Despite a nasty cold early in the month, January was fairly productive, gaming-wise. I started and beat seven games, both short and long, and started an eighth. That unfinished game is Etrian Odyssey V, the latest in Atlus’ cartographical dungeon-crawling series, which I had put off starting for a few months in order to focus on Holiday Card work. As of this writing, I’m close to the end of the first Stratum, and the difficulty is starting to feel more punishing. This is not to say that EOV is easier than past entries; I think I just had a good handle on what to expect from this series when I first stepped into this latest Yggdrasil Labyrinth.
One thing I’m really enjoying about EOV (besides the food-gathering and cooking, fantastic features which help cut down on trips back to town) is its back-to-basics approach. The previous two games in the main series introduced overworlds to explore between Strata, and in EOIV‘s case, I suspect that it was one reason why I was ultimately so bored with that game. EOV does away with such areas. Here, you’re in the labyrinth from the get-go, just like in the very first two games. While it’s a little odd to see this regression, it’s also quite refreshing. Hopefully, the game will continue to hold my attention as I ascend to new heights.
The first game I beat way at the beginning of January also involved dungeons. Fidel Dungeon Rescue, which is about a very good dog who sets out to save his kidnapped master, has its feet in both the turn-based dungeon crawler and environmental puzzler realms. Each room is a puzzle that can be solved in more ways that one, but the most optimal solutions have the greatest rewards, the best being the XP which helps Fidel level up, increasing his overall health. The game’s most prominent feature—and, at times, greatest obstacle—is the title character’s leash. Fidel’s leash drags behind him, leaving a trail of places you’ve been before, and can be quickly retracted to rewind time and try out a different set of steps. However, the catch is that no square can be touched more than once, which can lead to the leash feeling like a barrier if its placement gets in your way. It’s a simple but well-implemented system that, along with the generous time constraints and dungeon layouts, lends the game its challenge. Fidel took me a fair number of attempts to get through, and once I did, whole new sets of challenges appeared. I completed two of these before moving on.
Around the same time I started Fidel, I took up another, though very different, puzzle game: Alphabear: Hardcover Edition. This version is a “pay once” PC port of the mobile title Alphabear. To play, one has to arrange randomly-generated letter tiles into words, which are then assigned points based on each letter’s countdown timer as well as other factors, like which bears you equipped before starting that stage. Creating words eliminates the tiles used, which causes the bears around them to grow, leading to more points. Score enough points to gain new bears, level up existing ones, and/or unlock the next stage. The entire scoring system is… rather complicated.
Despite its cute, whimsical aesthetic and inventive gameplay, Alphabear‘s challenges can spike in difficulty without warning, and some are just about impossible if you don’t have the right rare bears in your arsenal. This was my situation with Chapter 4-2, so I went back to some older stages to level up the bears I had; I also unlocked at least one new one. After I got through that stage, which took quite a long time, there were one or two other tough spots, but none nearly as bad. The difficulty balance and/or the rare/legendary bear drop rates clearly need some refinement, but apparently, the game’s progression was tweaked today, so perhaps this complaint is moot now. It’s also free to play this weekend on Steam, so you might want to give it a go.
Anyway, because of those headaches, Alphabear was actually the third game I beat this year, since 4-2 led me to setting it down for awhile. The second was Danmaku Unlimited 2, which is another mobile port, as it turns out. If the title didn’t already give it away, this game is a vertically-oriented bullet hell shooter. Thankfully, the difficulty balance is perfect. As a casual shmup fan, I liked it so much that I reviewed it on Steam. It’s a lot of fun and very well made; there’s not much else I could’ve asked for.
A few days before starting Danmaku Unlimited 2, I picked up my 3DS and, with some reservations, started Kirby Triple Deluxe, which would later become my fourth game beaten in 2018. I say “with some reservations” since I didn’t like the last Kirby I played and was sure that I had become burnt out on the series. Roughly two years later, I was relieved to discover that Kirby, especially the standard Kirby formula of enemy-chomping and ability-obtaining that returns in Triple Deluxe, is still something I can enjoy. In addition to being a straight-up solid Kirby game, this entry also features some nice callbacks to previous titles in the series. The endgame is also surprisingly lengthy and tough. Like with Danmaku Unlimited 2, there isn’t much else to say about Kirby Triple Deluxe except that it’s very, very good if you’re into this sort of thing.
