Indie Game of the Week 19: Tales from the Borderlands (Again, Again)

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And so we return, once again and for the last time, to our merry band of screw-ups mid-caper, as we draw our episode-by-episode review to Tales from the Borderlands to a close. Before we do all the usual spoiler-blocked business, though, a few closing thoughts that should be fine to read no matter what your status with this game is, whether you've completed it yourself, only checked out the complimentary first episode on PSN, or still pondering whether or not to start. I could say that this is my favorite series Telltale Games have ever done, but that might seem a bit misleading since I've only completed the two: the other being Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, which definitely had a few qualities of its own. However, I can say that in spite of its legion of technical issues and bugs, Tales from the Borderlands does right by its source material, by the characters it both invents and borrows from the wider Borderlands universe, and sticks the landing in a satisfactory way that not only sees the game to a worthy conclusion but makes the player's choices feel like they had an effect. I'll get more into just how it accomplishes that in the episode 5 round-up, but take it from me - if you're hesitating on going all in on an episodic game because you don't know whether or not it'll pay off in the end, I can say that Tales from the Borderlands is one of the few that pulls it off. At least, I was pretty happy with how everything concluded, for the most part.

In the previous two Indie Game of the Week appraisals for this game, in this pre-spoiler space where I don't discuss the story or the game's few puzzles, we already tackled how the game largely relies on QTE-"enhanced" scripted action scenes for about 40% of each episode's run-time, and most of the rest are spent in conversation trees. We already talked about the aforementioned bugs that, I've been reliably informed, are due to the singular "Telltale engine" that every game of theirs is built with. Very few of these bugs are game-breaking and/or necessitate a restart (I think that happened once to me, and I wrote about it in the last review), but they're definitely immersion shattering, as characters temporarily vanish and snap into new poses or awkwardly shift on their axis when changing direction. It's some weaksauce movement animation for the most part, though the faces are marginally better. When you build so much of your game around action scenes, issues like those get all that more noticeable too. To that effect, I think the game is at its best visually when we're treated to the opening credits, as the various "a Telltale Games series" and "based on Gearbox's Borderlands" type headers are cleverly integrated in a frozen scene that we're shown from various angles. They remain a stylish highlight, though I can't really speak to whether or not that was the in-house Telltale style or something they borrowed from the Borderlands games (which, I can just about recall, had some stylish opening credits of their own).

Never got tired of these.
Never got tired of these.

Ultimately, though, the visuals don't matter as much as the story, the voice acting, and the way Telltale incorporates player choice into how events play out. I'd say TftB does all three quite well, the first thanks in part to building from a couple of viewpoints distinct from anything the previous Borderlands games have covered - in those games, you were always a powerful Vault Hunter, and you were surrounded by either villains or vendors. Tales posits how a corporate stooge who has too much of a conscience to get anywhere up the ladder and become a Vault Hunter's potential antagonist, and a con-artist who has to rely on other talents beyond the martial to survive, might make their fortune in a harsh sci-fi universe that regularly mines gallows humor out of commonplace violence and unexpected deaths. That goes double for those without plot immunity; the many friends, hanger-ons and recurring rogues, many of whom wouldn't last five seconds on Pandora if not for extraordinary dumb luck. It's silly to think so much about mortality in a comedic adventure game, but not when the comedy is so regularly extracted from people exploding or being eaten by giant monsters. Heck, the series' most enduring character (to my chagrin) is an omnicidal psychopathic CEO who regularly talks about all the people he's murdered. Building characters that the players get attached to isn't easy in a world like that, but it serves Telltale well enough: they had a similar balancing act in the equally hostile world of The Walking Dead, establishing characters only to have them killed off by ravenous undead either in spite of or because of the player's choices. While Borderlands feels like a strangely upbeat setting to use after the morbid The Walking Dead and the grim noir of The Wolf Among Us, its casual acquaintance with sending folk to the hereafter allows Telltale's (and Gearbox's) writers to stretch their comedy muscles while still flirting with the idea of having half the cast die off because of unfortunate player choices.

I've had reservations with both the studios involved with this project before now; specifically, how Telltale makes their adventure games simplified and a little too dependent on "the big decisions" in lieu of anything more engaging to the ol' gray matter, and how Gearbox tends to rely on so much obnoxious meme humor, one-dimensional stereotypes and movie references to prop up some admittedly compelling shoot-n-loot gameplay. Somehow, though, working on Tales from the Borderlands has brought out the best in each other. Telltale can go full ham on the QTE sequences because they belong in such an action-oriented game series, and Gearbox can use the narrative direction and temperance of Telltale to create characters and situations that don't feel like the comedy equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. It's really strange to say that I liked a Telltale game with almost no "classic" graphic adventure game elements, and that I liked a Gearbox game for its humor, but that's the unusual position Tales from the Borderlands has put me in.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

All right, let's get into the nitty-gritty here: we'll sort out what happens in Episode 5 to conclude the series and then move onto a character study. The latter's mostly there because it was one of the more inconsistent parts of the game, but at the same time also occasionally one of its strongest.

Episode 5: The Vault of the Traveler

The game realizes it has a lot of story to pack into a single episode, so almost all the resulting scenes on Helios comprise the episode's "cold open". Handsome Jack takes over Helios, attempting to cut open Rhys's body and install a robotic skeleton in there that Jack can control directly from Rhys's cybernetics. He's foiled by the fact that his office chair has wheels, letting Rhys escape with the last of Gortys's upgrades. Meanwhile, Fiona and Sasha have seized upon an opportunity to escape from Yvette and her goons, dropping them into a jail cell as they make their escape to the caravan-ship with Rhys. They get separated, however, and Rhys takes a contrite Yvette with him to the station's power core to eliminate Jack, as the others attempt to get to the hangar bay without incurring his wrath. This leads to a shoot-out in the bay, as Vallory's goons turn on the sisters and August makes the difficult choice of siding with them instead of his boss. Sasha, Gortys and August end up leaving on the caravan-ship, leaving Fiona and Loader Bot to find the nearest escape pod. Meanwhile, Rhys has succeeded in taking out the power core, but can't quite shake Jack, who continues to hound him in the escape pod area. Eventually, Fiona, Rhys and Yvette all escape the collapsing station, but Loader Bot stays behind to keep Kroger busy, who can't help but to take a last few shots at the noble droid as Rhys looks back in horror. Roll opening credits.

Rhys and Jack never did patch things over. In fact, I insisted on that being the case.
Rhys and Jack never did patch things over. In fact, I insisted on that being the case.

Shortly after the landing, we see a scene where Rhys finally rids himself of Handsome Jack after the latter forces his way back into Rhys's head, with Rhys painfully tearing out all his cybernetic parts and collapsing. Fiona, meanwhile, finds a now colossal Gortys fighting an equally large Vault monster with Vallory trying to blow the poor robot up with her rocket launcher. However, she is merely honoring Gortys's request: Gortys is the reason the "Traveler" is even on Pandora at all, due to some Atlas tech that summons it and its Vault onto this plane of existence, and she needs to be destroyed if the Traveler is to be stopped from rampaging across Pandora. Vallory doesn't quite survive the titan's wrath, but Fiona and Sasha are there in the last moments to hit Gortys's beacon and eliminate both the gigantic beings. It's a bittersweet ending to their Vault conquest aspirations, but we later find out that someone's not tossed in the towel quite yet. We're then done "in media res"-ing - in the months since that happened, Rhys has replaced his cybernetics with Atlas tech, taking the certificate of ownership of Atlas from the broken remains of Jack's office, intending to start it back up again while Fiona and Sasha once again returned to Hollow Point to eke out a living as scam artists before both Rhys and Fiona finds themselves the captors of the mysterious masked stranger. The MMS has finally brought them both to the remains of Helios Station for a purpose, along with another masked stranger delivered by an inexplicably-still-alive Kroger. However, the stranger turns on Kroger and snaps his neck, and the bandit is revealed to be none other than Vaughn, who has corralled the surviving Hyperion white collar workers into some semblance of a society on Pandora's surface. Rhys and Fiona are happy to see the dorky accountant again, but the question remains: who is this masked stranger?

Well, turns out it was Loader Bot this whole time. The nearly non-operational robot managed to salvage Jack's robot skeleton, and since then has been eager to discover why, exactly, Fiona destroyed his only robot friend in the world. Satisfied with their stories, Loader Bot reveals his plan: they will bring the colossal Gortys back with her recovered parts, and then destroy the Traveler once and for all so that Gortys might live. To do this, he needs Fiona, Rhys, Sasha (with a sporty new do!), Vaughn and his "Children of Helios" and three others to create two Vault Hunter teams. The three others are player-determined, and the player is given a rundown of all their potential allies, including whether or not they're willing to help. This is the game's "choices determine what will happen" masterstroke, and I'll reveal who my final three choices were during the usual decision rundown. What follows is a big, exciting action scene as the two teams - one goading the Traveler into teleporting into a specific place, and the other to drive the caravan-ship into its core shortly before it materializes so that they might destroy its teleport "gland" to hold it in place, at which point Helios's still-operational "moonshot beam" can destroy it. Without getting into details, there's a lot of great Voltron jokes, one near-death scare, some beefs get squashed, and the two protagonists open the Vault's treasure together followed by a sudden fade to black, because really the contents don't matter. It's not like we're taking all that loot for a NG+ run, you know? The end. Decision time!

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Fiona: Finch, the Bebop-like half of Vallory's two chief goons, momentarily distracted Fiona from reaching Vallory during the first ill-fated attempt to destroy the Traveler. He has zero strength left after a protracted fight with the immense beast, so he instead attempts to goad Fiona into shooting him one last time by intimating that the missing Sasha went down fighting. I guess it's not a major decision, and you could argue that Fiona spending one of those derringer rounds in his chest would be merciful, but I didn't play my Fiona to be a vengeful goddess. If I didn't let her adoptive father's betrayal turn her into a killer, some half-assed taunts from a dying nobody won't either. The good cop/bad cop decision is your customary "we added this choice in as a joke, because it doesn't matter" inclusion, as Rhys immediately forgets he's supposed to be the good cop during their interrogation of the masked stranger and it all falls apart. As for the shipping, well, Fiona calls 'em like she sees 'em. Or rather, I do. I think we'd both prefer it if Sasha ends up with Rhys instead of August, even if I personally mellowed on the vicious heavy by the end of this episode.

Rhys: Man, that's a large percentage of people who saved Yvette, huh? This actually boils down to making good on two decisions: letting Yvette out of the jail so she doesn't explode with the station (though maybe she gets out either way?) and then not letting her fall into space when hanging off the station's power core. Whether or not you buy Yvette's explanation that she was only helping Vasquez to ensure that Rhys would be kept alive - she did punch the fake Vasquez when he revealed that Rhys was dead, though she sure didn't seem that shaken up about it - it would've been one hell of a dick move to kick her hand away and let her simultaneously freeze and asphyxiate in deep space. The AI Jack imprisonment was a mistake on my part, one of a few I immediately regretted because I saw the timer tick down and panicked. The alternate was, of course, to destroy the last piece of cybernetics housing Jack to annihilate him permanently. Obviously, that would be the choice I'd have made if I was thinking clearly. The last choice refers to Rhys's own position on the Rhys/Sasha relationship, and I guess the evasive answer is also the most cowardly because very few people went for it.

All right, we actually have another one of these screens to process, so let's check it out:

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Some of these options weren't available to me, in all fairness, and some were a little... obfuscated, leading to one inclusion here that - had I my druthers - would not be there at all.

  • Felix: Felix, the elderly con artist, is available if you chose to warn him about the briefcase. Turns out your old accomplice Felix was going for a solo long-con that nonetheless benefited the sisters, for as much as his apparent betrayal would have you believe otherwise. He actually disarmed the suitcase bomb, left the money in the caravan's armoire (it was in there the whole time?), filled the case with fake money and then let it blow up. This would mean that everyone - including the sisters, so they could have plausible deniability if captured - assumed the money was gone. Felix in fact took one million and left the other nine to Fiona and Sasha, telling them that their futures had more important things in store than a life of grifts and marks. It's a touching scene, but it's also relayed remotely as Felix wisely believes he'd be shot on sight, and so he does not appear in-person for the final showdown. However, with the huge windfall he gave Fiona, she has more than enough to hire the "mystery Vault Hunter" to take his place.
  • Zer0: Zer0, the ninja Vault Hunter, becomes available if, as Fiona, you started to refer to yourself as a Vault Hunter around other people. This would attribute the party's accomplishments to Fiona and bolstered her reputation as an upcoming Vault Hunter, drawing the attention of Zer0. However, we were a bit too modest it seems, and Zer0 became unavailable to us.
  • Springs: Springs, the feisty mechanic, becomes available if you choose to launch Scooter's satellite into space as a memorial. We didn't, and so Springs wants nothing to do with us. Hey, I still maintain that it would've been blasted out of the sky by Helios if we had. It's not like that thing didn't have a giant satellite laser beam.
  • August: August, the tough mercenary, helps us if we don't blame him for the botched con when we meet Vallory for the first time. Turns out the two are related, so I'm starting to gather that Vasquez would've taken the shot to the chest regardless of who we blamed - it's not like Vallory would've murdered her own child. Or maybe so? She was kind of intense.
  • Athena: Athena, the indomitable Vault Hunter, was an easy pick for anyone looking for someone who knows what she's doing in a fight. She'll help you if you smoothed things over between her and her girlfriend after she gets knocked out and dragged away. That's a really large proportion of people who chose to bring her along, huh.
  • Cassius: Cassius, the slightly senile Atlas scientist, is an option if you didn't let Athena try to kill him. He's the one who helps Vaughn escape Vallory's goons and recover from his injuries. No idea what role he'd play in the final fight though, because I had better choices to select between. I suspect he might've played a role similar to Felix, where he doesn't actually appear but gives you support of another kind.
  • Claptrap: Claptrap, the annoying robot, was the mystery Vault Hunter you could hire if you had enough money saved. That's what all the scrimping with Fiona was for. However, getting the money from Felix is another way to afford his asking price. Claptrap is still Claptrap, albeit the heavily armed one from the Pre-Sequel (who I believe is also the only one left), and I'd probably have selected absolutely anyone else - including Handsome Jack's shitty diamond pony - if the game had told me who it was ahead of time. How is anyone supposed to resist the mystery box, though?

Anyway, that's going to do it for these rundowns. I probably didn't need to expound on the entire episode's story, but at least it lends some context to all the decisions in case anyone had forgotten where they come in. What follows next is a character-specific rundown for the entire series:

Rhys: Rhys was a conflicted character that I can't be entirely sure I played right. You're introduced to him as this inveterate corporate ladder-climber, angling for a big office before Vasquez takes that dream away and kickstarts Rhys's involvement with the plot. You could make the case that his disillusionment of getting so far, betraying who-knows how many employees and underlings to get to that position, even modifying his own body for the edge his eye, brain port and cybernetic arm gives him, is sufficient motivation for him to realize that his aspirations in Hyperion were for naught and he'd be better off grabbing whatever money he can and getting out, perhaps flipping the bird to Vasquez as he flies away with a huge stack of Vault treasure. There's a bit of a tabula rasa element too: he's the protagonist, or one of them, and the player ought to be the one to imprint upon him a conscience, or instead choose to play him as a complete asshole. It feels like he'd become a heroic figure as the game went on regardless, though I'd be curious to see what this game would be like if the player made the most evil choices with one or both characters. Would Loader Bot have even let them live past the first episode?

