Sparky's Update - Week 2 of Disgaea 4

I'm already missing deadlines on this thing, and it's only two weeks into my thoughts on Disgaea 4. My English degree is frowning down upon me with shame. I've been out with a cold, but you can't keep a good man down. Well, okay, you can't keep a halfway decent guy down. All right, all right, you can't keep a selfish narcissist with self-destructive qualities down. You happy? Good.

Before we jump into my thoughts on Disgaea 4, I want to talk about this blog's format. I've already beat the main game and unlocked a few things I really wanted to get, such as the Chara World, the Cave of Ordeals (I believe they call it Mount Ordeal in this one, but it's the same thing), and most (but not all) the character classes. I've gone ahead and started a new game+ (which you can do by talking to an NPC in your base after you've beat the game). This is so that I can keep up with the episodes as I blog about them. So what I'll be doing each week is examining the story so far episode by episode, with a non-standard secondary part explaining certain other elements of the Disgaea series and/or this game in particular.

OH. MAH. GAWD. IT'S FUKA

Each section of Disgaea 4 is called an episode. These are broken up with a special cutscene, narrated by the game's various characters, that give a brief summary of what just happened and what the next chapter has in store. It also has a bunch of gibberish from Val (if you remember, our non-blood drinking vampire who always keeps his promises) regarding sardines, a joke that gets incredibly stale about three minutes into the game. Thankfully, these can be skipped through, as you can do with every cutscene in the game.

So we've beaten Death Emizel, the son of the President of the Netherworld. We've discovered that the President has ordered the death of the prinnies, in order to clear room in Hades, so to speak. As we jump into the second episode, we are quickly introduced to the Prinny X-Terminators (or Exterminators - it's never spelled the same way twice in a row, consistent with Nippon-Ichi's hilariously awful translations). These are a task force sent by the President to kill all the Prinnies. Sound a bit redundant compared with the last episode? Well... it is. The Exterminators are led by Fuka, a young middle-school girl who wears a prinny's hide for a hat. Turns out, she was supposed to be a Prinny, but since the Netherworld ran low on prinny hides, she was left with just the hat and a decree by the President that if she and the rest of her lackeys wanted easier work hours and better rewards, they'd better get to cracking some real prinnies' skulls. She declares war on Val and his posse.

It's at this point that we also start to see just how freaking awful the game's male protagonists can be towards the women in the game. In just a few conversations, Fenrich has called Fuka an idiot and stupid. Throughout the rest of the game, Fenrich in particular continually hands out verbal abuse to the rest of the gang. More on that later, but suffice it to say, it's done tongue-in-cheek, even if it doesn't always come across that way.

Val and his crew hand Fuka's forces a few defeats, including one wherein she has hired Death Emizel to be her lackey. Once beaten again, Emizel is forced by Val to examine his own spirit to determine if he really has it in him to kill someone as Death truly should. Emizel stumbles off contemplating this. Fuka throws a tantrum and declares that she hates this dream. Yes, Fuka, denying that she's died and gone to hell with the logic that she definitely would have gone to heaven had she really died (logic that Val sees as "airtight," much to Fenrich's annoyance), devoutly believes throughout most of the game that she is in a really bad dream. In any case, the team eventually fights her directly, and when she's been soundly beaten, she flees into a toxic dumping ground where humans have been storing their waste for quite some time. Val and Fenrich add the toxic dumping to the list of complaints they have with the President. Fuka, having fled into the area without knowing how dangerous it is, encounters some baddies and screams. Val to the rescue, as expected!

Fuka agrees to team up with Val and Fenrich to fight the unnatural slime monsters of the area, and it's a darn good thing, too. Fuka is one of the game's best melee fighters, especially with some sword skills. She has a great compliment of ranged attacks too, utilizing her patched-up baseball bat and prinny lackeys to make some colorful special attacks. The characters persevere. Fenrich and Val try to convince Fuka that she's really not dreaming and that she must submit to becoming a prinny trainee, but Fuka will have none of it. She decides that the presidential laws regarding prinnies are stupid, and takes up Val on his vow to take her to meet the President, if she's willing to work with him.

But before they can leave, a mysterious man appears from out of nowhere. Who is it but.... Axel? He declares that he's freed his former prisoners, and will ensure their freedom should they defeat Val and his ever-growing band of misfits. That's it for the episode, and for this week's story wrap-up so far.

The Chara World

One of my favorite parts about Disgaea 3 & 4 is the Chara World. Unlocked through the Senate, this allows your characters to boost certain abilities like their jumping power, learn skills already known by other teammates that surround them in the Cam-Pain HQ, or even inherit Evilties.

Basically, each character has a set number of times they can enter the Chara World per incarnation. Special story characters can reincarnate over and over again with no additional cost, making it easy for them to learn a few skills or boost some abilities, and then pop back in and reincarnate to do it all over again. Pretty soon, you'll have melee characters with some magic skills, mages who can suddenly use axe skills, or really, just about whatever suits your fancy. It's crazy addictive, and there's a fair bit of challenge to it, as the enemies within the Chara World are based entirely upon the level of the character you're using to enter it.

There are ten levels within Chara World. At the very beginning, you decide what you're going to focus upon increasing, or whether you'll be learning skills or evilties. At the ninth level, there will be a Mystery Room. In that Mystery Room is a vendor who will allow you to purchase upgraded abilities or new skills depending on your SP. Skills and abilities cost a damn fortune in mana compared to the normal skills a character would normally learn, so there's a certain risk/reward system in play that becomes the focus.

See, reincarnation saps your SP down to 0. Going into the Chara World with a level 1 character would seem to make sense, since you'll be facing really low-level enemies with hardly any challenge, so long as you've got a level 50 or so character who can do the grunt work. But this means that your reincarnated character will have very little mana going into the Mystery Room, even if you put him or her into the Evil Symbol that allows you to gain mana from another character's kills. This leaves you with basically one of two options (there are theoretically tons more, but these are how I like to do it):

1) Have a high amount of mana on a low leveled character. This is easy when you place the character on a mana pyramid square with a super high powered character as the leader. All you basically have to do is have that leader power through bunches of enemies, gain a ton of mana, and wait for the trickle-down effect. Easy as pie, especially if you keep that low-leveled character away from the evil symbol that grants EXP from its leader.

2) Try to get as much mana as possible while in the Chara World, and eliminate all the Geo Boxes within each level. Harder than it sounds, by far, but it can get you some basic level skills such as Heal, Fire, or Star without having to resort to that last bit.

As an extra bonus, finishing each map in the Chara World and eliminating all the Geo Boxes will allow you to improve your aptitudes. Now, I'm not entirely certain if this is accurate or not, but I believe aptitudes affect the general stat bonuses you would get from equipment. This makes it possible for a character to get more out of a weapon or armor piece than you usually would. So, for example, if Val hadn't gone through the Chara World, his aptitudes might all just be 100% - he gets exactly the bonuses listed from the equipment. But with some aptitudes boosted, he might get a sword and get 105% from its ATK bonus instead of the usual 100%. These aptitude increases are permanent, which is insanely cool and makes your characters pretty overpowered.

