid on paper, but in action, it's ridiculously cool. Can't wait to see where this one goes.

1. Bloons TD 5

Without question, this is my favorite game on the iPad. I love tower defense when I have lots of various options and levels to play with, and Bloons has both in spades. It's shockingly well supported too, dropping in tons of levels and gameplay modes without charging a dime beyond the initial purchase. This is small gaming done right.


Best Use of Not Bruce Campbell

Poker Night at the Inventory 2: Even Pokerier

You can't have a game with Ash Williams and not get my attention. Combine that game with Glados, Sam (of Sam and Max fame, not Happy Days), the greatest living voice actor in Patrick Warburton, and Claptrap, and you've got a pretty interesting cast of characters. Oh, and Steve from Borderlands. Hey-o!

But most notably - and bizarre - was the not-Bruce Campbell version of Ash, from the Evil Dead. Most of the other characters had a small tangential reason for being there (a new season of Venture Bros. was starting up, thus Brock Samson - I'm assuming the Ninja Turtles were busy that week). There was nothing explicitly awful about the not-Bruce Campbell's voice work, but it felt a little limp without Our Be-Chinned Leader behind the wheel. Still, it was excellent to see the character in something, and there was even a Chuck Finley joke for all ten of us who watched Burn Notice.

Sadly, Not Brisco County Jr. has not been confirmed for Poker Night 3. Damn.


The Most Depressing Dipshit Move By a Dipshit Who Gave Me Hope For Old-School Adventure Games Award

Paul Trowe Showing Porn to a Kid

Long-time readers might remember me getting really excited about Replay Games. They acquired the license to Leisure Suit Larry, one of my very favorite adventure game series, and as an added bonus, they hired on Al Lowe, the creator of LSL.

Well, Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded came and went (insert your own joke there). It was a mostly unremarkable remake of a game that honestly didn't stand up well to modern adventure games - or even other games in its own proper series. That was okay, because it sold fairly well and it was the basis for (hopefully) more Al Lowe games. Then... silence.

It was revealed in December that Al Lowe left Replay Games due to Paul Trowe's conviction of showing pornographic material to a minor. Replay Games still has the LSL license, and Al Lowe has made it clear that he won't be a part of their company.

In short, fuck you, Paul Trowe.


Best Character of the Year - and Generation!

Drippy - Ni no Kuni

I mentioned this in my GOTY 2013 list, but I really do think Drippy's the best new character of this generation. His lines are well written, he's well designed, and the voice actor knocks it out of the park. He's a lovable little sidekick, given tons of memorable moments, and I refuse to believe he's not the best new character of 2013, GB staffers be damned!


Best Shooter-Ass-Shooter

Halo 4

It's probably a bit weird that I played Halo 4 this year and it somehow didn't wind up making my Best of the Year list. It's not that I thought Halo 4 was a bad game, but it definitely felt like a last little gasp of cash-in air before 343 moved on to the next generation of Halo games. Gone were the big open single-player environments in favor of humdrum corridor-esque shooting. Gone were the interesting, well designed multiplayer levels in favor of multiplayer generica. It sure looked pretty, though, and that central story between MC Mixmaster Cheeef (that's his DJ name) and Ms. "holy hell, do I feel uncomfortable looking at a processor with bewbs" Cortana is pretty darned decent. I'm still excited about Halo games. Just not that excited.

Oh, that reminds me...


Worst Multiplayer Experience Not Related to Technical Glitchery of the Year

Halo 4

Now, I know what you're thinking. "LOLZ, Halo is fer da kidz and newbieassnewbs. U suck Sproky." First, go back to second grade English and pretend like your school can afford to teach you grammar and spelling. Second, I've honestly had my best multiplayer experiences with Halo 3 and Reach this generation - which basically puts them in the running for best multiplayer experiences of all time, since the only other game I ever really played online before the 360 was Battlefield 1942. I loved driving Warthogs in Halo 3 for good reason - I was the fucking KING of Warthog driving. I may have only racked up a couple of kills personally, but if you were a gunner in my Warthog, you'd make the first or second spot, guaranteed. A good driver is easy to find, but a good driver that knows the best routes to keep you steady and level for maximized killing fun and doesn't care about being top dawg? Now that's a rarity.

Halo Reach was still fun, particularly in its non-deathmatch modes. But you could feel the community start to crumble. With Halo 4, any goodwill I had towards the series' evaporated within my first hour of playing it. I've never heard so many vile shitbags in my life, not to mention the complete lack of anything approaching teamwork. Seriously, it was bad enough that I played for precisely one week's worth of games before putting Halo 4 into a deep, dark corner of my living room, never to see the light of day again.

In short, fuck you, Halo 4 community.

Runner-Up: GTA V.

Just let it go, Rockstar. Let it go.


Best Multiplayer I Actually Bothered With in 2013

Tie: Far Cry 3 and Syndicate

Both games featured pretty terrific co-op experiences. Syndicate gets the slight edge here due to its awesome unlocks and general badassery, while Far Cry 3 gets a nod because I had actual friends playing it this year. Hey, it makes a difference. Both games deserve a golf clap.


Worst Game I Played in 2013

Surgeon Simulator

The controls sucked so damn bad that it rendered any hilarity completely null and void. Just an awful game, through and through.

Runners-Up: 30 Flights of Loving, DLC Quest


Worst Experience with a Game That Still Managed to Ninja Its Way Into My Top 10


While GTA V might be a technical masterpiece, frankly, it sucks big floppy donkey dick in certain spots. The minimap is unforgivably atrocious. The writing is miniscule. Design decisions, such as incredibly glitchy and flawed garages meant to be more realistic than a list of cars you've stolen or own, rob the game of the fun found in other open-world games like Saints Row or Sleeping Dogs. An early mission involving you chasing a man on a motorcycle nearly led me to sell the game right then and there, and had it not been for the option to skip quests, I would have, without question. I'd say that the mission design feels like it's stuck in the early 2000's, except that we have irrefutable proof in games like San Andreas that even back then the mission design kicked GTA V's up and down the floor.

