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?

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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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Sparky's Update - Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen, Dead Island Riptide

Get your headsets plugged in, crank up your speaker volume, and prepare for the total non-stop disco-rockathon that is... Sparky's Update. Now with 50% less shrink wrap for you and the environment!

This last week has flown by, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons - and a few right ones. I've got an ill family member who has been in the hospital since Friday evening. I've been up there off and on since Friday, and thankfully, said family member is now home and on the mend. It's been a crazy week of fast food, bad hospital coffee, and waaaaay too much pop, and I've managed to do very little gaming in the time outside of the hospital.

That doesn't mean I haven't anything to talk about, though it will be brief. I've started Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen this week, and although I'm a grand total of about two hours into it, I feel like I know enough about the game to find it enjoyable, if deeply flawed. I've also been revisiting Dead Island Riptide, one of my favorite games of the year. Yes, I'm clearly insane.

In Which I Dog Dogma, Dawg

I'm way late to the Dragon's Dogma party, but that's okay, because it means I get to play the extended version called Dark Arisen. That's led to a little bit of hilarity on my part, since the quest that triggers the expansion happens to take place in the very same town you start in... without warning. Yes, my level 2, vaguely Rastafarian warrior stumbled into the game's hardest point within the first hour of the game. That summarizes Dragon's Dogma in the best way possible - no one sane at any point played this game pre-release.

I can't imagine having been a beta tester for this game, because I don't believe Dragon's Dogma had any. There's no way you can track quests on a map - at least, not that I can see, and if you can, you've got eyes like a fucking eagle, because that map and its writing is completely unintelligble on a regular old TV. Absurdly high level monsters dot the starting zones like this is 1988 and I'm playing a Might and Magic game or something. My party runs the gamut, from ass-kicking to getting caught above a tree. Above it! There are environmental hiccups galore, monsters and NPCs have pathfinding problems, and Dragon's Dogma never heard of a bit of clipping it didn't like.

The story, so far, is atrocious, the characters as flat as cardboard (and that's a pretty big insult to cardboard characters), the music forgettable, and the world about as bland as they come, and that's from a genre where "bland" is the common descriptor to practically every environment ever. The only way I've managed to progress the story is by stumbling into events haphazardly and side-quests are nothing I haven't seen before.

Despite all of this, I find myself enjoying the game. Much like last year's Kingdoms of Amalur, there's a backbone of gameplay here I really enjoy. It's not quite as polished as Amalur was, but it has a similar action-oriented RPG feel and a big open world to play around with. The combat is enhanced by a large focus on customization - every companion character created by friends and strangers has looked completely different. That really sets this game apart from the pack, oddly enough - I've been bemoaning similar characters in games ranging from Skyrim to Lord of the Rings Online for years, and it's nice to see a game where you can see so much creativity. If ever there was a future game in the series, I'd like to see that notion expanded upon by making other people's companions part of your world, perhaps hanging around cities and villages or out and about killing monsters.

I haven't gotten far enough into the game to talk more about its systems, as I suspect I haven't seen everything it has to offer. But so far, I'm okay with purchasing skills via points gained by leveling, though I do prefer traditional skill trees. I definitely like the combat, as it's fast paced without being overwhelmingly so. I want to play around with my NPC options in order to determine how much difference it makes on the way they fight, but so far, the AI actually seems useful. Weird, right?

My Great Love Affair with Shooting and Looting

I'm not going to try to sell you on Dead Island Riptide. Everything Brad Shoemaker's review said about it is absolutely true - it doesn't do enough over its prequel to warrant a purchase by any but the most devoted Dead Island fans, and even then, they should definitely be warned that it is very much more of the same.

So why the hell do I enjoy it so much? The biggest reason I can think of stems from my love towards the shoot-and-loot genre. I've played no game this year so much as I've played Borderlands 2. I'm not kidding you, I've probably sunk around 200-250 hours total into that game. I've never put in a fourth of that time to any shooter whatsoever. Even the original Borderlands only hooked me for probably 50-60 hours. But I can't get enough of Borderlands 2. The classes all feel a lot more fun this time around, and the shared badass ranking between characters is one of my all-time favorite game innovations. Period. Yes, that sounds like hyperbole, but it's really not. I love the badass ranks.

