Building A Card Game RPG — How and Why Firelight was Designed

The concept of a card game RPG is one that has been close to our hearts for years. Whether in video games like the niche GameCube JRPG Baten Kaitos or in mainstream card games like Magic: The Gathering, cards and role-playing mechanics have been combined to great results across all manner of mediums.

But despite this natural pairing, fully improvisational role-playing games based around cards are few and far between. Many RPGs that use cards either center solely around combat (see the earlier MtG example) or simply wedge cards into a pre-existing RPG formula. The former is much more mechanical than a true tabletop RPG, while the latter fails to address the sometimes prohibitively complex nature of tabletop role-playing.

When designing Firelight, we knew right away that we wanted to simplify tabletop RPGs and create something anyone could play. In the end, we decided to go with a card-based system.

Cards have several advantages over books when it comes to designing a simple role playing system:

  • CARD GAMES ARE TANGIBLE: A card can be easily held, passed, discarded, or moved. There is an intuitive sense of conflict when an Enemy card is placed opposite your Adventurer cards, for instance, and a sense of victory when that card is discarded and a Treasure card is drawn in its place. Having cards on hand can help players internalize the mechanics of the game when pen-and-paper games are too abstract.
  • CARDS ARE NOT INTIMIDATING: Another barrier to entry in the role-playing genre is the size of the manuals themselves. Many border on 100 pages or more. But if you can distill many of those 100 pages into simple, poker-sized cards, suddenly the intimidation factor is lessened significantly.
  • THE BEST CARD GAMES DRAW ALL SORTS: When creating Firelight, we wanted to make something that the most passionate RPG fan and the most wet behind the ears newcomers could enjoy together. Its card-based format makes Firelight flexible, portable, and fun for all ages and experience levels.

With those factors in mind, we set out to create a pick-up-and-play RPG that could be easily started in a manner of minutes, but that held hidden depth for players willing to dig deeper.

To find out more about Firelight, see our blogs and announcements, and be sure to sign up for our mailing list below for a complementary print-and-play copy of Firelight with your Kickstarter donation:

Announcing Firelight: Read about the game and what we’re attempting to accomplish in more detail.

Firelight Stories - Crash and Burn: A short story based on actual play of the Firelight Quest ‘Crash and Burn’.

Artist Profile - Michelle Czajkowski: Each artist working on Firelight brings their own unique interpretation of this fantasy world. Preview several works from Michelle Czajkowski, creator of Ava’s Demon.

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So I'm Making a Card Game...

Hey duders - So, I posted a forum topic about this a while back, but after many many years of lurking around GiantBomb and the gaming industry as a whole, I have taken the plunge to making my own... tabletop game! Yeah, not quite what GiantBomb is all about, but I know there are many like me in the community whose love affair for games goes beyond just the ones we can play on our consoles or PCs.

Almost a decade ago I came to GiantBomb when the homepage was just a list of news stories, videos and reviews. Seeing Jeff, Ryan, Brad, Vinny, Drew, Dave, Alex, Rorie and all the others really lit some kind of spark in me. Seriously, I look back on those old days watching How to Build a Bomb, Flight Club Quick Looks, etc. as some of the best and most formative moments of my life. The sheer chaos of it all just speaks to me, I guess.

I've worked at a couple of startups since then, chasing the same kind of "oh God are we really doing this" rush, but ultimately it came time for me to do my own thing and branch out. That's why I started HobbyHorse Games, LLC. We're currently working on a card-based tabletop RPG called Firelight, set to launch on Kickstarter July 11.

This post is just to let you all know how grateful I am to the GiantBomb community for exposing me to the crazy world of starting a company. It takes a lot of guts to do that, much less to post videos of the whole process on the internet (cheers to Danny and Drew's new ventures, btw). I might not have ever gotten here had the whole GB crew not taken that initiative. So cheers, y'all, and as always: <>

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I Did a Music Blog! - Reptar - Lurid Glow Impressions

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I had every reason to anticipate Reptar’s sophomore LP, Lurid Glow. Drawn to the indie rock quartet’s energetic sound and singer Graham Ulicny’s elastic voice by videos of their wild live shows, I came to the band a few years late but no less enthusiastic than their most ardent fans. Orifice Origami was the first of their songs to worm its way into my head, with Ulciny’s throaty shouts - “Something’s not right here!” - baiting the hook that reeled me in to playing their first LP on repeat during my daily transit. A month later, Lurid Glow caught me smack in the middle of my Reptar fandom phase. So what went wrong?

Lurid Glow launched the night of March 30th. My girlfriend was at my house sick with a cold, and I was making dinner for her using a recipe on my phone when I got the notification that my album pre-order was ready to go. A few hours later, everyone else in the house asleep, I sat down on the couch in the silence of dead night and pressed Play. I hadn’t set aside an hour of the night to listen to music like this since I was a teenager, but then again, I hadn’t found a band quite like Reptar since then, either. My anticipation was palpable as the first notes of the album popped from the tiny speaker of my phone like digital bubblegum. It sounded for all the world like the start of another solid Reptar piece.

Five songs into Lurid Glow, I began to worry. Something indeed was not right here. The opener, No One Will Ever Love You, began with promise but developed into a mushy chorus without a memorable melody to speak of. It was followed up by the album’s two singles, Ice Black Sand and Cable.

The former is a fantastic horn-driven piece, a reminder of the type of strong melodies and evocative, fleshly lyrics the group is capable of. “No good person in the heart of life/Words flow out into an open mouth,” Ulicny’s voice sails like a cool breeze, just before the song explodes into a brassy finale. It’s a roaring, stomping good time, and it feels like the start of the album proper.

Cable follows it up with a tighter, more urgent vibe, leering guitars still backed by horns, giving the song both the diversity and the sense of continuity needed to make it feel like a natural extension of the band’s new, brassy sound demonstrated by Ice Black Sand. Ulicny’s voice lowers to a sinister growl at the end of each of the song’s opening verses, a lurid exclamation point to drive his lyrics home. Halfway through the song, the tempo changes and the instrumentation opens up slightly, giving way to a rousing chant that turns to a scream as the music intensifies - “I want to be yours!”

If Lurid Glow continued in this direction, it would undoubtedly be another great rock album in what is becoming a fantastic year for the genre. However, the album’s fifth song, Sea of Fertility, shoots for the same peppy melodies but falls far short. It’s a sad sort of song, lyrically speaking, and it comes across as the work of a man tired and beaten. Reptar has proven themselves capable of intertwining the maudlin with the joyful in a way that can make their albums feel like an engaging drama. Sea of Fertility lacks the earnest, naive sort of sorrow that made songs like Ghost Bike and Water Runs hit so close to the heart, though. It comes across as jaded and angry instead, and the attempt at a hook in the chorus feels half-hearted and forced.

