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?!?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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Sparky's Update - Um... Video Games?

Welcome, one and all, to Sparky's Update, where the points don't matter and everybody wins! Or loses, probably. Well, that's just depressing. Let's soldier forward, shall we?

I didn't actually play many video games this week besides Xillia, which I beat Friday or Saturday. I delved a little bit into the post-game, alternate storyline stuff, and it seems pretty rad. But I'm going to hold off on playing more for fear of burning myself out on it. I played a little more Blackwell, having moved on to Convergence. I'm guessing I'm very close to finishing that one. So it's been a fairly quiet week, game-wise, and I really don't have enough material to write up a standard Sparky's Update. Instead, I'd like to take a moment and talk about the new generation of consoles, and give some brief thoughts as to why I'm holding off a few months post-release on them.

Oh, there is one bit of news - Saturday, for a brief shining afternoon, I had managed to whittle my on-disc to-be-played pile to two unopened games (Xenoblade and Skyward Sword), which I technically don't count since I'm holding onto them for different reasons. Of course, I had to go and ruin the moment by checking my mail, as I received Tales of Graces f. Oh well!

Feeling Like We're Near the End

Looking at the list of releases over on Gamespot from now until the end of December, there are still a fair amount of games coming out for current gen systems that I will be picking up. Beyond: Two Souls, Saints Row IV, GTA V, and Disgaea D2 will all be guaranteed purchases for me (or at least they will be when the price dips on some of them), and there are bunches of PSN and XBL games I'd like to pick up if they run more sales (and doubtless they will in November or December). But with Tales of Xillia's close, I really started to get that feeling that I'm now sliding uncontrollably towards the point where I start to weigh every game purchase against whether or not something better will be coming out on the next-gen consoles within a reasonable amount of time.

I'm also starting to clear out the stacks. For only the second time, I'll be trading in a fair chunk of my current gen games, this time to Amazon. I've got a mountain of old sports games I'll never look at once their next-gen versions start coming out (and make no mistake, we'll be getting EA Sports regurgitations for the next fifty years and idiots like me will probably still sporadically buy them) along with games I know I'll never finish or return to, like Merura... Meruna... that alchemy game. Whatever. Their trade-in prices are fairly reasonable, and selling these games off piece-meal would certainly be far less profitable. So I wave goodbye to games like Dead Space (which I'll never finish thanks to it scaring the pants off me), Bad Company 2 (which I thoroughly enjoyed but will never play again), and Divinity II (which I should frankly be paying them to take). So long, and thanks for all the hours of entertainment, old games!

All this leads me to my latest plans to revisit the games I do want to enjoy again. It's time I target that 75% completion achievement in Just Cause 2. It's time I play a few more rounds of Halo or race a few more cars in Forza, because who knows when I'll be revisiting those series again (more on that in a second)? It's time I finally get around to replaying Heavy Rain, or playing more of the Ratchet and Clank Future games. It's time for me to finally finish up with Rainbow Moon, a game I've been flirting with for nearly a year. It's time I download all those PS1 classics I've bought throughout the years and finish playing. I want to hook up my Wii again and finish up Donkey Kong Country Returns and Mario Galaxy 2. All of these goals, and hopefully more as I search my stacks (oh man, I'd love to sink some more time into Mass Effect 3's multiplayer if there's still a community playing it), should keep me entertained for My Big Next-Gen Goal. Hey, that sounds like a great segue!

My Big Next-Gen Goal

...is to wait.

Hold the phone, Sparky. If you're so excited for the next-gen of games, and you most certainly are (seriously, was that drool coming out of the corner of your mouth during that Titanfall demo?), then why are you waiting?

Thanks, Other Sparky! Great question, and may I add, you look just amazing today. that beard, I swear, it shines when the sun hits it. You look like a bespectacled Adonis, you.

History repeats itself, gang. Remember the RROD? Remember the Wii shortages? Remember the hubris Sony had going into the PS3? I doubt any of those things will repeat themselves, but you can bet your ass there will be new hardware problems. You can bet there will be hidden shady shit that only unveils itself when we power on the new PSN or XBL. You can bet publishers will slowly shift towards one or the other in the months following the console release, shining a bit more light on which console will have clearer developer support.

