Category: reviews

Dead Space 2

This is a bit later than I’d have liked, but I didn’t want to review the game until I’d beaten it and that took a bit because the last sections of the game are a load of crispy-fried bullshit. But we’ll get to that in a second. Dead Space is the wildly well-received sequel to the moderately well-received horror/shooter game Dead Space, in which you go to a creepy space ship to fix a problem and get attacked by zombies. Dead Space 2 fixes many of the problems that plagued its predecessor (while adding in a few new ones) and, for the most part, remains an excellent third-person shooter with a thick atmosphere and a steep challenge.

He looks scary, but all he really wants to do is play fetch.

The story picks up 3 years after the first game. Our hero, Isaac Clark, has been in a psych ward for 3 years, a period of time he completely doesn’t remember. He gets woken up to discover that Necromorphs have infested Titan Station, otherwise known as the Sprawl, an impressive-looking space station/city in orbit of Saturn, and has to stomp their skulls into paste. Right off the bat, the absolute best sequence in the game is the very first section. You get woken up and immediately swarmed by monsters. You can’t fight back, you can only run and they are everywhere. There’s a pitched chase sequence and you manage to escape to relative safety. Then the game continues to keep guns away from you and forces you to learn-as-you-go how to properly use the Kinesis and other similar power-ups. It gets a big grating on multiple playthroughs, but it’s easily one of the scariest parts of the game and a great way to introduce you to the adventure.

That said, the story is complete shit. You have characters whose motivations are nonsensical or unexplained, Isaac himself now has a personality, that of a block of wood, and while the voice acting is actually pretty good, none of the characters really have any dimensions or depth–not even shallow depth. They’re just…there. The story itself isn’t much better, being hard to follow and mind-numbing when you do. All of the best stuff in it is packed into the first half of the game and once you reach the second disc (on the 360 at least) the story just simply stops for long periods of time, and much of the “twists” are either silly or nonsensical.

But no one plays Dead Space for the story, even if it is god awful. We play it to shoot alien zombies and that part of the game is just as good as before. Enemies are a bit tougher now, they come in greater numbers and attack more aggressively. There’s a gaggle of new enemy types, like the Puker, and new weapon types to match. All the previous game’s weapons are back, though some have been tweaked and adjusted. The Force Gun is a lot less powerful now, though it is still a god-like extension of your power. Flamethrower has been improved too, so now it’s actually one of the more powerful weapons in the game if you ever can bother to use it. The new guns include the Javelin Gun, which is a lot of fun once you get used to how it works (think a spear gun but you can charge up the spears with electricity and later on they will explode) and the Seeker Rifle,a  sniper rifle which is kind of limited in its use. All in all, the new weapons are fun and the changes to the old ones make them seem new as well. I would like to have seen a few more of both weapons and enemy types, but both feel varied enough to last the whole game.

Though here’s the kicker–make sure you have a wide-spread weapon by the end of the game. I found myself incapable of winning until I went back to an earlier save and picked up the Force Gun because the final boss–which is part of the laziest section of the game, a lengthy gauntlet that you cannot survive without fleeing–is a tacked on wave of tiny fast enemies and a walking instant-death trap. It’s pretty terrible and not at all fun to play through.

All in all, I enjoyed Dead Space 2 a lot. It does lack something however, something the first one also lacked. We have a talented studio with talented developers who are clearly passionate about the project–the level of detail packed into the game is staggering and it’s clear that they wanted to make the best game they could. But here’s the problem: the scares are cheap, the atmosphere only holds intact on the harder difficulties (if you are at all good at video games, start your game on Survivalist. Normal and Casual are way, way too easy.), the enemies start to get annoying, especially when their corpses just magically disappear, taking all their items with them (and leaving you with three shots and a horny Brute sniffing at your ass) and there’s also tacked on multiplayer which is supposed to be alright but nothing great and I don’t know why the hell they included it in the first place. The game IS fun to play, and if you loved the original Dead Space, pick this up and enjoy. If you are easily scared and like a good horror game, you can’t go too wrong with this one either. More jaded gamers might have better luck elsewhere, because for all the things Dead Space changes, it is ultimately just more of the same.


Heavy Rain is shit and you are shit for liking it.

There, that’s a way to start off a new year. Happy 2011 everyone! It seems that the general consensus about 2010 was that it was quite awful and so everyone’s looking forward to this year being better, and what better way to improve your year by bitching about game’s journalism and likely black-listing myself from ever having a respectable job with a credible gaming website ever again, but god damn it.

This is not going to be a review for Heavy Rain. Having not literally played the entire game all the way through–having played bits and pieces here and there–since I don’t own a PS3, I’ve only experienced Heavy Rain via a rather informative Let’s Play. This particular LP is a better criticism of the game than anything I could possibly write, illustrating the game’s few strengths and many flaws in a very hands-off manner and I’d recommend anyone still on the fence about buying this pile of shit interactive storytelling experience to watch at least the first four or five videos of the LP to see exactly what you are getting into.

