Sparky's Update - Last Thoughts on XCOM: Enemy Unknown

"It's not the size of your blog, it's how you use it!" -The Hamburglar

After finally escaping the clutches of my post-Thanksgiving food coma, I'm back and ready to write. This week's blog is gonna be just a short, sweet whispered little nothing in your ear. I've mostly been finishing up XCOM and Walking Dead, but I'll also briefly touch upon Rock Band Blitz and the adventure game Jack Keane. Let's jump into it.

Aliens, Ahoy-hoy!

Most of my game time this week has been slavishly devoted to XCOM. I detailed some thoughts last week on the positives of the game as well as my admiration for the basic changes made to the classic formula. My thoughts on those haven't changed much; I think it's a brilliant game and a testament to the fact that we should see more modern revivals that adhere loosely to the original gameplay.

I beat the game this afternoon, clocking in about 177 game days played. I changed the difficulty a few times, starting off in medium, switching to easy for a few missions with the chrysallids, and then switching back to medium again in the later stages of the game. I restarted it once, as there's a point where a giant alien spaceship appears and can be murder if you're not prepared - as I wasn't. The turn-based tactical gameplay is refreshing, and far outshines this year's other big turn-based strategy revival in Jagged Alliance. XCOM puts that game to shame, but it's great that both even exist.

There are some problems with XCOM, but they're not at all deal breakers. The difficulty, as referenced above, can be wildly uneven. Although I was crushing it tactically, the HQ portions can be head-scratchingly random in its difficulty. Even with a strong strategy in place with lots of satellites and Interceptors in play, I still lost a grand total of five nations. Combat can also be a bit polar. Early missions strike a good balance of weak enemies with weak soldiers, but new enemy types are introduced rapidly, and by the point chrysallids are thrown into the mix, I saw quite a few members of my B-Team dying. By the end of the game, though, the difficulty became something of a joke. With mind-blocking helmets and/or Titan armor, my squad was mowing down the enemies in the last mission with almost ridiculous ease. I really should have bumped it up to Hard on that last mission, but oh well.

There are also a lot of little graphical problems that could have used a little polish. Bullets seem to sometimes fly backwards out of guns. There is clipping galore. Most of the text is insanely tiny and impossible for me to read. More armor variations and models would go a long way towards making the soldiers feel unique. The enemy variations, while sticking close to the original's types, seem awfully generic.

Actually, that last bit, the generic enemies, touches on my biggest issue with XCOM, and that's the limited scope of what Firaxis has dreamed up here. That's not even an issue at all, since this is essentially a remake of the original XCOM. However, if they do up a sequel (and I desperately hope they do), I'd like to see them get a little more creative with weapons, armor, and enemies. Let's see some new types, something from the minds of Firaxis's intelligent men and women.

When all is said and done, though, this was a fantastic game and one I will revisit sometime in the future.

The Walking Dead (Spoiler Free!)

Much has been said already about The Walking Dead's excellent story and cast. I agree with all of that. But what I most particularly love about The Walking Dead is how it made the adventure genre relevant again. Most of the puzzles in the series make sense - you always have a clear direction and the tools are appropriate for the job. By adding a timed conversation tree with choices that influence how people react and talk to you, it adds a ton of depth as well as a tense nervousness to the gameplay and story.

I found myself in the last three chapters eschewing my typical "play it friendly with everyone" approach and going with my gut instinct in the conversation trees. The game became supremely satisfying. While I stuck to trying to be the good guy, occasionally letting my (or Lee's) temper shine through was quite a bit of fun and added to the tension of the game. If you play this, try not to reload every time you choose an unfavorable dialogue choice. The best way to play this game is to just go with what you feel at that moment.

Whether Telltale chooses to go ahead with the second season of this or its announced King's Quest series first, I think we're all in for another treat. I can't wait for either.

The Rest

-Jack Keane has to be the most unremarkable adventure game I've ever played. The graphics look good, I suppose. But the gameplay, characters, and story are all extremely dull. It takes its cues from Monkey Island, but instead of trying to be charming or fun, the game insists upon yanking yawns from its audience. I cannot recommend this one to anyone.

-I'm awful at video games. That's a known fact. But I've never come across a game I've felt so hopelessly awful at like Rock Band Blitz. I'm at a full sixth of the points of the person next in my friends' list - and that's playing on my best song. Still, that doesn't mean it's a bad game. Just one I'm bad at.

-I also finished up with the third and final season of Hung this week. It's an okay show that loses its direction after its second season. I think the show had higher aspirations at the start, but someone, somewhere along the way left and he or she was the only one who knew where the show was going. It's too bad. Thomas Jane is immensely likable, and there's a good premise here. But overall, I wouldn't really bother with it. It's a bit of cotton candy television that ultimately just doesn't leave anyone satisfied, unlike the protagonist.

And with that, I guess that's it for this week. Anyone get some great deals on Black Friday? I'm going to start laying out some ideas for my end of the year blog sooner or later. While I'm still playing a great many games and won't be laying down my Best of... list for some time, I think I'll start pulling together some award ideas specific to the games I think deserving this year. I don't know that I'll be doing an award for every game I played (frankly, I just don't think War in the North or Tomb Raider Legend, for example, are particularly worthy of any award, good or bad), but I reckon most will get something. We'll see.

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Sparky's Update - Forza Horizon, XCOM, and John Dies At The End

"Folks, I shit you not. Sparky's Update is like crack-laced Kool-Aid. I can't get enough of it!" -Thomas Jefferson, circa 1695.

If you want a quick synopsis of this week's updatery, here it is - play Forza Horizon and XCOM. Also? You absolutely must read John Dies At The End. That's a moral imperative, almost a law passed down from me unto you, my loyal subjects guinea pigs lab monkeys readers. All three are delightful. I'm also gonna touch briefly on my final thoughts on Yesterday, which was delightful but terribly short.

The Game I Swore I Wouldn't Buy

I didn't intend on buying Forza Horizon. When I heard that they were doing an installment of Forza so soon after Forza 4, I was mildly irritated at the thought of one of my favorite franchises becoming a watered-down yearly installment. I also had a bit of Forza fatigue, mostly from a long stretch of time when I'd hammer out five to six races a night in order to eventually get that All Gold achievo (a task I still haven't accomplished). Months later, and I'd almost all but forgotten about the title when the GB crew reviewed it and released that Quick Look. And then, damn it, I had the Forza jitters all over again and wanted to get my hands on it. So when it came up for sale in a nice B2G1 free sale, I snapped it up.

Let me start by repeating this analogy I used earlier this week - Forza Horizon is the Randy Quaid to Forza 4's Dennis Quaid. Both are excellent actors in their own right, but they're vastly different personalities. Horizon is fun, slightly quirky (though a very sterile quirky, as I'll explain in a second), and while not quite as prestigious as its brother, is definitely an awards-bound title. Forza 4 is the clinical, more dry brother - while not as fun, its depth and professionalism are astounding. Sadly, however, neither Forza ever actually says, "Shitter was full!" That's sort of disappointing.

Horizon eschews the serious quality of Forza 4, and instead goes for a flashier, warmer feel of an arcadey racer. That's not to say that it controls entirely like an arcade racer though - with the assists off, the game mechanics will kick you in the teeth if you're not prepared. But there's definitely been some slight tinkering to make the game feel a little less like a sim and more like a video game. Whereas Forza 3 and 4 helped me feel a bit of that old adrenaline and love of driving, Forza Horizon feels just a touch more cartoonish without actually turning it buffoonish. The controls are a little more forgiving with the assists off. Powerslides and drifting are a breeze, and going off-road no longer is quite so deadly to your finish, especially in AWD cars.

The presentation too is warmer. Some of the racers are given personalities, though they aren't particularly fleshed out or all that important. It's still a great step forward to making the races less robotic, and it's something I'd love to see expanded upon. The festival atmosphere is kind of tame by design, but it allows for some great new additions to the formula, such as the street races. Those are my favorite part of the game - you're set up with multiple other cars, and race across the countryside with only checkpoints and your mini-map to guide you. No fenced in areas, no tracks, and lighter restrictions on cars makes Sparky a very happy boy.