Now, look, I'm obviously in the PS4 camp right now, and unless something drastic happens, I'm probably going to be picking one up late next spring or in the early part of summer. They've clearly been humbled by their own magnificent mistakes with the PS3, and they're a company that knows how to fix their past mistakes. Microsoft, well, it has a history of bullying the consumer into buying its products despite its mistakes without ever really taking into account what the customers are truly telling them - see: every release of Office and Windows, ever. That's why Microsoft's recent policy reversals are so stunning. It might even make the Xbox One greater as a result.

And really, it's that uncertainty about where Microsoft will go with the Xbox One that makes this whole thing so exciting this time around. The PS4 is clearly the front-runner right now, but I feel like by the time the next E3 rolls around, we'll have a clearer picture as to whether or not Microsoft's really willing to give it up for gamers, or if they're still going to whore themselves out to the lowest common denominator with the assumption that their core audiences are the dude-bros who don't pay attention to ethics and bad policies.

Plus, and this is going to sound incredibly stupid, I want to see where Bethesda goes. Has their misfortune with the PS3 soured them on the PS4? I don't know. But I do know that Fallou 3, New Vegas, Skyrim, and Oblivion mattered to me more than just about any other games this generation. Once upon a time, that honorific would have gone to Square, but times, they are a-changin'.

So... the plan is to hold off, then, hopefully until E3 or at least as long as the geek inside me will allow. I've already got a fair chunk of change saved specifically for a new console, and plan on dumping in at least $50 every month for games, accessories, and the system themselves. Since I plan on being a one-system man until I either find steady employment or hit a significant windfall of some sort, it makes a lot of sense. I'd be lying if I didn't say the launch lineups look incredible, though. Forza 5? Watch Dogs? Infamous: Second Sun? Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaan...

The iPad Corner

I feel like a complete dick here. A while back, I told user @dankempster I wouldn't be buying a Team 17 game for a long time after Worms Revolution. That game wasn't marked initially as using only a very specific line of graphics card, and so I spent $20 on a game that has never worked. It royally pissed me off, and so I vented to Dan about it (not that he has anything to do with the release - he'd just purchased the game as well).

Well, I'm a liar. Worms 3 came out on the iPad a week or so ago for $5, and I bought it right out of the gate. The skeezy feeling I got from buying a Team 17 game so soon after Revolution aside, I actually really like Worms 3. It's been tailor-made for the iPad, with a more refined control scheme than the prior Worms games we've seen released on the system. There are still some issues with the direction pad being way too small (seriously, iPad developers, give us the option to resize these things!) and the ninja rope being imprecise and awkward, but it's definitely a huge step in the right direction. For the $5, you get a campaign mode, the usual quick game options, and a pass-and-play mode. I believe there are more multiplayer options as well, though I haven't tinkered around enough in that end of the game to say for certain. The big new addition is the ability to use cards at the beginning or end of your turns, which change the gameplay elements in some fun ways. For example, you can lower gravity, affecting jumps and thrown weapons. You can buy these cards with in-game currency, which can (of course) be bought with real-life money should you wish to be a tool and support micro-transactions.

It can be a bit intimidating for newcomers, as there are few explanations for the weapons and tools here, but it's classic Worms at a good price. Five bucks seems steep for an iPad game, but one with as much replayability as Worms? That's a bargain.

The Rest

-I've started working out and walking more in earnest this last week and a half, and I'm feeling great about it. I haven't altered my diet much save to eat a little less, and it's working well for me. Right now, I'm about 360 pounds. I don't have a timeframe on losing weight, but I'd eventually like to drop to 220 and see where I'm at then. 140 pounds seems like a large number, but I've got all the time in the world and I'm enjoying myself so far. If anyone else is trying to lose weight and wants to b.s. about it, feel free to drop me a comment or a PM. I know having a buddy for these things always helps!

I suppose that's about it for this week. What are your next-gen plans? Going to stick with the current-gen for a while, hunt for bargains, save up some of those dolla dolla bills? Or are you going to be the envy of Sparkies everywhere and pick one up on day one, complete with gallons of Coke and enough snacks to put a rhino into a food-induced coma? What are the games that have you the most excited?