The album’s fifth song, Amanda, dives right back into the indistinct sounds of No One Will Ever Love You. Both songs begin with a premise rife for some of that trademark Reptar passion, the energy and sharp wit that lent their previous works such a danceable flavor, but tinged with a darker energy. Instead, we got mopey lyrics and a dull pace to match. “Do you love me?”, Ulicny repeats halfheartedly over a repetitive synth/marimba melody. Not right now, no.

The rest of the album continues at this pace, with songs that either sound childish in their oversimplification of heartache and angst (Easier to Die), or hollow in their attempts at finding a hook as engaging and immediate as Reptar’s previous works (Every Chance I Get). Particle Board, a five-minute wave of alien synths, distorted vocals, and anxious drum machines, rights the ship just in time for a solid finish, but the album’s final song, the six-minute Breezy Leafy, defies its name as a weighty slow-mover that doesn’t develop until its second half. It’s a solid song, and one of the better ones on Lurid Glow, but it isn’t as moving a finale as Body Faucet’s closer, City of Habits. Regardless, its repeated anthem - “I miss you, miss you/Baby/I miss you” - delivered with a sad sort of wail, at least hits at the heart of the simplicity and emotion that made Reptar’s previous work so accessible in spite of thick instrumentation and vocals.

The resulting album is one with few standout tracks, a disappointment to both those who were hoping for a release as energetic as Reptar’s past works, and to those looking for the band to channel that energy into a darker sort of wit. Where are the sharp hooks of Orifice Origami? The impish enthusiasm and parroted vocals of Houseboat Babies? The childlike purity of Ghost Bike? The shambling, rambling acidity of Sweet Sipping Soda? The unrestrained joy of New House? Reptar have proven themselves capable of reinventing themselves on a track-by-track basis in the past, but with the exception of its two singles, Lurid Glow marks a reinvention devoid of enthusiasm or wit.

More worrying still is how the lack of energy and earnest sentiment present on Lurid Glow might affect the band’s live performance. The group seems to have accumulated its passionate fanbase almost entirely through live performance, as each of the Reptar fans I’ve heard defend the group’s work were first drawn in by the jumping, dancing, and screaming that characterized Reptar’s concerts. It was this energy that had me so excited to attend my first Reptar show in a little under a month, but with limp melodies driving most of the faster material, and slow material making up half of the album, I have to wonder if Lurid Glow will deflate the group’s bubbly, dance-driven concert performance. And if so many of the group’s fans were cultivated in such a peppy environment, will they stick around if the energy isn’t there on this latest tour?

Lurid Glow is the textbook definition of a sophomore slump, and it’s one that has me worried about whether or not Reptar can hit its mark in the long term. Ice Black Sand and Cable introduce a promising new sound for the group, but it’s squandered by a lack of enthusiasm on the faster tracks, and a poisonous sort of angst on many of its slower ones. This lack of energy is all the more disappointing when framed by how well Reptar has managed to pace its albums in the past - a trend I hope to see reemerge in the future.

Standout tracks: Ice Black Sand, Cable, Particle Board, Breezy Leafy

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10 Games I Can't Wait to See @ E3 2014

E3 is so close I can practically taste the grease of convention center pizza, and I've never been more excited for the future of gaming. Last year, we all watched with bated breath as Sony and Microsoft fought tooth and nail for the lead, with Nintendo caught in the crossfire. As we approach the one-year anniversary of Sony's shocking victory, we find Microsoft scrambling to catch up while Nintendo attempts to navigate out of the corner it's backed itself into with the Wii U. Sony, currently leading the pack in console sales, has a surprising dearth of exclusives announced for the show.

The conditions are ripe for an upset.

Last year's E3 was all about console prices, online policies, and DRM. Those distractions are in the rearview this year, making the convention once again all about the games. While I don't know everything that will be shown over the next week, there's already a formidable list of titles that could appear. The following ten games are the ones I'm most excited to hear about at E3 2014.

Project Beast

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Is From Software's Project Beast another Dark Souls sequel, or is it something altogether more sinister? That's the question that has been on the mind of every role-playing fan in the weeks since the project leaked online. Reports of Sony exclusivity indicate that Project Beast could in fact be the long-awaited sequel to Demon's Souls, but given that the Dark Souls franchise is already considered by most to be the spiritual successor to Demon's Souls, how would From Software attempt to differentiate the two games?

The firearms and massive beasts featured in the leaked gameplay footage promise more challenge than ever before. Imagine taking on enemies armed with rifles instead of slow-firing arrows. I'm ready to crush a controller just thinking about it.

Alien: Isolation

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I've seen Alien: Isolation several times now, but I've never quite been able to process my feelings for the trailers and demos. A horror game set in the infamously hard-to-adapt Alien universe, developed by a real-time strategy house and published by the folks who brought us last year's wretched Aliens: Colonial Marines, has no business looking this darn excellent. Each time I see the game, I feel like I'm waiting for Creative Assembly to slip up and reveal that the whole thing has been one giant farce. But alas, in all my vigilance I have yet to see anything to indicate that Isolation will be anything but a top-tier scream-a-thon when it hits current and last-gen consoles this October.

This E3, I will inevitably find myself again drawn to the game, searching for any sign that it won't be the horror masterpiece I've been waiting for and hoping all the while to find none.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has already managed to produce one of the most memorable E3 trailers of the year, and the show hasn't even begun yet. With a world and mechanics built specifically for next-gen and PC, The Witcher 3 could be this generation's Oblivion, a game so large, so beautiful, so ambitious that it catapults its developer into AAA stardom. With the addition of sea travel, horseback riding, and a living, breathing NPC ecosystem, it's tough to imagine any other outcome for this hugely ambitious RPG.

I simply can't wait to see what CD Projekt has to show of this stunner in the following week, especially now that we have a firm release date to look forward to.

Forza Horizon 2

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The first Forza Horizon was arguably last generation's best racing game, and now its sequel promises to take us abroad for an even bigger open world filled with the same racing challenges we've come to know an love. The Forza standard of accuracy and beauty look to be in full effect in Horizon 2 - just take a look at that screenshot if you doubt the game's looks - and if the game plays anything like the original, we're all in for a treat.

Forza 5's controversial Drivatar system has been confirmed to return in Horizon 2, and it is this piece of the game that I'm most curious to see at E3. It's no secret that many online players don't exactly take the precision racing side of Forza seriously, but I'm optimistic that Turn 10 and Playground Games will find a way to strike a suitable balance. Either way, I'll surely be pulling donuts across the game's beautiful-looking open world later this year.

Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem

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When it comes to Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem, the above image and a short trailer are all we've had to go on for the last year. Nintendo first announced the game long ago in a Nintendo Direct stream, and we've heard nothing of the project since then. With the radio silence and Atlus' recent purchase by SEGA, it's not hard to wonder if this intriguing crossover is still happening. If the game does still exist, I expect we'll at least hear mention of it at E3.

A combination of two of my favorite gaming franchises of all time, it's hard not to imagine that Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem will deliver a critical hit to my heart if and when it is finally released. If I see Chie kickboxing Lyndis for a steak, I might just die.