Whew. Let's call it a day for this look at Disgaea 4, shall we? Remember, questions, comments, anything, feel free to post 'em below. And if you haven't had a chance, check out my prior blog on general gameplay tips as well as some KILLER information from Drac96 on power leveling.

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Tips for any Disgaea players

I'm hoping to update this and eventually turn it into a FAQ here on Giant Bomb, so if anyone has any tips or advice, please feel free to chime in.

General Combat Tips

Concentrate on weapon specialties at first

If you go into your status screen and press the right analog stick to the right, you'll get all sorts of useful and useless information about each character. One thing you'll want to pay attention to is weapon specialties. At least at first, it's a good idea to equip that character with his specialized weapons, as he or she will be able to gain skills for those weapons through the Evilty dealer. Which leads me to my next point...

Keep updated on your skills and/or evilties

Each character has different skills and Evilties you can obtain depending on your class or if the character is specialized (storyline-wise). I like to get a couple of basic skills, upgrade them once or twice, and then focus on obtaining the unique Evilties. Some of them are ridiculously awesome, like the ability to absorb enemy stats after defeating them (which is a temporary boost, but still useful).

For mage characters, I tend to avoid boosting their Evilties until I've got a good amount of range and power on their primary spells. It also doesn't hurt to reincarnate these characters several times when you've got the extra SP and have a powerful leveling area. Reincarnating a character allows them to keep their prior skills and learn new ones from a different class. All mages should pick up the Healer's skills at some point (though not a necessity, it really helps) as well as at least one or two other mage abilities like Fire or Ice. Please note that reincarnation is really not necessary if you just want to play through the main storyline first - this is all just hypothetically assuming you're going to get into the deeper endgame stuff.

Learn the basics of power leveling

This is an essential for making grinding far less aggravating. Basically what you're looking for is a level with tightly grouped enemies and a potentially quick win. Level 5-2 is my favorite so far, as it has groups of enemies packed together, sitting on one color grid with two +50% EXP boxes just off to the side waiting to be tossed down. You have several ways to power level here, but the easiest is to stack your characters to a height of 10 with your most powerful human character at the bottom. Then proceed to whip some monsters' asses! You can lift and throw enemies into each other to create more powerful enemies, which can be tricky if you're underpowered or don't have a lot of HP, but if you do, it'll level your weaker characters up fast, because they'll gain all the EXP from the kill without being in harm's way, as your bottom character will take all the damage for you.

If this isn't providing you with fast leveling for your powerful characters, you can go to the Senate and pass a "More powerful enemies" bill, which will make them stronger but also give you more experience for killing 'em. Just remember to continually save your progress if you go this route, as you can create some awfully damn powerful enemies pretty fast.

GB Member Drac96 Chimes In On Leveling in 5-2

"Also this is just from researching on forums and such. 5-2 is one of the best places to level. Apparently the exp is its best when you pass 8 stronger enemy bills. This makes them level 99 and creates the optimal experience. In previous games it was believed that this was a glitch that caused them to give the exp of level 300 enemies. I don't know for sure, but I don't think this is the case now. It has something to do with the experience leveling off from 99-299, so you'd only get more exp when the enemies are 301. The method I use on the level is have a runner like my thief go to the right and throw the block near my base. Then I have another character break it. This makes basically the whole level 150% exp through a geochain."

Thanks Drac96!

General Gameplay Tips

Item management is crucial in the Item World

Always, always, ALWAYS keep an Mr. Gency Exit in your prime inventory if you're going spelunking in the Item World. You can use them at any time, so when you're facing some tough enemies, always keep one character in reserve to bail you out in a jam. All he needs to do is pop up, use the item, and blammo, you're home safe.

Now, other item management tips. I really recommend passing as many "More Expensive Item" bills as you can afford in order to keep a better stock of higher end healing items on hand. You'll still usually get the basic healing items in the store as well and you can always pass cheaper item bills later if need be. Keep your primary inventory stocked full of healing and SP recovery items that will heal your most powerful characters and forego keeping anything less powerful. Unless you've taught a few characters Espoir (the game's status-curing skill), you'll want to keep a couple of Fairy Dusts as well as a couple of high-end thieving items (if you have a thief with a reasonable level). By keeping your primary inventory full of useful items you can actually use, your loot will go straight to your secondary inventory, which can carry far more but is only accessible in peaceful areas (i.e., your main base, Mystery Rooms, and Item Town). Always remember to switch out junk you can't use with stuff you can in those peaceful areas so that you're never caught with your pants down.

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Sparky's Update - Week 1 of Disgaea 4

I'm cashin' checks and breakin' necks in a nearly all-Disgaea 4 week of gaming here, folks. In honor of the football season starting up, I implore you to ignore the TV completely, grab those pork rinds and beer, and settle in for a long fall's read on what might be the most tragically ignored game of the week here on Giant Bomb. The format of my adventures in Disgaea 4 is blatantly stolen from Dan Kempster's "Enduring Final Fantasy VII," which is a MUCH better read here on Giant Bomb. Get to crackin' on reading that if you haven't already - and if you haven't already, for shame!

OF SARDINES AND MEN

Disgaea 4 starts up with its usual bizarre J-Pop/anime-styled intro video, and I"m immediately reliving my ultimate love-hate relationship with this series. For the record, I've played each one of the proper Disgaea games. I've put in close to probably 100-120 hours in each, and though I don't go completely all-out in finding every legendary weapon or maxing them out to level 100, I'd consider myself a Disgaea pro of sorts. After about thirty seconds of that terrible intro video, I skip forward to the main screen and select a new game.

We are quickly introduced to Valvatorez, a Prinny Instructor in Hades who is obsessed with... sardines? And by obsessed, I mean totally bananas about them in true, annoying anime-fashion. I've said it before, but if you tried to make a drinking game out of how often Valvatorez (who I'll refer to as Val from here on out) says "sardine," you'd kill your liver. Anyways, Val's sinister right hand werewolf Fenrich guides him towards completing his goals for the day, insinuating blatantly he wished his master was back to his former glory as a tyrant of the Netherworld.

Anywho, Val greets his students, the Prinnies, but not before gaining a couple of new members for his team. The training consists of basic Disgaea 4 levels, teaching the user how to move and attack, utilize special moves, and the sort of basic know-how to play a game of this sort. It also broaches upon more advanced Disgaea skills, such as the team attack (which really isn't so advanced, as you just group characters next to one another and make a normal attack) and how to utilize and destroy geo blocks and geo panels. The geo panels are colored panels on the battlefield that have special effects. Essentially, a Geo Block will grant those effects, but only when on one of the colored panels. So, say for example, a geo block was in play on the map that had an Attack +50% effect. On a normal, non-colored title, it wouldn't do anything or add any bonuses. But if it were on a colored tile, all tiles of that color would have that effect. These statuses aren't always positive, and can sometimes lead to much more dangerous or even invincible enemies. But by taking the geo blocks out of play, the enemies lose those bonus effects, rendering them much easier to kill.

The graduation of the prinnies is a happy affair, with Val promising each graduate a single sardine for passing. The prinnies are abruptly kidnapped by a mysterious force. Val, who is also obsessed with keeping promises, vows that he will get the prinnies back so that he may fulfill his promise of one sardine per prinny. Yes, it's stupid. Trust me, you don't play a Nippon-Ichi game for its great storytelling.

