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2016 Gaming Selections

Here’s my top ten games played in 2016, presented in the order in which I played and/or beat them. Following each title is the developer/author, the platform I played the game on, the release year on said platform, and a little bit about why it has made this list. As with last year’s Selections, these games aren’t ranked, except for my personal Game of the Year and its runner-ups (the entries this time are a little less wordy, however). I have also added some Honorable Mentions at the beginning, since I played a lot of good stuff this year and didn’t want to overlook certain titles. Anyway, let’s get to it…

Honorable Mentions
Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure – for its appealing main character, and being the type of “b-game” that lingers in my mind long after finishing.
Firewatch – for its incredible sense of place, and realistic characters.
Bravely Default – for its masterful battle and character customization systems, and outstanding art direction.
Pokemon Blue Version – for being a deeper-than-expected foundation, and Professor Oak’s nephew, the antagonist I loved to hate more than any other this year.
Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice – for returning the series to form, and bringing the “Justice Trilogy” to a satisfying conclusion.

There’s also a few great games which I played this year but didn’t beat or play enough of to consider for this list: Spelunky, Project CARS, and Picross 3D Round 2.

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Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition (PS4 version shown)Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition
Blizzard Entertainment | Xbox 360 | 2014
Playing a Diablo-style action RPG on a console, with my co-op partner sitting right next to me, is a wonderful experience I wish I could have more often. What’s most remarkable is that it happened with an actual Diablo game. The story is typical Metzen Cheese™, but told within suitably epic trappings and with a satisfying loop of fight and loot. For a console version of a very PC-centric game, the controls are remarkably good as well: somewhat complex, but thought out well enough that they soon become second nature. I do wish there was more variety in the loot available in the Resurrection of Evil expansion, and there’s only so much Metzen Cheese™ one can take at a time, but if you’re looking for a solid couch co-op game, this is one which I highly recommend.

Kero BlasterKero Blaster / Pink Hour / Pink Heaven
Studio Pixel | Windows | 2015
Pixel’s follow-up to his masterpiece Cave Story is a run-and-gun shooter with a slightly more whimsical tone. In this outing, a frog gets teleported out onto the field to complete cleanup missions for his employer, but in the meantime, a problem manifests itself in the boss’ office. Despite the switching up of genres, the action should be familiar to anyone who has played Cave Story, and even improves on it in some small, but welcome, ways. Kero Blaster is, flat-out, a joy to play, and its two free tie-in games, Pink Hour and Pink Heaven, are worth checking out as well.

NiGHTS into Dreams...NiGHTS into Dreams… / Christmas NiGHTS
Sonic Team | Windows | 1995-96 (Windows port: 2012)
NiGHTS is the strangest game I played all year. It’s a mascot platformer with not much use for platforms; instead, the title character flies and floats around dense dreamscapes. I found the game disorienting at first, but once I got the hang of things, it was like nothing else. It is also not as difficult as certain similar games of its era, so despite one or two frustrating bits, I was able to beat it. One of the bonus features in the PC version of NiGHTS is Christmas NiGHTS. More than just a reskin of NiGHTS‘ opening areas, it is a charming demo with a standalone story and plenty of holiday spirit.

UndertaleUndertale
tobyfox | Windows | 2015
I don’t know what’s left to say about Undertale at this point. The characters are marvelous and true to life, and the plot slots them into archetypal JRPG roles in interesting ways (this is particularly true of Alphys). There is humor galore, from meme-ready running gags, to more traditionally funny scenes, to a certain unexpected and hilarious parody. There is also tons of heart, in several ways. Its fandom is crazy about this game and after one playthrough, and then another, it became easy for me to see why.

Doom (1993)Doom
id Software | Windows | 1993-95 (via Doom 3: BFG Edition, 2012)
Playing Doom—and beating all of its episodes for the first time—ended up being more than just a nostalgia trip. Despite the lack of modern niceties such as aim assist, weapon customization, and jumping, it plays just as well, and is as enjoyable and engrossing, as back in ’93. The only real low point is Episode IV, first introduced in The Ultimate Doom and included here, but even that would be a solid set of maps in most any other FPS. Doom is, and always will be, just that good.

