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Captain Olimar’s Excellent Adventure

Quick note: this is my entry for this year’s Review a Great Game Day, a writing jam organized by retro gaming site 1 More Castle. Enjoy!

Out of all the games Shigeru Miyamoto has created, Pikmin is far and away my favorite. I’ve put countless hours into Shiggy’s creations over the decades, from Donkey Kong to Wii Fit, but none has captivated me quite so much as his intimate tale of a diminutive spaceman and the even tinier creatures who aid him during a crisis. It is visually and aurally charming, not to mention a brilliantly designed example of how to do real-time strategy on a console, but it’s also much, much more.
Captain Olimar and the pikmin.

Pikmin is something which is, even now, extremely rare amongst big-budget titles: a narrative game about a normal grown adult. The main character, Captain Olimar, is on an alien planet not because he’s been sent there to fight a war, nor is he chasing adventure or purpose. He’s there by accident. He’s a run-of-the-mill businessman, in the middle of traveling, who crash-lands in unfamiliar territory and spends the rest of the game calmly trying to repair his ride and get home to his worried wife and kid. There are no princesses or kingdoms to save; the only thing which needs rescuing is himself. Despite the fantastical universe he resides in, he’s as familiar as most any commuter you may see on the train in the morning. In this way, Pikmin is about the trials and mundanities of adulthood as much as many other games are examinations of adolescence. It’s shockingly refreshing, and Olimar has since become one of those rare game characters with whom I can truly identify.

Actually, I have to take something back—part of that “fantastical universe” of Olimar’s is almost as ordinary as he himself is, but in a different way. While the planet Olimar lands on is new and interesting to him, its identity soon becomes apparent to the player. As evidenced by the litter that Olimar encounters during his crisis, this strange new world is our own. Sure, the flowers are giant numbered pellets surrounded by petals, the creatures include two-legged speckled bugs and bird-beaked burrowing snakes, and the Pikmin themselves are plant/animal hybrids that could exist nowhere else but a Nintendo game, but there’s no mistaking it. Olimar is on Earth, and he is the size of an insect upon it.

The presence of the Pikmin and other weird living things, combined with the familiarity of Olimar’s situation and the random man-made flotsam, is perhaps meant to make us think about the nature we too often take for granted and our relationship to it. Study real-life plants and animals closely, and you’ll notice a wondrous, vibrant world, perhaps one similar to that which Olimar sees. Even at the current rate of extinction, new species are still being discovered; with that in mind, the birds and bugs of Pikmin don’t seem all that farfetched. The primary-colored Pikmin are clearly inspired by ants, insects which famously work together in groups and come in a wide variety of types. Scenes of them flocking around any given object are entertaining in the same way as watching ants carry a piece of food that’s much larger than they are.

Some pikmin attack a froglike creature.This mix of the unusual and the ordinary naturally extends to the gameplay. As I said earlier, Pikmin is a real-time strategy game. The RTS genre is traditionally relegated to the PC, due to the need for precise controls, such as with a mouse, to organize and command units. Pikmin takes the RTS concept and simplifies things, with just three types of units (red, yellow, and blue Pikmin) and a total limit of one hundred individuals that can be controlled in the field at any time. The defense stats of these units is indicated, Super Mario Bros.-style, by physical appearance, and the best of these can be most easily cultivated by letting them “grow” in the ground for a longer period of time. In any other situation, this would not be a problem, but Olimar has only thirty days to find the same number of parts for his spaceship before his life-support system dies. Thus, time is Olimar’s largest, most ominous opponent, moreso than the massive creatures that attempt to eat the pikmin along the way. Success in this game is determined by your command of the Pikmin, and how well they can fight off threats and navigate territory both while searching for and carrying back Olimar’s precious parts. Pikmin can be challenging at times, filled with all manner of clever obstacles and terrain, but it is also quite manageable, with a perfectly-tuned learning curve. It helps that the Wii’s “New Play Control!” port is a dream to play with its remote and nunchuck setup (unfortunately, there is no GameCube controller support in this release, so I could not compare the original control scheme to the new one).

The understated soundtrack is standard-quality Nintendo fare, but as for the graphics, they are Pikmin‘s most prominent weakness, as, despite their novel designs, they haven’t aged as gracefully as the rest of the game. Pikmin was originally released in 2001 and it shows, thanks to now-dated texturing and lighting, and simplistic character models. However, please don’t let this put you off on playing this masterpiece. It is one of the greatest and most unique video games of its kind, and also one of the best Nintendo has ever made. It is a surprisingly deceptive game, in a good way: approachable and wholesome enough for kids, but with a story and protagonist which are more relatable to adults. It speaks to its audience about nature and its relationship with humanity, without passing judgment on anyone or anything, leaving the player to reach their own conclusions about the world and its inhabitants. Most importantly, it is mature, in the truest sense of the word, than most other games which claim that adjective for themselves.