Val and Fenrich approach the warden of Hades, Axel, a returning character from the Disgaea series. Axel explains that the "corruptorment" has ordered the death of all prinnies because Hades is becoming too crowded. Prinnies, I should explain, are the souls of humans atoning for their sins... as explosive penguins with a love of the word "dood." Val tricks the death squads sent by the President's son Death Emizel (the embodiment of Death, though he has yet to take a single life - I know, I know, the story gets even worse) into believing Axel is with them, and Axel is supposedly slain (a repeating joke throughout the game). Val and Fenrich take on Emizel and defeat him, naturally, after a five or six stage chapter.

At this point in the game, most everything becomes available in terms of starter shops and the Item World. I've taken a little time to grind level 1-2 and 1-4 a couple of times, but now I jump into the Item World on a very basic sword in order to pump up its stats, do some leveling, and grab some loot. I'm given an Mr. Gency Exit, which enables the player to leave the Item World when used, though it does have its disadvantages (we'll get to that possibly in a far-flung Sparky's Update when I feel like explaining the post-game a bit more in-depth). I've also gone to the game's Senate to create a couple of new characters, namely a healer and a Wind and Fire mage. These characters are the bread and butter of the early game for me, so I take care to assign them prime spots on my team, rearranging characters as I see fit and making sure I keep them in play for the first couple of chapters.

My romp through the Item World introduces me to a few notable changes in the game. First, the Item World now has branching paths, where you can choose to focus on leveling the item or increasing its Residents. An Item's Residents give it long-term benefits and can be transferred item to item, but it's not something I really need to worry about in a low level item. I focus on leveling up the weapon, burning through the various stages without much problem. I also find that there are a few new bonuses in the Mystery Rooms, such as a character that will give you an extra Mr. Gency item. Pretty cool stuff. The game also includes a bit of a tutorial on certain Item World particulars, a first for the series as the Item World is usually left unexplained past its initial shopkeeper's explanation. Nice, but not really necessary for an old pro like me.

At every ten levels of the Item World is an Item General (or variant, such as an Item King). This is a more powerful character that acts as a mid-level boss for the Item World. After defeating the Item General, I go to Item Town, which is essentially a breather for the Item World, and allows you to heal up and either continue forward in the Item World or return to the home base. Since I've leveled my party up fairly decently and obtained a few nice loot items, I decided to call it quits and head back to base.

Let's go ahead and call that the first entry, then. I'm actually pretty far into the game, at about Chapter 5 or so, but I don't want to overwhelm you with an even bigger wall o' text. Hit me up if you have any questions, comments, or thoughts, and if I can explain something further, I will.

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Sparky's Update - Do the Donkey Konga! Cha cha cha!

This week's Sparky Buzzsaw gaming blog is going to revolve around primarily two games - Hector Episode 2 and the immensely enjoyable Donkey Kong Country Returns, but I'll also wax a little poetic about the simple joys of Monster Hunter 3. Grab your beer caps and your Slim Jims!

DONKEY KONG COUNTRY RETURNS SHOULD BE ILLEGAL

...and I'll tell you why. I've been thinking a lot about video games lately in terms of cars. Halo is the Hummer of cars. It's loud, brash, utilitarian, and a hell of a lot of fun. Monkey Island is the old VW Golf or GTI. Sure, it's old, but it was a fun car to drive then and it's still a hell of a fun car to drive today. Starcraft 2 is a BMW sedan - it sort of looks similar to its predecessors, but it's all the little changes and improvements that have added up to become one fantastic car.

Well, Donkey Kong Country Returns is that late 60's muscle car you've been rebuilding in the shed for the last decade. Sure, it's not as pretty as the newer models, nor is it completely without its problems. But from the minute you get in until the minute you come to a screeching halt back outside your house, you have this big shit-eating grin on your face because it's just so damn much fun to drive.

Donkey Kong Country Returns is not a game filled with innovations or the shiniest new technology. But holy hell, it is incredibly fun, difficult in all the deliciously right ways, and it's a throwback without feeling antiquated or irrelevant. This is, frankly, the sort of game that made me a lifelong gamer in the first place. The art style is superb. They've taken the fundamentals of Donkey Kong Country 1, 2, and 3, and added all sorts of neat new visual effects and spiffed them up for a modern generation. It's as though this generation of games had followed right after the days of the SNES with all the new shiny graphical capabilities of the Wii. Now, I know that's not supposedly saying much when you stack it up against the Modern Warfare 2's or the Crysis's of the world, but anyone with a heart and soul and a fondness for great classic Nintendo style will immediately see what I'm talking about.

The details are really what sets the game apart from its predecessors. The gameplay is roughly about the same as it was in the days of the SNES - you won't find too much different in terms of controls or the basic way you play the game. But they've taken everything up a notch in terms of the design. Certain parts of the background become interactive at times, leading to some nifty hidden bananas or other collectibles. You can actually shift to a section of the background further back than the front stage, which doesn't sound like much when I explain it here, but it leads to some ingenious puzzles and tense gameplay moments. And as the game progresses, the backgrounds become more of a central focus. One of the most brilliantly designed levels is one where you're racing across a stage as tidal waves are coming in. You actually have to hide behind rocks, time your movements just so, and avoid baddies all at the same time to dodge the waves. It's intense, sweet-looking, and indicative of the type of genius design that has gone into all the elements of this game.

I'll review it at some point, but suffice it to say, this is a 5 star game for me, without question. The difficulty can be a little rough (and at times, inconsistent - you'll earn a crap ton of lives on certain easier levels, but other times, you'll be needing every single one of them on some of the more frustrating later levels), and sometimes the motion controlled movements are a shade imprecise, but other than that, it's simply one of the best games I've played this year and certainly among the very best 2D platformers I've ever seen.

CLASSIC ADVENTURE GAMING IN A SHINY NEW BOX

Hector: Episode 2 is pretty similar to the first episode, minus a bit of character swapping here and there. It's a classic "you can't die" point-and-click adventure game, with all the great and bad that comes with that label. There's genuine joy to be had in its fairly simple puzzle solving, and there's not much pixel hunting to be found here. The graphics and objects are distinctive enough that even a guy with my vision never had any trouble finding clues, objects, or anything in the environments I needed.

The graphics are growing on me. I think with a couple more guys to add in a few more frames of animation (especially when walking), they'd actually be pretty damn good. The script is solid. There's some genuinely funny moments, even if the humor's a bit juvenile (that doesn't really bug me, but it probably will irk some people).

The only real problem with Hector: Ep. 2 is that its small team makes it harder to stack against the likes of Telltale's other games. It also won't hold a candle against, say, something like Heavy Rain, but it's not supposed to. This is the adventure game equivalent of cotton candy - it's delicious, but it's not really meant to be a full-on meal. I was also fairly pissed that buying Hector: Episode 1 did not entitle me to Ep. 2 or 3, but now you have the option of buying all three at once.

LITTLE TIDBITS

Monster Hunter 3 on the Wii didn't exactly generate a ton of buzz here in the West, and it's understandable. The game is, essentially, all the combat and gathering bits of an MMORPG without any real story or a seriously inhabited multiplayer mode. That being said, it's still a very fun game. There's a simplistic joy to it. For some reason, I keep thinking of it as the RPG equivalent of Animal Crossing. If you go into it looking to play for hours, you're going to be sorely disappointed. If you go into it looking for something to entertain you for 15 minute chunks over a long period of time, it's absolutely fantastic.