Another platformer was next up: Thomas Was Alone, which I received in a CAG Steam key trade. It’s a straightforward, puzzley game where rectangles and squares of varying abilities have to be delivered to specific points, much like Fidel, I and Me, and many other games. Controlling these objects is a little fussy, but the puzzles are generally well designed, albeit varying wildly in difficulty at times. What’s different this time around is the narration. Each of the quadrilaterals is given a name, personality, and motivation, making what would otherwise be a well-designed but bog-standard game into one bristling with life. Some are full of themselves, some start out with a bit less confidence than they find later on, and some, like Thomas, are mainly just happy to have companions. This is one of those Indie Games That Everyone’s Played that I ignored for a long time, and it seems that that was a mistake. Fortunately, it’s now a mistake that’s been rectified.
Finally, in wrapping up the month, I began my delve into Tale of Tales’ oeuvre via a Steam bundle I picked up during the last Summer Sale. Using the studio’s MobyGames page as a guideline for the release order, I started off with the oldest title in the collection. This was The Graveyard, an extremely short interactive black comedy. At least, that was how I read it, given what happens after the player guides the one controllable character, an old woman, to sit on a bench. To spoil what happens next: a jaunty song about death plays and then, at some random point, the old woman dies. The player can get up from the bench and leave the graveyard before the latter happens, but both of the times I tried to wait to do so after the song ended, she died.
After that, I moved on to The Path. Inspired by the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood”, The Path has the player controlling one of six red-themed sisters, all with different ages and personalites, on a walk to their grandmother’s house. Stay on the path, and the game will decide you are a complete failure, and you’ll have to start over again. Leaving the path—and in doing so getting lost and discovering new things, including the Wolf—is how to succeed at the game. Each girl can go on their journey in any order you wish, and they each have a different, horrible experience at Grandmother’s House after encountering their own personal Wolves. It’s an ambitious art game thick with metaphor, but is clearly ahead of its time in how it incorporates gaming conventions. Rather than ignoring things like scores and stats, which a modern game of this sort might do, The Path includes them, and even relies on them to a certain extent. I’m not sure that this was an entirely appropriate choice except as a pisstake at more mainstream games’ expense. Other than that, I found The Path to be an interesting experience.
And that’s it for January! Next up, besides more Etrian Odyssey V, are the rest of that Tale of Tales bundle and who knows what else. I’ve started February in a healthier spot than I did January—both literally and figuratively—but I also need to whittle down the number of JRPGs in my backlog. Right now, I have no idea if February will end with as many games beaten. As usual, we shall see.
Persona 5 has been great so far. The music and user interfaces are cool in a way that’s rare for other games. It also plays well, despite the inclusion of a Demon Negotiation system, aka the MegaTen series’ most tedious idea. As for the story, it has the expected combo of strong characterization and shock value, this time around with themes of obedience versus defiance. I’m currently more than thirty-six hours in, but given how much time I spent with the previous two games, there’s still a lot more to come.
Aside from that, I finally beat Pokemon Sun, though this victory was bittersweet. My team wasn’t quite in the shape I wanted it to be—my Decidueye and Solgaleo were a few levels above the others—but, not wanting to throw a match during my first attempt at the endgame battles, I continued on and became the Champion.
Though Pokemon Sun was great for the most part, there were a few lackluster elements. The story, themed around local traditions and wildlife conservation, started off slowly and with several dialogue-heavy cutscenes. However, by the time things picked up, this tale had become one of the best in the entire series. On a related note, Sun certainly has one of the better casts of characters in the world of Pokemon, with the goofy and energetic Professor Kukui and Team Skull’s underdog leader Guzma being two highlights. However, the most important cast member is Lillie, a somewhat timid girl who is neither a fellow Trainer nor someone particularly interested in Pokemon research, like most of the companions in the previous games. She journeys with a Pokemon called Cosmog, nicknamed “Nebby”, in the hopes of getting it home, and their journey frequently crosses paths with yours. By the time the story reaches its crescendo, however, both Lillie and Cosmog have taken on much larger roles; Pokemon Sun ends up being just as much about them as it is about the player.
