Just got back from Portland yesterday. It was an exhausting trip, filled with plenty of walking and foodie’s food. I had wanted to write this post either right before or during the trip, but a lack of sleep got in the way. However, I managed to catch up, somewhat, last night, so here I am.
To start off with, at the beginning of this month, I beat Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abbadon, an action RPG which has one of the longest titles of any game I’ve ever played. In terms of both gameplay and plot, it was better than the first Raidou game, which I beat earlier in the year. New features—such as the ability to summon two demons at once; better accessibility to the Gouma-den, where new demons can be fused; and a negotiation system which, despite its usual tediousness, is the best I’ve seen in all of MegaTen—were quite welcome, though some repetitive elements stood out as the game’s greatest flaws. By that, I don’t mean the reuse of much of the previous game’s assets, which I didn’t mind at all. Rather, what bothered me was the overdone recapping, and even more, the obviousness with how the story’s branches were handled. Every so often, roughly once a chapter, a character would ask a rhetorical, philosophical question that basically asked Raidou to choose between revolution and the status quo. The answers to these ham-fisted questions don’t matter until the very end of the game, and even then, there is one final barrage of inquiries right before the branching path is settled upon. Despite these nitpicks, Raidou 2 was a decent game, though hardly the best MegaTen I’ve played.
A few days afterward, I finally finished reading a manga series which I had first sampled over fifteen years ago: Barefoot Gen. My first experience with Gen came with a copy of Volume 2, picked up cheaply at a certain bookstore in Philadelphia. Some years later, I picked up a used copy of Volume 3, but I didn’t buy any more of the series until last year, when I picked up the first and fourth volumes. Around then was when I learned that my older volumes were heavily abridged, and that the current edition, published by Last Gasp, is complete and uncut. Therefore, I repurchased volumes 2 and 3, and, later on, the last six books as well.
A semi-autobiographical tale inspired by mangaka Keiji Nakazawa’s childhood, Barefoot Gen tells the story of Gen Nakaoka, an elementary school-aged boy who survives the atomic bombing of his hometown, Hiroshima. By the end of the first volume, the bomb has dropped, and the story truly begins. Subsequent volumes find Gen making new friends, being discriminated against, and raging at not just the Americans who dropped the bomb and occupied Japan, but the Japanese Emperor and politicians who were so eager to wage war in the first place. It is, as noted in the always excellent ANN column House of 1000 Manga (spoilers in link), an angry manga, and sometimes, especially toward the end, Gen’s anger gets to be a little too much. The last few volumes are rather tedious at times, even as it explores the Japanese side of things during the Korean War; as a sign of the plot wearing thin, the final tragedy that befalls Gen and his group is one which, startlingly, doesn’t have much of a direct tie to the atomic bomb. Gen is also a violent manga; atomic bomb aside, it hews to the shonen manga tropes of its time, with lots of hitting and fighting, often between adults and children. Despite its pacifist message, seeing Gen so eager to physically fight people who dismiss his anti-war views is more than a bit disarming. Also, without giving anything away, in one of the later volumes Gen does something in the name of his personal philosophy that is so lacking of empathy and maturity it’s astounding. It’s an important manga, probably the best I’ve ever read about Japan during that era, but it’s also rather dated, and at least one of the included forewards was undesirably diversionary from the manga’s basic premise. It might’ve helped if the manga was broken up into chapters, as they were originally serialized, but instead, the manga flows together as one long story, broken up only by its separation into ten books. I recommend the first few volumes, but if you don’t want to stick with it after that, I really couldn’t blame you.
After Gen was wrapped up, and between new volumes of Nisekoi (aka the harem manga for people who normally dislike harem manga) and the always charming and hunger-inducing What Did You Eat Yesterday?, more games were played! I started, and am still playing, a Japanese copy of Picross DS, which I picked up on the cheap during Play-Asia’s annual Spring Sale. There’s nothing much to say about it besides that yeah, it’s Picross, though the zoomed-in 15×15 puzzles took me a little getting used to, not to mention the menus in a language that I can’t understand very much of. Right now, I’m currently stuck on a couple of flower-themed puzzles in Normal mode, though I’m sure I’ll push through them soon enough.