Origami: Waterproof I want to talk about the fact that everybody and their mother fucking loved Heavy Rain. It’s gotten high scores and rave reviews across the board. IGN gave it a 9.0, 1Up awarded it an A+, GameRant 5 stars, and Joystiq said it was one of the top ten games of 2010. Well, damn, with that degree of praise, it must be good, right? Surely it couldn’t actually by a mysoginistic cliched piece of crap with poor writing, enormous plot holes, absolutely horrid voice acting, and character and facial animations that look like somebody with Downs syndrome tried to make clay figurines. Except that it is. It’s ludicrous–seriously, go and watch that Let’s Play if you have never played this game and tell me that this game isn’t a series of cliched scenes bodily ripped out of a dozen different Hollywood movies and strung together with Quick Time Events and bullshit. There’s a character who exists solely to be sexually objectified, plot twists that make no sense, plot threads that are abruptly abandoned, and across the board you see complete ignorance as to how actual law enforcement officers operate, how psychiatry is practiced in the United States, and generally how human beings actually interact with each other.

But I’m just a shithead with a blog. What’s my opinion matter? Let’s take a look at what the professionals have to say:

IGN: “Rather than taking out the bad guy right then, you might get knocked down but get another chance right after that. Miss too many and the bad guy might get away, but like I said, the story will continue on, no matter the result. In other instances, these options (as there is often more than one button available to you at any one time) will decide what a character says, how they react to something, what you interact with or so on and so forth.

The result is that although you’re still matching button prompts, Heavy Rain feels much more like you’re choosing and influencing what happens in the game, rather than simply reacting to it.”

This is talking about how  there’s no “game over” in Heavy Rain, nor indeed, any permenant fail state at all. Even if you fuck up the QTE’s, the game continues on, and you have to live with your fuck-up, and every action has far-reaching consequences. Except that they don’t. To IGN reviewer Chris Roper’s credit, you have no real idea that this isn’t true just playing through the game normally. It’s been said by the game’s fruitbat designer David Cage that this game should only be played once. Just once–no replays, no going back and trying a different route, just once, so as to maximize your emotional investment in the game. Really, though, the reason he says this is because, for pretty much the first half of the game, your actions have no consequences at all. Missing vital clues at a crime scene just results in you being given those clues an hour later. Abandon a woman to be beaten half-to-death and she still comes to your aid later in the game. It gets worse than that: let a suspect escape you? Doesn’t matter, his plot thread is dropped immediately afterwards. Kill a man thanks to an itchy trigger finger or let him live? Doesn’t matter! You get one line of dialogue, maybe a slightly different read on the next scene, and that’s all.

This game is painfully linear, despite its pretensions to the contrary, and in execution it plays out much the same as Yahtzee describes: The “best” ending is so happy and complete that everything else just feels like a nonstandard game over. You have a game lauded on choices having meaning, but choices in this game have almost NO meaning at all, and the ones that do are painfully obvious as such and almost impossible to do “wrong”–unless you suck at inputting thumb-breaking button combinations.

From the same review:

“Each of the four, main playable characters is interesting, developed well and important to the story. The way that everything comes together and winds up feeding into the story progression is nothing short of fantastic. Games have come pretty far in terms of how well stories are told and the level of writing quality that some of them are able to achieve, but Heavy Rain is easily amongst the best that’s ever been put onto a disc. Were this filmed as a Hollywood picture, it would perfectly fit the body of work of someone like Martin Scorsese or David Fincher.”

This statement is an insult to Scorsese or Fincher. It would almost be an insult to Michael Bay. But we’ll come back to this in a second, as it continues:

“Now, that doesn’t mean that the story is told flawlessly. Like I said at the start of this review, the first couple hours are a little slow. As I’ve mentioned in previous coverage for Heavy Rain, this is largely due to the fact that, with a film, you’re able to edit out dull bits like walking down stairs or going from the kitchen to the living room. The exposition and character development that happens in these opening chapters wind up being very important to what happens later, but the pacing is a little on the sluggish side. And, when some of the first things that you’re able to do include drinking orange juice and taking a shower, it may seem like things will get lost in unimportant actions and details of everyday life.”

Yes, so this narrative, comparable to the director of fucking Goodfellas, includes such important details as peeing in any available toilet, showering, drinking juice, and shaving. Because that’s exactly the best way to get me engaged in a story–by letting me piss all over it. The problem here is that this review gives you the mistaken notion that there is character development at the beginning of this game–a much-ridiculed and rightly so beginning that cements that “your choices matter” by having you do absolutely nothing of consequence and then losing your son without any ability to save him or, indeed, any ability to influence the plot at all. The “character” development is: Ethan Mars is happy. He is an architect. It is his son’s birthday. He plays with his sons. They go to the mall. One son runs away. Despite all his efforts, Ethan loses him in a crowd. Ethan finds his son. His son is hit by a car going five miles per hour and dies. Ethan is sad. Two years go by. Ethan is sad.”

There’s no character development at all in this game. Ethan’s motivations are never explored, his thoughts and feelings are thoroughly single-minded: he is always trying to save his son and when he isn’t saving his son he is either happy or sad, and that’s the only defining trait he has. Considering he is more or less the protagonist of the game, my only guess is that they wanted to make him a tabula rasa so the player could project him or herself onto him, but that falls flat because Ethan is a complete moron whose actions do not accurately mimic any sensible person’s actions. Much of the drama in the plot relies on Ethan–and basically every other major character–being as stupid as possible, showcasing not even the slightest degree of common sense towards their situation. On top of that, Ethan is a character with one mystery–blackouts that cause him to wake up on some street hours later holding a piece of origami in his hands, with no memory of what he did in the intervening time–that is never actually explained. So if he is a character for the gamer to project upon, he fails completely because his actions are pre-determined ahead of time and all you, the player, can do is steer him in one direction or the other.