15 Comments

Sparky's Update - Tales of Xillia

Welcome to the single most caffeinated issue of Sparky's Update yet! Why am I so wired, you didn't ask? Well, let me tell you, Imaginary Person - and might I add you look particularly handsome today? Ya see, this week, I've been almost slavishly devoted to one game and one game only, the fantastic Tales of Xillia. Now, I know mentioning a JRPG might be nigh taboo here on Giant Bomb (I'm sure minutes after posting this, my fellow mods will receive orders from Secret RPG Top Men to have me hunted down and shot on sight), but I've gotta say, this game is a terrific compliment to this year's Ni no Kuni as terrific RPGs on the PS3 that shouldn't be ignored. And so, probably in vain, I'm going to try to convince you to play this game. Hey, was that a gunshot I heard? No? Well, then, let's carry on!

Now, I'm not usually a fan of attaching my blogs to the forums, mostly because I don't really feel like advertising them, but when I'm doing up a series or talking about a game that's relevant or recently released, I'll sometimes attach it. Since this is a game that likely won't get a lot of coverage on the site, I figured I'd make this one visible so that people know there's someone out there they can contact if they have any questions or comments about the game. So hit me up if you want more details or just want to gush like school girls about this here fancy-shmancy JRPG.

A blowdart? @zombiepie, where the hell do you even get those nowadays?

Tales of Awesomepants McGlee

I've played a fair number of Tales games at this point. Last year (or was it the year before?), I worked on a small blog feature called the RPG Retrospective, which I sadly abandoned after a few games (I still promise I'm coming up with new entries - Final Fantasy IX and Lunar are on their way when I've finished with them). But one of the games I featured was the decent 3DS version of Tales of the Abyss. If you're unfamiliar with the Tales series, that might be a blog entry you'll want to read, as it goes into greater detail about how I believe the Tales series holds up for a modern generation of gamer. I've also played Symphonia and Vesperia thoroughly and enjoyed both.

The Tales series never strays far from its formula. There's a world-encompassing "save the world" storyline in each, usually with a major twist at the point when you think the game is just about to wrap up. Although there are sequels to certain entries in the games, most Tales games are set in different universes with different characters, most of which share similarities to characters in past games, particularly in their art design. Combat takes place in a breakaway screen, with enemies visible on the field. You fight in real-time, utilizing combos and magic (called "artes" in the series), all the while earning scores in each battle that will add up for some awesome New Game _ content.

Each game also features a great many "skits," which are basically miniature conversations between party members about events and the world around them. These are usually time sensitive, depending on where you're at in the game and what companions are with you at the moment. In later games (and particularly Xillia), your companions will make idle comments in-game too, without breaking to the skit screen.

The Tales games usually share some common faults. The stories are often distinctly nonsensical, overly convoluted, and full of Japanese character cliches. There's inevitably a child character (or more) that will annoy the everloving piss out of me. While the worlds continue to look better and better, it's become clear that the games are pushing the boundaries of an older engine recycled one too many times. While the characters themselves have grown deeper and better written, there are usually tons of eye-rolling moments of distinct Japanese-ness, usually involving one character's sexual naivete or overly recycled joke tropes. Seriously, Japan, stop with the cooking jokes. We've heard them all endlessly by now.

Damn it, Sweep, you can't actually kill a man by throwing ketchup at his head - at least not in the plastic bottle, anyways.

So Where Does Xillia Fit In, You Sexy Beast, You?

Let's get this out there right away - Xillia is definitely a Tales-ass Tales game. Mechanically and graphically, it sticks pretty closely to the formula of its ancestors. You're still gonna be linking regular attacks to magic artes, trying to get as high a combo count as you possibly can while trying your best to ignore the three billionth time you've heard your character yell, "Demon rush!" That right there is probably going to be the line that turns away half the rational individuals out there. This game's distinctive anime nature is by far its biggest detractor, as it's always been for the series.

I'd also be willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that this game was written by three or four people with very seperate agendas. There's a slightly schizophrenic feel to the plot, as it chases after multiple themes and plotlines without ever really properly committing to any of them. Judging from the number of locked story trophies, I'm guessing I'm about three-quarters of the way through my first playthrough, and so far, watching the game's various plot points try to get mashed together can be painful at times.

