The Backlogbook - Week Four

Last Week - Week Three (23/01/2017)Next Week - Week Five (06/02/2017)

It's Monday, and that can mean only one thing - time for me to sit down and write another one of these Backlogbook blog entries! For those not in the know, the Backlogbook is a weekly serial blog I've committed to writing throughout 2017, documenting my efforts to whittle down my Pile of Shame. This week sees more thoughts on Grandia, an assessment of a single-sitting playthrough of Oxenfree, a revisit to the first season of Telltale's The Walking Dead, and another little Borderlands-based addendum. Not only that, but two more ill-advised video game acquisitions will be stripped from my backlog. That all sound good? Good. Then let's begin, shall we?

This Week's Log

This Week's Log is the part of the Backlogbook that focuses on what I've been playing over the previous seven days. Turns out that even by omitting this week's Pokémon Sun progress (which you can read about here), that's quite a bit. I made significant headway through Grandia, headway that has turned me around on it quite a bit. I also managed to play through indie adventure Oxenfree in a single sitting, made it through the third episode of the first season of Telltale's The Walking Dead, and sunk a few more hours into Borderlands with my buddy Duncan. That's going to be a lot of ground to cover, but I'm going to do my best, starting with what is fast becoming the Backlogbook's equivalent of a resident band...

Grandia

I've sunk no less than nine hours into Grandia since last week's Backlogbook. Those nine hours have seen the game undergo some kind of magical transformation, not unlike a caterpillar cocooning itself and emerging as a beautiful butterfly. In fact, that seems like the most fitting simile to use, since a lot of what's changed about Grandia in that time is tied up in the development and maturation of some of its characters. I'll get into more detail on this in a second, which means some mid-game story spoilers are inbound, but before I do, I just want to clarify that my position on the game's awesome combat and character development mechanics hasn't changed a bit. The fact I'm still enjoying and actively seeking out battles thirty-five hours in is a testament to how great those systems are. My only complaint is that it's proving seriously difficult to level my Water-elemental magic, since the healing spells it provides offer such meagre experience gain. Now, about that story stuff...

I've run out of Grandia screenshots to use from the Giant Bomb Wiki, so here's a picture of Leen instead
I've run out of Grandia screenshots to use from the Giant Bomb Wiki, so here's a picture of Leen instead

Last week I levelled some criticism at Grandia for sidelining its main story in favour of vignetted chapters. Almost immediately after that, the primary story thread reared its head in a major way. The Garlyle Forces, seemingly absent for the previous ten or so hours, reappeared in spectacular fashion at the game's Twin Towers dungeon. Their return brought with it a pretty major exposition dump, giving a great deal more insight into the Icarians, the lost civilisation of Angelou, and the motivations of Colonel Mullen, Lieutenant Leen, and the rest of the Garlyle Forces. Leen in particular is a pretty fantastic, complex character who I hope we get to see a lot more of as the story progresses beyond here.

But it's not just the return of the main plot that's got me giddy over Grandia this week. As I said, most of the game's cast are finally starting to develop and come into their own. The first hint of this was when Sue, the little girl of the group, fell ill and had to let the rest of the party go on without her. While Justin, Feena and Gadwin are out at Teleportation Hill, Sue comes to the realisation that's she's too young to be doing this, and on the party's return she tells them she's going home. In response to this Justin, who has just fought through hordes of monsters to get the Teleportation Orb they need to cross the Sea of Mermaids, gives Sue the Orb so she can teleport back to Parm. The ensuing scene that plays out is really touching, showing Sue and Justin in very different lights to the obnoxious kids they were back in Parm at the very start of the game. Sue coming to terms with still being a kid is matched by Justin's newfound humility and selflessness. The translation might be a bit rough, and there's still no redeeming that voice acting, but the moment transcends those shortcomings to become something pretty special.

And here's Feena, who's one of my favourite characters at this point in the game
And here's Feena, who's one of my favourite characters at this point in the game

Feena gets her moments to shine as well. There's a really nice scene in Gumbo Village where she and Justin go out to the beach together to see the Spirits. Later on, when the two characters are crossing the Sea of Mermaids in Gadwin's ship, another important scene plays out where they're sitting on the edge of the boat, looking out over the water. Feena and Justin clearly like each other, but are struggling with ways to express it. It's clumsy and awkward, but I think that's what makes it feel so authentic, even in spite of the translation and voice acting getting in the way. Strip away Justin's "I'm an adventurer!" bravado and Feena's flirtatious joking and what's left is two teenagers falling for each other and struggling to explain how they feel. Fellow Giant Bomb blogonaut @Mento gave me a heads-up about this a couple of weeks ago, when he compared Grandia to a long-running book series in which the characters 'grow up' with you, and I think that comparison is definitely justified. I feel like I've come to know these characters over the last thirty-five hours, and seen them grow as people. Grandia often has a frustrating habit of trying to mask the serious with the playful. In fact, it does exactly this after the aforementioned scene, restoring Justin's recklessness by throwing a fake damsel in distress his way (because hey, we need to finish the first disc with a boss, even if it undermines all our character development). But to be honest I think that silliness needs to be there, because if it wasn't, the payoff for the serious stuff wouldn't feel quite so great.