This is a pretty lengthy post, so I’m going to stop here. Tune in tomorrow when I finish up this rant and maybe actually have a point to it all! Thanks for reading.

Radioactive Falling Out

Fallout 3 is and was one of my favorite games to come out in the past few years. Taking the open-world sandbox formula of the popular Elder Scrolls series and adapting it to fit an interesting and vibrant universe, Fallout 3 managed to streamline the somewhat clunky gameplay of the Elder Scrolls games and create a flawed, but deeply engrossing and highly addictive First Person Role Playing Game. So, when they announced a sequel, New Vegas, I was understandably pumped. Ready to start another 100+ hour epic journey, I shelled out full price and got my copy. How’s it hold up?

It doesn’t.

In a post-apocalyptic future, pink-eye becomes a serious problem.

In a post-apocalyptic future, pink-eye becomes a serious problem.

New Vegas was brought to us not by the Fallout 3/Elder Scrolls developers, Bethesda, but rather by Obsidian Entertainment, a company made up of numerous employees from Black Isle Studios, the company that made the first two Fallout games. Exciting news for many, especially since a lot of old-school Fallout fans called foul over numerous formula changes in Fallout 3. The game shows its history–the writing and world-building is top-notch, with varied locations, factions and characters to interact with, all of whom just “fit” the Fallout world, bringing it to life easily. The writing and plot is superior to Fallout 3 in every way. With more missions and a more complicated dialogue system and storyline, New Vegas should have been the game Fallout 3 was trying to be. Key word being should of.

Right off the bat I was immediately not blown away when, after making my character and stepping into the sun for the first time, the game chugged and whirred ominously before blinding me with a burst of sunlight and slowly revealing a desolate desert town. Entering a building, I was not impressed by the large quantities of items, set pieces, character models and props that had been taken wholesale from Fallout 3. Indeed, of the many many locations in this game, maybe a handful of them are actually “new” locations, in the sense that they don’t reuse templates from the previous game. The sense of familiarity pervaded every inch of the game.

New Vegas is quite clearly an expansion pack. Yes, it is a BIG expansion pack (easily on par with FO3 in terms of size) but it is still an expansion pack. Not only did it reuse 90% of the original game’s locations and models, it also brought over all of the original games bugs and glitches–and then proceeded to make its own.

This game is buggy as hell. One of the bigger complaints about FO3 was that it glitched out a lot–and it did–but these glitches very rarely made it difficult to progress or complete the game, and with only a few exceptions the quests and missions played out as they were scripted with no problems. Exploration was not hindered by jaggy environments that grasped your character like a hungry octopus and refused to let go, the game froze infrequently and never twice in the same place, and indeed all of the bugs were at least isolated to locations that you never really HAD to go to. It worked–it functioned.

New Vegas does not function. The frame rate chugs like a spastic child shaking a soda can, exploding into a frothy mess at the slightest push. Where it does not freeze, it chugs. Enemies constantly get caught on the environment, A.I. bugs out, NPCs randomly attack you, and on top of all that, there’s a very distinct “unfinished” feeling to most of the game. Many quests, upon completion, simply END, with almost no visible change in NPC dialogue or behavior. Indeed, had I not known that the game had the series’ trademark “epilogue” structure to its ending, I would feel even more cheated of impact and worth than I did in FO3, which at the very least had characters thank or curse me for my actions towards them.


Retirement didn't treat Godzilla kindly.

Every aspect of this game seemed to have a %5o chance of failing, and the fun I had exploring the environment and interacting with characters was curtailed by this ominous dread of something going wrong and forcing me to restart. It gets especially bad towards the end, where it seemed the game just gave up completely, constantly dropping random encounters on my head, freezing when I attempted to fast travel, having characters glitch and bug out, and sending any companions I’d managed to recruit running headlong into the nearest landmine to end their tenure in my employ prematurely.

I made the mistake of playing on Hardcore mode, believing myself to be sufficiently “hardcore”. I like the concept of Hardcore mode a lot–it is, essentially, a packaged version of a mod released for the PC version of FO3 that gave your character hunger, sleep and dehydration meters that had to be regulated by eating food, drinking water, and sleeping. It also makes it a lot harder to heal yourself, as beds no longer magically restore your limbs and health, meaning you’d have to trek to a doctor’s office or carry a lot of stimpacks to keep yourself healthy. Additionally, at least in New Vegas, the enemies hit a lot harder, ammo has weight (which limits how much you can carry) and stat growth is greatly limited. In short, New Vegas is far and above more challenging than FO3, which would be great were it not for the constant glitching that I described above. Instead of making exploration a worthy challenge, the game simply became unbearably frustrating, with even basic encounters managing to tear me apart in new and interesting ways.

In retrospect, I think I would have enjoyed New Vegas far more if I hadn’t chosen Hardcore mode, and that depresses me to no end. Hardcore mode should have been an amazing, in-depth simulation of the harshness of Wasteland life, but “life” in this wasteland is a 2-D facade. The characters start to lose their depth and vibrancy when they continue to putter about, spouting the same few phrases and enduring no change or impact. The shallowness of FO3’s world remains here stronger than ever, exacerbated by the endless strings of glitches and bugs and made frustrating by the ludicrously strong enemies and the more limited means of stat growth and character development.


The guy is you, and Hardcore mode is the hammer about to crush your skull.

