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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


Sparky's Update - MW3, WWE '13, and iPad goodness

"I don't rightly recall the first time I read Sparky's Update, or about the month or so surrounding it. Because that blog blew my mind, compadre." -Adam West, The Huffington Post, 1835-ish

Are you ready to have the insides of your mind licked? Your mental taste buds are about to taste the rainbow, because I'm finallygetting around to writing another Sparky's Update. This week, we're gonna shoot the shit about the divisive pros and cons of WWE 13, the solidly okay Modern Warfare 3, and I'm gonna introduce a new segmant, tentatively called the iPad Corner, wherein I discuss in quick broad strokes a good game or two I've been playing on my iPad. Ready? Break!

Like an Elbow Drop to Mah Man Parts

At first, second, third, and fourth glance, WWE '13 is simply treading water. If you're expecting fixes to the net code that dumps you out of online connections nine out of ten times, forget it - this is still the same net code used the last few years, with even more problems, if you can believe that. If you're hoping for a fix to the sometimes wonky hit detection and clipping, forget it. If you're expecting new animations, an extensive line of new CAW parts, or upgraded graphics, forget it. If you're hoping for new Legends to be added, rather than retooled versions of current wrestlers and wrestlers who've appeared in previous iterations of the WWE games, forget it - you've seen all these wrestlers rehashed several times over the last decade.

In short, if you've disliked the prior WWE games for any of the reasons above, you're not gonna be particularly fond of this one. It does absolutely nothing to fix any of the problems inherent to the series.

So why in the holy hell do I find myself liking the game?

I should despise it. The broken net code is the most glaring and painful problem for me, because I love downloading CAWs based on real wrestlers so I can have a fun, padded game for the Universe mode. They've made the bizarre, reprehensible decision to hide most of the CAWs behind the ludicrously priced season pass. You cannot download certain CAWs without it. When you consider that most of the folks behind the game probably aren't going to be around to release compatibility patches, it makes sense, but it's still a huge detriment to the game. So why oh why don't I care?

It's not really the Attitude stuff, either. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of reliving wrestling's biggest matches and want to see variations of this for WCW and feuds from the WWE in the late eighties and early nineties. But the simple fact of the matter is that the Attitude stuff gets pretty old, thanks mostly to the fact that there's really only a focus on about six to eight wrestlers of the era, and you see those wrestlers recycled constantly. Even though they have the likes of Edge and Christian and Vader, you only get about one match per side wrestler, and most of those are relegated to a tacked-on "also ran" feature that doesn't use any of the voice work or design of the rest of the Attitude section.

What it is, then, is that this feels like the first WWE game in quite some time with heart. I've said it before - I'm a fan of the three-legged mongrels of the video game world, and this is one of those. It's crippled in so many ways by a lack of budget and uncertainty about THQ's future, but I can't help but love its ugly mug because of the fight and determination in its eyes. Yes, it's a yearly iteration of a series that has long needed a complete retooling, but there's a spirit here that sort of gets what we old school wrestling fans love about the "sport" and the games. Part of that is the nostalgia - reliving Undertaker throwing Mankind off the Hell in the Cell is a thrill, to be sure - but mostly I think it's in the way the game completely ignores the modern blandness of wrestling in favor of "the good ol' days." Truth be told, the game could have used even more of the spectacle, and hopefully with new hardware and new owners, the series will thrive and hopefully see the upgrades it so desperately needs.

So yeah, this is a wrestling game for wrestling fans. That's no real surprise.

The Sum of All Fears. Well, Fears, and Simple Delights

Modern Warfare 3 is more Modern Warfare.

I'm not going to try to sway you to play it, or not. There's a simple, delightful formula to these games, and while I doubt I'd pay the full price for a Call of Duty game until it sees a massive revamp, I have no problem whatsoever paying $30 for a big, dumb, fun action game. And that's what this is. I can't play the multiplayer, as usual. But for the spectacle of the single player and the fun of the bonus mode Spec Ops, I think the game is well worth the price of admission.

I'll throw out a couple of minor niggling complaints and some praise here. The levels don't really focus on the most promising aspect of MW2 - the war on American soil. Unfortunately, the levels are relatively bland game affairs - you'll raid a castle, storm through a sandy town, enter a bland mine. There's one spectacular level set in Paris, but that's about it. These levels are also fairly narrow in scope, to the point of feeling overly brief. It doesn't help matters much that at times the game bizarrely reminiscent of a corridor shooter.

In its favor, the game attempts to solve a common problem amongst us color blind folk by including a color blind option for the names in multiplayer. It's cool that they do this, and hopefully it's expanded in the future to include the ability to choose the colors you see for the names of teammates and enemies. That'd be a huge step towards evening the playing field for us.

The iPad Corner

For this section, I'm not going to try to bother focusing in on obscure or indie games. This will be a completely random section, filled with whatever games and apps I feel like talking about, so odds are, you will know a great many of the games I cover. But for those of you as new to i-products as I am, maybe some of this will be helpful and fun.

-Towers N' Trolls is my latest crack of choice. I love me some tower defense with RPG elements, particularly games like Bloons and this one. The gameplay is simple enough - you build towers, you stop the enemy horde. Enemies drop crystals at random that can either charge your special attacks when drained or be used in between levels to purchase upgrades for your towers and special attacks. It's those upgrades that turn the game from normal to super fun, as there are tons of upgrades to purchase, and they feel immediately effective and useful. For around a buck, it's a really fun game.