In other mediums, namely books, I've been rereading Scott Lynch's superb Locke Lamora novels. If you haven't given them a shot, I highly recommend them. They're clever, very entertaining, and super addictive. I can't wait for the next one to come out. I suspect after that I'll be looking to sate my need for a good horror novel or two.

If you're like me and interested in the slightest in Forza 4, go to Giant Bomb mod PSEG's blog right now and read up on his tips for maximizing your potential going into Forza 4. He details what cars will be transferrable (only four! Boo!), what will happen with your driver level, and many other great details. Get on it!

Next week, I'll probably be starting a small section on Disgaea 4, which comes out this week. I'll be cataloguing my travels through that game, hopefully both for amusement and to drum up interest in a great series of games. Until then, keep it classy.

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Sparky's Update - Eat my shorts... short update, that is.

Worst. Title. Ever.

Brief update today, because I haven't been playing a ton of games outside of the abysmal Record of Agarest War, which I've given up on for now. Here's a brief look at some game and book related stuff.

-Joe Abercrombie's novels turn out to be absolutely fantastic. Stick with 'em, as The Blade Itself doesn't get off to a great start. The Last Argument of Kings is one of the best fantasy novels I've read, and that's saying something.

-Beat the original Portal, months after beating the second. Not much to say that hasn't been said - it's fun and silly in all the best ways.

-Been playing a bit of Left 4 Dead 2 and Just Cause 2, which are some mighty fine games.

-Looking forward to getting Disgaea 4 in a week and a half, and am thinking I will devote part of Sparky's Update to my Disgaea 4 meanderings, as those games seemingly last me about a year or so. I figure I'd do it like a small nod towards Dan Kempster's "Enduring Final Fantasy VII."

-And finally, does anyone out there know where I could buy an Aperture Laboratories t-shirt in a 4x size?

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Sparky's Update - A Fistful of Games!

Hi diddly ho, el Giant Bomberinos! It's your favorite neighbor, Neddiddl.... errrrr.... Sparky! It's a lovely day - for beatin' down some fools digitally! This week, I played a whole bunch of games, which I'll briefly be covering here, along with my thoughts on LOTRO's free-to-play system. Grab your butts!

ALPHA PROTOCOL

Sigh...OK. Alpha Protocol is a mess. There are two great ideas - the conversation system, and its cause-and-effect nature. Both really are game-changers in terms of how I want to see these types of things done in games in the future. Absolutely everything else though? Completely and totally subpar.

I've written a review on the game here on Giant Bomb, and I don't feel to reiterate every point I've made. But let me give you a brief summary. The controls are awful. The combat is completely unrefined and counters just about every skill point and upgrade you put into your weapons. The art style, music, and sound effects are bland. Almost nothing about this game is memorable or decent, save for those two points I mentioned above. It's a disastrous game that received no support after its release, meaning no patches, no fixes, nothing. Everything that was broken about the game at launch is still broken now.

Oh, one other thing. If you're an achievement whore? Ridiculously easy achievements ahoy.

BURNOUT PARADISE

I might still be pissy with Sony over the whole PSN debacle from a couple of months ago, but that certainly hasn't stopped me from taking advantage of their sales (albeit with PSN prepaid cards this time). Chief among those purchases has been Burnout Paradise for seven or eight bucks. I hadn't played a Burnout game since the third one, which I felt needed to be rectified, especially at that bargain price. I'm damn sure glad I bit.

In a weird way, though, Burnout Paradise has done more to piss me off than any game in recent memory, though to be fair, it's not actually the in-game content that upset me. First, in order to download the thing, I had to clear off space from the PS3's hard drive. Irritating, but not a big deal. I had some PS1 games saved on there that I can just download again later. That cleared up enough hard drive space to get the game installed - or so I thought. When the game finished downloading, my PS3 kindly informed me once again that I needed to clear yet more hard drive space in order to further install the son of a bitch - and the second install size was still freaking enormous. This isn't new to me. As I've mentioned, I've downloaded a few PS1 and PSN arcade games, but their install sizes when downloaded were so small as to be nearly pointless. This was not. I cleared off more games from my hard drive, but was still shy a gig or two. I ended up having to go through each and every game data file to uninstall the biggest ones I wasn't planning on playing anytime soon.

It really pisses me off that a) Sony doesn't lump the download and installation into one file size and process, b) I have huge game installs on my PS3 for games sent out on Blu-ray discs, and c) that I didn't have enough liquor to get piss drunk throughout the whole process. Seriously, a bottle of rum and I probably wouldn't have given two shits about the whole thing, but as it was, when I was finally able to boot up Burnout Paradise, I was completely pissed off.

And then? The game made everything all better. It's a pretty great game. The racing is intense and satisfying, the "wreaking damage" mode when you press R1 and L1 is about as addictive as crack, and the takedown mode is still a blast. I'm about five hours into it, and the races are becoming quite a bit more difficult for me, but that's okay. There's so much else to see and do that having problems with one small portion of it feels like no problem at all.

My only complaint with the game is that I wish there was a way to navigate previous events through a menu, with the option to quick travel to them. Also, a way to repeat events you've just lost without having to drive back would have been good. All in all, though, it's a spectacular game, especially at that price. I just hope next time I play a game on my PS3, I don't have to sacrifice 90% of the other games I love just to play it.

RECORD OF AGAREST WAR

Let's keep this brief. You know those times when you hear a mass of voices saying how mediocre or terrible a game is, but you want to believe otherwise and so end up buying the game based on the one lone voice in the crowd who says, "Hey, that game's pretty good?" And you know how after you start playing that game, you realize you really want to hit that stupid fucking reviewer over the head with a brick? That game for me right now is Record of Agarest War. Remember everything I said about Yakuza 4 being sexist? Yeah, fuck that. True, I knew the game's reputation going into it, but Record of Agarest War makes Yakuza 4 look as progressive as California.

Plus, the gameplay? Just horrible. Oh, it has all the proper elements of a SRPG, but it's like the did the absolute bare-assed minimum amount of work on the game before shipping it out. I think the publisher's mantra must have been, "Take the money and run."

HECTOR: BADGE OF CARNAGE

Here's the thing about Hector: Badge of Carnage. For better or worse, it is 100% faithful to classic point and click adventures. For some people like me, that's a great thing, even fantastic. And if you're looking at a modern nod to the days of LucasArts point-and-click games (or mid-to-late 90's Sierra, when they adopted the LucasArts motif of no-death, no-loss adventure games), it's fantastic. Hell, even gamers new to the point and click adventure genre will find a lot to love about it. But there's a strict adherence to the genre's staples that might make some newcomers wonder what the hell the fuss was about. And you know? I sure couldn't blame them.

You find inventory items. You combine inventory items in increasingly bizarre ways to solve puzzles that should be solvable in much more logical ways. There are dialogue trees a-plenty. Environments are generally static, with usually only one to two NPC's per screen to talk to. Hell, there are even genuine moments of pixel hunting. If all of that gives you goosepimples the way it does me, you'll want to check it out. If none of that appeals to you, this might not be the game for you.

