Diabolical

I finished Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box today and I can't help but feel disappointed. The game is every bit as good as its predecessor, but it just didn't grab me. I really think it comes down to the novelty factor. The original game was just that, original. This one is just more of the same. Not far into it, I got sick of tapping the screen, solving simple math problems, and trying to decipher sometimes ridiculous puzzle instructions. There are clearly a lot of people out there who love this style of game and want more, hence the multiple sequels, but I'm not one of them. GB just put up a QL of the newest 3DS game, so I'll check that out to see if things have evolved, but I have a pretty strong feeling I won't be returning to the land of Layton any time soon.

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2 Quick Thoughts on 2 Sequels

  • Now that I'm really into it and starting to get awesome weapons, Borderlands 2 is giving me all the joy that its predecessor provided. It starts a bit slow, but it becomes exactly what it should be.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box is everything a sequel shouldn't be. I loved the first game, but I'm so bored that I'm skipping through dialog and rushing through puzzles. I think it was the uniqueness of the first one that made me fawn for it. Tapping the screen like a mad man and solving ridiculous puzzles just doesn't thrill me this time around. I'll still finish it, but I'm quite disappointed.
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You Had Me At Hello

It's safe to say I was excited for Borderlands 2, as its predecessor is one of my favorite games of this generation. It is also safe to say that I became downright ecstatic when I fired it up and I heard this:

The Heavy are one of my all-time favorite bands and Short Change Hero is one of their best songs.

My advice to you? Buy Borderlands 2 and buy every album by The Heavy. Then proceed to enjoy your life.

P.S. I am alive.

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In Limbo

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I can't decide how I feel right now. I accomplished one of my weekend goals and finished Limbo last night. The problem is, I just can't come to terms with how it all turned out. I feel like I just read through a tale of two games. The first half is an intriguing adventure puzzler with some interesting scares and beautiful art style. The second half turns into an action platformer with awkward controls. So what happened?

Sometimes dark and disturbing...
Sometimes dark and disturbing...

In the recent Dead Island QL, Brad and Patrick were talking about how some designers seem completely unaware of what makes their game great. Nowhere is this truer than in Limbo. For me, this game is all about atmosphere, not action. When the game began I felt cold, alone, and confused. There was no direction and no hope, not even a splash of color to lift the player from the depths. If that one sentence is your introduction to the game, you would be forgiven for thinking it a terrible experience. But it's not; terror can be the most engaging and immersive facet of humanity. I really like the idea that I can be transported somewhere by a lack of stimulus as opposed to a picture perfect recreation of some fantastical place.

...yet always beautiful.
...yet always beautiful.

The gameplay begins along that same less-is-more ideology with only two action buttons. Trial and error is the name of the game, but that is to be expected. Just as in our world, the darkness permeates dangerous places and one false step means an early grave. Puzzles abound and the solutions are not always governed by the limitations we encounter on a daily basis. That being said, the abstract is never far from the logical and reason prevails with enough effort. If the game continued this way, it would be a masterpiece. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse about halfway through with too much jumping, pushing, pulling, and timing-based action. It's not that the game becomes overly hard (it never does), instead, it just becomes less fun. When the boy is being dismembered by a spinning saw blade repeatedly, the fear of death that had once been overwhelming becomes absent. The tension is gone.

I pushed through and finished the game, but it left a sour taste in my mouth. As excited as I am for the developers' next project, I can't help thinking of what could have been. Limbo remains an interesting game and has a fantastic first half, but beware the tonal downshift that comes with victory.