One last thing I want to touch on before moving on from Grandia for this week is how the game builds and introduces its world to the player. It's something that I've been wanting to touch on for a couple of weeks, but I feel like in light of how the first disc ends, now is the perfect time to address it. In most Japanese RPGs the player sees the extent of the game's world right from the start - you're given a world map and although there are parts of it that you won't be able to reach until you unlock new methods of traversal, you know you'll be able to access all of it eventually. Instead of doing this, Grandia reveals the extent of its world gradually, showing you a limited view of the entire world and then moving the proverbial goalposts every time Justin travels beyond them. The effect of this is to make Justin's adventure feel like a major undertaking - a voyage into previously uncharted territory, where the known world expands with every border crossed. It seems like a small thing, but it's one that I think works well in the context of the game's overarching story.

I finally made it to Grandia's second disc last night. From what I've seen so far, the game looks pretty determined to settle back into the quasi-episodic model it adopted for much of the first disc. I'm just hoping that comes with more of these serious moments of character growth for its lead cast, since that's where it seems to be strongest. Expect more Grandia talk in next week's Backlogbook.

Oxenfree

This is the only image for Oxenfree in the GB database, which makes me think I probably should have taken some screengrabs while I was playing
This is the only image for Oxenfree in the GB database, which makes me think I probably should have taken some screengrabs while I was playing

When I put a nice 100%-shaped ribbon on LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga last week, I wasn't sure what I'd be picking up in its place to fill the void. By and large, I still haven't filled it - I spent most of my weekend playing a lot more Grandia than I might have done otherwise, but there wasn't a new 'big' game to step into that collect-a-thon's brick-shaped shoes. Instead, I turned my attention to the shortest subset of my Pile of Shame - those indie darlings perfect for getting through in a single sitting. Last week I entertained the possibility of playing through Journey, but I decided to postpone that particular plan and ended up sitting through Oxenfree instead. I booted it up through Steam and spent four hours of my rainy Sunday afternoon getting to grips with Night School Studio's debut offering.

Oxenfree's most notable feature is the way it handles conversation and dialogue choices, something that's been a feature in games of this kind for a long while now, but which feels refined and polished to a mirror sheen here. The ability to walk while talking, or interrupt other characters with your own interjections lends a more natural feel to the dialogue, giving the game's narrative a satisfying flow that makes conversations engaging and easy to follow. Then there's the content of the dialogue choices themselves, which very rarely has any impact on in-game events, but instead dictates protagonist Alex's standing with her peers. In that respect, Oxenfree is less about dictating the path the story takes, and more about getting to know (and influencing the opinions of) other characters. Basically, much like the era of high school it's trying to replicate, Oxenfree is a popularity contest. Unlike high school, however, it's a popularity contest that you'll want to take part in.

A game built around its characters like this is only ever going to be as successful as its cast, and in that respect Oxenfree has a pretty damn strong hand. Each of the five main characters fits comfortably into a teen movie archetype - Ren is a loud classroom joker type, Clarissa is hot but a bitch, and Nona is quiet and reserved, leaving Alex and Jonas as the central every-man figures. However, these characters aren't confined to their archetypes, and as the game progresses you get to know a lot more about their insecurities and why they are the way they are. It might sound like a daft comparison, but I was reminded of the Persona games, where the characters seem easy to compartmentalise at first, but end up developing beyond the stereotypes you initially associate them with. This doesn't just apply to its characters either - Oxenfree's setting is a member of the cast in and of itself, and uncovering the mysterious history of Edward Island is as much a drive to keep playing as getting to know the kids stranded on it. The visual presentation is simple but charming and cohesive, and the relatively distant camera helps to showcase the gorgeous environments while leaving the emotions of the characters to be conveyed by their dialogue rather than their faces.

If I had to level some criticism at Oxenfree, it would probably be at its dearth of mechanics. While the conversations and dialogue choices are the star of the game, it's a pretty bold move to hang the entire game upon them. This would be less of an issue if the game ran to a movie-length two hours, but at four hours from beginning to end, it becomes an even bigger ask. I don't think it helps that the only other interactive mechanic, namely the radio tuning, is used both so infrequently and so un-intuitively. It feels like there could be scope for expanding this mechanic and using it for some more complex puzzle solving, but as things stand it's basically a trial-and-error exercise of turning the dial until you tune into the correct frequency. I feel like there's at least slightly more depth to the radio than this, given one of the game's Achievements mentions tuning into secret radio broadcasts, but in my time with the game I didn't find any of those, and nor did I find any environmental clues pointing me towards them.