The Hills and Valleys of Gallia

It’s always frustrating to see a game get so much right, only to fall flat on its face in a few significant ways, but such was my experience with Valkyria Chronicles. This game had been on my radar for a long time, and I picked it up a few months after its arrival on Steam. In most ways, it lived up to the hype, and I greatly enjoyed it, but its flaws are difficult to ignore.

A typical battle scene.I’ll start with the good stuff since, like I said, this game does do a lot of things right. This is a strategy RPG unlike most others, one which ditches the isometric gridded maps for full 3D environments as in other modern console JRPGs. The gameplay is a mix of the real-time (shifting lines of sight and enemy fire while a unit moves) and the turn-based (everything else), with variables ranging from weapon capabilities to characters’ personalities affecting every action in the field. Keeping things simple, the character classes are limited to five (six if you include tanks), with the strengths and weaknesses of each clearly defined.

The most welcome aspect of the battle system is the way experience is handled. One of the issues I almost always run up against in SRPGs is leveling up individual units; in these sorts of games, only those who deal the killing blows to enemies gain experience points. Valkyria Chronicles solves this problem by not doling out EXP until the end of a battle, after which it goes into a wallet of sorts that can be spent on leveling up entire classes and/or learning new orders, special buffs which can be used on one or more units during a fight. On the downside however, at least for me, the amounts of both EXP and money received at the end of battle are partially determined by a rigid grading system, where higher grades are given the faster a map is cleared, similar to modern Sonic games. Despite this, I found that the shared experience pool, along with the equipment upgrade system and party management options, nicely streamlines the most fiddly bits of a customization-heavy genre.

The maps themselves are diverse in size, layout, terrain, and so on, and although the missions tend to rely too much on “occupy the enemy’s main base” as a goal, there is enough variation amongst the rest that this doesn’t become too dull. There is a learning curve for many of the missions, particularly if you’re like me and don’t want to lose any units (permadeath being very much A Thing for non-officer Valkyria Chronicles militiapeople), but the game is generally not very difficult.

Aesthetically, there’s as much pleasure here as within the gameplay. The cel-shaded graphics have a earthy and sketchy watercolor look about them, and, despite the occasional bit of outlandishness in the character design, everything is animated with subtlety and grace. Fan favorite game composer Hitoshi Sakimoto is responsible for the soundtrack, which is slightly gentler and happier than some of his most famous SRPG works. Excellent voice acting and sound effects complete the package. All of this is presented within a nearly flawless PC port; I did encounter one very bad clipping error, along with one or two much less severe issues, but the vast majority of the game ran smoothly.

The main book menu, while on the Headquarters tab.Tying all this together is a user interface that is, for the most part, a dream to work with. The main menu takes the form of a book, with story events and battles broken up into individual sections within their respective chapters. Every cutscene not tied to a battle can be replayed at the player’s leisure after they’re first viewed, making catching up on the story between play sessions a refreshingly trivial affair. Outside of the story, customization and other features are largely handled through a “Headquarters” tab, and similar appendices are available for optional skirmish battles, glossaries, and so on. Just about the only thing I don’t like about the main menu is that there’s no “Load” option; to jump to a different save file, one has to quit back to the opening screen and do it through there.

In battle, the UI is just as handy, if not moreso. Things like number of remaining action points, unit locations, and so on are clearly marked, and although there are no takebacks after a unit has been chosen in the field, saving and loading files can be done at any time between actions.

However, despite all the polish that has gone into how the game plays, the story has a handful of issues. Blending the real-life inspiration of World War II with touches of JRPG-style fantasy, Valkyria Chronicles is set in the Europan country of Gallia, a neutral party caught between the western Federation and eastern Empire. The story, presented in the form of a book titled “On the Gallian Front”, revolves around Militia Lieutenant Welkin Gunther and his comrades in Squad 7. Naturally, Welkin just happens to be the son of a famous war hero, and has come to Gallia’s capital from a small town with two young women in tow: reserved younger sister Isara and energetic baker’s apprentice Alicia.