Oh, and where the hell are the rest of the episodes?

LORD OF THE RINGS ONLINE - THOUGHTS ON THE FREE TO PLAY SYSTEM

When Turbine announced Lord of the Rings Online was going free to play, I thought the game was on its last legs. I didn't understand that it was a smart move from a business perspective, because I idiotically forgot how people will actually pay real cash for the most inane bullshit items on the face of the Earth (or Middle-Earth, as it were).

That's not to say that the free-to-play system in LOTRO is a bad thing. In fact, if you're looking for a F2P game, this is an absolutely incredible opportunity to play through the bulk of the main game (minus its expansions). They've included all the main quests, as well as enough side quests to help gamers level enough to stay just competent enough to finish the main plot... with the right help from other players. Of course, that help is going to be required regardless, since many of the quests require a group effort to have a chance of succeeding.

I've paid for a subscription, and as such, I've seen what all becomes available. Basically, you get a little more of everything - more quests, more outfit slots, more inventory space, more characters, and so on. You also get 500 or so free Turbine points a month, their currency to purchase things from the online store. Nothing is ever quite as cheap as I'd hoped it would be. Costumes can cost upwards of 2000 points (with no stat increases whatsoever!), while actual real equipment can make that seem paltry. Some skills and boosts are pretty decent ways to spend those points, though, and there are new sales pretty frequently. Permanant stat and skill increases are fantastic, as they add up very quickly and are usually fairly cheap. One online purchase I've made good use of has been additional fast-travel slots, which have made navigating Middle-Earth much speedier.

The biggest perk of a VIP membership is the quests, without question. Having the main quest line available in a free-to-play system is nice, but the lore and writing of LOTRO is so solid that having all the quest lines available is a must for me. I loved Tolkien's works, and while I have my issues with boredom in MMORPG's (seriously, fetch/kill quests? Eat me), I love seeing the attention to detail Turbine has put into this game.

So while I'm still not cool with microtransactions and the cost of items in the Turbine store, I've gotta say, I appreciate what they've done with the F2P system. It's brought in some new players and it's big enough that gamers will get a good taste of whether or not they want to plunk down the cash for the full experience.

AND THAT'S ABOUT IT...

I played some other games too, most notably World of Goo and Defense Grid. I don't feel either really needs a paragraph unto itself, so I'll just say I immensely enjoy both. I also started to play Monster Hunter 3, which I don't feel I've delved into deep enough to warrant a decent write-up. And finally, I played a whole bunch of Mario Kart Wii, which is one of my all-time favorite games. So glad to have my Wii back up and running - I know, I know, that's not the popular opinion.

This coming week, I'm hoping to get caught up on my Wii backlog, including Monster Hunter and maybe Goldeneye. I'll also try to continue stomaching Record of Agarest War. We shall see.

In the meantime, I recommend checking out Giant Bomb user Egge's latest blog. Pretty damn well written.

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Sparky's Update - next-gen systems, final thoughts on Yakuza 4

Truth be told, I haven't been playing many games over the last couple of weeks, due to a problem with my glasses. That problem was resolved yesterday, so hopefully I should have more progress in individual games for next week. On with the update.

THE MOST APOLOGETIC BAD GUYS YOU'LL EVER MEET

A numbered rating system of any sort just sort of falls flat when it comes time to write a review about Yakuza 4 (and one will be eventually incoming). It's certainly a very fun and engaging game, filled to the brim with all sorts of content to justify the purchase. And its core systems are pretty good. I like the RPG mechanics in regards to how you build your characters up throughout the game. The combat could stand to shy away from the animation-driven moves that start to feel awkward when you really get into the guts of the later game, but it's surprisingly fun to beat the holy hell out of opponents. There are an absolute ton of substories (basically sidequests) to complete, many of which are intriguing in their own right.

But in a lot of ways, the game feels too entrenched in its own past, both in terms of the story and the gameplay. There's this feeling permeating throughout the entire time I played that this wasn't quite designed to be a giant current-gen game. It felt like some of it was - the character facial models are superb and the CGI is shockingly good. But then little details start to fall through the cracks. NPC's have limited ranges of animation. Special moves cut to canned animations that don't quite jive with what was just happening. The little details of the city's design start to feel flat and regurgitated. All of these sound like little details, but when you start adding them up, it leads to this really jarring feeling that the game's basic core is still very much last-generation.

If you want to think about it metaphorically, Yakuza 4 is like a poorly kept 60's muscle car. It's still damn fun to drive, but once you get it up to 70 miles an hour, little niggling problems keep it from being what you know it could be.

I've also talked at length about Yakuza 4's approach to women, and my distaste for it. That's something I feel can't be properly expressed with a numbered review. How do you convey in a 3 star rating that it's one of the most sexist games I've ever played without hoping that the person looking at the review will actually read it to find out why? How do you explain to them that it's a hell of a fun game, but it needs serious retooling in its next incarnation? And believe me, when there's a Yakuza 5 (and there damn well better be), I'll be taking a look. But if it feels remotely like this stubborn, cranky old car of a game, I'm not sure it'll be worth a purchase.

WHAT I WANT FROM FUTURE CONSOLES

I'm seriously starting to get pissy with my PS3. It's this magnifient beast of a machine, but it's time for the next generation, says I. What's my latest irritation? Storage space. Anyone with a modest collection of PS3 games and an Internet connection will tell you the same thing - no matter the size of the goddamn hard drive, the PS3 chews through storage space like Cookie Monster at a bakery. It led me to wonder what it is exactly I want from the next generation of Sony and Microsoft consoles. Note that I'm leaving out the Wii U, as I no longer feel like the Wii is a direct competitor of the two. Well, it kinda is, but I think Nintendo is heading in another direction with their consoles. Whether that'll be to their benefit or not will be seen eventually, but for right now, I just can't hold it up against the two.

1) Bigger and better everything. I want more hard drive space in everything, and the option to add external hard drives without mess or fuss. I want big goddamn graphics cards that developers can actually work with, not some damn obtuse concept of a graphical powerhouse that has every game developer banging their head up against a wall. I want motherboards that make fatherboards weep for shame of their lack of manliness.

2) Cable integration. Let's face it. Sooner or later, Microsoft and Sony are going to start offering some way to connect to cable television through their systems. I doubt it'll be this generation, but I'd bet dollars to doughnuts it'll be in the next. Is it something I'll use? Fuck yeah, especially if it's cheaper than my regular satellite now (it can't get much higher).

3) Refined d-pads and grips for controllers. Forget the Six-Axcess nonsense and focus on making an ultra-responsive controller. I don't think either company needs to change much in terms of layout. Microsoft could possibly widen the bumpers just a hair and maybe reduce the width of the controller just a smidge. Sony should think about making triggers that actually feel like triggers (in a FPS-heavy environment, it makes a difference). Both should include rechargeable battery packs via plug-in cords standard.

4) Find some way to do away with huge-ass game installs for Sony. Seriously, Gran Turismo 5 and Yakuza 4? Fuck you.

5) Expand upon cloud storage ideas for both systems. Pretty self-explanatory.