I'm absolutely serious when I say this - GTA V was only a hair's breadth away from being my worst game of 2013. And honestly, I'm still not sure it doesn't deserve it. Rockstar, I hope you remember at some point your games are supposed to be fun. You can tack on all the pretensions you want, but it doesn't change the fact that the core of your game needs to entertain the player first.

Runner-Up: AC IV (go to hell, eavesdropping missions)


I Want to Hug the Developers Award

Wadjet Eye for the Blackwell Games

I bought the Wadjet Eye very much on a whim. I've been hugely surprised and pleased at how much I adore the Blackwell series. They're very basic point-and-click games that seem to grow more and more lovable with each game. They've infused each game with a love of old-school adventure games, modernized the formula a little bit, and done a great job of doing a lot with just a little. We need more bite-sized adventure games like this. Thanks for giving me just a little taste of my childhood love of adventure games again, Wadjet!


Best Hawt Saaaaauce, 2013

Zaaschila Chipotle Hot Sauce

@mb and I were locked in a bitter debate earlier this year over the inclusion of Taco Bell hot sauce in his hot sauce poll. I said it was tasty, he told me I could cram it up my ass. Well, okay - by "bitter debate," I mean we said about ten words in total to each other about it, and I believe the "cram it up your ass" comment was actually probably from the lady down the street when I asked her on a date. In any case, he inspired me to buy a shit ton of hot sauce from a Wal-Mart sixty miles away and give each of them a go. Turns out, he was right - there are tons of better hot sauces on the market. So far, my favorite hands down is Zaaschila's Chipotle Hot Sauce Spread, which barely counts as hot sauce, but is so damned good I'm including it anyways.

Throw this stuff in your next quesadilla with some black bean and corn salso on the side. Your stomach will nut itself.


Best Hot Cocoa, 2013

Tim Horton's

Holy shitballs, I want it in me so bad. Please sell it again for decent prices, Amazon!

By the way, always prepare your hot cocoa this way - add three to four teaspoons to the bottom of a mug, add a teaspoon or two of dry creamer, and pour boiling hot water over it. Don't use milk - as weird as it sounds, dry creamer tastes better in cocoa.


Best Tea, 2013

Lipton's Black Pearl

While I continue on my quest to get Lipton's Honey and Lemon tea back in stores, in the meantime, i have this. It's a simple black tea, but like many of Lipton's pyramid brand teas, it seems a little bit tastier than the regular stuff. If you like fruit teas, their Bavarian Wild Berry is fantastic too.


Best Coffee, 2013


Coffee. Blech.


Best Book, 2013

The Republic of Thieves

This was an easy one. Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastard books are intelligent, fun fantasy reads that continue to amaze me. This one focuses a little more on the wizards of the world, which is a bit of a shame since they're almost boring in their all-powerfulness. But it's still a ridiculous amount of fun to read about two of my favorite modern day duos taking on thievery, politics, and lovey-dovey stuff. If you haven't read any of Lynch's work, go read Lies of Locke Lamora post-haste.


Best Dog Breed, 2013




Handsomest, Humblest, and Most Dashing Moderator of 2013

Yours Truly

Damn, I look good in sweats and a dirty t-shirt.


And that's it! Join me next year as I try to find the answers to life, love, happiness, and where I left my boxers. Until next time, this is Sparky Buzzsaw saying, "No! Don't touch that!"


Sparky's Update - Thanksgiving

Heya folks, and welcome to a brief Thanksgiving-ish Sparky's Update, where everyone's a jive turkey and you can get your berries cranned any time. I have no idea what that even means, so let's move on, shall we?

I haven't been doing very much in terms of interesting gaming tidbits lately. I've mostly been revisiting Skyrim and playing far too much Borderlands 2, which I keep thinking I've finished with and end up revisiting a day or two later. I've been diving deeper and deeper into Disgaea D2's postgame content, which is still really decent, despite the lack of diversity or interesting new bonus characters. And finally, I've been inching my way forward in Radiant Historia, which is just as good as everyone has claimed, but my tolerance for long bouts with my 3DS is starting to suffer as my hands HATE holding the damn thing for more than a half hour at a time. Ergonomics, Nintendo. Look it up.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, even you non-American types!

iPad Corner

-Go try Lazy Ninja. It's free. Yes, it's kind of a simple physics based game. But damned if it isn't addictive. It's a basic Furby-meets-an-RPG experience, wherein you have basic limited touch controls over an unskilled ninja as he becomes... well... skilled. How you do this is the hilarious and addicting part. In order to improve his balance, you throw him through a basketball hoop. Sharpening his reflexes has you throwing watermelons at him. It's a riot.

The Rest

-Scott Lynch's Republic of Thieves is pretty damned good so far. I'm about halfway through and it holds up as well as his prior two Locke Lamora novels. For those unfamiliar, the Locke Lamora novels follow the thieving Gentlemen Bastards in a gritty fantasy setting. The leads are charming as hell and the dialogue crackles. I cannot recommend them enough, even to readers who don't normally go for fantasy novels.

-I'm within a few discs of finishing The Wire. It was all I could do not to pull the trigger and buy the whole series when it was on sale on Amazon earlier this week for $80. It's so damned good. I think I'll be finishing up with the on-disc part of my Netflix subscription once I've finished it and caught up on Boardwalk Empire.

-I had really mixed feelings about the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, but overall, I liked it. I almost wish there had been a whole season or mini-series devoted to John Hurt's character, but oh well. Nice to see Tennant, too bad Eccleston has some sort of stick up his ass about that show, and a shame none of the other surviving Doctors were featured. If anyone wishes to discuss this one further, I suspect we ought to do it via a PM so we don't risk spoiling anything.