There are some negatives to be found, however. Most notable is the glaringly sparse (compared to Forza 4, anyways) car list. There are dozens of cars included, but considering that almost all are ripped straight from Forza 4 with very few new additions, this is sort of a downer for any car enthusiast and should be noted if you're trying to decide between the two. The DLC is also kind of despicable. Again, instead of introducing new cars, most are taken straight from Forza 4. Essentially, you'd be paying twice for content you already own, and that's not at all cool.

There's also this strangely pervasive feeling that Forza Horizon has been designed by committee. Despite being way less clinical than Forza 4, I get the feeling that the developers were given very strict guidelines about what could be considered for the game. Take the music, for example. There's a few good songs in there, especially from the Black Keys and the game's mellow vibe station. But it all feels sort of sterile and safe. You won't hear any hard rock. There aren't any offensive lyrics to be found. The most "dangerous" part of the game is its inclusion of the street races and Skrillex. And it's not that I want the game to be dangerous or edgy, but for a game that features such a crazy festival atmosphere and supposedly gripping street races, I want to listen to something a little more pulse-pounding, a little crazier, a little more alive. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but I don't even think there are any songs older than 2008 in the mix. Give me some Ghetto Bird. Give me some Metallica. Give me some Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, some Rolling Stones, something with a little more vigor. As it stands, the soundtrack is pleasant, but it feels ripped straight from SSX, a game where the mellower music definitely fits better.

And that same feeling tends to crop up throughout the rest of the game. The few racing personalities are given a few by-the-numbers lines with which to trash talk you before races, but there's no fire in them. They're not given enough time or energy to feel like much of a rival, and they're certainly not allowed to say anything that might offend the mothers of the teenagers who play this game. There's also a female guide of sorts whom you interact with briefly in a couple of cutscenes. It's implied she's slightly interested in the player character, but this goes nowhere after the second cutscene. She guides you along with a bunch of generic "go get 'em, Tiger!" phrases, but it leaves me wondering, why bother having those two cutscenes in the first place? It reeks of a rushed production, but it leaves me hopeful that if there are future installments of the Horizon sub-franchise, they will continue to make the world around the races a little more vibrant.

Do I necessarily want a full-fledged story in my racing games? It couldn't hurt, but I guess what I'm after more is personality to the AI. Make the periphery interesting, or expand upon it and don't just let it trail off. I hope Forza Horizon 2 does this - and expands on the game's stellar basics a bit more.

XCOM Marks The Spot

Hey, you try coming up with an X-pun that hasn't been used already.

I'm only about two days into XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and I'm already head-over-heels in love with it. The fine folks at Firaxis are the Zen masters of melding accessibility and easy controls with variable levels of brutality. Errr... difficulty. Right. Much like with Civ V, and to a lesser extent, the Pirates! remake, they've eliminated a bunch of needless stuff that cluttered up the basic gameplay without sacrificing the deep and addictive elements.

Ammo counts and action points are out the window. This might seem off-putting to long-term X-Com fans, but it's really for the best. Each character is essentially given two turns, one to move and one to shoot. This varies a little depending on what class you play as and how you choose to advance in each character's skill tree. Snipers, for example, will need to stay put if they want to fire off a shot (unless they take a perk that allows them to move with a penalty to aim for their shot). Alternately, a character can choose to Overwatch, the basics of which should be familiar to those who have played older strategy games. Your character basically goes into an alert status, and will fire on the first enemy he or she sees.

The cover system is smart and intuitive. You can take fire from four angles, essentially, and your cover can account for one or two of those angles. That's not a guarantee you won't take damage - you will get shot in this game many, many times - but you're a damn fool if you're ending a turn outside of cover. Most cover can be shredded, too - logs will burst into flames, walls and windows will be demolished, and that parked car you've been hiding behind can blow up and take you with it. The cover becomes a part of the tense nature of the gameplay.

Speaking of tense, if you aren't already aware, this game is tough. I've been switching between easy and medium pretty freely, mostly thanks to those chrystallis bastards. They will bend you over a countertop, rip off your drawers, and increase the hole in your backside by a fair country mile. If you're sane, you'll keep a few saves in rotation - one for the beginning of each mission, one for each time you head back to HQ for debriefing and cocktails, and generally mid-mission. Any less than that, and you're begging for failed missions and squadrons of dead soldiers. Which you'll still have, incidentally. But that difficulty also comes with a terrifically rewarding sensation, especially when you've completed a mission and not lost anyone.

It's also a game that tests your intelligence in a very chess-like fashion. You're either smart enough to try to anticipate the enemy's moves, or you're left floundering for air while berserkers smash your front lines to bits. I cannot recommend it enough. It's everything I love about Firaxis games.

The Rest

-If you take nothing else away from this blog, read John Dies At The End. It's a horror comedy, essentially three novellas tied into an overarching plot. It can be brutal and gory while being intensely funny at the same time. It's both black comedy and nearly slapstick at points. That comedy does a great job of highlighting the few serious turns in the novel. There's this sort of frenetic, slightly dark energy to the whole thing that I adore. It's not flowery. It doesn't recycle some overused cliched villain. It's truly the most original horror novel I've read in quite some time. I cannot wait to read its sequel.

-I also finished Yesterday. It's a quality idea for an adventure game, highlighted by some dark occult themes, but it comes to a conclusion fast. It also lacks the charm of the characters from The Next Big Thing. On the whole, if you can get it for dirt cheap along with the rest of the Pendulo games, I encourage it. It definitely has its heart in the right place.

I think that's it for this week. Have a happy Thanksgiving, dear devotee of the Sparkster.

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Sparky's Update - The Great and Terrible Max Payne 3

Grab a can of compressed air, quick-like. You feel that heat coming from your computer? That's not from you watching eighty-seven porno videos while designing some 3D image of Pauly Shore putting boots to asses in your dream sequel to In the Army (tentatively called In the Army: Even Armier). Nope. That's the power of this blog, honey dumplin', and it's about to make your shit 'splode!

OK, probably not. This blog, however, will very likely ruffle a few feathers. Although truth be told, I think the three of you still reading my blogs won't probably give two farts. In any case, I'm devoting this blog entirely to Max Payne 3, a game both lovable and jarring. I started this off as a review, but I thought it might serve better as a blog. If you want my review thoughts, here it is - play this game. It's actually pretty great, and if you don't mind a bit of repetition in its stop-and-pop gameplay, it's a meaty, sweaty brick to the forehead, in all the delightful ways a brick to the forehead can be. The story is terrific, simply one of the best of the year, if not this generation of consoles (which puts it highly ranked in terms of stories told in vdeo games, period).

But upon completion of the game, I didn't find myself in a good place. You see, much like the terrific music theme of Max Payne 3 (and you really should check out the music from this game - it's striking and filling in a way that video game music rarely is outside of Bear McCreary's work), there are some jarring notes when you expect something different. These notes aren't awful, but they do strike a bit of a despondent chord in me. That seems like a bit of an oxymoron. I plan on rambling for a bit, so bear with me, but I hope to explain.

A Bad Man in a Bad Land

At one point, roughly halfway through the game, Max Payne is finding his way through a maze of narrow streets in Sao Paulo. He's a bit lost, and follows a young guide to a street party. Things go south (in Max Payne 3, things always go south), and soon Max is own his own again. Left at that, it would have been an unremarkable scene, fleshing out the world a bit more but not really accomplishing much beyond setting a scene. But Max makes several comments throughout the party and afterwards in his rough inner monologue that change the face of the scene entirely - as well as adding a very, very tough backdrop to the entire game. I'm going to paraphrase here, and likely badly, as I can't find the exact quote online, but here goes:

"...they danced like this for the amusement of the rich American tourists who could take pictures from their armored buses..."

And later...

"Who could blame them for not liking me? I was just another middle-class American gun for hire, and they had nothing."

The theme isn't a new one. We've seen the American fish-out-of-water story in many games. But I don't think a game has found a way to quite get so personal with it as Max Payne 3 did, and you know what? I'm sort of grateful they addressed this so bluntly through Max. Throughout the game, one of the things Max deals with constantly is a sense of guilt about the poor fortunes of others - not that he's necessarily taken anything away from them, but that he's succeeded even as miserable as his life may be where others are living in hovels and shanties, simply because he's American and has had more of an opportunity.