Much else about the game is praise-worthy. The Hawaii-inspired Alola region is a nice change-of-pace after the staid Kalos from the previous gen, and the hip-hop misfits of Team Skull eventually became my favorite antagonistic group in the series. On the gameplay side, many of the traditional Pokemon trappings got an overhaul in Sun and Moon, and I feel that at least two of them could be worth holding on to for future installments. The first are the move-enhancing Z-Crystals, which replace the Badges won at certain points in the games, though certain types can also be obtained through other means. The second is the Ride Pokemon system, which replaces HMs, those moves that can be used out and about in the world to get to new areas. The Z-Crystals feel less like mere markers and more like useful prizes than the Badges ever did; plus it’s fun to see the Ride Pokemon in action, and freeing not to have to rely so much on specific Pokemon types to use HM moves.
As I implied before, Pokemon Sun isn’t perfect. Certain story-required battles are too repetitive, most of the Island Challenges are shorter and lack the puzzle-oriented fun of the old-style Gyms, and the endgame is bare-bones, even though this can be excused by certain quirks of the storytelling. It’s also a technically-demanding game, with some of the more intense moments slowing things down on my “old” 3DS XL. Still, I found it to be better than Pokemon X in a handful of ways, and maybe even one of the best games in the main series.
Besides Pokemon Sun, I beat a handful of other games since the beginning of March. The first of these was “Episode P4” in the Story mode of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, which I soon followed up with “Episode P3”. These two stories conclude the tale from the first Persona 4 Arena, but are a bit more underwhelming as well. Aside from the weird addition of Rise, the new playable characters featured in this mode are all fine, but both stories are hampered not only by sub-par plotting, but also a tough-for-toughness’-sake (but thankfully skippable) final battle. Sadly, this is the sort of direct sequel that might be better served by seeking out a Let’s Play.
Next was Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, the one game I claimed for free during Ubisoft’s 30th Anniversary celebration. I play open-world games very rarely and had no experience in the Far Cry series before, but found this to be all right. Taking over bases and hunting down collectibles feels a bit like busywork, the world lacks distinctive landmarks, and the graphics are a bit too dark in their most aesthetically-pleasing form. However, the missions are generally fun and story is funny and inspired—it’s an ’80s homage done right, capturing the feel of the era while only rarely breaking out specific pop-culture references. As a standalone bit of fluff, it got the job done. I’m glad I played it, though I’m also fine with taking another long break from open-world games after this.
My third game beaten in March was Quantum Conundrum, a first-person environmental puzzler and one of the hardest such games I’ve ever played. Many of the puzzles, which involve moving between two or more dimensions to alter attributes like mass or gravity, feature some strict time constraints, involve several steps one right after the other, leave the player subject to the whims of the game’s physics engine, and/or are difficult, if not impossible, to solve on the first try. Despite the game’s polish in other areas, the puzzles aren’t as well crafted as in Creative Director Kim Swift’s most famous previous work, Portal. I really wish I could’ve liked this one more. After beating the main game and the dastardly DLC “The Desmond Debacle”, I managed to get a third of the way done with the even tougher second DLC, “IKE-aramba!”, before setting it down in favor of something else.
That something else ended up being Imperium Romanum: Gold Edition, another freebie from a publisher celebrating an anniversary. This one came courtesy of Kalypso, who sent codes out to their mailing list subscribers when they turned ten years old last summer. Our gift was a Roman-themed city builder by Haemimont Games, who later went on to make the modern Tropico titles. Imperium Romanum is a bit more dated than those, with somewhat clunky interfaces and just a smidge too little information about my settlements and their people. On top of that, some of the campaign scenarios were rather difficult, especially when fighting barbarians or other Romans(!) was involved. It’s not a bad city builder by any means, but there are several better ones out there.
And that’s it! I will probably start something new to break up things with Persona 5, though I’m not sure what yet. I’m a little behind on my Mario RPGs, but I’m also starting to get a match-three itch, so the next game could be either Mario & Luigi: Dream Team or Puzzle & Dragons Z. At any rate, I have to whittle down the JRPGs in my backlog.
