Top 5 Games of 2015

It's no secret that Final Fantasy XIV has taken over my life a little bit over the past year and a half. I've thoroughly enjoyed my time with that game, but I've also found myself feeling a little guilty about missing out on other experiences. Throughout the back half of 2015 I've been making a substantial effort to play more games again and it's been pretty damn fun. This year has been frustrating for me personally, but the substantial well of interesting narrative experiences we've seen in games over the past year has been remarkable and comforting. Let's get to it, shall we?

5. Cibele

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Out of all of the games I played this year, Cibele is probably the title that I felt the closest connection with personally. Nina Freeman's story of a young woman coming of age and finding her first love in an MMO is both moving and awkward in the best ways. Seeing this couple talk and reveal so little of themselves and still develop a romance was at times almost painful to watch, but also reminded me that there can be tremendous power in the smallest gestures of romantic interest online. As an archivist, browsing through Cibele's desktop filled with old blog entries, website drafts, and photographs was lovely and served as an excellent way of showing the character's development as a young woman. Cibele is now my second favourite game about falling in love online after Christine Love's amazing (and free) visual novel Digital: A Love Story.

4. Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward

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While it is true that my interest in FFXIV has been waning recently, the initial release of the Heavensward expansion earlier this year was fantastic. The end of Final Fantasy XIV Online: A Realm Reborn was bombastic to say the least. 2.0's raid content culminated in an amazing encounter with Bahamut and tied up the catastrophic ending of FFXIV's original release, and the main story left players with many exciting questions to be answered. Heavensward's story content carried this excitement forward very nicely. I do think that some story threads were resolved a ways that were a little too convenient, but overall the expansion's story was remarkable. The new areas were interesting to explore and flying was implemented in a way that did not detract from exploration. Unfortunately, the endgame content that has been added to Heavensward in major and minor patches since its release has not come, in my opinion, anywhere close to the quality of 2.0's endgame content or the basic expansion content. The base expansion, however, does deserve a great deal of recognition, and I would highly recommend FFXIV to anyone interested in MMOs or the Final Fantasy series.

3. Life is Strange

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Adventure games are tough.

Even staunch adventure game enthusiasts don't really want the strict point-and-click formula of late 80s and early 90s adventure games, but attempts to update the genre have often fallen flat. While titles like Dreamfall: The Longest Journey and pretty well anything made by Quantic Dream have given us some interesting stories, translating point-and-click to consoles and controllers has led to some odd gameplay choices. Dreamfall, for example, is probably one of my favourite game stories of all time, but I'm often a bit miserable while trying to play it because the gameplay is muddled and frustrating. In my opinion, Life is Strange negates the control and gameplay problem via simplification. By focusing only on the mechanics of exploration, simple puzzles, and rewinding time, players are able to focus on the emotionally affecting story, interesting characters, and visual design of the game's world. The atmosphere and sense of place in Life is Strange are also fantastic, if slightly unsettling. Arcadia Bay feels like a town that is closely connected and yet also far removed from our reality in a way that is a little haunting. The dialog certainly contributes to this: these teens are speaking a language that may have been cool about 10 years ago but the game is clearly set in something approximating the present day. While some might find this all a bit jarring, I feel like all of these odd elements combine to make Life is Strange a unique experience. This game could have been my game of the year without the tedious stealth sequences.

2. Contradiction

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I think it's pretty clear from reading this list that I like adventure games and, more generally, narrative-focused video game experiences. I also like murder mysteries and have long been a fan of the Ace Attorney series. Contradiction is exactly the kind of video game that I am going to like. From a story standpoint, the murder mystery is brilliant. Like many cases from the original Ace Attorney series, the case that Inspector Jenks is sent to Edenton village to investigate becomes pretty complicated. It seems like it's just a small town murder, but there's some odd stuff happening: he comes across psychotropic drugs, spiritualist paraphernalia, and some questionable hand gestures. At the end of the day, however, the resolution of the murder is wonderfully simple. Throw in some great FMV with excellent acting that is campy without being utterly ridiculous, and you've got something terribly special:

"What would you say if I did... THIS!"

1. Her Story

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As I said earlier, I have a strong interest in narrative-focused video game experiences. I am also interested in interactive experiences that push or test the boundaries of what we can define as a video game. Her Story is an incredible exploration non-linear storytelling and of what is possible in this medium. It's a database and some videos, and the player's only real role is that of a researcher: you determine which keywords to search, watch the videos, and make your own conclusions about what has transpired. Viva Seifert's performance in the interviews is amazing and without her the game would not have been as inspiring as it is. The desktop interface, like in Cibele, provides great atmosphere and a strong sense of time and place. Overall, I would say that Her Story's greatest strength is its simplicity. That a database searching game could have me sitting, mesmerized, for an entire afternoon at my desk with a notepad, furiously scribbling terms to search later, is incredible. If you don't play Her Story, you are missing something incredibly special.


Fable: Anniversary and my relationship with sequels

I had ultimately wanted to blog twice per month in this new year, but I have been in the midst of making a number of significant personal and career decisions. Whenever I have personally or professionally important matters ruminating in my mind, I tend to lose my focus and wind up not accomplishing much other than the bare minimum. In this case, I guess it’s better to do that rather than nothing at all.

Just after its release, I played about 10 hours of Fable: Anniversary. I had intended to finish it, but the significant load times and frustrating controls got in my way. The original Fable was terribly important to me as it was one of the first games I got totally absorbed in when I started playing video games again in 2005/2006. I fell in love with it, warts and all, and played through the main story 3 times. I was, of course, very excited about Fable 2.