And that's about it. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, and even if you're not an American, I hope you take a few minutes this week to contemplate and be grateful for those in your life who you love and cherish, and more importantly, who love and cherish you. And seriously, get a pecan pie. Or three.

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Sparky's Update - Disgaea D2, Wolf Among Us

Well... shit.

Sometime between writing my last blog post on introducing new players to Disgaea and now, I've tried to post two seperate blogs detailing Geo Blocks, Geo Panels, the fun of the Item World, and how you can learn different skills and traits throughout the last few Disgaea games.

Obviously, neither of those worked. I'm in the bad habit of rarely copying or pasting my blogs from elsewhere, preferring to shoot straight from the hip and info dump right here on Giant Bomb dot com. I also started to write something in the middle of the 48-hour livestream, but I was running on fumes myself (not from playing games but because my sleep patterns are crap), and abandoned it halfway through.

I think at some point I'll try to draw up a definitive how-to guide for Disgaea, probably specifically for D2, but honestly, right now, the idea just sort of bums me out. If you want to know more about the games or how to play them, always feel free to hit me up or talk to the great Disgaea community we have here. In the meantime, let's discuss that particular gem, shall we? We shall.

Slow Burn, Big Payoff

I'll freely admit, I wasn't terribly impressed with D2's story or characters. Laharl was pretty great in the first Disgaea, but there's something kind of meandering and off about Disgaea D2's main story thrust. It lacks a good central villain, never really settles into any of the story elements it introduces, and, in general, feels pretty lackluster all the way through. The old characters aren't given any decent material, the new characters are bland retreads of Disgaea archetypes, and there's a bizarre number of idol wannabes. Yes, as in music idols. I don't get it.

But there's a whole lot to like about Disgaea D2 once you get past the main storyline - and for new players, there's even more to like before the story. D2 does a far better job of introducing new players to the basic mechanics of the game, giving much better explanations of geo panels, geo blocks, and the combo system than in prior games. While the descriptions of the various stats and bonuses leave something to be desired, there are plenty of NPC characters with reasonably detailed guides as to the basics of these things - and by now, there are a few really great FAQs and Youtube guides on a lot of the intricacies of Disgaea's deeper mechanics, which is delightfully something you really don't have to worry about with D2.

I say that because the post-game content is refreshingly accessible. You'll be eased into a few fun scenarios that introduce new party members, as well as the easiest (to date) Cave of Ordeals, which are post-game missions designed to help you level up. There are plenty of new characters to nab (and a great selection of them, too, though Disgaea 3 seems fairly conspicuous by its absence).

Even the Item World, probably the most intimidating and confusing aspect of Disgaea, is designed to be much more accessible and fun. Players are now given control of a ship right from the start, giving them a safe haven for their characters to stand or a place to throw those irritating Invincible and Mighty Enemy geo blocks. It makes a world of difference, and it makes deeper exploration of the Item World much more fun.

The best new mechanic of the game is the Cheat Shop, which is accessible fairly early on. You used to have to adjust Disgaea's enemy difficulty by going through the Assembly, which would mean having to pass a bill every time you wanted to increase or decrease the difficulty of the enemies. This was time-consuming and a little boring. Now, in the Cheat Shop, you can adjust enemy difficulty at any time, free of cost or hassle. It sounds like a minor change, but it's a friggin' godsend. The cheat shop also allows you to tinker with the percentages of experience, mana, and gold you receive in battles. Cheat poitns are earned by doing post-game content, giving you even more of an incentive to rip through everything the game has to offer.

There are numerous other small changes as well. They've taken a "back to basics" approach to learning skills by allowing each character to have apprentices. When the master learns a skill, so does the apprentice (unless it's a story character-specific skill). Both receive additional bonsues to their weapon masteries. This system makes it remarkably easy to teach all your characters healing and magic spells, essential to some of the late game content.

Another great change is the new ability to bribe the Assembly with money. By the time you finish the game and start delving deep into the Item World, you'll be earning tons of money by selling off unwanted equipment, leaving you with disposable cash and no real place to spend it. That's where this comes in handy. It does kind of negate the other systems of the Assembly such as forcing a bill through combat or bribing them with items, but it expedites the system and makes it pretty easy to get anything done.

So... that's it, really. If you can get through the lousy story, there's an amazing amount to love here. NIS really needs to take a few years and change up its visuals and introduce some new character models, but as it stands right now, I can't recommend this game enough. I'm not sure I like it quite as much as Disgaea 4, but it's so close to a tie that it's negligible.

The Awesome Among Us

Ignore the fairy tale trappings and go play The Wolf Among Us. It's less a game than a graphic adventure, and that's perfectly fine because the story is effin' terrific. It's bloody, visceral pulp, and I can't wait to see more of it. It doesn't hurt that the game looks frickin' gorgeous and runs much smoother than Walking Dead. And the music? Nails it. Same goes with the voice acting - these people brought their A-game.

I can't think of any particular fault to it, save that if you're looking for a game-ass game, this isn't it. But if you're looking for a story, this is the sort-of-game for you.

The iPad Corner

I was addicted to Beach Buggy Blitz for all of about two or three hours. I suppose for a free game, that's not too bad, but it's a shame the game never really becomes anything more than what it starts as. It's essentially an endless runner disguised as a point-to-point racer, with your usual options to buy boosts, powerups, and upgrades. If the controls had become a little more tight with added upgrades, I'd probably still be singing this one's praises. But everything feels far too slidey, and the ridiculous jump in upgrade costs amounts to a big sigh of disappointment. Still, though, for an hour's worth of entertainment, this one's not bad.

The Rest

-I wish Resonance focused more on one protagonist at a time, rather than requiring the awkward back-and-forth puzzle solving of switching between characters. The mechanics are underdeveloped, leaving me often frustrated at the "stay/follow" basic command and the general lack of fun in its puzzle solving. It's a shame, because there's a decent story in here somewhere, but I just can't get past the irritating gameplay to really see its value.