The FMVs and in-game graphics are pretty much identical.If this one-guy-two-girls setup is reminiscent of Skies of Arcadia, that’s probably not an accident, as Valkyria Chronicles shares some key staff members, and even contains a few nice homages to the older RPG. However, the comparisons don’t stop there, as several of Arcadia‘s most conspicuous plot elements make themselves incredibly clear early on. Because Arcadia was lighter in tone and, to a certain extent, unabashedly cartoony—with brightly-colored graphics, a setting that could only exist in fantasy, and themes of adventure and discovery—it could largely get away with its by-the-numbers story. On the other hand, the more grounded Valkyria, with its more modest plot centered around a small country doing its best to defend itself, doesn’t have that luxury. As a result, and despite some surprises and high points, Valkyria‘s story is more obviously predictable than even your average JRPG (particularly if you pay attention to certain details in the opening movie) and its few missteps stand out all the more.

The primary example I can give of the latter involves a major spoiler, so I won’t describe it in great detail, but I do want to discuss it, so I’ll try my best not to give too much away. It starts with a well-executed story sequence, and quite moving as well, so much so that it was the third instance of a game making me cry. However, even while this event was playing out, one character’s reaction to it confused me. More worryingly, when a certain aspect of this event is repeated later on, it felt like a cheapening of what had come before; on top of that, there was a ton of foreshadowing leading up to Event #2, so it’s not like that storytelling mechanic was all on the shoulders of Event #1. To the writers’ credit, Event #1 did have lasting relevance right on through to the end of the game, so it wasn’t a superfluous scene. However, the execution of both events was… poorly considered. This was, I might add, the point where I started to grow somewhat tired of the game.

Non-FMV cutscenes are handled like this.The characters, like the story, don’t shy away from cliches, and despite most of them being pleasant, or, at the very least, interesting to watch, there’s only as much depth added to them as needed for the plot. This is especially true of the non-story-required militia members, each one of whom can be neatly filed away according to archetype. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of recruits to choose from when forming your squad, and it’s easy enough to ignore the most annoying-seeming characters in favor of those who are more appealing. On a positive note, it’s hard to ignore the fact that these grunts are a step up from the bland, personality-lacking units of the SRPGs of the past.

Choosing your squad, however, is not an option in the “Enter the Edy Detachment!” DLC, where you are stuck with six specific militia members, including and led by the shrill Edy, in a brief side-story where they get separated from the rest of Squad 7. This mission is unusually difficult if you don’t learn how to second-guess the AI, and doesn’t really add anything to the main story. Much better is the Selvaria-focused “Behind Her Blue Flame”, which shows a somewhat different side of this enemy general and includes some nice little tie-ins to the main game.

There are two other DLCs, an unlockable “Expert Mode” for the main game’s optional battles and a set of Edy Detachment-themed skirmishes, but I didn’t touch either of them. All four come with the Steam release, no extra purchases necessary, which is a nice bonus. Even without these essentially-free DLCs, Valkyria Chronicles‘ PC port is solid package that’s worth picking up, but if you’re a newcomer, be warned that the story is neither as good nor as innovative as the rest of the game.


Some Bargain Manga Reviews

In addition to playing a lot of games, I read a ton of manga. 2014 was a packed year as far as trying– and committing to– new manga series goes; as of this writing, I’m currently following nearly twenty different series. There have been loads of great new work being produced lately, as well as old classics I’m either finally catching up on, or reading as they are being published in English for the first time. Perhaps I’ll write about some of those works later, but for now, I’ll focus on a specific class of manga: cheap, short series picked up from Right Stuf’s Bargain Bin and epic year-end sales.

Even when picking up manga on the cheap, I tend to do some basic research beforehand; the length of a given series and its general reception are the two most important factors. The latter’s self-explanatory, but as for the former, I try to stick to series that are only a few volumes long at most. Only once have I ever bought a 10+ volume long series at a nice discount without having read any of it, and fortunately, that manga turned out to be excellent: Ouran High School Host Club, picked up in box set form for 50% off (in all fairness, though, I’d previously seen—and loved—the anime). I do have the seven-volume Lament of the Lamb waiting for me in the wings, but if it wasn’t for some decent ratings and the set being roughly 67% off cover price, I wouldn’t have picked it up.

Anyway, let’s get started.

<i>Someday's Dreamers</i> vol. 1. Source image from Right Stuf.

Someday’s Dreamers
by Norie Yamada and Kumichi Yoshizuki
US Publisher: Tokyopop
Total Volumes: 2
Original Cover Price: $19.98 for both
Bought For: $11.98 (reduced to $10.78 with Got Anime) for both

I’ll start with a short series I picked up in May of last year, Someday’s Dreamers. Like most of the books featured in this post, this was localized by Tokyopop, which abruptly shut down its North American publishing operations in 2011. Without going into that too deeply, this move caused quite a stir in the manga blogosphere and led to Tokyopop books being clearanced out of Barnes & Noble. Since Right Stuf’s Bargain Bin includes a lot of items returned to publishers by other stores, that’s probably what accounts for the large amount of Tokyopop stuff it holds. That said, the condition of these Bargain Bin books ranges from “used bookstore” to “practically new”, but either way, it’s hard to tell if I truly got my money’s worth without actually reading them.