There’s a few styles and genres I tend to shy away from. Heavy metal music certainly fits that category, and so do open-world games. Given those facts, I’m not exactly sure why I picked up Brütal Legend on Steam, besides the circumstance of one of their big sales going on at the time and it being, therefore, quite cheap. Perhaps it was the fun-looking setting and aesthetic, or the famously mis-marketed RTS elements, which sounded kind of interesting to me. Whatever it was, I finally got around to actually playing it this month and found it to be a worthwhile game indeed.
The most impressive thing about Brütal Legend is how seriously and thoroughly it treats its theme. For instance, upon starting the game, the player is treated to a live-action intro movie, where actor/musician Jack Black takes them to a record store and shows them a rare album tucked away in the “Forbidden Metal” section. This LP is titled Brütal Legend and has a “Press Start” sticker on the front; doing so opens up the album’s gatefold cover, with “New Game” to the left and “Continue” on the right. This awesome opening menu continues on with the back cover, inner sleeve, and both sides of the record itself.
As for the actual game, the world is one where, to put it succinctly, metal rules. The landscapes seem ripped straight from album covers, the “Fire Tributes” earned by doing various tasks take the forms of silhouetted hands holding up lighters, and most every human sports varying degrees of spikes, leather, black clothing, and/or big hair. The men are shirtless, the women are busty, and the beasts have chrome-plated fangs. It’s the kind of universe which is only possible with a heavy metal theme—other musical genres, such as country and hip-hop, have similarly strong iconography associated with them, but are too grounded in reality to make a truly fantastical world out of.
The main character, the Jack Black-voiced Eddie Riggs, winds up in this place by circumstance. While doing his job as a roadie for a shitty nu-metal band, tragedy strikes, and the next thing he knows, he’s somewhere much darker. Soon, he’s got an axe (as in, an axe), an axe (as in, a guitar), a little coupe called The Deuce, and a sidekick named Ophelia. He winds up in Bladehenge, where the siblings Lars and Lita are planning a rebellion against their oppressive rulers. Although the writing is often witty and the optional backstory bits are inspired, the main plot is one of the weakest parts of the game. It’s corny at times, in a Hollywood blockbuster sort of way, and certainly not as original or interesting as its setting. (There were also some spoilers in the Steam Trading Cards which, even with certain predictable story elements, was kind of annoying.) Considering the expense—and, therefore, risk—that went into the production of this game, this lack of originality in the plot does not come as much of a surprise, but is still disappointing considering the rest of the game’s uniqueness.
Aside from Jack Black, the cast includes a few famous metal musicians; although some are worse voice actors than others, one particularly good performance is Ozzy Osborne as the Guardian of Metal, a robed gent who trades Fire Tributes for upgrades. Ozzy’s character model, like those of at least a couple others, resembles the real thing, and all of them have a rounded, cartoony quality about them which has aged considerably well. Much the same could be said about the various fighting units (which range from headbangers with amazingly huge necks to hot rod war machines), wild animals, and environmental elements. Eschewing the hyper-realism that has long been the fashion in big-budget games has paid off in dividends; for a title which was originally released on consoles in 2009, it still looks really good.
As for how Brütal Legend plays, as I said earlier, this is both an open-world game and an RTS. As the former, it involves a good deal of driving and general action, with escort missions and car racing sidequests, and plenty of opportunities for putting both axes to work. There’s also, naturally, a few types of hidden things scattered throughout the world and the associated rewards for finding and interacting with them in the right way.
The second genre this game fits under, real-time strategy, is what sets it apart. More complex than Pikmin but (thankfully) not as much as something like StarCraft, Brütal Legend‘s system involves a handful of different unit types along with resource collecting (in the form of “fans” siphoned though the use of “merch booths”), base upgrades, and a simple set of commands. This is all on top of having the option to control Eddie “normally”, i.e. as you would when exploring the world, and once you factor in the usefulness of the special guitar solo moves during these battles, things can quickly get hectic. Compared to the rest of the game, these battles can be overwhelming for someone who isn’t used to dense management-style tactics; outside of the heavy metal theme, this is the best case for Brütal Legend being a niche title. For those of us who like—or at the very least don’t mind—this sort of gameplay, these battles are interesting, though sometimes fiddly, challenges.