I also cranked through a few short games on Steam. First up was Escape Goat, a room-based puzzle game a la Adventures of Lolo and Toki Tori. It’s a solid entry in this genre, structured to encourage experimentation, and with precise controls and well-designed, if sometimes frustrating, puzzles. If you like this sort of game, as I do, you’ll like Escape Goat—enough said.
Second was Octodad: Dadliest Catch, whose controls were the opposite: intentionally difficult to master. This game, about an octopus trying to live as a normal suburban father in a nuclear family, revels in the ridiculous. Everyday tasks, such as mowing the lawn or picking out the perfect apple at the supermarket, are much harder when your arms and legs are tentacles and you want to blend in with actual humans. The story takes some interesting turns, and although I felt somewhat partially robbed of my final victory due to where a certain object landed, I found Octodad to be a neat little game overall. The pair of included bonus episodes were worth playing through as well.
The third short game I played through before leaving for Portland was the shortest and least interactive of the bunch: a wordless visual novel called A Bird Story. Produced by the developer of To the Moon, this is a similarly sentimental journey. In it, a young boy, who goes through the motions at school and is interested in flight, rescues a bird. It’s kind of cloying at times, and because of that, whether or not you’d like this would depend on your natural tolerance for such things. Thankfully, the length is just right, and most everything about it is simple and straightforward.
Now that I’m back, and catching up on my sleep, I think I’ll continue going through some other short games in my backlog, which I may or may not write about here. I also picked up Legend of Dungeon again recently, which has improved since the last time I played it, thanks to some patches. It’s now not as unfair as before, though it still lacks some of the refinement and balance of better roguelikes. Goat Simulator is also in my “Now Playing” list, though I’m not sure when I’ll go back to it.
I also may start the last unplayed PS2 game I have left in my backlog (if you don’t count Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, which I’ve put up for sale): Sakura Wars: So Long My Love. I may start that this week, depending on how I feel; we’ll see. At any rate, it’ll definitely get played sometime soon.
Our Wii has been getting a decent amount of playing time these past few months. First there was Chrono Trigger‘s much celebrated arrival on Virtual Console. At the time of its purchase, I also got Toki Tori, an environmental puzzler I’d been meaning to pick up for awhile. Later on, Kirby’s Epic Yarn gave me a nice respite from JRPGs, and not too long afterward, Shiren the Wanderer marked the end of my break.
I didn’t play Chrono Trigger, seeing as how my most recent playthrough was only just last year, via the DS port. Instead, my husband dove into this personal favorite of both of ours (ironically enough, we had named our Wii “Marle” when we had first gotten it). It is, like other Virtual Console offerings, the original game with nothing else added on, warts and all. Therefore, instead of the rich, fleshed-out DS localization, the original Ted Woolsey script is in full effect here. I have no problem with these old Woolsey localizations; the rushed Secret of Mana notwithstanding, he did a bang-up job given the restrictions he had to work with. The G-rated references to “juice” and “lemonade” in bar scenes are pretty silly to our adult selves, though. Localization aside, one interesting thing my husband pointed out in his playthrough was how similar the boss battles are in terms of the number of targets, how they act, and how they must be handled. This lack of diversity is one of the game’s weaker points, and only obvious to us now.
Oh, and before I forget, Chrono Trigger looks magnificent on an HDTV, especially those huge boss sprites. Not to mention the ending which was, this time around, one that neither of us had ever seen before. It was a fun playthrough to watch, and we even learned some new tricks; thanks to RPG Classics’ comprehensive Chrono Trigger shrine for those.
While he was playing Chrono Trigger, I started Toki Tori, and alternated between that and Final Fantasy Tactics A2 in my regular game-playing. Toki Tori is a remake of a Game Boy Color title; it has the same puzzles, apparently, but all new graphics and control options. The goal of the game, a 2D puzzler starring a squat yellow bird, is to collect all the eggs in each stage. There isn’t a time limit, but the bird can’t jump, plus there are restrictions on special moves and items. It’s possible to beat some stages with items to spare, but most of the time, I found myself coming up with solutions that neatly used everything at my disposal. The difficulty ramps up a bit in the final set of stages, which take place underwater and includes a new, albeit limited, floating action.