6) Resizable font sizes. Please, please, PLEASE include this, especially you, Sony.

AND THAT'S ABOUT IT

This coming week, I expect to play some Alpha Protocol and possibly Burnout Paradise. Expect some thoughts on the state of Lord of the Rings Online next week, as I sing the praises of a free-to-play system and curse the generic feel of fetch and slaughter quests.

If you're looking for a good read, I've stated it before, but Gamer_152's blog is pretty damn great. I may not agree with him on all his points 100% of the time, but that's a good thing. Give it a shot.

And if anybody out there cares to answer a question of the week, here you go. Do you have any serious irritations with the current-gen systems in terms of hardware?

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Sparky's Update 2.03 - Trails in the Sky, Yakuza 4's sexism

Oh, you startled me. I didn't see you standing there! Well, I'm Professor Sparky_Buzzsaw, and today, we've got three games to discuss, albeit probably a bit more briefly this week. Take a load off, and sit back for a spell. Shit's about to go down!

CLASSIC VANILLA FLAVOR

There's not a whole lot that will make Trails in the Sky for the PSP stand out to long-term RPG gamers. It only really does one thing uniquely well, and that's it's magic system. Does that keep it from being a bad game? No. But don't go into it expecting anything more than a truly vanilla turn-based anime-RPG, and you won't be disappointed.

It never does anything awful with the genre. The turn based combat features some nice elements, namely the ability to interrupt the turn order with super moves, once charged. These moves can turn the tide of more difficult battles in a heartbeat. Beyond that, the magic system in the game is superb. After each battle, you collect any number of magical stones from ten or so categories, ranging from Fire, Earth, Water, or Time to more unusual (and welcome) categories like Mirage. These stones, in turn, can be used in several different ways in various shops. You can either sell them for mira (the game's equivalent of coin) or use them to unlock orbments, the game's Materia of sorts. These orbments can add spells, increase stats, or give some unique abilities, such as being able to see enemies on the field from a longer distance. Each character has very specific orbments that can be slotted, with (I believe) up to about eight orbments per character. The main character can equip any kind of orbment, making her a robust customizable character that can specialize in just about anything. Joshua, the main character's adopted brother, usually focuses on Time orbments, making him a faster, more agile all-around fighter. It's a cool system that rewards the player for battling mobs, and it's one I'm looking forward to exploring more.

Beyond that, though, the game just feels bland. The story is generic, the settings are uninspired and typical RPG fare, and the other great system of the game (a job board that gives you quests) is severely hampered by incredibly tiny writing that renders it practically useless. But what irks me is the lackadaisical nature of the characters involved. It really is a case of "insert anime stereotypes" here. You've got the plucky, heartfelt, dimwitted girl. You've got the quiet, reserved, noble boy with a mysterious past. You've got the perverted sex object. It's almost infuriating in a way to have to listen to any of the crap these characters say, because while I may not know the specifics, I know practically how each character will act at any given moment, and it drives any fun that might have been gained by the story right out. It's too bad, too, because the game is built on such a solid foundation. I'm still relatively early in, though, and I plan to stick with it to see if any of these thoughts change. Hopefully they do.

SEXISM IN YAKUZA 4

There's no clever title for this one. In a way, even more so than the Tomb Raiders of the world, Yakuza 4 might be the single most sexist game I've ever played.

The hostess clubs are an easy target. I didn't feel comfortable with them at all at any point. Just because the woman isn't paid to have sex doesn't mean she isn't being whored out. It's as simple as that. While I liked Akiyama in general (he really is a well designed character), his hostess club managing gave him more than just a surface level of sleaze. I get that this is going to piss off some of the Japan-ophiles out there, but look - a woman getting paid to entertain men and give them some sort of fantasy is completely and totally sexist.

Now, the attitude towards women in general in the game is even worse. There's a level of subservience to them, of being the playthings to the men of the game that gives me this icky, detestable feeling in the bottom of my gut. And why do I feel that way? Because I'm actually having fun with the game. I hate that a game as great as this can be so intent on sticking to views of women that should never be acceptable.

And I hate it because I won't put it down despite these flaws. Maybe then, my cussing out this game's sexism is really just me flailing at myself for not standing up for things I believe in. Maybe I should be selling this game back to appease my moralistic nature. Fuck, I don't know. It's a great game, but as a social exploration of Japan, sometimes the sexism makes it incredibly bad.

RETURN OF THE HEMI

Awful pun there. Just truly awful. Anyways, I've revisited Gran Turismo 5 this week in an effort to appease the racing game fan within me. I was surprised at the number of updates the game has received, and after reading the patch notes and playing the game for a bit, I was pretty thrilled. A few things have been fixed (GT TV, namely), a few gimmicks added to keep me racing (rewards for seasonal races like outfits, horns, and paint schemes), and a definite feel that the developers are actively trying to polish the game. It's still not up to par with the amount of fun I have with the Forza series, due mostly to the lack of an auction house and customizable vinyls. But it's come a ways, and it shows great promise for future updates.

The seasonal events are still the best part about the racing experience in the game, and the sheer number of cars available is still staggering. But the lack of things to do with most of the cars in the game is still infuriating. I'm still hunting only for the top-tiered cars in any event, making most every other car eligible for those races useless. Want to race in the classic Lamborghini races? You'd better have the dough for the very best Lamborghini, or else your car is going to be completely useless, even tuned.

WHEREIN I RAMBLE ABOUT WHAT I'M GOING TO PLAY

Really, the games mentioned above are about it for this week. I might or might not delve into Record of Agarest War, which came up on sale on Amazon this last week. I'll probably be playing a few Steam games as well.

And that's going to do it for this week. Adios.

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Sparky's Update 2.02 - Operation Babe Hunt, LEGO Branagh

Pssst.... you. Yeah, you. Come over here a sec. You wanna read a blog, man? It's real good, too. Oh, just ignore that "Written in Japan" label. That's nothin', baby! This is 100% authentic genuine Sparky_Buzzsaw gold! You read this blog, I guarantee you, you won't be sorry. Only $20, man. Well, okay, it's free today only, because I like you. And, well, because I can't technically charge you. Just keep it on the DL, kid. You come back next week, and I'll hook you up again, how's that for a deal? Huh? Huh?

Thanks to radical user c0l0nelp0c0rn1, I now have mastery over headers. Booyah, I say! BOOYAH!

I BEAT HOW MANY GAMES LAST WEEK, PART DEUX!

In my haste to bring you only the finest in Internet banality, I'm afraid I made an egregious error last week. You see, I forgot one of the better games I played and beat that week, and it's a damn shame, too, because it certainly didn't deserve it. That game is LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4.

What? Oh shut up.

Let's get some things straight. I'm a grown-ass man. I'm nearly thirty. I have a degree in English, having specialized in creative writing and Shakespeare. You could say I'm kind of a bookworm, but that doesn't really do it justice. I crave reading. I love it beyond every other physical and mental activity, and that includes 2-for-1 days at the Bunny Ranch. I read books the way a man dying of thirst would drink a glass of water. I say all that because you should know one thing - I very rarely ever read anything meant for young adults. I have a couple of childhood favorites I revisit from time to time, like C.S. Lewis or The Hobbit. But the vast majority of my reading definitely encompasses the adult side of things. Harry Potter was one large exception to this rule. I started reading them thanks to (what else?) the recommendation of a beautiful, sharply intelligent woman. Although I never quite grew passionate about the novels, I did enjoy several of them and read the series in rapid succession.