I think I played about 2 hours of Fable 2 before I dropped it. I didn’t even get the dog. I just didn’t like it. I had become so accustomed to the first game’s crappy controls that while the sequel’s control scheme was simpler and far more intuitive, I just couldn’t compute the differences and thus I had a negative play experience.

These kinds of subtle differences have always been problematic for me and sequels, particularly to games I really love. I played games when I was a kid (I had an NES and later a Genesis and did play some PC games growing up), but I was never all that good at them and the medium never grabbed me the same way it does now. I spent my teens and early 20s reading history texts and classic novels, watching pretentious movies, and hanging out in weird internet communities. I did not spend my youth with a controller in my hand, and I didn’t get involved with hobbies that required any kind of strategic thinking.

So, when I got in to games, I had to learn each game I played from the ground up. Each new game was a slow and laborious learning process, unless it was something simple like a visual novel. For a long time, this made it difficult for me to process subtle changes in control and strategy. Fable 2was, at the same time, too similar and too different to its predecessor. Had it had a completely new control scheme, or had I had different expectations, I may have initially liked it better.

The combat in Persona 4 was also a difficult challenge for me. I wanted to play Persona 4 using the same strategies I used in Persona 3, using my protagonist as the primary magic attacker, but that just didn’t work in Persona 4 due to the subtle changes they made in the combat. The growth of the P4 protagonist’s mana and health made him more like Junpei where the P3 protagonist was more like Yosuke. He’s better suited to physical attacking and avoiding using magic all the time. Not to mention that Persona 4′s combat just doesn’t lend itself as well to the basic strategy of analyze, knock everything down with magic, and all-out attack. These types of subtle differences just weren’t obvious to me when I first started playing games again.

And now, of course I’m much better, but it’s taken me quite a long time to actually get comfortable with approaching both new games and sequels. I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy certain types of games like first person or third person shooters (for a lot of reasons), and I will always prefer less twitchy, turn-based experiences, but I don’t feel like I have such a difficult learning curve ahead of me when I try out something new anymore. I’ve been wondering over the two weeks since I tried out Fable: Anniversary if I should try out Fable 2 again. This time I think I might like it a lot better.


Skyrim, 2 years on...

I purchased the Legenday edition of Skyrim for the PS3 in November. I wanted to pack my XBOX 360 away to make room for a PlayStation 4, but I was reluctant to do so in case I ever wanted to go back to playing Skyrim. Since I had no intentions of packing up my PS3 and hadn't yet purchased any of the DLC for the game, I thought that the Legendary edition was my best option. From a technical perspective, the game runs much better after all the patches, though the load times can still be uncomfortably long and the frame rate still chugs when you first enter towns. It is, however, totally playable at this point.

As I mentioned in a few of my NaBloPoMo posts, Skyrim is my favourite game of Generation 7. While I still stand by my choice, I have to admit that until just this week, I had never finished the Main quest line, or the also important Civil War quest line. The meta game of dungeon delving, buying, crafting, and selling was almost always the biggest draw toward Skyrim for me, and it was interesting enough that I didn't need the mediocre story messing that up. Finally, after two years of back and forth between the two, I was able to complete some of my most significant objectives in the game: both meta and ortho.

I completed the Main quest line. The story, of course, wasn't particularly interesting, but it was fun to play. I especially enjoyed the environment of Blackreach, an enormous Dwarven settlement. It was a fascinating place to explore, even if Falmer and Chaurus enemies make me terribly uncomfortable. I thought that the armistice discussions in A Season Unending were also interesting, and forced me to read more about Skyrim's political history like the Great War, and the treaty with the Aldmeri Dominion. I had never paid much attention to these elements of the story before this series of play sessions. I knew that Nords didn't much like the Thalmor due to their involvement with banning the worship of Talos in Skyrim, but I hadn't ever absorbed much more than that.

Learning more about the Great War made the Civil War quest line a little awkward for me. While I knew that the Stormcloaks were racist against other groups, my character was a Nord and I had resolved to join tthat side of the war long before I started playing again in December, but I'm not sure if I like how things turned out in the end. The replacement Jarls were a little creepy, even after A Season Unending. I liked Balgruuf and Laila Law-Giver (though I'm assuming she became Jarl again after the Stormcloaks won the civil war -- I didn't check). The guy in Markarth was a little sketchy, but his replacement, Thongvor Silver-Blood was far worse.

There were just so many wider political issues at stake in the conflict as well. I agree that the people of Skyrim should have had the right to worship Talos as they saw fit, and I think that they deserved the right to be autonomous if that's what they wanted, but I'm not sure Ulfric Stormcloak much cared about any of that. Ulfric seemed far more interested in his own power to me, and even in creating his own empire, than he did for the people of Skyrim. While he was tolerant of other races in Windhelm, I can't support his segregation of the Dunmer and Argonians in various parts of the city. The racial elements of the Stormcloak cause were a great source of discomfort for me. All that said, I'm not sure the Empire was working particularly well either. I may watch a Let's Play of that side of the story to see if their aims may have been more palatable, but I'm pretty sure it would also be a mixed bag of motivations and justifications. All that said, I was level 35 by the time I got to the Civil War quest, and it was pretty fun killing off large waves of Imperial soldiers in two hits apiece.