The writer and actor have nailed something here. It's not a new thought, or even particularly well-spoken. But in its blunt ugliness, Max Payne speaks for what I've felt in the past. How the fuck can I have so much when so many have so little? And how do I deal with that? Max isn't an altruist. He's not a bad guy by any means, but he's no saint. He wants to get paid, get drunk, and be left the hell alone.

But in a very real-world sense, he's exemplifying the kinds of thoughts anyone American with half a heart has thought at some point or another, that guilt over the state of the world past a few lucky countries' borders. My small one-bedroom apartment would put many places to shame the world over. I bitch about not being able to find work and yet have my every need tended to thanks to the hard work, sweat, and blood of countless other people. I play video games. I watch TV. I dick around on the Internet. I have an extraordinarily good life, and thousands of miles away, whole groups of people are starving and making do with practically nothing.

It's one thing to say that if I were there and able to, I'd try to help out where I could, but would that be a lie? I'd mostly be like Max, shuffling through the people I met, trying to keep my head down and feeling angry about their situation compared to mine and those I'm with regularly. Roughly thirty miles from where I sit now, billionaires fly in and out regularly in the summers to their dude ranch for weekend getaways. Fifteen miles less than that, millionaire ranchers get duded up in two-hundred dollar jeans and belt buckles the size of Texas for reality TV show camera crews. Half a mile from me is an overgrown trailer park, so full of broken bottles, scrap metal, and junk that you cannot walk through it except on the street.

It's a bizarre, disjointed world we live in. To the people that will never read this, the people who will starve and never know what it's like to not live in poverty, I get why you might hate us. I do. I'm sorry. We burn through what we have, always hungry for more and giving one day a year to be appreciative of what we have, just before trampling each other to death for a few bucks off some movies and toys. I wish I could say for certain that if I could, I'd put my hand out and help you up.

That's what Max Payne evoked in me. That's how deep this game got to me. But...

On the Other Hand

I wish I could have been there for Rockstar's research trips into Sao Paulo. It would be easy for me here to rage at them for being a flush, money-hungry company spouting hypocrisy without having done a thing to help them down there. But how do I know that they didn't? How do I know that they didn't hire some people down there, temporary or permanent? How do I know that one night, they didn't get together and have a few drinks with the locals, commiserating and trying to lift some spirits if only just for a while?

I don't.

But I'll tell you this much. If they didn't, if they somehow managed to be the assholes Max Payne so deliciously described, then I've got no words. All I can do is hope that they did. Maybe somewhere in Sao Paulo, there's a new business opening up thanks to the executives at Rockstar Games. But the horrible, crass part of me, the part that's seen and suffered first-hand from the unending greed of others, knows that in all likelihood, those same executives are buying third or fourth homes somewhere while there are men and women everywhere scraping the bottom of the barrel.

And One Other Thing

Let's bring things to a close with one last thought, and move it back towards a more technically jarring aspect of the story versus the gameplay. How bizarre is it to have such a reflective, introverted story, and yet have the bizarrely cartoonish and outlandish number of bodies hitting the floor? I think Max Payne 3 would have been a supremely effective game if it had a bit of self control, but then again, that wouldn't quite be a Max Payne game, would it? And maybe that's just it. Maybe I'm looking for more than what this game was. What I want out of games, out of their stories and their potential, it might not be what the world wants out of them. Funny enough, I think I'm perfectly okay with that.

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Sparky's Update - Boy, Did I Kill A Lot of Orcs and Zombies.

Why, hellllllooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

This is your captain speaking! Please, ignore your seatbelts, grab a drink from the waiter and/or waitress nearest you, and feel free to use the sick bags as needed. This... is Sparky's Update, and odds are, it's gonna get you higher than that oxygen mask!

This week, ladies and gents, I slayed beasties. Lots of them. Specifically, I killed a ton of orcs in the stellar Orcs Must Die 2 and staved off the zombie hordes in Dead Rising 2. I also continued to shoot many, many robots, Hyperion personnel, and primal beasts ferovores bonerfarts bullymongs. I can only praise Borderlands 2 so much before it gets tiresome, and that time came... ohhhh... a few minutes after it was delivered to my house, so I'll spare you the specifics on that one and just say that I've hit level 50, killed Donkey Mong, and had quite a bit of fun in co-op.

Short update this week, then!

Awash in a Sea of Orcs

For those not in the know, the Orcs Must Die! series is basically tower defense combined with light 3rd person shooter elements. You take control of a war mage, who must protect a gateway from hordes of oncoming orcs by setting up traps, defenders, and barricades. It's a very simple formula, one you've seen before. The first game was charming, with a moron of a male protagonist that stole the show. In that game, you could earn a limited number of skulls per level based on your performance and how much currency you spent on defenses. By ignoring defenses, you could take on the orcs yourself, but without weakening them first, they would easily overrun you.

Its sequel, which was on sale on Steam for around $10, doesn't make any grand sweeping changes to the formula, but what's here makes it far and away a better game. You can now earn unlimited numbers of skulls from levels, giving you more of a reason to repeat them and invest further into traps and defenders you might not have otherwise cared about. It implements some nice optional modes as well, such as taking on classic levels from the first game and a survival mode. The difficulty is ramped up just enough to make the game challenging (I'm playing through it first on easy to get a good idea of the layout, since I'm awful at tower defense games), but it's still a very accessible game.

Co-op is also new to the series, but I haven't tinkered with it yet. Basically, the game reintroduces the protagonist from the first game as well as another hero. When taking on the game alone, you get a bit of banter between the two characters at the beginning of each level, but only ever see one of them. It can be a bit off-putting, but it's a minor quibble. Man, I love that word. Say it with me now - quibble. Delightful.

A big part of the charm comes from the game's sense of humor. The same idiot protagonist is still pretty darned funny, coming across as though Lenny and Bruce Campbell had a war mage baby together. The orcs themselves have some great lines too, and there's enough variety that they don't repeat themselves to the point of tedium. You will, obviously, hear some repeated dialogue, but it's a game based on repetition and incremental improvement, so that's to be expected.

Give this game a shot. Seriously. I'm not doing it great justice here, but if you can, at least try a demo. I know tower defense is a genre that some feel has been played out, but there's enough good humor and great gameplay here for me to highly recommend it.

I've Covered (Zombie) Wars, You Know

My adventures with Dead Rising 2: Off the Record have continued this week. I must say, the checkpoint system in the story mode does the game wonders, but I'll admit a certain degree of frustration with the seemingly blatant broken parts of the game. Take the wardrobe, for example. You can only exchange your outfit for DLC, Frank's original outfits, or your previous outfit. There's no space for holding items beyond that, meaning you'll have to waste a lot of time tracking down your favorite clothing articles again.

That said, the entire game was worth the $10 purchase solely for one reason - the sandbox mode. It's not polished - as a matter of fact, it's hilariously fastened together with duct tape and prayers. But wow, it's spectacularly fun. Basically, it drops you onto the rooftop of the mall area, gets rid of the story missions and the timer, and turns survivors into tough little mini-bosses, complete with weapons and large amounts of health. The psychos also respawn, though that's less pleasant. The best part of all? Scattered throughout the world are challenges, during which you can net a bronze, silver, or gold medal for your efforts. These include everything from "Kill X number of zombies in a set amount of time" to... welll... variations on that theme. OK, so the challenges aren't all that creative. But they do a lot to emphasize the best part of Dead Rising, and that's slaughtering zombies by the dozens with weird, wacky weapons.

If you didn't like vanilla Dead Rising 2 or its predecessor, this won't change your mind. It's still broken. The game design is sometimes stupid. But look past those flaws, or look at it as a zombie-killin' marathon, and it's a fantastic little gem.

The Rest

-If you haven't, watch The League. It's a great show. For those who might avoid it because it's about fantasy football, don't. Fantasy football is just a means to an end, and that end is to deliver a smart, funny show about a handful of guys (and a wife) and their shit-talking friendship. For a great one-two punch, combine it with Archer and/or It's Always Sunny.