Fiona: A lot of the above applies to Fiona too. Despite her love of guns, Sasha always seemed like the more innocent of the two, and Fiona had the lion's share of selfish decisions to make. She'd be the one spiting Felix as he got away, or killing off Finch, or stealing from that dying man all the way back in the first episode. I like that she had a couple of mentor figures in Felix and Athena, and was a young woman still finding her way in this world with just a tiny gun and a lot of moxie (and a gun fanatic sister, to whom she was devoted and vice versa). Again, the blank slate approach was present here, not only in determining the level of compassion Fiona exhibits to her friends and foes, but her career options also. I thought the money-scrounging and subsequent money-spending was a fun part of her character too, because no-one plays a Borderlands game - especially as a Vault Hunter - without an eye for opportunistic acquisitions.

Vaughn: I was disappointed with what they did with Vaughn for the most part, because it felt like they ran out of ideas and sidelined him halfway through the game until the final, final act. If he's not getting paralysed for almost a whole episode, he's completely vanishing for the next one and a half. The joke with Vaughn was that he's supposed to be even less conditioned for a life on Pandora than Rhys, being a foot shorter and fifty pounds lighter, with a nervous temperament and no cybernetic arm to rely on. Instead, he acclimatizes far more readily, and even finds that he prefers the hard graft settler's life to his old one of quarterly projection spreadsheets. When you can't find jokes or a comedic scenario for the meek but weirdly ripped accountant who is getting a taste for danger and excitement, that's a shame. Could just be that Chris Hardwick (the VA) is a busy guy.

Sasha: There's a distinct trap of turning a role like Sasha's into the "prize", which the game fell afoul of a couple of times. Without getting all FemFreq on you all there are times when Sasha's role seems to deteriorate to "let's rescue Sasha!" or "let's fight for Sasha's affection!", despite the fact that she's a fiercely independent hustler who can presumably make her own decisions and hold her own in a firefight, usually to the extent that she's saving Rhys or Fiona, depending on whichever's in the driver's seat. That came to a head with the finale of the game, where she seemingly sacrifices herself to destroy the Traveler's ability to teleport and lies dying on the ground until Felix's magical resurrection watch (?!) brings her back. (Speaking of which: What? Rhys's idea of using his tears to save her made as much sense.) She then gets spoken about while she's off-camera as Rhys and Fiona figure out where the Rhys/Sasha romance is heading. Kind of inauspicious, but when she wasn't being treated like an object she was often my favorite character in any given scene - even if her default expression was a slightly smug look.

Loader Bot: All right, so Sasha's actually my second favorite character. Loader Bot was the clear stand-out here, as a role that kept growing in unexpected ways. I think you're supposed to get thrown off the scent that he's somehow important with that first episode's decision to let Loader Bot sacrifice himself to save Rhys, if Rhys lets him. After that is a procession of noble sacrifices, each destroying more of Loader Bot until he was eventually a one-armed torso incapable of movement left behind on an exploding space station. That they didn't even give him a name other than "Loader Bot" and he had the same default yellow paint work as the many grunt-level loader bots you destroy in Borderlands 2 by the bowlful were other smokescreens. Of course, not only is Loader Bot one of the most important characters, he's the catalyst for the in media res framing device and the instigator of the finale, which finally gets everyone the big exciting conclusion they missed the first time around. Through it all, Loader Bot has this sardonic, self-sacrificing personality where he realizes he's eminently expendable, but doesn't mind so much if his master (Rhys) is a worthy enough individual to serve. Ultimately, though, you can tell that Gortys means more to him than Asimov's three rules, and a lot of those end game events seems spurred by this unspoken bond between the two. He's easily the hero of the game, regardless of how much stock you put into his overall importance.

Gortys: I feared the worst when the inanimate Gortys sphere became a friendly but hopelessly naive robot companion, who was as sweet and genuine as Loader Bot was reticent and humble or Claptrap was loud and irritating. The writers made that naivety work though, creating an adorable character who - though you knew it was coming - made it all the more painful that she had to be destroyed. I kind of like the plus-sized look they gave her for her final two forms. It's not the usual slim gynoid look - I'd imagine most tend to look like EDI from Mass Effect, were you to stick them all in a room and compare - but it worked for her character and as an expansion of her initial spheroid form. Besides, Steven Universe is proving that it's probably a good idea to use every potential body type - endo- and ectomorphs alike - to expand the range of one's character design.

The Rest: Felix was an interesting character that, unfortunately, had to be sidelined before we got much of him. I say "had to", because he clearly had something of an Obi Wan role in the game - in order for Fiona and Sasha to become fully independent, they couldn't rely on him forever, even if that meant him apparently betraying the two. That the sentimental old man not only scammed them for their benefit but left behind gifts that would help both of them, meant he clearly had every angle covered from the start. Not enough cool older guys in fiction, though I suspect a character like that would've chafed with the humorously incompetent aspect of the game's ensemble comedy approach. I liked that you could change August's mind about being the bad guy, even if his loyalty was always going to be to his mother, and I wonder if a Sasha/August thing might've happened if Rhys demonstrated zero romantic interest. Dude was an unrepentant asshole too, but that doesn't mean he couldn't occasionally do the right thing if he felt like it. Vasquez was way too much of a one-dimensional corporate villain (I believe I called him an "Ellis from Die Hard type" originally) until he died, at which point you started feeling kind of bad for him. His bid to take Rhys's management position before Rhys could operated on a similar level of seat-of-his-pants improvisation, and he badly needed that Vault Key to ensure he wouldn't end up the same way as the poor sucker he ejected into space during his "promotion". Couple that with the many indignities his corpse goes through, and the fact he was mercilessly bullied by Jack as a younger executive, and I was almost regretting letting him take two barrels to the gut. Athena, Zer0, Springs, Scooter and Claptrap were really just there as extended cameos, half of whom would've worked better had I played the game they came from, but between Athena's cute lesbian relationship with Springs (cute in the way that it was heartfelt and genuine, like they were a totally normal couple instead of being one girl and one ultra-deadly assassin) and her Space Sophitia-style weapon combo, I think I know who I'm playing as if I ever get around to the Pre-Sequel. With Yvette, I never did figure out how much of her was a cold-blooded opportunistic traitor and how much was "my friends are never going to survive alone down there, I need to look out for them, even if that means working with their enemy". I saved her as a matter of course, and things seemed to work out, but I wouldn't begrudge anyone who lost all their trust in her. Vallory and Cassius were a little more one-note, as the hard-as-nails crime lord and crazy scientist respectively, but their character designs were cool at least.

That's going to have to do it. I've written more about this series than is probably healthy, and I'd like to get back to polishing off Ultima Underworld for May Maturity before the week's time limit is up. Thanks to everyone who has been following these rundowns, and thanks to the handful of folk like @sparky_buzzsaw who recommended the game in the first place. I wouldn't call myself a new Telltale convert, but I'm glad I gave it a shot.

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The Top Shelf: Case Files 136-145: "And Someday You Feed On Lasagna"

Welcome to The Top Shelf, a weekly feature wherein I sort through my extensive PS2 collection for the diamonds in the rough. My goal here is to narrow down a library of 185 games to a svelte 44: the number of spaces on my bookshelf set aside for my PS2 collection. That means a whole lot of vetting and a whole lot of science that needs to be done, ten games at a time. Be sure to check out the Case File Repository for more details and a full list of games/links!

Case File 136: Konami's Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

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  • Original Release (JP): 17/11/2004
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (remastered for PS3)

I didn't think I would be talking about Naked Snake's Naked Jungle Adventures again so soon, but I suppose it was an inevitability. As some of you might already know, while I've yet to actually play my copy of the original PS2 version of the third game in Kojima's "cool guy" action series Metal Gear Solid, I'm very familiar with the PS3 remastered version - those travails have been thoroughly journalized with this oddly formatted "reactions" LP series (links at the end). If only I'd known how prolific reacting to things was on YouTube, I could've cashed in. Of the two core Metal Gear Solid games released on the PlayStation 2, MGS3 is easily my favorite. It made the stealth challenging, incorporating "camouflage indexes" that measured the conspicuousness of your current gear relative to your immediate environment, its boss fights were memorable and clever (well, except for maybe the bee man), and its Cold War plot of a psychotic lightning colonel, a highly advanced Soviet battletank, a triple-agent femme fatale, a very young Russian officer who was proud of his gun-twirling but not so proud that he wouldn't meow loudly to call in the kitty cavalry when needed, and a near-mythical badass hero in The Boss, who had every angle covered from the start but couldn't let her favorite pupil or fellow WW2 veterans know about her true goals. Great soundtrack, dumb humor, some neat action sequences, the ever-present espionage thriller movie aspirations, and a fan wiki's worth of new MGS lore and callbacks for the franchise zealots to greedily devour. The game's a trip and, in retrospect, incredibly impressive for its time.

Yet, you know, there's still that little minor complication that I still don't like the MGS games all that much. Each one has been better than the last, at least in terms of mechanics and gameplay - Kojima's nothing if not an ambitious game designer who shoots for the moon and learns from his errors - and I'll admit to playing MGSV for far longer than is healthy. (In fact, I'm still planning on going back someday to sweep up those side ops, if I find a lull in my gaming schedule.) MGS3 isn't perhaps a game I'll ever boot up again, since I'm not sure I can handle how antiquated it would probably feel compared to MGSV or even MGS4, but playing through that series a few years back has really imparted to me why it was so important. It has my respect, if not my love. For those reasons and more, MGS3's getting added to my reserves pile: the shortlist of "definite maybes" that will fill out the rest of the shelf should nothing better come along in the second round. Considered.

Case File 137: The Code Monkeys's Garfield

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  • Original Release (EU): 19/11/2004
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (also out on PC)

Metal Gear Solid 3 is a bona fide classic, but it's not what people come to a PS2-focused blog series to read about. They're here for the Lasagna Cat himself - the big orange tabby who makes us all happy, the King of Yuks, the foremost feline farceur of the funny pages: Jim Davis's legendary Garfield the Cat. Ask your parents. OK, so what's so special about this Europe-exclusive Garfield licensed game? Well, not much, if I'm being honest. However, developers The Code Monkeys came upon a fairly original take for a game based on a cat who barely moves except to eat, and I have to respect that they went for something both innovative and incredibly banal (but not necessarily in a bad way) instead of the same old licensed platformer or mini-game collection. Jon Arbuckle leaves his home in Garfield's care with the promise of lasagna if the house is still in one piece when he returns, and Odie immediately trashes it while Garfield naps. Realizing his love of layered pasta dishes supersedes his laziness, Garfield grabs a vacuum cleaner and gets to work restoring the suburban dwelling to its immaculate original condition. The game is, in a sense, one of those adventure games that only lets you carry so much stuff at once, but instead of using this inventory to solve environmental puzzles, you're simply returning each item to its original resting place. It involves some exploration and guesswork, as you figure out what goes where, and the juggling of many misplaced objects at once through inventory micromanagement and storage bins. You can also use the vacuum cleaner to remove spiders and pull out drawers to walk on to open up routes to objects otherwise out of reach. There's no built-in speedrun aspect, but it seems inadvertently built for such a set-up: were you to determine the most effective route, you could probably beat the game in less than an hour. Jon gives you something like eight before he is scheduled to come back home, which is more than enough for a blind run. It's safe to say that this game is kind of ridiculous. The lack of challenge or any kind of health system/game over state means it's as casual as they come, especially for a retail console game, and the vast majority of the time is simply spent picking an object up, walking over to where it should be (there's a transparent outline for every object to help you out) and putting it back. I actually kind of like it, though: both as a novel custom-built premise for a game based on the nondescript slice-of-life adventures of a sardonic house cat, and as a chill and relaxing few hours spent on a simple menial task. Almost like the 3D platformer equivalent of a jigsaw puzzle (the game has a jigsaw puzzle in it too, which might be what inspired this comparison) or a hidden objects game.

There's no universe where I'll claim it's one of the best forty-four games for the PlayStation 2, even factoring in personal preference and that I've only played a fraction of the console's full library, but then one of the secret goals of this feature has always been to shine a spotlight on the more modest games in my collection. Eliminated.

Case File 138: The Behemoth's Alien Hominid

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  • Original Release (NA): 21/11/2004
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (also out on Xbox, GameCube, PC, GBA and... Gizmondo?)

Back in the halcyon days of the internet, or at least the halcyon days of the late 90s when there was actually stuff on there besides rudimentary home pages, usenet groups and "Mr T Ate My Balls" fan ring zones, I spent a lot of online time admiring the works of the gifted contributors to Newgrounds, one of the earliest portals for Flash-created animated shorts and games. Most of it was dreck, but even that was fun in its own way, as the commentators of that site could be ruthless towards those they perceived to be less than perfect to the extent that the animators then started making flash cartoons specifically to call out the sad jerks who kept voting everything down. Populated in equal parts by creative talents and vindictive assholes, it blazed a trail for the likes of YouTube to follow. Yet, the site's co-creator Tom Fulp always had his eye on breaking out and making his own video games, which is fair enough for a guy who named his Flash animation website after a synonym for the Neo Geo console. So far, the company he and Newgrounds regulars Dan Paladin and John Baez (as well as a couple others who have since left) created - The Behemoth - has made and continues to make games that resemble Flash cartoons but ostensibly offer a much richer gaming experience. Presently, I've actually yet to see that happen. At least, that was certainly the case with the paper-thin Alien Hominid, The Behemoth's first proper retail game. It's an incredibly challenging, and violent, side-scrolling brawler/shooter hybrid that began life as one of many games on Newgrounds (as did the original Meat Boy, in fairness) and did enough business to help fund The Behemoth's subsequent game, the better-received Castle Crashers. Alien Hominid definitely feels like an up-rezzed Flash game, for better or worse.

I don't really hate the game, but then nothing in The Behemoth's oeuvre as really resonated with me, even as a life-long fan of Newgrounds. I thought both Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers were fun for about half an hour, built as they were like classic arcade/Neo Geo games (I tell ya, that name was no coincidence), and BattleBlock Theater had one too many issues for me to recommend it. Pit People might be neat, but at this point I'm no longer inclined to find out. Eliminated.