There is a patch that’s going to be released that is said to fix a lot of the glitches, but fuck that. I buy a game–a CONSOLE game no less–and I expect it to at least function when I put it in. The truth of the matter is, New Vegas is a 60-dollar expansion pack. It’s a very well-written, more detailed one, and that’s what makes it all the worse, because the potential for an amazing game is there. It just falls apart on the coding level. If you have Fallout 3, just replay it, maybe get the generally excellent DLC for it. If you haven’t, go buy the Game of the Year edition, which has all 5 prepackaged.  It has its flaws, but at least it is playable. That’s more than I can say for New Vegas, and trust me, I really wish that wasn’t the case.

Well, it’s Halloween, and I know you all like scary shit on Halloween, so I’ve done something horrifying and terrible–I’ve made another podcast.

This one is about a little freeware game called Yume Nikki. Don’t be scared by the Japanese, just click game and you should be fine.

There’s an old Let’s Play here. And you can download a REALLY awesome remix album of the game’s soundtrack here.

What is that on the wall

I pray a demon doesn’t eat you in your sleep.

Okami vs. Zelda

Wow, been awhile since I posted any updates. Sorry about that. Here, have a thing I made as apology.


So, because I love to be irrelevant, let’s talk about Bioshock.

Shit, it’s a series now? Yeah, evidently the announcement of Bioshock:Infinite cements that Bioshock is now a brand name. What a surprise–a popular video game being branded. If I wasn’t so ludicrously pumped for Bioshock:Infinite I’d be cynical and bitter about a unique and bold concept being mass-marketed and diluted by sequeilitis.

Ah, but there are legacies to think about. What about poor Bioshock 2? This poor, sad shell of a game wasn’t even developed by Ken Levine and the original team that’s helming Infinite. Released to lots of good reviews, but also a lot of eye-rolling from the more pretentious crowds, Bioshock 2 has been called everything from a “knock-off piece of shit” to “a glorified expansion pack”–which is what I say it is.

So that's what Bomberman's been doing on his days off...

The problem with Bioshock 2 is that it plays better in every way than Bioshock 1. The levels are better designed (at least from a mechanics standpoint), the gameplay is more balanced, the combat is improved, the weapons are better, dual-wielding Plasmids and firearms makes combat fun and fluid, and the limitations on health kits and Eve hypos, as well as the layout of the levels and the new system for gathering Little Sisters means that hacking turrets and cameras and laying out traps is far, far more necessary than it ever was in Bioshock 1.

See, in the original Bioshock, while it was awesome all the stuff you could do, it was hardly necessary to do much of it. Sure, you could lay out traps, set up a killzone guarded by turrets, hypnotize a Big Daddy and use him as a meat shield–but you never really had to except maybe in Hard Mode. You could just use the Electric Buck shotgun ammo and win the game. And you will. In fact, there’s a Three Panel Soul comic that really exemplifies this:


See, you could do a lot in Bioshock, but you didn’t have to or really need to. In Bioshock 2, the game encourages you to hack everything and set traps and manipulate the environment through providing item incentives or just making it easier and more cost-effective to do so. In every aspect of gameplay, Bioshock 2 is superior to Bioshock 1.

It’s not the better game, of course, because Bioshock 1 has a very, very tight story. It’s totally solid and really well-told, contained with character arcs and all that fun English Lit stuff. Bioshock 1 is also hell of a lot scarier–it’s kinda hard to feel creeped out in Rapture when you’re a Big Daddy yourself.

But Bioshock 2’s story is still quite good–there’s a big theme about family and what that means and the relationships between family members and the search for meaning and identity, and unlike Bioshock 1, this game actually gives us a fucking ending and not that lazy-ass slideshow at the end of Bioshock 1. God damn, what a let-down that was…but whatever. Bioshock 2 is also much prettier than Bioshock 1, which is to be expected.

Yet Bioshock 2 isn’t going to have an enduring legacy. The original fanbase was divided on it from day one, and the fact that it’s really short and adds very little to the overall story doesn’t help. If it had been released as an expansion pack, it would have been amazing. As a proper sequel, however, it just can’t cut it–especially now that we have Infinite raising the bar higher than anyone’s anticipated.

Yet if you ask me, I’m kind of torn. I really, really liked Bioshock 2–it left me wanting more, which is never a bad thing, and I intend to get the DLC, Minerva’s Den, as soon as possible. Bioshock 1 is very different from 2, and depending on what you want out of a Bioshock game, you may be disappointed. But the gameplay changes, the increased customizability in terms of plasmids and tonics, all of that adds up to a really compelling experience. If you’ve not taken the time to play Bioshock 2, now’s the perfect time. You can find it for $20 and less all over the place now, especially Amazon.

As for Bioshock becoming a franchise, well…we’ll see. I’m excited as hell for Infinite and feel that the developers have enough great games under their belt that I’ll trust them. Franchises are the way to succeed in the gaming, for good or ill. Considering the high cost of games, consumers need names that they can rely on, and if Bioshock can continue being innovative, even as a franchise, then I’ll have no complaints.

Gaming is more than just games.

Well, okay, no it isn’t, but you need people to play games in order to fund the industry and, chances are, you’ll want people to talk about games, people to follow gaming sites and keep eyes on the bigger companies and gossip and rage on the Internet about whether it’s Aeris or Aerith. Somewhere in this churning sea of discordant bellowing and autistic obsession emerged what we know as “gaming culture”.

And now it’s today. Sites like 1up sit comfortably atop the gaming media mountain, Yahtzee makes angry reviews to the enjoyment of the Internet, SomethingAwful spawns Let’s Plays like tadpoles in stagnant water, and LordKat plays games…until he wins.