-Fringe is really ramping things up, though it continues to be completely unhinged when it comes to plot continuity. It's a good show, but it's one that could have used a great deal more foresight, much like every other Bad Robot show out there. I can't help but wonder what this series might have been if it were novels instead of a TV series. Oh well. The stunning Anna Tory is straight up one of my favorite TV actresses of all time, and Joshua Jackson and John Noble are terrific too. I'm sorry to see the series on its way out, but this season has been pretty great.

And that's it! Have a great week, people.

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Sparky's Update - PS+ Madness, World of Keflings, Yesterday

This is where Sparky's Update lives! Get you some!

Welcome back, one and all, to my inane weekly blog about what I'm playing, watching, and reading. This week's biggest news for me is that I'm now a PS+ subscriber thanks to a very generous friend. I've taken advantage of their free monthly games as well as bought a couple of cheapo PS+ deals, so we'll be covering those briefly. I've also finally delved into World of Keflings, a game I bought a while back when it was on sale, and I'll be talking about Pendulo's terrific adventure games Yesterday and The Next Big Thing.

Whew. That's a lot. I'll try to keep things relatively brief. Oh, and by the way, happy early Halloween!

Plus-Sized Plus One

Mento is probably shaking his head over my bad punnery. Can't blame him. That guy's punnery is pure genius, by the way.

Anyways, early on in the week, I received a bunch of free codes for PS+ monthly subs from a friend and promptly activated them. My first order of business was downloading some free themes - my old one was rough on the eyes and I wanted a spiffier front end for my PS3. Why am I justifying this? You don't care and neither do I. Games were next. Here, I kind of went nuts. Pacman CE DX FBI CIA edition is something I've always wanted to play but never got around to. King of Fighters XIII intrigued me, mostly because I hadn't played a King of Fighters game since the late 90's and I was genuinely curious how the hell it held up so many years later. I also decided to double dip and purchase the Off the Record version of Dead Rising 2. I'd played the vanilla version and greatly enjoyed it, so I figured I'd give this one a shot too. There are other games in my queue or that I've downloaded, but I'll have to save those for next week, as I haven't gotten to them quite yet.

Let's start with the lone "bad" game in the bunch, King of Fighters XIII. Now, friend of the pimp Arbitrary Water says I'm nuts for not liking KOFXIII, but frankly, I believe he's secretly a mutated, highly evolved shower curtain and therefore cannot be trusted. And it's not that KOFXIII is broken - not at all. But I can't connect to its multiplayer functions for more than a minute or two at a time, either because of my shoddy Internet or something to do with the game's matchmaking. I can't determine which, but I suspect it has more to do with my end of things, so I won't hold the game accountable. Instead, I'm left playing the single player portion, which is decidedly underwhelming and half-assed. The story mode is comosed of several generic, bland still anime screen wtih some text. I hesitate to call that text a "story," because that would insult the word story. A woman seeks out a childhood friend who is working with the bad guys and demons in order to rewrite.... oh, screw it. He ends up corrupted, she saves him with the power of love, world is safe, yadda yadda yadda. The story elements (not counting the fighting) take up all of about a minute if you're a good reader. There's an arcade mode, but no individual or team endings, leaving me very, very glad I didn't purchase this one.

I'm not going to get that in-depth with Pac-Man CE DX. Too much has been said about its myriad of wonders already. It's a great game, one I'm admittedly terrible at. But I feel like I could get better with time. And no matter how bad I am, I'm still having fun with it. Pretty cool stuff. Makes me want to track down that other DX old school game that I can never remember the name of. They did a QL of it too.... Galaga DX, maybe? Hmmm.

Oh, right, Double Dragon Neon is in there too. It's Double Dragon, just with better animation and some nice bonus features. I'm not a huge fan of Double Dragon to begin with, and this one doesn't make a believer out of me. The combat feels too wooden and quarter-grabby, just as it did back in the day. But I get the appeal, and if you're a fan of Double Dragon, it's worth checking out.

Dead Rising 2: OTR is pretty rad. Other than the initial first fifteen minutes, it's essentially Dead Rising 2 with Frank West spouting snark instead of Chuck Greene. You don't have to worry about the kid, thankfully, but you'll still be tracking down Zombrex, taking on hordes of zombies, and the same crazies. I haven't gotten very much into it yet, but I'm digging it. Frank and Chuck are both great characters, and I have no preference either way. But this seems like a cleaner, smarter version of DR2, especially with the much-needed checkpoints. More on this one later.

A World of Resource Management

At its core, A World of Keflings is essentialy a resource management game. Through your avatar, you pick up keflings and send them to work picking up and delivering resources so you can build more things. It's a simple concept, polished to a high sheen, and given a little bit of patented Microsoft "play it safe" family-friendly silliness. This was a game very much designed by a committee of people trying very hard to create a perfectly acceptable, inoffensive game. In that regard, they've succeeded.

Nothing about World of Keflings really stands out, and yet, it all comes together to form a mellow, pleasant experience that will no doubt be completely forgotten in four or five years. That's not an insult, it's just fact. World of Keflings is designed to appeal to a broad range of people, from kids old enough to follow simple building instructions to adults likely with families to play along too. The dialogue's cute, but never tries to be particularly clever. The same goes for the gameplay - it plays like a very basic RTS without combat, essentially.

Is it worth it? I'd say so, sure, especially if it's on sale. It's a nice little diversion. Nothing more, nothing less.

Yesterday, I Played The Next Big Thing

One of the highlights of the year for me has been the Steam Pendulo pack, which I purchased in one of their big sales. It's a treasure trove of old-school LucasArts-styled adventure gaming with modern graphics. Not all the games have been great - namely, the first Runaway is a real stinker - but the rest of the games have made the pack definitely worth it.

Two of their best games are The Next Big Thing and Yesterday, their most recent releases (as far as I know). They both stick to the Pendulo/classic adventure game mold. You talk to people, find items, combine items, and solve a few puzzles now and again. The Next Big Thing is more focused in on advancing its story than adventuring, making for tighter game with less actual gameplay. The story itself is really delightful. Set in a world where monsters are very real and co-exist side by side with humans in their day to day lives (mostly as actors for a movie studio executive), it gives off a colorful, modern take on the 30's and 40's monster films I adore so much, and spins those basic ideas into its own charming, unique world. The writers spent quite a bit of time on creating unique dialogue for the world, and the actors go to it with aplomb. It's one of the better fictional game worlds out there, and the saddest part is, most gamers will never experience it. Sure, the gameplay might feel a little outdated to the FPS crowd, but if you've got any interest in games that focus on story, it's well worth a look. I unfortunately couldn't finish it due to a late game puzzle that required better vision than what I have, but I cannot recommend this game more...

...except, of course, when I'm talking about the next Pendulo adventure game, Yesterday. Yesterday tends to focus in more on the traditional adventure gameplay, but its story is still superb. It's hard to say which is the better game, Yesterday or The Next Big Thing, but like the last two Runaway games, I don't believe that's a choice gamers should make until they've played both. Yesterday is the darkest Pendulo game to date, focusing on the occult and a serial killer. If that makes it sound like the old Gabriel Knight games, you're not terribly far off the mark. But unlike the Gabriel Knight games, Yesterday creates its own lore and villains, making for a much more creatively satisfying game overall.

Seriously, if you get the chance, pick up the Pendulo pack and either ignore or forgive the first Runaway game. These game makers are definitely underappreciated, and I hope they go on to bigger things in the future.

Tidbits

-I finally finshed up on Bored to Death. It's a darned shame this show had such a brief run, but at least it didn't overstay its welcome. The three protagonists (Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifanakis, and Ted Danson) have terrific chemistry together, and the guest stars such as Oliver Platt are fantastic. It's a comedic take on old detective stories, and is well worth checking out if you get a chance. Just go in knowing that it'll leave you with an unsatisfying conclusion.

-I played about an hour's worth of Wizorb. Great little Breakout game, but not really worth a whole segment here. Check it out if you want a quick diversion that won't tax you, your computer, or your wallet.

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Sparky's Update - Dawnguard, Hearthfire, and Mechromancy

Did your girlfriend just give an involuntary gasp of pleasure? Did your wife suddenly look at the door with a sense of longing and distance? Did the electrical outlets in your house just surge and crackle? There's a reason, honey chile. Sparky's Update is back, ready and willing, and now with 80% more beard!