Persona 5

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Hey, remember that part where I said Shin Megami Tensei is one of my favorite gaming series of all time? Well I wasn't messing around, and the Persona branch of SMT in particular has captured my heart for some time now. Again, all we have to go on is the menacing image above and a short teaser trailer, but if there's one series that could get me to break out my PS3 a year and a half after the PS4 launched, it's Persona.

I'm excited to return to the unique blend of dungeon crawling and social simulation that characterizes Persona, and I'm even more hyped to see it all rendered with the power of the PS3 (that sentence feels really strange to type in 2014). It's been six years since the last proper Persona sequel, but the lovely guys and gals at Atlas have proven time and again that they know what fans want from the series, and I have complete faith in them to make a worthy sequel to two of the best role-playing games of all time.

Star Wars Battlefront

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EA and DICE's Battlefront reboot is still shrouded in mystery. Will the game stick to its multiplayer guns, or will there be a campaign? How many players will be able to jump into a single online game? Will the series bring back its beloved splitscreen and bot matches? Will the action stick to a third-person perspective, or will it be moved into the first-person viewpoint that DICE is so comfortable with?

We're poised to have at least a few of those questions answered, as EA has confirmed that they will be showing Battlefront at their press conference on Monday. Battlefront has some really passionate fans, myself among them, and while DICE is hypothetically the perfect studio to handle a reboot, there are plenty of things that could go wrong along the way. I for one am rooting for a positive showing, though; we've all waited too long to come away disappointed.

X

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X is another Nintendo property that was announced ages ago, only to fade into obscurity in the months since. A massive RPG that sees players battling giant beasts from the cushy interior of a mech suit, X holds a lot of promise for kaiju fans like myself. I haven't been able to discern much from the game's scant few trailers, which have all been in Japanese, but it's easy to see how the power of the Wii U and the pedigree of Monolith Software could combine to form something amazing. After all, we're talking about the studio that created Baten Kaitos and Xenoblade Chronicles, two of the most beautiful games on their respective platforms.

If the role-playing mechanics manage to stack up to the awesome concept, X could be the Wii U's biggest killer app yet.

Fantasia: Music Evolved

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As someone who loves purchasing dumb things, I've been waiting for Harmonix to give me an excuse to buy into the Xbox One's Kinect ever since the console was revealed last year. The recent announcement of the Kinect-less Xbox One probably has Harmonix reeling, but it doesn't show in the colorful and eclectic Fantasia: Music Evolved. Harmonix has always been one of the best studios when it comes to working within the limitations of the Kinect, and Fantasia looks to continue that trend with its unique gesture-based gameplay.

When I saw the game at last year's E3, I expected to be bombarded with saccharine tunes culled from Disney musicals. Instead, I found myself waving along to current pop tracks and classic tunes alike - the game even has Depeche Mode in it. It's kind of a weird soundtrack for a Disney game, but it's one that ensures that even fans such as myself will get a kick out of the lineup.

Deep Down

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It's hard to believe that Deep Down was announced 16 months ago, and I still don't really know what it is. I mean yeah, it's definitely an action role-playing game, and it looks to be taking its cues equally from Dark Souls and Dragon's Dogma. It's been confirmed as both a PlayStation 4 exclusive and a free-to-play game, and the setting will have players travelling in time from an apocalyptic future to a past which looks frankly even more dangerous.

But how any of those elements will blend together remains largely obfuscated. How will the free-to-play hooks impact the gameplay? What variety of character classes and weapon types can we expect to wield? What is the primary gameplay loop? Those are the questions I'm looking to have answered at this year's E3, and hopefully Capcom will return with a satisfactory response.

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10 Games I Can't Wait to See @ E3 2014

E3 is so close I can practically taste the grease of convention center pizza, and I've never been more excited for the future of gaming. Last year, we all watched with bated breath as Sony and Microsoft fought tooth and nail for the lead, with Nintendo caught in the crossfire. As we approach the one-year anniversary of Sony's shocking victory, we find Microsoft scrambling to catch up while Nintendo attempts to navigate out of the corner it's backed itself into with the Wii U. Sony, currently leading the pack in console sales, has a surprising dearth of exclusives announced for the show.

The conditions are ripe for an upset.

Last year's E3 was all about console prices, online policies, and DRM. Those distractions are in the rearview this year, making the convention once again all about the games. While I don't know everything that will be shown over the next week, there's already a formidable list of titles that could appear. The following ten games are the ones I'm most excited to hear about at E3 2014.

Project Beast

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Is From Software's Project Beast another Dark Souls sequel, or is it something altogether more sinister? That's the question that has been on the mind of every role-playing fan in the weeks since the project leaked online. Reports of Sony exclusivity indicate that Project Beast could in fact be the long-awaited sequel to Demon's Souls, but given that the Dark Souls franchise is already considered by most to be the spiritual successor to Demon's Souls, how would From Software attempt to differentiate the two games?

The firearms and massive beasts featured in the leaked gameplay footage promise more challenge than ever before. Imagine taking on enemies armed with rifles instead of slow-firing arrows. I'm ready to crush a controller just thinking about it.

Alien: Isolation

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I've seen Alien: Isolation several times now, but I've never quite been able to process my feelings for the trailers and demos. A horror game set in the infamously hard-to-adapt Alien universe, developed by a real-time strategy house and published by the folks who brought us last year's wretched Aliens: Colonial Marines, has no business looking this darn excellent. Each time I see the game, I feel like I'm waiting for Creative Assembly to slip up and reveal that the whole thing has been one giant farce. But alas, in all my vigilance I have yet to see anything to indicate that Isolation will be anything but a top-tier scream-a-thon when it hits current and last-gen consoles this October.

This E3, I will inevitably find myself again drawn to the game, searching for any sign that it won't be the horror masterpiece I've been waiting for and hoping all the while to find none.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has already managed to produce one of the most memorable E3 trailers of the year, and the show hasn't even begun yet. With a world and mechanics built specifically for next-gen and PC, The Witcher 3 could be this generation's Oblivion, a game so large, so beautiful, so ambitious that it catapults its developer into AAA stardom. With the addition of sea travel, horseback riding, and a living, breathing NPC ecosystem, it's tough to imagine any other outcome for this hugely ambitious RPG.

I simply can't wait to see what CD Projekt has to show of this stunner in the following week, especially now that we have a firm release date to look forward to.

Forza Horizon 2

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The first Forza Horizon was arguably last generation's best racing game, and now its sequel promises to take us abroad for an even bigger open world filled with the same racing challenges we've come to know an love. The Forza standard of accuracy and beauty look to be in full effect in Horizon 2 - just take a look at that screenshot if you doubt the game's looks - and if the game plays anything like the original, we're all in for a treat.

Forza 5's controversial Drivatar system has been confirmed to return in Horizon 2, and it is this piece of the game that I'm most curious to see at E3. It's no secret that many online players don't exactly take the precision racing side of Forza seriously, but I'm optimistic that Turn 10 and Playground Games will find a way to strike a suitable balance. Either way, I'll surely be pulling donuts across the game's beautiful-looking open world later this year.

Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem

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When it comes to Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem, the above image and a short trailer are all we've had to go on for the last year. Nintendo first announced the game long ago in a Nintendo Direct stream, and we've heard nothing of the project since then. With the radio silence and Atlus' recent purchase by SEGA, it's not hard to wonder if this intriguing crossover is still happening. If the game does still exist, I expect we'll at least hear mention of it at E3.

A combination of two of my favorite gaming franchises of all time, it's hard not to imagine that Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem will deliver a critical hit to my heart if and when it is finally released. If I see Chie kickboxing Lyndis for a steak, I might just die.

Persona 5

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Hey, remember that part where I said Shin Megami Tensei is one of my favorite gaming series of all time? Well I wasn't messing around, and the Persona branch of SMT in particular has captured my heart for some time now. Again, all we have to go on is the menacing image above and a short teaser trailer, but if there's one series that could get me to break out my PS3 a year and a half after the PS4 launched, it's Persona.

I'm excited to return to the unique blend of dungeon crawling and social simulation that characterizes Persona, and I'm even more hyped to see it all rendered with the power of the PS3 (that sentence feels really strange to type in 2014). It's been six years since the last proper Persona sequel, but the lovely guys and gals at Atlas have proven time and again that they know what fans want from the series, and I have complete faith in them to make a worthy sequel to two of the best role-playing games of all time.

Star Wars Battlefront

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EA and DICE's Battlefront reboot is still shrouded in mystery. Will the game stick to its multiplayer guns, or will there be a campaign? How many players will be able to jump into a single online game? Will the series bring back its beloved splitscreen and bot matches? Will the action stick to a third-person perspective, or will it be moved into the first-person viewpoint that DICE is so comfortable with?

We're poised to have at least a few of those questions answered, as EA has confirmed that they will be showing Battlefront at their press conference on Monday. Battlefront has some really passionate fans, myself among them, and while DICE is hypothetically the perfect studio to handle a reboot, there are plenty of things that could go wrong along the way. I for one am rooting for a positive showing, though; we've all waited too long to come away disappointed.

X

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X is another Nintendo property that was announced ages ago, only to fade into obscurity in the months since. A massive RPG that sees players battling giant beasts from the cushy interior of a mech suit, X holds a lot of promise for kaiju fans like myself. I haven't been able to discern much from the game's scant few trailers, which have all been in Japanese, but it's easy to see how the power of the Wii U and the pedigree of Monolith Software could combine to form something amazing. After all, we're talking about the studio that created Baten Kaitos and Xenoblade Chronicles, two of the most beautiful games on their respective platforms.

If the role-playing mechanics manage to stack up to the awesome concept, X could be the Wii U's biggest killer app yet.

Fantasia: Music Evolved

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As someone who loves purchasing dumb things, I've been waiting for Harmonix to give me an excuse to buy into the Xbox One's Kinect ever since the console was revealed last year. The recent announcement of the Kinect-less Xbox One probably has Harmonix reeling, but it doesn't show in the colorful and eclectic Fantasia: Music Evolved. Harmonix has always been one of the best studios when it comes to working within the limitations of the Kinect, and Fantasia looks to continue that trend with its unique gesture-based gameplay.

When I saw the game at last year's E3, I expected to be bombarded with saccharine tunes culled from Disney musicals. Instead, I found myself waving along to current pop tracks and classic tunes alike - the game even has Depeche Mode in it. It's kind of a weird soundtrack for a Disney game, but it's one that ensures that even fans such as myself will get a kick out of the lineup.

Deep Down

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It's hard to believe that Deep Down was announced 16 months ago, and I still don't really know what it is. I mean yeah, it's definitely an action role-playing game, and it looks to be taking its cues equally from Dark Souls and Dragon's Dogma. It's been confirmed as both a PlayStation 4 exclusive and a free-to-play game, and the setting will have players travelling in time from an apocalyptic future to a past which looks frankly even more dangerous.

But how any of those elements will blend together remains largely obfuscated. How will the free-to-play hooks impact the gameplay? What variety of character classes and weapon types can we expect to wield? What is the primary gameplay loop? Those are the questions I'm looking to have answered at this year's E3, and hopefully Capcom will return with a satisfactory response.

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My Final Fantasy XIII-2 Review

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is, at its core, a much better game than its predecessor. Many of the issues that fans had with XIII have been addressed in some significant way here, from the linearity to the slow-burn pacing, and Square-Enix has even made a few subtle improvements to the already fantastic combat engine to boot. These improvements make the overall experience of playing through this Fantasy a much more pleasant and coherent one, but they also serve to make the areas in which the game stumbles that much more apparent. Still, this is the strongest entry the troubled franchise has seen in years, and if it's a sign of things to come, consider me officially excited about Final Fantasy again.

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XIII-2 picks up several years after the end of XIII, so if you haven't played that game through to completion consider yourself warned. Personally, I grew bored with XIII long before finishing it, but having the rudimentary knowledge of the world and its terminologies proved invaluable. This is by all means a direct sequel, and it's important to have that knowledge base if you intend to play XIII-2. That said, story is by far the weakest of this game's pillars. Given all of the time you'll spend watching cutscenes, you'd think someone at Square-Enix would've taken the time to make sure that the story they told was, you know, coherent.

Instead, XIII-2 subjects you to seemingly endless waves of dime-store philosophizing about learning from your past to make for a better future. Coupled with the angst-ridden characters, it becomes clear exactly who this game is targeted at, and further clearer that I no longer contribute to said target. Furthermore, the concept of time travel is used as a deus ex machina device far too often to be believable. Every time the developers felt like changing the rules of the world, it's glazed over as being a "Paradox" and then forgotten. All in all, the plot becomes easy to ignore. The faux-philosophy sort of blends together into a largely forgettable haze, with the exception of several instances of schadenfreude-inducing melodrama that are so out of left field and so over-acted that they're just kind of hilarious.

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Luckily, the great gameplay picks up where the plot slacks. This is odd for Final Fantasy, where the reverse is often true, but in the case of XIII-2 I actually wanted to keep playing because of the gameplay, not in spite of it. The Paradigm system from XIII makes a triumphant return here, with some subtle but strong additions. No longer must you sit through a stupid "Paradigm Change" animation every time you switch your party's roles during combat. This equates to a few seconds less that you have to sit and watch your party get pummeled while they decide to change their clothes. Additionally, the party leader's death no longer leads to a Game Over screen, meaning that the battles in general feel a bit more forgiving even as they now have the potential to demand even more tactical thought. Finally, leads Serah and Noel are the only two characters you'll have in your party, and they can change into any of the six Paradigms.