Dead Island Riptide isn't nearly on the level of Borderlands, but it's still got a lot of shoot-and-loot mechanics of its own to keep me from getting bored with it. I love the crafting system (although it's in dire need of more visual and stat variations). There's something awesome about being able to kill a random zombie and find some rare bit of crafting or quest loot on the body, potentially saving me a trip around the island later for a fetch quest.

I'm also a huge fan of the game's melee combat, perhaps not so much in the way it controls, but in the general idea of having a melee-focused FPS/RPG hybrid. I love that these guys are making a fantasy game with the same basic elements of Dead Island, because that seems like a logical way to continue evolving the game's mechanics in a new setting.

I don't think I'll be playing through the campaign with every character, as I did with Borderlands 2, but I'm definitely having fun with my level 68 knife-based character. I guess that makes two games this week wherein I'm completely willing to overlook a lot of problems because I love the basics of the genre they're representing so much. I hope we see more unique IPs in the shoot-and-loot and the action-RPG with the next generation of consoles, because holy hell, the idea of how RPG elements will continue to evolve gets me stupidly excited.

iPad Corner

-The Journey Down is one of those adventure games that wouldn't really exist if it wasn't for the popularity of Telltale's episodic games. There's nothing that really sets it apart, gameplay wise (other than some really effin' fantastic touch controls), as you'll be combining objects to advance the story in usually trivial ways. But the game has a terrific sense of artistic style, based on what I believe to be African artwork. It really is one of the most unique looking games I've ever seen, and brings to mind Grim Fandango without ever actually looking like Grim Fandango. Only the first episode has been released, with the second slated for the second half of 2013, but I can't wait. If they can expand the narrow scope of the first episode and feature more varied environments and characters, this will be a classic adventure game.

The Rest

-Sonic's pretzel dog is not nearly as delicious as it should be. But if you ever find yourself in a convenience store with those flavorings for the soda dispenser, try mixing huckleberry with diet Pepsi. It mixes fantastically well together.

-Continuum is yet another one of those Syfy shows that starts off with a neat premise and is quickly mired down by the typical Syfy episodic show bullshit. Also, don't watch it if you have an aversion to shows with inexplicable plot holes, because it'll practically send you into convulsions. Actually, probably just don't watch it at all. It's not great.

That's it for this week, folks. Stay cool out there. This damn heat is for the birds.

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Sparky's Revenge of the Update - Steam Sale, Brave New World

"Sparky's Update is a travesty, a war crime upon humanity. We must destroy it. If it reaches critical mass, well, then God save us all." -One of the Backstreet Boys. Don't ask me which one.

Wow. It's been a stupidly long time since I've sat down to write one of these. With the initial site redesign problems, specifically the lack of an ability to track followed blogs, it seemed relatively pointless to write an update or a Retrospective (which I assure you is coming back soon). I don't like attaching my blogs to the forums and will do so only under odd circumstances - or if my readership seems lacking. So here we are, halfway through July, we've now had the ability to track blogs again for a few weeks (hint - if you're having trouble with receiving notifications about your friends' blogs, check your settings and preferences), and I'm just now settling in to write a blog for the first time in months.

I guess in no small part this is due to the death of Ryan Davis. I'm not going to wax poetic about the guy - you've all done a far better job than I ever could at expressing the weight of this loss in the world of gaming journalism - but I will say that his death and the resulting outpouring of warmth from the community woke me up and made me realize I badly want to contribute more to Giant Bomb besides doing the occasional moderating. It's brought me closer to the community than I've felt in years, since the heyday of heckling guys like @sweep, @claude, @gamer_152, and of course, @dankempster on their own blogs. And I think if there's some good that has come out of this tragedy, it's that - we're all a little closer now, and I feel like we can use it to become an even greater forum and blogging community.

With that sober, overly sappy introduction out of the way, let's get this blog started off properly, with all the swagger and braggadocio you'd expect from a Sparky's Update. So ladies and gentlemen, prepare your nether regions, lock away your of-age daughters, send up the smoke signals, lay back in bed and get that lotion ready, because baby doll, Sparky's Update is back and hopefully here to stay. Let's light this bitch on fire!

My Wallet Is In the Shower, Clinging Itself and Quietly Weeping

Come to think of it, that sounds like all my possessions. FYI, keeping your bread in the shower? Not a great idea. It likes to bogart all the shampoo.