-Temple Run 2 is essentially more Temple Run, but there are some neat little tweaks to the formula, such as a mine cart section. I'm still dreadful at it, but they've made some nice little level tweaks and it actually seems easier to see corners and obstacles than in its predecessor. I have no idea if that's just in my mind or not, but there you have it. The fact that it's free is the icing on the cake. I don't usually like endless runners, but this one's sort of fun.

-Middle Manager of Justice feels like it could've used some more time in development. You essentially build up a base, hire a handful of heroes to fight crime, and upgrade your abilities along the way. That's a hell of a solid premise for a game. If they'd added some variations to the combat scenes, I think it might have been great. As it is, it can be frustratingly repetitive. I'd check it out if it's on sale, but keep in mind that the game gets dull pretty fast.

The Rest

-I suspect there are many people who are reading it or will read it, so I'll keep the spoilers to a minimum, but A Memory of Light is a pretty great end to the Wheel of Time series. I wouldn't have minded an epilogue, and there's a moment late in the novel that's frustratingly coy with the reader, but overall, it's a pleasant end to a series I've been reading for nearly twenty years. Crazy.

-Fringe also ended this week. I adored that show, despite its plot problems and case of the week format. The last two seasons really showed what the series could have been. I'll miss Anna Torv being on my TV (thanks to Marino for correcting me on the spelling of her name, which I'd thought was Tory for years), but I liked the conclusion and look forward to seeing what the talent in the show and behind the scenes will do in the future.

And that's about it for this week. Take care, guys and gals.


Sparky's Update - Happy New Year!

"Sparky's Update? Did you say Sparky's Update? Cheese and crackers, that blog is like a big, endless bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch! It's amazing!" - The 'Noid in an interview with Men's Fitness, circa 1995.

I'm sitting here wrapped up in a blanket and sipping from a mug of tea hot enough to burn my throat. Ugh. Colds suck. I also haven't done a bit of "real" gaming all week, save for some brief Rock Band Blitz shenanigans and a brief hunting spree in ACIII. So instead, I thought I'd use this week's blog to highlight what I'm looking forward to most in the coming year. I'm also going to apologize up front for not taking the time to fix my award blog's editing problems. Blame it on laziness, but I still haven't bothered fixing up the headers properly. Truth be told, I probably won't, either.

My amazing brother gave me an iPad this year for Christmas, so I've been playing a lot on that this week. My crack of choice is mostly Bloons, with a bit of Simpsons: Tapped Out, Tiny Planes, and Worms Crazy Golf thrown in for good measure. Yeah, I double-dipped on Crazy Golf, but trust me, that game is good enough (and more importantly, cheap enough) that I don't really care. It actually plays a bit better on the iPad too, something that baffles me. Maybe it's just that I can pull the iPad closer nad see it better? I don't know. In any case, that machine is awesome. Sure, there aren't a whole lot of affordable "real" games on it, but there are countless, insanely cheap ways to help kill a few hours here and there. If any of you have any RPG or tower defense recommendations, I'd love to hear them. I'm not a fan of endless runners, but I'd be open to other suggestions as well so long as you provide an adequate description of the game and why I should try it.

Anyways, on with my...

Bodacious List of Groovy Stuff I'm Looking Forward to Most in 2013

New Systems

Of course this is the biggie on every serious gamer's mind. With the Wii U just about set to leave its "launch window" (winner of the Most Hated Ambiguous Term of Recent Years) and new systems from Sony and Microsoft sure to be announced sometime this year, the big 3 will be the obvious focus. But what will they be? That's the most delicious question of them all, boys and girls. Will Microsoft continue trying to eat away at the family-friendly market Nintendo has dominated? Will Sony continue to woo the regular gamer with exclusives?

And there's another question too, one that likely won't be answered in 2013 - how long will current consoles be supported? This leads to more questions, like how will DLC and XBL/PSN games be transferred over, if at all? This is going to be a year where Microsoft and Sony will have to walk carefully on eggshells. We know what we can expect roughly from the new consoles by examining current trends - both will continue to push graphics and memory updates. I'm willing to bet Microsoft will also introduce Kinect 2.0. But what about Sony? Will they take the lessons learned from Move and the Vita and focus in on creating a gaming console first and foremost, or will they push more and more gimmicks and features in their hardware? Obviously, both companies will continue to push the idea that the console can do everything a person would want in an entertainment center, so we'll also likely see limited exclusivity for browsers, video apps, and music.

None of that honestly really matters as much to me as the games. We're very likely to see something announced from most of the major companies. I'm willing to bet we'll see a preview of whatever game is going to be made from that stunning Square-Enix tech demo before 2013 ends, Watch Dogs certainly looks like a lock for next-gen consoles as well. But it's the unknown games that really get me excited, and not just for Microsoft and Sony. Which leads me to...

Hey Big N, Whatcha Got Cooking?

Animal Crossing: New Leaf looks like good ol' Animal Crossing fun, and we'll see Pikmin and that Monster Hunter 3 re-re-release. But it's what Nintendo is holding in the wings for E3 and their own version of fireside chats that intrigue me. Will we finally see a new F-Zero? Some new IPs? We're almost certainly due for a new Metroid game sometime in the next year or two, and I can't imagine the year will end without a new Mario game being announced to combat the new console releases.