To make up for the lack of additional party members, you can now recruit monsters into what the game calls a Paradigm Pack, essentially a collection of tamed creatures who will fight by your side. You can only bring one into battle at any time, but two more wait in the wings and can be summoned at a moment's notice to replace your current selection. This opens up a vast number of possibilities for creating a party, as each monster represents a different Paradigm. Cait Siths, for example, make handy Medics, while Chocobos make for strong Commandos. Each monster also has a special Feral Link ability that can be activated in battle as long as the Feral Link meter has been given enough time to build. These Feral Link attacks prompt brief quick time events, and take the place of vehicle summons from XIII. As a way to keep you on your toes during battle, Feral Links do the job admirably.

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Quick time events have also been shoehorned into boss battles, typically popping up at the end, and while they really don't add anything significant, they hardly detract from the experience. In fact, XIII-2's implementation of quick time events is kind of novel in a few ways, as there will be certain moments during battle where the game will ask you to press one of two different buttons, which will seamlessly lead into one of two different outcomes occurring in battle. In an early battle, you can press either X to attack physically or B to attack using magic. Lightning's actions in following will change accordingly. It's not really a big deal, but it's kind of a neat little touch.

Overall, battles in XIII-2 are thrilling and kinetic in a way that most RPGs can only dream of. The vastly flexible Paradigm system does an admirable job of providing players with numerous options during battle, and the Paradigm Pack adds to that flexibility. The monster capturing mechanic is deceptively addictive, too. Capturing a monster's crystal (and thus, their loyalty) is often dependent upon the rating you receive for the battle, with five-star performances being more likely to land you a new ally. It can be maddening to encounter a tough enemy numerous times but never obtain his crystal. At the same time, you'll keep on trying despite yourself.

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Outside of battle, this is largely a traditional Final Fantasy experience. This is in stark contrast to XIII, which was essentially a series of funnels for the first thirty or so hours. Compared to its predecessor, XIII-2 looks like Skyrim. Which, sadly, it still isn't. This level of openness is basically the standard in most JRPG franchises, but at least Square-Enix has moved back up to the standard. You can roam around pretty freely to take on side quests, speak with NPCs, and fight optional bosses. There are even multiple "Paradox" endings (see?!) for those willing to take the game on a second time.

Jumping back in for another go isn't as daunting a prospect as it normally is in these games, however, as XIII-2 clocked in at a relatively short 30 hours for me. Your mileage may vary depending on how many sidequests and optional bosses you take on, but it still won't be a long RPG by any stretch of the imagination. That was fine with me, though, because it never felt like the game and its mechanics were overstaying their welcome.

As with most Square-Enix games, your time spent in their world will be incredibly easy on the eyes. I played XIII on the PS3, and by contrast the 360 version of XIII-2 is noticeably worse looking, especially with regards to the textures. Either the games have actually gotten worse looking as they've gone along, or there is a pretty significant graphical difference between the two platforms. That said, even the 360 version of the game remains gorgeous, with colorful environments, great looking character models, and exuberant particle effects shaming many other games on the platform. The soundtrack is a completely different issue, though. The grating music is almost always accompanied by generic lyrics about finding yourself and never giving up on hope, which are often shouted in screamo fashion. I cannot emphasize enough how jarring it is to hear this reprehensible soundtrack juxtaposed against such beautiful visuals.

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Soundtrack and story aside, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is the strongest entry in the franchise in ages. It's beautiful to look at, but beyond that it is downright fun to play. The depth and breadth of strategic options available to you will have you looking forward to each brutal boss fight as the game makes its way towards the closing acts. If only we could do something about the game's penchant for empty philosophy and new-wave metal, the next Final Fantasy could be something truly special indeed.

3.5/5 Stars

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The Best Of The Rest Of 2011

Best Of The Rest 2011

This is the list for all the unsung heroes of 2011, so to speak. These are the games that I feel accomplished something great (or awful), even if they weren't quite worthy of inclusion in my top ten.

1. Deus Ex: Human Revolution

11th Best Game Of The Year: Deus Ex Human Revolution served as a great reminder of what games give up when they attempt to be streamlined rollercoaster experiences. The freeform nature of the game's world, which allowed for problems to be solved in numerous different ways, was a great counterbalance to the recent trend of funneling players down one path all the time. Although I loved the ability to tackle situations in any way I saw fit, the horrible boss battles held the game back. As a character specced entirely towards stealth, these forced confrontations proved incredibly frustrating.

2. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Best PC Exclusive Game Of 2011: The Witcher 2 presents a fascinating fantasy world, one that exceeds the stereotypes that so often bound games of this genre. Although the tutorial can best be described as selective (it teaches players how to perform certain actions, while leaving others up to the imagination,) get past this point and you're in for one of the best PC RPG experiences in years. It's not quite as flexible as some of the competition, but with stunning graphics, a wonderfully realized fiction, and some of the most interesting monster hunting mechanics I've ever seen in a game, The Witcher 2 demands dozens of hours of playtime.

3. Super Mario 3D Land

Best 3DS Exclusive Game Of 2011: Super Mario 3D Land didn't exactly face stiff competition in this category, but that doesn't make its achievements any less notable. This was the portable game to have this year, and with great graphics and superb level design Mario proved again that no matter how many times we've played his games, he can always deliver something new, unique, and fun.

4. inFamous 2

Best PS3 Exclusive Game: Although there were many fantastic exclusives released on the PS3 this year, Infamous 2 was the one that made the most consistent improvement to its predecessor. The city was more fun to explore, the powers were better, and the enemies more interesting. Coupled with the snappy movement of the original, Infamous 2 was a ton of fun.

5. Gears of War 3

Best Xbox 360 Exclusive Game AND Best Competitive Multiplayer Of 2011: Gears 3 features a great campaign, but it's the Hoard mode and multiplayer that keep me consistently coming back. Addictive and strategic, Hoard is consistently entertaining with four other players. Then there are the competitive modes, which mercifully utilize dedicated servers this time around to make for a much smoother experience. Sure, the shotguns still seem overpowered, but the plethora of modes and maps as well as the constant flow of DLC make this one of the better online experiences this year.

6. Iron Brigade

Best Co-Op Multiplayer Of 2011: There's something about defending your base and collecting loot with a bunch of friends that will never get old. Plenty of games took advantage of this fact this year, but Trenched... er, Iron Brigade, was one of the best. Although Dungeon Defenders was my preferred tower defense game this year, I found myself enjoying Iron Brigade more when played with friends. The matchmaking is intuitive, and the possibilities for teamwork make some of the more difficult levels more manageable and more strategic.

7. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

Best Artwork of 2011: El Shaddai's unique, ever-changing style ensures its victory in this category even as games like Bastion and Rayman Origins wowed audiences with their gorgeous high definition sprite work. Nevermind the fact that this ultra abstract style actually made the game difficult to play at times. Looking at these incredibly realized worlds was its own reward. Even if the game itself wasn't that great, I don't think I'll ever forget El Shaddai. The pulsating worlds and vibrant colors are forever burned into my mind.