I don't find Hogwarts particularly endearing, nor do I have any great love for the characters or events of the Harry Potter novels. But the novels have an undeniable charm. I enjoyed the novels from a distance, you might say. They were a Sunday afternoon's bag of popcorn - nothing I could survive on, but certainly a nice snack for my mind. I think much the same about the prior LEGO games. They won't be in my top 10 favorites of all time by a longshot, but the games are great fun for a short while and make for a nice break now and again.

And really, that's all I wanted out of LEGO Harry Potter. Lo and behold, it delivered. Yes, at it's core, this is still very similar to the prior LEGO games. The characters play along similar lines, the controls feel very much alike, and the assets are essentially just re-skins. But for what it is, LEGO Harry Potter is a very enjoyable game. It has the trademark Traveller's Tales wit in its cutscenes, but what was most surprising was the clever nature of the game itself. Instead of focusing in on combat, LEGO Harry Potter instead centers itself around puzzle-solving. There's nothing too terribly complex in regards to the main game itself, but finding all the little collectibles and secret hidey-holes can be surprisingly challenging and enjoyable. It never borders on frustrating, save for a few odd glitches here and there, like potion items not cropping up when they should.

I beat the game at about 40% completion early last week, and completely forgot I did so within the span of that week described in my prior blog. Don't take that to mean that the game is somehow inferior to the others. It's not, and it's totally a blast. I'm not sure how much you could take away from it without having either read the novels or seen the movies, but if you even remotely enjoyed either, it's well worth a look.

OLD WORLD BLUES? MORE LIKE "OLD WORLD.... GOODS!"

I did end up buying Old World Blues, the latest DLC for Fallout: New Vegas. I'm not going to spoil anything here, but I wanted to give some brief thoughts. It's pretty hilarious, with some great dialogue and fantastic voicework all around. The level cap increase is great, and the new traits are interesting. No really interesting selectable perks this time around, though there is a ton of experience to be gained in Old World Blues as well as a few not-so-hidden perks to be gained from combat. Some of those new combat perks are fantastic and really useful, while others are sort of... well, bizarre, much like the rest of the DLC. The weapons are about as strange as they come, with a few great additions and a fantastic bit of armor if you're willing to do a little extra work. All in all, I think it's about equal to the last bit of DLC.

IT ENDED. IT FINALLY ENDED.

Here's my biggest complaint about Persona 3 Portable right off the bat - it's about twice as long as it needs to be to remain fun and interesting. Does that make it a bad game? No. But by the end of it, I was sick to death of fighting in the similar feeling dungeon levels time after time. After a while, the game just became a ridiculous grind to the end.

I think the game could've benefitted greatly from spreading its dialogue around a bit. I know, that would have fucked up our beloved Persona gameplay. But the game could have done with a lot less word vomit each month of gameplay and given each week more chunks of the story in order to keep the gamer's interest. The story is bizarro-Japanese, of course, as is the music, the settings, and the dialogue. There's a ton of meat to the game, with all sorts of crafting, Persona management (essentially monsters that fight for you and can be bred or changed slightly), and many friendships to be gained or lost. It's a complex RPG in the best ways possible, but after a while, it does get pretty old. I'm going to be glad to be moving on, but I highly recommend it for anyone who is looking for a lengthy RPG and has a clue as to what kind of weird shit they'll be getting into.

One thing that still bugs me is the visuals of the children (and they ARE children, teens or no) putting guns to their heads and firing. I know, they're not really guns, but "Evokers." Well, fuck that. They look like guns. It made me queasy to see this emulation of suicide from the heroes, mostly because of their youth. Now, again, I've beat the game and I know what's happening. But it's still a completely unnecessary and violently sickening visual to use, and frankly, it's completely tasteless and useful only for shock value which adds nothing to the game.

BRINGING AN UMBRELLA TO A MACHINEGUN FIGHT

I purchased Yakuza 4 recently in an Amazon sale. I was a bit worried that the game wouldn't be something I'd enjoy, that it would be cheaply made, a third-person brawler with an open world feel, or that it would be the equivalent of a Dynasty Warriors game - fun in concept, but incredibly poorly produced. Thankfully, Yakuza 4 is none of those things. In fact, as early as I am in the game (only about five hours in), I'd say it's one of the more enjoyable games I've played this year. There's one really glaring problem with the game in its insanely shitty mini-map and lack of quest directions, but once you get used to the streets and can start running a mental map of where everything is, it turns into a fantastic experience.

It's really got a lot in common with Shenmue, but it feels rightly like its own game. Combat is much faster, the mini-games are more varied and even more addictive, and the story feels a lot more interesting than Shenmue's. But spiritually, they feel like siblings. Shenmue is slower, more methodical, perhaps a bit more philosophical. Yakuza 4 is the harder hitting, quicker paced, fun-loving brother. Both have their advantages, but given that Yakuza 4 has eliminated almost all the problems Shenmue had, namely QTE's, I've really gotta give the nod to Yakuza 4.

One particular thing I enjoy about Yakuza 4 is that it feels distinctly Japanese without being embarassing to play. Unlike the Disgaeas, the Personas, or the Phantom Braves of the world, this is actually a Japanese game I feel comfortable about my family and friends seeing me play. Sure, it's got some Japanese strangeness in it, and I'm probably NEVER going back into a karoake club in the game, but I feel like the little Japanese quirks and silliness are endearing and captivating instead of feeling stupid.

WHAT I'LL BE PLAYING

Well, my "Shyeah, Right" award from last week was a winner. I did not, in fact, play a bit of WKC this entire last week. I hope to remedy that, and so, despite my inauguration of the award just last week, we're going for a double winner. I highly doubt I'll be getting around to WKC again this week, as Yakuza 4 looks to be one heck of a long game (especially since I'm hooked on the substories).

Other than Yakuza 4 and possibly White Knight Chronicles, I'm going to be trying out Trails in the Sky for the PSP. I look forward to playing it, as I've heard nothing but positive things, and yet know very little about the game or story itself. In the case of JRPG's, that's a good thing for me. Love a good surprise, and even a middling one will make me satisfied.

And that's about it for this week, folks. I'm afraid I haven't had much time to scour Giant Bomb for new and exciting blogs, but dankempster has put up a lengthy, introspective, and great read, so go check that out. Your question of the week, should anyone choose to answer it, is this. What's a game you keep promising yourself you'll return to, but can't for some reason or another?

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Sparky's Update (2.01) - I beat how many games this week?

Welcome one and all (probably emphasis on that "one," eh, you lone reader, you?) to the revamped, revitalized, reinvigorated, and reincarnated Sparky's Update. Yep, I'm bringing back an age-old boring format where I blather on about games I've played and my thoughts on the industry as a whole. You read a thousand of these a week, but guess what? I don't care! I like writing, I like the sound of my own voice, and damn it, I love games. I'm probably going to start up a similar but much shorter version of this for Screened, where you can read about what I'm watching (and I don't mean my peepin' Tom exploits either, you pervs). Damn, it's good to be back. Let's giddyup now, little pardners! Yeeehaw and such!