Case File 139: Level-5's Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (JP): 27/11/2004
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (remastered for 3DS and mobile devices)

It's been said that Level-5's previous work with the Dark Cloud games was simply a dry run for taking the reins for Enix's (now Square Enix's) biggest property as their most important project by that point. Those people would be wrong, of course, since Dark Cloud 2 rules everything. Still, there's no getting past the fact that Level-5 proved themselves worthy of keeping Akira Toriyama's pun-laden fantasy world of interchangeable women with giant foreheads and antagonists with pointy ears in good stead, and from there became one of the biggest Japanese game developers active today. Without really understanding where the series had come from - Dragon Quest VIII was, inexplicably, the first core Dragon Quest to be released in Europe - I got the jist pretty quickly from the sheer personality that this game exuded the moment I switched it on. An offbeat, cartoonish world that operated on Looney Tunes logic as often as it relied on fantasy tropes, with a localization that prioritized puns and outrageous British accents (to reiterate, this is a series that has had characters talking with Cockney accents since the late 1980s, and #8 was the first core DQ game the UK ever saw) and a classic turn-based combat system to ground everything in the franchise's age-old adherence to tradition.That isn't to say that Dragon Quest hasn't innovated in the past - Chapters of the Chosen was quite a departure from what everyone else was doing at the time - but you don't generally come to a Dragon Quest expecting the unexpected. Still, that hardly matters when you have so much packed into this game, like the enormous open world, the elaborate alchemy pot crafting, the monster capturing, and a challenging and entirely optional final chapter that lets you earn the best possible ending. It was a delightful introduction to this long-running series, and inspired me to check out its predecessors. You know, eventually. (The only other core DQ I've actually completed so far is the fourth, but I'll get around to the rest soon enough, you'll see.)

It's probably fortunate that there are no other Dragon Quest games for the system, because it means DQ8 has nothing to compete with in the second round. As is the case for all four Level-5 JRPGs for the PlayStation 2, it's practically required playing for any genre fan. Approved.

Case File 140: Success's Zoo Puzzle

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (JP): 02/12/2004
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (also out on DS, GBA and 3DS)

Several months before I bought a Nintendo DS, I picked up what looked like a cheapo budget knock-off of one of the DS's earliest hits - the match-3 animal block game Zoo Keeper - because it looked like so much fun that I currently wasn't having. Turns out this game was actually the originator, and Zoo Keeper the Johnny-come-lately imitator. Well, all right, that's not quite the case either: both games were the product of Japanese developer Success, who originally took the idea from a browser game. Success developed versions for the GBA and PS2 before porting it to the DS where - in a situation very similar to a number of Switch games right now - it benefited from being part of a small library of an in-demand new Nintendo console, the owners of which were looking for something, anything, of an acceptable level of quality to play on it. Zoo Puzzle's more or less identical to Zoo Keeper, if perhaps lacking a bit of polish and the useful touch interface, with the goal being to clear a certain quota of each zoo animal on a grid of blocks by clearing them away in matching lines of three or more. Fairly straightforward, but this was before match-3 games had really taken off, so it was common to see Zoo Keeper inserted into any DS you might happen to spot on the subway or bus to work and back.

It's... kind of surreal to recommend this game now, with match-3 being so thoroughly explored as a concept in so many diverse ways, like the hybrid-RPG Puzzle Quest or hybrid-endless runner 10,000,000. Heck, it even appears as one of the many modes in Evoland 2: a game built around parodying once-ubiquitous genres that it hopes you remember well enough. Zoo Keeper, and Zoo Puzzle, was at the vanguard of that wave and fairly rudimentary in comparison to what came after. Even if I were to consider it worth playing today, I'd still recommend that bandwagony DS version over this one. Eliminated.

Case File 141: Clover's Viewtiful Joe 2

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (NA): 07/12/2004
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (also out on GameCube)

Confession time: I've never played this game. I don't have anything against Viewtiful Joe, besides the fact it regularly kicks my ass. Alas, that is linked to the reason why I never booted up the second game: I never could beat the first one. I think I was stuck on a shark? Or maybe the guy immediately after him. Viewtiful Joe demands a certain amount of proficiency over its controls and powers before you can start dealing the big damage, and until then every boss fight is this battle of attrition where you're sending chip damage back and forth. Once you're attuned to the game's flow, it gets a lot easier, but I've never been able to properly grasp Hideki Kamiya's particular brand of timing- and combo-focused character-action game. I struggled my way through the combat in Devil May Cry and Bayonetta also, though I did manage to beat them both eventually. Without making excuses, I suspect he makes action-adventure games for those entrenched in the fighter game scene, where memorization and mastery over the fundamentals is paramount. It certainly makes his games rewarding to beat, when I can survive them.

So, the deal here will continue to be that I must defeat the first Viewtiful Joe - which I own on GameCube, hence its absence on The Top Shelf so far - before I'm willing to start the second. Since that'll mean playing through a non-PS2 game, we're kind of at an impasse regarding Viewtiful Joe 2's continued presence in this feature. I'll come back for you eventually, but for now it's henshin-a-gone-gone, baby. Eliminated.

Case File 142: Marvelous Entertainment's Harvest Fishing

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (JP): 01/27/2005
  • PS2 Exclusive!

Yeah, I'm not sure what I was thinking with this one. Marvelous is best known these days for the later Harvest Moon games, which at one point split apart from its original developers and became two series which are getting harder to tell apart, and for publishing the likes of Deadly Premonition and No More Heroes. They also swept up the back catalogue of prolific 16-bit developer Victor Entertainment/Interactive at some point, and with that acquisition came the long-running Kawa no Nushi Tsuri (or Legend of the River King) series of fishing RPGs. These were games that combined the usual traits of a fishing game - you have the find the right bait, then wait at the right part of the river at the right time of day to catch the specific fish you want - with RPG mechanics, like actually fighting the bait before it would allow itself to become fishfood, or upgrading your stats and equipment through experience and acquired cash respectively. You couldn't just fish the fabled River King right away, you needed to level up and continue to purchase better rods with the proceeds you make from reeling in lesser fare. Anyway, the GameCenter CX episode on Kawa no Nushi Tsuri 2, the third game in the series and the first to be released on Super Famicom, made those games seem quite appealing. I've always liked (but not loved) fishing mini-games in RPGs, and the idea of an RPG built around the act of fishing sounded like a neat break from the norm. That's how I ended up with Harvest Fishing, the poorly-named European release of Kawa no Nushi Tsuri: Wonderful Journey, a.k.a. River King: A Wonderful Journey. It's really just the same game again but for PS2.

Well, suffice it to say I got pretty bored pretty quickly. Turns out all those RPGs with fishing mini-games made them work because they were only a small part of a much bigger whole. I'd take some time off to hook a bass or several in Dark Cloud 2, Breath of Fire III, Stardew Valley, Yakuza or what have you because those mini-games worked in small doses, and could net you curatives or valuable items you can use for the rest of your adventure. It's a bit different when all you're doing is the fishing part. Anyway, it was worth finding out for myself, at least. The road less travelled and all that. Eliminated.

Case File 143: Snowblind's Champions: Return to Arms

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (NA): 07/02/2005
  • PS2 Exclusive!

It didn't feel like too long ago that we were talking about Snowblind's first foray into the universe of EverQuest on this feature, slightly adjusting the venerable MMORPG's structure to befit their own action-RPG loot model that they first devised for Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. I didn't get too far into the sequel for whatever reason, but it seems for all intents and purposes an extension of the first game but for higher level characters. You could create your own character or import your Champions of Norrath victor for a head start, and then you're right back into the fray taking down any number of EverQuest mobs and villains and sweeping up the valuables they leave behind. I find that I can only enjoy loot RPGs for so long, and part of that is how they insist on a loop structure that has you beating the game once and moving onto NG+ with better item drops and tougher monsters. Whether it's to this series's credit or not, the loop is gone and your advanced character is given a whole new quest to keep them challenged, though it does of course mean buying the new game (and waiting for its release, for that matter).

I've already moved the original Champions of Norrath to the second stage, so I suppose I should extend the courtesy here as well. Especially since I didn't get too far into it (maybe I was just burned out on loot RPGs - I was also playing the X-Men Legends games around this time, which I own for GameCube so that's another series that you won't be seeing here). Considered.

Case File 144: Falcom's Ys: Ark of Napishtim

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (NA): 22/02/2005
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (also out on PSP and Steam)

Ahhh, Ys. This might've been the first game to fully win me over to Falcom's series of metal-infused action RPGs, where the pace is relentless and your foes are enormous. Ark of Napishtim is actually the sixth core game in the series, coming several years after Ys V (which was released all the way back in the 16-bit era) and was such a success that its engine would be used for a few more Ys games, specifically Ys Origin and Ys: The Oath in Felghana (a remake of Ys III, also from the 16-bit era). The recent Ys games probably come as a shock to anyone used to the languid pace of most JRPGs, where you'd normally spend hours in a dungeon beating down random encounters in turn-based exchanges of damage. Ys isn't a fan of waiting around, however, and instead has recurring protagonist Adol "The Red" Christin dashing around the screen with his slashes and special abilities at the speed of sound while music like this is playing. It's a seriously rad franchise, and having all three of the Napishtim-engine games within arm's reach on Steam has done nothing but deepen my affection for them.

As Ys's sole representative on the PS2, I'm happy to let it through to the second round. The only thing holding me back from an instant Approved is how Ys has always been a PC series - Napishtim started there, and these days the Steam version of the game is the most convenient means of playing it. For now, it's joining the reserves list with honors. Considered.

Case File 145: Omega Force's Dynasty Warriors 5

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (JP): 24/02/2005
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (also out on Xbox)

Let it not be said that I didn't give Dynasty Warriors a sporting chance. I own the second game, which is actually the first if we're talking about the Dynasty Warriors games that use the now-ubiquitous Omega Force format of brawling one's way through thousands of faceless grunts, but I was inspired to find out how far the series had evolved since then with Dynasty Warriors V, the last of the games to be released on PlayStation 2 (in Europe, at least). The game certainly was more feature-rich and polished, though beyond its clear advances it was the same old game with the same old Romance of the Three Kingdom cast of playable characters (albeit, a lot more of them). I pottered around with a few of the characters for a while in the game's "Musou Mode", the closest thing to a story mode, and then lost interest. I think my ambivalence towards these games has always been due to the exceptionally dry and far too complicated chronology and overpopulated setting: I actually found I enjoyed the stylistically similar Bladestorm and Dragon Quest Heroes quite a bit, tower defense-focused maps aside. Maybe that's just being too Euro-centric (and, uh, Enix-centric?) for my own good but with the right setting and the right kind of mission design I can see, and have seen, the appeal of these Musou games. Begrudgingly. Hyrule Warriors is next, provided I ever find a cheap copy of the Wii U version.

So yeah, this is another low blow for Lu Bu, but I'm going to have to Shu this game off on its Wei with nary a "Wu lad". Eliminated.

Results

That's the end of this week's round-up. We hid in boxes, decried Mondays, and ate Earthlings. We caught up with Japanese keystones Dragon Quest, Ys, and Dynasty Warriors. We hooked, we looted, we viewed and we zoo'd. It was certainly an odd collection of games to discuss, but that's ever been my preference. We also entered 2005 at some point, so now we're really coming down to the wire. By the end of that year the Xbox 360 will be out, with the Wii and PS3 following in the subsequent November to begin the seventh console generation in earnest. That's not to say that I abandoned the PlayStation 2 right away, but that's the chief reason why we don't have much longer to go for this first round. For the time being, let's luxuriate in what 2005 had to offer as the last year the PS2 would ever dominate.

Some harsh cuts this week means we're only getting three more games for consideration, bringing our grand total to 57 out of 145. Of those three, two are getting dropped in the reserve pile, so don't expect to see them pop up in the second round. We did also approve another game, the enchanting Dragon Quest VIII from Level-5's nigh-perfect PS2 output, which increases our number of the "shelf-assured" to thirteen games. Next week is a great one for fans of the weird and wonderful, including a few welcome returning franchises and the debut of a conspicuously absent series about rolling space balls that our new GBEast producer loves dearly. I'm dedicating the next The Top Shelf to GB newcomer Abby Russell for this reason. I suppose this week's can be dedicated to @benpack, since he presumably likes Dynasty Warriors. I mean, he enjoys Dota, so he's probably that type, you know? (Sup Ben. Still my bruh, brah.)

See you all again soon, and be sure to follow my May Maturity series all this month also.

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May Maturity 02: Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (Intro)

Greetings, to thou and thine, to another edition of May Maturity. After 1996's Toonstruck, we're moving even further back in time with 1992's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, the first of two first-person dungeon crawler games set in Richard Garriott's long-running RPG series Ultima. The protagonist is once again "The Avatar": not so much a character but the player themselves, who frequently finds themselves teleported to the fantastical and always-imperiled nation of Britannia in order to clean house. Kind of like the Chronicles of Narnia, but even nerdier.

This game in particular is known for its genre innovations and high level of quality, switching from the standard four-directional movement of previous dungeon crawler games like Wizardry, Dungeon Master or Eye of the Beholder to full panoramic 3D movement. It's because of the advances made by this game that The Elder Scrolls: Arena could exist, and naturally from there the likes of Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim. Heck, it even predates Wolfenstein 3D if you wanted to make some really out-there declarations of its novelty. More impressive still, the game's world is a living dungeon that will shift as players make alliances, take sides in struggles, and take the time to learn of the failed attempt to build an underground utopia and the fallout that ensued. It's not just clobbering monsters with swords; a lot of craft went into the dungeon's many floors and obstacles, and the player needs all their wits to survive.

It's a game I've never had the pleasure of trying out, but its absence stands out in my own personal timeline of CRPGs like a sore thumb. The missing link between the dungeon crawlers of old and those of today. It'll also be my first Ultima game, so I look forward to missing many pieces of vital information due to arriving partway into this series. Yeah, yeah, I'm making excuses for getting lost already. Bad precedent. Let's take our first steps into the Stygian Abyss already before it starts staring back.

The Stygian Abyss! It's Not the One With Ed Harris!