8. Bastion

Best Soundtrack Of 2011: Okay, so I know I've already declared my love for Bastion in my top ten list, but it bears repeating just how eclectic and wonderful its soundtrack is. The bizarre fusion of eastern and western musical stylings was enough to justify my purchase of the soundtrack, but it was the moving vocal pieces that really stayed with me. I still find myself humming "Build That Wall" from time to time.

9. Avadon: The Black Fortress

Best Obscure Steam Game Of 2011: We've all been there before. Steam is hosting a big sale with tons of bundles, and somewhere in the process we've ended up with a bunch of games that we've never actually heard of before. Such was the case when I purchased all of the Indie bundles during this year's Steam Holiday Sale. I had never heard of Avadon before, but just an hour after jumping into this Baldur's Gate-esque RPG, I was hooked. The way the game presented its scenarios through "choose your own adventure" styled text boxes was a clever way to circumvent the obvious budget restraints placed on the developers, and were super quaint to boot. The writing is often clever, and the characters are fairly well developed. Then there's the combat, which transitions seamlessly from real time exploration to turn based battle. It's a satisfying way to engage enemies. Finally, the world and story developed in Avadon are surprisingly deep. The choices the game gives you, while not quite on the level of something like Skyrim, are nonetheless numerous and game-changing.

10. LittleBigPlanet 2

Best Value Of 2011: Sure, Skyrim has a giant open world with hundreds of quests and items to find, but it was Littlebigplanet 2 that really kept me coming back. Partially due to its incredibly imaginative world, partially due to the infectiously fun co-op, and mostly due to the vast quantity of levels designed by its users, this game can literally last forever, if the users keep designing levels. Luckily, Media Molecule infused LBP2 with a level editor intuitive enough to allow for the creation of some truly great new levels. Almost a year from its release, it's amazing to see the progress that the community has made in terms of its design capabilities.

11. Dungeon Defenders

Best Grind Of 2011: Gamers love to raise their stats. It's an undeniable truth that games have manipulated for years, whether it's World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy. For my money, this year's best level grinder was Dungeon Defenders. Whether you're questing for new weapons, new pets, or just trying to level up enough to beat that next level, the strategic gameplay was always entertaining enough to warrant dumping just a few more hours into this wonderful co-op tower defense game. And hey, grinding's always better with a few friends, right?

12. Saints Row: The Third

Best Moment Of 2011: The entire game was the best moment of 2011. Between skydiving gunfights, zombie invasions, freefalling tank battles, and more moments too absurd to spoil, it's impossible to choose just one moment in this series of fantastic ones.

13. Renegade Ops

Craziest Action Of 2011: Other games may have had their share of unique setpiece moments, but the entirety of Renegade Ops played out as one giant setpiece. The action was so fast, so explosive, so visceral, that any attempts to put this game down were quickly thwarted. Throw in three other players and the action becomes so ludicrous it's almost impossible to tell what's actually happening. But in a very good way. Thanks to the great action, perfect controls, and light RPG mechanics, Renegade Ops ended up dominating my life for a few crazy days.

14. Catherine

Biggest Disappointment AND Ballsiest Game Of 2011: Let's get this straight right off the bat: There were plenty of worse games in 2011 than Catherine. The reason I was so disappointed was because of the massive potential that this title held and the pedigree of those who developed it. As far as games typically go to avoid the topic of sex, it was refreshing to see Catherine tackle it so forwardly, even going so far as to make it the central premise of the game. It is for this bravado that I congratulate Catherine and its developers; if more companies were willing to take risks like this, the industry would be a much better place. At the same time, however, the actual quality of the game was very disappointing. The block puzzles were highly frustrating thanks to unintuitive camera angles and levels that enjoyed stacking the odds so far against you it was almost criminal. Then there were the bar sections, which were fun in that they connected you more to the game's characters and the intriguing mystery at the game's heart, but also stifling because they never let you leave the bar. If there's one game I wanted to love in 2011, it was Catherine. Unfortunately, the game made that harder than I could bear.

15. Assassin's Creed: Revelations

The 2011 "Give It A Rest" Award: Look Ubisoft, I love Assassins Creed. The second entry in the franchise was one of my favorite open world games of all time, and Brotherhood introduced one of my favorite modern multiplayer modes. But it's time to give it a rest already. Revelations adds nothing of importance to the formula and teases a satisfying resolution that it frankly never delivers. At this point it feels like the Assassins Creed team is attempting to stretch the nonsensical story out as long as they can for the sake of making more money. It feels like there was a natural conclusion that the series should've reached after three or four games, but for the sake of getting cash the team dug themselves into a rut that they can never reasonably escape from. The plot at this point is mere gibberish. It doesn't help that the only significant addition to the formula, a weird tower defense minigame, actually detracts from the experience. Good thing it's optional.

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My Top Games of 2011 Part One: The Obligatory Top Ten

GOTY 2011

My ten favorite games of 2011

1. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim embodies almost everything I love about video games. Its vast open world encourages exploration and discovery, its rich RPG elements form a satisfying backbone to support the lengthy adventure, and there's always a new and interesting quest to discover. How Bethesda could've made a game so vast, yet so great, is beyond me, but I'm sure glad they did.

2. Bastion

I never expected this much out of Bastion and its handful of developers. Not only is this the best indie game I've ever played, it's also one of the most moving games I've ever had the pleasure of putting my hands on. Everything about Bastion - the beautiful artwork, the superb writing, the breathtaking soundtrack - blends seamlessly together to create a whole that can only be described as stunning.

3. Batman: Arkham City

Take one of 2009's best action games, add an open world, dozens of hours of side quests each backed by a cool story, and tons of memorable villains, and you have the recipe for the perfect brawler. The atmosphere in Arkham City is so menacing, so hopeless, that it made for a truly unique and thoroughly frightening experience. The fact that you have so many options for navigating and brawling through this urban wasteland is just the icing on the cake.

4. Saints Row: The Third

Saints Row: The Third knows that we play video games primarily for fun, and it delivers on that promise better than just about any game I can think of. Brash, loud, violent, and above all utterly ridiculous, Saints Row: The Third is easily deserving of a spot in my top ten.

5. inFamous 2

Everything about Infamous 2 was an improvement over its predecessor. The city was vibrant and gorgeous looking, the powers were more fun to toy around with, and the gangs of enemies more varied and interesting than ever before. Coupled with a great story (even if it does kind of jump the shark in the end,) Infamous 2 is a big improvement. But the real fun in this game comes simply from moving around, as Cole's movements and powers feel incredibly fluid and natural. It hasn't been this much fun to just run around in a game for a long time.

6. Rayman: Origins

Rayman Origins proves that the classic 2D platformer can still destroy other genres in terms of quality, even if it didn't exactly light up the sales charts. With pixel perfect controls and some of the most fluid animations and catchiest music around, Rayman Origins is a treat for the eyes, ears, and fingers.

7. Gears of War 3

I didn't like Gears 2 all that much, but this conclusion to the trilogy just feels like a better thought out product. The story is better, even succeeding in its few attempts to hit home some emotional resonance. The multiplayer is great fun and more balanced than it's ever been thanks to the inclusion of dedicated servers. But the real triumph of Gears 3 is its revamped Hoard mode, which supports up to five players online. There's nothing quite as intense as facing down those high level opponents with a team of dedicated players. It's absolutely fantastic.