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Goals

It's been a long time since my last blog and for good reason. I've been working like a mad man and videogames don't pay the bills or license my profession. I'd like to write more and say more and contribute something meaningful, but in all honesty, I just don't have the time. My life will continue on this path for the next 5.5 years until I finish residency and then we'll see what the world looks like. But this is a good weekend, my first weekend off in a long time, and I want to have some fun. Here's how I plan to do that:

  • Watch Moneyball - Check. No surprises, it's quite good. Ranks up there with Miracle as one of my favorite sports dramas.
  • Play Diablo 3 Beta - Played a little last night, but there's still more to do. My barbarian won't dress himself.
  • Finsh Limbo - It's been way too long since I first played this game. I liked it, but just never came back since that first play. Hopefully that changes today.
  • Start Final Fantasy II Anniversary (PSP) - I actually just played through the original FF remake on PSP by firing it up for about 20 minutes a day for a couple months. I'm ready for the next one. When I complete it, I will have beaten FF I through IX (I made an attempt at FFX, but it locked up on me).
  • Watch the Pats win the Super Bowl - I'm not a Pats fan, but I'm a big UM fan so I like to see Tom Brady succeed. The Big Ten produces a lot of great players and he's among the best.
  • Start a mystery game - I have dozens of unplayed games on my shelf and should probably make an attempt at starting one.
  • Finsh Skyrim - Ha! Yeah right.

Until next time.

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What Once was Old...

No one can deny that this is an exciting time for the video game industry. Intricate plots are being woven with undeniable maturity, graphics and animations are increasingly realistic, and the quality of writers and actors has improved immensely over the last decade. To put it simply, the medium is growing and evolving, inching closer to the time-tested juggernaut that is the movie industry. This is an undeniable triumph on many levels, but there are two sides to every coin. Specifically, I'm speaking of the push towards a mass market. With a larger audience and sales expectations continually rising, there is renewed concern that the creativity of this wonderful art is being hampered. I do not mean to imply that originality is gone, as there are far too many examples of poetry in motion being released on a regular basis to backup that claim. Instead, I simply wanted to comment on the rash of remakes, rehashes, and re-releases that are currently dominating all forms of entertainment.

I'm pretty sure I own at least one of these on PS2 already.
I'm pretty sure I own at least one of these on PS2 already.

I own a lot of games that I've yet to play. I'm not proud of it, but I enjoy collecting, so I can usually justify my actions. However, one cannot help but doubt prior purchasing decisions when a new and better version always seems to be a development cycle away. This is something Hollywood has been doing since before we were born and, to a smaller extent, an exploit that the gaming industry has been working since the early days of interactive entertainment (think of all the Atari, Intellivision, Capcom, etc. collections that are released for every console). I am not actually trying to rail on this practice because, honestly, I don't know how I feel about it. I love the idea of catching up on games that I missed and getting to experience a definitive version of an already respected product. In fact, I've got a copy of The Sly Collection sitting on my shelf, Ico/Shadow of the Colossus preordered, Beyond Good & Evil HD on my mind, and God of War Collection waiting patiently in my PS3. Yet, I can't help but be disappointed that so many resources are going towards these products as opposed to something completely original.

Stabbing giants in the eye just got prettier!
Stabbing giants in the eye just got prettier!

In the end, I don't have any answers. These are just the thoughts running through my head as I start to play the God of War II HD remake today. It's good and I'm glad I'm playing it. When I played the original God of War on the PS2, I came away unimpressed. The story was interesting, but I found the combat to be too repetitive. Regardless, I fought my way through endless enemies and soaked up the drama of the Greek Gods. Then, I largely forgot about the series. However, with the recent release of God of War: Origins Collection, I've been wondering where things went with the sequels, especially given all the fanfare from stab-happy reviewers.

My first impression was that the game looks fantastic. The character models, lighting effects, animations, and environments are great. It's clear a lot of work went into the HD conversion, but it's also clear that the game must have been truly impressive in its original form. In the short time I've spent with it, the gameplay seems to be very similar to the first one. I mash the buttons and the enemies go away. The game starts with an abilitease, so I'll have a better impression of skill progression and strategy as I go further. Mostly, I'm just trying to run through the game to get the story and see the sights, so it should go quickly. Still, I'm feeling things click like I never did with the first one. I think it's just an objectively better experience.

