Category: Video Games


When I’m watching recent trailers for games like Deus Ex 3 or Dead Space 2 I am both impressed by the visuals and the cinematics, yet somewhat put off by one simple thing: these trailers don’t make me think of a video game. They could be trailers for a movie or TV show–they utilize the same tricks of the trade, the same juxtaposition of brooding monologues or music against a rapidly changing series of scenes, edited together. They often don’t show gameplay. They often use non-game music, or maybe a particularly grandiose track from the game’s score. But they don’t make me think of a video game–as I imagine video games to be.

Gaming has become much more cinematic as technology has evolved, and more power to it. Games look better now, certainly, and there are many truly amazing spectacle moments, such as the Stage Fight in Alan Wake or scaling the destroyed train in Uncharted 2, and these are examples of a great blending of beautiful graphics and Hollywood-esque dramatic flair with engrossing and hard-hitting gameplay. It lets you feel as though you really are doing whatever it is you are doing on screen. But a part of me is victim to that crippling industry curse of nostalgia, and so I wonder at times if games have lost a bit of their identity.

Look at Anamanaguchi.

THAT is the sound of games. Something you could never imagine seeing in a movie or any other medium. An artistic blend of primitive sounds for primitive visuals, yet stellar gameplay. When I hear bands like Crystal Castles, I think of games–when I listen to the soundtrack for Alan Wake, I don’t. Music in games has always been important, but there’s more to a game soundtrack than it just sounding good. When games were stuck in the 16-bit era, games had an identity–every pixel and animation was unique, imitating nothing but previous games, while at the same time invoking unique art styles or cartoons or even attempting to replicate real life. Pixels were a paint all of their own, and talented artists who had no histories to draw upon instead had to craft something truly different, using tools untested and unproven, and the result was a collection of some of the most, if not THE most memorable games of all time.

Look at Megaman. Megaman is one of the oldest and most enduring (if maybe the most overplayed and oversold) franchises in gaming history. Anamanaguchi takes great inspiration from the stage themes for these games, the strange, off-kilter, synthesized Midi tracks that were all they could fit into the cartridges. You take one look at Megaman, any old Megaman, and you know it is a game. You immediately recognize everything a game has: a life bar, side-scrolling, pixel art, Midi music, enemies and power-ups. It’s the absolute quintessential game experience–a test of a gamer’s skill and reflexes as he or she must win against insurmountable odds and forge the adventure forward. The plot relies on the gamer completing the levels–whether the story ends happily is entirely in the hands of the player, and all that transpires on-screen is because of your actions.

This is a video game.

Modern games are not bad, and I don’t want you to think that this is a criticism of modern games in anything more than maybe aesthetics. This is really just me being  nostalgic for a time when games had their own identity–when the medium was unique and vibrant, more than just a simulator or pastiche.

Compare. What tells you this is a game, despite the CG model?

The above screenshot might as well be an actual gameplay shot. Or how about this:

Take away the ammo counter and the nametags, and what is this?

Games have only gotten better over the years. Yes, there’s tons of derivative games on the market and, yes, many would say that the market stifles innovation, but games play better, look better, and generally have better stories and writing. But I can’t help but wonder if the term “video game” really means much nowadays. I wonder if games have an identity anymore. 3-D models are now the norm, but 3-D models don’t invoke the same degree of…I want to say charm, but perhaps the better term is “uniqueness”. Old 3-D graphics, like Silent Hill 1, look horrible in today’s day and age, whereas old NES graphics, like Megaman up above, still hold up, despite their age and the jutting pixels. 2-D has aged incredibly well, all things considered, and it’s nice to see it isn’t completely dead and that pixel art can still be seen even in modern games like Call of Duty: Black Ops. Back in the day, games simply had a look that was wholly and completely their own. Now, that’s less the case.

There are many games that have a distinctive appearance, of course. Many modern Nintendo franchises retain something of their 8 and 16-bit sensibilities even in their more modern offerings–probably because the Wii might as well be a 16-bit console (no no, I kid, Wii games look very nice for 5 years ago). Sonic as well, though god forbid they’ve done everything they can to  make Sonic as anime as possible. For a realistic-looking game, Assassin’s Creed also has a rather distinct visual style, integrated into the story as well by the Animus and the means through which you are actually viewing the past. It’s actually a sterling example of explaining gameplay mechanics in a way that furthers the story and immersion, rather than requiring gamers to ignore it in favor thereof. But the traditional trappings of games are falling by the wayside. Scores are gone from everything but arcade titles or those trying to BE arcade styles, health bars are being replaced by red screens and blood spatters, and music is becoming traditional, utilizing orchestras or heavy guitars and all that business. And it is good, yes.

But a part of me can’t help but sigh a little, as nostalgia creeps into my cynical mind, when I listen to the Scott Pilgrim Videogame soundtrack and I remember how games looked, and how games sounded. I still think it’s good. I still think these older titles hold up in aesthetics and sound, and while I’m not one who goes on about  how older games are much better than current ones (They aren’t, for the most part) I do feel that older games were more…game-like. They had a feel,a  voice, a look all of their own, and of all the casualties of innovation that we’ve shed a tear for, this may be the only one that really strikes me. I don’t want a return to health bars and three lives, score counters or anything like that. I don’t feel the trappings are as necessary to a game’s identity moreso than the feel of the experience is.