It's been a long, long while since I've written a real blog here on GB, so let me explain the game to those of you who are either new or haven't been around in a while. I write primarily two blog series - one is an RPG retrospective, in which I examine old RPGs with a critical, modern eye towards whether or not they're suitable for modern players. The other is a generic "what I'm playing" styled blog, called Sparky's Update. There's no real set format for the blog, but I'll usually add some small notes on what I'm also reading or watching, along with general quick thoughts on the games industry. It's a big catch-all, and I take pride in it causing a major upswing in pregnancies and amorous feelings whenever it's posted.

This week, I'll be covering a bit on Skyrim's Dawnguard and Hearthfire expansions (the skinny - both are pretty terrific) as well as Borderlands 2's Mechromancer (the skinny - if you want a great class and haven't tired of replaying the game, it's well worth it).

I've Got a Fever, and the Only Cure is More... Black Soul Gems?

Oh, yes, I forgot to mention above that I'm very fond of drudging up way outdated jokes. I'm also a fan of bad punnery. I shall try to refrain as much as possible, but you will have to suffer. My apologies.

Bethesda's track record with its DLC had been pretty spotty. Some of its expansions, like Shivering Isles, were pretty good. Some were truly awful (horse armor, the Fallout 3 alien DLC). They've been fairly cautious about releasing DLC for Skyrim, with nary a season pass, Barbie dress-up options for animals, or dull plot line in sight. Instead, they've taken it upon themselves to pop out one pretty great story experience in Dawnguard and a smaller, smart little house-builder in Hearthfire.

Let's get Hearthfire out of the way first. It's a relatively simple process - you head to Falkreach, buy a tract of land for a surprisingly cheap price, and head there to begin construction of your new house. You actually do very little besides procure building items for said house. You have a few basic options for a house plan, with most of the customization coming when you build a main hall addition. Once you've built that, you can add a couple of building options, such as an enchanting tower, a library, or bedrooms. These are constructed from a pair of workbenches outside, including one that takes new supplies found throughout the towns and mills of Skyrim. You'll have to buy or collect quarried stone, logs, and forge new items such as nails or hinges, all of which count towards your blacksmithing skill. If your blacksmithing is low, this could either prove to be a great way to quickly level up or a negative if you're trying to level up in other areas, so keep that in mind.

You can then decorate the interior with a variety of items. It doesn't ever quite end up looking any better or worse than the other houses you can purchase around Skyrim, but the customization options are a nice change and I wouldn't mind seeing this fleshed out more in future Elder Scrolls games. The quarried stone can be a bit of a game breaker, since you can mine a ton of quarried stone very quickly, fast travel, and sell it for a small tidy profit. I haven't tried to adopt children or introduce a wife to the area, and have yet to actually finish all the rooms in my house, so I'll experiment a bit more and check in later.

Dawnguard, on the other hand, is a pretty sprawling adventure. You have the option to either fight vampires with some pretty cool new weapons and spells, or you can become a vampire yourself with an all new skill tree. Me, I sided with the vampire hunters, so I haven't tried the vampire skill tree yet, but it's neat that option is there. The expansion's story is surprisingly engaging, more so than just about any other quest line in Skyrim. It also does a great job of introducing and revisiting some Elder Scrolls lore and old storylines. What's particularly cool is that you'll see parts of the expansion make its way subtly into the rest of the game. i recommend starting the questline when you can to allow for random vampire attacks (their loot is pretty great, even at low levels) and to get the crossbow, which is a pretty awesome weapon. Stores also seem to update with some new items after the expansion starts, but not before.

Gauging Gaige

Shifting now into Borderlands 2, the new mechromancer class is pretty intriguing. Her special attack unleashes a hovering robot that makes its way across battlefields at will, slashing apart enemies for a surprising amount of time. Her skill trees are pretty diverse. Her first tree concentrates on making her and Deathtrap more durable. The second tree focuses on making Gaige and Deathtrap walking elemental death dealers, particularly when it comes to shock damage. This tree, when taken with bits and pieces of the first tree, makes for some ridiculously awesome heavy weaponry. You can critically kill an enemy, which will unleash an electrical storm that zaps all nearby enemies, which in turn leads to a possibilty of the enemies taking burn damage. You can deal an absurd amount of damage over time.

I can't figure out the last tree, which offers some risk-and-reward gameplay options that just don't seem all that rewarding. You can sacrifice accuracy for gun damage, which might be great for a high-end character with enough badass ranks to offset the accuracy reduction. But the rest of it frankly confuses me and leaves me wondering what it would play like. I'd like to get the character to 50 and try it out. In the meantime, I'm playing with the first two skill trees and having a blast.

Everything Else

-I'm reading through Desert Spear right now, which is a bit of a disappointment after the supeb Warded Man. I can't stand the uninspired desert people of Krasia, and the main protagonists could use someone a bit more grounded to relate to. As it stands, the series isn't terrible, but it needs to take a marked turn in the final novel to really earn its place.

-Halloween is coming up, and with that comes my inevitable decision to watch a trio of horror-related movies. This year, my line-up will be wrestler-centric, with Santa's Slay, They Live, and either Predator or Doom. I might ditch that last movie and watch Ernest Scared Stupid instead, since... well... I can. What?

Thanks for reading. Keep your pimp hands strong!

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Sparky's Update - Brief Thoughts on Borderlands 2

Gentlemen. Ladies. Things of an indiscriminate sexual nature. Today's blog isn't going to tease the pleasure centers of your brain. it's not gonna make you coo or see God or anything like I usually boast, because this is going to be brief. Really brief.

Borderlands 2 is fucking awesome.

If you don't like it or don't want to play it for genuinely good reasons, that's fine. If you're one of the seemingly millions of GB users who piggyback on the meh attitude of one of the staff writers when he writes a less than 5 star review without formulating an opinion of your own, then you know where you can stick it.

I love Giant Bomb. I wouldn't check this site a gazillion times a week if I didn't. But man oh man, I sure do get tired of people confusing douchebag snobbery for genuine intellectual thought. Don't like Borderlands 2 because it's more of the same. Don't like it because you're just tired of first person shooters of all sorts, or don't much care for loot oriented games. But don't hate something because some guy who writes words really well gives you a fucking nerd boner.

This has been a PSA from Sparky Buzzsaw. You may continue on being awesome.

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RPG Retrospective - Quest for Glory

Quest for Glory - RPG Retrospective

The Basics

Oh man.

When I was about six or seven years old, my parents bought a used Tandy 1000 along with a handful of games on these crazy things called disks. Old timey, right? I was fascinated by them. F-19 Stealth Fighter. Leisure Suit Larry 2. Sid Meier's Pirates! All of these would help gaming become a part of my life in a huge way, but none of them held a candle to one other little game from Sierra, the same company responsible for Larry Laffer and Roger Wilco, for Sonny Bonds and King Graham. Quest for Glory wasn't and isn't just a game to me - it forced me to learn. It opened my eyes to fantasy. It led me down the strange, sometimes miserable road that is my addiction to gaming. To this day, I love it. It brings me back to a good part of my childhood, the time I spent poring over dictionaries and learning basic sentence syntax in order to finish the game over and over and over again. It brings me back to the daydreams I'd have about Spielburg, about going to an old Spanish-styled library (now long since demolished) to begin that ardous journey of leaving behind childish books and becoming steeped in Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and T.H. White. It is, indirectly, what led me to become an English major, to continue my love affair with the written word.

And I'm about to tell you not to play it.

Fuck.

Originally released as a text-input game with the title of Hero's Quest: So You Want to Be a Hero, it was retitled to Quest for Glory after Milton Bradley got their panties in a bunch about the name coinciding with their incredibly shitty board game of the same name. Seriously, I own that too - and let me tell you, if you're ever desperate for a poor man's D&D and you look at that crap, just take out your cash and piss on it. It's a better investment. But back to the PC game. Hero's Quest, or Quest for Glory, featured a blonde haired, blue-and-black lovin' nameless hero. You could pick between a Fighter, Mage, or Thief. Your choice of class determined your base stats for a number of skills, such as strength, vitality, climbing, throwing, sneaking, or magic. You were also allocated a certain number of skill points to spend, so while a Fighter might not be able to use magic at the start, by investing some of your points into that skill, you could use it too. These stats would increase throughout the game the more you used them. By sparring with the castle's master-at-arms, you could increase your strength and vitality, for example, while a Thief would increase his stealth by sneaking.