Actually, I've been pretty good about not buying every damn thing I want on Steam right now, mostly because I've already bought every damn thing I want in prior Steam sales. So... yeah.

(Side note - I have a mild summer cold and just blew my nose. Whatever it was that just flew into my tissue looks vaguely like a face hugger. The more you know!)

What I've been doing is concentrating mostly on buying games for under $5, which has been an excellent goal and one I've managed to completely ignore, as I've also bought games like Trackmania Canyon that were most definitely not under $5. But actually, I've been picking up a lot of the cheap little indie games I've somehow missed along the way, along with a few games for the Steam giveaway group as well as some stuff for my brother and friends.

Some of the most pleasant surprises have been sales on the early access games. I've snapped up some deals on interesting-looking titles like Under the Ocean (which looks to be a survival-crafting game in the vein of Terraria, but with very shiny graphics and a beautiful world) and Kinetic Void (a space sim wherein you can build your own ships). Both are too early to really judge - they're both (expectedly) rought around the edges and Kinetic Void's UI could really use some bigger fonts - but they both seem like exactly the sort of games I want to support, especially for their bargain prices. I'm happy to see stuff like this come up in a big Steam sale like this, and I hope in the future we see an entire section of the sale devoted to early access titles and applications.

I'm a bit irritated that bundles are a bit harder to find during this sale. I did manage to find and pick up the Blackwell adventure game bundle, but for the most part, you really have to go digging through the site to find packs of games. And honestly, that's kind of stupid - half the fun of these Steam sales is getting great discounts on gobs of indie games, most of which I'd never play under normal circumstances. So yeah, the format of the sale could really use some work in the future.

One purchase I'm sorry to have made is Surgeon Simulator 2013. If you want to play this game, I really recommend just looking up a Let's Play version of it instead, preferably one without talking so you can get the full hilarity of the sound effects. It seems like a very funny game, but the controls are simply atrocious. You use AWER to control your fingers and the spacebar to control your thumb, while you use the mouse to control your arm and hand, as well as the rotation of your wrist. Sounds neat, right? Except it SUCKS. Trying to grip anything is worse than playing one of those claw machines at the arcade, as you'll think you've got a grip on something but you really don't. Instead, you'll wind up flailing your hand about, hoping that one of your tools will bounce to approximately where you need it. Again, neat, funny idea for a game, but it's so miserably executed that any fun to be had is sucked out in minutes.

Brave New Endgame

Short and long of it, if you already like Civ V, get the Brave New World expansion. It's pretty awesome. And if you had problems with the latter half of the game being essentially pointless, considering that most of your endgame would be decided by the Renaissance era, then this is definitely the expansion that will bring you back.

It's sort of weird to see a company make so many grand changes to so many seemingly small aspects of a game years after it's been released, but I'm sure as hell glad Firaxis is doing it. Civ V could be expanded upon for years to come and still be the best 4X game out there especially if the fundamental changes are as solid as the ones found in Brave New World. At first, up until the Industrial Era, the changes seem minute. There are some small changes and tweaks to social policies and World Wonders and the occasional building or two, but you don't really get an idea of how much has changed until you gain access to idealogies and the World Congress.

What Firaxis has done is essentially change the way you gain a social victory. Before, you only had to gain a set number of social policies, then build a World Wonder. That's about it, and you could win relatively quickly and blandly by doing so. Now, your social victories depend upon your influence over other nations through tourism. Essentially, you still gain points towards social policies, but now your civilization earns tourism based on the amount of culture you're outputting. Through tourism, you start to gain cultural influence with other civilizations, filling up meters for each civ slowly but surely. As soon as you've reached 100% influence with the other nations, you've essentially won the social victory. It's a neat twist, and makes it all the more importantt o seek out and interact with other civs rather than the usual social victory of turtling up and playing it safe.

Also introduced is the World Congress, which allows for world-wide events that can boost (or detract from) all the civs left. The World Congress isn't introduced until roughly the Industrial Age, at which point you'll be asked to start proposing and voting on events such the World Games or a World Fair. If these events are accepted by the other civs and voted into play (and most are), you can change the production of a city to that event. Whoever ends up spending the most production points on the event garners some huge bonuses, such as double your cultural output for twenty (!) turns. These can change your end game decisions in a huge way, and can completely change things up for a civilization that hasn't focused in on, say, a cultural victory up until that point.