But what about continued 3rd party support? Wii U versions of games are drying up fast, and soon, they'll almost be certain to be lagging behind in terms of performance, so Nintendo needs to make this their continued focus in the new year. They have maybe about eight months of relying on ports from current console games to shore up their 3rd party sales, which should nudge them to reveal long-term strategies this year in order to appease investors and gamers. Nintendo also now recognizes the need for a strong fanbase, so I suspect they'll come at this hard. But will 3rd party developers commit to creating Wii U exclusives? I don't know.

It's not just the Wii U that will need to make a killing this year. What about the little 3DS? What does Nintendo have planned for it? Will we see it become another haven for JRPGs (please say yes)?

The Games for Current Systems and PCs

Very likely, none of what I said above will matter much to me personally, since I won't be buying a new console anytime soon. I don't think I'd buy day one even if I was flush with money - tech issues from this generation taught me that lesson - which is probably a good thing, since there are so many good-looking games this year for current consoles. You can see a list of the games I'm most anticipating in the first half of 2013 in my List section, but here's a quick rundown on my three most anticipated games of 2013 for current consoles (and the PC).

-Ni Nu Kuni looks like a return to (RPG) form for Level-5. Having loved Rogue Galaxy and Dark Cloud, I was a touch upset when I spent my hard-earned cash on the stinker that was White Knight Chronicles. It was a mess, mechanically, and it lacked the love and charm of Level-5's better efforts. Ni Nu Kuni looks to fix all that, or so I hope. The game looks stunning visually, and after watching a lengthy Gamespot video on its early sections, I think the gameplay looks good too. It's the only game in 2013 I've preordered, and will likely stay that way.

-SimCity has me stoked. It looks accessible and colorful in all the right ways. EA will no doubt try to find a way to strangle pennies out of players, but for now, it looks terrific.

-I know practically nothing about Dead Island Riptide, but just the fact that it exists has me excited. If it's more Dead Island, I'll be perfectly content.

And that's really about it for this week. Have a great New Year, folks. What new games, movies, and books are you looking forward to in the new year?


I Give Out Awards. Lots And Lots of Awards.

"When I think back to 2012, what I remember most is Sparky's Update. That, and stacks of Benjamins. No, really, stacks of guys named Benjamin. I did a lot of acid back then." -Darth Vader

"Sparky's Update? That blog still owes me ten bucks!" -An unreliable, lying hobo

"Cheddar. It's definitely my favorite. Wait. No. Maybe mozzarella? Hell, I don't know. Ask me again on Tuesday. What? Sparky's Update? Who the hell is that?" -Jack Bauer

Words to live by. Words that define the year that was.

What with the craziness of the holidays and my newfound mod-hood, it was pretty hard to find some time to come up with a coherent list and awards for the games I played in 2012. So naturally, I abandoned coherency, and have approached this with a childlike, gleeful abandonment of thought and preplanning. Have fun, keep away from the pointy edges, and whatever you do, do NOT read the following. You have been warned.

Those Weird 2011-2012 Games

These games get a special section unto themselves, as all of these are games I technically started and mostly played in 2011, but didn't finish until 2012. Since there would be some overlap in lists and awards (Saints Row 3 definitely would make the top two or three of my GOTY lists, in particular), these games get a shady back alley of this blog for their awards. I'm also not going to bother spending a lot of time yakking about these. So... yeah. Cool? Cool.

Best Create-a-Duder

WWE '12

When and if the servers ever work in THQ's wrasslin' franchise, you can download a stunning number of created wrestlers to fill up your roster, pretty much rendering the abysmal character selection a moot point in these games. With tag teams like Robocop and Weird Al, I couldn't help but love the CAW aspect of WWE '12.

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It (At All) Award

Uncharted 3

Uncharted 3 pretty much takes its predecessor's idea of creating a cinematic third-person shooter and puzzler, and does precisely nothing with it, besides tell a pretty great little story in the Uncharted universe. Is it the next great evolution in the series? Nope. Is it still a great deal of fun? You betcha!

Best Sing-Along

Saints Row: The Third

You may call that parachute drop out of the chopper the best part of Saints Row: The Third. Well, I would too. But the second-best part? That stupid little moment with Pierce when you're both singing along to the same goofy 90's song. It's a terrific oddball moment in a game completely full of terrific oddball moments.

Best Game With a Guy Named Ezio In It

Assassins Creed: Revelations

I really liked Revelations. it told a quiet, mature story about Ezio and it wasn't afraid to try some experimentation with Desmond's story - which has traditionally been the worst part of the AC games. Mechanically, it wasn't much different from Brotherhood, and it did introduce a number of annoying elements and problems, but overall? I thought it was a pretty terrific game.

Worst Game With a Guy Named Ezio In It

Assassin's Creed II

Oh, don't get me wrong. ACII was terrific in its own right. But I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I did AC:R. Still, ACII beats the overloving crap out of ACIII. We'll get to that stinkin' turd in a little bit. As stated by a gazillion other people, ACII did have one of the strongest stories in the AC games to date, rivaled only (maybe) by Brotherhood.

The Games I Actually Played This Year! Hooray!

Settle in. This shit is gonna get craaaaazy long. I like to award every game I've played each year with an award, be it good, bad, or weird. I've played a ton of games thoroughly this year, and as such, this awards ceremony is gonna be like the Oscars - overly bloated, full of eye-rolling douchebaggery, and loaded with crappy jokes that fall straight on their faces.