RenegadeSaint: Last seen November 10, 2011.
RenegadeSaint: Last seen November 10, 2011.

That's it for now. I've got a couple old-school games lined up, and I'm always ready for some Reach or Borderlands. And of course, Gears 3 is around the corner and Skyrim is just over the horizon. The future looks fun. And busy.

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Aran the Wanderer, Part II

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Sweat dripping down her brow, visor fogged, Samus froze a cannon-fodder flying enemy and stylishly rolled into the chamber of the great beast, Kraid. Disgusting, vile, a symbol of all the torture she had received while wandering the hell that is Zebes, he needed to be exterminated. She charged into battle with the fury of an Amazonian warrior. Three seconds later she was buried in a pit of sand, unable to escape, being pelted by boomerang like projectiles as her energy slowly drained. Then she was dead. I was dead.

The bane of my existence
The bane of my existence

Dammit.

After many hours of frustration and several days of late night adventuring, I had finally encountered a boss. I had three energy tanks, the freeze beam, and 75 missiles in my weapons cache. I was ready to do some damage, but every strategy seemed to fail. Kraid's attacks did way too much damage and I kept falling into that hellish pit. I tried freezing his bullets, I tried jumping over him, I tried going kamikaze with missiles flying, but nothing seemed to work. I can't even begin to count the amount of time I spent killing enemies to earn health (5 points at a time) and missiles, only to be immediately destroyed by Kraid and have to restart with 30 energy. To make things worse, the utterly painful password system mocked me with every death. I'm no video game savant, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that I was missing something. I decided to call it quits for a couple of days.

Meh.
Meh.

The more I thought about the futility of my efforts, the more I realized I would have to find some more power-ups. The manual talked about the Varia Suit and the Screw Attack, both of which sounded helpful. I decided to find them and return for revenge. The only problem is that I had already explored every part of the world. Or so I thought. As it turns out, entire areas of the game world are sealed off from the player without so much as a hint at their existence. There was a map in the manual, but it might as well have been drawn with Crayons by a child. You literally need to bomb, shoot, and push against every piece of geometry to advance in the game. Once I really took this to heart, I found what I needed.

Who doesn't love password systems?
Who doesn't love password systems?

I was suddenly blazing through the game at supersonic speeds. I found the Hi-Jump Boots and I found myself sticking landings like no one's business. Then the watershed moment came. I found the Screw Attack. I cannot even begin to explain the difference this makes in the game. Being able to jump into enemies to kill them makes navigation unbelievably easier. You suddenly find yourself maxing out your health and spending much less time covered in lava and quicksand. Terrifying jumping enemies become lambs to the slaughter. The game becomes fun. Add on the Varia Suit (good luck finding this one) and Samus becomes simply beastly. I was finally ready to destroy Kraid.

My revenge was short and sweet, I froze his mid-level horn and hit him with an endless barrage of missiles. He fell like so many before him. Ridley was even easier. His fire breath was useless and a few well-placed missiles reunited him with Kraid. I pressed on to the final battle, slaying Metroids on the way, falling once to the wisp-like enemies that defend the Mother Brain, but returning for triumph on my next attempt. And that was it. I guided Samus to freedom and sighed in relief. I had conquered a timeless classic with absolutely no outside help. I won.

There's nothing like a quality map to guide a player.
There's nothing like a quality map to guide a player.

In the end, it's funny that the game's bosses were a mere footnote to my experience. The game is more of a puzzle than anything else. To succeed you just need to find the hidden areas, grab the power-ups, and keep your sanity. Patience is key and this game tested mine. In the end, I can't argue with the game's status as a classic. But I'm also left wondering why the game was so needlessly confusing. It's amazing how things have changed in the gaming industry and it's even more amazing how different Metroid feels at the end than it does at the beginning.