-Who's ready for some Black Friday vidya game sales, huh?!?


Sparky's Update - An Introduction to Disgaea for New Players

Heya folks, and welcome to a special edition of Sparky's Update! I'm guts deep in the middle of a brand new Disgaea game (the so-far-spectacular Disgaea D2), but I thought atter this week's positive feeedback to the idea of a new Disgaea blog series, I'd take some time to introduce some of you to what Disgaea is and how you can dip your toes into its universe.

What follows here isn't necessarily specific to Disgaea D2, but some of the intimate details might not apply to all the Disgaea games. That said, we're just going to be talking about its very basic mechanics in order to acclimate you slowly into the world, so the guide should serve as a basic primer for all Disgaea games.

What is Disgaea?

At its very core, Disgaea is a strategy role playing game, not entirely dissimilar to something like Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre/Ogre Battle. It has a very anime-esque atmosphere, with a definite Japanese sense of humor and aesthetic.

Story battles take place on a predetermined grid. Enemies are placed in specific locations, as is your "base," or the square where your characters come out from. In each battle, you can have ten characters on the field at any time. If one dies, then that character cap goes down by one.

The combat is relatively straightforward. Your characters can attack, use special skills, defend, or use items. They can move before or after an attack (but not both). By positioning characters next to each other, you get a chance to perform combo attacks, which deal significantly more damage and generally look cooler.

Levels are listed out in a very basic form - there's no overworld or area to explore outside of your castle or main hub area. Your team of characters is two-fold - those central to the plot, and those you create. The list of characters you can create might seem a bit intimidating at first, but most of the humanoid classes parallel normal fantasy/RPG tropes, such as a mage, healer, monk, warrior, and the like. Since it's really easy to obtain the necessary in-game currencies, create as many characters as you like without worry of screwing something up because you'll always have opportunities later to create more characters or try new things.

Your First Playthrough - What You Should Know

I think what scares most people away from Disgaea is talk of the post-game content, which is incredibly deep. But for your first playthrough in any Disgaea game, what you should know is this - the game, at its core, is very, very simple, and you never have to stray very far from a basic formula to get yourself through your first playthrough.

Here's the biggest not-so-secret secret every new player should know - every level in Disgaea's story missions can be beat with a little grinding. Even better, in your first playthrough, this grind isn't at all taxing. Essentially, for your first playthrough, what I'd recommend doing is getting through the tutorial missions, and then work your way through every level twice with your favorite team of characters. That's it - that's all you need to do to enjoy Disgaea at its most basic level.

The game will introduce some fairly intimidating elements to you early on, particularly the Item World and the Dark Assembly. Let's examine those and I'll show you why they're far less intimidating than you think.

The Dark Assembly

Disgaea has a lot of options you can tinker with through the Dark Assembly. This is essentially the tool you use in-game to create characters, make the game easier or more difficult, and add more items to the weapon/armor/item shops in the game.

For your first playthrough, I'd really only recommend playing around with the options you're comfortable with. As mentioned, creating characters is a breeze, so play with that all you want to. You'll obtain plenty of Mana (the currency used for the Dark Assembly) through battles. Also fairly easy and useful? The Dark Assembly also features a bill that can make more expensive items appear in the shops, which allows you to buy better equipment than what the shops have originally.

When trying to pass bills through the Assembly, you'll have to sit through a "yay" or "nay" session in front of the Assembly itself. Seems complex, I know, but thankfully, it's fairly straightforward. Each bill comes with a certain likelihood of it passing or failing. Now, most simple bills like creating characters don't even need to go through the Assembly, so there's not much to think about there - just create the character, and you're good to go. But when you pass, say, that "more expensive items" bill, you'll have to push it through the Assembly. That process is really easy to understand, if a bit frustrating in its actual practice.

The Assembly is comprised of parties of creatures that either want the bill to pass or fail - think Democrats and Republicans, but with dragons, zombies, and prinnies instead. The most basic bills like "more expensive items" will usually have a favorable likelhiood of passing, so you won't need to do any work. I wouldn't recommend trying to pass any more complicated bills than that on your first playthrough - we'll get into the nitty gritty of the Dark Assembly and how you can pass more complex bills in a future blog. But for your first playthrough, limit yourself to just the essentials - creating characters and making more items appear in your shops.

The Item World

Any item, be it a sword, a piece of equipment, a healing item, or whatever you'd like, can be leveled up in Disgaea. This is done through the Item World, easily the most fascinating and fun part of the Disgaea games once you understand what you're doing.

The Item World is essentially a string of randomized battles wherein your goal on each map is to eliminate all the enemies or get to a certain portal to go to the next level. There's one catch - you can only leave the Item World through the use of an item called an Mr. Gency Exit, or by making it ten levels down. Your item will level up depending on how many levels you've beat, so if you've cleared the first three levels of enemies, your item will level three times.

There's a lot of random stuff that can happen in the Item World and not all of it is pleasant. If you're going to explore the Item World, try to keep an Mr. Gency Exit item on you at all times, and be prepared with a decently powerful team. The cheaper the item was, the easier the Item World will be.

For your first playthrough, it's really up to you how much you use the Item World, but I would only recommend using it when the game leads you there. At least, at first - like I say, it's a riot in the post-game, but we're not concerning ourselves with that right now. Keep in mind to ALWAYS save before you go into the Item World, as you won't have an opportunity to do so until you've left it again.

I'd also recommend during your first playthrough of limiting your Item World trips to equipment and weapons. While you can level up a piece of gum if you want (no, really, you can), there's just very little point to it.