Sparky's Game of the Year

Borderlands 2

Much like last year, I wanted to get this award out of the way early for those who peeked in here just looking for my GOTY pick. Also, much like last year, the winner is head and shoulders above the rest of my Top Ten (which you can see when I've finalized it soon!). All Borderlands 2 had to do was bring more Borderlands to the table. And it did that - in spades. There's more charisma, more to see, more to do, more guns, more terrific character building options. The Badass rank system is my favorite new upgrade, and I'd love to see it inspire clones in other games. I even love the characters that the Internet loves to hate, like Handsome Jack and Tiny Tina. I've never had such a pleasant experience with a game's co-op either, as this game led to some new e-friendships and a whole lot of good times.

Good Intentions Gone Bad Award

War in the North

Unfortunately, when it comes to Lord of the Rings, there's a distinct lack of creativity since the release of the film trilogy, particularly when it comes to the games. Almost every single one cleaves to the time period and places featured in the novels. Although War in the North takes place in the fringe around the story of the Fellowship, it forsakes any opportunity to tell a great story of its own and relies on fanservice and the story of the trilogy to mold a weird, also-ran tale with no redeemable qualities. Mechanically, it's pretty okay - the action-RPG elements are neat, the hub system and quests offer up some variety, and graphically it has a pleasant style. But the story is just so bland and derivative that it's hard to recommend. Game companies, take note if you have access to the LOTR license - let's start making use of the Silmarillion for ideas on games in the LOTR universe that don't necessarily revolve around a ring.

Straight-Up Crappiest Game of the Year

Divinity II

There's a point early on in Divinity II when I thought it wasn't going to be so bad. There were lots of characters to interact with, a few fun quests, and a promising leveling system. And then the game decided to crap on all of that by introducing a mechanic where you shape-shift into a dragon. The game immediately, jarringly cuts out those interesting elements, getting rid of the towns and character interaction in favor of horribly designed new areas, incredibly bad aerial combat, piss-poor quest tracking, and a story so awful that the best part about the thing was seeing it end. There's one - ONE - nice story element in the etnirety of the game, and that doesn't come until the very last minute.

Stay away from this game at all costs.

Best Prequel

Crisis Core

It takes Crisis Core a while to hit its stride, but when it does, it's an admirable little RPG. While the dungeons and general environments are awful and don't let you experience exploration, the greatest joy of FFVII, it does a great job of fleshing out some characters and has a lot of charm in its own right. Zack is a great protagonist. The game is also noteworthy for having one of the best endings in a game I've played this year.

Best Worst Accents

Broken Sword: Sleeping Dragon

OK. So the accents aren't that bad. Sleeping Dragon was a pretty okay adventure game, mired down only by the conventions of the time. Keyboard-only controls are a nuisance, and the game requires a ton of item hunting in some pretty hard-to-see areas. That said, the story's decent and it's really hard not to like Nico and George, the two protagonists, as they continually bumble their way around.

Most Eye-Rolling Oversexualization of a Character, Obviously

Tomb Raider: Legend

The single most Herculean task of any game next year will be the recreation of Lara Croft into an adventurer, not a puzzle-solving pair of boobs with a British accent. Legend isn't a bad game - some of its mechanics are actually really decent, even today - but Lara's portrayal was straight-up awful at times, as it always tends to be. The voice actress, though, was really decent, doing the best with what was shit material. The insanely awful Arthurian-based plot was atrocious too. The game spends far more dialogue than is necessary explaining well-known facts about the Arthurian legend between characters that would know all this material already. This game didn't so much let exposition slip out as it did vomit it.

The "I'm Surprised I Didn't Like This Game More" Award

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Let's get this straight - Lords of Shadow is a good game, made all the more surprising because it's a modern Castlevania game that doesn't suck. It looks terrific, the boss battles are big in scope, and the voicework is superb. But about halfway through it, I got a bit bored with the game. The melodramatic plot was a touch overbearing, and its conclusion was foreshadowed far too early. The gameplay, while decent and very mechanically sound, got a bit repettive. I don't know. I get why people really enjoyed this game, but it's just not one of my favorites this year.

Best Traditional Level Designs

Sonic Generations

While one other game on this list surprised me more in its non-suckitude, no game on this list had so many bad predecessors as Sonic Generations. Not only did this game surpass the low bar of its predecessors, it did so with tons of charm and great gameplay. While I'll likely never beat the game due to visual problems with an end boss, I played and enjoyed the everlovin' hell out of this game. Even more surprising, the level designs both in 2D and 3D are really fantastic, blending the old with the new in a way that doesn't feel like it's trying to cash in on modern fads or create some gimmick for the hell of it. This really is a good game.

Best Crafting

Star Ocean: First Departure

Star Ocean: First Departure may have been a forgettable game, but its crafting and leveling systems were definitely not. Ambition is the name of the game here, with all sorts of skills that can be increased by spending points when a character levels up. Some of these give stat or combat bonuses, but most affect the crafting system. By learning a few different skills, the character can craft certain recipes. Since there are lots of skills, it becomes prudent to spread out specialities among the characters, both in terms of combat and crafting. But if characters overlap certain skills, they can perform group crafting, which creates even more powerful items. While not all of it is useful, it's a terrific basis for a system.

The Kitchen Sink Award

Kingdoms of Amalur

Among the bits of bad news this year in the gaming world, one of the saddest moments was the closing of 38 Studios after the release of Kingdoms of Amalur. An ambitious game, Amalur tried to reach for the stars, and while its mediocre story and characters ended up hurting the game, I'd say it succeeded - at least, mechanically and in scope. The combat in this game was seriously gratifying, blending a great skill-tree based leveling system with spot-on mechanics that felt oh-so-right. Throwing chakrams at baddies, preparing a spell, sneaking around... it was terrific. And the game's implementation and refinement of elements from other games may have been blatant, but it was superbly done. With the scope and fast travel of Skyrim and the skill trees and loot of Diablo 2, Amalur knew what mechanics could create addiction. This potential franchise deserved a better fate, and I hope someone picks up the IP or carries the torch spiritually.