I also felt that both the main quests had difficult endings. I found it hard to accept that the Dragonborn would fade in to obscurity after singlehandedly solving both the dragon problem and the civil war problem. I know that this is necessary to allow the player to continue to explore the enormous world after the main quest is over, but I still found it a little difficult to accept. I wonder if this is something Bethesda will try to think about a little more in the next Elder Scrolls game, though with all the controversy that's happened around this issue in the Fallout series, I think they may not bother doing much about it.

And so I will now be taking a nice, long break from Skyrim. Aside from those two large quest lines, I finally was able to get the 100k gold achievement, purchase and upgrade all of the city houses (and Lakeview Manor near Falkreath), and discover all 13 Standing Stones. I still have a fair amount I'd like to accomplish, however. I would like to try out the Dragonborn DLC and travel to Solsheim and get the 10 sidequests achievement. Eventually, I'll get there.


Best and Worst of 2013

Most Disappointing Game: Animal Crossing: New Leaf

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Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the second game I've played in the Animal Crossing series (the first being the DS title) and the second game in the series that I have not enjoyed. My disappointment in New Leaf has very little to do with the quality of the game itself and pretty well everything to do with the fact that I really wanted to like it. My enjoyment of Style Savvy: Trendsetters made me think that charm-heavy life sims were a genre I could get in to, but it turns out that without the fashion, it's just not all that much fun for me. I should have probably avoided buying New Leaf altogether, especially since I had tried out and dropped Harvest Moon: A New Beginning just a few months before its release, but I thought that New Leaf's more interesting characters might make me stick with it. I don't think I'll be picking up the next installment in this series -- it just isn't for me.

Runner Up: Shin Megami Tensei IV, for very similar reasons.

Best Music: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies

I don't think that 2013 was the strongest year for video game music. 2012 spoiled us with amazing choices like Hotline Miami, Fez, Sound Shapes, and FTL just to name a few. 2013, however, was a great year for updating music in interesting ways. I know that A Link Between Worlds remixed and re-orchestrated a lot of classic Zelda music, and in Bioshock Infinite, songs from different time periods were re-recorded in a style better suited to Columbia to highlight the concept of time tears and multi-verses. I have to say that had I actually played Bioshock, it would probably be my first pick here, mostly due to its use of Goodnight Irene, one of my favourite folk songs, during the lottery scene. Since I only watched a Let's Play of the game, I would prefer to make it my runner up.

And so my choice is Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies, whose soundtrack is pretty amazing for the same reason I think many enjoyed the music in A Link Between Worlds so much: it successfully updates music from previous games without pandering. The Dual Destinies soundtrack also features some pretty awesome new music, including some great character leitmotifs: Simon Blackquill's in particular. The music in the Ace Attorney series has always been very good, and I'd say that the Dual Destinies is probably my second favourite, after the first game. Nothing, of course will ever be as good as Gumshoe's theme or Logic and Trick.

Runner Up: Bioshock Infinite.

Best Older Game I Played in 2013: Style Savvy: Trendsetters

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I was originally not going to recognize Style Savvy: Trendsetters here this year, because I thought I should change this category a little and award it to a game that I had not played at all prior to 2013. Since that left me with only one real contender, which I enjoyed my time with but had gotten bored of before finishing (see runner up below), I decided to just go with Trendsetters and not worry about it so much. I still feel that Trendsetters is an incredible game and deserves a lot of recognition for being a female-targeted video game product that is also, at the same time, a high quality product. It's a good game that is fun to play and, unintentional or not, has some pretty positive messaging in it. Trendsetters was my go-to game this year whenever I needed a game that I could just pick up and not devote a lot of time and energy to.

Runner Up: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Top 5 Games of 2013

I decided, like last year, that a top 5 was the best way for me to go for 2013. I played more games this year than I did in 2012, but to make a list of 10 I really liked, I'd have to pad it and add some games I'm not all that excited about. The top 5 list was pretty tough to make, particularly figuring out which games belonged in 5th and 1st place, and I think that's better than padding or making a weird list of 7 or 8 games. I should also probably point out that I did not play The Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds in time for it to be considered for this list. I wanted to get to it before the end of the year, but December was a busy month for me and I figured it would be better to leave it off the list and think about it next year than to rush it when I'm not really in the mood.

5. Papers, Please

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When I was first thinking about finalizing my top 5 list this year, I had four games I definitely wanted on that list, and one blank spot, which I assumed would probably be #5. There were few contenders once I decided to eliminate Zelda: Tales of Xillia, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and Papers, Please. I figured that Papers was probably the least likely to wind up on the final list. Everyone was talking about the moral choices you made in the game and while I was aware of the choices I had made, I didn't really think they were all that moving or interesting until I was telling a friend about how I had played the game. I hadn't paid much attention to the instructions, so the first two endings I got first were the whole family dying and going to jail for being in debt. After I had achieved those two endings, I didn't have any trouble making the moral choices like detaining people or not letting unfortunate people through the checkpoint, because I knew I had to do whatever I could to keep my family alive. While I was playing the game, I didn't really think of how incredible it was that the choices I made didn't bother me -- I was, after all, just keeping body and soul together. Once I began thinking about it a little more, and realized the implications, I was floored.

4. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies

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Before I played Dual Destinies, I was worried that it was going to be my most disappointing game of 2013. I didn't like the implications of Ace Attorney 4's story, and Investigations' writing and mechanics had totally fallen flat for me. I felt as though the Ace Attorney team might not be able to make games that interested me anymore. I was very, very glad to be proven wrong. While I do think that some of the cases were a little too complicated for their own good, Dual Destinies is, in my opinion, the best Ace Attorney game since Trials and Tribulations. The new characters are lively and interesting, the overarching story of the game fits well with the other games in the series, and the music and atmosphere are charming. I do think that Dual Destinies is a little odd in some respects, especially in that it retcons about as much of Ace Attorney 4 as it can without totally ignoring it, but for me, the choices the development team made about what to leave behind were very smart.

3. Sweet Fuse: At Your Side

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When I read Aksys' next Otome venture would be Sweet Fuse: At Your Side, a game I had never heard of, I was pretty skeptical. Last year's choice of Hakuoki had always seemed pretty obvious. It had pretty art and a significant Western following due to its anime series. Sweet Fuse seemed a little odd by comparison with its Ace Attorney-style character designs, Keiji Inafune weirdness, and lack of awareness from the Western otome game fandom. I thought that surely, something from the already popular Starry Sky or Uta no Prince-sama series would be a better choice due to pre-existing interest and awareness. I really only bought Sweet Fuse because I wanted to support Aksys' endeavour to bring more Otome games to North America, but I wound up absolutely loving it. Saki Inafune, Keiji Inafune's fictional niece is a wonderful protagonist and the story in the game is very interesting. I enjoyed the story so much that I played all 7 character routes so that I could see it from all the different angles. Of course, I wound up liking some routes better than others, but each character's story was interesting enough to make their route worthwhile. It also helps that, for a visual novel that requires backtracking and repeating scenes, navigating all the content is pretty smooth and doesn't get annoying, which is pretty tough to accomplish in this genre. I can't wait for whatever Aksys tries to bring over next, I now know that they have my best interests at heart.

2. Gone Home

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I had a hard time deciding where Gone Home should live on this list. My first instinct was to place it at #1, because I feel, for the first time, like someone made a game especially for me, but then I thought a bit about my top 5 from 2012. In 2012, I chose the game I thought was better over the game I had more fun with, and I decided that maybe in 2013 I should change it up a little. Gone Home is a game that I will remember for a long time to come. I think it did an excellent job of subverting a lot of video game expectations both in terms of mechanics (best use of audiologs ever maybe?) and story. The story, in and of itself, was fantastic and an excellent departure from the video game norm. It was supported by some of the best voice acting this year. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the Greenbriar house and was tense and on edge through the whole experience. The tension and wonder I felt while playing Gone Home was incredible to me, and I hope that the game's success inspires more dev teams to make narrative and exploration-heavy experiences that don't rely so much on violence. It's hard for me sometimes to express how incredible I think Gone Home is.

1. Fire Emblem: Awakening

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I logged somewhere around 120 hours in Fire Emblem in 2013, completing it twice. I had been looking for an entry point in to the strategy RPG genre for some time previous to 2013 and it was Patrick Klepek's praise of the game that convinced me to try it out. I was already interested in it due to the art style and good buzz surrounding it, but I also felt a little intimidated, since I was new to the genre. After hearing Patrick talk about it, however, I figured I had as good of a chance as any to get through Awakening and enjoy it. I am very happy that I took the chance. Awakening is a great package for me. The strategic combat is addictive and challenging, and the art is gorgeous to look at. The overall story of the game is not great, in my opinion, but it is helped along by the friendship mechanics. I think the character support interactions are probably the best part of Awakening. They are well written and masterfully localized and actually make grinding fun. Grinding. Fun. The concepts seem mutually exclusive, but being able to level and relationship grind at the same time and see all of the fun stories between the characters is Awakening's greatest achievement. I only wish that there wasn't such a strong focus on marriage and romance, because there were lots of possibilities left unexplored. I am looking forward to getting in to some of the DLC soon, and I hope that the excellent post-release support of Awakening starts a trend for Japanese publishers and developers to release more DLC content in other territories.

I can't believe I wrote all that! On to 2014!


On Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies (very minor spoilers, less minor spoilers for AA4)

I finished Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies (AA5 from now on) the night before last and I have quite a lot to say about it. I hope I can make this post flow as I want to, but it may be a little choppy in places. I almost wish I could just present a chart with pros and cons on it, because while I did enjoy the game, I do think it has its fair share of problems.

I should probably start by saying that AA5 impressed me. After not much liking the story in AA4 and not liking pretty much everything about Ace Attorney Investigations, the spin-off featuring prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, I was pretty skeptical about AA5. I felt like the development team was going down a path that didn’t interest me any more, and I was honestly okay with loving the original trilogy and being pretty unenthusiastic about the rest of the series. I did not have high hopes for AA5. When I started playing it, I was happy to admit that I was wrong, and that the current Ace Attorney team could make a game that I would be interested in playing.

I do think that the games are on a different path these days, particularly in terms of the way the cases are written. As I mentioned a few days ago in a previous post on this series, many of the cases in the original trilogy are quite simple. They seem complicated while Phoenix and the prosecutor are fighting things out in court, but this is mostly due to the way the Ace Attorney justice system works. Once the secrets of most cases are revealed, however, they are often not particularly complicated or unrealistic. The cases in AA5 are the exact opposite of simple, and the courtroom tension is created mostly through the defense attorney’s inability to sort out exactly what happened. The mechanics of the cases themselves are loaded with extraordinary frame-ups and other issues, often to the point of being completely ridiculous.