Assorted Basic Tips and Tricks

Treat yourself to new equipment and weapons liberally, but keep a focus on the characters you use the most. I like having a very basic ten man team comprised of a few story characters, two mages, two healers, an archer, and a monk. Every now and again, when created characters reach a certain level, they can choose to reincarnate into the next tier of that class. This will reset their level to one, but it will give them a sprinkling of bonus stat points and some new, more powerful skills. It's entirely up to you to choose whether to reincarnate or not - it will mean a bit more grinding, as you'll want to get those characters back up to speed level-wise, but the bonus stat points do come in handy and the more powerful skills are always a positive thing. It's all dependent on how much grinding you really want to do, but I would at least recommend keeping your mages and healers up to their highest possible class tier.

You can heal yourself in between battles in a shop (it's called a hospital, but it's really just one character standing there) - that should always be your first purchase outside of battle. Always save right atterwards.

Don't bother with building monsters unless you're playing Disgaea D2. Outside of a few story characters, they're by and large completely useless.

Each character class specializes in certain weapons but anyone can use any type of weapon. Try to stick with your character class's specialization, as they'll do more damage with them. This can be viewed from your character's status screen.

I can't really emphasize this enough - if you're having trouble, just grind. Everything in the game can be beat with better characters, weapons, and equipment. There are some ways to cheat the system a bit (in every game to date, there's been a way to abuse level 5-4 in order to power level your characters), so if you find yourself really frustrated with a particular level, look those up on GameFAQs or a similar site. Otherwise, feel free to hit me up and I can help you out.

And that's Disgaea in a nutshell. So far, Disgaea D2 feels like the most accessible of the Disgaea games to date, but you really can't go wrong with any of them. Their stories are fairly disconnected (save for D2 from the original Disgaea, but even Disgaea D2's story is set apart from that one, so you won't need to know the first game in order to enjoy this one). I know they seem intimidating, but if you stick to the basics at first, I guarantee you, they're just as accessible as something like Final Fantasy Tactics. Unless you're like @arbitrarywater and hate the thought of anime-inspired games (and this is VERY anime-inspired, so bear that in mind), give the series a go. If you get as hooked as me, you won't need another gaming drug for a very long time.

In the next blog, I'll discuss slightly more advanced combat mechanics such as the Geo Panels and Geo Blocks. We'll also talk a bit more about the Dark Assembly and how you can pass more complex bills. See ya then.


Gauging interest for a Disgaea D2 blog series

There likely won't be a regular Sparky's Update this week since I've been crazy busy this last week. However, with Disgaea D2 on its way probably Wednesday or Thursday, I wanted to gauge interest from my regular readers on whether or not they'd like to see a blog series on Disgaea D2 similar to what I did with Disgaea 4. I might just do it anyways, because I'm a crazy bastard and I really feel like the games are criminally undermarketed here in the States, but I wanted to get some input from you folks (and honest input at that, too) on if you'd like to see that sort of thing and what you'd like me to cover. Just the main story? The Item World expeditions? Post-game content? Hit me up. I can't guarantee I'll cover it all (I'm terrible about completing things like the pirate post-game stuff), but I'll definitely cover it if I encounter it or spend time with it.


Sparky's Update - Back to Good

Well, that was shorter than I expected. I decided to take a vacation from my troubles a week or two ago, thinking I'd take a sabbatical of sorts from all the things stressing me out. It's been a tough year, but sitting around and whining about it isn't going to do me much good, so I'm back on the site full-time (well, as full time as I've ever been, anyways) and ready to crack down on you forum-destroying godless heathens. Oh, and bullshit about video games, hamburgers, and big ass ramps. Good times.

Obligatory GTA V Block o' Text

I've been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto V lately. I'm split between loving and hating that game in equal parts. I'm not going to bother you with why it's such a fantastic game (and it is), but I do want to touch on some of my problems with it. First and foremost is the appallingly small fonts. It's absurd to me that this is still a problem in 2013, particularly from Rockstar who have had a long history with this precise problem. I've sent them an email regarding it twice now, and will continue to do so until I hear from their technical support that it's at least been acknowledged. Their mini-map is godawful too, utilizing certain colors that blend into each other (such as missions that require you to follow a black blip on a slightly less black grid). I damn near sold the game back to Amazon within an hour thanks to an early game chase mission involving a motorcycle that would have kept me from enjoying the game were it not for the option to skip missions after failing them repeatedly.

There's also a sense of aimless decision making in GTA V. While some of the series' best ideas are introduced in this game (multiple protagonists and heists), there are multiple instances where the world design seemed to want to flip flop between the seriousness of GTA IV as opposed to the silliness of its predecessors. The jokes are tired, recycled, and uninspired, and in a post-Saints Row: The Third world, they just don't stack up. The music stations lack inspiration as well, and seem far too eclectic and thrown together for the series, which has usually done a fantastic job of music selection.

I'll also admit to being appalled by certain missions and cutscenes, particularly the torture mission and the cutscene wherein it's heavily implied Trevor kills two innocents for no reason whatsoever other than to push forward the idea that he's a psychopath. That's entirely a personal choice, however. I get that I'm being a bit stodgy here, but I just don't want to play as a character who does that sort of stuff.

I'd also appreciate more thought being put into the post-game content. More assassination missions appearing in the post-game would have gone a long ways towards keeping me interested in playing it beyond the story, but as it is, I'll check out the multiplayer and probably call it quits soon in San Andreas.

The Rest

-Didn't much care for Gemini Rue. I can't quite pin it down, but its whole never seems to quite match up to its parts. I should like its sci-fi Blade Runner-esque setting and plot. I should like the hardboiled noir characters. But I just don't. And maybe it's a problem of my mindset over these last few weeks, but I don't think so, mainly because...

-I do care for what I've played of Resonance. While it could use variety in its locations and pixel-hunting gameplay, it's a solid game with a lot of good ideas. It's got spirit, which I didn't really feel was the case with Gemini Rue. Neither game is as entertaining as the Blackwell series, which I'm told by friend of the pimp @slag was developed by Wadjet as opposed to just produced as was the case with Resonance and Gemini Rue (correct me if I'm wrong there, Slag).