Bejeweled 3Bejeweled 3
PopCap Games | Windows | 2010
A modern classic of match-three puzzling, with a sufficient amount of strategic depth and wealth of variant modes to keep things interesting, from the frantic (Ice Storm) to the relaxing (Poker). The epic music and voice-over were unintentionally funny to me at first, but after spending many hours switching gems around, I can’t imagine the game without them. Bejeweled 3 ended up hooking me so much that it became one of a small number of PC games which I felt compelled to get all the achievements in.

Catlateral DamageCatlateral Damage
Chris Chung/Fire Hose Games | Windows | 2015
If you ever need something cathartic—no pun intended—to play for a few minutes or longer, I heartily recommend Catlateral Damage. It’s a first-person cat simulator where the goal is to knock everything onto the floor. The main campaign is short, but there is a decent amount of stuff to do and see, including some nifty themed maps, unlockable cat photos and playable cats, cat toys that grant stat boosts, and special limited-time events, like low gravity and chasing laser pointer dots. Playing a misbehaving cat is, as it turns out, an enjoyable way to pass some spare time.

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Pokemon GOThird Place
Pokemon GO
Niantic/The Pokemon Company | iOS | 2016
Looking at this strictly in terms of mechanics, and especially when it’s compared to its primary source of inspiration, Pokemon GO may be the worst game on this list. However, for me, it has also been one of the most engaging of the past year. There is something intriguing about going out into the real world to catch Pokemon and use them to fight at gyms. The team system encourages local rivalries, and periodic updates and special events have generally made the game better since it first launched. I currently have most of the Pokedex filled, plus a pretty beefy team of gym-fighting regulars, so I’ve lapsed a bit in my playing, but for much of the summer and fall, Pokemon GO proved to be a great way to get me out of the house for some simple exercise for an hour or three. If more second-generation Pokemon get added, I’d probably continue to do the same in 2017, since I’d love to see Skarmory, Marill, and other favorites in my ‘dex.

DOOM (2016)Second Place
DOOM
id Software | Windows | 2016
It feels odd to place this above the original Doom, which is one of the greatest and most important games ever made. However, in terms of how much I was captivated by each game I played this year, I feel that this new one deserves its place. It is, more than anything else, bone-crunching, and also metal, and at times quite witty. As a character, the Doom Marine is stellar, a silent first-person protagonist who brims with personality through mere eyelines and hand movements. The world he inhabits is sprawling, with some (mostly) cleverly hidden secrets, and incorporates the best ideas from all the previous numbered entries in the series and then some. The gameplay, and gunplay, is exhilarating, with one of my favorite parts being an ammunition and health drop system which, amongst other things, means one no longer has to hoard BFG ammo. It is everything I have loved about Doom made modern, and might be the finest single-player FPS campaign of all time.

Her StoryFirst Place: Game of the Year
Her Story
Sam Barlow | Windows | 2015
My Game of the Year was decided early on. Rarely have I come across a game narrative that’s so pulpy, with so many what the fuck moments as in Her Story. It is very, very difficult to talk about why this is without giving anything away, especially that one word I felt compelled to search for after watching a certain amount of video, that one word which means so much to the plot.

First, let’s back up a little. In Her Story, you are an unknown and unseen person who is sifting through interview clips stored on a long-neglected police database. You start with the word “MURDER”. The interviewee is the wife of the victim. To progress, searching for additional clips through keywords, piecing events together along the way, is key. However, even after seeing the clip needed to trigger the option to end the game, it’s hard not to keep going, and yet, some hard answers remain just out of reach. I’ve seen every single snippet of video in Her Story and am still not entirely sure of what has happened. This is a game tailor-made for people who enjoy theorizing over vague endings, and love mysteries in general.