The WiiWare version favors the Wiimote, with not too much prompt-wise in either the documentation or the game itself for those of us who prefer the Classic Controller. Also, with its forty stages (not including tutorials), it feels shorter than it should be for a game of this type. Still, despite these quibbles, not to mention a rather… unexpected ending, Toki Tori is fun and worth checking out for puzzle fans.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn was the next game to keep the Wii busy. Although I haven’t played the entire series, I have loved Kirby games since the very first one on the original Game Boy. This particular entry might just be the best one of all. Many Kirby hallmarks are present—capturing and using enemies as projectiles, tons of collectables, and an optional co-op mode for starters—but Kirby cannot fly (under normal circumstances), his more elaborate transformations are context-sensitive, and there are no lives, just ways to lose a ton of beads. These differences are just that—differences—and in no way lessen the “Kirbyness” of the game. In general, this is a tightly-designed Kirby with many inspired implementations of its fabric-based theme and one of the best soundtracks ever recorded for a platformer. Only the final boss battle, which could’ve been bigger and better, disappointed, and even then only a little. Currently, even though I’ve beaten it, there’s still tons of doodads to collect (most of which can be used to decorate “Kirby’s Pad” in the hub world), minigames to tackle, and high scores to beat. I expect to be playing this, on and off, for some time yet.
Finally, there’s Shiren the Wanderer, which I came to neglect FFTA2 in favor of. As in the DS port of the original Shiren, we’re in the shoes of the titular silent protagonist, who has come to a strange new land chasing legends and treasure. This time around, his party members are old colleagues, one of which is with you from the beginning. These party members can also be directed to do certain actions, or even controlled individually. Also different this time is how the dungeons are presented. Instead of having to go through the entire thing in one straight line (with breaks along the way in the form of towns), multi-level dungeons are given to you in chunks with as few as three floors and as many as twenty-five, and typically with a brief boss fight at the end. Upon completing most of these, Shiren and his friends not only get to keep their money and items, but their levels as well. If you die, however, you will have all of your non-stored stuff taken away (in Normal mode, anyway) and your levels reset to what they were before you entered that dungeon.
The story this time around is a bit more complicated, not to mention convoluted, with a legendary mansion and mysterious girl as its centerpieces. It all made sense by the end—well, most of it—but the story is mere window dressing for the randomly-generated and sometimes devilish dungeons. As for the other trappings, the music is decent and the graphics are sometimes ugly, but generally okay. This goes for the animation as well, though the slidiness of the characters’ (especially the ferret Koppa’s) walks in non-dungeon areas can be distracting.
That’s it for the Wii games for awhile. Since this Wii binge started, Final Fantasy III (aka FFVI) came out on Virtual Console (on my birthday, no less!) and was promptly purchased, though I have no idea when either of us are going to start it. I also have a few disk-based Wii and Gamecube titles in my backlog. However, the almost-beaten FFTA2 has been neglected for some time now and there’s a decently-sized pile of games for other systems still to play. Time to get crackin’.
Yes, I’m back. My main excuse for dropping the ball on this blog for so long was my cross-country move back in early April. It was quite a production, as you can probably imagine, and even now we’re still unpacking, buying new furniture, and generally settling in. Even with a bunch left to do, I feel as though life has only recently started to get back to normal. I’ve even had time to play some games.
In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do with this blog. My personal blog at LJ is pretty much dead, and I thought about moving it somewhere else, but at the same time, I’m not 100% happy with Brainscraps either. Right now, the plan is to experiment with some non-gaming posts here, making it a more general blog, just with a heavy emphasis on gaming. Thoughts and/or opinions, if anyone has ’em, are appreciated.
Now, as I said before, I’ve been playing games again recently. After pretty much stopping all my gaming in early March in order to pack and do other moving-related things (with a few, scattered sessions here and there), I picked up where I left off in Rune Factory 3 in late April. Since then, I’ve beaten it, and soon followed it up with Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes and the single-player campaign in Portal 2. I have been wanting to write about all three (well, mainly just Rune Factory 3 and Portal 2), but didn’t have the usual luxury of spacing my posts, so I’m doing the mini-review thing again. Here we go…
Rune Factory is one of my favorite game series of all time. A sublime blend of Harvest Moon‘s farm-based management (and dating) sim and a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler, it is heaven for those of us who like both types of gameplay. However, coming from Harvest Moon roots, it has not been without its hiccups along the way, including glitches, translation errors, and odd bits of game design. Thankfully, the series noticeably improves with each new entry, and Rune Factory 3 is certainly no exception, as it is the most enjoyable one yet.