-I beat Defender's Quest sometime in the last couple of weeks. That's a really terrific tower defense game with some fun RPG mechanics (skill trees, y'all!). I wish it blew up to an actual full screen size instead of just letterboxing itself, but that's a minor quibble. Really, give this one a go. It's a lot of fun.

-I've dipped my toes into Radiant Historia and really like what I've seen so far. It's a quality RPG with a focus on its characters and world-building, which I enjoy immensely. The combat feels terrific too, though I'm admittedly not far into it.

-And lastly, I've been playing some Bioshock Infinite after a recent Amazon sale dropped it to $25. So far, I'm surprisingly divided on it. On the one hand, I like that we're seeing hints of the world outside of combat and general Bioshock craziness, but I never feel like that potential world-building is met. I've said this beore, but I really feel like the Bioshock series would feel much better as a giant open-world game ala Fallout or Skyrim, or at least with less of a focus on its FPS aspects, which are fairly dull and repetitive. Expect more on this next week. I've had the ending spoiled for me (boo!), so I'd like to delve deeper into what I'd like to see Bioshock become as opposed to discussing the game itself.

All right, you scurvy dogs, that about wraps it up for this week. I'm still going to be dealing with a few niggling issues from these past couple of weeks, but I'm more or less back to good and should be around more frequently. Thank you all for letting me have a bit of a breather.


Sparky's Update - SolForge, Torchlight II, Forza Horizon's 1000 Club

Welcome, one and all, to the latest, greatest Sparky's Update since... well... the last Sparky's Update! I'm all hopped up on a pumpkin spice cappuccino, so before the caffeine and sugar rush gives me a heart attack, let's jump in and bullshit about dem games, huh? Huh?!? I can't hear you! Sound off like you've got a pair!

That's more like it. OK, for the last couple of weeks, I've been dividing my time between Wild ARMs 3 (which you can read about in last week's Retrospective), Torchlight II (surprisingly meh), and SolForge (oh my God, I can't quit, someone help me). I've also been playing the shit out of a delightful little gem on the iPad called Giant Boulder of Death, which I'm going to tell you right now is one of the best little wastes of time you can find on there. And it's free!

I posted this and forgot to add a section regarding Forza Horizon's 1000 Club. Whoops! Let's do some editing magic and get that wedged in here somewhere. Now where would be a natural fit? Hmmm.

Horizon's Neat But Utterly Pointless Experiment

A while back, Forza Horizon added a free DLC pack called the 1000 Club. Essentially, it adds some small, optional challenges you can complete for every car in the game. Sounds neat, and it is. Sort of. Except it's not. Mostly.

The problem isn't so much with the challenges themselves. They test small bits of your skill in regards to speed, handling, drifting, or the like. That's all fine and good, and some of them are even fun. But aside from achievements and potential rewards from the too-little, too-late Forza Rewards that was just launched a couple of weeks ago, there's absolutely no point in doing them. They don't reward you with more money, experience, or fame (aside from the fame you'll gain from doing tasks already associated with building fame, such as drifting or attaining a certain skill score). And continuing in the vein of the game's appalling DLC (which featured cars ripped directly from Forza 4, most of which were openly available sans DLC in that game), you actually need to have purchased most of the game's DLC in order to gain the achievements for the 1000 Club portion of the game.

So, there you have it. A continuation of the evils of DLC in a Microsoft-backed game. Who would have guessed, right?

SolForging a Pretty Awesome Game

I've mentioned SolForge numerous times, and I'm fairly active on its boards here on Giant Bomb. Feel free to skip this if I've gushed on too much about it already. I never got into collectible card games as a kid. I live in a tiny, backwoods community where stuff like Magic and D&D is still pretty much frowned upon as too geeky, too devil-worshippy, and too weird. Games of Magic were limited to a couple of guys in my high school playing in a computer lab at lunch - and trust me, they weren't the sort of guys you wanted to be caught with if you wanted to get in the pants of anything female in that school. And so, I never joined them, content to, you know, have awkward underage sex instead of getting into a new hobby. I did collect pen and paper Rifts RPG books, but only to read rather than play.

Fast forward into adulthood. I met a few great people along the way who loved CCG's, but I never really sat down with them to play. I was certainly interested in the games (Magic's artwork sure was purdy), but cost and the intimidation of starting a game people had been playing for years were prohibitive. Of course, this is slightly hypocritical, since I would continue to buy Rifts books (and still do).

Now, hit the super-fast forward button to my thirty-somethings, when a little gem called SolForge hit the iPad. I saw a bit about it on Giant Bomb dot com (home of pimps and players everywhere), and I was thoroughly intrigued, particularly since it seemed to be generating a lot of interest from people new to CCG's like me. The gravy was the price point - it's a free game, with a modest pricing scheme if you want to buy more cards.

What's particularly cool about SolForge is that I haven't had to buy a single pack yet - you start off with some basic cards, but you can add to your collection by logging in and winning your first and third games of the day, regardless of your opponent. That means you don't necessarily have to play a human to win - you can blow through your three wins of the day by playing the computer on easy, something that really helps when you're still struggling to grab some rare cards. Now, I'll probably throw in five bucks at some point, because I like to support the free games I really enjoy, particularly if I don't have to pay to win, but for now, I've played for about three weeks, have a competitive deck, and can make more when I get around to it.

What makes the game so special is that it's really easy to get into and understand. While some of the terminology is a little obtuse (understanding what constitutes a lane threw me at first), I never felt overwhelmed by any of it. It's just a matter of paying attention to what different card types do in order to learn how to better shore up your strengths and eliminate your weaknesses. There are about 180 cards in total in the beta phase of the game, meaning that deck varieities aren't the greatest at the moment, but the developer has promised more further down the road, so that's promising. It has the potential to be a hell of a long-running game if they can start scheduling regular releases of new cards.