I've also played through the Civil War scenario. It's fairly basic, and while I wish there were still a modern Sid Meier game devoted to the Civil War (or other wars, for that matter), it's a passable North vs. South campaign, with a brutal turn limit for you to take the other side's capital.

The iPad Corner

Extreme Road Trip 2 is a pretty basic game. You select a car from a list of about fifty - there are no "real" cars but they're ripped straight from TV and movies or are popular generic versions of cars like the Porsche - and you race and bounce your way across a single, endless level. Sounds stupid, right? It's not exactly the biggest scope for a game, but damned if it isn't fun. The placement of mines (which bounce your car way up into the air) and money is completely randomized. You fill up a trick meter by successfully doing flips and stunts, which in turn leads to a massive boost in power and jumping distance. It's nothing you haven't played before, but it's stupidly addicting and has a great deal of charm.

The Rest!

-I've really been impressed with what I've seen so far of The Bridge, which seems like a smart, gritty murder investigation TV show, similar in spirit to The Killing. Great acting, too. Give it a shot.

-I'm on the fence so far about Orange is the New Black. Half the time it seems pretty cleverly written, but the other half, it seems slightly greasy and half-assed. You'll get a sense of that bipolar nature in the series' first episode. The scenes in prison are well done if a bit uninspired, but the flashback and even-more-flashbackier scenes vary wildly in quality. There's one scene of Jason Biggs and his wife sitting at a prison's entry trying not to cry that's genuinely heartbreaking, but the scenes wherein his wife plays the lesbian lover to That 70's Show's Laura Prepon feel forced and terribly awkward. I hope it becomes a more balanced show, because it really does have potential. I guess we'll see, since all the episodes are now on Netflix streaming.

And that's it. Welcome back to my little corner of the Internet. I hope you enjoyed the blog. Hopefully it won't be another four months before my next one.

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Good news!

I wish I had a Youtube clip of Jeremy Clarkson saying, "Good news!" Because if anything I've ever announced deserves it, it's this.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls... I am now the proud owner of a Aperture Science shower curtain. It classes the place up 3,824 percent. You may proceed to be green with jealousy.

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Sparky's Update - Initial Halo 4 thoughts

Heya, folks! Welcome to the first Sparky's Update of the site redesign. How's the website treating you? Will you actually find this blog? When's lunch?

It was a long week for me personally, so I didn't get a lot of gaming done. I did find time to beat Ni no Kuni's last boss, which was appropriately difficult without being too ridiculous. It was certainly not a boss battle on the level of Vagrant Story, which had some fights that required a tremendous amount of preperation (and/or a handy online guide, not that I'd ever use anything like that - wink wink, nudge nudge). I made some mild complaints about a lack of content in the game's latter third last week, which still stand, but you should know that tne post-game content is fantastic. There's an entirely new dungeon and some side quests to go on. I feel a little guilty for not having explored it overly much for this blog, but like I say, personal matters really kept me from gaming as much as I'd like.

I also started finished up Super 3D Mario Land Adenture Happy Fun Times, or whatever it's called. Seriously, Nintendo, let's get some easier naming conventions for the Mario games. Super Mario Galaxy? Easy to remember. New Super Mario Bros. Wii U vs. New Super Mario Bros. 2? Not so much. Anyways, as most of you know, beating 3D Mario Land Super Bros. really opens up the game with more levels and stuff to do. I'm having fun with that, though I do have a tendency to get a little frustrated with sticking the landing on a lot of platforming. That might just be my vision - I haven't heard of many people complaining about it. Also, that last regular story boss battle? Super easy to cheese. Where was his butt stomp? Where was the triple fireballs? Seemed like the game just sorta pooped out on that level. But in any case, it's a superb platformer, and I can't believe it took me three months to finally get around to beating the last five stages.

Enough of the preamble. Let's get on to Halo 4, this week's big topic.

Master Chief Has Reservations

Get it? He's a chief? And he has... reservations? That's comedy gold, baby. A gift from me to your funny bone. Treasure it. TREASURE IT!

You know what's pretty weird about Halo 4? I should have issues with the story and its lack of imagination. I should come in here, all pissy about the new team having an entire freakin' universe to play with, to create new aliens and vehicles. I should get pissy about the Covenant being (kinda sorta) front and center again. And you know what? A few hours into Halo 4, and I don't really care about any of that.