Sounds like an RPG, right? And half of it really is. If you're planning to play the whole series through, investing the time in the first game to boost your stats is a great idea, because the game allowed you to transfer your character over to each new game. Yep, Quest for Glory was porting its main character long before Shepherd ever dragged his ass out of bed. Importing a character into the future games also allowed players to play as a Paladin class, which normally wouldn't be available.

But the skills and classes are only part of what the game was. It was also an adventure game - straight-up, old-school Sierra goodness. There were about eleventy billion ways to die. Sleep outside in the forest? Dead. Try to take on a dagger-tossing ruffian? Dead. Piss off the sheriff's tame ogre buddy? Dead. The game requires you to save constantly, as the trial-and-error difficulty of Sierra adventure games at that time were unkind, if not exactly brutal (they saved the brutality for King's Quest III). In the original version, you'd type in commands such as, "Look at centaur," "order dragon's breath," or "sneak."

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your nostalgia for these things), that's not the version I played for this review. When the world went all point-and-clicky, Sierra remade a couple of its adventure games with updated graphics and interfaces, including Quest for Glory. This version isn't inferior in any way, and in fact, if you're going to play one of the two and are younger than, say, twenty-seven or so and have no experience with text input games, go with the point-and-click version. It's easy to get running when installed straight from GOG.com (you can tweak some minor graphical options with a handy utility included with the games), and has shinier graphics in comparison to its older self.

The Story

Quest for Glory starts with the Hero coming into the valley of Speilburg after a narrowly avoiding an avalanche that has conveniently cut off the only route out of the valley. The Hero learns of Spielburg's many problems, including the missing Baronet and Baroness von Spielburg, the nuisance of the witch Baba Yaga, and an increasingly dangerous bandit problem. He also learns of various other smaller problems and opportunities in the valley, and comes to meet all sorts of various characters and villains throughout.

Wow. Put like that, the story of Quest for Glory sounds like Fantasy 101, and I guess it really is. Lori Cole, one half of the design team and a personal hero of mine, has openly stated that she hated the traditional adventure game elements and wanted to design a game with her husband that incorporated RPG elements. It's no surprise then that the game's plot sounds ripped straight out of something you might see in a D&D campaign or from one of the blossoming fantasy writers of the 80's.

While the generalities of the plot are relatively simple, the specifics remain delightful, even today. Baba Yaga is still menacing. Erasmus, the friendly odd wizard accompanied by his pet rat Fenrus, is still smarmy and a bit witty. And the game's best unseen character, Erana, is still eerie and intriguing. She's a long-deceased wizard of sorts, a powerful force for good whose presence still lingers in certain locations scattered throughout the games. The world is still supremely charming, too. The valley of Spielburg is inspired by German folklore, and most of the game's design focuses around that central theme. There are thatched roofs aplenty, so to speak.

This is, then, one part wherein my rose-tinted glasses aren't entirely wrong. Oh, sure, if you dig into your folklore books, you'll come across Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged house, but where the hell have you seen it in gaming before, hmmm?

The Graphical Style

Once upon a time, we used terms like EGA and VGA to describe games like these. Don't ask me what they fucking mean - I've had a cocktail or two and I'm feeling too goddamn lazy to get into the specifics (meaning I can't be bothered to go look them up). But put simply, EGA was uglier while VGA was shinier. Got it? No? Okay. Errr.... Put in movie terms, VGA was The Avengers or The Amazing Spider-Man, while EGA was the late-night Syfy-produced movie of the month. If you still don't get it, fuck off. I'm writing here.

The version I played for this Retrospective was the VGA version, the aforementioned point-and-click version. It was released in 1991, so obviously it's going to be a little aged no matter how much I try to defend it. To be honest, though, the graphics aren't all that terrible for a game produced in that era. Certainly it's on par with everything else Sierra produced, and I personally prefer it to the LucasArts game styles (Sierra's nearest competitor that you'd remember - there were a few other companies like Dynamix, but a graphical comparison between this and Willy Beamish would be one hell of a pointless endeavor).

But we're not talking about how it looked then, are we? We're talking about how it loks today. And as much as I hate to say it, it's just not that good looking anymore. It's like Dame Judi Dench - you look at her, and there's still a sparkle in her eyes, but her time for modeling in Playboy's a bit long gone.

It isn't fair to judge an old RPG by its graphics, but it is fair to judge a game by its graphical stylings and how well those have held up. There are some elements that are surprisingly good. I love the aforementioned Baba Yaga and her hut - they both look good (well, insofar as a magic-slinging hag can look good). The combat animations are a bit problematic and were the only cause for concern for me in getting the game running, but tinkering with the options in the game's utilities fixed this easily enough (I should note I'm running it on Windows 7). Some of the backgrounds and areas look great too, such as my absolute favorite locale, Erana's Peace. It's a small nook wherein... ahhh, you don't care about that - it's just a pleasant looking area.

But it's not all great. There's a dire generic nature to all of this. Even for the time, the graphical inspirations were fairly uninspired. Goblins look precisely how you'd imagine a hackneyed fantasy artist to draw them. The town, while full of colorful characters, lacks any sort of real color itself, save for the tavern. And the forest, which is where you'll be spending a great deal of time as you adventure, is fairly dull. Some sort of originality here would have done leaps and bounds to improve the game's long-term graphical prospects. But keep in mind too that this was a labor of love and an homage of sorts to the RPG's of the day. That doesn't make it easier to approach the game from a modern standpoint, but it's something to chew on if you do decide to play it.

Sound

I don't have any problem with getting the EGA version running with at least sound, which is awesome because I can listen to the original score for this game. I say "score" as though it were an orchestral thing, but as you're probably well aware, back then, it wasn't quite so grandiose. Still, I love hearing that old theme song again, and I've had parts of the music stuck in my head for weeks.

With the VGA update came an updated score, and while it's shinier in some regards, I actually think the EGA score is better. The VGA score feels overproduced, as though they wanted to take advantage of every new bip and boop they could throw in there. It's not awful by any means, but if a game released in 1991 can have an overproduced score, it's this.

There are still some highlights. The theme is still memorable, and Erana's Peace is downright gorgeous. The small bits of sound effects in the game sound pretty good too. I think this is one of those cases where it might be impossible for me to seperate nostalgia from the truth. I want to say that, yeah, the music and sound are fantastic. But I'm sure anyone who didn't play the game back in the day would hear it and shrug.

Quick side-note though - I do still have the score for Quest for Glory V, and while 3/4's of that score is pretty awful, there are some fantastic songs in there to help balance it out. If you're a fan of the series, check it out. I'm going to throw in

Here's the QfG I theme. Tell me what you think, because I'm genuinely curious. Memorable? Overproduced? Too simple for modern tastes?

RPG Cheese

Here's a weird one. Up until this point, the RPG Cheese section has dealt primarily with the problems of a JRPG. Here, we have a game produced in the West. Obviously, then, you won't be hearing me bitch about googly-eyed children saving the world for once. Whew.

Quest for Glory does have some cheese of its own. I can easily look past the game's generic fantasy nature because it was one of the first fantasy worlds I was introduced to, but many newcomers to the series just won't see the appeal of Spielburg. it's fantasy generica, whether I like it or not. There's also a fair amount of grinding to be done if you're looking to continue the series beyond the first installment.

Being also an adventure game, Quest for Glory has some problems that will be unique to it in the Retrospective series. There's a great deal of trial and error, as with any Sierra game of that period. While it's easy for me to remember the solutions to a great many of the puzzles, some of them are a little obtuse and might require the use of a guide. There are several points in the game where, if you haven't completed certain side-quests or obtained certain items, you will fail. Combat in the VGA version isn't quite as cut and dried as the EGA version, and the graphical interface for fights can be a pain. There are a thousand ways to die, and if you're lucky, you'll remember to save, save, save because autosaving was still about a decade off.