Welcome to Ultima® Underworld™: The Stygian Abyss™! Lord British is a litigious man, don't cross him.
Welcome to Ultima® Underworld™: The Stygian Abyss™! Lord British is a litigious man, don't cross him.
The Avatar, master of timing that they are, appears in the bedroom of Arial - Baron Almric's beloved daughter - mid-kidnapping by this shadowy figure. He's already handed her to a troll outside, and both of them take off before I can stop them.
The Avatar, master of timing that they are, appears in the bedroom of Arial - Baron Almric's beloved daughter - mid-kidnapping by this shadowy figure. He's already handed her to a troll outside, and both of them take off before I can stop them.
Being found in the Baron's daughter's bedroom would be a bad situation to be caught in at the best of times, but the guards understandably come to the conclusion that I have something to do with why a large creature is currently sprinting off into the woods with a terrified teenager.
Being found in the Baron's daughter's bedroom would be a bad situation to be caught in at the best of times, but the guards understandably come to the conclusion that I have something to do with why a large creature is currently sprinting off into the woods with a terrified teenager.
The Ghost of Christmas Present isn't too happy at this turnout, though my informing him of being the Avatar is giving him pause for thought. After six games, everyone in Britannia recognizes that the Avatar's kind of a big deal.
The Ghost of Christmas Present isn't too happy at this turnout, though my informing him of being the Avatar is giving him pause for thought. After six games, everyone in Britannia recognizes that the Avatar's kind of a big deal.
Instead, we come to a mutually beneficial arrangement: I'm to head into the great Stygian Abyss dungeon on the outskirts of the Baron's kingdom, where the troll was last seen, and rescue his daughter. If I die down here, then I was probably a bad guy all along. But the Avatar? He could waltz through a dungeon like this with both hands tied behind his back. Before I can point out his specious reasoning, I'm tossed in with the door locked behind me. Great.
Instead, we come to a mutually beneficial arrangement: I'm to head into the great Stygian Abyss dungeon on the outskirts of the Baron's kingdom, where the troll was last seen, and rescue his daughter. If I die down here, then I was probably a bad guy all along. But the Avatar? He could waltz through a dungeon like this with both hands tied behind his back. Before I can point out his specious reasoning, I'm tossed in with the door locked behind me. Great.
As it's my first time, I rolled up what I hope will be a character that can survive the ordeals ahead. I went with a ranger with a general mix of stats - I wonder how big a part magic will play for this class, though - and went for Gal Gadot down here for the portrait. Pirate Geena Davis was another good choice too, as was side-ponytail from Napoleon Dynamite.
As it's my first time, I rolled up what I hope will be a character that can survive the ordeals ahead. I went with a ranger with a general mix of stats - I wonder how big a part magic will play for this class, though - and went for Gal Gadot down here for the portrait. Pirate Geena Davis was another good choice too, as was side-ponytail from Napoleon Dynamite.
The guards were generous enough to give me this
The guards were generous enough to give me this "Dungeoneer's Starter Pack", containing a starting weapon, some food, a torch and the cloth map for the whole dungeon. I neglected to take any shots of the map itself until the end, but it conveniently fills itself in as you travel. You can even add notes to it, annotating areas of interest or currently locked doors. I'm not sure how far along map tech was in 1992 - I'm fairly sure we were still in the age of"I hope you have your pad of graph paper handy, buster" - so I'm already impressed.
Figures I'd find a locked door immediately. The symbols on the left represent actions, and you have to switch between them in order to interact with the world. The bottom icon is
Figures I'd find a locked door immediately. The symbols on the left represent actions, and you have to switch between them in order to interact with the world. The bottom icon is "use", but also "open". Alas, this door won't budge.
But I can
But I can "use" this conspicuous ring pull over here to open the door. Hooray! I'm smrt.
It follows that if a dungeon has doors, then it must also have secret walls. They're just off-texture enough to be visible, but you have to get fairly close.
It follows that if a dungeon has doors, then it must also have secret walls. They're just off-texture enough to be visible, but you have to get fairly close.
Right, this game also does something most dungeoneering games do not: jumping puzzles. I could clear this chasm, if I save scum ahead of time, but I'd best check everywhere else first. Dunno what'll happen if I fall off, or where I might end up.
Right, this game also does something most dungeoneering games do not: jumping puzzles. I could clear this chasm, if I save scum ahead of time, but I'd best check everywhere else first. Dunno what'll happen if I fall off, or where I might end up.
It doesn't take long to bump into my first hostile creature. The game is real-time, like Dungeon Master et al, so if I dawdle I'll just get pelted with rocks, or worse. In order to put your dukes, as it were, you need to activate combat mode. It's the hand holding a sword on the left.
It doesn't take long to bump into my first hostile creature. The game is real-time, like Dungeon Master et al, so if I dawdle I'll just get pelted with rocks, or worse. In order to put your dukes, as it were, you need to activate combat mode. It's the hand holding a sword on the left.
Take my penknife, my good goblin. Dude dropped a crazy amount of loot to sweep up, though given my finite carrying capacity and what I imagine won't be much in the way of economy, I'll be leaving half of it behind. Combat in this game works the same way it does in early (and later, now I think about it) Elder Scrolls games: you simply swipe the cursor across the screen while holding down the left mouse button. Depending on where you start, you'll either perform a downward chop, a horizontal slice or a quick thrust. Without knowing for sure, I imagine each weapon has an ideal attack mode. Slices seem to do well enough for me.
Take my penknife, my good goblin. Dude dropped a crazy amount of loot to sweep up, though given my finite carrying capacity and what I imagine won't be much in the way of economy, I'll be leaving half of it behind. Combat in this game works the same way it does in early (and later, now I think about it) Elder Scrolls games: you simply swipe the cursor across the screen while holding down the left mouse button. Depending on where you start, you'll either perform a downward chop, a horizontal slice or a quick thrust. Without knowing for sure, I imagine each weapon has an ideal attack mode. Slices seem to do well enough for me.
Not all creatures in the Abyss are hostile, however, and by using the Look command (the eye on the left, doy) you can determine their mood.
Not all creatures in the Abyss are hostile, however, and by using the Look command (the eye on the left, doy) you can determine their mood. "Hostile" creatures will attack on sight, "Upset" creatures are friendly but only if you leave them alone, and "Mellow" are happy enough to chat with you via the Talk command (the lips on the left, double doy). (Sorry for the dip in image quality by the way: my screenshot tool was also saving the DOSBox window, so I went with the application's built-in screenshot taker instead.)
Along with two friendly factions of goblins (though they hate each other), there's also a small group of human outcasts. Some are criminals, like myself (wait, I'm innocent, I almost forgot), while others are former settlers who joined one
Along with two friendly factions of goblins (though they hate each other), there's also a small group of human outcasts. Some are criminals, like myself (wait, I'm innocent, I almost forgot), while others are former settlers who joined one "Cabirus" in attempting to colonize this enormous dungeon full of monsters. I wonder how that went.
Man, these guys must've been down here a while if they're still quoting
Man, these guys must've been down here a while if they're still quoting "Folsom Prison Blues".
Couple of things here: this slug is a minor enemy I can chop down for the XP or leave alone to keep exploring, which might be the better option given my low health right now. The game's full of these little risk vs reward decisions, making it feel a bit more alive than most games of its type. The player-determinant level of hostility of some creatures is just the tip of the abyssburg, I'm reliably informed. The other item in the room is a crystal ball that gives me a premonition of something that'll be very important later on, I guess. I'm sure I'll remember it. Whatever it was. Uh-oh.
Couple of things here: this slug is a minor enemy I can chop down for the XP or leave alone to keep exploring, which might be the better option given my low health right now. The game's full of these little risk vs reward decisions, making it feel a bit more alive than most games of its type. The player-determinant level of hostility of some creatures is just the tip of the abyssburg, I'm reliably informed. The other item in the room is a crystal ball that gives me a premonition of something that'll be very important later on, I guess. I'm sure I'll remember it. Whatever it was. Uh-oh.
Taking a tumble at any point in this level drops you into this canal. I'm a little apprehensive about being in the water; I'm worried that my stamina drains a lot faster, or there's some kind of limit to how long you can swim.
Taking a tumble at any point in this level drops you into this canal. I'm a little apprehensive about being in the water; I'm worried that my stamina drains a lot faster, or there's some kind of limit to how long you can swim.
Or, perhaps more important in this case, the presence of dangerous
Or, perhaps more important in this case, the presence of dangerous "Lurker" type creatures. My first demise of many. Yeah, hi, I see you Death.
This time, I found an island and waited the tentacled monstrosity out. Then I started hacking at it with an axe while it just sat there in the water. Given that I immediately went up two experience levels after it died, I suspect I shouldn't have been able to do this.
This time, I found an island and waited the tentacled monstrosity out. Then I started hacking at it with an axe while it just sat there in the water. Given that I immediately went up two experience levels after it died, I suspect I shouldn't have been able to do this.
The Grand Staircase, which can take me to any floor in the Abyss. Well, except that someone already busted it up. Convenient.
The Grand Staircase, which can take me to any floor in the Abyss. Well, except that someone already busted it up. Convenient.
Pretty much the most important room on the whole floor, this fountain instantly restores all my life and it appears to be an infinite-use deal. You still need to eat and sleep, and doing either restores some amount of health, but it's not something that the game is constantly bugging you about. I've had to eat three times since I started playing, which is about once per hour. I've only had to sleep once and by then I was only feeling
Pretty much the most important room on the whole floor, this fountain instantly restores all my life and it appears to be an infinite-use deal. You still need to eat and sleep, and doing either restores some amount of health, but it's not something that the game is constantly bugging you about. I've had to eat three times since I started playing, which is about once per hour. I've only had to sleep once and by then I was only feeling "drowsy". The game wants to be realistic but there's a fine line between realism and obnoxiousness that, to the game's credit, it stays on the right side thereof.
Another important room is the shrine, which is where I can increase my skills after levelling up. It seems stats might be fixed, but skills such as Sword, Lockpicking or Magic can be increased here by praying at the shrine and invoking specific mantras. The room itself provides three mantras to start you off including this one, which upgrades a random selection of martial skills. Just be sure not to misspeak it, or you'll have to deal with a ticked off mummy yelling about the Thundercats.
Another important room is the shrine, which is where I can increase my skills after levelling up. It seems stats might be fixed, but skills such as Sword, Lockpicking or Magic can be increased here by praying at the shrine and invoking specific mantras. The room itself provides three mantras to start you off including this one, which upgrades a random selection of martial skills. Just be sure not to misspeak it, or you'll have to deal with a ticked off mummy yelling about the Thundercats.
I encounter a particularly pixellated skeleton in this room, and it's more or less the toughest foe on this floor if you don't count the Lurkers or the friendly NPCs. I've been picking up random pieces of leather armor, but after this guy I finally find some chain mail to protect my dome.
I encounter a particularly pixellated skeleton in this room, and it's more or less the toughest foe on this floor if you don't count the Lurkers or the friendly NPCs. I've been picking up random pieces of leather armor, but after this guy I finally find some chain mail to protect my dome.
The first real puzzle of the dungeon. These four switches all correspond to a set of rising platforms in the other room, the height of which is determined by the dial placement. I need to create a staircase to reach the top, so I've staggered them thusly.
The first real puzzle of the dungeon. These four switches all correspond to a set of rising platforms in the other room, the height of which is determined by the dial placement. I need to create a staircase to reach the top, so I've staggered them thusly.
At the top we find a cache of useful items and the grave of one Korianous, Cabirus's master builder. I'm guessing all this lore will prove valuable eventually.
At the top we find a cache of useful items and the grave of one Korianous, Cabirus's master builder. I'm guessing all this lore will prove valuable eventually.
The completed map, at least as far as I can determine. Annotations are my own (the game's unlikely to call them
The completed map, at least as far as I can determine. Annotations are my own (the game's unlikely to call them "gobbos"). The blue is the water channels running underneath the level, and the brown are bridges.The shrine room, adorably, is shaped like an ankh - this is the symbol of the Avatar, you might recall from the earlier dialogue screenshot, and is also used to indicate where friendly NPCs can be found.
Well, it seems we're all done here for the time being. Nothing left to do but to go deeper and chase after that missing daughter of the Baron's. I'm sure it'll get easier as we go along, that's usually how this sort of affair works.
Well, it seems we're all done here for the time being. Nothing left to do but to go deeper and chase after that missing daughter of the Baron's. I'm sure it'll get easier as we go along, that's usually how this sort of affair works.

Great time to bring this Intro to a close. I'm going to stick with this one. It took a while to get used to the antiquated controls (there's both keyboard and mouse controls, and I'm working with a mix of the two) and unappealing sprite-scaling graphics, but the dungeon itself feels well-designed and I'm curious to explore it further. There's something old-school appealing about slowly filling in a map, finding secrets and new items and puzzles, and figuring out the route to the floors that follow. The combat's Elder Scrollsy, as mentioned, and there's an element of juking and jiving in order to land hits while avoiding retaliation. I figured I'd have to push myself through this 25-year-old game to get enough material for screenshots, let alone complete it, but I'm looking forward to playing more. It's held up surprisingly well, given the era and how transitional it feels between one standardized format and the next.

Expect some kind of Outro next week to summarize more of my thoughts, though I'd be surprised if I manage to reach the end before then.

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May Maturity 01: Toonstruck (Outro)

Welcome to the first "Outro" of May Maturity this year. I'd have liked for this to show up earlier in the week, but between my hard-headed stubbornness to look up solutions and the couple of days it took to complete Song of the Deep (the Indie Game of the Week), I spent most of the seven day limit to reach the end of Burst Studios's excellent graphic adventure game Toonstruck. (My accompanying "Intro" to this game can be found yonder.)

Since I don't want to get into any spoilers for the story or the puzzles, which leaves little else to discuss, I want instead to focus on Toonstruck's unusual structure (struckture?), and how it is both the game's most remarkable and most unfortunate aspect. Remarkable because the game's pacing is built in such a way that you spend the majority of the entire game's runtime looking for eleven objects that fit a specific criteria, and then a smaller minority towards the end trapped in a single immense location trying to find a way out. The second part is enhanced by its singular focus, while the scavenger hunt aspect is more open-ended and has you pursuing multiple puzzle "threads" simultaneously. Each of the items you need to complete the "Cutifier" device for the jubilant King Hugh has their own chain of puzzles to solve before you can acquire them, and some are even needed to procure others. This approach means you're less likely to spend a long time stuck - having lots of goals at once lets you diversify if one in particular is stymieing you - but as you continue to unlock new areas and fill your inventory with all sorts of objects of appreciable value, it becomes that much harder to figure out what needs to be used where. Hence the "unfortunate". To reiterate, we're talking the lion's share of the game's runtime here, incidentally, which covers about thirty screens and almost as many NPCs to interact with.

Count Nefarious's monstrous, foreboding fortress. You aren't required to go here to find any of the eleven objects you need, but... well, why have a giant evil castle and not use it?
Count Nefarious's monstrous, foreboding fortress. You aren't required to go here to find any of the eleven objects you need, but... well, why have a giant evil castle and not use it?

To be fair, this isn't an uncommon issue with the older graphic adventure games. In fact, for the longest time it was the de facto standard. As you got further in the game, you would inevitably solve puzzles that involved removing obstacles blocking you from new regions. Early on in Toonstruck, this includes a hungry wolf blocking the way to the sinister Malevolands and an elaborate but currently non-operational elephant-powered cable car that transports people to the madcap land of Zanydu - figuring out a way past either of these barriers opened a huge amount of new locations to visit, increasing the number of puzzle variables to work with. It also follows that you'd eventually accumulate a huge amount of junk you couldn't get rid of for whatever reason, and the developers presumably felt that, were you to lose something, there would need to be justification for it. If you have a pot of glue and use it on a couple of hotspots, it would be logical to assume that you used it all up, thus explaining why you no longer had it in your inventory. A giant mallet? Well, you'd have to actively throw that away, or the developers would need to conceive of an explanation for why it would suddenly leave your inventory beyond an arbitrary "when I fell into that pit, half of my stuff got broken!" type of transition. Frankly, minimizing the number of moving parts to worry about is preferable, in my view, to worrying about the deleterious affect on my immersion caused by some overly contrived reason to toss away all the items I no longer need between chapters, but I can appreciate that not everyone shares that sentiment.

Eventually, this aggregation of crap all starts to become a little much to cope with (though, if you refer back to the diagram of the Malevolator in the Intro blog, you might recognize a few of the
Eventually, this aggregation of crap all starts to become a little much to cope with (though, if you refer back to the diagram of the Malevolator in the Intro blog, you might recognize a few of the "opposites" I needed in here).