Upon rereading Someday’s Dreamers, I confirmed that in this case, I had. This manga, in which magic is a normal thing in contemporary Japan, is about a seventeen year old girl, Yume, who spends a summer in Tokyo for magic-user training and certification. Her everyday adventures, tinged as they are with magic, reveal her to be extremely empathic and wanting to do the right thing, but, at least at first, without much serious thought put into the potential consequences of her actions. Her biggest hurdles come in the form of lessons about life, death, and happiness, and, on top of that, her teacher has issues of his own.

The art style, along with Yume’s personality and the slice-of-life nature of the chapters, are unabashedly moe, in a good way. Yume definitely fits the moe mold: she’s a sweet, kind girl who you want to be happy, and has the small mouth, smaller nose, and gentle-yet-somewhat-sad eyes endemic amongst this subgenre’s characters. Aside from some mild and occassional emphasis on certain body parts in the art and composition, there is nothing creepy here, just a coming-of-age story about a teenager who also happens to know some magic. Like the best works of this type, it’s pleasant and rather nostalgic, and the premise enables some particularly dreamlike scenes.

If there is one thing that’s unusual about these two volumes, it is that they are both rather short, each one clocking in at around 130 pages, when your standard manga is typically 50-70 pages longer than that. I wonder why Tokyopop chose to release these two volumes individually, rather than compiling them into an omnibus; it could be because of the way the story arcs are structured, or a restriction imposed by the original creators, or something else. Regardless, it’s a good purchase for $12 (seven bucks for Vol. 1 and five for Vol. 2) if you’re ever in the mood for this sort of thing.

<i>Aquarium</i>. Source image from Right Stuf.

Aquarium
by Tomoko Taniguchi
US Publisher: Central Park Media
Total Volumes: 1
Original Cover Price: $9.99
Bought For: $2.49

As it happens, CPM is another defunct anime and manga company, albeit one who had been around a bit longer and whose business practices were less controversial. They didn’t publish much printed media, but their manga catalog was as diverse as their anime one. In addition to works such as the notorious hentai Urotsukidoji, series by Kia Asamiya and Youka Nitta, various anime adaptations, and even some manhwa and OEL stuff, they published a handful of one-shots and two volume manga by Tomoko Taniguchi, including the short story collection Aquarium.

There are three stories in the book. In “Aquarium”, a high school student drowns her sorrows by gazing at the fish at a local aquarium; “The Flying Stewardess” is about a young flight attendant trying to fit in at her lively job; and finally, “The Heart is Your Kingdom” concerns a girl who has trouble smiling around the boy she likes.

There isn’t much about these stories that I could find fault with. The pacing is appropriate to each one and the page layouts convey the tales with clarity. It’s also nice that the second story was lighthearted and comedic, serving as a nice break between the drama of “Aquarium” and that of “The Heart is Your Kingdom”. Despite the brief time spent with the characters, they are realistic, and their stories are heartfelt, if a bit melodramatic at times.

If there’s one thing I would warn potential readers about, it’s that this is most definitely an early 90s shoujo manga. The art style is old-fashioned by today’s standards, which may be a bit of a turnoff to some people. If you can get past that hurdle, it’s definitely worth the four dollars that it’s now going for at Right Stuf. Aquarium made such an impression on me that I now have a handful of other short works by this mangaka on order. Here’s hoping that they are just as good.

<i>Bus Gamer</i>. Source image from Right Stuf.

Bus Gamer
by Kazuya Minekura
US Publisher: Tokyopop
Total Volumes: 1
Original Cover Price: $9.99
Bought For: $2.99

Three young men are caught up in a dangerous game, one in which we might call “tower defense”. The “towers” are corporate secrets on floppy disks, and they must be either guarded or taken away from a competing team. These three are “Business Gamers”, and they play for huge monetary rewards and the amusement of the rich assholes who are their bosses. However, this game becomes more dangerous with each new round, and increasingly difficult to leave.

This “Pilot Edition” of Bus Gamer is all that exists of this series—a series which clearly seems to have been intended to become something longer and more fleshed out. We learn snippets about our heroes’ lives and personalities from chapter to chapter, but many of the biggest questions, such as why they need the money they get from playing this game, go unanswered.