8. Bulletstorm

Bulletstorm is the antithesis of the modern shooter. Placing a firm emphasis on combo chains and so-stupid-they're-clever dick jokes that wouldn't be out of place on a third grade playground, Bulletstorm certainly knows how to have fun. Couple the rock solid combo-based gameplay with a bright and gorgeous world, silky smooth controls, and a surprisingly good story, and you've got one of 2011's surprise hits.

9. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Really? I know. No, really, I know. I don't like Activision's business practices any more than you do, but the fact of the matter is that Infinity Ward and the army of studios at their disposal have crafted on hell of a shooter this year. The campaign alone is enough for me to recommend this one, thanks to its plethora of jaw dropping setpieces. But even after that's done with, the new cooperative Survival mode is enough to drain hours out of your life. It's fast, addictive, and fun.

10. Dead Space 2

Although I was a bit disappointed by Dead Space 2's reliance on action and jump scares over straight up horror, there's no denying that this is still one of the most polished third person action games on the block. The aiming and shooting controls are nothing short of perfect, and the graphics are stunning even almost a year later. This game had me on the edge of my seat more times than I dare to count, and I think that's worthy of placing it in the top ten.

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I'm Giving Away Steam Games!!!

2011 was a massive year for games, and most of us have had more than a few slip under our radar. Well Giantbombers, this holiday season I've received tons of games and other goodies from Steam's holiday shenanigans (as well as a few duplicate games from friends and Redditors gifting games on Steam,) and I'm going to pass the duplicates on to you. If you'd like a copy of any of the games listed below, all you have to do is leave your preferred game in the comments of this post. I'll choose one person at random on the night of December 28th and send a PM asking for your Steam ID, at which point I'll send the game to your account. Consider it my way of showing appreciation for the great community here at Giantbomb. Thanks, good luck, and see you all in the new year!

UPDATE: Wow, I never thought I'd get this many people commenting in here! Thanks for all the love in the posts, but I'm afraid the time has come to choose just one person to receive each game. If your name is by the game, you should have a PM in your inbox from me already. Enjoy the games everybody.

Oh and if for whatever reason someone can't accept their game, I'll choose another person at random. Everybody should receive their gifts by tonight. I have work in the afternoon but will send them when I get back. Now without further ado...

  • Deus Ex Human Revolution -
  • Caspized -
  • Bulletstorm -
  • Bastion -
  • Renegade Ops -
  • Blocks That Matter -
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My Arkham City and Aliens Infestation Reviews

Arkham City

There was a time when Batman games were viewed with contempt. Like most of the licensed drivel that publishers would pass for games, these experiences were often short, under developed, and untrue to the methods of the world's greatest detective. It is for precisely this reason that gamers were so skeptical when Rocksteady announced Batman Arkham Asylum. Of course that game released in 2009 to heavy critical acclaim and even received numerous Game of the Year nods. But was Arkham Asylum's popularity partially a result of the low expectations fans held for it? With Batman Arkham City, Warner Bros. Interactive and Rocksteady deliver a swift roundhouse kick to the doubters, proving that lightning can indeed strike twice.

From the very first moments of Arkham City I was on the edge of my seat. This is a game that wastes no time in establishing its conflict and fleshing it out with infamous villains. After a memorable tutorial level you'll be thrust into the city large tasked with tracking down Hugo Strange, the man behind the creation of Arkham City. The impoverished prison city, created from the ashes of the ghettos of Gotham, is now home to the world's most infamous criminals, and Batman will quickly be sidetracked in his search for answers by cameos from The Joker, Penguin, Two Face, Catwoman, and many others. The story weaves numerous threads into a compelling whole, taking what on their own would be fairly dull stories and lending them gravitas by integrating them into the larger plot.

Oh hey, didn't see you there
Oh hey, didn't see you there

Of the villains, Catwoman plays the most significant role. The anti-hero is actually playable for those who order the game new (or buy used from Gamestop, as the retailer has cut a deal with Warner Bros. to include codes in its used copies,) and her story intersects with Batman's at several key moments. It's a fairly significant chunk of game to wall off behind an online pass, to such an extent that I find it hard to imagine the story without her. If I had to pick out one flaw in Arkham City, it'd be the awkward online integration. Catwoman requires a code and a constant internet connection to play. Worse still, every time I downloaded content in the background, the game would pause upon completion of the download and kick me out to the main menu, even if the downloads had nothing to do with this game. I can't tell you how distracting it is to be thoroughly immersed in the game one moment and kicked out to the menu the next, especially when I'm only downloading a small demo or something of the sort.

Awkward online integration aside, Arkham City runs smooth as silk. The controls remain largely the same as last time, although this time around Batman has access to a few new gadgets and must contend with a few new enemy types. The most significant upgrade seems but a minor one upon first glance; by double-tapping the A button during a grapple, you can make Batman speed up and maintain his momentum through his grapple, flying off the other end and soaring higher than before. Combined with a new dive move that's great for building momentum in the air, it's easy to soar across the entire city. Flying above the criminal scum below, you'll feel like a real superhero.

Combat has a similar flow to it. Although little in this regard has changed since the Dark Knight's last outing, chaining together combos by countering enemy attacks remains just as satisfying as it was before. There are even more options this time around thanks to numerous gadget upgrades. Freeze bombs can be tossed at the feet of a thug to freeze him temporarily in place, while quick-fire explosives can be thrown out to knock enemies to the ground. A new enemy type equipped with a riot shield will require quick dodges and precise attacks to take down, while another new enemy type armed with a knife forces you to hit a direction on the analog stick while dodging to effectively circumvent his blade. Combined with the Titan-infused brutes and taser-wielding baddies from Arkham Asylum, combat can feel quite busy. It's almost never overwhelming, though, and even when enemies start picking up guns and coming at you with knives, there's always a counter for every attack.

A battle through Penguin's new compound is one of the game's best moments
A battle through Penguin's new compound is one of the game's best moments

Of course, if you find yourself fighting a lot of enemies you may be missing the point of Arkham City entirely. The fisticuffs are great, sure, but the real thrill comes from taking enemies down stealthily. Creeping up behind enemies, luring them into traps using your gadgets, and swooping down from gargoyles high above their heads are all viable and satisfying ways to make you feel like the ultimate predator. Gargoyles are no longer the safe haven they were before, however. Certain enemies will use night vision to spot you on your perch if you don't stay still, and a tricky boss battle with Mr. Freeze ices over the perches, rendering them useless. In other rooms, enemies will lay mines in an attempt to fortify their position, forcing careful movement and astute observation.