Beyond the strange way the game is paced, there's little I can find to fault it. Sure, there are bugs here and there, and there's a few cases of the dreaded pixel hunt (there's a sink in one part of the game that has faucets as well as one of those plug-closing levers, which can be tricky to make out) but I managed to get to the end of the game without cheating. Took a while, of course, but then I can be too obstinate for my own good sometimes. The game has the right balance of humor between the dumb puns and all the slapstick along with the slightly more clever meta jokes, using the player's familiarity of cartoon tropes to clue them into possible solutions. Its visual style is highly reminiscent of the animation history it homages, as well as little touches like that great adventure game thing of using foreground objects around the screen's periphery to make a scene feel more "genuine". The voice acting is top-notch - as well as Christopher Lloyd in the main role, you have the likes of Tim Curry and Dom DeLuise as well as a gaggle of veteran cartoon voiceover artists like Tress McNeille, the ubiquitous "fussy/old woman" voice of Futurama and many other shows, The Simpsons's Dan Castellaneta, or the ubiquitous Frank Welker - and so is the music, which draws from many famous cartoon classical music leitmotifs like Gioacchino Rossini's "Thieving Magpie Overture" or Sidney Crooke's "The March of the Ants" (frequently heard in Ren & Stimpy).

I've read up on Toonstruck's history a little more after completing it, and it sounds like the game's abrupt ending was due to running out of time and/or resources to reach a more fitting conclusion to the game. The leftover material was going to be reworked into a sequel that, evidently, never transpired. Fans have been working non-stop to make it happen regardless, and at this point I wholeheartedly support their efforts. Maybe its semi-recent inclusion on Steam and GOG - which finally allowed me to catch up, along with no doubt many others - will inspire even greater interest in a follow-up.

I eventually did find the clown on the title screen, but he's not a particularly important character. Mostly he just says nonsense like this. What could it possibly mean? Wait, I heard a noise in the graveyard outside, just a mome-
I eventually did find the clown on the title screen, but he's not a particularly important character. Mostly he just says nonsense like this. What could it possibly mean? Wait, I heard a noise in the graveyard outside, just a mome-

That's Toonstruck, and it's the first item on the May Maturity hit list taken down. Stay tooned for another "Intro" in the coming days, as we move... deeper underground?

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All-New Saturday Summaries 2017-05-06

Welcome, everyone, to another All-New Saturday Summaries and - if you'll permit me this indulgence - May the Sixth be with you all. I'm right in the midst of several projects right now, each of which will get their own update in the usual section below, but I've realized far too late that it's given me zero writin' time for the one-off pieces that often end up being my most popular. I suspect the issue is that people generally don't want to wander into a long-running feature in-progress because of the amount of catch up reading that might be required. I'd like to think that any episode of the ongoing features I have this year works as a standalone well enough, but I'm starting to notice that I'm filling them with callbacks and other references to previously established facts or opinions, and that might be alienating to some. Of course, it might be equally alienating to explain my stance on some specific issue - my apathy with Musou games, for example - over and over for those who have been reading since the beginning. It's a tricky balance of keeping the viewers you have satisfied while always being accommodating to newcomers.

The ridiculous comic I made as a parting gift for Ben and Nick after their internships ended. It's full of all the best 2011 Whiskey Media callbacks everyone's forgotten!
The ridiculous comic I made as a parting gift for Ben and Nick after their internships ended. It's full of all the best 2011 Whiskey Media callbacks everyone's forgotten!

Which is similar to what Giant Bomb itself will have to worry about with its new staff members. This week introduced us all to the Benhemoth Ben Pack as the newest member of Giant Bomb West, and next will introduce Abby Russell to the GBeastie Boys, who can probably no longer be referred to as same what with the gender diversity and such. I liked Ben plenty even before the hire - dude was friendly enough to me throughout his tenure as intern back in 2011, when I was still struggling to build a brand (ugh) here with my blogging, and I'm stoked that he's back in the fold with a few years of industry experience under his belt. Then again, if most of his content involves Dota and fighter games, maybe I can just appreciate him from a distance. The infusion of fresh new talent is exciting for long time fans of Giant Bomb, especially if they can hit the ground running like Ben, but you can't please everyone. I'm sure there are a handful who have been vacillating on staying or moving on because their particular interests aren't being covered, and have determined that this was the final straw. Of course, if they choose to make a big stink about it, the mods will be there. Rather, I imagine they'll just slink quietly away to pastures new like a reasonable human being would in that situation.

Again, this is no admonition to Ben or Abby, just that this sort of thing is inevitable with a small proportion of your audience. It's far better to innovate and introduce new variables to mix things up, but losing folks to the disturbance to the status quo can be - to a lesser extent - the dark lining to that silver cloud. And that balance of introducing new subjects and maintaining familiar haunts will be something I ought to keep in mind also as the year continues.

Congrats to Abby and Ben! Sorry if this came off as sort of hostile in parts. It's just that weird excited trepidation that comes with change, and from witnessing a new Giant Bomb emerge from the ashes of the old. I'm psyched to see what you two do (but please, no more Dota. Or contain it within its own thing, at least. Wrestle Brad to the ground before he can get past the client's sign-in screen if you have to).

On to this week's content! Seis de Mayo, y'all! (Which is almost like "Seize the May" if you think about it. Be sure to seize the May this year, everyone!)

Also on The Top Shelf this week: I weigh in on the contentious Budokai 3, discussing in depth the many new features and characters it brings to the Zenoverse. (Not really.)
Also on The Top Shelf this week: I weigh in on the contentious Budokai 3, discussing in depth the many new features and characters it brings to the Zenoverse. (Not really.)
  • The Top Shelf this week highlighted a bizarre occasion during the PS2's lifespan when its three biggest platformer franchises - Sly Cooper, Ratchet & Clank and Jak & Daxter - all released games within a couple of months of one another. September (Sly 2) and November (Jak 3 and Ratchet and Clank 3), to be precise. I'm sure it was a coincidence in this particular case, because I have to imagine video games of a feather never want to directly compete with one another if they can help it. Better to spread the must-have games of a certain genre across the year, but I guess if they were all ready to launch at the same time nothing could be done. At any rate, more PS2 nostalgic goodness awaits anyone who follows that link.
  • The Indie Game of the Week this time was Insomniac's Song of the Deep (not South). I had a fine enough time with this subaquatic spacewhipper, but even after writing that appraisal and playing the game to completion shortly thereafter, there was something about the game that was dissatisfying. I took a wild swing at the reason being that the game felt too familiar - that it comprised of parts of Aquaria and Insane Twisted Shadow Planet with little originality left for itself - but I think that was a misconception. I now believe it's more of a mechanical issue: the game feels imprecise and shaky on a level that only made itself evident when I was sweeping up collectibles. The game glitched me out of one item due to some weird accident that blocked off one of the puzzle elements, and other times the process of solving a puzzle - sometimes involving flashing the sub's headlights on a group of creatures in quick succession, or leading a school of fish to a silver plant blocking a treasure so they could remove it - didn't work in an accurate and/or intuitive way. Something about the way the sub's grappling hook bolted onto the environment didn't feel right either. It's one of those elusive, purely visceral quality-of-life things that's difficult to convey outside of the experience itself - and this coupled with the swimmy (comes with the territory, I get it) physics and annoying dependency on throwing wave after wave of the same hostile sea creatures in certain "arena" sections just made for an overall disappointing time. It's not a terrible game, but there are better spacewhippers out there.
  • We also introduced May Maturity this week, this year's May-long feature. Every year I figure out some way to turn May into a Spring-cleaning exercise, focusing on clearing out some of my imposing Steam backlog with regular write-ups of my findings. This year incorporates GOG into the struggle and focuses on some older items in my pile of shame: this May's itinerary mostly includes classic graphic adventure games and CRPGs that, for whatever reason, I skipped over during the 1990s when they were released. Thankfully, GOG and Steam have been extra busy bringing these games back and optimizing them for modern systems through DOSBox and similar old OS emulators. It's as fine an excuse as any to do some catching up and report back to you, my adoring audience, on how well they've held up. My first subject is Burst Studios's Toonstruck, the FMV-infused paean to classic Looney Tunes shorts and other slapstick animation that's filled with great voice work, an expressive digitized Christopher Lloyd and a lot of amusing, quippy dialogue. I've been enjoying it a lot, but I'm finding it odd that it's taken me this long to see it to its conclusion. I suspect a lot of that's from my obstinate refusal to look up hints, and the puzzles have been getting trickier as it goes along and introduces more variables in the way of inventory items and screens of hotspots. I hope to have the "Outro" to that game completed sometime this weekend, and can introduce the next scheduled May game shortly thereafter.

As I'm playing nothing but May Maturity games all this month, there'll be no bonus section for the week's gaming for this and the rest of May's Saturday Summaries. When June rolls around, they'll be coming back... though I suspect I'll be playing a lot of PS2 games by then, which will also necessitate their own separate reviews. However, with my newly purchased copy of Final Fantasy XV waiting in the wings, my most anticipated game from last year, I'm sure I won't be forsaking my PS4 for long.

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Indie Game of the Week 18: Song of the Deep

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I've been corrected before now about referring to these games as "Indie" when that isn't always the case. This week's game, Song of the Deep, was put together by Insomniac Games, the decidedly non-independent developers behind the Ratchet & Clank and Resistance franchises, and published by a subsidiary of GameStop in a bid to carve out a piece of the digital distribution-exclusive market before the whole enterprise leaves their brick and mortar game delivery system high and dry. You might recall the stories concerning this gambit from their regular mentions on the Beastcast, where those Beautiful Beast Boys' improvisations drag in an unsuspecting Ross Perot and any number of hypothetical, easily beguiled moms. Personally, none of that really matters to me beyond the minor historical significance of a major game retail chain dipping their toes in the video game development business; it was more interesting when Burger King did it, if you ask me.

What does matter to me, though, is the notion of an Indie spacewhipper developed by a studio with the pedigree of Insomniac Games. The last time I encountered a game of this type with this level of budget was the thoroughly gorgeous Ori and the Blind Forest, which was helped into being by the deep pockets of Microsoft Studios. Song of the Deep has an aquatic theme, so I was also curious to see how similar it was to Derek Yu's and Alec Holowka's early Indie hit Aquaria. Not to get ahead of myself, but it turns out it shares quite a lot of that game's DNA, along with a healthy dose of Fuelcell's Insane Twisted Shadow Planet. To be fair, there's only a certain amount you can do with a submersible and an ocean of beautiful coral and mysterious ruins, and both of those games are relatively ancient (ten years old and six years old respectively) to the extent that I'm past ready to try out another game with that theme.

Been a while since I've played a game with this many light refraction puzzles. I guess the developers figured they were overdue for a return too, in addition to games set underwater.
Been a while since I've played a game with this many light refraction puzzles. I guess the developers figured they were overdue for a return too, in addition to games set underwater.

Song of the Deep talks the talk well enough. The map helpfully points out collectibles but not, exactly, how to get them or what you might need; the kind of balance I can appreciate, especially when I'm whizzing around the map looking for the last few items for 100%. It has fast travel warping; it doesn't arbitrarily block off areas even if there's still collectibles in there (a surprising amount of these games still commit that cardinal spacewhipper sin); the powers are briefly tutorialized as soon as you get them with at least a few instances nearby to test it out; enemies are of reasonable challenge on the medium difficulty setting, if a bit too persistent with their constant respawning; and given how most aquatic vehicles tend to control in any video game context, I'd say the game acquits itself well enough. I've never been fond of when you have to push back against water currents, never knowing if you have enough steam to conquer it or if there's some extra upgrade you need for that extra bit of oomph, but I suppose that comes with the territory. Developers, especially ones with decent art teams, are always drawn to make these attractive aquatic exploration games - Abzu was another recent one - despite the fact that no underwater-based game ever made (or those with infrequent underwater stages, like many Super Marios) has actually been fun to control. It's often more the case that designers and programmers have to mitigate the frustrations inherent to subaquatic movement as best as they are able. At least you don't get hurt swimming into walls and stalactites all the time in Song of the Deep, because the loose inertia means it'll happen a lot.

But overall, it seems like a perfectly serviceable one of these. I suppose my dissatisfaction comes from how closely it adheres to the blueprints of those that came before, with no particular spark of its own. Its romantic voiceover prose - romantic in the sense of the ocean being this deep and alluring frontier rather than, you know, fishpeople doin' it - seems lifted right out of equally lyrical and melancholic Aquaria, as does most of how its map and traversal abilities work. Meanwhile, the sub's array of weapons and tools appear to be right out of Insane Twisted Shadow Planet, down to a versatile grappling hook which is used for both combat and for carrying puzzle objects around, as well as elemental torpedoes which balances out their overpowered nature by requiring a finite amount of energy (the game calls this "tyne") that regenerates slowly. It all feels very familiar, and I'm while I'm loath to make any kind of insinuation that this game did its homework a little too well, I suspect it's simply a matter of not being able to find a new angle within this particular sunken set-up. With all the aquatic exploration games with a vague environmentalist theme released between Ecco the Dolphin and now, this ocean has perhaps been overfished.

The story's fine even if it's intended for a much younger audience than myself, but that Scottish voiceover lady pipes up far too often. Also, that Walt Disney-style capital W sure is telling of this game's aspirations.
The story's fine even if it's intended for a much younger audience than myself, but that Scottish voiceover lady pipes up far too often. Also, that Walt Disney-style capital W sure is telling of this game's aspirations.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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The Top Shelf: Case Files 126-135: "Bards, Bands, Balls"

Welcome to The Top Shelf, a weekly feature wherein I sort through my extensive PS2 collection for the diamonds in the rough. My goal here is to narrow down a library of 185 games to a svelte 44: the number of spaces on my bookshelf set aside for my PS2 collection. That means a whole lot of vetting and a whole lot of science that needs to be done, ten games at a time. Be sure to check out the Case File Repository for more details and a full list of games/links!

Case File 126: Stormfront's Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone

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  • Original Release (NA): 14/09/2004
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (also out on Xbox and PC)

We're back with Stormfront Studios, the venerable RPG developer whose name has aged really badly since the 1980s when they were founded. If you recall, the last game we visited of theirs was the second LOTR movie tie-in game, which incorporated the entirety of The Two Towers and the second half of The Fellowship of the Ring. The gameplay model they created for that game was a mix of action RPG and something akin to a character action game, where you'd be fighting orcs in their hundreds (though not quite in the Omega Force/Musou sense) and solving environmental puzzles to progress. It was a loose, fast-paced sort of RPG that focused less on menus and inventory micromanagement and more on the minute-to-minute action and frantic crowd control, like a modern 3D gaming equivalent of the Gauntlet arcade games (which, of course, also have a few 3D incarnations of their own). Demon Stone was Stormfront's attempt at transplanting the same model to the Forgotten Realms D&D campaign setting, which was something of a comfort zone for them: their earliest hits included the original Neverwinter Nights, an online RPG played through AOL that was based on that campaign setting, and a number of Forgotten Realms Gold Box RPGs. Demon Stone has a lot going for it, presentation-wise: they brought in Bob Salvatore, the author of endless Drizzt Do'Urden novels, to pen an original story for the game, and it features the voice acting talents of Patrick Stewart as Waterdeep's protector Khelben Blackstaff (between his similarly sonorous fantasy leader roles for Lands of Lore and The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion) and the sadly departed Michael Clarke Duncan as the growlier of the game's two antagonists.