The premise is very similar to what we have seen before: hero with amnesia, girl in a small town who gives him a farm to work on, etc. This time around, though, said hero is half-monster, with the ability to transform into a Wooly (the Rune Factory universe’s version of sheep), and said heroine is actually likable. All of the other bachelorettes in the game are interesting as well, with personalities that become fleshed out over the course of their sidequests. By the time I was ready to propose to the girl of my choice, I had maxed out the “love meter” for nearly all of the girls, mainly because I simply wanted to know more about them. On top of that, I liked the other townsfolk as well. Overall, the character development in Rune Factory 3 is outstanding, and a standard that all future games in the series should build upon.
The game’s mechanics have received some spit and polish as well. The farming system has been overhauled for both greater flexibility and greater challenge. Likewise, crafting is no longer the headache it once was, and rare items are now used in leveling up your existing equipment, and not much more than that. Meanwhile, the story progression is set up such that you don’t have to guess your way to the next event, but the player can still take things at their own pace.
Though we have yet to see how the localized Rune Factory Oceans—sorry, Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny—will turn out, for the time being, if you’re at all interested in the series but can only play just one of them, this is the one to play. Despite the occasional technical (or textual) hiccup, I wholeheartedly recommend this game to my fellow simulation and dungeon crawler fans.
In between battles, things look a bit less puzzley.
And now for an entirely different sort of RPG, but no less unique; one set in the world of a Western series, and with turn-based tactical puzzle elements. Clash of Heroes is, as I understand it, something of a departure from your traditional Might & Magic, a series which I know nothing about. Despite my ignorance, it stood well enough on its own as a single entry, and one which I found rather enjoyable.
The campaign is fairly short for an RPG—roughly twenty hours—but that’s as much as this game needs, as there wouldn’t be any real added benefits to additional grinding, what with the low level caps and hard limits on how many units one can have on the field. Each of the game’s main characters is played in turn, and each of their “chapters” progresses similarly to each other, save for the final one, what with its love of multiple boss battles in a row without opportunities to save between each one. Back at the very beginning, the tutorial stuff is handled well enough, but stumbles when it comes to explaining the unlocking and acquisition of special “Elite” and “Champion” units. As for the story, it’s your standard save-the-world fare with conspiracies and a magical MacGuffin. So, the non-battle campaign stuff is, in a nutshell, average and a little rough around the edges.
The battle system in Clash of Heroes is similarly unpolished, but quite a bit of fun. Using the match-three puzzle genre as a point of inspiration, battles take place by lining up color-coded troops into horizontal (defensive) or vertical (offensive) formations. Only the units at the very end of rows can be picked up and moved around; others can just be deleted. As in your typical puzzle game, chains can be created by pulling off the right moves, with the reward being additional actions for that turn. It’s a system that takes some getting used to (especially when doing the optional “puzzle” boards), and there are obvious balance issues with some of the units, but in general it works.
Said balance issues are supposed to have been fixed in the XBLA version of this game (I played the original one on DS), but I don’t know how much else was tweaked. Certainly, it’s an okay time-killer if you can get it at a decent price, and for me, not a bad way to add some variety to an already RPG-heavy backlog. After beating it, though, I was ready to move on.
Rounding out this post filled with strange genres is the sequel to gaming’s most beloved first-person environmental puzzler black comedy. This is—so far—the only big new “hardcore” game I have been interested in this year, and thankfully, it lived up to the hype. In this return trip to Aperture Laboratories, test subject Chell once again has to deal with the artificial intelligence GLaDOS and solve her way through chambers and corridors filled with endless amounts of Science. A chatty supporting player, the orb Wheatley, is along for the ride this time, and as in the first game, the environments are characters of their own.