All that will sound really minor to old school RPG or adventure game aficionados, but to newcomers, those little things will add up quickly.

Replayabilty

By today's standards, it would be relatively easy to see everything Quest for Glory has to offer if you create your character with the right skills in mind at the start. Create a thief with magic capabilities and grind out strength and vitality, for example, and you'll have an excellent long-term character. But playing a "stock" character can be problematic, as you'll often times be confronted with problems that have no apparent solution with your current character. This really doesn't become a problem until Quest for Glory III and IV (especially the latter), but it's something to keep in mind. The game's fairly brief - I imagine you could probably do a speed run with minimal grinding in a couple of hours tops - but you'd be missing out on everything that made the game special in the first place if you just blitzed through it.

Frankly, the replaybility is going to be determined by your age and proclivity towards antique games. If you can handle the laundry list of problems I've talked about for newcomers, you might be surprised at how replayable the entire series is. But individually, there's not a whole lot to Quest for Glory that can't be seen the first time through with proper character planning.

Overall Quality, Then and Now

Quest for Glory was and is my favorite game of all time. That's why this section actually hurts to write. Fuck you, Father Time.

If you played Quest for Glory back in '89 or '91, you would have found a lot to love. It was an endearing, witty game with a memorable cast of characters and an incredibly unique blend of adventure and RPG gaming. If you play Quest for Glory in 2012, you won't know what the hell I'm going on about. You can walk into any bookstore (sorry, I mean hop on your Kindle or iPad) and find a fantasy novel for a few bucks that will instantly make this game's story seem juvenile and downright generic. And that adventure/RPG gameplay? If you've played Skyrim, you've seen the gameplay evolved to an incredibly delightful sheen.

I'm actually trying not to get a little misty-eyed here. I recommend that anyone who played this game back in the day, buy it. But if you're younger than that? Go on back to Skyrim. There's nothing for you here.

Total Value Versus Accessibility

For years, the Quest for Glory collection was one of those Holy Grails of gaming. Copies of the disks went for upwards of $150 at one point, and you could barely get those bastards working on a modern computer. Recently, though, GOG.com put out the Quest for Glory collection for a ridiculously cheap price and instantly rendered the on-disc craziness completely moot. You should be able to get all of them running with minimal fuss - my only problem with the EGA version was that I had to run it in a windowed format that made it too small for my vision problems.

As for the value, again, that's going to depend on your age. Keep in mind that for a similar price, you could buy a copy of Morrowind or possibly Oblivion, two games which have modernized the spirit of Quest for Glory, even if it's unintentional. And frankly, unless you're seeking to revisit the ghosts of adventure games past, there's no reason to play this instead of them.

I love Quest for Glory. I always will. it's one of a very, very few games I'd actually call important to my life. But overall, ladies and gentlmen, I can't recommend it to you. I wish you'd play it and enjoy it as much as I do. But I just don't see it happening.

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RPG Retrospective - Star Ocean: First Departure

Star Ocean: First Departure - RPG Retrospective

The Basics

Star Ocean: First Departure intrigued me. It was the first time a version of the original Star Ocean had been made available in the West. More importantly? I had to get my hands on it to see if there were any characters even remotely as irritating as Lymle from its far-flung descendant Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Well, I say descendant, but the remake of Star Ocean and the Last Hope were released... ahhh, screw it. I just freakin' hate Lymle, 'kay? Oh sweet Jesus, she's got me saying it now.

Ahem. Anyways. I've played 'Til the End of Time and The Last Hope pretty extensively, and while I was never a huge fan of their characters, I did love the concept of a star-touring RPG series. First Departure, while nowhere near as grandiose as its console siblings, has some modern trappings. The graphics and sound have been updated, there are anime cutscenes, and from what I've read about the game on Giant Bomb and on various forums, the gameplay has been greatly changed from the original as well. What's here then is a fairly basic package.

First Departure is an action-RPG. You encounter enemies randomly, and you fight them in a breakaway scene, just like most RPGs. The combat is real-time, and is fairly basic. You have one button for regular attacks that can be changed depending on which direction you press the directional pad. You have magic and abilities that drain mana, and there are a handful of higher-powered skills available later in the game that act in much the same way. Your fellow characters are controlled by the AI, though you can switch on the fly to a different character if need be.

Characters level up and obtain a certain amount of skill points, which can then be allocated to a bonanza of different skills. I want to talk more about this later in the Replayability section, so skip ahead to that if you're looking for the game's highest point. There is also equipment to be found, dungeons to explore, and many a monster to be slain.

Pretty standard stuff, right? Well, keep in mind that this is a remake of an SNES RPG. It's easier to forgive the rest of the game that way - but not that easy.

The Story

First Departure starts off with a pretty breezy introduction to its characters. On a fairly medieval-feeling world, Roddick, Millie, and Dorne defend their little village from bandits, monsters, and the like. They're the town's watch, in essence. A neighboring village comes down with a mysterious disease that turns its victims into living stone. While investigating the village and the potential for a cure through an old RPG standby, the mysterious "cures what ails ya" herb, team Roddick encounters the crew of a spaceship. This spaceship crew is also investigating the disease, as it's been sent to the planet by a shady bunch of alien scumbags. Roddick and his merry crew (well, not so merry since Dorne has contracted what I affectionately call stoner's disease) accompany the spaceship crew to help find a cure for the disease, since their blood can somehow help turn the tide in a war between an Earth-based Federation and the shadowy alien figures.

This shit is never really explained again. Ever. It's insanely frustrating, as it starts off with the potential for a pretty good set-up for a story, right?

Well, forget that potential, because for the next twenty hours or so, it's pure tedious hell. In order to stop the virus, the team must jump back in time to track down a king who was apparently the first to contract it. Instead of jumping on the game's potential for starfaring RPG goodness, the player characters are instead sent back to the same planet they've just come from, just hundreds of years in the past. The majority of the game afterwards devolves into what amounts to a giant fetch quest, as you try to gain favor with the various rulers throughout the world to gain access to Asmodeus.

It's here that The First Departure becomes unforgivingly boring. Back in the days of the SNES, this quest must have been huge - and to an extent, it still is. But a huge, sprawling quest doesn't mean a damn thing if what's going on is dull, lifeless, and full of uninteresting characters and places. Roak (the world of the game) has to be one of the least lively worlds I've ever seen in an RPG. There's never a point in this game when I felt even a remote attachment to its characters, plot, or overall world, and it's by far the game's biggest problem. It's a shame, too, because some of the mechanics of First Departure are quite good. There are some purists who are going to jump on my ass for ragging on the story of a game basically from the SNES era, but let me just drop a few names off for you. Chrono Trigger. Link to the Past. Super Metroid. Those games might not have Shakespearean narratives, but you sure as hell fell in love with the stories and characters involved, and they hold up just fine today. The fact is, First Departure does not.

The Graphical Style

This is a remake of a SNES game, and has been updated to include 3D backdrops and more colorful characters. The combat has also apparently been completely redone, and looks pretty decent for a PSP RPG. Truthfully, the graphics... well, they exist. They're not awful by any means, but they never really pop out at you either. The anime cutscenes are kind of awful and I wish they'd done without them, as they add nothing to the game's overall quality. But that said, the battle animations are surprisingly solid and there are some flashy spell/technique effects that work nicely.

I like the old-school look of the characters, and there are some fluid motions that always catch me by surprise. In the buildings themselves, there are some great little touches, like the detail of the furniture or the light through the windows. Had the game more interesting environments to begin with, I think the visual style would have been great for a remake. As it is, it's merely serviceable. Have a look for yourself.

Sound

I genuinely like the score of the game. It's catchy at times. The music is the high point of the game, with plenty of plucky adventuring songs and a decent battle theme that thankfully doesn't grate on the ears. Voiceovers have been added to most of the game's major scenes, which are kind of awful in a generic anime sort of way.

But then, there are the battles. You've heard me whine before about JRPG games having their characters shout out move names ad nauseum. Well, this game does that. Endlessly. I'm purposefully avoding action JRPGs for the next few Retrospectives because I don't think I could stand one more shouted move name in a battle. It's particularly awful in this game as it seems like there's never a break. If you spam the same move three times in a row, you'll hear that move name shouted three times in a row. It's making me doubt the sanity of this RPG Retrospective project, as there are a ton of these games yet to go.