I like Demon Stone quite a bit, though I have to wonder how well it's aged. Another concern is whether or not I prefer it to the similar The Two Towers. That's not quite the invocation of the sequel clause, since the games are from different licenses, but they share enough DNA that I'm not sure I need both of them on the shelf. I'll mark this down as a "maybe" for now. After all, there is something to be said - even today - for a breezy and brisk RPG that doesn't overstay its welcome. Considered.

Case File 127: Sucker Punch's Sly 2: Band of Thieves

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  • Original Release (NA): 14/09/2004
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (remastered for PS3 and PSVita)

To properly elucidate on why, precisely, Sly 2: Band of Thieves is the best platformer for the PlayStation 2, we need to look at how it evolved from the first Sly Cooper game. The first game was a perfectly satisfactory linear 3D platformer that nevertheless had yet to figure out how to build a game around the idea of a master thief and his partners in crime. It had the stealth, it had Sly's intrinsic acrobatic agility, it easily established the slick noir charm of an anthropomorphic universe of quippy one-liners and Bruce Timm-esque angles and shadows, as well as making clear the importance of family for Sly - as the basis of where he came from in a long line of professional purloiners, and the brothers he met while growing up in the orphanage. It's not completely unlike the Fast and the Furious (furryous?) movies in that respect. However, it would take the complete design renovation seen in this sequel to fully capitalize on the potential of this series: instead of linearity, the player has a big map to explore for each of its stages with the potential for many mini-heists and other surreptitious secrets. Instead of working one's way over to where the boss was sitting, you'd be putting into place the various stages of a big heist to procure what was taken from you (in the first game it was pages from the Thievus Raccoonus, in the second mechanical parts taken from the series antagonist Clockwerk). By creating a series of incredibly imaginative and varied bite-size missions to establish a stage's big heist finale, and funding upgrades and tools via the theft of smaller targets, Sucker Punch could create something far more layered and made-to-measure for its novel premise. It's not uncommon when a sequel greatly exceeds its predecessor, taking on the lessons learned and putting out something mechanically similar that addresses the shortcomings and expands on the core concept; it's a lot more rare when a developer returns to the drawing board, throws almost everything out and starts over with a fresh take, which not only improves the game but gives it the unique voice that was tantalizingly eluding it. Game design revelations like these are few and far between, and should be as cherished as the incredible games they help to create.

At any rate, you might've gathered from the effusive rundown above that this is one of my all time favorite games for the system, definitely out of the ones that aren't JRPGs. I've been meaning to return to this series for a while with that remastered trilogy for PS3, but the third game (and the fourth game, for that matter) don't quite come close to replicating the breath of fresh air that was Sly 2. Approved.

Case File 128: Taito's Graffiti Kingdom

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  • Original Release (JP): 22/09/2004
  • PS2 Exclusive!

I've always liked the idea of art-as-gameplay games like Graffiti Kingdom, the follow-up to Magic Pengel and another case of Europe getting the sequel to a game we never saw. You're prompted several times to draw a creature that might serve you well in combat, or for some other purpose, attaching various limbs or wheels or appendages as is necessary. Frankly, however, beyond this one central distinctive feature there's not a whole lot to Graffiti Kingdom. It's too broad with its character development to be an effective RPG, and the combat and platforming are similarly threadbare. It reminds me of the first Scribblenauts, before that series found its footing, where it seemed every puzzle set-up involved transporting an item via a vehicle and a rope - the kernel of an idea was there, but the execution was lacking. The idea of a game directly tapping into the player's boundless creativity is a solid one - as Minecraft's developers would no doubt attest - but it needs an outlet that can reward that level of creativity in turn. Simply presenting the same problem with very minor alterations isn't all that creative on the game's side of the table, leaving nothing to push the player to come up with ever more imaginative solutions.

Can't fault for a game for trying something different, even if it is a sequel. I can fault it for having the barest whisper of gameplay and story, instead relying far too heavily on its monster creation feature to prop everything else up. Eliminated.

Case File 129: Artificial Mind and Movement's Scaler

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  • Original Release (EU): 01/10/2004
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (also out on Xbox and GameCube)

I've remarked on my old purchasing process before, but in those hazy days before I had a regular video game website to haunt, my standard system for whether or not I was going to buy a game basically boiled down to checking out the box art and figuring out which genre it belonged to. With very few exceptions, I snapped up any new RPG or platformer game as soon as they dropped to a reasonable price. The continuing expansion of the industry and my dwindling amount of free time has forced me to be a little more selective in this day and age, but for a while I'd regularly walk away from video game stores or Amazon with a game from one of my preferred genres with zero expectations. Scaler's not awful, if I'm being honest, but it is the very definition of a PS2 3D platformer also-ran: the game clearly borrowed from Ratchet & Clank for its level design, adopting the same branched approach that has you following linear paths across an open 3D world to some reward at the end, usually a needed collectible or some useful upgrade items, as well as intermittent sections where you're riding an electric rail and must leap and switch lanes to avoid obstacles in the path. Scaler himself is your archetypal flippant anthropomorph platformer hero - a young boy turned blue chameleon who finds himself trapped in an alternate dimension, hunting around for lizard eggs and a way back home. There's also some shapeshifting mechanics, allowing you to turn into other creatures with specific abilities should you destroy enough of them, but while the game makes an effort to keep its gameplay varied it all feels like a greatest hits compilation of the 3D platformer genre thus far. Not bad, but not remarkable either. As far as chameleon platformers go, I'd say it sits between Yooka-Laylee and Chameleon Twist.

It occurs to me that if I want any 3D platformers on the shelf besides the first Jak & Daxter, Ape Escape 2, Sly 2: Band of Thieves and whichever Ratchet game I end up selecting, I'm going to have to stop eliminating all these lesser examples. That said, beyond those big franchises, I've never felt like the PlayStation 2 was the home of great 3D platformers; especially as they slowly fell out of fashion in favor of more varied "action-adventure" games like the later Jaks, God of War or Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. For now, I'm giving Scaler a chance to be another representative of my second favorite genre up on that shelf, if only to ensure it won't all be JRPGs in the final tally. Considered.

Case File 130: Backbone's Midway Arcade Treasures 2

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  • Original Release (NA): 11/10/2004
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (also out on Xbox, GameCube and PC. And Arcade, I suppose)

These arcade compilations are usually fairly minor, giving you a selection of games from the early 80s that haven't aged particularly well, but to former Drew Scanlon employer Backbone Entertainment's credit they bring out Midway's big guns for this particular nostalgia bundle. You'll find near-perfect (aside from some framey-ness) arcade renditions of Mortal Kombats 2 and 3 (but not MK1 or UMK3, oddly), Primal Rage (which... well, it's neat to own the arcade version, I guess), NARC (dang is the original version violent), APB, Pit Fighter, Total Carnage ("All we are making is baby milk!"), Xybots, Rampage World Tour, Gauntlet II and about ten others. They also get the history lesson treatment with rundowns and interviews though not quite to the same extent as something like the Mega Man Legacy Collection. It's a mix of the ancient and the relatively contemporary, good and bad, and for the really low price I bought it for it seemed like a great deal. Sometimes you look at an old games compilation and wonder when you'd ever play even half the content in there, but I'd happy booting up any number of these again. Well, except I'd probably prefer a version that gave out achievements at this point. It'd give me something to aim towards.

I don't think this goes on the shelf. I suspect we'll get an even better handled compilation of this type one of these days, as Midway's Arcade back-catalogue means too much to too many people in this hemisphere to let it vanish into inaccessible obscurity. Maybe a new compilation for modern systems that fixes all the minor emulation issues and combines all three Midway Arcade Treasures into one package. A guy can dream, anyway. Eliminated.

Case File 131: InXile Entertainment's The Bard's Tale

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (NA): 26/10/2004
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (also out on Xbox, GameCube, PC, iOS and Android)

While I patiently await the release of InXile's new The Bard's Tale reboot, I'm reminded that it probably won't be the meta spoof that this game is. Adopting a streamlined action-RPG approach that actually has a few great ideas of its own, such as instantly transforming vendor trash and lesser equipment into their equivalent gold values and summoning creatures with various talents to help with the dungeoneering, it feels more like a vessel to tell a lot of jokes about hoary RPG tropes and the nature of "heroes" and "chosen ones" in a sardonic universe that is quick to mock and trample the less shrewd. The Bard, who is essentially forced into being a hero when all he really wants is to get laid, get drunk and get rich in any order, is a wonderful anti-hero who maintains a moral equilibrium by balancing acts of inadvertent heroism with those of selfish, dickish malevolence. Stealing from graves, tricking people into setting off traps for him, accidentally releasing demons onto the world and running away, that sort of thing. Throughout all this, a condescending omnipotent narrator conveys all this to his invisible audience, regularly laying into the Bard whenever he does something nefarious or invokes a ridiculous RPG cliché: an early instance involves the Bard killing a random wolf to find a king's ransom of dropped loot, with the narrator calling out its ridiculousness and preventing it from happening again ("What? That's my main source of income!" whines the Bard). The voice acting of Cary Elwes and his unrecognizable Scottish accent and the disdainful tones of Tony Jay really help make this relationship between storyteller and subject work, and becomes the centerpiece of the game's humor. I realize a video game making meta jokes about being a video game is a "little goes a long way" sort of affair for many, but the game can be really funny with that material, to a similar extent as The Book of Unwritten Tales or Simon the Sorcerer series. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

Anyway, I have a soft spot for this game, and was part of the reason why I backed the new Bard's Tale Kickstarter (even if I doubt it'll be quite as humorous). As well as being pretty funny, with some earwormy musical numbers, it's actually a decent RPG too. Not a particularly complex one, but breezy enough to be fun Diablo clone with some level of Zelda-like puzzle-solving. It's not quite an instant "Approved", but it's on the shortlist of potential space-fillers until something better comes along. Considered.

Case File 132: Rockstar North's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (NA): 26/10/2004
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (also out on Xbox and PC, and remastered for PS3 and 360)

Ah, San Andreas. For me, this was when Grand Theft Auto found its peak, expertly combining the diverse gameplay of the series with the story of a young hood returning to his barely recognizable home after some time on the opposite coast, getting embroiled with a gang battle for supremacy while trying to uncover the murder behind one of his remaining family members. It goes some places, as GTA games inevitably do, with the hero CJ bouncing between various eccentric mission providers, working for friends, gangsters, civilians, mobsters, at least one federal agent and villains that he eventually must turn on and gun down. While San Andreas is a treat for those entrenched in the 1990s West Coast hip hop scene, with characters clearly based on the likes of Eazy-E and other legends of that time and place, it's also an impressively huge game with three cities to explore and a lot of terrain in between. The game's boundaries expand in other contexts too, as the player is able to shape CJ into any form they wish, building his muscles with regular trips to the gym or pigging out on fast food until he becomes an easily-winded endomorph. While I've yet to play Vice City and can remark on how it evolved the series, San Andreas is when GTA started feeling less like a simple action game and more like a living world, with so much to do and so many mechanical systems in place that you'll often be distracted from whatever mission needs completing next to just explore and see what there is to find and do. The game rewards this procrastinating open-world approach with its marvellous radio stations, each packed with an incredible amount of licensed music for whatever musical category you might be into. Vitally, I feel like San Andreas is where we see our big split in open world crime games: we'd continue to see GTA games on one side, as they get ever more maudlin and somber with their dramas (despite being juxtaposed with GTA's frequently ribald puns for store names and the like), and on the other side a stronger focus on the controlled chaotic fun of absurd cars, weapons and NPCs in Volition's Saints Row series. While I'll always take the latter over the former, I recognize that it was games like San Andreas (and possibly Vice City) that paved the way.

San Andreas is way too important, for me and for the burgeoning open-world genre, to exclude from my shelf. However, I can't in good conscience automatically approve the game without testing Vice City first. Maybe the advancements made to San Andreas is enough to offset the Miami Vice style charms of Vice City and its painfully 80s soundtrack. Between 80s pastel-shirted cop shows and 90s hiphop, I know which era I'd prefer to spend my time in. For now, this will have to be a mighty East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry for the second round to resolve. Considered.

Case File 133: Atlus's Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (JP): 28/10/2004
  • PS2 Exclusive!

I wish I'd given Stella Deus more of a chance. It's a strategy RPG from Atlus and Pinegrow that presents a gothic fantasy world that is reminiscent of the grim apocalyptic themes found in Atlus's major francise, Shin Megami Tensei, and takes Final Fantasy Tactics as its major inspiration. That means a lot of micromanaging your crew of versatile warriors from their classes and abilities down to their equipment, turn orders based on speed stats and the last performed action (there's quicker turnaround for faster attacks, for instance) and a whole lot of tactical benefits to be found from being in the right place at the right time. Shooting arrows from higher up makes them hit harder, back attacks are less likely to be blocked, covered positions are trickier to hit, and so on. It's everything I could want from a strategy RPG, but for whatever reason I couldn't bring myself to finish it. I'm not sure if it was an issue of extreme challenge or of burning out or what, but I'd like to revisit the game to see if I determine the cause, if maybe not progress past where I stopped and complete it.

From reading the synopsis on Wikipedia, it has a God of Destruction called "Dies Irae"? As in, that piece of classical music that plays over bombastic movie trailers? I might need to know what that's about. Bless these Euro-centric Japanese RPGs and their naming conventions. Considered.

Case File 134: Insomniac Games's Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (NA): 03/11/2004
  • Not PS2 Exclusive (remastered for PS3 and PSVita)

I wasn't kidding about this week being heavy on the platformers. We saw the best Sly Cooper game this time, as well as the slightly less good Scaler and Graffiti Kingdom, and here's debatably the best Ratchet and Clank game to accompany it. Up Your Arsenal's big change is the inclusion of real-time strategic combat sections, where you're guiding your allies around a battlefield for the best tactical advantage. It also introduces the series' first recurring villain Dr. Nefarious (weird that I'm playing a game right now featuring a "Mr. Nefarious"), his butler robot (Botler?) and the transparent parody Courtney Gears, who hits you with a catchy "kill all humans" pop song that reminds me of Futurama at its best. Here's the difficult choice: I think I prefer the story of Arsenal, but the alternate gameplay mode of Going Commando. The spaceship combat of that game wasn't particularly in-depth, but I generally find I like most genres more than real-time strategy. I just don't have the multitasking wherewithal to find it compelling.

Beyond that, though, the two games are so similar that I'd be flipping a coin to choose one at this stage. We'll need to get deeper into the science if we're going to determine which one is my personal favorite of the PS2 trilogy (even if, on reflection, I'd probably choose the PS3's Crack in Time as the overall victor). Considered.

Case File 135: Dimps's Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3

No Caption Provided
  • Original Release (NA): 16/11/2004
  • PS2 Exclusive!

I'm not even sure what to say about this one. It fell into my collection through no actions of my own, like so many others, and I have zero attachment to Akira Toriyama's universe of Journey to the West knock-offs spending hours powering up their qi until some alien's Google Glass freaks out about their power levels. I was mildly partial to the original Dragon Ball run, as goofy as it could be, but am entirely cold on the Z expanded universe. The Budokai series might well be excellent fighter games for fans of the license, but I couldn't tell you how or why. I'm being as diplomatic as possible here. I don't hate DBZ (though I certainly didn't appreciate it seemingly representing all of anime for the longest time), and I don't think these games are bad. It's not easy creating licensed games that not only don't suck, but are also able to tap into the appeal of the licensed properties they pertain to, and this property means enough to so many that I'm sure it found developers to treat the material with the right amount of respect, or at least ensure enough of a base level of quality to avoid prompting a horde of disgruntled Vegeta cosplayers to stand outside their studio, registering their disappointment by posing in a combat stance and yelling for ten minutes straight.