The RPG Retrospective Game of the Year

Vagrant Story

When it came down to this award, I didn't have to think twice. No other classic RPG this year drove me forward as much as Vagrant Story. The plot and characters are superb in that way that classic Square PS1 RPGs tended to have. They felt fleshed out beyond the scope and needs of the game. Someone spent a lot of time designing these characters, this plot, this world (which is set in Ivalice - joy!). This kind of care just isn't as visible nowadays in JRPGs, and it's a damn shame. Though honestly, we can all do without the bug hair and assless chaps.

Most Annoying Character

Mew, from Tales of the Abyss

My dog went apeshit every time he heard the character Mew say anything in Tales of the Abyss. I agreed with him whole-heartedly. No character was as grating as this. I wanted to punt my 3DS every time it appeared.

Best Tower Defense Games

Orcs Must Die and Orcs Must Die 2

I'm cheating a bit here by listing these games together, but honestly, they deserve mentioning together. Orcs Must Die laid down a terrific basic formula - you set traps for the countless orcs and take control of a hapless buffoon armed with a machine-gun crossbow. Blending a basic 3rd-person action game with tower defense amounts to a stupid amount of fun. Orcs Must Die 2 expands upon that formula by making it easier to level up weapons and traps, introducing new types of enemies and ways to fight them, and multiplayer. If you decide to try them, there's no reason to go back to the original, but they're both great amounts of fun.

The Worst Experiment By An Otherwise Great Game Developer

Jurassic Park

Ugh. Jurassic Park was just dreadful. It told a side-story to the first Jurassic Park novel, but it missed out on practically everything that made that book (and movie) so appealing. Come to think of it, that pretty much defines the Jurassic Park franchise as a whole. Similar to the Walking Dead games, Jurassic Park is less of a game and more of a sequence of QTE's - except this isn't a series of events you really want to see played out. Every character is a dull caricature, every plot point is derivative, and at no point in the game did I feel at all invested into anything that was going on. It deserves props for being the experiment that led to the Walking Dead. But honestly, that's about all the praise I can give this one - and that's coming from a Telltale fan.

The "If My English Degree Could Pimp Slap Me, It Probably Would For Liking This Game" Award

Dante's Inferno

I honestly don't get it. I should hate Dante's Inferno. It bastardizes some of the greatest writing to date, throws out nudity and shock moments just to get attention, and it has some stupidly tiny writing. And given that I didn't like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow before it, I should have despised this game. And yet... I kinda enjoyed the heck out of it. Sure, it has some awful late-game padding. But overall, there's this devious sense of fun about Dante's Inferno, as though it were thrwoing a middle finger up to no one in particular, much like the Grand Theft Auto games of old. It doesn't hurt matters much that the combo and fighting mechanics are pretty darned good too.

Best Game I Should Have Played Years Ago

Metal Gear Solid 3

I always felt a certain sort of gamer's guilt for never having gotten around to playing MGS3. I have fond memories of playing its predecessor in college as a friend and I completely ignored the needs and wants of our girlfriends in favor of discovering the mysteries of that oil clean-up rig in MGS2. I have no real excuse for not having played the third in the series - I just never got around to it until this year.

You were right, world - this game is incredible. And the port to the 360 is remarkably decent. Oh sure, the graphics haven't been touched up for the modern era, but this is still an good looking game. The larger outdoors environments play better to the strengths of the series, and the clever boss battles are a delight (even if I had to wait out The End until his old-ass passed away peacefully). In a year when I bought tons of compilations, this one was definitely a highlight.

Neatest Base Building Mechanic

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker

While the majority of Peace Walker was relatively forgettable, one aspect I loved was knocking out enemies and forcing them off into the sunset with balloon pickups. Having them also join your team, with varying degrees of skill in combat, research, cooking, and medicine was just awesome. I'd love to see this mechanic pop up again in another MGS game.

Best Bargain Purchase

Pendulo Game Pack (Runaway Trilogy, Yesterday, The Next Big Thing)

I'm really cheating here by listing five games as one, but you simply can't talk about one Pendulo game without mentioning the others. I bought this game pack for about $12 on Steam, and it's been one of the best purchases I've made this year. While the first Runaway game had a stinker of a story and an awful, boring protagonist, it had a lot of heart, some really neat visual aesthetics, and classic point-and-click gameplay. But the real highlight came from the next two games in the series - Runaway 2 & 3, together, make one of the best one-two punches of adventure games. The characters and story become genuinely great and the mechanics are improved by leaps and bounds, culminating in the best of the series in the third Runaway game. The Next Big Thing does a remarkable job of creating a wonderful, creative world inspired by the monster films of the 30's and 40's while creating colorful, unique dialogue for its great characters. It's the best individual game of the bunch, so if you're interested in dipping your toes in the Pendulo jacuzzi, start with this one. And Yesterday, the darkest game of the bunch, might be short, but it's definitely a fun game with a great premise.