Having gone through the original Portal twice (as well as the tough fan-made Flash Version Mappack after playthrough no. 2), I didn’t have as much trouble thinking my way through the environments in this sequel, even with a handful of new gimmicks thrown into the mix. The one time when I did take a hint to move forward, it was to a problem whose solution wasn’t very obvious; also, it was given to me in a natural manner in-game, reflective of the immersive approach Valve has (once again) employed in this world. There are some things in the environments that either feel gamey or don’t make much sense in the grand scheme of things, messing with the immersion, but they are few. Still, though, I feel that the original Portal did a slightly better job in this area. The wonder—and dread—that I felt playing through Portal were strong enough that I can still recall them; I had no such strong emotional reactions with Portal 2, save for a certain pair of moments, both of which were not driven by the overall environment, but mainly just the audio.
I don’t know if Portal 2‘s bigger, shinier, more mainstream approach is responsible for this less immersive experience, but I do feel that it has contributed to the lowered difficulty curve. There were certain puzzles in Portal that required damn good timing, and there’s quite a bit less of that this time around. Timing is still important in certain instances, but even then the game is more lenient, asking you to rely more on your own cleverness. Going through each individual area has become less about accomplishment and more about seeing what happens next.
Portal 2 is very good indeed (or at least the single-player campaign is. As of this writing, I haven’t done any of the cooperative stuff), but gaming magic is not something that can be easily replicated, especially in a sequel. If you loved the original and wouldn’t mind a longer sequel with more story and fewer mentions of cake, there is much to like in Portal 2. However, it’s a bit like StarCraft 2 in its polished approach, and it’s missing of that intangible something that made its predecessor go beyond the realm of “very good” and into “classic”.
Special Stage: Because of the move, I didn’t make it to PAX East this year. Instead, the plan is to go to PAX Prime, and indeed, we’re all booked for that trip and ready to go. There, we hope to witness the fourth “season” of Canon Fodder. The Season Three roundup is here, and sadly, not as entertaining a read as past summaries, mainly because there’s video attached this time.
P.S. to Kotaku (and various other gaming news outlets): There is no dash in “Square Enix”. None. I don’t care how silly or serious the article is, you’re embarrassing yourselves (not that that’s hard for you all). I’ve read way too many press releases, visited way too many of their sites, and bought way too many of their products to know for a fact that there is no dash in “Square Enix”.
Shadow of the Colossus annoyed me. It was a very atmospheric game, the control scheme was inventive, and the animation was satisfyingly realistic, but there was one thing about it that broke the immersion for me: the hints given to you by the game’s god-like being, Dormin, if you happen to take awhile figuring something out. There was no way to turn them off, at least in the first playthrough (I tried), which made the whole situation worse, especially since SotC‘s excellent predecessor, ICO, didn’t drop hints at all. If there’s one thing that irks me, it’s a game that doesn’t trust its player.
Recently, though, I’ve thought about it some more and came up with a story-related explanation for these unwanted hints: the protagonist character, Wander, is a fucking moron.
I haven’t been doing much gaming lately, as I’ve been feeling under the weather. Because of that, I’ve put off beating Digital Devil Saga 2 (though I started playing again this weekend and hope to wrap it all up shortly); I like being fully awake and non-headachey for RPGs, especially those I’ve never beaten before. I did start Klonoa 2: Dream Champ Tournament, but am currently stuck on a part that, again, I want to be in a clearheaded state to play, otherwise I just know that I’ll never get through it. Oh, and I gave up on Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, convinced that Sonic Team hates me.
Not wanting to put any more time into DDS2 yesterday, and not wanting to touch Klonoa, last night I dug out the GBA I bought awhile back and the cart of Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 that had arrived not too long ago. Back in the day, when my sister and I were kids, the only way we could play many games was through our friends and cousins. However, my sister did get a Game Boy as a gift at some point, and her small library of games included Kirby’s Dream Land, The Lion King (which stank), and Wario Land. Kirby is good, but I’ve no desire to play it again, as the games which followed in the series give me my nostalgia fix well enough, even though I’ve no particular attachment to said games.
On the other hand, I have never derived such satisfaction from later Wario platformers, so instead of giving more of those a chance, I went right back to the source, which I hadn’t played in at least fourteen years. Playing through a handful of levels last night, what I was most amazed by was how much I’d remembered. This wasn’t a case where I could get through every single level easily, knowing where every single enemy and hazard was. Rather, familiarity was at work. It’s like going back to a place which hasn’t changed much over the years and being able to pick out even the most insignificant landmarks. Only thing is, here, the landmarks are things like Wario’s pith helmet, the Sugar Pirates, the item blocks with the eyes on them, the skull doors, the 10 coins, the bottles which give Wario special abilities, and the ways in which they and many other elements all come together.