At many times, Bus Gamer is very much a character study, with high school student Kazuo the most earnest of the three; it is he who wants to know more about his partners, with the other two, Toki and Nobuto, only rarely revealing new aspects of themselves. The camaraderie that slowly, gradually, develops between them is the most intriuguing thing about this manga, and a major reason why I wished it had continued.

Bus Gamer‘s art style is detailed, stylized, and imperfect, and a great match for the solid page and panel compositions. The writing has an urban feel to it, with a localization that, thankfully, doesn’t go overboard with the slang. The mangaka is best known for a longer series, Saiyuki, which I’m considering checking out now, even though the setting doesn’t grab me as much. As for Bus Gamer, this one-shot is, like Aquarium, currently $3.99 in Right Stuf’s Bargain Bin and is worth a look if you can tolerate its incompleteness.

<i>Mad Love Chase</i> vol. 1. Source image from Right Stuf.

Mad Love Chase
by Kazusa Takashima
US Publisher: Tokyopop
Total Volumes: 5
Original Cover Price: $54.95 for all
Bought For: $24.99 for all

Finally, we have come to the bottom of the stack, in more ways than one. I didn’t have the highest expectations for this series, based on its premise, but most people seemed to like it well enough that I figured I should give it a chance. As it turned out, it isn’t bad, but it’s not really good, either. While I wait for the next volumes of truly great romantic comedies My Love Story!! and Nisekoi, please join me in picking apart Mad Love Chase.

Like I said, the premise of this manga didn’t sound like the greatest thing ever, but it did hold some promise. Demon price Kaito runs away from home with his pet cat to avoid his arranged marriage and live freely in our world, disguised as a human. Angered by this, the Demon King sends a team of three agents to find the prince, who can easily be identified by an elaborate tattoo on his back. Hijinks, largely involving the agents trying to remove the prince’s shirt, ensue.

This setup is handled quickly and messily. The earliest chapter is particularly bad, as the setup of the premise feels forcefully rushed, without letting the exposition flow naturally. Things get slightly better later on, though new plot holes arise. For example, somewhere in the middle of the series, a new character and his pet mouse come onto the scene to hunt down the prince, though his motives are never made clear, and, after his story arc is over, he is never seen again and only mentioned in passing once or twice. Another new character, a magician, comes along later on and, although he is actually important to the story, his actions seem too serendipitous to take seriously as plot developments. Then there’s the “love triangle” that permeates the series, and isn’t really a triangle in the traditional sense, if at all. Finally, like the beginning of the manga, the end is rushed and unsatisfying, though it does attempt to tie up all the loose ends for the entire cast.

If there is a high point to this manga, it’s the art, which is very good. Unfortunately, there are many places where it suffers from bad layouts, plus the “gag” art of the characters isn’t all that great. Most of the characters are likable, though the pacing and layouts often work against them. In general, this is a lighthearted, and frequently silly, romp without a whole lot else going for it. Oddly, it isn’t in the Right Stuf Bargain Bin, even though at least a couple of the volumes I got were certainly at that level of condition; it was offered as a bundle during the holiday sales (which is when I picked it up), and again during their recent Valentine’s Day promotion. Even if this series does go on sale again, skip it in favor of an actual good romantic comedy.


This Year’s Holiday Card

One of my regular projects is an annual (usually; I’ve missed at least a couple of years) “Holiday Card”, typically a piece of Christmas/winter fanart for my online friends. I had plans to do one this year, and even had a couple of Persona 4-themed ideas stored away well in advance, but when the fall hit, I got a spark of inspiration for something else, which I started working on in November.

Legend of Cascadia This project, a short J-style RPG called Legend of Cascadia, is not holiday-themed, but is my replacement for this year’s Holiday Card. It is based on one of my favorite Peter Molydeux tweets, one which I briefly considered adapting for the first MolyJam, but lacked the time, experience, and overall foundation to do so. However, over this past month and a half (and especially the last four weeks), after finally getting a solid idea in my head, I put it together. The engine I used is RPG Maker VX Ace, which I’d only dabbled with before, and is both surprisingly robust and frustratingly limited. It was also the perfect tool to put together this sort of thing.

Anyway, hope you all enjoy this bit of silliness from me. Before I go, you may have noticed that Cascadia lives under a new menu section called “Projects”. I can’t promise that I’ll make more games in the future, but this is where any similar such works will live from now on. Thanks, have a good holiday season and here’s hoping we all have a great 2015!