All right, so maybe I'm not being all that diplomatic, but my point is that I hold no ill will towards Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 3. I just have so little interest in either fighter games or the DBZ universe to want to check it out. Eliminated.

Results

All right, let's check out the damage. We have six more Considereds this week: two for the list of reserves, two that'll face sequels/predecessors for a battle of supremacy, and two that I'll need to revisit before passing judgement. There's also three eliminations and one new Approved game in the form of Sly 2: Band of Thieves, easily the gem of this week's assortment (though I'll also accept San Andreas as this edition's King of the Heap choice). I do think that Midway arcade collection is a great one, but it'd be super weird putting it on a list of best PS2 games.

Before we move onto the updated stats, let's talk about another honorable mention: Naughty Dog's Jak 3, completing the big PS2 platformer trifecta. For whatever reason, I don't own this one - I suspect it was a rental - but it maintains an equilibrium of the previous two games, expanding the open-world exploration element while minimizing the amount of times you need to drive across a city to complete missions on your hoverbike. The post-apocalyptic wasteland setting of the later Jak games doesn't lend itself well to a lot of varied and colorful regions to explore, but the narrative evolution of this series has always been a strange one. How many cute, colorful platformers pull the rug away to reveal a grim, harsh world of ruins and ruthless mechanical aliens? It also still plays well, which is probably obvious enough considering its the third game in a platformer franchise that hit the ground running (and jumping). It sounds like the PS4 will be getting the Jak games - including the racing-focused Jak X but curiously not the underpromoted Jak & Daxter: The Lost Frontier or Daxter's PSP solo debut - so maybe I'll finally have my own copy of this game before too long. At any rate, there's nothing to put up on the shelf... and I'd probably still prefer the first game regardless.

This week's magnanimity brings us past the 50 games milestone, with 54 out of 135 games for the second round to scrutinize further. I'm going to be pretty busy this Summer with PS2 games, so I hope this dilapidated old console can keep up (and all the memory card space I'll need to free up! I'd almost forgotten that was even a thing). We also inaugurate a new member of the "shelf-assured" with Sly 2, bringing that total to twelve. (Why didn't I call those games shelf-assured to begin with? Damn staircase wit. If it's not killing sexy psychiatrists, it's making me way too late on a killer pun.) Next week has... oh boy, is that a weird selection. This is my PS2 library at its most eclectic, folks, so I expect there'll something for everyone next time on The Top Shelf. See you then.

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May Maturity 01: Toonstruck (Intro)

It's the first episode of the new May feature! Yay! We're looking at Burst Studios's 1996 graphic adventure game Toonstruck, featuring professional Hollywood lanky oddball Christopher Lloyd as put-upon animator Drew Blanc (a pun and an homage wrapped into one - liking this game already), the monotone (and politically dubious) Ben Stein as Drew's boss Sam Schmaltz, and a gaggle of talented voice actors who bring to life the various animated characters Drew befriends and, in many cases, created personally. The game's going for that Cool World/Monkeybone conceit of a creator lost in the comical world he created, and does so with a combination of digitized sprites for the human Drew, traditional animation for his cartoon creations, and a mix of the two for the game's many FMV scenes. I'm sure the fact that Christopher Lloyd also starred in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a similar juxtaposition of animated "toons" and regular humans, almost certainly did not go unnoticed by the developers of this game. Personally, I like to think of this as Lloyd's penance to the toon world for inventing The Dip.

At any rate, if you wanted a crash course in this game and were too busy to look at screenshots, might I suggest Giant Bomb East's attempts to suss out the game? It's been juuuust long enough since that stream aired that I've forgotten all the puzzle solutions they uncovered, so this should be fun:

Toonstruck! It's Not the One With Nic Cage!

Welcome to Toonstruck! I have no idea who this clown is - he's not the antagonist - but I'm sure I will soon.
Welcome to Toonstruck! I have no idea who this clown is - he's not the antagonist - but I'm sure I will soon.
Here's our hero Drew Blanc, working on his most hated - and unfortunately only profitable - creation, a saccharine rabbit called Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun.
Here's our hero Drew Blanc, working on his most hated - and unfortunately only profitable - creation, a saccharine rabbit called Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun.
As well as being stressed out by work and life commitments in general - it's the 90s, so this was the style at the time (aw heck, it still is) - he's also called into his unctuous boss's office and told to create a whole new cast of rabbits to prop up Fluffy Fluffy. Within 24 hours.
As well as being stressed out by work and life commitments in general - it's the 90s, so this was the style at the time (aw heck, it still is) - he's also called into his unctuous boss's office and told to create a whole new cast of rabbits to prop up Fluffy Fluffy. Within 24 hours.
Naturally, he takes this news well, and goes about this new task with as much zip and dash as he can muster. Which is to say, he procrastinates all day and falls asleep at his desk.
Naturally, he takes this news well, and goes about this new task with as much zip and dash as he can muster. Which is to say, he procrastinates all day and falls asleep at his desk.
Whether it's the ominous 4am thunderstorm, inhaling acrylic paint fumes or a mixture of the two, Drew's suddenly teleported into his own cartoon show.
Whether it's the ominous 4am thunderstorm, inhaling acrylic paint fumes or a mixture of the two, Drew's suddenly teleported into his own cartoon show.
He's saved from a sudden zapping by his most favorite creation: a manic, sarcastic force of nature named Flux Wildly. Flux acts as Drew's sidekick throughout the game, flowing closely behind and cutting in with his own quips and barbs, and can also be
He's saved from a sudden zapping by his most favorite creation: a manic, sarcastic force of nature named Flux Wildly. Flux acts as Drew's sidekick throughout the game, flowing closely behind and cutting in with his own quips and barbs, and can also be "used" as an inventory item for several puzzles. So, yeah, he's Max the Rabbit but with a more ambiguous taxonomy and the voice of The Simpsons's Dan Castellaneta.
King Hugh here wants us to fix the overly pleasant land of Cutopia (that's
King Hugh here wants us to fix the overly pleasant land of Cutopia (that's "cute-opia", mind) from Mr. Nefarious's "Malevolator", a machine that is currently transforming this wholesome world into one less personable.
After the intro, we're turfed out into King Hugh's castle to get our adventurin' legs. Before we can leave, however, we must first consult with the royal engineer. Let's talk about this interface some: the game's from 1996, so a lot of the verb inputs have been streamlined down to a single contextual cursor (what is currently an arrow). Left clicking on an object performs the task associated with the cursor's appearance: movement to a new area is a gloved hand pointing the way, picking objects up is a gloved hand reaching down, etc. You can also right click to get the
After the intro, we're turfed out into King Hugh's castle to get our adventurin' legs. Before we can leave, however, we must first consult with the royal engineer. Let's talk about this interface some: the game's from 1996, so a lot of the verb inputs have been streamlined down to a single contextual cursor (what is currently an arrow). Left clicking on an object performs the task associated with the cursor's appearance: movement to a new area is a gloved hand pointing the way, picking objects up is a gloved hand reaching down, etc. You can also right click to get the "examine" feedback.
The engineer, Bricabrac, is voiced by Corey Burton: a veteran voice actor for Disney. Most of the game's cast is spread across about six or seven of these ubiquitous voice actors, which handily lends the game an authenticity as some lost animated universe, as well as a talented bunch of actors for Lloyd and Castellaneta to bounce off. I'll point out any noteworthy exceptions, but in general the voice acting's the best part of this game so far (even if certain characters grate a little).
The engineer, Bricabrac, is voiced by Corey Burton: a veteran voice actor for Disney. Most of the game's cast is spread across about six or seven of these ubiquitous voice actors, which handily lends the game an authenticity as some lost animated universe, as well as a talented bunch of actors for Lloyd and Castellaneta to bounce off. I'll point out any noteworthy exceptions, but in general the voice acting's the best part of this game so far (even if certain characters grate a little).
The deal with the Malevolator is that it's comprised of these twelve parts, and in order to undo the damage it's causing to this world, we have to create its opposite equal: the Cutifier. That means finding the opposing partners of all these items. Fortunately, that's an easy enough bit of wordplay: (Cloak and) Dagger, (Spots and) Stripes, Heart (and Soul), (Bells and) Whistles, (Spit and) Polish, (Pins and) Needles, (Nuts and) Bolts, Ball (and Chain), Bow (and Arrow?), Salt (and Pepper), Rock (and Roll?). Finding all these items will be the tricky part.
The deal with the Malevolator is that it's comprised of these twelve parts, and in order to undo the damage it's causing to this world, we have to create its opposite equal: the Cutifier. That means finding the opposing partners of all these items. Fortunately, that's an easy enough bit of wordplay: (Cloak and) Dagger, (Spots and) Stripes, Heart (and Soul), (Bells and) Whistles, (Spit and) Polish, (Pins and) Needles, (Nuts and) Bolts, Ball (and Chain), Bow (and Arrow?), Salt (and Pepper), Rock (and Roll?). Finding all these items will be the tricky part.
Before we leave, Bricabrac also gives us this bottomless bag. I imagine it works on the same principle as that mystical space behind cartoon characters where they draw out all their giant hammers and such. It's nice when an adventure game bothers to acknowledge this convenient contrivance.
Before we leave, Bricabrac also gives us this bottomless bag. I imagine it works on the same principle as that mystical space behind cartoon characters where they draw out all their giant hammers and such. It's nice when an adventure game bothers to acknowledge this convenient contrivance.
The King's Footman isn't a particularly friendly chap, and we'll need to get rid of him if we hope to snatch any of these trophies. Not that I'm sure what we might need them for, but you know how it is with adventure games. Anything that isn't nailed down, am I right?
The King's Footman isn't a particularly friendly chap, and we'll need to get rid of him if we hope to snatch any of these trophies. Not that I'm sure what we might need them for, but you know how it is with adventure games. Anything that isn't nailed down, am I right?
The
The "army-dillos" out front are equally chipper, though this one on the left has a habit of dropping his key whenever you ask him to dance. Say, that might be worth keeping...
This relates to a puzzle with the drawers, which do that alternating light puzzle thing of opening and closing in groups. By following this idiom, we unlock a tunnel on the left.
This relates to a puzzle with the drawers, which do that alternating light puzzle thing of opening and closing in groups. By following this idiom, we unlock a tunnel on the left.
This simple puzzle simply involves setting up a pitfall for the Footman, ringing the bell so he charges in over the trapdoor in the above picture while it's open and while the carpet's rolled over it. That grants us access to the trophy room, but the only thing we can take from there for now is the giant red herring. I've played this game for ten minutes, but it already seems subversive and meta enough that I bet we actually find a use for it.
This simple puzzle simply involves setting up a pitfall for the Footman, ringing the bell so he charges in over the trapdoor in the above picture while it's open and while the carpet's rolled over it. That grants us access to the trophy room, but the only thing we can take from there for now is the giant red herring. I've played this game for ten minutes, but it already seems subversive and meta enough that I bet we actually find a use for it.
Leaving the castle, Cutopia then branches out into these four commercial establishments before continuing down south. It's not the kind of game to shy away from giving you full access to its many screens and puzzles right off the bat. I mean, we do need to find twelve items to continue the story (well, eleven, since Bricabrac solved one of them for us). I should also point out that the game has a convenient fast movement system: simply right-clicking on a screen transition warps you right there. No fast travel map, though, at least as far as I've found.
Leaving the castle, Cutopia then branches out into these four commercial establishments before continuing down south. It's not the kind of game to shy away from giving you full access to its many screens and puzzles right off the bat. I mean, we do need to find twelve items to continue the story (well, eleven, since Bricabrac solved one of them for us). I should also point out that the game has a convenient fast movement system: simply right-clicking on a screen transition warps you right there. No fast travel map, though, at least as far as I've found.
The Irish pub has a half-Irish/half-Scottish piece of cheese shaped like a shamrock, which is a pun that went over my head, and we're politely asked to deal with his mouse problem. Simply a matter of distracting him with the organ (the game gets some dick jokes out of that) while Flux whacks him with the hammeriffic mousetrap. That gets us an old mug (used for a puzzle back in the trophy room)
The Irish pub has a half-Irish/half-Scottish piece of cheese shaped like a shamrock, which is a pun that went over my head, and we're politely asked to deal with his mouse problem. Simply a matter of distracting him with the organ (the game gets some dick jokes out of that) while Flux whacks him with the hammeriffic mousetrap. That gets us an old mug (used for a puzzle back in the trophy room)
Ah, here we go. The first hint of a Cutifier part. The
Ah, here we go. The first hint of a Cutifier part. The "opposite" of rock is roll, so if I can get these frog baker brothers back together, I should be able to take the roll I need from them. Ray's current whereabouts are unknown, unfortunately.
We found a free voucher for this costume shop, but the shopkeeper isn't nearly as dumb as she sounds. She'll know we're just trying to rip her off if we present the voucher without the King's seal of approval, so for now we're at a stalemate. Still, it's good to know that we're only a puzzle away from a costume. What we might do with a costume is another matter entirely.
We found a free voucher for this costume shop, but the shopkeeper isn't nearly as dumb as she sounds. She'll know we're just trying to rip her off if we present the voucher without the King's seal of approval, so for now we're at a stalemate. Still, it's good to know that we're only a puzzle away from a costume. What we might do with a costume is another matter entirely.
The slippery octopus that runs this dubious arcade is voiced by none other than the dearly departed Dom DeLuise. We can actually get two prizes here: one for beating him at an arcade game, and the other for hitting the bell (aha!) on the strengthometer. Naturally, the odds are against us for both.
The slippery octopus that runs this dubious arcade is voiced by none other than the dearly departed Dom DeLuise. We can actually get two prizes here: one for beating him at an arcade game, and the other for hitting the bell (aha!) on the strengthometer. Naturally, the odds are against us for both.
This is a ridiculously easy game to win, but for the fact you have to input your controls via the mouse cursor and those buttons along the bottom. By hitting the opponent enough times, you'll eventually kill them, which counts as a win. You can also throw your projectiles past them to hit the target, which eventually lowers a giant spiked ball and also leads to a win. It's still a matter of timing, but I wonder if there's a way to out-cheat the cheating proprietor somehow if I wasn't up to the task.
This is a ridiculously easy game to win, but for the fact you have to input your controls via the mouse cursor and those buttons along the bottom. By hitting the opponent enough times, you'll eventually kill them, which counts as a win. You can also throw your projectiles past them to hit the target, which eventually lowers a giant spiked ball and also leads to a win. It's still a matter of timing, but I wonder if there's a way to out-cheat the cheating proprietor somehow if I wasn't up to the task.
Alas, if Flux exists in this universe, so too must Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun. I'll spare you all the shrill annoyance of this cartoon lagomorph and instead talk about the dialogue system. The first icon, the ice cube, is what I imagine is a visual metaphor for
Alas, if Flux exists in this universe, so too must Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun. I'll spare you all the shrill annoyance of this cartoon lagomorph and instead talk about the dialogue system. The first icon, the ice cube, is what I imagine is a visual metaphor for "breaking the ice". You can get a few uses out of this one, and the ice block melts a little each time, eventually becoming a pile of water that indicates that you've exhausted all your "small talk". The hand is simply how you terminate the conversation. The other icons are specific discussion topics, which here includes King Hugh and Fluffy Fluffy herself.
A few new quest objects on this screen: that's the pepper we need to counteract the salt, and the angry squirrel's nuts seem like just the ticket to neutralize the Malevolator's bolts. Naturally, both are just beyond our grasp as of this moment.
A few new quest objects on this screen: that's the pepper we need to counteract the salt, and the angry squirrel's nuts seem like just the ticket to neutralize the Malevolator's bolts. Naturally, both are just beyond our grasp as of this moment.
There's also the promise of Zanydu, the land that Flux calls home. This is where all the
There's also the promise of Zanydu, the land that Flux calls home. This is where all the "loony" toons live, and where cartoon logic is at its most potent. I'm... not quite ready to go there just yet. I'm not sure we can, even.
Finally, let's end on the unambiguously gay scarecrow (sorry,
Finally, let's end on the unambiguously gay scarecrow (sorry, "carecrow") who hovers precariously close to an offensive stereotype. He wants the perfect outfit, which is probably where the costume comes in, and will give us his cloak - aha! - as a return gift. As for the barn, well, if you watched Giant Bomb East's video you know what's in there. For the sake of decorum, I think I'll just bring this short guide to the animated world of Drew's feverish nightmare to a close.