Takedowns have been improved since Arkham Asylum. You can still swoop down from a gargoyle on rope and leave unsuspecting thugs dangling upside down from your perch, which remains one of the most fun moves to pull off in the game. Other additions are equally rewarding, though. Double takedowns are now possible and help thin out the crowd quickly. Ledge takedowns have also been expanded upon, and they comprise some of the most visceral and brutal hits of the game. An average gamer won't utilize all of these numerous combat options much in one playthrough, encouraging experimentation in the game's combat rooms. Even if you don't use every gadget, every takedown, and every combo, it's important to know that they're available. The variety in combat and the freedom to choose your methods are what make Arkham City so much better than other action games.

The story missions, while fantastic, eventually must come to an end after around eight hours. Luckily, there are tons of side missions scattered around the city that comprise dozens of hours of gameplay. Some of them are your typical open world objectives, stopping muggings, finding hidden items and the like. Many others are far more complex, and center around a specific villain or two. These character-central side missions are some of the best around, and although many of them can be broken down into mere fetch quests, they are bolstered by the personalities of the villains around whom they revolve. Stopping Zsasz from murdering innocent civilians has a totally different feel from tracking downDeadshot and his victims, even if from a gameplay standpoint your methods will be quite similar. Including side missions like these is a great way to bolster the villain count of the game without making it feel too overcrowded, an issueArkham City deftly sidesteps.

The gradual degradation of Batman's suit looks great
The gradual degradation of Batman's suit looks great

Finally, if the game's cavalcade of side missions and collectibles still aren't enough to satisfy you (perfectly reasonable, given the quality of the gameplay,) challenge rooms make a triumphant return. Contrary to the open world freedom of the main quest, these challenge rooms task you with very specific objectives in a confined area, and require an almost surgical precision to pull off successfully. All of these rooms revolve around taking down enemies either silently or in hand to hand combat as efficiently as possible, and advanced levels demand intense memorization and numerous tries to achieve perfection. These instanced battles aren't why I come to Batman games, but they definitely have a strong following as evidenced by numerous YouTube videos and leaderboard scores. If you love challenge rooms, Arkham City has you covered, with even more being released as DLC at a steady pace.

AArkham City is one of those rare games that contains huge amounts of content and executes it all with nary a hitch. Rocksteady balances numerous villains and plot threads with all the skill and dexterity of a superhero, giving each character a time to shine in the spotlight before moving the plot on to the next. The engaging story is bolstered by some fantastic voice acting, which booms from the speakers in a suitably dramatic fashion, and the gameplay is every bit nimble enough to keep up with the demands of the plot. The real triumph of the game, though, is in its prioritization of player freedom, even in the relatively linear framework of some of its levels. There are numerous ways to approach every instance of combat, and it's this variety that allows Arkham City to remain entertaining no matter how long you play. With this game, Rocksteady has proven that their success with Arkham Asylum was no accident; they know Batman, and they know quality game design.

Aliens: Infestation

Aliens: Infestation would've flown right under my radar if it weren't for the pedigree of its developer, WayForward Technologies. When the guys behind the excellent Contra 4 and Bloodrayne Betrayal put out a new 2D game, I tend to pay attention. When said game takes its inspiration from classic Metroidvania games, I'm practically stumbling over myself to fork over my cash. Indeed, Aliens: Infestation has a fantastic concept, and capitalizes on it as much as possible. A sidescrolling Aliens game in the vein of Super Metroid seems all too obvious in retrospect, and it's about as cool as it sounds. The game makes a few minor stumbles in terms of fairness and consistency, but recovers quickly thanks to a mixture of solid gunplay, nail-biting tension, and pure old-school charm.

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The opening moments of Aliens: Infestation are quiet and suspenseful. As your platoon of Marines lands on the seemingly abandoned USS Sulaco, there's a palpable tension in the air. It isn't long, however, until this tension dissolves and the occupying Xenomorphs reveal themselves. From here on out, the game ditches tension in favor of straight up gunplay. Although the shooting is generally solid, it's a small failure on the game's part that it doesn't go for more atmospheric scares as opposed to the more traditional combat that permeates the game. After discovering the Xenomorph infestation, the creatures spawn in practically every room, and the motion sensor makes their appearances more predictable than they should be.

Although the game leans heavily on its shooting, a methodical pace is demanded due to a severely limited pool of lives. In Aliens: Infestation, each Marine constitutes one life. You may only have four Marines, and thus four lives, in your pool at any given time, although a total of nineteen unique Marines are scattered across the numerous environments for when you need some backup. When all of your lives are depleted, the game forces you to start from the beginning. If you don't want to play significant portions of the game over again, it's best to maintain a slow and steady crawl through the levels. This more tactical approach serves to differentiate Infestation from its peers, giving it an identity all its own. The feeling of horror that overcomes you as you dash desperately towards the nearest save room with only a sliver of health remaining is entirely unique to this game, and is a lot of fun to boot.

Unfortunately, that limited pool of lives can come back to bite you in the ass when the game cheaply kills you. I've had enemies spawn in on top of me, basically condemning me to a helpless death, and I've been killed by cheap bosses a few times. One time I was even gunned down in the middle of a cutscene. Reloading your old save can alleviate these issues to an extent, but that's never any fun. Besides, there's a certain feeling of flying by the seat of your pants to rolling with the game's punches, and when it cheaply kills you, that feeling is diminished significantly.

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Other than a few issues with cheap, glitchy deaths, I had a ton of fun exploring Infestation's numerous environments. They're lovingly rendered in the style of classic SNES games, and demand a decent amount of exploration to fully exploit. Secrets and upgrades are hidden everywhere, but so are the Xenomorphs. This mixture of encouraging exploration while demanding careful planning works well enough to keep the action feeling punchy, even when you have to backtrack through a lot of the rooms. And like any good Metroidvania game, it's the exploration that feels the most satisfying. There's just something about looking at a grid-based map and feeling the need to fill in every corner of it that pleases me to no end.

When Xenomorphs inevitably pop out of every corner, the gunplay satisfies as well. Although you'll start with the standard Marine Assault Rifle (and yes, they managed to nail the sound even on theDS's tinny speakers) you'll quickly upgrade to a shotgun, and again to still more powerful weapons. This constant progression is a staple of the genre, and Infestation nails it. Guns feel powerful, especially against humanoid enemies as the Xenomorphs take a fair share of punishment before falling. If they aren't enough, you'll also have access to a supply of grenades. Although your Marines toss grenades like they were in a shot putting competition, you'll eventually get used to it, and they're an instant kill against most enemies making them a great last-ditch weapon.

Aliens: Infestation places its sights on some pretty lofty targets and mostly hits its mark. Like the classic Metroidvania games, it's gorgeous to look at and fun to explore. Its chunky sprites and tinny music inspire as much nostalgia as horror, even as the game quickly ditches its tension-filled beginning moments for a more action-oriented approach. Exploring the large maps is a satisfying way to kill ten or so hours, and the fact that you can actually lose all of your Marines and be forced to start from the beginning is a neat hook that gives the game its own unique feel. In an increasingly crowded genre, Aliens: Infestation still manages to stand out as a great purchase.

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