Freeman Following

It’s been about three months since my last post, and much has happened in the meantime: something about gates on the Twitterverse and elsewhere, another fun trip to PAX Prime, and seeing a handful of highly anticipated games come out. I’ve played quite a few games to completion since then as well, including the outstanding DS dungeon crawler Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, underdog (underhog?) platformer Sonic Unleashed, and the last two unplayed Guild games I had sitting on my 3DS, Attack of the Friday Monsters! and Crimson Shroud. All were good-to-excellent, but none of them cross the masterpiece threshold save for one game and its official expansions: Half-Life 2.

Yes, as with so many others, I’m really late to the party on this one. This November marks the tenth anniversary of Half-Life 2‘s release. Back in 2004, it won a staggering number of Game of the Year honors, well more than other notable releases of the time, including Katamari Damacy and World of WarCraft. Since then, it and its episodic expansions, Episode One and Episode Two, have left gamers wanting more, cracking numerologic jokes about Half-Life 3 and being frustrated over the long-delayed Episode Three. Now, I know for sure that all of the above is justifiable.

One of the many scenes of destruction and decay in <i>Half-Life 2</i>.Firstly, there’s the superficial stuff: for a ten year old game, Half-Life 2 looks and sounds incredibly good. I said much the same thing about the original Half-Life, and it’s just as true for the sequel. It’s almost criminal that a game this old can feel this contemporary, and even with my blazingly fast desktop computer, the loading screens can still take a little while. Sure, some of the environment models look blocky, but they’re the only really strong indicator of the game’s true age. A great deal of credit for Half-Life 2‘s time-tested aesthetic goes out to Valve’s texture artists and sound designers, who rank alongside the likes of Blizzard’s as some of the best in the business.

Speaking of textures, they maintain the aesthetic that Valve had previously established for the series’ world. Although the action has shifted from the American Southwest to somewhere in Eastern Europe, the well-worn industrial trappings are still there. Rust lines the edges of barrels, wooden pallets and concrete foundations are weather-beaten, and paint quietly peels from neglected living room walls. The characters, too, have a certain worn quality about them as well, in ways both obvious and subtle.

Dr. Eli Vance and Dr. Judith Mossman.The rust-filled setting this time is City 17, an old-world urban center with a giant, unearthly tower plunked down in the middle. It is on a train headed to this place where player character Gordon Freeman is deposited by the “G-Man”, a suit with unknown motives and an unusual bearing. The opening credit sequence on board the train is but one of many callbacks to the original Half-Life, and others soon follow, including a pair of scientists from that older game, who now bear actual names, as well as Barney Calhoun, the security guard from the Blue Shift expansion pack. In the meantime, we are also informed about the Combine, the extradimensional invaders who conquered the Earth while Gordon was gone; get our first glimpse of Dr. Breen, the Black Mesa administrator turned leader of the oppressed city, who appears on giant viewscreens around town; and are formally introduced to Alyx Vance, the mechanically-inclined daughter of Eli, one of the aforementioned scientists.

Alyx is regularly touted as one of the best female game characters to date, which says a bit about how backward the representation of women in games is. Her engineering and combat skills aside, she is pretty normal: level-headed, compassionate, a little bit sarcastic. Whenever she is teamed up with Gordon, which happens infrequently in Half-Life 2 and more often in the Episodes, she doesn’t neatly fit the typical female sidekick role of guide or some other inflexible stereotype. Instead, she’s a genuine partner, who helps Gordon past obstacles just as often as he does for her. Together, they’re a well-balanced team, and much the same can be said of others who accompany Gordon throughout his adventures, from the nameless human and Vortigaunt rebels to Barney and the suitably monikered robot Dog.

Still, it seems Valve couldn’t resist shoving some sort of subtle romantic overture in there, as Eli and others occasionally inquire about Alyx and Gordon’s prospects together. At least Alyx, for her part, never brings such matters up to Gordon herself, leaving the whole situation vague. Similar romantic undercurrents are present in scenes featuring the game’s other major female character, a scientist named Judith Mossman who is more than she appears. Still, despite these minor instances of pandering, both Alyx and Judith have been interesting steps forward for female characterization in first-person shooters.

It's hard to pick out a good example of HL2-style humor without spoilers, but here's one that fits.Speaking of which, the storytelling is handled in the same natural way as it was in the original Half-Life, with exposition and such presented to you by non-player characters and background details in-game, without ever interrupting the flow of the action for a static cutscene (and, thankfully, subtitles and closed-captioning are options this time). However, with a fair number of actual named characters this time comes a greater emphasis on plot and characterization. This is by no means a bad thing, of course, and lends Half-Life 2 and its follow-up episodes a depth that was lacking from their predecessors. One aspect of the storytelling which is a bit more faithful, style-wise, to Half-Life is the general tone; this is still an unpredictable world dealing with the consequences of scientific curiosity, but one with its little bits of dark humor well intact. For better or worse, this is also an unfinished story, with Episode Two closing with a dramatic cliffhanger and many, many questions left unanswered.