Unfortunately, I think I will just have to get used to this, as I don’t see the developers going back to the writing style of the first two games. I think it’s also unlikely that the writers will ever be able to match the kind of tension that existed between Phoenix Wright and Miles Edgeworth or Phoenix Wright and Franziska von Karma. There was some potential for this between Athena Cykes and Simon Blackquill, but the writers didn’t make particularly good use of it and the issues surrounding them weren’t revealed or resolved until the end of the game (though there are vague hints of them earlier on). Perhaps this could improve during a sequel, but the development team has been pretty consistent in its creation of one major prosecutor arc per game and I don’t see that changing in future installments.

The team that made AA5 was pretty selective in which elements of AA4 they wanted to bring forward to this game. This was, for me, mostly a success. The new justice system introduced by Phoenix in the final case of AA4 was left behind, and I think that while it would have been interesting to see more of it, sticking with the known and tested Ace Attorney formula was probably a good choice, if a little conservative. I think that going back to Phoenix as the main protagonist over Apollo was also a good choice, since I generally think that Phoenix is more interesting. On the down side, I think that it would have been nice if they had some how dealt with the issue of Apollo’s family and heritage that was revealed at the end of AA4. This was not mentioned at all and it’s hard to tell if they just didn’t want to deal with it or if it’s being reserved for future games.

I am also not all that sure about Phoenix’s character development in AA5. He is, in many ways, exactly as you would expect him to be had the events of AA4 never happened. It has been quite some time since I last played AA4, however, so I’m not really sure how accurately I’m remembering his characterization. It does feel, in many ways, as though the team was trying to retcon AA4 without rocking the boat too much. This was quite surprising to me, because AA4 sold well in Japan, and the cast of that game seemed to be popular with Japanese Ace Attorney fans. The retreat away from so many of the things that that game introduced seems far more in line with what many Western Ace Attorney fans would have wanted, which seems odd given that the series has struggled here sales-wise in recent years.

It all makes me wonder even more if the rumours surrounding AA4 were true: that it was originally intended to be a complete reboot, with the addition of Phoenix coming quite late in the development process. There are some Ace Attorney fans that are so cynical about Phoenix’s enormous character change in AA4 that they have suggested that his sprite was literally just skinned in after the game was complete. I’m not sure I believe that’s the case, but I think that the minor retconning they’e done in AA5 is an indication of something about the development process of AA4 being a little off.

Despite these caveats, AA5 was super fun to play. Athena Cykes is an excellent addition to the main cast and I would argue that her Mood Matrix minigame is far more interesting than Apollo’s Perceive ability. Actually, it was quite nice to have all three abilities, including Phoenix’s Psychelocks, to tackle, though I would have preferred less Perceive and more Psychelocks — I’ve always liked those better than most of the Ace Attorney fandom. Simon Blackquill is also an excellent character, and I’d say I liked him about as much as Godot from AA3, which is quite a bit.

The real highlight of AA5 is its production values. The character animations are lively and interesting, though I think that the team struggled with updating the original cast’s animations, which are pretty similar to the sprites used in the first trilogy. Though Phoenix looks pretty good, both Edgeworth and Pearl are quite stiff, particularly compared to the new cast, including many of the witnesses. The sound track is excellent, though I’d argue this is a strength of the entire series, with nice updates of older music from earlier games and good new tracks as well. What was really surprising is that the 3D in AA5 is actually quite well done. I don’t use it often because it hurts my eyes, but if you’re in to actually using the 3D functionality of the 3DS, I would recommend using it in this case.

Really, it’s awesome. If you like the Ace Attorney series, you should play it, definitely worth the price of admission.

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On the best games of generation 7, part 4: Skyrim

1. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Looking at what I've written about Skyrim previously (mostly in my 2011 game of the year blog post on Giant Bomb), it's actually a little surprising that this wound up being my favourite game of Generation 7. It was my game of the year in 2011, but at the time I would have rated 999 higher had it not been released in 2010 and had Skyrim not had so many technical problems on the Playstation 3. Time brings changes in perspective, however, and given the amount of fun I've had with Skyrim over the past two years, I'm pretty happy with how my feelings on it have changed.

When Skyrim was released in November of 2011, I loved it. I had been playing a lot of turn-based JRPGs and I desperately needed a break from them and to play something a little outside my comfort zone. I bought it on release day and quickly racked up about 120 hours on two different characters. I stopped soon after that, however, because the infamous PS3 save file bug began to make the game completely unplayable. Needless to say, I was pretty pissed.

I purchased the PS3 version of Skyrim because by 2011, I had decided that I was content to stay in Sony's ecosystem. The PS3 was getting the Japanese games I wanted to play, I was enjoying a lot of late PSP releases, making plans to buy a Vita, and mostly choosing the PS3 version for multi-platform games. I owned, and still own, an Xbox 360, but even two years ago, I was pretty well ready to pack it away to save space in my entertainment center: it's an early model with a 20 gig hard drive, so it makes loads of noise and requires constant storage management. I knew that choosing the PS3 version was risky. Media outlets were not sent review code for the PS3 version and it was pretty well known that Bethesda's other generation 7 games had had technical problems on the PS3. Still, at the time I felt that choosing the PS3 version was worth it due to my X360's limitations. I was willing to put up with a little extra Bethesda jank in order to play Skyrim on my preferred platform.