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you may have noticed that I’m a stickler for good storytelling in games. Some of the games on this list, particularly Undertale and DOOM, have very good stories, but nothing like this. Her Story is a must-play achievement in narrative games, one that excels in both concept and execution.


Heaven, Hell, and Everything in Between

As far as beating games goes, this has been shaping up to be a somewhat productive summer. I’ve beaten seven games and two DLCs/expansions since my previous post, including a few titles I obtained during Steam’s annual Summer Sale. Right now, my biggest pickup from that sale, the much-lauded 2016 version of Doom, is sitting on one of my hard drives, having been freshly downloaded from Steam’s servers this past Tuesday.

Doom 2016 is one of my very rare triple-A indulgences, and a graphical beast; even on the lowest settings, the demo looked fantastic. There’s tons of options to tweak, as one would expect of a game from a storied PC developer like id Software, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the game itself will run on my (admittedly) offbeat PC gaming hardware of choice, a 2013 Mac Pro running Boot Camp. My little taste of it back in June was quite delicious, with a red-drenched palette and hints of the sort of over-the-top badassery one expects from the Doom franchise.

A typical sight in <i>Doom 3</i>.Before I could start Doom 2016, and after beating Doom II back in early May, I finished my tour of the older id-crafted parts of the franchise with Doom 3 and its companion pieces, “Resurrection of Evil” and the BFG Edition-exclusive “Lost Mission”. Doom 3 did well when it came to the look and feel of the weapons and enemies, but atmospherically, it was, for the most part, not Doom. The story took itself a bit more seriously than it had in Doom and Doom II—even the difficulty setting names were straight-laced—and on top of that, the shadowy environments and heavy emphasis on sound effects lent the game more of a horror feel, rather than the goofy action movie style I was used to (given this situation, the famed flashlight controversy is especially interesting). It was sort of like a scarier, less puzzley, and less wry Half-Life set in the Doomiverse. That’s not to say there weren’t any funny or adrenaline-pumping moments—there most certainly were—but Doom 3 stands out a little as an odd duck. It was a fun game, though, especially the last third or so, which includes the requisite trip to Hell. The two bonus campaigns retread some familiar ground, story-wise, but are also fairly decent, especially “Resurrection of Evil”; “Lost Mission” felt a little slapdash in comparison.

Before I wrapped up Doom 3, I defeated the final boss in a very different sort of game: The Guided Fate Paradox, a roguelike developed by Nippon Ichi for the PS3. It was a shrewd choice to be Nippon Ichi’s 20th anniversary title, not just because of its genre, but also its setting: Celestia, the angelic counterpart to the Netherworld where so many of the company’s games take place. In this particular entry in Nippon Ichi’s multidimensional canon, the player character is Renya, a high school student who wins the title of “God” in a shopping arcade lottery. Despite the wacky setup, much of the rest of the story, in which Renya fulfills prayers and wishes hand-picked by his team of angels, is played fairly straight, with very few forays into outright comedy. Some potential is there—an innuendous angel, a chuunibyou angel, a mission that involves helping zombies—but it never gets as comedic as many of the studio’s other works.

As for the story that is there, it’s a heaping pile of jargon-laden anime bullshit with a few entertaining bits here and there. Much of the game’s plot seems to exist solely to justify the mechanics of fighting, picking up items, leveling up, dying, and then doing most all of it over again from scratch. Other such games are happy enough hand-waving away the peculiarities of the roguelike format when it comes to storytelling, but The Guided Fate Paradox isn’t. In a way, I’m glad they took this approach, since it fits very well with Nippon Ichi’s house style, but there were times when it all felt a touch too complicated or serious for them. Despite all that, the dungeon crawling parts were mostly outstanding, with some neat chapter-specific gimmicks, snappy movement and attack speeds, loads of customization options (including some basic stats which can be improved permanently), and, save for a grindy endgame, a fair difficulty curve. If you like this sort of game at least as much as I do and can stomach or ignore the less-than-great story bits, The Guided Fate Paradox is worth a try.