Anyway, enough about the finer trappings: this is a first-person shooter, and I haven’t talked about the shooting bits yet. The enemies are challenging and diverse enough while being rarely annoying and never out of place. In a similar vein, the weapons and ancillary controls (running, flashlight, etc.) are all reasonably satisfying for their respective purposes, with the shotgun and Antlion pheropods being two particular highlights. There’s also the famed Gravity Gun, the second tool-style weapon received in the game; the first is, of course, Gordon’s iconic crowbar. The Gravity Gun is the most dependable and versatile out of all the weapons, and is deceptively simple in operation: the left mouse button brings objects (up to a certain size) closer, while the right one pushes them away. Aside from its combat uses, the Gravity Gun is essential for solving many of the puzzles which quietly present themselves throughout Gordon’s adventures.

One area in which the controls falter a bit is in the driving sections, which are overly long in Half-Life 2 and thankfully few in the Episodes. Keeping consistent with the series’ level of immersion, these driving sections are in first-person view and have similar controls to those for walking around. This approach, while seeming sensible, leaves something to be desired, as it can be somewhat difficult to use mouselook (which doesn’t affect driving direction) and WASD controls (which does) simultaneously. Acceleration and braking are also somewhat tied in with the directional controls, which seems a little odd at first, but at least works better than turning does.

Half-Life was already an incredible game for its day, and one which has stood the test of time. For Half-Life 2 and its Episodes (especially the brutal and harrowing Episode Two) to surpass it is no mean feat. Even the bite-sized nugget of an expansion, the excised-level-turned-playable-tech-demo Lost Coast, is an outstanding little production that does its franchise proud. With better driving controls and less of a reliance on romance as a minor plot crutch, this whole package would’ve been perfect; however, what masterpiece is truly without flaw? Half-Life 2 expands on Half-Life‘s promise that subtlety and intense action needn’t be strangers, reminds us that silent protagonists are worthy avatars, and, in an extraordinary world, revels in little details and moments of normalcy.


A Pile of Braincrumbs Before I Go

Leaving on a trip tomorrow, and it’s going to be one of those rare times where I unplug for awhile. That said, I made sure that whatever I started playing in the past few weeks were things that I could beat before leaving. In the end, I played through four games and read a Let’s Play of Dare to Dream, an early effort by one Clifford Blezinski (thankfully, he’s improved since then).

That aside, here’s what I thought of those four games I played:

Time Limit Within 7 Days – Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked

Even though my main gaming goal for the year is to beat as much of my MegaTen backlog as possible, I haven’t made much progress with that. After Persona 4, I didn’t play another SMT-related game until this one, which is a 3DS port-with-extras of the original Devil Survivor on DS. It’s also a strategy RPG, which is unusual for this franchise, but as I love the genre, I wasn’t going to complain.

During battles, the top screen features a ton of useful info.It was the SRPG elements, and the battle system in general, which proved to be the most fun part of the game. Characters move around on a grid and can attack and use special actions, but the twist here is that each of your party members can have a team of up to two demons tagging along with them, and initiating battle leads to a first-person turn-based affair that’s more typical of MegaTen. This mixing of traditional and strategy JRPG gameplay works really well, and is further augmented by robust customization options and demon recruitment and creation systems.

Despite this, the game is grindy on the normal difficulty, which wouldn’t be as bad if there were more than one or two “free battle” areas to level up in at a time. As for the story, it’s pretty good, though hardly original—much like The World Ends with You, the game takes place in Tokyo over a period of seven days, which is the time limit the main characters’ have in order to sort things out (it’s worth noting here that among Overclocked‘s new features are some unlockable “eighth day” scenarios, though I didn’t get one with the ending I chose). In other aspects, the plot is your standard boilerplate MegaTen, with a silent protagonist, characters with varied personal agendas, and multiple endings. Most of the time, it’s well-paced for a portable game, though the density of plot threads means that it can be easy to forget your place at times, which can lead to unintended (by you) consenquences.

The game is fully voiced (though the results are hit or miss), the music and graphics are decent… for the most part (I want to know what the hell is up with that strap on Haru’s dress), and the localized script is up to Atlus USA’s usual high standards. Strangely, there isn’t much use of 3D aside from the opening movie and demon fusing animations, but other than that, it looks great on my XL. As a MegaTen game, it’s a reasonably solid entry overall.