However, those plot points? Some of them are really good, and not just by the series' fairly poor standards. I'm talking video games in general. There's one point in the game when everything goes to shit rapidly I particularly enjoyed. The tension of the moment was palpable, and the voice actors, who had up to that moment been given some pretty blase material, knocked it out of the park. I'm trying not to spoil anything for those of you who might play it, but this game has some genuinely terrific dark moments in it.

Several of the characters wind up with some fascinating elements despite themselves. Yes, there's an annoying twelve year old girl who has no right being involved in saving the world. Yes, she has an annoying little sidekick that makes me want to find the designer who insists on introducing shit like this to JRPGs and pummel him. But both of them are given a shockingly interesting storyline that promises not to have easy answers. And that's maybe one of the game's best characteristics besides the gameplay (which we'll get to in a sec) - it really feels like Xillia's writers are taking firm steps in the right direction of where Japanese stories need to go in general by evolving past 80's anime stories we've seen a thousand times before. One other cool story aspect is that you can choose between two main characters at the beginning, giving you more of a reason to play through the game again. I'm playing as the male lead, but I assume the New Game + will allow you to play as the other (but don't take my word for it).

Xillia's best elements are in its leveling and store systems. Taking a direct cue from Final Fantasy X, each time you level, you earn a certain number of points you can spend on new skills, artes, or stat bonuses. These are mapped out in two web-shaped orb patterns, with different branches of the webs dedicated to different types of stats and skills. You can therefore focus your character's growth mostly how you see fit, but by picking up some suggested skills, you can further expand the web outward, leading to more skills and abilities. It's a great system, one that allows you to mold your characters as you see fit while still nudging you in a suggested direction for each character. It makes leveling a real pleasure, especially once you've discovered some of the optional dungeons with their tougher, more rewarding enemies.

My other favorite element is in the game's store expansion process. Previous games had crafting or cooking elements, but Xillia does away with those. Instead, you'll be picking up what is essentially vendor loot throughout the game and trading it in to any store. You can pick and choose how you'd like to expand each type of store, so if you want to dump all your vendor loot into your weapon stores, you'll quickly gain access to newer, shinier weapons and bigger discounts on older items. The best policy, of course, is to keep things fairly level, though I'm finding it highly advantageous to dump my extra vendor loot into the food stores, as they offer up items that earn you bonus experience and money from fights. The best part is that any store upgrade you make transfers over to all stores of that particular type, so you're never having to backtrack to various vendors to pick up different types of items. Vendor loot is everywhere, too - you can find it in bags on the battlefield, dropped or stolen from enemies, and from various shining points of interest in the field. It's an awesome system that rewards exploration and makes the combat all that more enticing.

Chaser just tried to karate chop my neck, Kato-style. I suppose that's probably a sign I should start to wrap things up?

Overall, Tales of Xillia is a hell of an impressive game. It makes a lot of the JRPG standards fun again by throwing in some fun systems and further refining the Tales essence. I can't say it's for everyone, but if you're after a meaty RPG with lots to keep you occupied when you're away from its main quest, I'd highly recommend it.

The Rest

-I've been playing Blackwell Unbound, which is a prequel to the first Blackwell game. I've gotta be pretty close to wrapping things up, and so far, I like it. My thoughts on this one aren't all that dissimilar from the first Blackwell game (which I wrote about a few blogs ago), so if you're interested in reading more about it, go check out that blog. Otherwise, yeah, I'm pretty stoked about the Blackwell series and Wadjet in general.

And that's pretty much it for this week's Update. Thanks for putting up with my crap blog on the forums. You're all aces!

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Sparky's Update - Marvel Unlimited, Fez, Trials Evolution

Welcome to Sparky's Update, the happiest little whorehouse this side of Texas! Yeeeeeeehaw! Wait... I did a "yeehaw" bit a few blogs ago. And probably a few blogs before that. Eh, screw it. How about a joke about me being a pimp? No? Did that roughly a dozen times? I, uh, I got nothing, folks. Let's just pretend I said something witty, have ourselves a little giggle, and get started with this damn thing.