The "I'm Getting Too Old For This Shit" Award

LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean

By this point, the LEGO games need to either shit or get off the pot mechanically. The core problems of the franchise, particularly its combat mechanics and adventuring elements, have never been so front and center as they are here. The levels look great, but I continually ran into problems with getting snagged in environmental objects or barricades. I'm also not fond of the frustratingly hard-to-see interactive objects. I've got LEGO LOTR in my to-play stack, but after that, I think I'm done with this series for a good long while.

Best Old School Feeling

Rainbow Moon

I don't know if it's because I'm craving old-school turn-based RPGs on consoles so badly or what, but I freakin' loved me some Rainbow Moon. The story and characters are completely forgettable, but oh my good gravy, the old-school turn based combat did some magic for my heart this year. I can't recommend this one to everyone, as it's very repetitive and grind-heavy. But at least consider it, especially if, like me, you hate the comatose nature of the turn-based RPG at the moment.

Best PC Only Game

Diablo 3

It's hard to look past Diablo 3's two biggest problems - the inherent greedy nature of the real-life AH/end-game and the idiotic removal of skill trees - but if you can, it's a pretty terrific game. It looks great, even on low settings, and the combat is well-balanced until the hardest difficulty. I'm sure post-patch they've fixed much of that, too, but I haven't played but maybe half an hour on the hardest difficulty and it was a nightmare. Regardless, fans of the action-RPG should definitely give this a go. Just realize that Blizzard is a very different company by now.

Best Mario 64 Clone

Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus

Sometimes, an old-school platformer is precisely what I need. This year, that void was filled nicely by Sly Cooper. It takes a lot of elements from Mario 64 and updates them for the PS2. Trust me, that's not a bad thing. The combat and jumping feel crisp and precise. The animated comic-book style cutscenes look great, even today. And while the characters are obviously meant for a younger crowd, there's a lot of charming moments. I'm also surprised that the game features such a strong motive for its protagonist - the murder of his family is pretty heavy stuff, but it's obviously not told brutally. This is a game your tweener could play and you could appreciate. Really, some neat stuff.

Best Buck and a Quarter Game

Worms Crazy Golf

I can't recommend that you pay much for Worms Crazy Golf, but if you like goofy little trifles, it's pretty great. By mixing in some optional objectives with the basic goal of parring each hole (or better), it becomes pretty addictive. Trying to get all objectives for each hole can range from mildly difficult to genuinely tough. Mix in the traditional Worms charm, and you've got a winner.

Best Sports Game


This year saw a great number of classic franchises get remade. SSX is a terrific example of how to update an older series - you keep the things that made the original games so much fun, update the graphics and streamline the systems, and above all else, you do not try to introduce hokey gimmicks. On that last part, SSX does, unfortunately, try to introduce some new gimmicky things like having to snowboard in darkness or firing off down a mountain while a natural disaster is occuring. But the core gameplay in the races and trick modes is just spot-on. SSX could also stand for a little less repetition in its runs, but beyond that, it's a pretty terrific combo-based sports game that nails the basics of what made the first few games so much fun.

Most Surprisingly Playable Game

Jagged Alliance: Back In Action

Make absolutely no mistake about it - Jagged Alliance is not a terribly great game. It's not even as good as the game it's remaking - Jagged Alliance 2. But the fact that this game was released at all is incredible, and the fact that it's playble is double so. I can't say as I'm a fan of the real-time elements and the Stop-and-Plan gameplay shtick. I'd much rather have a traditional turn-based Jagged Alliance game. But it's certainly an interesting idea, and one that actually works. Up until this year, it had been nearly a decade since we've seen a genuinely playable and fun turn-based squad strategy game, but the days of endlessly playing Silent Storm and Jagged Alliance 2 are officiall over, as now we've seen that squad strategy games can make a huge dent in today's market if done right.

Biggest Timesink


Oh my floppy brown shoes, I have never, ever sunk this amount of time into a game before. But with my brother and his friends' encouragement, I sunk into the PC version of Minecraft this year and never looked back. Well, okay, originally I purchased it on the 360, but let's face it - that's a Minecraft demo in comparison. I'm still crap at figuring out how to build the more complex machinery of Minecraft, but when it comes to building castles, buildings, and little villages, I am thoroughly, undeniably hooked.

The Stop Your Bitching, It's Not That Bad Award

Mass Effect 3

Judging from the vitriol heaped upon Mass Effect 3, the vocal Internet populace and I had greatly differing experiences with mass Effect 3. Yes, the game's end choices were bad, and left little room for the ME universe to go anywhere. Yes, the endless fanservice of introducing characters from Shepherd's past at strangely convenient moments induced some eye-rolling. But overall, as a conclusion to Shepherd's story, this game was pretty great. It plays less like an RPG and more like a shooter, even more so than ME2, but I'm becoming okay with that. Old Bioware is dead, that much is true - but new Bioware can come up with a decent game, me thinks, if they can manage to blend this great gameplay with a better long-term plan for the evolution of their series. We'll see if that happens or not, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Best Action Game of the Year

Max Payne 3

The basics of Max Payne 3 aren't terribly endearing in and of themselves - to me, this is a generic third-person cover-based shooter. But surround that with a story about trying to crawl back up despite the countless beatings one man can take, and it becomes something infinitely greater. Now throw in a timely setting and a gritty world, and you've got the recipe for excellence in storytelling. I'm not a fan of the way Max Payne 3 craps all over its predecessor, but in its own right, this is a terrific story that leaves me hungry for more Max Payne in the future. And not in a cannibalistic way, either.