A Little Story in a Cave – Ikachan

That familiar Pixel aesthetic comes across clearly in <i>Ikachan</i>.By the time I beat Devil Survivor Overclocked, there wasn’t enough time to start something similarly lengthy, so everything I’ve played since then has been much shorter. First up was Ikachan, a 3DS port of a pre-Cave Story PC game by Studio Pixel. It takes place in an underwater cavern, and the main character is a squid. As in Cave Story, there are snaking passages, cute little regular enemies, deadly red spikes to avoid, strange beings to talk to (barnacle/anemone people, in this case), useful items to collect, and an atmosphere that ably blends the unusual with the mundane.

The story, however, is much simpler, and so is the game itself. There is only one area—the gigantic cave where the tale takes place—and very few boss battles. For Cave Story fans, Ikachan is notable for being the game that Ironhead, a large fish with an, er, iron head, came from. Ikachan is also easier; none of the enemies are as taxing as, say, Monster X in Cave Story. It’s cute, very short, and worth a look if you have a spare hour or two. The original PC game is freeware (note: some spoilers in link), though the 3DS version adds some new features, including a subtle layered 3D effect.

Blame Canada – Deadlight

I don’t normally play zombie games, but I do play platformers, and picked up Deadlight in a Steam sale awhile back. Unfortunately, my old Mac Pro couldn’t handle it, and so it was one of those games I shuttled off into my “Save for new compy” folder. As I now have said new compy, I’ve started digging into that folder. Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing was the acid test, and not long after playing through that, I found myself moving on to games like this one.

It ain't Canada, but it'll do.Deadlight takes place in early July 1986, in Seattle, in which it seems like pretty much the whole world has been overrun by zombies—sorry, “Shadows”—and what few humans are left in this one particular city try their best to survive. The main character is a scruffy middle-aged Canadian man (we know for sure he is Canadian because the game likes to remind us of this every so often, mostly through his diary entries and some comments on the items he finds during his travels) who is searching for his wife and daughter. He gets separated from his friends early on and is forced to make his way to a designated safe point on his own. This he does by running, jumping, climbing, walking, etc. all over the Seattle metro area in a linear fashion, occasionally solving puzzles and finding hidden areas. On a superficial level, at least, it’s pretty similar to Mark of the Ninja, but with much less stealth and a lot more zombies Shadows.

The game is thick with zombie genre cliches and sports at least a couple of frustrating sections in the third act, plus pausing is sometimes buggy, but otherwise it is generally well made (as unbelievable as some of it seems at times) and appropriately gritty and moody. It’s the sort of game that isn’t going to change the world, but does provide some fairly decent entertainment for a little while.

A Hungrier, Toothier Kirby – The Maw

I beat Deadlight quicker than I thought I would, and still needed something to play! To satiate this hunger, I turned to The Maw, which is, like Deadlight, a PC port of an XBLA game. This time, however, you play a small blue alien who befriends a small purple alien shortly before the ship on which you are both imprisoned crash-lands. The blue alien finds a handy laser lasso gauntlet thing, and accompanies the purple alien, a walking eyeball and mouth called Maw, on a journey to do… something. Though there are parts where they have to outwit their former captors, it’s never made very clear what the protagonists’ specific goal is.

This transformation power, which only appears once, is my favorite.The Maw is a neat little piece of platforming goodness—the kind of lower-budgeted, but still polished, work you’d commonly see released on disk form throughout the PS2 era. The lasso gauntlet is the main character’s means of interacting with Maw and the various creatures and objects within the world they’ve crashed onto. Maw itself grows as it eats and, much like a certain famous pink puffball, can gain different appearances and abilities if it consumes certain creatures; for example, a large horned beetle enables Maw to do a ramming move, which can destroy boulders and surpass certain obstacles. There are only a handful of these moves, but the small number of them makes sense given the game’s brief length.

Unlike many other, older platformers, the challenge is dialed down a bit. There are no lives, and respawning takes you back pretty much to exactly the same spot you were at when you died (for example, structures that you had destroyed before will remain destroyed). This being the case, it makes me wonder why it’s been made possible to die to begin with. Although it lessens some frustration, it’s still a very odd design choice.

The version of The Maw that I played included all of the DLC levels, which were omitted scenes interspersed throughout the campaign. While this is a nifty use of DLC, for the most part, they stuck out like a sore thumb in that they tended to be longer and more intricate than the “regular” stages.

Aside from some camera issues when Maw gets to be on the big side, a soundtrack that’s sometimes too repetitive, and the aforementioned issues regarding the difficulty and DLC, there’s really nothing bad I can say about this game. It’s just long enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome, it controls well, it’s stable, and it’s enjoyable. For a lot of games, I couldn’t ask for much more than that.