I've been mostly playing Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen as well as trying to polish off Omerta, but I feel like I've covered those games plenty. I finally found a few of those fancy shmancy teleportation stones in Dragon's Dogma and am having a much easier go of it. Folks, if you're going to start playing that game, let me give you a little advice - go out of your way to find the southeastern shops in the capital, and keep an eye out for rings of stone wherever you travel. It will make life much, much easier for you. As for Omerta, I think I'm pretty much done with it. The last mission is just brutally difficult, to the point where I just threw my hands up and said enough. Someone who could read the mini-map would have a much easier time with it, but me, I'm done. Great game, love the combat, love the setting, love the absurdity of it all. Definitely one of my favorite games of the year so far.

Other than that, I did start both Fez and Trials Evolution. Both were purchases in one of the recent mega-XBLA sales, and while I regret buying neither, I do have some misgivings about both. I'm also going to be discussing something non-gaming related (gasp!) in my recent subscription to Marvel Unlimited, their e-reader service for comics older than six months. Spoiler - I friggin' love it.

Trials Same-olution

I'm not great at Trials. I'll admit that freely. But I respect and like the formula. I played tons of those stupid little Trials-esque Flash games back in the day (read: when I was supposed to be working), and I occasionally buy some knockoff or another on the iPad. I'll even say this - Trials Evolution is a good game and probably well worth your dolla dolla bills. However, I can't help thinking that the whole thing feels pretty bare-boned, particularly for an XBL sequel.

Say what you will about the travesty that is Joe Danger 2 - at least it tried some new things with its established formula. But Trials Evolution stubbornly sticks to the formula set forth by its predecessor, adding only a few tweks in its presentation and the (admittedly awesome) user-created tracks. Sequels this generation have proven you can play it safe, recycle the basics of a game, and still make something marvelous out of it (see: Fallout New Vegas, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Uncharted 3, and inFamous 2). At no point did I really feel like Trials Evolution was trying for anything approaching marvelous.

I'm sure it was rushed into production by business departments and given a very tight schedule. That's understandable, I guess - MS loves nothing so much as keeping their cash cows makin' the milk, and who can really blame 'em?. But it doesn't make for a very exciting game. Sure, the new backgrounds are pretty awesome (I love the WW2-esque "storming the beach" background in particular). But this game's sole bit of greatness really is dependent upon the people who aren't even getting paid for their incredible work - the gamers.

The Fezmanian Devil

...All right, that one sucks. But every good Fez joke has been done a thousand times before.

I'm going to ignore the recent Phil Fish controversy, mostly because I just don't give two shits. Internet drama, ya'll. Instead, I'm going to be focusing my thoughts on the game itself. Now, I'm admittedly only a few hours into Fez, but I've come up with a good chunk of the game's cubes and I feel like I've got enough of a handle on it to sump up my feelings in a profound, verbose manner. Ready?

Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Ok, look - I've got pretty mixed feelings on the current-gen 2D platformer craze. On the one hand, I love the return of the Metroidvanias (and yes, I like that term and labelling things in general, so seeeeeeyuuuuuuuuuck it, hipsters), particularly stuff like Dust and Shadow Complex, and more traditional platformers like Donkey Kong Country Returns and Rayman (which I couldn't play on the console due to vision stuff but absolutely friggin' love on the iPad - seriously, go buy that game NOW). On the other hand, I've become super tired of douchey 2D platformers, particularly those with retro-styled graphics or masochistic gameplay. I can't stand Super Meat Boy. I can't stand Braid. Actually, I loathe Braid. It tries to be so damned clever, but in the end, it's just another platformer crippled by writing that thinks it's smarter than it actually is.

I guess I came into Fez holding my nose a bit, expecting the sort of sleazy coating of something like Braid. Maybe that's unfair, but it's not entirely unjustified, and truth be told, it's not a feeling I've shaken entirely in the hours I've played it. Sure, the writing's a lot less uptight and there's more of a sense of playfulness in its design and structure that I like, but I can't help feeling kind of bored with it. Once I figured out the first couple of cubes, finding the rest started to feel like a dull cadence. Bits of cube, bits of cube, bits of cube, treasure chest, door, rinse, wash, repeat. Now, I've heard there's more under the surface, and I'm really itching to get into that. But for now, Fez just isn't holding my attention.

The Rest - Marvel Unlimited

Up until June, I hadn't read a comic in nearly twenty years. It's kind of incredible to write that. I jumped out of comics as a necessity, not by choice. We moved from a large city to a tiny, remote area where the few books to be found were solely in the libraries.