Best Racing Game of the Year

Forza Horizon

I never intended on buying Forza Horizon. It felt like a cheap way to turn Forza into an annual franchise and milk the shit out of some fans. But one Quick Look was enough to convince me I had to pick up this game - and you know what? I'm really glad I did. The open world area is pretty terrific, and while it relies on only a few key areas for most of its races, it immediately feels far more diverse and full of life than Forza 4. There are some severe shortcomings, mostly in the smaller car roster. Those same cars are nicked almost entirely from Forza 4, with DLC in Horizon mirroring cars that had already been released in the fourth game. That's just sleazy, but you won't need the DLC to enjoy the core game, which is far more approachable than Forza 4's clinical approach to racing. Personally, I prefer 4 just a touch more, but that's because I'm in this series more for cars.

Best Drink of Water at the End of One Long Drought

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

While Back in Action was merely playable and okay, Firaxis's remake of X-Com is fantastic on every conceivable level. It's approachable, but has that hardcore difficulty setting for those who want it. It controls wonderfully, even on consoles. It carefully adapts all the things that made the original great into a modern game, and it streamlines a lot of irritating components like inventory management. This game gives me hope that the squad based strategy genre will make a big comeback - or at least that we won't see such a huge drought in between quality games. For my money, this is the biggest revival since Fallout 3.

Best Game I'm Completely Awful At

Rock Band Blitz

No game so effortlessly kicks my ass in difficulty as Rock Band Blitz. The worst part is? I can't blame it on the game or my vision. It's actually really accessible. I just suck at it. Ahem. Moving on.

Best Adventure Game/Best Story/Best Child Character in ANY Video Game

Walking Dead

This was originally slated to be the best "downloadable only" game, but that's obviously changed with the release of the game on disc. The Walking Dead is without question one of the best advancements in storytelling in games. I'm not going to go on and on about this game, save that if you're on the fence about playing it due to its episodic nature or other negative elements you might have heard about, stop procastinating and play it.

Best Open-World Action Game

Sleeping Dogs

This wasn't a tough decision, in that it was the only open world game I played completely in 2012. Even so, it's a terrific game that does everything well without ever really doing anything supremely well (besides its upgrade system and its car combat, which rock).

Best Fighting Game

Dead or Alive 5

Again, not a tough decision because it's the only fighting game I've played all year besides King of Fighters XIII. Since I didn't care enough for King of Fighters XIII to warrant playing through more than its incredibly brief story, this wins by default. That said, Dead or Alive 5 deserves some kudos for trying to take that precarious step of updating a game with modern sensibilities while staying true to its old formula. Maybe there's too much of the latter and not enough of the former, but overall, it's a passably fun game.

Best Handheld Game

Super Mario 3D Land

This game is a fantastic mixture of nostalgia and modern enhancements. The levels, while inspired by classic Mario games, introduce some great new ideas and tricky moments, making this one of the best Mario experiences out there.

Biggest Disappointment

Assassin's Creed III

ACIII is a huge step backwards for the series as a whole. Mechanically, it feels on par with ACII, eschewing many of the updates and new systems introduced in Brotherhood and Revelations. Naytham is a great character, but the new protagonist, Connor, falls flat. So does the supporting cast, the story, the pointless item hunting, the ridiculously terrible quest marker, the atrociously difficult-to-read mini-map, the mess of a crafting system, and the uninspired quests. It's as though Ubisoft had about ten minutes for playtesting and decided to use that time instead on, I don't know, sipping cappucinos and chatting about other, better games.

And that's it! I noticed about three quarters of the way through writing this that the editing tools somehow stopped highlighting headers. I will jump back in tomorrow to see if I can't fix that, and make this easier to read. For now, though, I need to give my fingers a rest.

I hope you all have a very merry Christmas, and that the new year sees some awesome new games and devices.


Sparky's Update - A Plea for Christmas

It's been a hell of a bad week, folks, and so I'm not going to open this with some goofy preamble. Between a personal loss and the horrors that Friday brought us, I'm instead going to make a plea to you. This year, for Christmas, use a little bit of your money to brighten a child's day. If your town is anything like mine, there are all sorts of opportunities to make a needy local child's Christmas all that much sweeter. For instance, my local bank and the county courthouse gather up the names of needy children across the county, and by use of an anonymous card with that child's information such as his or her wants and needs (clothes, toys, etc.). Those cards can be picked up by anyone in the giving mood, and a gift can be purchased for the child and then given to employees of either building to give to the anonymous child. It's a way for this community to bond a little tighter. Most communities will have something similar or toy drives like Toys for Tots. Please consider giving to such an organization or cause this year.

And now, on to the games.

Dead or Alive 5

I should feel sleazy for enjoying the Dead or Alive series as much as I do, but honestly, I don't. I have fond memories of playing Dead or Alive 3 in my college years, completely dominating any and all comers. I once went undefeated for 100+ rounds in a winner-stays-in tourney we held at my rental in my sophomore year. Mind you, my competition wasn't great, but still, saying I had a numb ass after that many rounds of DOA doesn't quite do it justice. And I don't think the blisters on my thumbs went down for a week.

I've always been entranced by the graphics of the game, particularly in its 3rd and 4th iterations. There was a stage - Brad's, if I'm not mistaken - that featured blossoms swirling around the multi-platformed area that holds the top spot for me in fighting game stages. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen and it was one of the high points graphically for the original Xbox. I was also a huge fan of the simplicity of the game's fighting systems - any of my friends could pick up the controllers, mash some buttons, and do some cool looking shit while I could spend my time mastering the nuances and harder combos. Hell, Dead or Alive 3 was the straw that broke the camel's back in a relationship. Best part was, it wasn't even the boobs she got angry about Long story and I'm still a little hazy on her side of things, but apparently me letting her win occasionally was somehow symbolic of our relationship and.... yeah. Moving on!