There's a handy bit of cross-play to the game, too. Your decks and cards transfer from your iPad to your Steam account, and vice versa. SolForge was a bit unstable on the iPad at first, which meant playing online games on Steam was a much more viable option, but the font size on Steam is atrociously small. Now that the iPad online issues have been ironed out, it's much more fun to play it on that platform.

Anyways, check it out if you're looking to get into the CCG world. The art is cool as hell, the game's accessible, and I think it's got some potential to be a really long-lasting, delightful experience. Give it a shot - after all, it isn't going to cost you anything.

Torchlight II - When Copycatting Goes a Bit Too Far

Let's get this clear - I really like the gameplay of Torchlight 2. Hammering my mouse button to kill enemies, grabbing better and better loot, and fleshing out expansive skill trees gets my juices going. I love loot-and-skill driven games, as evidenced by the absurd amount of hours I've put into games like Diablo 2, Borderlands 2, and the original Torchlight.

It's a shame then that Torchlight 2 single-mindedly drives itself into mediocrity by adhering strictly to what Diablo 2 did a decade ago. This isn't so much a case of imitation so much as it is a remake, and that's a bit unfortunate. Everything from the plot to the overarching design of each act closely mirrors that of Diablo 2, so much so that you wonder if the developers have had any original thoughts of their own since releasing the original Torchlight.

There's a Dark Wanderer copycat in the Alchemist. There's a green world area followed by a desert. The music sounds almost exactly alike (not surprising, considering who composes it). It's all designed to bring Diablo 2 to a modern age, but in trying to do so, it loses any sort of Torchligh flavor in the process. It's grits without butter or added topping. It's a sandwich without condiments. It's just sort of there.

On a technical level, I suppose it deserves five stars for the sheer polish of the loot-based RPG experience. It's got skill trees and loads of ways to customize each character class (there are four in total) to your liking. The loot is plentiful and looks fantastic on your character. Everything animates well, the enemy design (when not stuck mirroring Diablo 2's) is excellent, and the pet mechanics from the first game have seen light, positive tinkering. It runs well on my laptop on igh settings, which means it should run on computers from the last few years without too many problems. The access to mods is easy as pie, and the community has helped bolster it with some fascinating ideas.

So much like Diablo 3, it merits five stars on getting everything technically right, but renders itself a little bland in trying too hard to be like its chief competitor. If the Torchligh team hires on a writer to craft an original story with original characters, this could be a long-lasting franchise. But if they continue to draft in Diablo's wake, all the series will ever be is a Diablo wannabe. For some, that's going to be enough. Me, I hope they reach for more.

The iPad Corner

Giant Boulder of Death is as simple as its name. You're a boulder, tasked with running downhill, crushing people, animals, and buildings in your wake while avoiding spike traps, giants, and mine-firing tanks. It's essentially an endless runner, but with an interesting twist. The world starts off as basically a blank slate, with only a few items to destroy. As you complete progressively more difficult objectives, you unlock bits and pieces of the world, such as larger houses, animals, and vehicles. This allows you to gain higher scores faster, and also leads to you charging up your invincibility boost, which lasts only seconds but allows you to blow through any obstacle with ease. The whole thing is complemented by boosts, which you get every ten minutes for free, or you can spend a form of in-game currency to gain the boosts quicker. You can also spend another form of in-game currency on improving your boulder and your boost effects.

It's produced by the Adult Swim people, who have brought a few truly great gems to the fray. You really can't go wrong with any of their games on the iPad, but Giant Boulder of Death is far and away my favorite from their stable.

The Rest

-I finished up the released Blackwell games. My thoughts haven't changed much since the first, though the voice-acting becomes much more bearable by the last game of the bunch. The games get progressively better and better, and I really look forward to delving into Gemini Rue sometime soon.

-My progress through Final Fantasy IX is sluggish, but not through any fault of the game. I just need to sit down and polish it off one of these days. I'm at Ipsen's Castle, one of my least favorite dungeons of the PS1-era Final Fantasies, and I'm dragging my feet in getting through it. But get through it I shall, and after I've finished hunting down Chocographs and polishing off the last disc, I'll report on it soon.

-I've played a fair bit of Serious Sam 3, enough to know I really don't care much for it. It has a certain sort of charm, but I think I'm done with generic ass shooters without some sort of hook to keep me coming back. And that game doesn't have one. Bland as hell to boot. That's likely all I'll ever mention about the game in my blogs, which goes to show you how little I think of it.

And that's about it for this week. I don't know if there will be a blog next week, as I'll likely be up in Grand Theft Auto V's business, loving it strong. But if I manage to come up for air, I might go ahead and write up that Retrospective for FFIX. I'm slightly reluctant because I don't really remember what the hell happens near the end of the game, but if I make huge strides in it (fingers crossed), I'll see if I can't work it out. Other than that, maybe I'll jump back into Tales of Xillia and see how that post-game content feels. I've also been thinking about getting into Radiant Historia. Whew. Time will tell!


RPG Retrospective - Wild Arms 3

It's been a ridiculously long time since I wrote one of these RPG Retrospectives. I had originally intended on writing one of these every week or two for various old-school RPGs to beef up Giant Bomb's lack of RPG coverage, and as I always do with my planned blog features, I failed miserably. However, I did write a few, namely for Quest for Glory, Star Ocean: First Departure, Tales of the Abyss, and Grandia.

What these Retrospectives aim to do is fairly simply. I play older RPGs, completely at random or whenever the mood strikes me, as thoroughly as possible to determine how they compare to similar RPGs and if they hold up today. I also analyze whether or not the cost versus the value of the game in the period of time that the blog is written, so keep in mind that the availability and access might not always be up-to-date.

While I had originally intended on writing about the Wild ARMs games in order (and in fact, I played through the first two games early last year in an effort to prepare for their Retrospectives), neither game is fresh enough in my memory to actually write about them. While cleaning out my stacks of games for a trade-in to Amazon, I came across Wild ARMs 3 and decided to toss it into the PS2 for no good reason whatsoever. It's a game I haven't revisited in quite some time, so I was excited to see how it holds up.