Behold the face of gaming.

Until We Win is a remarkably simple show–basically a simplified video walkthrough of games old enough and hard enough to warrant one. It isn’t in-depth or comprehensive, but it’s sufficiently entertaining and as educational as it can be. LordKat–or Jason Pullara, whichever you prefer–doesn’t do a lot of sketches or dress up in costumes like many of his contemporaries over at That Guy With the Glasses which is almost a shame, since he’s got a very sharp sense of black humor, as many of his crossover videos will display. But he doesn’t need to sing and dance to earn our coppers. That’s not what we watch him for.

Pullara’s website is host to a few of his other projects, and he’s hopped onto the incredibly popular streaming bandwagon as well, often streaming live playthroughs of games or podcasts or videologs. I’ve not really had the time to sit down and listen to a full podcast, though he has one called This Week in Games that’s really quite good. It’s a lot of industry talk and, like most semi-professional podcasts, goes on for quite a while. If you are into industry talk and have a fixation for Brooklyn accents, you may very well find some good listening there. It and many more–such as LordKat Eats, where he bravely stuffs himself with horrifying exotic foods like the fat bastard he is–make up an already quite sizeable backlog of videos, and all of them make for good watching. He also plays D&D or something.

I like Pullara because, unlike many web shows out there, he’s not really reviewing or commenting on anything. He has opinions which sometimes slip into his UWW videos, but for the most part his only interest is the challenge–he yearns for it. You can see his eyes light up whenever he’s about to dig into a particularly hard game, and he has bested–legitimately, according to him and those who know him–games that even professional game critics have balked at. Fuck me, he beat the bullet hell Silver Surfer for crying out loud!

Remember that one blog post I did about the different types of gamer? Pullara, if his show’s name isn’t indication enough, seems clearly a type-A gamer. He’s in it for the challenge–he wants to break the game mechanics over his knee, wrestle the system to the ground and feast on its digitized blood. Old-school tricks that all of us had to sharpen our thumbs on at some point–memorization, quick reflexes, pattern recognition and just plain, simple luck–sit at the top of his arsenal and it’s pretty epic to behold him conquering the hardest games there’ve ever been.

The show isn’t perfect, mind. He repeats a lot of footage (which he uses an emulator and savestates to get, though he says that he always beats the game legitimately beforehand) and it only occasionally follows what he’s saying. He’ll describe challenges or obstacles or situations that you’d expect to see on screen, but don’t. It has to be a stylistic thing too, since he seems to get footage from the whole of any game he plays, so I don’t know what his excuse is. Some episodes as well seem a little questionable–he doesn’t always play Nintendo Hard games, and sometimes seems to give himself a break between particularly tough games.

But those are pretty minor complaints. I’ve given you the links–you should check out his stuff. First and foremost because it’s good, secondly because it’s entertaining, and thirdly because I say so. Just…be careful about any videos that mention strawberries. You have been fucking warned.

Standing in for the Internet is me. I saw it, yes, and if is allowed to write a review about it, then so am I.

So, Scott Pilgrim. What did I think?

I liked it. I think it was well-made, and I think it was a good adaptation. I feel a little disappointed, but I can’t really determine what by. I think, honestly, I was too distracted as I watched it by the subtle changes to the pacing of the comics–the movie doesn’t follow the manga’s order of events, but it generally fits all the events in there. It’s like clever reediting of the comic, and I approve–but it was distracting for most of the film.

Then I had to get used to the casting. I never fully bought into Michael Cera as Scott, but he does well here. He’s got enough of Scott’s attributes that it doesn’t seem like he’s derailing the character in anyway. He’s Scott–but he’s not necessarilly the one you imagined.

I derail myself slightly to discuss something I read in Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” textbook. In it, he discusses realistically drawn comics and cartoons. Realistic comics can show off more detail in terms of characters and settings, but cartoons get something special. The more simple the drawing, the more the reader imparts their own imagination into it. So, a cartoon smiley looks however you want it to–your mind constructs an image for it, rather than have an image given to it. So, Scott Pilgrim is well known for its distinctive, manga-esque, cartoony style. People get upset about the casting because no actor could ever match what they’d seen in their mind’s eye. The way the characters are interpreted by the reader/audience is unique to every individual reader’s preferences. Scott’s lines, his attitude, his tone and type of voice, his physical appearance are all generated by the reader’s mind, and as such, may not reflect either what the author intended the character to be or how others see the character. Edgar Wright must have taken this into account, and probably just decided to do how HE envisioned the Scott Pilgrim universe to be. No cast could ever cater to everyone’s unique tastes, and with that in mind, the movie’s cast is quite solid.

Everyone gives an energetic performance, the pacing and chemistry between characters is generally pretty good. The movie’s overabundance of style leads to some conversations sounding stilted or forced if only because the actors are also reacting to strange events happening around them, or else are making a pose or performing an action that requires a lot of concentration. Cera’s Scott is definitely not a rehash of his earlier characters–the similarities are there, but they are more token than anything else. Cera does his best to embody Scott’s doofy sort of simplicity and it comes across well, even if it…well, I don’t know. In the end, I still don’t fully buy Cera as Scott. I don’t think it’s any fault of the actor, but I do think it was a bad casting. I can’t imagine who could do Scott to be honest. Maybe a young Will Ferrell. My friend suggested that to me one day and I laughed, at first, but it made sense. Ferrell’s so damned flexible and emotive, capable of hitting highs and lows quickly and effortlessly–if only he was twenty years younger and didn’t have curly hair he could absolutely play Scott. But that’s a digression.