Dead or Alive 5 doesn't really have the potential to create new memories for me, and that's okay. It's not a huge improvement for the series. You'll recognize almost every character here, save for Rig and Mila, two surprisingly decent additions to the roster. The core mechanics are mostly untouched, save for some new tendencies towards bouncing opponents with new kinds of juggles. You'll still follow some old light-light-heavy power attacks with one last massive power attack/combo which will stun opponents (as well as make them very temporarily invincible). Even the costumes and the fighters mostly look untouched, though there are some nicely modest upgrades to the visuals which, thankfully, make the women look more adult and less childlike, which creeped the fuck out of me.

There are other modest upgrades as well. There's a new story mode, which focuses in on two main aspects - a new DOA tournament and some intrigue from DOATEC's rival MIST on an oil rig. Both stories are frankly awful, but the effort is appreciable. Team Ninja just needs to flesh out these characters more beyond their initial setups, as is the case with almost every single fighting game out there. Sadly, there are no individual endings in the game's Arcade mode, which left me more disappointed than I'd expected. I kinda miss me some CGI insanity, you know?

While the characters have received some visual upgrades, the stages seem pretty lackluster. They've added some new mechanics in the multi-tiered stages, adding some cliff moves and counters, but most of it feels like the developers are sort of twiddling their thumbs as the end of this generation approaches. The tweaks made to the tag fighting are pretty great, and some of the joint moves look absolutely fantastic. But most of the movesets have only seen minor tweaks, with each character receiving a new power move that can annihilate an enemy if it connects. The cost for this is a long charge-up period, rendering the moves mostly useless. But they do look good.

Unfortunately, as of the time of this writing, I've not been able to connect to a ranked or unranked match without getting disconnected. I'm playing on the PS3 as well, which has practically no users at any normal time playing. That's highly disappointing. Still, there are enough single player modes to keep me entertained, like Time Trial, Arcade, Tag Arcade, and the best of the bunch, Survival.

So yeah, Dead or Alive 5 is pretty much what you'd expect from a sequel post-Mortal Kombat. If Team Ninja could develop its story and characters more, we'd have seen something great with this game. As it stands, it's a pretty good update but nothing spectacular.

Super Mario 3D Land

If a game developer wants the blueprints on how to create a melding of classic elements with modern gameplay, they should study the everloving hell out of SM3DL. God, that's an awful acronym. SM3L? Oh, hell with it. I can't use the 3D on my 3DS - my eyes don't perceive the 3D at all and it just gives me a migraine - so that functionality is right out the window. But screw the 3D crap anyways, because this game doesn't need it.

Controlling Mario is incredibly precise, once you get used to targeting your landings using the position of shadows as opposed to sight. Mario's moves all feel spectacularly spot-on and right, ranging from the butt bump to the way the squirrel suit lets you float gently down. The levels are a clever mixture of knowing nods towards classic Mario games combined with modern - and new - platforming elements. They're brief, too, and lend the game the thrill os speed-running, as in Super Mario Bros. 1 & 3.

Look, you've all likely read all this gushing about Sup. Mar. 3DL (nope, that doesn't work either) before, so I'll just add this - I get that the Giant Bomb crew wants something new from Mario Bros. games, but so long as a quality title like this comes along every couple of years, the Big N will always have a fan in me.

How to Properly Play Assassin's Creed III

1. Don't.

2. Considering that most of you will probably ignore step 1, please refer to the following steps.

3. Hire an unwitting friend who is very, very patient and good with games in general.

4. Chain unwitting friend to something very, very heavy.

5. Force unwitting friend to play through the first five sequences in Assassin's Creed III.

6. Take unwitting friend out for a night on the town. He or she will desperately need it.

7. Once unwitting friend has drank enough alcohol to forget the horrible, godawful experience that was the first few sequences of Ass Creed III, return unwitting friend to his or her domicile of choice, preferably with a gorgeous member of the opposite sex to help drown out the memories. PLEASE NOTE - if said friend has not consumed enough alcohol, he or she may spend several hours huddled in the corner of the shower, sobbing with pain and shaking from the experience. ALWAYS provide your friend with enough booze to annihilate his or her mind when he or she has played Assassin's Creed III.

8. Return home.

9. If you're really resigned to doing this, proceed with the game from sequence six onward.


The Rest

-I played through a big chunk of Dear Esther, but I must've not saved it properly, because I can't get back to the point I was at without restarting the game. It's terrific so far, so this isn't exactly a deal breaker. It's a stunning gamevella. That's my new term for games that play more like a novella. What? Oh, hush up.

-Not much to report in terms of reading lately. I've been burning through some mediocre thrillers in an attempt to get back into the genre. Eh. I think I might be rereading some of Tom Clancy's older novels next. We'll see.

-Expect the first of a two-part series of end of the year shenanigans starting next week. I've still got games I'd like to play and add to my potential GOTY list, so I'm holding off on that until the last possible minute. But I feel like I can safely deliver my thoughts and awards for a great many games next week. So... yeah. Another End of the Year blog from another user that you couldn't care less about! Joygasms!

-Note to self - never quote Jim Carrey movies in public again. XOXO. Also, buy milk.