<i>Evoland II</i>'s obligatory stealth section, complete with obligatory <i>Metal Gear Solid</i> reference.Other than that, I beat Pokemon Blue Version, ending my journeys through both Kanto and Pokemon’s origins. I also played Evoland II, which is both bigger and not as good in certain ways as its predecessor: though the plotting is amazingly thorough and most of the gameplay bits are solid, there’s too many superfluous references to other games and too much rambling dialogue (see this post I made in CAG’s current RPG Thread for more detailed impressions). As for some more of those aforementioned Summer Sale games, Witch and Hero was a nice and chaotic little J-indie nugget, Bejeweled 3 was (and continues to be) so very good, and DLC Quest was pleasantly goofy, if a little ugly to look at, and didn’t wear out its welcome.

As for stuff I’m still playing, besides trying to get the last two (very tough) achievements in Bejeweled 3, there’s Project CARS, Fantasy Life, and Pokemon GO. As I only typically buy one sim racer per generation, the PC version of Project CARS had a lot riding on it, but I’m enjoying its career mode thus far. It’s quite deep, but also very approachable thanks to its bevy of difficulty modifiers, which is great for filthy casual racing fans like myself. Fantasy Life is much like most any other game wholly conceived and developed by Level-5: beautiful, dense with variety, and with a story and world that’s pleasantly vanilla. Sometimes this latter point works against them, as it did for me with Professor Layton and the Curious Village, but the results here are a bit more mixed; I’m not quite sure what to make of it yet. Lastly, there’s Pokemon GO. As Pokemon games go, it’s one of the shallowest ever made, but the real world trappings are a neat novelty, and, at the very least, it’s getting me out and walking a bit more.

Soon, Doom 2016 will join that list. I’ve already been to Hell and back again with Doomguy a handful of times this year, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t looking forward to one more trip.


Braincrumbs: April’s Weekend Indies

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been trying to devote my weekends to playing through at least one indie game. I’ve stuck with that through April, though two of the games I played this month are, while made by small teams, technically not indie: the first is the most famous title from a storied Western developer, and the other, though lesser-known, is by one of Japan’s most celebrated makers of all-ages visual novels. Also, I didn’t actually start the former game during the weekend, but I digress. Without any further ado, here are those games for the month of April 2016, indie or not, weekend or not.

Filled with Determination – April 2-3:
Undertale (2015, tobyfox)

An early scene from <i>Undertale<i>.

Undertale starts off twee, but becomes more substantial later on.

So it seems that there’s some meat behind the hype after all. Beyond the memes and fanart-friendly skeletons lies a deconstruction of RPGs, specifically Japanese-style console RPGs, and the various tropes that inhabit them. The central conceit is an encounter system that allows, and encourages, the player not to attack their foe, but instead to communicate with them before showing mercy. This affects the directions that the story can go in, and certain future interactions with the subterranean world in which the game takes place.

The tone throughout much of Undertale is contemporary and humorous, with some nods to otaku subculture in particular, plus a few (and thankfully, only a few) fourth-wall breaking moments and overt references to other games. Undertale‘s most obvious antecedent is Earthbound, another story centered around a child on an unexpected journey, but fortunately, it has none of its spiritual predecessor’s blatant patronization nor its interface and inventory flaws. Cave Story seems to be another inspiration, in part due to the underground setting and relatable characters, as well as the MegaTen series, via its comparatively simple conversation system. However, it’s impossible to truly say “it’s like (blah) crossed with (blah)” in regards to Undertale; as a complete package, there’s nothing else quite like it. I highly recommend this odd yet rewarding indie morsel, and also that new players go in knowing as little about it as possible.

Hell is a Place on Deimos – April 11-14:
Doom (1993, id Software [via Doom 3: BFG Edition, 2012])

The end credits from the first episode of <i>Doom</i>.

Many modern indies don’t have teams this small!