This game, at its core, is a reassurance to long-time fans that the series is in good hands, that it's not suddenly going to become Military Shooter 5: Future Warfare Devolved. Think of it as a ridiculously good-looking and highly polished of the Halo series you've come to know and love, and you'll know right away if you're in or not. It's that simple. Yes, they don't take a lot of creative risks. Yes, the new guns are essentially revamped (but ridiculously cool-looking) versions of already familiar Halo technology. Yes, you're still inexplicably piloting Warthogs and Banshees. But all of that is done with such precision, such refinement, that it's actually a hell of a lot of fun. The new Halo team has gone through this game with a fine-toothed comb. They have groomed it and sculpted it into something really fantastic.

And hey, there are some new elements. Without getting into too many spoilers, the new villain, the Didact, is easily Halo's best villain to date. That's not saying much, but it still doesn't make him pretty darned menacing. Cortana's maybe a little oversexualized, but she's given a lot more room for characterization in this one, as is Master Chief. In a funny way, the story's more intimate nature is a welcome change-up to the hugely, delightfully chaotic nature of Halo 2, 3, and Reach. I'm really feeling more for Master Chief and Cortana than I did in the entire series, which is pretty cool.

Sadly, I won't have a chance to really dig into the multiplayer aspects until my Internet speeds improve sometime this year (I hope). I popped in for a couple of matches tonight, and managed to play two or so before my lag became too detrimental to the team. I did play long enough to make sure that my Warthog driving skills are still the best in the world. They are, FYI. I will make a Warthog dance on the head of a pin. I'll make that sumbitch do the macarena. Topical!

So yeah, I completely get why this new team did what they did. The Halo franchise is in really good hands, me thinks. I can't wait to see what they do with the next one, when they can hopefully unleash more of their own flavor into the series. I'll hopefully have more thoughts next week.

The iPad Corner

-Galaxy on Fire 2 takes a few missions to really get good, but stick with it. It's essentially a space sim, a stripped down Freespace 2, if you will. There are a string of ho-hum single player missions, or you can go off the rails and do whatever the hell you feel like. And that, my friends, is the genius of Galaxy on Fire 2 (and just about every open world-ish space sim). You can mine asteroids, trade freely between safe planets, hunt down pirates (or become one yourself, which unfortunately is a little difficult, as you piss off almost everyone doing it), buy new equipment for your ship, or purchase entirely new ones. There are some issues with the game, most notably with the annoyingly small "joystick" you use to fly your fighter. It could have used an option to increase the size of that joystick, to make it easier for those of us with big ol' sausage fingers. Telling the difference between friendlies and enemies can be sporadically difficult too. But for the moeny, it's an absurdly deep, fun game for the iPad. Oh, and it's easily the best looking game I've seen on the iPad. That might not sound like much, but it's pretty snazzy.

The Rest

-I'm getting into the first season of Boardwalk Empire. It's pretty rad so far, with a lot of great performances. It also makes me really want to play Omerta, which I know would be a terrible mistake.

-I also watched the newest Resident Evil movie. It redefines stupid and requires you, like every other Resident Evil movie, to just forget everything that's already transpired. I wasn't expecting anything of this movie, but even so, I was left wondering why I punished myself like that for an hour and a half. It does give some hope that if there's another one, it might be the very last in the series. Good gravy, I hope so.

And that's really about it. Hope you're all adjusting to the new website pretty well. I'm hoping we get some more user focused features back up, like the easily visible status and blog updates. No idea if or when that'll happen, but fingers crossed.

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Sparky's Lack of an Update

Calling this week's blog a full-on Sparky's Update would be unfair since I haven't played anything new this week of particular note. I've been devoting most of my time to Borderlands 2, Ni no Kuni, and WWE '13, most of which you've read about from me before. Borderlands 2 continues to put out pretty great DLC, and I'm still madly in love with badass ranks. WWE '13 has been a continued mixed bag, but it's overall a pretty fun WWE game. And yes, Ni no Kuni still continues to deliver the goods. I'll spend a bit of time talking about Kuni's few negatives, just to kind of balance things out from last week's RPGasm.