And then I realized that it wasn't worth it at all since the PS3 version of Skyrim had serious problems. It wasn't even just bugs -- the engine that Bethesda used to build their games had an architectural incompatibility with the PS3's save system that essentially made the game run worse as your save file became larger. So, really, the more I played the PS3 version of Skyrim, the worse its performance got. Not really an ideal scenario. I played as long as I could, and then traded the PS3 version in while I could still get a decent amount of money for it and asked for the X360 version of the game for my birthday in February. This particular technical problem bothered me a great deal for a number of reasons. But mainly I felt like PS3 had been out for 4 years and the time for excusing lousy ports on the platform was over. Bethesda's response to the situation was also pretty irritating, and while I loved Skyrim, it all left a pretty bad taste in my mouth.

Over time, of course, my feelings about all of this have evened out and I'm now much better able to actually enjoy the game without thinking about all the drama that surrounded it. During the past two years, I have gone back to Skyrim again and again, settling in to it whenever I've needed a sure distraction or a break from the turn-based games I normally play. It can also be pretty dangerous for me to play at times, since once I get in to it, I'm hooked and have a hard time focusing on anything else. In fact, just last week I had to force myself to put Skyrim down so that I could deal with the dinner party and make more headway on Ace Attorney V. There aren't a lot of games that do that to me, that grab me and refuse to let me go, and even less to the extent that Skyrim does. I'd say probably Persona 3 is the only game that's gripped me as hard as Skyrim has in the past 6 or 7 years.

And to be honest, I can't even definitively tell you why I like it so much. It certainly isn't the main story, which I have never actually finished (though it is definitely a goal of mine that I would like to tackle it in the next month or two). For sure, I find the real estate part of it to be a significant motivator. I love buying and upgrading the houses, which provides me with a lot of incentive to explore dungeons and craft items to make the gold I need to buy them. I also feel like Skyrim's skill system makes your in-game activities feel like they matter. I recently tried out Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and found that a lot of the skills I had available didn't really matter, particularly the crafting skills. I could always find the potions I really needed from stores, was finding better weapons then I could smith or enchant, and I always had loads of money.

In Skyrim, Bethesda did a great job of allowing the player to choose their upgrade path, even if it wasn't a typical archetype, and truly integrate that in to their own personal game story. My favourite way to play Skyrim is to duel-wield one-handed weapons, and craft weapons and armor that allow me to get by without any defense or healing spells. My trump card against tough boss characters was always a paralysis poison -- something one might expect a thief-oriented character to use, but I played like a tank. For me, finding ways to compensate for my character's weaknesses from skill trees I might not ordinarily think much of using is rewarding and fun.

Again, I could go on forever, and I still have no idea whether or not these choices I've made over the past few days will hold up for me, but I'm interested to see if anything I play in the next while can usurp something in my current top 5.

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On the best games of generation 7, part 3: Ace Attorney

2. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

I've been thinking a lot about the Ace Attorney series as a whole recently, since I'm currently playing Dual Destinies. The Ace Attorney games have been very important to me over the years. I was very active in the fandom and made quite a number of friends then that I am still in close contact with now. The friendships I made there slowly led me down the long, and some would likely say dangerous, path in to all fictional things Japanese, including niche visual novels, manga, and anime.

In fact, before becoming involved in Ace Attorney fandom, I had always avoided manga and anime. As a teenager, the scant offerings of YTV such as Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon didn't interest me all that much, precocious literature and film snob that I was, and there was no easy way to access other series back then. Years later, after being in and around a number of Western fandoms, particularly Harry Potter, and seeing more and more nerds becoming interested in manga and anime, I thought from time to time about trying it all out. All the drama surrounding some of the communities I hung out with, however, was a huge turnoff -- I figured I was better off just sticking with my own thing, and not following the herd on to whatever they wanted to squee about next.

But the Ace Attorney fandom was a little different. It was a pretty great community to be a part of. The fanwork was awesome, most of the prominent writers, artists, and bloggers got along pretty well and there wasn't a whole lot of public drama. Of course, there was a fair amount of personal drama, but it was more about individual people having conflicts with each other about real issues that would affect any friendship and not the crazy shit I've seen elsewhere. It was a fantastic creative force to be a part of, and there was so much positive inspiration going around that it was hard not to get caught up in it.

I digress, but it was all a lot of fun. This makes it very difficult for me to put just one of the entries in the original Ace Attorney trilogy on this list, but I feel like the first game, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is probably the best game in the series all-around.

To me, Phoenix Wright always seemed like a younger, more insecure, and newer version of Perry Mason. I have always been fond of legal dramas, as I've been watching them with my mother since I was a kid. It's not surprising, then, that AA1 is generally the title that I credit with solidifying my return to video games. When I decided to try playing games again when I was about 25, I struggled to find titles that I could enjoy as an adult, since I wasn't interested in playing the same series I'd been introduced to as a kid. AA1 was perfect. It's a legal dramedy, it's a visual novel, so it's not twitchy or complicated to control, it's got interesting characters, a great story, and the puzzle/court elements are intuitive and mostly logical.

The writing in AA1 is phenomenal. A satire of the actual Japanese justice system, defendants are arrested and charged quickly, and their trials begin only a day or two after they are apprehended. Many of the cases, then, initially seem quite complicated while you, as Phoenix, try to figure out the truth. As you tensely battle it out with the prosecutor you're up against and try to solicit accurate testimony from witnesses, you begin to see that it's actually the road to the truth that's complicated and not so much the cases themselves. The actual mechanisms of a murder case are generally quite simple. This, I think, is what makes AA1 so brilliant (and the rest of the original trilogy to a lesser extent). The game's writers found a way to create a lot of tension and make the prosecutors feel intimidating while also making the cases themselves quite simple. This is sharp contrast to the way the series is written now, which I'll talk about more when I write about Ace Attorney 5.