I figure I stopped reading around '93 or '94. Spider-Man's family was back from the dead, War Machine was becoming a thing after Tony Stark's death, and... well, that's about all I can remember, save for an awesome Daredevil cover of him holding up his cane behind the image of the Kingpin on his knees. Damn, comic book artwork is kind of awesome, isn't it?

Anyways, I've been interested in getting back into comics ever since, but I've always been afraid of becoming that thirty-something guy who has stacks of comics next to his action figures. And since I do already have action figures, well, I just couldn't allow myself to go whole hog on the nerdiness thing. So for years, I've been reading up on Comic Vine's wiki, slowly reacquainting myself with the craziness of Marvel comics. Oh, and as for DC? I refer you to my prior comment of, "Eh."

Skip forward to June of this year. I was looking for some new way to entertain myself that didn't involve deviant sexual acts or underground fight clubs. I don't remember precisely what it was that drew me to look up Marvel Unlimited, but I found the app on the iPad, and thought it'd be fun to read a few of the demo pages for the comics in there. So I downloaded the app, and quickly realized that the first three pages (which you can read free of charge if you don't have a subscription) were filler and backstory pages. Well, I did some research, and I found out that the Unlimited app adds comics that are six months or older. I didn't really see the date of the comics as being a problem (still don't), so I decided to throw monetary caution to the wind and invest in a year's subscription.

Folks, I kid you not - it's amazing. "New" comics are added every week, usually including whatever was released six months ago (there are some gaps there, which I'l get to in a second) as well as a seemingly random selection of older comics from various dates in Marvel's long history. At this point, they're about to the second or third comics in the Marvel NOW program, which was their sort of mini-reboot on a lot of minor characters and storylines.

If there's a flaw, it's that the publishing is kind of uneven. One of my favorite newer comics, Scarlet Spider, saw its first few issues released with no clues given as to when the next might be put out on the service. It'd be nice to have some sort of "Coming Soon" feature or a tentative schedule. I know adding them to the app must be a chore, but it'd be nice to have some sort of regularity, particularly for the less-popular comics. The service also has a disturbing lack of Annex, one of my favorite up-and-comers-who-up-and-disappeared-apparently from the early nineties, and as of today, I've yet to find a single Superpro or Slapstick. That's just wrong.

But other than those hiccups, it's fantastic. I'm burrowing into the Deadpool character, going through his earlier solo comic as well as his Cable team-up (Cable's one of my all-time favorites, next to Captain America and Spider-Man). I wrapped up the latest X-Force comics, and found the levity and characters to be superb - Fantomex is an incredible "new" character and I've always enjoyed Psylocke. Yes, I'm a monster for enjoying scantily-clad but well-written women.

It's funny how some of my childhood dislikes remain the same, too. Fantastic Four has two comics - the Fantastic Four and the FF, which stands for Future Foundation or some such. The Fantastic Four comic is pretty much a bore, but the FF is a riot. Johnny Storm picks a regular woman to be the Thing's replacement, complete with a Thing bodysuit. It's kind of awesome. And "kind of awesome" pretty much is all the description Marvel Unlimited really needs.

Too much damn Wolverine, though. I like the guy, but come on. He doesn't have to be in everything.

I suppose that's about it for this week. Join me again next week for cocktails and small talk, why don'tcha?

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Sparky's Update - Blackwell Legacy, Omerta: City of Gangsters

Heyo, folks, and welcome to another pipin' hot edition of Sparky's Update, the only blog on the Internet guaranteed to rid you of those nasty warts, that unwanted morning breath, and that bad yeast infection you've been telling your mother about. Remember, kids, talk to your physician first!

This week, I've been playing Blackwell Legacy, a fun little throwback of an adventure game that reminds me strongly of the old Laura Bow games, as well as dumping roughly three kajillion hours into Omerta: City of Gangsters. Neither game seemed to have set the reviewing world on fire, so why the hell have I enjoyed them so much? Well, read on, reader, and find out! Or don't! Go play hopscotch or something. Freedom! Choices! This is America, baby! And if you're looking at this outside of the States, then you're a godless heathen who can't even read (or so Fox News tells me) and I have no time for you, unless you want to mow my lawn and trim my hedges on the DL, in which case I'm offering up two dollars an hour and you'd damn well better not steal any beer from my fridge.