Doom requires little introduction. Before the term “first-person shooter” became the norm, it ushered in the era of “Doom clones”, and has been made to run on anything and everything, including within itself. I got my first taste of Doom and its predecessor Wolfenstein 3D back in the summer of ’93, and it has held a special place in my heart ever since. However, I had never actually beaten the original Doom. Wanting to rectify this, and too tired at the time to play anything with a deep plot, I installed the “BFG Edition” of Doom 3 and fired up that oldie. It holds up, and then some.

Doom‘s sprawling, labyrinthine levels are, save for one or two badly-implemented sections, still some of the best ever made; the enemies have a good range of toughness and attack types; and the weapons all feel right. Also, despite Doom‘s dated controls—for example, horizontal-only mouselook and no jumping—they never feel limiting thanks to some smart design. The fourth episode, which was made sometime after the completion of the main three, is more unbalanced than the others, but the blemishes that it adds to the whole are minor. By the way, the story, which involves a space marine and a portal to Hell, is as silly a bit of fluff as ever.

Ephemeral Stars – April 17-18:
planetarian ~the reverie of a little planet~ (2004, Key [via English ver., 2014])

In this scene from <I>planetarian</i>, Yumemi describes a bug in her software.

Yumemi’s excuse for her chattiness boils down to buggy software.

For all of the talk about “walking simulators”, an older genre which is often more limiting when it comes to player interaction is visual novels. An even more restrictive form is the kinetic novel, which is like a VN but completely linear, with no decisions to be made and a single ending. This term originates from the developer Key, which is, appropriately, the maker of planetarian, my introduction to this sub-genre.

planetarian takes place is a post-apocalyptic world upon which pours an endless, poisonous rain. The nameless protagonist, a manly tsundere scavenger, comes across a well-preserved planetarium, maintained by an android named Hoshino Yumemi. She is a waifu-candidate type of moe character: unfailingly positive, eager to please, and with quirks intended to cross the line from annoying to charming. Key is famous for their sentimental stories, and in that respect, planetarian does not disappoint; the middle chapters in particular are a highlight. However, I found the melodrama to be mawkish at times, and the repetition of certain story beats didn’t seem to work as well as they would in a serialized format. Despite these issues, a handful of typos and some peculiar grammatical choices, and the rare bit of thesaurus porn (for example, “demesne”, which was used metaphorically), the story and localization were all right, but nothing truly special. On the whole, planetarian has some charms, but is most definitely not for everyone. At least I can say that I’ve experienced a Key visual novel now.

A Spirited Journey – April 23-24:
Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) (2014, Upper One Games/E-Line Media)

A lonely, icy landscape in <i>Never Alone</i>.

So far, Never Alone is one of the best-looking games I’ve played all year.

My final weekend game for this month was also the shortest. Never Alone, along with its DLC “Foxtales”, is a fairly straightforward platformer based on Native Alaskan folklore. The player characters are an Iñupiat girl and an arctic fox. A single player can easily control both of them, though there is a co-op mode as well.

The stories themselves, about an endless blizzard and a journey across water, are imaginative in a way that isn’t unexpected for traditional tales, and are more than suitable for a video game. Much of the puzzle-platforming is dependent on cued changes in the environment. While this works well enough in some sections, it feels slightly less so elsewhere, and some instances of clipping and slightly jerky animation don’t help. The checkpointing is fairly good, though, so there’s few frustrations to be had. I also must make note of the unlockable “Cultural Insight” videos, mini-documentaries about the Iñupiat people that are relevant to the game; as they provide a great deal of context about the game, they are worth checking out. It’s a well thought-out little game, despite its few flaws.

So, that about covers this month. I also played plenty of Diablo III and Bravely Default this month, and am currently nearing the ends of both of those; I’ve also recently started a replay of Doom II. As for what May will bring, I may cut back on the Weekend Indies for awhile and concentrate more on the longer games I have backlogged. We’ll see how it goes.


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.


Less Explaining, More Engaging

For the past week, I’ve been alternately too tired or too busy to play games. Right now I’m both, since my new desktop machine is due to arrive tomorrow and I still haven’t finished backing up the old one. I’m really looking forward to setting everything up once it gets here, but it’ll also be a little while before I settle into a normal routine again. Oh, and I still have some sleep to catch up on.