I can't really recommend everyone do what I did, but it's almost worth it as a history lesson. Try playing without any hints or FAQs and you'll learn a little about yourself and a lot about game design.

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Aran the Wanderer, Part I

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What a difference 24 years can make. And what a difference 6 days can make. The original Metroid was released in the United States on August 15, 1987, but it didn't find its way into my catalog until Aug 31, 2011. I spent the last week exterminating wall-crawling porcupines, dodging gravity-defying grasshoppers, and blasting every single space rock on the planet Zebes. I came, I saw, I conquered, and I almost cried.

Two factors contributed to my inane attempt to conquer this classic title:

US NES Box Art
US NES Box Art
  1. The GiantBomb SNES marathon
  2. 3DS Ambassador Program

The first renewed my interest in the Metroid series as the crew played a little bit of Super Metroid (a title which I own, but I've never really delved into) and the second gave me immediate access to the game. For some reason which I shall never quite comprehend, I decided to play the game as it had been originally released in NA:

  • No save states allowed (this is not even a possibility on the 3DS version). Only the built-in password system could be used to maintain progress.
  • No FAQs or internet resources (one exception, as seen below).
  • Electronic access to the game's manual.
Portable Pain
Portable Pain

The way I saw it, if thousands of kids in the late 80s were able to navigate the labyrinth that is Zebes, then surely a 26 year-old doctor would breeze through the game using cold hard logic and decades of gaming experience.

I was wrong.

Sticky porcupines are some of the more common Zebes rabble.
Sticky porcupines are some of the more common Zebes rabble.

As soon as I started, I was flooded with visions of Metroid II: Return of Samus for the Gameboy, a game which I've owned for years and have given up on more than I'd like to admit. There was no map, no battery back-up for saves (even Metroid II has this base function), enemies killed Samus in seconds, and her so-called "weapon" was more akin to a pea shooter than a Mega Buster. My only real advantage was the knowledge of the upgrades that I would surely find in the near future. I immediately moved to the left and grabbed the morph ball power-up, a sure sign of my impending victory. As I picked my way through the winding caverns, it became clear I'd be doing plenty of backtracking in the coming days. Numerous areas appeared to be gated off, patiently awaiting the return of a more experienced adventurer. I pressed on.

The next several hours of jumping, shooting, getting lost, and employing every bit of self-control to prevent the blunt force destruction of my 3DS taught me a few things. Shoot everything, bomb everything, and hug every wall in hopes of finding invisible passages. Entire required areas are hidden away from the player without so much as a hint to their existence. Everything looks the same; the repetitive corridors and endless climbs run together like the backgrounds of an old Bugs Bunny cartoon. It's way too easy to accidentally get caught in an endless cycle of spawn, enemy, pit, death. This game isn't a classic, it's a torture device that would make Vlad the Impaler blush. How the hell was I going to beat this thing?

At the end of my first several play sessions, I had made little progress and was starting to question my decision-making ability. Things were not going as planned.

To be concluded...

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Impressions: Killzone 2 (PS3)

After four long years of medical school, things are finally starting to wind down. I have just one month of clinical duties

 Whiny hero? Check.
 Whiny hero? Check.
remaining and a few loose ends to tie up before I move to San Antonio in June. With spring break in full force and my girlfriend halfway around the world, I've been playing quite a few games. I should have some impressions and reviews coming up in the next few days, including that long lost Sands of Destruction (DS) review (Spoiler: It's not good). 
  

Killzone 2 (PS3)

 Palm trees? Check.
 Palm trees? Check.
The original Killzone (PS) was released by Sony in 2004 as an attempt to grab a share of the emerging console FPS market. The game received a lot of pre-release hype as gamers and critics alike pined for a real competitor to the ultra-successful Halo series. Releasing just one week ahead of the highly anticipated Halo 2, the game struggled to find an audience. It was almost exclusively panned by critics, with the suspicious exception of a couple Plystation-focused mags. I played through the original last year (Giant Bomb ate my review, but it can be found in one of my old blogs) and found it to be a mediocre shooter with little character and a lot of technical bugs.
 Browns? Check
 Browns? Check
The option to play as one of four different soldiers spiced things up a bit, but the bland graphics and relatively uneventful story made it a a forgettable affair.
 