The movie is definitely all about its action sequences. At least half are completely different from what was seen in the comics–which is an added treat for the theater audience. We get much more kung-fu, and crazy-awesome sound effects bounding around everywhere. The style is cool, the comedy is present, and there’s always a rockin’ sound track to accompany it all. Best of all, Sex Bob-Omb, the band Scott is in, is brought to life vividly; leading us into the opening credits and accompanying us throughout the movie. The band holds the movie together as a set piece, a traveling bit of familiarity and fun to mesh all of these scenes together. The music is stellar, fast and loud and crazy as hell, both funny and foot-tappingly strong. The band members grow on you immensely as well.

The supporting cast is done really well. Gorgeous Anna Kendrick plays Scott’s little sister pitch-perfect. Kieran Culkin is really good as Wallace too–he has that sleazy, yet charming sort of aloofness, and probably remains one of the better cast characters. Knives Chau, a very important character, is also very well done. Newcomer Ellen Wong gets the spazzy, obsessive nature of the character as well as her determined, stoic side, and she manages to steal the show in many a scene, though, like in the comics, Knives is a character that starts to grate on you, and the best part of her subplot–her father trying to cut Scott in half for a whole volume–is sadly not in the movie.

A lot was cut, mostly for the better–the movie is overloaded with conversations as it is, so a lot of the character-developing filler was left out. Sadly, most of the Envy Adams chapter got removed as well. She shows up and plays her part and gets a few good scenes, but she’s scarcely more than window dressing compared to the comics. I feel they could have left some of the flashbacks to Scott’s past–if not kept all of them–and not lost too many people in the audience. They really develop Scott, which is important because he’s kind of a dick. He’s called out on it many a time in this movie and in the books, but you really feel for him once you know a little about where he came from and what he’s gone through.

Oh, and of course, the movie is [i]loaded[/i] with video game references. The screen is awash with bleeps and bloops, eight bit numbers, all sorts of stuff. The pop culture overload is embraced whole-heartedly. Indeed, this movie gets that probably best of all, able to bring sound and motion to what were otherwise just throwaway remarks. Most noticeable is a part where Scott mentions he can play the bass line from Final Fantasy II and then just starts strumming away. Most of the references were expanded upon in this way, which makes for another nice treat to the movie public.

Having seen it once and am now familiar with the way the movie goes, I think I’ll enjoy it much more the second time I see it. It’s definitely worth catching in theaters and grabbing on DVD–or Blu-Ray preferably. It’s very fun, certainly on par with Kick-Ass.

Plus, y’know, it’s Scott Pilgrim: the movie. Are you really NOT gonna want to see it?

Well I know it’s been awhile since my last post, but I did warn you. I had to move all the way across town, so I’ve been a bit indisposed–but I didn’t come to give you excuses. I came to give you…excitement! Excitement in the form of a written review of a mostly 2-D first person RPG dungeon-crawler! The thrills never end!

Right, so, Strange Journey.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is a bleak, apocalyptic first-person dungeon crawler. As the trailer informs, the basic premise is that some…thing…is happening in Antarctica, creating an enormous dimensional anomaly that is swallowing up everything that we know and love. If it isn’t stopped then this anomaly, called the Schwarzwelt, will consume the entire planet. You are part of an international team of scientists, soldiers and engineers sent in to research and analyze the phenomenon and attempt to figure out what it is and how to stop it.

Of course, naturally, everything goes to shit as soon as they say “go” and you end up getting marooned inside the Schwarzwelt and beset by terrifying, invisible monsters with a taste for human flesh. A mysterious force gives you access to a computer program that can identify and communicate with these monsters, called “demons”, and only by using this mysterious program can you explore the Schwarzwelt and maybe, just maybe, save the world.

The game’s plot is actually surprisingly good. New characters come and go, everyone is at least decently-written and fairly likeable, and the atmosphere is pitch-perfect. When a game opens with a third of your crew getting slaughtered or driven insane, you know that you’re dealing with a story that doesn’t pull punches. It’s preachy at times, but in a non-intrusive way–most of the demons you encounter lecture you about how humankind has “failed”, either to take care of the environment or care for each other–but at the same time, the creature that is lecturing you is a little winged girl who cracks open human skulls and sucks out their still-warm brains. The dichotomy is surprisingly effective, which keeps the “humanity is ebil” speeches from grating too much.

Yet still I love it.

It comes in a really awesome box with a soundtrack CD! Hurray for gimmicky packaging!

For newcomers to the Shin Megami Tensei who whet their teeth on the Persona titles, there may be some culture shock here. Gone is the J-pop, Japanese honorifics, the high schools and the party dynamics. Instead, the game opens with ominous gregorian chanting and has you telling jokes to angels and devils, getting kidnapped and experimented on, witnessing atrocities and nightmares at every turn. You’ll wander impressive, enormous labyrinths with floors that teleport you, drop you down to the floor below, damage you, or launch you halfway across the map on a conveyor belt. Gamers familiar with Etrian Odyssey will be right at home here.