First, Some History

You know those games you always see on a Hastings discount corner? The five dollar budget games that never seem to disappear from the shelves and eveybody seems to ignore? Wild ARMs 3 was one of those games. I first bought it for my brother, who at that point owned a PS2 while I had an Xbox in 2002. I only got a chance to play through the prologue before revisiting the game when I finally got my mitts on my own PS2 in 2004.

Truthfully, it was a little underwhelming at the time. At that point, Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts were the system's RPG behemoths, and they were dirt cheap, too. And over on the Xbox, Morrowind was consuming my every waking moment, leaving me with little desire to play through a JRPG that seemed a bit too much like its predecessors.

For those unfamiliar, Wild ARMs games are turn-based JRPGs of the old guard. There are random breakaway battles that will no doubt make some today cringe, but the game earns some points for having the option to skip battles (until an exploratory gauge runs out, at which point battles become mandatory until the gauge is refilled by finding crystals in caverns or resting at an inn). The first two Wild ARMs games featured a limited number of characters armed with, well, ARMs - essentially upgradeable guns. Other characters were armed either with magic or special combat skills. All characters could be complemented by Guardians, which were the Wild ARMs equivalent of summons from the Final Fantasy games. Each game featured a cool pseudo Western aesthetic, complete with Ennio Morricone-styled music and names ripped straight from popular spaghetti westerns and Old West lore.

You can also switch between characters. Each is given a number of special items to use when solving puzzles or exploring, such as bombs, a freeze ray, or a radar that helps you detect hidden objects. A fair chunk of dialogue with townspeople will change depending on who you have equipped, often leading to secret areas or useful information.

So How Does It Hold Up?

Wild ARMs 3 feels like a bit of a letdown, even today, especially when held up against its predecessors. It was an interesting looking game, to be sure. At that point, cel-shaded graphics were still a new thing, and it could look damned pretty in spots, but the gameplay felt ripped straight from Wild ARMs 1 & 2, and graphics aside, most of the game felt stripped down. You no longer bought new equipment, but found items in combat and chests that you could attach to your summoned characters With every character now wielding ARMs (but only one per character, without any of the spectacular absurdity of prior ARMs), the characters all feel too similar. Sure, they've all essentially got their own class, but none of them have the scope and depth of the characters from prior games. Mind you, those prior characters weren't exactly worthy of a Saturn award, but they were pretty great.

It doesn't help matters much that the game never really goes anywhere. The villains are introduced early, the side characters are pretty lame, and the protagonists are as flat and boring as any in the series. Part of what made the original two so great was the intrinsic charm of the world of Filgaia and the bizarre characters that inhabit it. Although all the games have anime inspirations sprinkled throughout (namely in their introductory videos), at no point does the series get bogged down in anime tropes. This is true even of Wild ARMs 3, but I wouldn't have minded just a bit more flair, a bit more character to the whole game. Everything feels just a little subdued. Part of that stems from the "end-of-the-world" theme that hangs over most of the game. But part of it is just a lackluster story filled with lackluster characters.

That said? It's still a pretty terrific RPG in terms of its mechanics, dungeoning, and pacing. You find a town, buy some upgrades for your guns, grab a few bits of information from the locals, and you go hunt down the next dungeon. It's a tried-and-true formula, and it works spectacularly well for me. True, the random battles seem to be a bit much, closing in dangerously on Suikoden IV in terms of frequency, but early in the game, you can start stealing items from easy monsters that allow you to fast travel around the world, and you're given pretty easy access to save points (through the use of Gimel Coins, a not-so-rare special item that can also be used to continue should you fail in a battle). I feel like there's potential to be frustrated by the game, but there's a quiet sort of assurance in the game's mechanics that made sure I never quite got to the boiling point. That's the mark of good classic RPG elements.

The game also features tons of extra content in terms of optional dungeons and areas to explore. This is a big game, but a lot of its length can be cut down if you're willing to forego the optional areas. The light puzzle-solving elements in the game never feel overwhelming, and often provide a welcome break from the typical dungeon crawl. Again, none of them have the charm or ingenuity of earlier or later games in the series, but they're still pretty well designed.

Is It Worth It?

Used copies of Wild ARMs 3 are going for about $5 on Amazon. That feels about right, given the dated nature of the game and later advancements in RPGs. As of right now, it's only available on disc and hasn't seen a rerelease on PSN (fingers crossed), but for the cost, I'd say it's worth a shot. But if I were you, I'd go ahead and play through Wild ARMs 1 & 2 first, as both are on PSN and are, at least in my opinion, much more fun.

That said, you really can't go wrong with Wild ARMs 3. It can be a little difficult, but once you learn to game the system a bit (Vanquish + Gallows = near insta-win for every battle) and get to know when to save, you'll have no trouble with it whatsoever. It's a hell of a meaty game for $5, and the battles don't look nearly as fugly as the first two games. It also has the distinction of being one of the rare JRPGs that doesn't make you want to cringe when someone's watching you play it. There are no moments of big-eyed Japaneseness, no cutesy stupid anime tropes, and best of all, no annoying little children or pets pissing me... uhhh... you off every other cutscene.

It's a very meat-and-potatoes sort of RPG, but it (and the series as a whole) has fantastic mechanics that really need to be experienced by anyone interested in RPGs as a whole. There are some bits of kindegarten level armchair philosophizing, but that's about as annoying as the game ever gets. I really recommend it, especially today, when there are so few traditional RPGs on the market - and since PS2's are insanely cheap.

Hope you enjoyed the return of the Retrospective. I'm slowly working my way through Final Fantasy IX, and intend on returning to Filgaia for thoughts on Wild ARMs 1 & 2 sometime in the future. I've also got something lined up for when I finish Lunar on the PSP. Whew!