Also adding to the excellent writing is AA1's impressive English localization, though I'd say it's very strong throughout the entire original trilogy (I think AA3 is probably the best). I have never really understood why Capcom chose to set the North American version of the game in Los Angeles, but despite that, the localization is funny, and full of great pop culture references and punny names. Ben Judd's team was never afraid to play with language, and it was awesome.

What really solidifies AA1 as my favourite game in the Ace Attorney series is the case that was added to the DS version: Rise From the Ashes. While the Ace Attorney games were first released in North America on the Nintendo DS, they originally came out in Japan years earlier on the Game Boy Advance. The port of AA1 included a new case that used a lot of the DS's new features, including the touch screen. The use of DS functionality, such as dusting for fingerprints, and spraying luminol, was brilliant, and the case itself was well-written and fit nicely in to the themes of AA1 and the overarching Ace Attorney story. While I knew at the time that it would be unlikely to get similar content in the re-releases of AA2 and AA3, the limited amount of DS touchscreen content in Ace Attorney 4 was very disappointing for me.

Ugh, I could go on forever, but I think I've proven my point. The Ace Attorney series is awesome, and the first game is definitely a bit part of what makes it awesome. If you're reading this and haven't played any of these games, the whole trilogy is available on iOS and is a pretty great deal for the amount of content you get with it.

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On the best games of generation 7, part 2: Digital, Journey, 999

And here begins the list.

5. Digital: A Love Story

Digital is a free PC visual novel created by notable indie game designer, Christine Love. The game is set 5 minutes in to the future of 1988 and you assume the role of an adolescent who has just received a new Amie (based on the Amiga) Workbench PC. You are given a BBS number to access with your 14k modem and that sets off a story of love, sentient AIs, hacking the Gibson, and a lot of other early internet goodness. The gameplay largely involves dialing in to various BBSes, reading and responding to messages, and cracking systems. Through all of this, the player meets several characters and becomes involved in a fairly simple, but engaging love story that early internet users are sure to enjoy.

Digital is, in my opinion, of the most successful experiments in melding game play and linear storytelling in Generation 7. While the mechanics not particularly challenging or complex, they feel natural, and deeply connected to the story that Love is trying to tell. There is nothing in Digital that happens outside the game's narrative -- the Amie interface is what the player uses to interact with everything in the game's world, and there is no view on the story that the player can have aside from the interface and the BBS services they connect to. The only aspect of the game that breaks this is that the player is not capable of actually writing responses to messages and is limited only to hitting a reply button. That said, Christine Love is able to effectively communicate both sides of the conversation.

I urge everyone who enjoys video games to try out Digital, particularly since it's free. It consistently surprises and thrills me (I've played it several times since my first run in 2010), has great visual design, an awesome story, and pushes my internet nerd nostalgia buttons. What more could a girl ask for?

4. Journey

In the past several years, there has been a lot of discussion in the video game community about whether or not video games can be art. I generally tend to fall somewhere in the middle of this argument, where some games are and others are not and I think Journey is one of the best examples of how games can be art.

As I said in an earlier post, one of the best things about Journey is the use of the game's controls in creating an emotional response. From the elation and freedom that you feel when you're sand surfing to the abject horror and despair you feel when avoiding enemies and climbing the last peak, the game's controls push these feelings to a level that I haven't experienced very often while playing games.

The addition of beautiful visuals, music, atmosphere and animation to the emotional depth the game offers and you have something very special. I am so excited to see what Jenova Chen and his team work on next.

3. 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

Yet another visual novel, 999 is an adventure game with room escape puzzles and a dense, complicated story. You play as Junpei, a university student who, along with 8 other people, is abducted and brought to a mysterious ship. As a group, the 9 of you must play a life or death puzzle game in order to figure out how to leave the ship. It is a true visual novel where making certain decisions will allow you to only view certain aspects of the story and it requires, at minimum, 3 separate play-throughs to see the true ending.

While some have argued that the puzzles in 999 are unimpressive, I found them to be a nice balance between challenging and intuitive. Its atmosphere is also quite remarkable, and despite being a handheld game, it succeeds at making you feel a great sense of dread and fear without subjecting you to cheap jump scares.

The real star of 999, however, is its story and characters. The narrative in 999 goes to some pretty far away places, but once its true secrets are revealed and you start to think about it, you realize that, within its own universe, it makes perfect sense and given all the information you were provided with, you should probably have guessed its outcome in advance. This is, in my view, sheer brilliance. I don't think I have ever been so impressed by a story in a video game as I was when I played 999.


NaBloPoMo Day 12: On the best games of generation 7, part 1: Introduction

With the release of the PlayStation 4 coming this Friday (November 15), and the release of the Xbox One hard on its heels, I thought it would be a good time start thinking about my favourite games of the 7th console generation. I have mixed feelings about creating an ordered list, and I actually did post a top 10 on the Giant Bomb forums, but I have a lot of problems with what I came up with.