After beating Steins;Gate and a trip to see family, I settled back down in front of Steam and started up Frozen Synapse. However, it was more difficult than I had expected, plus the campaign’s story is a jargon-filled stew that, at its very core, isn’t novel enough to justify its complexity. Therefore, I put it aside and booted up Half-Life.

Barney sees that Gordon is on his way to work in <i>Half-Life: Blue Shift</i>.Protagonist Gordon Freeman is, like S;G‘s Okabe, a physicist involved with fantastical research, but that’s where their similarities end. Gordon is a professional as opposed to a mere student, talks way less (as in, not at all), and, I imagine, plays lots of Quake when he’s not working. The nature of his research at Black Mesa is barely explained and, after something goes wrong with the day’s experiment and the game begins in earnest, you’re only ever given as much information as you need. The narrative flows naturally in this way and, aside from the loading screens and occasional bug, so does the game itself. Half-Life is wonderfully designed (aside from the aforementioned bugs, plus the lack of a subtitle option) and doesn’t feel as old as it is; I was afraid that the graphics would be blockier and jaggier than they actually were. It’s obvious as to why it’s held in such high esteem.

Not long after wrapping up Gordon’s adventures (for now), I dug into two expansion packs, Blue Shift and Opposing Force, which has you play as Black Mesa security guard Barney Calhoun and US Marine Corporal Adrian Shepard, respectively. Even though it was made later, I played Blue Shift first; it was short and had a limited selection of weapons, but expanded on Half-Life‘s dry and dark humor, making for a light but yummy snack of a game. Opposing Force was meatier and the most difficult of the three that I played; it had some interesting new weapons and enemies, and both added to the original game’s story and echoed it in certain ways, or at least more than Blue Shift did. By the time I had wrapped it up, I was ready to take another lengthy break from first-person shooters. I’ve been meaning to start a JRPG of some sort (either a MegaTen game or Rune Factory 4), but have run into the whole tired/busy problem.

One of the many riveting Gunpla battles in <i>Gundam Build Fighters</i>.Instead of games, I’ve been spending my leisure time reading and, along with bitprophet, finally finishing up Gundam Build Fighters, the most recent anime in one of Japan’s biggest cash cow franchises. The premise of this show is even more commercialized than usual: instead of a story of war, politics, and giant mecha, here we have a lively tale of kids battling with Gundam plastic models (Gunpla) on special playfields where they’re brought to life. This type of story is not new to anime—it most reminded me of CLAMP’s Angelic Layer, which features battles between user-customized dolls instead of robots—but it’s new(ish) to Gundam, and was pulled off rather well. Once again, the scientific stuff—in this case, the technology behind the “Gunpla Battle” game—is barely touched upon; for most of the series, pretty much all we know is that the mysterious “Plavsky particles” make it possible. Rather, the important parts of the series are the characters, Gundam models, and the international tournament in which they all come together.

The core story involves Sei Iori, a boy who loves Gunpla and is a talented builder of them, but isn’t very good when it comes to the fighting aspect. One fateful day, he meets Reiji, a strange kid who, as it turns out, is very talented at Gunpla battling. The two of them team up with the goal of making it to the Gunpla Battle World Tournament. It’s worth noting that there was an earlier OAV series with a similar Gunpla-based focus, but Gundam Build Fighters is a wholly new story.

All of the characters, as cliched as they can act at times, are fun or at least interesting, and they’re lovingly drawn, with some of the best gag expressions I’ve ever seen in an anime series. The Gunpla battles themselves have a stunning level of care put into them, and are generally a treat to watch. As for the story, it’s predictable (and is basically one big commercial for real-life Gunpla), but this is one series where the journey is just as important—or perhaps moreso—than the destination. Some previous experience with the Gundam franchise is recommended, as not only are there tons of little bits of series fanservice, but it is also nothing like the other, more serious shows. Still, it’s a quality production and a lot of fun, and I hope it doesn’t ultimately get overlooked in favor of whatever shows are super-hot at the moment. If you’re in the US or Canada and want to check it out, the entire series is legally available on YouTube, fully subtitled in English.


