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”.
The busy holiday season is upon us, and over the past couple of weeks, I have bought half a dozen games—not as gifts, but for myself. So far, I’ve played two of these, and have also beaten one of my older backlogged titles. Instead of doing entire posts for these games, which I was strongly considering for two of them, here are some capsule reviews which hopefully cover the core essence of each title.
What would the real Chopin have thought of Eternal Sonata?
I have a soft spot for games from early on in a console’s life. They’re an interesting glimpse into what developers were thinking back then in regards to a new platform. What are their priorities? How are graphics approached? What holdovers from the previous gen are apparent?
Eternal Sonata is one such game. It was the first major third-party JRPG on the Xbox 360, greeted with much fanfare by followers of the genre. However, it might also be seen as a sign of things to come, as JRPGs have yet to really find their footing on the high-definition consoles (meanwhile, handheld JRPGs are going through what might be termed a golden age, but that’s a topic for another time).
As one would expect from a game inspired by a composer, Eternal Sonata is musically lush, and the voice acting ranks up there with the Tales series in terms of quality. The anime-styled graphics are drop-dead gorgeous, though the animation is merely decent and the environments are more constrained and linear than you would expect. Eternal Sonata also features an engaging battle system that meshes turn-based and action gameplay, with a light and shadow component for special moves that is wholly dependent on the environment. Blocking and counterattacking moves are available, but these require extremely precise timing to pull off, and thus leave much to be desired. One of the characters also has the ability to take photos during battle, but the only thing that this feature is useful for is in amassing large amounts of money (photos can be sold at shops), and feels like a novelty at best, and a wasted opportunity (on the developers’ part) at worst.
Ostensibly, the story is about a dream that famed composer Frederic Chopin has while on his deathbed, and his questioning of this dream’s very nature. However, it is also the story of the heroine, Polka, a terminally ill teenage girl with magical powers. There are a few things in the story that don’t make sense, but thanks to good pacing and solid (if cliched at times) characterization, the game progresses in such a way as to lead one to believe that all will be answered by the end. However, in terms of plotting, the final chapter is a mess, and the ending is long, pretentious, and only led to more questions. The final boss, though startling at first, made sense; unfortunately, its abrupt emergence matched the haphazard tone of the entire ending.
I have only been playing the PC game Audiosurf for a little under a week, and already, it’s my favorite game out of those that I’ve played this year. In fact, I was ready to post about this under Game Love, not Reviews; declare it the greatest music game of all time; and make room for it in my Holy Trifecta of Puzzle Games (Panel de Pon, Puyo Puyo, and Tetris). I don’t know if “quadfecta” is a real word, though.
Audiosurf, like many ingenious works, is simple in both form and function. Essentially, it is what would happen if you took an audio visualizer and mixed it with a match-three puzzle game. Plug in any audio file, and as long as it’s in a supported format, Audiosurf will generate a track out of it, complete with peaks, valleys, and lots of little colored pieces to collect for mad points. There are a handful of different characters to choose from, including a few that allow for two-player games. The Mono characters are the most basic of them all, and a good place to start for beginners; the colored blocks are all the same, and all one has to worry about is dodging the useless grey ones. When playing as one of the others, multiple colored pieces show up on the field at the same time, along with power-ups, and things really start to get hectic.
The graphics settings are quite flexible, plus a handful of optional sound effects are available. There’s also a set of achievements, but what really adds to the fun are the online leaderboards; there’s ones for each individual song that’s played with the game. Pick an obscure enough song and you could be the global champion at it, but of course, the real competition lies in the better-known stuff.
One of the most surprising things about Audiosurf is that it’s making me a better listener. Playing a track in the game, I find myself paying more attention to lyrics, instrumentation, and BPM. Regarding that last thing, some songs, like Michael Jackson’s “Wanna be Startin’ Somethin'” sound slower to me in Audiosurf than they do normally.