Like EO, you navigate 3-D maps and battle 2-D monsters in random battles. You’ll have plenty of hidden items to find, hidden doors to open, and the game slowly, steadily gives you more and more tools to use as you proceed deeper into the Schwarzwelt. Getting new weapons and items involves scavenging for materials, called “forma” hidden throughout every map. Hidden enemies, bosses, bonus quests and missions give you new “rare” forma, which allow you to upgrade your power suit and open new doors, fuse new demons, and kill God.

Hm? What’s that? Fuse new demons? Ah, I forgot to mention: this game is a monster-raising sim. Yeah, if you took Pokemon and mixed it with Satan, shot yourself full of Heroin and watched a documentary about the effects of pollution on wildlife, you’ll have this game. There’s over 300 demons to recruit, usually by negotiating with them. Negotiation is basically answering questions–you get three possible answers, with only one or two right answers (and sometimes the right answer changes). Use your charm, money, influence and strength to win demons over to your side, then level ’em up, collect their crystalized souls, and mash ’em together to get more. You won’t ever use any one demon for very long–most have enough weaknesses to counter-balance their strengths, and fusing demons together is often the only way to recruit the powerful boss monsters you defeat, or to learn new, more powerful skills.

Combat is turn-based with an emphasis on exploiting weaknesses (an SMT mainstay) and combos (less so). Every demon has an alignment–Law, Chaos or Neutral–as does your character, based upon moral choices you make throughout the game. Yes, there is a moral choice system, yes it affects the ending, no it isn’t stupid like Bioshock’s. You aren’t deciding between good and evil, but rather–basically–anarchy or fascism. Demons and angels basically convince you to either serve God unquestioningly or try to murder him, and if you pick either option, you’ll have your demonic pals love you a lot more. Same-alignment characters and demons can perform combo attacks together, dealing additional damage by striking elemental weaknesses. Careful party selection can allow you to unleash devastating combos at the cost of a single attack.

Basic combat screen. Note that at the bottom, the name's are colored--those correspond to alignments.

If you’ve casually heard of SMT games, you’ve probably heard that they’re very hard. To be fair, to anyone who hasn’t had a lot of experience playing RPGs before, they can be incredibly daunting. Strange Journey is definitely a challenge–whilst initially forgiving, it quickly punishes you for mistakes without mercy. Later mazes feature conveyor belts that dump you into holes that drop you down two whole floors and force you to spend ten minutes climbing all the way back to where you where to try again. You’ll be relying heavily on the automap feature to decipher some of the more complex mazes, all the while being assaulted by more and more powerful demons at every turn. Yet this game rewards just as much as it punishes.

If you put the effort into it, the game opens up like a warm, inviting souffle. The game discourages grinding much by scaling exp, but grinding for levels is useful when you are trying to farm individual formas, level up demons to get their crystals, or just get up one more level so you can fuse that swamp monster from Algonquian mythology you saw earlier. You never have to do any of this, but doing so gets you more items, more weapons, stronger demons and better abilities. There’s many different ways to approach any given problem–brute force is always available, but you have such wide varieties of demons to choose from that you can, with a little work and patience, put together a specialized team to exploit an enemy’s weakness. There’s nothing more satisfying than defeating an enemy far, far stronger than you just through clever strategy and pre-planning–and that’s the sort of satisfaction that makes Strange Journey great.

It isn’t a game for everyone. It’s light on plot, focusing more on its gameplay, and you’ll be spending more time on the Demon Fusion screen than you will exploring the dungeons. The game is long and very grim, and its turn-based combat and text-heavy, voiceless cutscenes can be off-putting. But if you’ve read everything up to this point and think “hm, that sounds kind of cool” then by all means, check this game out. It’s loaded with content, the story is great, the atmosphere chilling, the monster designs are absolutely fantastic and the soundtrack is phenomenal. It’s hard, sure, and slow-paced definitely. The graphics are a bit antiquated and sometimes the dialogue just turns into reams and reams of exposition–but if you stick with it, when you make it to the end of this Strange Journey, you’ll find it well worth the effort.

So, I’ve been listening to the Decemberists lately–and by lately I mean “replaying every album they have over and over again for the past four days” and I think it’s making me sick. I’ve stopped eating meat, I’m growing a big bush beard, and I found a scarf in my closet, along with all natural, 100% hemp clothing and…and even right now I feel…pretentious…and…and finicky and…AAARGGGH!

Hello, I’m the MidiMaestro, and I’ve now taken over this insipid video game blog to educate you plebeians about proper culture. None of these blips and bloops, these synthesized pseudo-sound effects to accompany your silly digital simulations–I’m here to talk about REAL culture, REAL music. None of this mind-numbing dreck that takes a sophisticated mind and reduces it to a liquified quivering mess.

Which brings us nicely to the Decemberists. The Decemberists, a Portland-based folk-rock band are, of course, a Bad Band. Now, you insipid sheep who think that Kanye West and My Chemical Romance are the epitome of culture and sophistication may be confused by what this means, because your infantile minds are incapable of grasping the graceful elegance of true culture, so I’ll explain. A Bad Band is a band that fails to do what it should do. The Decemberists are a bad band because they are a fusion of folk and rock who utilize rousing ballads about sailors and whales and an alarming amount of rape to express their sound. With their doughy faces and their big buttons and their heavy coats and their enormous hard-on for any word or phrase that is at least 80 years out of date, they smack of pretentiousness whilst remaining devoid of any real…real…AAARGH!