Probably the biggest problem with the game is that you might require a bit of grinding if you aren't keeping up with current side quests and bounty hunts. Remember when I said last week that some quests bump up the experience gain? Well, I'm not entirely sure that it wasn't just that one quest. Some areas seem to have more experience, but I didn't take copious enough notes when playing to really get a scientific feel on that. Anyways, if you do bounty hunts in areas you've long since passed, you'll find the hunts easy but slightly tedious due to backtracking. None of the game's dungeons are particularly big, so this isn't a huge deal. Just pay attention to your quests and try to group as many together as you can.

The other (small) problem is that I'd have liked a few more interesting quests in the latter third of the game. The character interaction and dialogue keeps me from getting bored with exploring the world and solving quests, but some variations in quest types introduced in the latter half of the game would have gone a long ways towards making the game feel less grind-y. New monster types start to dwindle too by the latter third, which is sort of a bummer. Sure, there are plenty of variations of monster types, and these are usually more than your usual palette swaps, but if there's a sequel to this, I really hope they invest a lot of time into creating and introducing all sorts of new monsters.

Keep in mind with these complaints that this is still a terrific game and is definitely one of the best RPGs I've EVER played. Not just this generation, either. This will very likely stand the test of time and be a game I play ten years down the line with the same sort of giddy nostalgia I get when I replay the best Final Fantasy, Suikoden, or Wild ARMs games. It definitely draws a lot upon the creations of others, but it does so with such care and refinement that it, in itself, becomes a fantastic game.

The iPad Corner

-Pixel People is pure evil. It's essentially a bare-bones city builder, but the catch is that your new buildings come from splicing two people together. Everyone in the game has a job, and by combining two compatible job types, you get a new person entering the town. Of course, this being an iPad game, there has to be some element of frustration in its longevity, and that comes from the rapidly increasing cost of expanding your city. It nearly doubles every time, and if you're not careful about balancing your new residents with decorations and businesses, you'll find yourself drumming your fingers for hours in the iPad waiting for the correct amount of money to come in. That might turn some of you away, but at least give it a shot.

-Tiny Tower is another build-a-business game. You start with just a couple of floors, and add new businesses and residential areas in what I assume is a limitless tower building. Each new floor costs a certain amount of in-game cash, but unlike Pixel People, the cost never feels excruciating. It's a simple formula, but it's a terrific amount of fun to just poke in for a few minutes, set your businesses up for the day, and let it go.

The Rest

-Despite its neat concept of the life of a food taster for a ruler in a fantasy kingdom, Poison Study never quite did it for me. It's a relatively brief novel, and it goes by super fast. Most annoyingly, every sentence is dripping with drama diarrhea, complete with disgusting little floating chunks of cliched descriptions. It's the sort of novel you read and immediately forget, which is too bad. The writer showed some promise with the concept, but the execution is so poor that it's not worth it.

I think that's really about it for this week. Anyone reading or playing anything particularly fun? Got any fun plans for Venereal.... uhhhh... Valentine's Day?

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Sparky's Update - Ni no Kuni

"I liken Sparky's Update to Ben and Jerry's ice cream. It's chunky, completely unhealthy for you, and everyone craves it." -Ben Hur

Damn it, now I want ice cream.

Uh, welcome back to Sparky's Update. It's a few days late, but hey, it's not like I'm getting paid to write this big ol' bastard, right? I'm going to try to keep this update to the weekends, but I can't always promise that. I'm sure absolutely all of you care about my schedule. Right, on with it.

Today's all about Ni no Kuni. True, I did play a little bit of Dust (the Elysian tale, not the splendid 90's FMV game, sadly), but not really enough to say much other than it sure is a fantastic Metroidvania game with some rad graphics. Kids these days say rad, right? Put on your rain slickers, because I'm seriously about to gush everywhere. You have been warned.

Wherein I Use a Shit Ton of Hyperbole

Go buy Ni no Kuni. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Just get to the damn store and buy it now.

I haven't been this excited about a JRPG not named Disgaea since Final Fantasy X or Suikoden V. It's the first full-on terrific JRPG of this generation, far surpassing anything Mistwalker or Square-Enix has put out. And do you know why that is, kiddos? Because this is a game that is uncompromisingly faithful to its genre. This isn't some half-assed Westernization of the genre, like Final Fantasy XIII. It isn't some coldly corporate RPG with little love for its world or its characters (I'm lookin' at you, Blue Dragon). This is a smartly updated JRPG, full of life and love and all the meat you could possibly want from a modern RPG.