All in all, despite an interface that isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing thing ever, plus a tutorial mode that’s rough around the edges, this is an incredible game and a must-have for music lovers. By the way, I’m R. Kasahara on the official site, and if you have any doubts about Audiosurf, go see it in motion.
Here's what my Destroyer and his dog looked by the end of the story.
This is the most recent RPG I beat, and the first WRPG I’ve ever gotten to the end of. Torchlight, available for Windows and Mac OS X, is often described as a Diablo clone, but it’s one whose pedigree includes former staffers at Diablo home Blizzard North. Naturally, Torchlight has some of that Blizzard Touch™ about it, without the full-on robustness of that studio’s regular output. This lack of depth isn’t really a problem, though, since it’s a quality game made on a small scale by a small studio, and a good value at its full price of $20.
The story in Torchlight is pretty bare-bones. There’s mysterious happenings in the mines just outside of the town of Torchlight. You’re an adventurer who has come to town, and soon you find yourself teaming up with a woman named Syl in an effort to unravel the mine’s mysteries. It’s not a particularly deep story, but it gets the job done, and features some challenging moments and a tidy conclusion.
What largely kept me playing were the clean, World of WarCraft-style graphics and the satisfying loot grind. I also liked going in knowing that it was a short game—I like Diablo-esque RPGs but find many of them too long and too big. Oddly enough, in the end, the one game that Torchlight reminded me of most was Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer. Shiren is turn-based and a roguelike, but other than that, there’s not much else separating the two: dungeon floors that were just the right size, item limits that were reasonable, the aforementioned story and loot points, the helper character concept, good graphics and music, and above all, plenty of fun to be had. Besides, if you want to play Torchlight in a more hardcore manner, there’s always the harder difficulty settings and permanent death option.
Aside from being busy with other things, I’ve been playing a lot of Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, an intriguing game of mushrooms, chortles, and globin. However, today’s post isn’t about that, as I’ve not yet beaten it (actually, I’m very near to the end, so expect that entry soon); rather, today I have a roundup of links which have caught and/or been brought to my attention lately.
If this isn't girly, I don't know what is.
Bayonetta has been on my mind for a long time now, and even though it’s finally out, it’s not so much of a priority that I went out and got it right away. Still, I’ve been reading and hearing things about it here and there. The most interesting piece I’ve come across so far is Leigh Alexander’s Bayonetta: empowering or exploitative? She makes a great case for the title character being a truly feminine protagonist. I played the demo not long after reading this piece and through that small glimpse, I can completely see what Alexander is getting at. Bayonetta is sexy and appealing, sure, but she’s also not just a male character in a female skin—she really is feminine. I think a lot of it’s in the details, like the blown kisses, the butterfly wings that sometimes appear on her back, and the way she reacts, in a cutscene, when flowers sprout up from the ground beneath her feet. It’s all so stylish, but I expect no less from the designer who previously gave the world another sexy piece of eye candy in the form of Devil May Cry‘s Dante.
Speaking of which, a new printing of Dante Alighieri’s poem Inferno is now available in bookstores, with a cover that has to be seen to be believed. Both aghast and amused, I took the news to Fandom Lounge to share this horror with others; there are many gamers who frequent the group blog, but also many more avid readers, and their own reactions were not unexpected. The wallpaper-sized version of the obligatory Penny Arcade comic that followed has been trimmed down and is now on my desktop.
Cheers to StarKnightX over at the CAG Forums for posting the link to Bitmob’s article Dangerous Ideas to Improve the Video Game Industry. I don’t know if I agree with some of the points made, but in general, it’s a thought-provoking piece, and well worth a look.
Finally, something funny I ran into while lurking over at a certain forum, as I do every so often: a comprehensive BioWare RPG Cliché Chart. A great companion to the classic Grand List (see the Links page for that if you don’t know what I’m talking about), and, from what I can tell, about as spoilerific, so take care.
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