I can’t do this, I’m not snobbish enough. I love the Decemberists. I love every silly lyric and every rousing sea shanty ballad. I love their ersatz war songs, their twisted love songs, their heavy, intricate and obscure vocabulary. Sure, I can’t disagree with such scathing critiques as this Something Awful article, though I’d say it’s just a little unfair, but y’know what? They sound nice, and sometimes, very rarely, that can be enough for me.

The face of Rock and Roll, ladies and gentleman

Actually, let’s discuss appearances. It’s cripplingly difficult at times to try and justify the artistic merit of video games, mostly because not everyone can agree on what exactly qualifies a particular piece of work as “art”. Everyone’s favorite gaming critic, Yahtzee Croshaw (more famous for those ever-so-entertaining Zero Punctuation videos) remains one of the biggest defenders of gaming’s artistic credibility, assisted by his incredibly broad definition of just what art is. By Yahtzee’s definition, spelled out here, essentially defines Art as anything that inspires an emotional response (emotional attachment, he says). It’s a fair and fine definition, slightly less broad than TVTropes’ “everything ever written, filmed, drawn or shat upon is art and deserves its own page and twenty bazillion examples yes including gay fanfiction”.

The key to Yahtzee’s little article isn’t the definition of art he subscribes to, but rather his statement that art is “subjective” and nobody can agree on what that means. Personally, I think art is something that challenges you to think, that offers valid social critique and commentary, and/or touches you in some way, inspiring a powerful emotional response. See? Yahtzee’s definition is there and I just added to it. Problem is, games are such a new and unique medium, even twenty years later, that we still haven’t quite figured out what to do with them, and how to utilize them in an artful way.

Games are still rigidly trying to recreate movies, trying to make us cry using the same tricks of the trade that films do. This is, of course, changing–Modern Warfare has one of the most heart-wrenching finales I’ve ever seen in a game because it chooses to play out the final, tragic scene not in a non-interactive cutscene, but rather as part of the regular game experience. You get to lay there, paralyzed, able to look around but helpless to stop the horrible things happening around you, but in the end, you are still in control, and the final actions of the game are yours to deliver. To this day, I still hold that the climax of Modern Warfare is one of the finest in gaming, because it does what a game does, but still makes you feel.

But here’s the thing–it isn’t that hard to make a person cry. I mean, I could post a picture of a baby seal getting clubbed and 50% of you would burst into tears. Emotion is pliable, easily manipulated. If inspiring an emotional response is the prerequisite for something to be considered “art”, then I argue that true art has to step beyond that. It can’t simply be trying to make the audience feel–it has to be an expression of the artist’s feelings and, more importantly than that, it has to have a message. Maybe not a moral–but at the end of the experience, you should be able to look back and say “Ah, I see. My actions here have taught me X.”

See? Art! (Note: I do not condone the clubbing of baby seals and oh god I think I'm going to go cry now)

I don’t see that as often as I think we should. It does exist, of course–games like Persona 4, Fallout 3, Phantom Brave (though you may kill yourself out sheer despair before learning this game’s lesson) have morals and messages built into their narratives, and the first two actually tie their message into the gameplay itself, but…well, I guess what I’m getting at is, where are the protest games? Where are the games that make a political statement, that demand revolution and change, that inspire controversy beyond just “oh it is corrupting the children”? Where’s the game where you play a closeted homosexual suffering prejudice and intolerance in a society that claims itself to be a bastion of acceptance and freedom? Where’s the game where you are a poor, uneducated Afghani boy who has to join a sadistic terrorist organization or watch your family die? Where’s the game where you play a corrupt politician who casually subverts the desires of his own constituents whilst crafting broader and better lies to keep them placated?

In 1979, Pink Floyd released the Wall and it blew everyone’s fucking mind. Subversive, intricate, full of social, emotional, and philosophical impact wrapped around trippy melodies and satire-ridden lyrics, the Wall remains in my mind–and the mind of many–as one of the best albums of all time, and certainly one of the best pieces of social commentary ever made. And don’t get me started on Bob Dylan–he managed an entire career of protest songs in just three years, and then found drugs and later Jesus. MY point is, where is video gaming’s “The Wall”? Where’s our Bob Dylan?

The game would force you to eat your meat or you won't get any pudding. Then you have to jump on the Hydra's back.

I’ve seen games that made me cry. I’ve seen games that made me feel. I don’t doubt games can pass as art, but can games inspire revolutions? Can games unify people, bring us out of our apathetic ignorance to raise our skinny arms to the sky and scream for the walls to come tumbling down? Why is it that gaming hasn’t tried to spark a revolution? Maybe it’s because we don’t have as big an indie gaming scene as we should. Maybe games are too expensive to make, and have too much corporate oversight. Maybe because there isn’t a game developer with the balls to actually make a game that isn’t “shoot bad guys til you when”. Maybe because gamers are too finicky to accept anything that challenges them. Maybe we’ve all grown stupid and complacent. Maybe we don’t believe in anything anymore.

I don’t have any answer for it. Twenty years old, gaming is still in its awkward adolescence. It hasn’t found a battle to fight yet, a flag to fly. Maybe it never will–maybe gaming is meant to remain a simple distraction, a means of escaping the doldrums of our lives. Maybe gaming shouldn’t try to tackle real world issues. I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you have any. But for me? I’d like to see it. I’d like to see games that try and confront issues that we refuse to talk about. I’d like a game to force me to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, just to show me what it’s like.

Is that too much to hope for? Well, I suppose I can just keep listening to the Decemberists. They’re playing a song about drowning children now. I don’t know what lesson it teaches, but it sure sounds nice.