Fast forward to 2009. CoD has risen to power, Halo is still a powerful force in the FPS market, and Sony is hungrier than ever for a piece of the pie. The first game charged the player with defending the ISA outer colony, Vekta, from the invading Helghast. This time, the ISA wants to snuff out the Helghan rebellion at its core by bringing the war to their home turf. The game doesn't seem too worried about explaining anything beyond this simple concept to the player, so from minute one, it's all about shooting dudes and blowing stuff up.
 
 Greys? Check.
 Greys? Check.
The first thing that jumped out at me was the unique feel of the controls. The weapons and movement have a real heft to them. It takes a little time to accelerate to full turning speed and the jump is more of a bunny hop. This is a far cry from the lightning-quick action most modern shooters employ. I am playing with the big update that supposedly improved controls and while things feel okay, they're not quite perfect. Even grenades have a very deliberate lag that forces the player to plan ahead.
 
There are a lot of great set-piece battles in the first few levels and the game looks
 Knife? Check. But you have to select it as a weapon to use it. Thumbs down.
 Knife? Check. But you have to select it as a weapon to use it. Thumbs down.
pretty good, if not a little too muddy and brown/grey. The enemies are pretty vicious and definitely qualify as bullet sponges. They aren't as painful as the baddies in the original Uncharted, but it's still a little annoying to shoot someone twenty times before he/she/it dies. So overall, I'm enjoying the game. It's not great, but it has a decent feel and there seems to be some good action. Full review coming when I finish the game.
 
I leave you with one question: Why do the Helghast have to wear their masks while on their home planet? I thought they needed them to breathe the clean air of Vekta...
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Why Blog?

I think everyone reaches a point in their blogging career when they ask themselves, "Why am I doing this?" It is rare that a suitable and satisfying answer comes to light. Some people do it to explore their own thoughts in an organized fashion, others do it for entertainment, and others simply as a job. I don't know why I write to an invisible audience. If we are to be brutally honest, most of us blog because we crave attention and want to be recognized for our worth. It's tough to admit such a superficial and seemingly needy concept, but a blog that receives 20 comments is certainly more satisfying than one that lives in obscurity. It's just one more attempt at belonging, one more stab at climbing the social ladder. It is not an unwise attempt by any means. The anonymity of a community such as this one affords many people an opportunity to become something utterly more satisfying than their real-world counterpart. The risk is minimal and the veil never has to be lifted, unless the writer chooses to do so. Just to clarify, I am not saying that people who blog are are unsuccessful in other aspects of their life, but talents hidden away by shyness and social misunderstanding need not hinder someone in the written word.
 
It's tough to analyze oneself without a certain amount of bias and I am sure I write, at least partially, for some of the reasons above. I can honestly say that I'm very pleased with my current position in life and really have nothing to complain about, but the allure of a successful blog is still there, dangling just out of reach. Beyond simply wanting to be read, perhaps I also seek a place to delve deeper into my video game-related interests, as they are still not something I share with most of my real world friends. They know I play them and own way too many, but they certainly don't understand my desire to know about developers and follow the business of the industry. It's a shame that this hobby is so widely derided that we flock to blogs, rather than our close friends, to share our thoughts on a supremely entertaining form of media. Of course, gaming is far more accepted now than it ever has been, and people blog about everything under the sun, so the medium is not particularly important to our current discussion.  
 
With that being said, I will probably put something more substantial and more game-related here in the near future as I would like to see where it takes me. Success is, after all, only one amazing blog away. As usual, I'd love to hear your opinions on this subject. 
 
With that, I bid you adieu.

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