I STILL HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO MAKE HEADERS

What? Stop judging me, Judgy McJudgenut.

I BEAT HOW MANY GAMES THIS WEEK?!?

I've talked before on the forums about my "rainy day" game collection, but for the uninitiated, here's the scoop, the skinny, the rundown, the lowdown, the facts. For the last few years, around Black Friday or so when games are at a huge discount, I pick up oodles (yep, oodles) of games that I'm interested in. These are the games I'm unsure I'll like, or for which I can't justify paying full price. Purchases like Arkham Asylum (see below), Enslaved (also see below), Deadly Premonition, Ratchet and Clank Future, and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts are prime examples of games I've picked up during those deep discount sale days. I then play each game briefly to see if anything really pops out at me, and then store the games in a specific order in which I want to complete them, usually alternating between great looking titles, ones I'm not sure about, and mediocre looking games, in order to keep a steady variation on game quality and hopefully stave off gaming doldrums. I usually put major releases or games I'm genuinely excited about before these game titles, thus saving them for a "rainy day" when I don't have a shiny new game of the month to play. You get the idea. This stack of games also includes games I just haven't gotten around to completing yet for one reason or another, but those are the rarity. I don't claim to finish every game I've begun, but I justify that with a simple "hours of entertainment to price" ratio. If I'm not interested in playing a game to completion (e.g., Final Fantasy XIII, Last Remnant, Wild Arms 3), then I try my damnedest to play those games to the point where I feel like I got my money's worth. I collect games and never trade them in, so a system like that makes sense to me.

I wrote that big wall o' text to give you some idea as to why I was playing Arkham Asylum, Enslaved, and Fable 3 this week. Given that there aren't any major releases I'm interested in until the release of Forza 4, I've got some time on my hands and games to complete. I spent the bulk of the week's worth of gaming playing Tiger Woods 12 (thanks Claude for helping me fix that) and various Steam purchases made through their recent sale. Finding myself craving some action and story oriented games, I reshuffled my rainy day games a bit and came up with Enslaved and Arkham Asylum. I'd enjoyed what very little I'd played of both (about an hour's worth of both) back in the tail end of last year, but I had yet to hit them in my rainy day games list (it's been a spectacular year for my gaming tastes, so I've been really busy with a handful of games released since then as well as others in my stack).

I can't believe I didn't play either one to completion earlier. Enslaved's absolutely incredible character interactions and great, basic story make it a clear-cut contender for one of the best games I've played all year, and that's not even touching on the fun combat, surprisingly colorful visual asthetic, or the enchanting world the game's designers have created. I played it in one sitting, with the only breaks being for the bathroom and some ice water. It was an experience the likes of which I haven't had since playing through the entirety of Halo in my sophomore year of college with a roommate. I've had several gaming marathons even lengthier than the one I've had with Enslaved (all usually with games from a developer that rhymes with Shmefezda), but not to their entirety since that misspent day of my college youth. "But Sparky," you ask, "didn't you just say you played the game for an hour or so last winter?" "Yep," I respond, tapping the ashes of my smoldering cigar into a filthy coffee cup, "but I restarted the game. Duh."

Batman: Arkham Asylum had me a bit less enthralled, but as I've stated on my profile, it's not any fault of the game. No, in fact, the game is terrific. Other than some minor trouble with a bad little camera angle (you're naughty, you vent cam, you), it was shockingly proficient in every area. But my detachment came from the DC universe itself. I'm just not a huge fan of DC's villains. Save for the Joker and possibly Lex Luthor, they've never had quite the same punch or draw for me as Marvel's villains so frequently do. If this had been a Marvel game, you'd probably see my drool come up classified as a new lake by land management agencies. But as it is, I just didn't find myself drawn into the story or really get absorbed with what was happening. Is it a great game fully worthy of five star reviews? Absolutely. Is it going to be on my list of favorite games of all time? Probably not. But it should be.

And then there's Fable 3. Sigh. The Game That Should Have Been. I had played the game damn near to completion late last year, and then just gave up on it, only an hour or so from finishing it off. I finally pulled the trigger on that last hour or so this week. I'm disappointed with Fable 3 in many ways, but none so much as the feeling that this one is Molyneaux having to phone it in. I say "having to" because there's gotta be an enormous amount of pressure on Lionhead to develop quantity over quality. I hope that's the case, anyways, and that Molyneaux hasn't become the latest developer to run out of steam. I don't know though - with those latest videos of that new "not on rails but it's on rails" Fable game, I'm not entirely sure what to think of Lionhead anymore. Fable 4, if and when it happens, needs to take the reverse approach to "dumbing it down," and get rid of the paltry fart and kid jokes, the controls meant for drooling morons, the convoluted and disappointing visual menu system, and the general story of the game. They need to create a bigger world I actually want to explore, rebuild the engine for a new generation, and tell a complete, non-rushed story that just doesn't suddenly end. Do this, and I'll gladly put Fable 4 on the same level as its venerable predecessor Fable 2, which was and is one of my favorite games of all time.

WHAT I'LL BE PLAYING THIS NEXT WEEK OR SO, OR "LET'S GUESS HOW MUCH MY PREDICTIONS WILL SUCK"

With those three games out of the way, this next week is going to hopefully see me finally finish Persona 3 Portable, which I've been playing off and on since I bought my PSP a few months ago. It's a great game, but I am ready to move on to other games on the PSP.

I'll also keep chipping away at Lord of the Rings Online. I want to make it to level 50, see how much I like the Moria and legendary weapon content, and then see if I want to continue subsribing to the game. If not, bye-bye MMORPGs for a good, long time.

I'll be playing through a few other PC games, namely Defense Grid (which is great fun in short bursts, which is exactly how it should be played), possibly Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father, and Hector: Badge of Courage.

On the console front, I'm aiming to wrap up the last of Super Street Fighter IV's character endings, as well as play the new New Vegas (wow, that's redundant) DLC due out this week. If it's not going to crash my 360, that is. Hmmm, on second thought, maybe I'd best wait on that DLC. I'll also try to get a good chunk of White Knight Chonicles finished, which I'll label as this weeks, "Shyeah, Right" prediction. Man, I just cannot get interested in that game.

WHAT YOU SHOULD BE READING INSTEAD OF THIS

SonicFire is writing up a great look at playing and achievement whoring some old Xbox 360 games. His thoughts are fairly random and often hilarious. It's well worth a read. Also, be sure to give user and former intern EpicSteve a pat on the back as he prepares to deploy to some not-so-pleasant areas of the world. Oh, and his blogs are pretty damn good, too.

THAT'S A WRAP. MMMM... WRAPS... AND YOUR QUESTION OF THE WEEK!

As with my older blogs, always feel free to hit me up with comments. If you've been reading some great user blogs or reviews that I'm not pointing out, give me a holler. I'll feature what I think is great, but I do like to plug the "little guys" of the site as well, so if you read some obscure blogs that need a quick pimpin', let me know.

Your question of the week is... what game character duo's interactions do you like the most?

I won't be attaching these to the forums often, as this one's just a shameless plug to try to get myself a few readers. Hope you enjoy and partake in future blogs.

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