Obviously, this is a graphically stunning game. It's the first example of a game I can remember that has better in-game graphics than in its cut-scenes. Seriously, seeing the fluid animations of the characters, the beautiful overworld, the hugely colorful (if slightly uninspired) towns, and the lovely character and beast designs is like a giant bowl of ice cream for the eyes. It's a ridiculously good-looking game, something you won't quite get from just looking at screenshots. It's all in the little details, the way your companion Drippy fidgets whenever there's a break in movement, your familiar's expressive faces and motions, the way your main character looks up at characters bigger than he is (which is practically everyone). There's really only a little fault to be had, and that's in the small size of some of the icons and letters in the menus, particularly when you're trying to figure out your character's affinities with familiars.

Actually, that's my biggest complaint with the game - that's how amazing this game is, where I have to look for the smallest nitpicky details to complain about.

The gameplay is pretty much real-time, though the action is paused frequently when you're using certain items or picking targets for spells. It's not frenetically paced, though some of the more challenging bosses and enemies can definitely tax you, especially if you're not prepared for a longer fight. You have three main characters (two of whom you meet eventually), and each main character can have up to three familiars at any time. You can either find familiars or "recruit" them by meeting certain battle conditions (whaling the piss out of them, essentially). This gives the game a distinct "gotta catch 'em all" quality. If you recruit familiars and have a full roster, they're sent to a holding area. You can swap them out pretty freely. These beasties all have their own attributes and abilities, and act as your primary avatars in battle, though you can still fight using the main characters as well (and you will - each character has strengths that contribute to battles).

This familiar system is easily the most addictive part of the game. You can find or buy food to feed your familiars to boost their stats. Reincarnating familiars once they've reached certain levels allows them to use more abilities and makes them stronger (though it resets their level to 1). Finding what food each familiar likes will lead to a stronger relationship with that familiar, allowing you to boost their stats even higher. I'm absurdly addicted to the system, and often go out of my way to explore areas a longer while to recruit more and more beasts.

Also terrifically addicting is the game's side quest system. You get jobs from a guild in each town (though you can also stumble across side quests without checking in), as well as bounty hunts (which do have to be taken from the guild). Each quest has its own small rewards, usually cash and a minor item or two. But each quest also nets you stamps on a quest card. Fill up a card, and you get a small, nifty little bonus perk, such as faster overworld speeds or the useless-yet-fun ability to jump. Some side quests also bump up the experience given in certain areas you've visited, making it more appealing to travel back and explore a bit more.

The icing on the cake, and the thing I'd like to least get into to save you what will likely be the game's most enduring legacy, is the game's charm. It's sold me on the potential of children being the protagonists in games, because this is not a game that panders to childishness. Instead, it takes its cues from Studio Ghibli's own sensibilities, making this a game cleverly written with both young adults and adults in mind. Drippy, your primary companion, is without question one of the best gaming sidekicks in recent memory. He's a hoot.

And it's the game's heart that should really be the thing to sell you on this game. It's a game created with such infectious loving care that it's impossible for me not to enjoy it. I really hope this game overcomes the cynical JRPG thumb-nosers of the day and becomes a mega-seller. It's Level-5's finest effort to date, and coming from a huge fan of Dark Cloud 1 & 2 as well as Rogue Galaxy, that's saying a lot.

The iPad Corner

-Word Derby is essentially speed Scrabble. That's great in and of itself. The randomized nature of the bonus tiles as well as the short clock makes it hard for cheaters to get a foothold in the game, and keeps things pretty honest. It doesn't hurt that the cartoony, horse-racing inspired graphics are charming as all hell and that there's an addictive betting system. It's about a buck, and is well worth it.

-Bloons 5 is the game that got me seriously hooked on tower defense on the iPad. There are tons of towers to make your defense, and like most tower defense games that I love, there are upgrades you can purchase outside of combat to help ease things. The level designs are bright, colorful, and usually fun, though some of the later levels are just brutal. I'm hoping to see Bloons 6 come out sometime soon. This will be a franchise I'll love for quite some time, even if they just tinker with the already great formula.

And that's really about it for this week. I will try to post with more regularity. And remember, folks, if you have recommendations for just about any type of iPad game other than the twin-stick shooters (I am not a fan of those), let me know. I'm always open to trying new and awesome games.

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