So yeah, it’s a real nostalgia trip, unlike any other I’ve ever had, probably due to the length of time since I last beat it and now. The one thing that’s bugging me at the moment is a small crumb caught between the GBA’s screen and the glass layer on top of it, which I won’t be able to get rid of without a special type of screwdriver (I’m looking into borrowing one). Funny thing is, even though I can be picky about things like that, so far it hasn’t lessened my enjoyment of Wario Land.
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Storytelling can be a rather contentious subject in modern video games. Not all games have or need stories, but many of those that do seem to be carefully scrutinized by those looking to justify gaming as an art form. Part of this is due to gaming’s inferiority complex, which explains the film and literature comparisons that get thrown around every so often. However, I believe that the best game stories, the ones which gamers should be holding the most dear, take advantage of the medium in ways unique to it.
The most important thing separating game stories from other types is that they typically utilize second-person perspective. While stories in other media tend to be first-person or third-person, second-person narratives are extraordinarily rare. Games, on the other hand, use second-person all the time: you are the main protagonist, and it is through you that the story takes place. Though third-person perspectives are sometimes interlaced with second-person ones through the use of cutscenes, second-person seems to be video games’ POV of choice.
Seeing as how this is the case, and coupled with the interactive nature of the medium, the types of stories best-suited for games are ones told through the environment and incidental events, with the “you” character left fairly open to interpretation. You play an protagonist who, at the beginning of the game, finds themself in a new and unfamiliar situation. Your final goal, though not obvious at first, can be anything from escaping confinement to saving the world, but when initially presented with your surroundings, the first thing you do is either explore them on your own, or do so while following a guide of some sort. Through these explorations, the world and the characters and things within it begin to tell the second-person “you” the story, and you are drawn in, becoming not only involved in the tale, but central to it.
This approach to game storytelling is at the heart of Cave Story, which begins in a small, nondescript chamber. By opening a door and wandering through caverns, you eventually find your way to a small village, which is where the story begins in earnest. Said story is dripped out in little bits—a mention of the Doctor here, some flower petals there—and relies little on deux ex machina devices and third-person cutscenes. What results is a meaty tale with little fat or gristle to unnecessarily add to the weight.
Environmental second-person storytelling is also at the heart of Portal. Here, the voice of an artificial intelligence guides you along through a series of laboratory tests. However, the real story is told through independent exploration conducted during the process of figuring out the tests’ puzzles. This not only gives the player a break from an otherwise rigid, linear experience, but enhances it as well.
One game which has been held up on a pedestal by the Games As Art crowd is Shadow of the Colossus, and on the surface, it appears to hold to the same narrative structure as Portal. However, there is a distinct reluctance by the game to trust the player. First off, subtext is primarily handled with cutscenes rather than through the player’s own discoveries; the only pieces of the story the player has an active role in is through the killing of the titular Colossi. There’s also the fact that the god-figure will start to offer hints if the player seems to be taking a long time to figure something out (and annoyingly enough, this feature can’t be turned off). The hand-holding at the beginning of the game, in the form of brief control tutorials which come along as necessary, is truly helpful and not too invasive, but the god-figure’s hints take helpfulness to new extremes. These quirks, and the latter one in particular, break the immersion and remind the player that they are not the protagonist but rather a person playing a game, thus lessening the potential strength of the narrative.
Most story-driven games don’t (or can’t) follow the same approaches that Cave Story and Portal do, and instead make use of compromises. These could be anything from a silent protagonist, to branching paths and multiple endings, to an “open world” structure. This is not necessarily a bad thing—some of my favorite games use such compromises to great effect—but to me, an ideal game story is one that can’t be told quite the same way in another medium. A good narrative that relies heavily on cutscenes and handholding is one that might as well be translated into a television show or graphic novel. On the other hand, one that encourages and rewards exploration and experimentation is one that I would be loathe to revisit in a form other than a game.