It was difficult for make a list of 10 games that I really loved in generation 7. This is mostly because a lot of the games I have enjoyed most in the last few years were backlogged titles on the PlayStation 2 or handheld ports of PS2 games. I also flat out play less games than many others because I am often a little more restricted in which genres I enjoy and a lot of the games I play are very, very long. A top 5 list would be much better for me, which is what I’ll be going with here. I also wasn’t wild about the idea of creating an ordered list because generation 7 isn’t really over yet. There are numerous titles coming out next year that I am very excited about, and there will probably be some interesting cross-gen titles next year as well. I also have a significant backlog of games from numerous generation 7 consoles that I haven’t gotten around to playing yet.

All that said, I decided that I should just go for it anyway. It’s been on my mind a lot lately given all the hype about the PS4 and Xbox One releases and I do love ranking things. I figure now is as good of a time as any to put a first draft out there and see how it holds up to the last year or two of this generation’s life.

I will be devoting three more posts to this topic over the next few days (I hope to finish this series on Friday, but we’ll see if I’m able to stick with it). Today I will just be writing this introduction. Tomorrow’s entry will deal with the 5th, 4th and 3rd games in my top 5 since I have not played any of them in some time and I know that I can sum up my feelings about them pretty well. The other two games will each have their own entry as they are fresh in my mind and I have a lot to say about both of them.

I should probably mention quickly that when I was considering which games should be on this list I drew from the PS3, X360, DS, PSP and PC (during the appropriate time window).

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NaBloPoMo Day 3: On What I've Been Playing

Note: I am currently doing the National Blog Posting Month challenge to blog every day during the month of November. This post was originally written for that challenge.

So far, this has been a great year for me and video games. I’ve had a few weird periods of dropping everything I try after just an hour or two, but for the most part, games have been very good to me in 2013. Over the past few weeks I’ve played a few games that I have quite a lot to say about: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, The Stanley Parable, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies.

1. The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable is a really difficult game for me to talk about in some ways. It is essentially a first person adventure game about an office worker named Stanley who starts work one day and realizes that all of his coworkers have disappeared. The player can then explore the office building he works in to try to figure out what has gone so horribly wrong. The twist is the game’s narrator, British and quite snarky, who will comment on your actions as Stanley depending on which areas you explore and which route you take through the building. There are many possible endings and options to explore (I got about 7, but I’m fairly certain there are at least 15 options), some of which are very funny and an interesting play on video game storytelling.

Really, examining the nature of video game story telling is what The Stanley Parable is all about. I think that what the developers are trying to get across in the game is very interesting and often pretty hilarious, but I just don’t really think it’s all that fun to play. I honestly can’t really express what I don’t like about it and it’s surprising to me that I don’t really enjoy playing it, particularly since I loved Gone Home so much. Gone Home, which is one of my favourite games of the year, is also a first person adventure game that plays with video game story telling and subverting player expectations. I wish I could pinpoint what really works for me in one but doesn’t in the other, but I just can’t put my finger on it.

2. Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies

I am currently playing Dual Destinies and as a long time fan of the Ace Attorney series, I must say that I am very pleased with it so far. My love for that universe has taken quite a beating since the release of the Apollo Justice game, so I was trying to not get too enthusiastic about the series’ 5th entry in order to avoid some serious disappointment. I couldn’t have been more wrong about it, and I am absolutely thrilled. Once I have finished the game, I will be writing a more in-depth post about it, plus perhaps one more about my history with that series as well — this seems like a good time to reflect on that. All in all, I’m having a great time with it and it’s awesome.

3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I have played many, many hours of Skyrim since its release in 2011. I recently decided to buy the Legendary Edition for PS3 since I hadn’t yet tried out any of the DLC and I recently boxed up my XBOX 360, which is the version of Skyrim I played previously, to make room for new consoles. Since the game seems to actually be working much better on the PS3 nowadays, I figured I might as well pick it up and start over again on a new playthrough. Aside from the expected bugginess, it plays reasonably well and I still love it as much as I ever did. I’m hoping to get through the main story, which I never finished despite sinking somewhere around 200 hours in to it on the 360, and to play a bunch of the DLC content. I had one long session a few days ago, but I decided that with so much course work, it might be best to put Skyrim on hold until I have a break from course work.

4. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Brothers is the story of two brothers on a quest through a fairy tale inspired world to find medicine, produced by a mythical tree, that can cure their terminally ill father. The game has no comprehensible dialog, as all the characters communicate using a made up language and most of the story is told through visuals and controls. The player controls both brothers at once, each with one of the two analog sticks for movement and the corresponding trigger button for interaction. Using the different physical attributes and strengths of each brother, the player navigates environmental puzzles in a number of different areas to guide them toward their goal. The younger brother, for example, is smaller and thus can squeeze through bars, allowing him to sneak through a gate and steal a key from a troll who is blocking their path. The elder brother, on the other hand, is stronger, which makes him able to pull heavy levers. The controls can be quite challenging, as using the analog sticks to control two characters at once is something we don’t do all that often, and you can sometimes get things a bit backwards, but once you get used to it, it’s quite simple and fluid.

The environments are beautiful and designed and drawn with a great deal of care. The art style is a little similar to that in Bastion in that it has a painterly quality to it. The story is quite simple, but it is emotionally effective and really quite touching. The most interesting aspect of the story for me was essentially how the creators attempted to convey emotion through the game’s controls, particularly toward the end of the game (I would give more specific examples, but I don’t want to spoil them for anyone who might drop by here). I have been talking with a friend lately about narrative in video games and about how I think that developers could be doing a lot more to think creatively about how video games can tell a story, and I think that the people at Starbreeze who worked on this game have done an excellent job of exploring the way that controls and a game’s story can work together. I’m excited to see more from this studio in the future.

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