On with it!

My Quest to Dredge Up Every Obscure Adventure Game Continues, Episode CXCVIV - The Phantom's Penance

Remember Laura Bow? No? OK, here's the scoop. Back in the day, Roberta Williams (she of King's Quest fame) created two games called The Colonel's Bequest and (I shit you not - no, the name isn't "I shit you not," but the upcoming title in its fullest, so just shut up a minute and let me have one complete sentence here) Roberta Williams' Laura Bow in: The Dagger of Amon Ra. Both games were fairly blatant homages to Agatha Christie (though Dagger of Amon Ra wasn't really based on any Christie novel, it still featured similar plot structuring). You, as Laura Bow (another homage, this time to Clara Bow), set out to find clues to a killer's identity in both games.

Both games were pleasant enough, but on the whole, fairly unremarkable. The first game required a fair amount of detective work, but it was more character-driven than the usual Sierra game of the time. The second game, while still heavy on the characters and human interaction, is more reliant on typical Sierra puzzles, Your investigative work actually matters to the end of the games, as you can "beat" each game without actually knowing who the killers are. I really enjoyed them, as mystery games were fairly uncommon and Roberta Williams did a great job with the dialogue back then (hey, don't insult me - Amon Ra actually inspired me to read Agatha Christie in '93 or '94, so you can't fault the games for that).

OK, the history lesson's over for the moment. Flash forward to this last week, when I downloaded my recent purchase, the Wadjet adventure pack. I'd heard some mildly positive things about Resonance and the Blackwell series, so I thought I'd jump in with the first - Blackwell Legacy.

The first five minutes of it really didn't do much for me. Your first basic puzzle - to bring your neighbor back to your apartment building to verify who you were - was admittedly dumb. However, it was the solution to this very same puzzle that made me sit up a little straighter and pay more attention to what I thought was going to be a snooze-fest of a game. Your neighbor is playing a flute in a park for bunches of people. Your character is too shy to interrupt her - but nearby, her dog is leashed to a lamp post. Now, in your usual adventure game, you'd have to find X item by pixel hunting across any number of random locations, maybe after talking to a character two or three times and combine it with item Y in what has to be the most hackneyed game mechanic since jumping eight feet in the air while scrolling right. In this case, and I'm going to put up a mild spoiler warning, you simply get the dog to follow you, and get him wrapped up around another post so he starts yipping for attention from his master.

Sounds stupid, right? I mean, it's not a groundbreaking game mechanic, nor is it a new way to play adventure games, but for me, it's exactly the sort of little detail that seperates a mediocre adventure game from something that will genuinely hold my attention. And Blackwell Legacy did exactly that.

It's not a pretty game. The voice acting and dialogue are cringe-worthy. But allow me to jump back to the Laura Bow reference for a second. The Laura Bow games might not be time-honored classics to most people, but I highly respect them for trying new things with the Sierra mold, like deeper character interaction and the highly entertaining ideas the end-game brought about. These are the types of things Blackwell Legacy seems to try to do - there's a very classic adventure game backbone here, but the creators work within the confines of the genre to create something both comforting - like mashed potatoes - and a little bit unique - like cheesy bacon and sour cream mashed potatoes

It doesn't hurt that Blackwell Legacy resembles Dagger of Amon Ra on a more physical level, too. The graphics are similar and the conversations stemming from a notebook full of observations made by the protagonist are straight from Roberta Williams' playbook. Those are compliments, actually - I love the look of early 90's Siera games, as crazy as that sounds, and drawing inspiration for gameplay elements from something both as relatively obscure and fun as Dagger of Amon Ra is a good thing. While Blackwell Legacy has you investigating ghosts rather than "real" mysteries, it still feels thematically similar too. And personally, I like that.

I'm really pleased with this purchase, folks. I know it's not for most of you, but at the very least, if you're an adventure game fan, give this one a shot for the interesting puzzles and ideas behind it. Get beyond the indie budget look and sound, and I think you'll really find something to like here.

One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer

The other diamond in the rough of the week is Omerta - City of Gangsters. This game was pretty much shrugged off by the majority of the reviewing community, but I'm a fan of turn-based squad strategy games and this one suckered me in.