Oh, and sound effects. I kinda like the old-school sound. It's like they took the 16-bit counterparts and said, "Naw, we want just a little bit of that old flavor in here for nostalgia's sake." I can dig that.

RPG Cheese

Other than the aforementioned shouting of actions taken on the battlefield, First Departure is surprisingly light on RPG cheese, especially when compared to its shinier console brethren. None of the characters annoy me. None. Compared to the 3,605 times I wanted to punch something listening to Lymle, that's bliss, baby.

Really, the worst RPG cheese comes from the basic setup of the game's main quest. Having to collect items from each of the rulers of th realm in order to unlock the way to Asmodeus is true RPG cheese at its very core, but I'm giving the game a pass because of its age. At the time of its release, this wasn't hackneyed stuff. Just keep in mind if you go back to play it today, that basic idea will probably bore you to tears.

Replayabilty

The coolest part about First Departure is its skill system. Each character in the game has access to bunches of skill types, and can boost these skill types with points earned through exploration and leveling. Some of these skill types give passive bonuses to stats. Others grant some cool combat bonuses or perks, such as a random chance to warp directly to an enemy or to deflect damage. Others still give characters specific non-combat abilities, like cooking or item crafting. That's the neat part, because it sounds simple right now. It isn't, and it's something I think more games should aspire to.

Say, for example, I make Roddick completely combat focused. In that case, I'd definitely want to make sure he had all the melee combat bonuses I could give him. Each of those skills can be boosted up to ten times, with the cost increasing at various points depending on the character's pre-existing tendencies. Since Roddick's very much combat focused already, his combat bonuses are cheap, and so halfway through the game, I find myself with points to burn. Now, I might decide to up his craftsmanship ability, since I don't have a character that's particularly strong in that area. But what kind of craftsmanship? Do I want him to be able to copy abilities to paper, allowing other characters to use those abilities in battle? Or do I want him to be able to craft equipment and weapons? Upgrading only one skill doesn't necessarily just boost that line of craftsmanship either, as it can affect a whole range of abilities.

Alone, that'd be a neat system - but then you add in party mechanics to the mix. See, if I've got two characters with a focus in one area of craftmanship or cooking or any non-combat ability, then the party can use group abilities. This is a souped-up version of those singular abilities, allowing for higher chances of success and neater items to be crafted. It's complex, but ultimately, it's a fantastically rewarding leveling system. It makes the game infintely replayable if you can get past the rest of the game's problems... which might not be possible, truth be told. Still, if you do find yourself playing First Departure, this is a fantastic diamond in the rough to be found and adds loads of depth to an otherwise simple game.

There are all sorts of secrets to be found in the game, too. I missed out entirely on one secret character. There are plenty of sub-plots if you've got the patience to seek them out, and the dungeons get nicely complex and rewarding by the game's end.

Overall Quality, Then and Now

Given that the remake was released back in 2008, it's not exactly an old game. Still, it IS a remake of a game released in 1998. Unfortunately, it shows. I've mentioned the dated, boring plot and the bland characters. Even factoring in that these things are essentially fourteen years old, it's no excuse. The game would have been interesting then only for its length and RPG mechanics. As it is now, I can only recommend this game be hunted down by those who are either desperate for a JRPG to play or those who have played other Star Ocean games and are looking for a history lesson in where the franchise came from.

There's some merit to be had from the ridiculously complex ability mechanics as described above, and I do think it's worthy of mention solely for that. But one neat gameplay feature does not make a quality title. There's no real heart to this game.

Total Value Versus Accessibility

The game is fairly widely available. Copies on Amazon at the time of this writing were going for as low as $9. Frankly, though, I can't recommend this one. From a purely mechanical standpoint, it's fine. There's nothing really wrong or broken with the game. But the twenty-five or thirty hours you'll sink into it could have been spent playing many other great games from either the SNES or the PSP era. Sorry guys, but this one's a dud.

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RPG Retrospective - Grandia, Pt. 2

Hey folks! Welcome back to the second and final part of my look at Grandia. Thanks for all the comments last week - that was certainly an unexpected and pleasant surprise.

When I left off last week, I said that Grandia was hit-and-miss. I've since finished the game in a couple of marathon sessions. According to the save file, I played for approximately 52 hours, though that's admittedly not a very accurate figure as I often take short breaks with the PS3 on. One of my thoughts from last week, that the story and characters grow better as the game goes on, definitely holds true throughout the rest of the game. There's an exception in the very last part of the game, at the Gaia Core. I don't want to go into many spoilers, but the last boss doesn't have quite the likability of the Garlyle forces and devolves into some pretty tired environmental jibber-jabber.

Anyways, let's get on with the rest of the Retrospective!

RPG Cheese

From last week's Retrospective, this should be the part where I blast Grandia for layering on the JRPG cheese. There are kids fighting to save the world from threats. Apparently, the world's military forces just aren't good enough, you know? In battle, characters shout out move names and squeal with delight each time a battle is won. I should shudder at the eye-rollingly awful early sexual jokes between Feena and Justin.

But here's the odd thing - in Grandia, it all kind of works.

The funniest thing about playing Grandia is how quietly all of its cheesy elements start to fade into the background. Oh, they're still there, but they become part of the irrefutable charm of the game. Some parts are always irritating and awful - anything involving Sue, in particular - but for the most part, the game is never all that obnoxious. Having the protagonists be kids actually helps the plot at several points, as you really get the sense that they're discovering the world alongside of the player. It's kind of a delight to watch these kids grow up a little along the way. Mind you, it's not Tolkien-esque character changes, but for a JRPG of the era, this is delightfully charming.

There are going to be some snobs who turn their nose up at such things. Usually, I'm one of them. Give me an adult-oriented RPG any day. But you'd have to be a cold-hearted person not to get 40 hours into this game and still think that its Japanese-ness is a negative. Unlike Tales of the Abyss, it's negotiable and even eventually works to its favor when the plot starts to become a little darker.

Replayabilty

The replayability of Grandia is really dependent on one thing - how much you love exploring in an RPG. For the most part, the game is relatively straightforward in where you can go and what you can do. There are a handful of optional dungeons (I missed these due to advancing the plot too far, so be careful about that if you're looking to do a completionist's run-through your first time). The regular dungeons are pretty sprawling, so you'll have plenty to explore your second time through. There's no New Game Plus or similar feature, but for a game of that period, that's not unexpected.

I'd like to revisit it at some point, if just because I think it's ridiculously fun. It's a bread-and-butter RPG, but that bread is a delicious, home-made loaf and the butter has a bit of honey. I'd also really like to see what's up with those secret dungeons, but given my poor track record with optional dungeons in the past, odds are they'd be more of a curious gander than a full-blown runthrough.

Overall Quality, Then and Now

I didn't play Grandia when it came out, unfortunately. If it helps at all, the graphics are about on par with the original Wild ARMs (save for ARMs' fugly combat). The gameplay holds up remarkably well today, as it was crafted on a solid foundation of turn-based combat combined with a pretty nifty gauge for measuring the turns of combatants. The cast of characters isn't quite as memorable as some of its peers, but they're certainly not bad by any stretch of the imagination. Except Sue. Stupid Sue.

Today, you just don't see sprawling RPG's like this outside of something made by Mistwalker. It's sort of a shame, really, because every now and again, this is precisely what I crave from a turn-based RPG - rock solid methodical combat, a great leveling system that rewards experimentation, a colorful world to explore, and characters that seem invested in the adventure as thoroughly as me. Get past the dated looks, graphics whores, and you've got a quality RPG on your hands.

Total Value Versus Accessibility

The game is available on PSN for chump change (around $7), which makes it both highly accessible and cheap. Anyone hankering for a cheap, huge RPG with buckets of charm and only a few minor, skin-deep flaws would do well to pick this one up. For $7, you'll get a ton of gameplay, a few ridiculously cheesy moments, and a warm, friendly game. Modernists might not like it much, but anyone who can appreciate a good, well-aged RPG should definitely pick this one up.

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