I'm psyched to get past the point where those good New York boys bowed out and start figuring out these puzzles for myself, rather than gliding through them due to half-remembered solutions. Toonstruck is every bit the classic adventure game, but also sits on that cusp of when this type of adventure game was about to be phased out in favor of incredibly hokey "cinematic" "experiences" like the nightmare factory that was 1998's Tender Loving Care, another FMV marvel brought to our attention by Vinny and the Beast Crew. To Toonstruck's benefit, it also means that it belongs to the end of a great era when adventure games had thrown out unnecessarily frustrating elements like a half a screen of different parser inputs or progress-zapping cheap deaths for daring to poke at a vicious-looking creature or a weird hole in the ground. The contextual cursor, the wonderful voice acting and the many subtle quality of life enhancements make it a joy to play, not unlike the modern Indie adventure games that have picked up the slack in the intervening years.

At any rate, I hope to have an "Outro" to this game very soon. I imagine I'll be thinking about its puzzles a lot over the next few days.

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Welcome to May Maturity 2017!

Another May means another May feature. If you're unfamiliar, I usually pick the quiet month of May for a patch of endurance blogging. Reasons being that I can test my critical acumen by tackling multiple games within the 31 day time frame, and it also gives me a reason to clear out some of my more tenacious backlog items instead of spending the whole period playing a single enormous RPG or open-world game while discreetly buying three more of them in an endless cycle of anguished unfulfillment.

Is Spacewar! on this list? You'll just have to keep reading to fi- Fuck no, it isn't. That thing's old as dirt. Which blip am I even supposed to be, anyway?
Is Spacewar! on this list? You'll just have to keep reading to fi- Fuck no, it isn't. That thing's old as dirt. Which blip am I even supposed to be, anyway?

Anyhoo! It started with May Madness, a daily blog series that picked apart one game per day, randomly chosen from the darkest recesses of my Steam library. That eventually became May Mastery, which focused instead on the Steam games I sorely wanted to play most with a view to complete them, often spending up to three days covering each one. This year we're (well, I am) launching a new variation with a similar theme: May Maturity. This particular spin is also dredging up backlog items I've had my eye on for years, but in this case we're talking specifically about PC games from the 20th century. These are the oldest games I own on Steam - and on GOG, since this is their wheelhouse and all - and while I may not have owned these digital copies all that long, I've known about these games for decades. These are games I was introduced to at a friend's house, or "PC Gamer" style magazines, or word of mouth, and had always intended on visiting but never did for various reasons. Computer retro gaming as is accessible as it's ever been these days, however, with Steam/GOG games regularly including all the .bat and .ini files necessary to configure DOSBox (or SCUMMVM in some cases) to be as accurate to the original experience as possible. The time is now to get into these older games, before they age completely into obsolescence. I realize that's a blasphemous sentiment to many, but as a fan of game design it can be hard to overlook some archaic systems and practices. I don't think I'm quite as patient as I used to be either, in spite of all this old man zen I exude. (At least I hope that's zen.)

"How will this feature work, specifically?" Well, I'm glad you asked that, inquisitive figment of a troubled mind. The fact is, I still want to keep up with the two other big weekly features I have going on this year - The Top Shelf and The Indie Game of the Week - and so I can't feasibly go for another daily series. This May will be a lot more chill, as I work it around the enormous amount of weekly writing I've weighed myself down with already.

  • Each game on my list will include an "Intro" blog and an "Outro" blog.
  • The Intro blog will be a loose, first impressions take on the game which will be presented in a screenshot LP fashion. I find that's usually easiest for describing how a game works, as well as introducing its look and the style it's going for. "Easiest" as in, it sits on the intersection of "easy to demonstrate" and "easy for me to actually pull off" (unlike video).
  • The Outro will be a bit more like a classic review, such as the Indie Game of the Week rundowns above. A summary of what I liked, what I didn't like, how well the game has aged, that sort of business.
  • I'm giving myself an amenable amount of time for each game: a whole week. Each Outro will be posted within seven days of that game's Intro, and in that time I'll be focusing on playing the game and my other two weekly features. And, you know, general life stuff.
  • I do still plan on playing more than one game a week, however. Once a game gets its Outro, the Intro to the next game will be right on its heels. Ideally, I'd like to see the ending credits on at least half of my list (of fourteen), but I'll settle for the top five. It's a quintet I've been wanting to tackle for a long time now.

As per usual, I'll be including every featured game with their intros and outros on the table below, for convenience's sake:

01: ToonstruckIntroOutro
02: Ultima Underworld: The Stygian AbyssIntroOutro
03: The Legend of KyrandiaIntroOutro
04: Jagged Alliance 2IntroOutro
05: The DigIntroOutro
06: MenzoberranzanIntroOutro
07: The Legend of Kyrandia: Hand of FateIntroOutro

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All-New Saturday Summaries 2017-04-29

All right, the advent of May is upon us, which means it's time to broach the subject of this year's May blogging feature. In previous years, May has been an excuse to sort through a lot of Steam backlog, playing and reviewing several games a week to sort the wheat from the chaff. More recently, with the slightly modified "May Mastery", I've doubled-down on the specific games I'd been wanting to play for a while, letting those I feel iffy or uncertain about fall to the wayside.

Because I want to keep my concurrent features active - Indie Game of the Week and The Top Shelf, for those just joining us - I'm not going to go full "daily" this May, nor am I going to schedule out a list of modern Indie games just to find that the limited hardware of my back-up laptop is unable to run them. Instead, we're going a little bit historical this year with some long-term backlog items. Really long-term.

A 90s FMV adventure game from the creators of Tender Loving Care. I'll admit this one isn't high on the list.
A 90s FMV adventure game from the creators of Tender Loving Care. I'll admit this one isn't high on the list.

This month's list of games all have one thing in common: they were originally released on PC in the 1990s. This includes a mix of Steam and GOG games I've let pile up, all of which I've either never concluded or never even began, but have been curious about for the twenty-ish years since they were first released. It's going to be a mix of graphic adventure games and CRPGs, which I'm planning to present in two stages: a "first impressions" blind playthrough screenshot LP that will cover the first few hours of gameplay, and a follow-up piece which will involve a more broad selection of screenshot highlights and/or a final review style write-up. These two articles will bookend every game I manage to complete during May, and while I expect the RPGs to slow me down considerably I hope to finish at least five of the games I have on my list. I'm setting myself a time limit also: no single game gets more than a week to itself, and I'm to continue onto the next one whether I manage to complete it or not.

Anyway, those are my plans for May this year. For its title I'm currently deliberating between "May Maturity", given the average age of the games involved, or "Mondo May", since that was a word that only seemed to exist during the 1990s. While I ratiocinate on how to kill this series dead on arrival with the worst possible name, I'll let you all consider the following batch of weekly blogging content:

  • Turning our gaze slightly upwards, The Top Shelf this week is business as usual with a mix of PS2 games that deserve to be honored for all time and some purchases I'd sooner wish to forget. In particular, we inducted a pair of my favorite less-renowned PS2 games this week: Shadow Hearts Covenant, one of the most impressive RPGs for the system in part due to its alternative historical eldritch horror presentation and its sheer length, and Blood Will Tell, a boss rush driven character-action game with a really cool premise. The Top Shelf will continue throughout May - I just have to figure out how to squeeze its weekly 3000-4000 word updates around the schedule I'm planning.
  • The Indie Game of the Week is actually the same game it was a fortnight ago: Tales from the Borderlands. This particular rundown analyzes the third and fourth episodes of Telltale's five-part series set within Gearbox's rough and tumble Borderlands universe. I'm enjoying the game's humor and writing still, but what little gameplay there is isn't implemented particularly well. It reminds me a lot of the QTE DVD games that were popular for a spell. With only one episode left to go, we will definitely be revisiting this again soon enough.

Dishonored 2

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To properly elucidate why Arkane's Dishonored 2 is causing me consternation will involve some pre-amble. The game requires at least two full playthroughs to get all its trophies since there's now two playable characters, Corvo and Emily, which means I have an excuse to play this game a whole lot differently than I did Dishonored 1 in one of the two necessary "routes" to the Platinum. For one of these rules, they added a legitimate no-powers option - in the first game, you got a trophy for not buying any powers beyond the initial "blink" teleport, but in this game you can just straight out tell the interdimensional "Outsider" to stuff his powers up his Void and have absolutely no magical support for the whole game, including blink. I've done that, making the game a little more like a traditional Thief, and I'm also going the high chaos (a.k.a. high murder rate) route, regularly killing guards and tossing their bodies into the ocean or into forcefields to prevent the bloodfly epidemic (which takes over from the rat epidemic from the last game, and like that epidemic will become out of control after a high chaos playthrough regardless of how I dispose of bodies). Yet, my dissatisfaction of the game doesn't stem from playing it this specific way instead of my preferred no-detection, no-kill approach. On the contrary, not worrying about accidentally leaving an unconscious body where the rats can get it is improving my mood considerably.

Rather, it's that the game feels too big for its own good. When I was exploring "Neo-Prague" back in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided not too long ago, I found myself losing entire days just discovering all the passages and vents and tunnels that connected various parts of the city. I found it marvellous that the developers had built such an intricately interwoven environment to explore, and that same admiration extends to Dishonored 2's locales as well to a lesser extent, but the sheer size of the place threatened to slow what was already a typically deliberate and patient stealth game playthrough to a crawl. I'll levy some of the blame here towards my ill-advised hunt for trophies: one requires that you procure a certain percentage of all the wealth to be found across its locations, strewn around as loose coins, money pouches on guards and other NPCs, and certain high-value treasures that are usually challenging to reach or well hidden. I don't have the ability to teleport, so I already knew I wouldn't be able to find everything, but I regularly leave a level with around 80% of the total cash amount despite thoroughly combing each location over. It's a little exhilarating as a collectible nut to know that so much is so cleverly hidden that I'm unable to easily find it, but sweeping each of Dishonored 2's gargantuan levels is starting to take its toll. I swear I spend about three or four hours on every "mission" of the game, as you almost invariably have a whole block of apartments to explore that surrounds the already immense central structure that holds your next target. My favorite mission so far involved a former upper-class sanatorium turned research laboratory on a remote island: it was just the building itself, surrounded by ocean on all sides, and as odd as it feels to say I appreciated the restriction of movement.

The
The "more cynical allies" aspect of high chaos is interesting to me. There are only a couple of allied characters I've met, and they seem like they'd fairly sarcastic either way. Only once or twice have I heard them make a reference to how many people I'm murdering, however.

I still think Dishonored 2 plays as well as the first, even without powers to rely on in the specific way I'm playing it. Enemy detection is conveyed about as well as the game's first-person format allows and it's really fun to play this game on high chaos, figuring out how to lead people to creative deaths. My favorite is switching the enemy/friend recognition on the world's "wall of light" forcefields and letting oblivious guards just wander into it while on patrol. I'd often stand on high ground somewhere and toss bottles down onto the street where the forcefields are so the suspicious guards would search around it, and usually into it. Knocking people unconscious and throwing them into the ocean to get eaten by fish, or tricking them into getting swarmed by bloodflies and dying horribly; it's all very sinister, I'll be the first to admit, but there's a morbid satisfaction in ensnaring all these guards in deathtraps and having one fewer pair of hostile eyes to worry about. Very Tecmo's Deception. The game also looks great in general, with its take on a vaguely Spanish/North African/Mediterranean city with the fictional Karnacas and the slightly exaggerated cartoon proportions it uses for its character design, but the animations seem a bit off-putting. I noticed when I was talking to the Outsider that his head bobs erratically from side to side while he talks and thought nothing of it at the time; the guy's meant to be a little disconcerting, as the world's equivalent of an all-knowing trickster deity. However, I started to notice other NPCs doing the same thing in conversations, and I'm no longer sure it's a deliberate quirk. I'll disagree with a certain sentiment that this game's targets don't stand out as much as the rogue's gallery of the previous game: though you meet almost all of your targets for the first time during their particular missions, which doesn't really befit a revenge tale where you'd normally have that scene with the room of conspirators mid-planning in order to understand how each of them was compicit in your downfall, I'd argue they're every bit as distinctive as the targets in the first Dishonored. The Florence Nightingale-like Dr. Hypatia and the brilliant clockwork inventor Kirin Jindosh are layered villains that, were you to take the time to learn about them from found documents and overheard conversations throughout their mission areas, you'd understand why Corvo/Emily would be just as likely to slit their throats as they might to keep them alive but incapacitated/neutralized in some fashion.

However, we come back to the fact that while I can't fault the game for giving players a lot of content for their money with its incredibly elaborate level design, this might be a case of having way too much of a good thing spoiling the meal. I'm up to Mission 6 and already starting to burn out a little with each of these immense locations - I haven't been back to it since Wednesday, though I hope to blast through more of it this weekend before May begins and I switch my focus. You might want to pace yourself with this one, if you're trying to be as thorough as I am.

There's some tie-in with the first game's DLC regarding the Brigmore Witches, of which this game's antagonist is the leader. I think that one, which was the last episode of DLC, was a deliberate bridge between the two Dishonored games. I dunno how I feel about DLC like that - I hate missing details because I missed some apparently story-crucial interstitial optional paid content. It's not
There's some tie-in with the first game's DLC regarding the Brigmore Witches, of which this game's antagonist is the leader. I think that one, which was the last episode of DLC, was a deliberate bridge between the two Dishonored games. I dunno how I feel about DLC like that - I hate missing details because I missed some apparently story-crucial interstitial optional paid content. It's not "true ending of Asura's Wrath" bad, but still sort of obnoxious.
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