Here's the weirdest, dumbest thing you'll read in a blog today - I like Omerta better than just about any other turn-based squad-strategy games not named Jagged Alliance 2. Yeah, that's right. I like Omerta better than I like XCOM. Sparky Buzzsaw, giving the middle finger to logic and making off with its hot stepdaughter. Here's the thing, though - I'm not dumb enough to say that Omerta's the better game. Not by a long shot. XCOM is technically, visually, and functionally better than Omerta on every level, save for one - Omerta's just more fun to me. How does this make any damn sense? Well...

For me, a squad based shooter is more than its tactics and action. With Jagged Alliance and Omerta, you hire mercenaries that actually feel like they have a bit of personality, as opposed to XCOM's stiflingly dull drones. Sure, that's just a surface level thing and ostensibly not important, but when you're rounding the ten hour mark of a strategy game, personality becomes more than just window dressing. It becomes part of why you continue to play the game. Getting to the next new recruit in Omerta is almost like a checkpoint system to me. "Oh, I finally recruited Fixit, I can save and rest now... just after I've seen what he can do in a mission."

It doesn't hurt that the game is set during Prohibition, one of my favorite time periods for literature, film, and TV This game is, for all intents and purposes, Boardwalk Empire - The Game, minus the sharp acting, clever writing, and... well, damn near everything other than the fact that you're a gangster trying to take over Atlantic City. Side bar - who the eff wants to take over anything in New Jersey? Ever? It also really doesn't hurt that the game's combat feels like a mildly stripped down version of Jagged Alliance 2. There's no ammo management, equipment is limited to a few guns and melee weapons, and the leveling system is based on the acquistion of perks rather than building up individual skill points. But functionally, combat is essentially all Jagged. You get your squad behind some kind of cover, you use action points to perform attacks, and you try not to get flanked while doing some flankering of your own. Flankinening. Flankfurting. FLANKING! That's the one. It even sort of looks like Jagged Alliance 2, though it's admittedly not all that optimized.

Turn-based combat isn't all that Omerta has, either. The other half of the game is a mission-based world-building element. You pick an area of the city you want to take over, and within each, you fulfill various story-based missions to win. Not all of these are combat related - you're also tasked with building a criminal empire by buying up businesses and residences. Some missions net you new gang members to hire, all of whom are pretty stereotypical, though charmingly so. It breaks up the combat sequences nicely, although linking leveling to specific missions rather than combat performance seems kind of an odd choice.

I'm also over the moon about the fact that this game gives you perks at every level, much like Fallout or Skyrim. It's just a shame that the perks lack the same charm and character as the rest of the game. I'm also stuck in a bit of a rut where all my characters are essentially choosing the same perks (mostly long-distance gunfighting bonuses) as there are only really a few choices that seem useful. Melee bonuses are pointless midway through the first act when most of your opponents start toting rifles and pistols. Some variations on these perks, as well as more support class bonuses, would go a long ways towards making the characters feel more unique.

So yeah, I'm a fan of Omerta. It's not polished, the UI is kind of ugly, and some of the mechanics are slightly questionable, but overall, it's a ridiculous amount of fun. And that's sort of the point, isn't it?

The iPad Corner

-Skeeball 2. Know it, love it, never leave it. I fuckin' love skee ball, and now I can play it whenever I want to without looking like a creeper at Chuck E. Cheese. That doesn't mean I'm going to stop my daily lunch breaks over there or anything, but it's nice to know that if they ever manage to get that restraining order on me, I can play it whenever I want to.

The Rest

-I want to like Episodes. Matt LeBlanc is certainly funny as hell in it, and the male British lead does a remarkably good job too. But the lead female character is so stupidly unlikable that it drains the show of a lot of its fun. Seriously, they need to figure out some way to make her relatable and have at least one decent moment when she's not completely, destructively self-centered and bitchy. Ugh.

-Just watched the first episode of The Wire. Holy cow, does that look amazing. I know, I'm way late to the party. But yeah, I'm really looking forward to more of it.

I suppose that's about it for this week. Wow, I wrote way more on Blackwell than I ever expected to, but I really did enjoy the hell out of both games, and will definitely be playing more of Omerta as well as checking out the sequels to Blackwell Legacy. Have a great week!

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