A different sort of challenge lies in keeping track of Eddie’s health. Though there is a user interface for things like battle commands and guitar solos, there is no health bar for our hero. Instead, whenever he is near death, the sound of a beating heart is heard and the screen tints slightly redder. While I appreciate this less-is-more approach, there were a few times when I wish I’d had further information about the state Eddie is in.
Finally, I absolutely must mention the music. In addition to a handful of atmospheric instrumental tunes (and the nu-metal band’s song from the opening), Brütal Legend is jam-packed with metal tunes from a wide variety of subgenres. Among others, there’s legends like Black Sabbath, 80s hair bands such as Mötley Crüe, and more modern groups, including Mastodon and (of course) Tenacious D. New songs can be unlocked throughout the course of the game and played via the Deuce’s “radio”, the Mouth of Metal. Switching between songs can be done on the fly with the d-pad, a nostalgically chunky click of a tape deck separating each track.
Like heavy metal music itself, Brütal Legend is not for everyone, but it proved to be very much for me. I have a soft spot for games that are polished yet sufficiently quirky: the types of “b-game” projects that have, more and more, become the province of indie studios as the bigger ones either go out of business or focus more heavily on titles that warrant three A’s, minimum. Sure, offbeat games like Brütal Legend sometimes have questionable design decisions, but the best ones also have a way of shining through with good ideas and execution, and tons of character. That this game had as big of a budget as it did helps give it an especially rare sheen. Sometimes, I wish more people loved these sorts of games, so that more of them could be made.
I know it’s been a long time since I last posted here, and I’m afraid I don’t have any truly valid excuses for that other than general procrastination (though the issues I’ve been having with WordPress lately are annoying). However, there has been a lot of gaming going on in our household, as usual. I will write about some of the games I’ve been playing later, but for today, here’s a couple that my husband beat over the last couple of months.
First up was Batman: Arkham Asylum, specifically the “Game of the Year” edition for Xbox 360. Having been a PC gamer for several years, the mere existence of a console GOTY edition once struck me as a bit odd, but it’s also a sign of the times. After all, console games have steadily become PC games this generation, with bugs, the requisite patches for those bugs, and expansion packs, now termed “downloadable content”.
Arkham Asylum itself, however, is a console game through and through. Genre-wise, it’s a brawler set in a somewhat open-world environment, complete with combo moves and collectables. It stars everyone’s favorite DC Comics hero, the Goddamn Batman, in a game world that is as dark, gritty, and poker-faced as he is. This world is the microcosmic Arkham Asylum, which is located on an island this time around, and is grimy and run-down, almost in that Weird NJ abandoned mental hospital sort of way. The fist-fodder consists of a handful of standard enemies with a few weapon variations thrown in, plus the odd grotesque supervillain. The plot is comic book/video game boilerplate, and there are several references to the larger Bat-canon littered throughout, including a database of series villains that (although being wildly inaccurate in regards to Harley Quinn’s first appearance) makes for interesting reading.
Gaminess runs as rampant as the inmates. One of the first things one notices about the game is the odd placement of Batman when the player is controlling him; instead of being centered on-screen, our hero is off to the left when walking around, an arrangement that my husband found took some getting used to. Clearly, the goal in this bit of design is to give the player a clear field of vision without resorting to a first-person perspective. It’s not what I’d call immersion-breaking, but it does call attention to itself. Then there’s the gadgets, which are optimized for extreme gaminess. One favorite was the Cryptographic Sequencer, a hacking tool that uses two dials (or analog sticks, if you prefer) to short-circuit electronic locks.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Arkham Asylum is how violent it is—despite Batman being a character who avoids guns and killings out of principle, and despite this being a T-rated game. When Batman punches or kicks a villain, the hit is hard and brutal, emphasized by the animation and sound effects. This is a Batman for the New 52 era, even before that reboot existed; a Batman as concerned with grittiness and realness as your average gangsta rapper. In a way, this subtle pandering to the demographic that this game is going for (while still maintaining a T-rating), is yet another sign of gaminess, and not a particularly encouraging one at that.
More video games!