While a single four-hour session was enough to see me through Oxenfree's story, I definitely didn't see everything that it has to offer in that time. I'm informed the game has multiple endings depending on the choices you make, as is standard for the genre, and it would be cool to go back at some point to see at least one other potential outcome for the story. There are also a few collectibles scattered around Edward Island which I didn't pick up on my first run through. Perhaps my biggest impetus for going back through Oxenfree, though, is the fact that my girlfriend Alice wants to check the game out for herself. We have a few games queued up for playing already, but this seems like a good one to add to the list. Speaking of which...

Telltale's The Walking Dead: Season One Episode Three - Long Road Ahead

Hello, old friend
Hello, old friend

I'm a big fan of the first season of Telltale's The Walking Dead. I made no secrets about that when I first played it in the spring of 2013, and subsequently awarded it a spot on the list of my Top Ten Games of that year. My girlfriend Alice is a big fan of The Walking Dead TV series, and although I've never seen a single episode of that version of Robert Kirkman's acclaimed fictional universe, I felt pretty certain that she'd find a lot to like in Telltale's episodic adventure. In the summer of last year, we started playing it, making it through the first two episodes at a decent pace. Then, without going into too much detail, real life stuff happened and we had to leave Lee and Clementine by the wayside for a while.

This week, we finally brought the series out of its long hibernation and made it through the third episode, playing through it in two sittings over Wednesday and Thursday nights. I'm reluctant to write anything more about it here, since we haven't finished the season yet, and I'd rather share my thoughts on the whole thing when we're done. We still have two episodes to go, and I don't think we'll be leaving it six months to get around to those. After that, I'm not sure if we're going to press on to Season Two, or play something else altogether. She's pretty keen to experience more video games as a spectator, if not an active player, and I have a shortlist of titles that I'd like to see her reactions to. Shadow of the Colossus is a major contender - I've been wanting to replay it for a while, I have the remastered HD version installed on my PS3, and I'd love to see what she makes of it as an onlooker. The aforementioned Oxenfree is another option.

Borderlands

I never got to play most of the original Borderlands' DLC, and this seems like as good a time as any
I never got to play most of the original Borderlands' DLC, and this seems like as good a time as any

I could just write "my buddy Duncan and I played some more Borderlands this week" here, and leave it at that. That's all my time with the game this week really amounts to. The big revelation with Borderlands this week comes from the fact that I've transferred my save file from my old Xbox 360 (which I'm slightly worried may be dying) over to my relatively new Xbox One. While this was done for reasons of preservation more than anything else, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that in making the transfer, I was given access to all four of the game's DLC packs. The only one I've ever played previously is The Secret Armory of General Knoxx, which means I've just gained access to three new reasons to explore more of Pandora. I'm not sure that Duncan is particularly keen, but if worst comes to worst I can always check out the DLC solo once we've finished the main campaign.

The Lost Pages

The Lost Pages is the section of the Backlogbook where I part company with those games that have outstayed their welcome in my Pile of Shame. This week, I'll be saying goodbye to two ill-advised downloadable purchases from the Xbox LIVE Marketplace. Both games are part of my backlog for what amounts to the same reason (they were on sale and I picked them up cheaply), but the reasoning for getting rid of both is a little different....

[Prototype]

No Caption Provided

I bought Prototype in an Xbox LIVE sale a few years ago. At the time I was keen to check it out, partly because it seemed like a pretty cool open-world superhero game, but mainly because I didn't have a PlayStation 3 back then and therefore didn't have access to the critically superior open-world superhero game known as inFamous. Fast-forward to the present day and I have both a PS3 and a PS4, and all the inFamous games available on both platforms. In my present situation, therefore, I don't see the justification in holding onto a game that was billed "a poor man's inFamous" by a number of video game outlets. Sorry Prototype, but I'm going to keep holding out for a different hero.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD

No Caption Provided

Oh man, talk about a burn. I was one of those foolish few, the ones who believed that this HD remaster might have been something more than a quick cash-grab on Activision's part. I hoped and prayed that this would be a faithful recreation of some of the games that defined that formative period through the late 90s and early 2000s. Not only did I buy this, but I bought the THPS3 "Revert Pack" DLC, or whatever they called that thing, so desperate was I to recapture those memories. But even with nostalgia playing into the equation, there's no denying that THPS HD is just plain bad. Everything about the game's physics model feels just slightly off, and the cumulative effect of those minor discrepancies is a major affront to any long-term player's muscle memory. That's not even acknowledging the fact the whole thing is a buggy, nigh unplayable mess. I regret buying this, and wouldn't want to force myself through it if you paid me for the displeasure. That's why I'm bailing on this one.

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Wow, that turned out a lot longer than I expected. I guess that's what happens when you spend time with four games in a single week. Next week's Backlogbook entry won't be this long, I promise. There'll probably be another (much shorter) section on my continued progress through Grandia, and some thoughts on whatever game I decide to pick up post-Oxenfree. Oh, and two more games will bite the bullet and get shafted from my Pile of Shame. All that and hopefully not too much more to look forward to in next week's instalment of the Backlogbook. Until then, thanks very much for reading guys. Take care and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Grandia (PS1C)

Last Week - Week Three (23/01/2017)Next Week - Week Five (06/02/2017)
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