E3, and a Gaming Update

I wasn’t excited for E3 this year. Of the games I knew that were coming out, there wasn’t much that I absolutely needed to see more of, and my anticipation for the as-yet-unannounced was low. It turns out that I was right to skip the Microsoft and Sony press conference streams, as there was practically nothing of interest to me in the liveblogs that I read (well, there was Halo 4, but I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers for it at the moment). The following day, I caved and watched Nintendo’s presser, but found it to be sorely lacking.

After several days’ worth of coverage, only one new game piqued my interest, and that was “Project P-100”, a crowd management action title, directed by Platinum Games’ Hideki Kamiya, that seems to have gotten barely any attention from the press at all. This game is similar to his earlier Viewtiful Joe in its Super Sentai aesthetic, and the basic concept of controlling a crowd that turns into weapons to beat giant villains is pretty awesome. The one thing about this game that came as a disappointment was that it is for WiiU, a system I don’t have any interest in getting. Other than that, and a welcome reminder that the 3DS Paper Mario exists and is on its way, there wasn’t anything for me.

In the meantime, I’ve been continuing on with my main personal goal for 2012: reducing my backlog as much as possible. April is the current record-holder month with seven games beaten, including one (Soul Nomad & the World Eaters) that took me nearly 45 hours, and the two Pinky:st DS titles that I reviewed in my previous post. Some highlights these past few months include the DS remake of Dragon Quest VI, massively moe and just plain charming doujin shop sim/dungeon crawler Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, bare-bones browser-based JRPG Parameters, fantastic expansion pack Tropico 4: Modern Times, and Pokemon White Version, which I’ve written about before and was top-notch all around.

There was also Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, played co-op with my Halo-detractor husband. We had a good time, playing the game with the new graphics and old soundtrack, though I have some quibbles regarding the former. The new maps are brightly lit compared to the original versions, which, along with the whole co-op thing, made the game’s scariest moment a bit less so. Also, some of the new character models were lacking, especially Sergeant Johnson and 343 Guilty Spark. More than anything, I’m now cautiously optimistic about Halo 4.

I also played a couple of platformers, namely The Legendary Starfy on DS and Ratchet & Clank for PS2. Starfy was a decent game with a lot of character, but it was also much wordier than I expected, with more cutscenes than is average for a platformer. Ratchet is not as good as its first-party brethren Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy and Sly Cooper & the Thievius Raccoonus and also has some irritating bugs. However, the weapon/gadget system at its heart is well thought-out, and the storytelling, which is similar in tone to Jak and Sly, is enjoyable enough.

There have been a smattering of others, including the two Izuna games, mystery dungeons with an emphasis on humor and fanservice, and, on the negative side, vague endings that lack so much as a credit roll or “The End” text before dumping the player into Postgame Territory. I also beat the puzzle game RUSH and attempted to play EDGE, but the bad controls and mediocre design of the latter led me to quit. Finally, over the weekend I played through Breath of Death VII, a parody RPG that resembles an early Dragon Quest and contains jokes and references that range from the silly to the sillier; despite some design quirks, it’s well worth a play if you love the genre.

That’s it for what I’ve beaten these past few months. As for what I’m actively playing right now, I’m approaching the end of “The Journey”, aka the main game in Persona 3 FES. This RPG has been unlike most others I’ve ever played, in a good way, and I hope to write about it at length later on. I’m also playing Dance Dance Revolution again (SuperNOVA 2, specifically); after a long ordeal, a couple of new, working pads arrived yesterday.

Once I wrap up “The Journey”, I plan to put Persona 3 FES aside for awhile before taking on the bonus episode “The Answer”. Right now, I’m considering starting de Blob 2 and/or Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 as my next game (or games). As usual, we’ll see.