Assassin’s Creed II‘s Ezio Auditore di Firenze is a more suave, stylish, and handsome hero than the Dark Knight, and we welcomed him back into our lives with the next game on my husband’s agenda, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Compared to its predecessor, it was largely more of the same, albeit in a (mostly) new place, the city of Rome. The story picks up right from the ending of AC2‘s, continuing on with a new main goal, more assassin missions, an altered approach to management simulation, a smattering of interesting new features, and yet another crazy ending.
The entire Assassin’s Creed series is gamey by design. You are playing Desmond who is “playing” his ancestors through abstracted means: the Animus device and its software. When Batman picks up an audio tape that just happens to be shining, there’s no excuse for that shine other than the game’s developers wanted to call attention to it. When Ezio spots a collectible Borgia flag marked by a certain white glow, that artifacting is intended to be a feature (or side-effect?) of the Animus. The same goes for the game’s menu, health meter, “Truth” puzzles, and just about everything else. Even the part of the menu that details historical facts is said to have been written by someone in the real world; in the Ezio arc, it’s the snarky Brit Shaun.
True gaminess outside of the veneer provided by the Animus is smartly rare. When Desmond steps out of the device, there’s no health meter or map, and the menu is irrelevant. One unintentionally hilarious bit of gaminess manages to sneak through, however: Desmond wears a sling-style backpack, which he keeps on when sitting in the clinical, ergonomic Animus.
That said, the meta-narrative involving Desmond presents an interesting problem for future installments in the Assassin’s Creed series. Many have speculated that Desmond himself will be playable for the majority—if not all—of a future title. Yet, how would this be pulled off while providing the player with the information they need (via the HUD and menu system) while explaining these tools existence in the real-life world? There have been hints throughout all of the games about the changes in Desmond’s perception, but tacking on a HUD to his real-life adventures would be a bit too much.
Gamers still don’t know if a Desmond-centric Assassin’s Creed is in the works. Series developer/publisher Ubisoft seems to want to milk the series for all its worth, and after the recently-released Revelations, said to be the last game to star Ezio, they could very well dip back into history with something set during the American Revolution, or the Victorian Era, or World War II. The possibilities really add up with a series like this, and it could be a long time before Desmond sees the last of that ol’ Animus.
Beat Devil May Cry 4 last week. Not the best game in the series, but certainly had its high points. All the hallmarks were there: bishies, hot chicks, gothic interiors, death metal songs that play during battles, and occasional violations of the 180° rule when moving from place to place. Unlike the others, Dante is not playable for much of the game. Instead, the player takes the role of Nero, a young man with similar fashion sense and slightly less campiness than Mr. Sparda. He also has a glowing arm, which can be used to grab far-off enemies and unleash brutal attacks on them. These attacks vary depending on the enemy, reminding me of Quick Time Events, though not in the traditional sense. As such, Nero is a fun character to play. Dante controls much the same as always, and is also tougher to control compared to Nero, due to the lack of Glowing Hand.
Although Rune Factory Frontier is mad addictive, this is what I'll be playing today!
As for Rune Factory Frontier, I’m still plugging away at it, and passed the 100-hour mark this weekend. All that has been ever said about JRPGs and linearity doesn’t quite apply to the Rune Factory series. Yes, there is a single storyline and a set progression in terms of unlockable areas, and no, you can’t fully customize your hero character, but everything else is wide open. There’s tons of things to do—farming, fishing, crafting, cooking, and much more—and like any good Harvest Moon, there’s also a wide range of girls to hit on, and eventually, marry. It’s rich and immersive in a way that JRPGs traditionally aren’t, and despite the glaring flaws, I’m as hooked on Frontier as I was with its DS brethren. Can’t wait for Rune Factory 3‘s localization (please let this happen!).
Apart from games themselves, I’m getting a little weary of CAG’s forums again and am ready to take another hiatus from them, largely due to the fact that there’s hardly any humor in them. This seems to be a problem with many gaming forums, where games are Serious Business and there’s little to no room for levity. Perhaps this also explains why Shimrra won Best CAG Blog in this year’s Cheapy Awards, even though his regular Daily HaHa posts are mainly just images ganked from the likes of 4chan. Humor is in very short supply amongst gamers, it seems.
Anyway, looking forward to PAX East at the end of this week, and have been going over my options for what to see and do. Meanwhile, I will be playing Cave Story. On my Wii.