Gaming is going through a tough adolescence. It was a prodigal child, ambitious and impressive, full of attitude and vigor, and underneath the corporate manufacturing process, the demographic-fueled imitation industry that grips game development like an infant with a rattle, I feel that there remains a potent lust to make games their own again. Give gaming back its identity, its sense of self. How can we do this without sacrificing variety or innovation? That I don’t know. How can we do this while still pushing graphics engines as far as they can go? I don’t know. What I do know is, there must be a way. Maybe someone can tell me. Maybe someone will make a game that shows me.

For now, I’ll toast my nostalgia and listen to my midi soundtracks and let out a single wistful sigh. Then I’ll plug in Bioshock 2 and see how many Splicers I can get in one Electro-bolt chain.

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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.

Ef Pee Ess

Let’s talk about the humble First Person Shooter genre. Boy, there’s an enduring game genre. Ever since Wolfenstein 3-D first handed us a pixellated pistol and had us kill Nazis for fun and profit, gamers have time and time again gotten behind the barrel of their favorite rifle to make a nameless bad guy a little holier than thou.

I like FPSes. There’s a simplicity to them–point, shoot, dodge–that makes just about any given FPS easy to pick up and play, and the fun is right there in the title–shooter. Who doesn’t like shooting things? And what about the novel concept of the first person at all? Beyond the world of literature, the first person perspective has been ignored by most entertainment mediums, for a variety of reasons–in movies, it makes you dizzy, it’s hard to film. In comics you COULD do it, but why would you? It’s far more dramatic to have two superheroes visibly punching each other than to have just one giant fist filling a panel. But games? There’s a different story. It’s instant immersion–you and I see the world through the first person every moment of every day, and it’s a natural transition from the real world to the digital one as soon as you pick up the controller.

An image for the smudgy pixel history books.

But it’s not exactly fresh discourse to say that FPSes have grown just a tad bit…stale. I mean, how many times can you shoot an alien with a plasma rifle, or snipe a sneaky Kraut from atop a clocktower 100 yards away before you start to get a sense of deja vu? The FPS genre is very generational–each gaming generation, a new FPS introduces a fresh, innovative mechanic that captures the hearts and minds of gamers, and then for the next three years every other game studio tries to emulate that mechanic until it has been run into the ground like Mufasa.

It started getting really bad around the Halo years. Now, Halo was a great game–it wasn’t exactly innovative, but it took a variety of different gameplay mechanics from a bunch of other shooters and combined them in a slick package with a fun story and co-op so that you and your friends can do more than just shoot each other. It popularized the shield mechanic, limited weapon inventories, and grenade-heavy combat scenarios against multiple, varied, and deadly intelligent enemies. It was lauded for the ground it broke and heaped with awards and awards. So how did the game’s industry respond?

They ripped it off. Boom! Space Marines everywhere! Limited weapons everywhere! Dodgy vehicle sections everywhere! A female voice in your ear telling you where to go! Bang, boom, and only the World War II shooters–who have been stuck in their own inescapable quagmire since the mists of time were still fresh upon this earth–were spared from the unending rush to be Halo–or to beat Halo. Problem is, everyone wanted to beat Halo at its own game, ignoring completely the reason why Halo was so popular–not because it had space marines or grenades or blue aliens, but because it was something new.

Remember when this was new?

Then Halo 2 came along, changed the formula even more (regenerating health! Smarter enemies! Not shit level design! Bigger storyline!) and shit went bananas. I’d argue that we’re STILL ripping off Halo 2, almost unavoidable at this point when you start making a game about space marines.  Everything was basically “Halo with X Gimmick” and very few of them were particularly good. Now, though, we stopped ripping off Halo because a new kid came to town and kicked Halo in the balls, took his lunch money, and then shock-tortured him with a car battery.

Of course, I’m talking about COD.

It's starting to look...

No, wait, wrong one. I meant Call of Duty–specifically, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. While the Call of Duty franchise has always been a somewhat above-average World War 2 shooter franchise (never seen that one before) doomed to the comfortable quiet mediocrity that has afflicted the World War II shooter genre (and by Christ, am I the only one who is bothered that that is an actual genre?) and it would have remained as such if not for the fact that, in a stroke of utter brilliance, Treyarch decided to hand development over to a studio called Infinity Ward, who promptly dropped the played out WWII trappings, set the game in present day, and created a tense, powerfully cinematic, poignant and topical first person experience. So good was Modern Warfare that its sequel, cementing it as an official spin-off series, Modern Warfare 2 was like a nuclear bomb made out of money, exploding into millions and millions of dollars and leaving the poor bastards stuck in ground zero a slow and painful death of ten thousand papercuts.

And thus…you may have guessed it…everyone ripped it off. It’s kind of a vicious cycle, isn’t it? A camo-clad, alien Ouroburos, the genre continues to churn out derivative and samey shooters, each one like a fat man at a buffet, desperate to get all the fresh chicken wings before they all go cold, heedless of the flecks of hot sauce staining his shirt, dribbling down his triple chins, splashing everywhere. Let’s keep pumping this shit out, because people buy them. And they will. And you have. Remember the idea of an economic vote? Y’know, where the games you decide to buy determine what games will be made? Yeah, well, you fuckers love shooting things and apparantly you love shooting things the exact same way. We’ve had Call of Duty with Vehicles, Call of Duty with Dust, Call of Duty with Vehicles and Dust, Call of Duty in a Jungle, Call of Duty in my Pants–it’s unending!

...so very very...

And when it isn’t Call of Duty, it’s Halo! Still! Halo evolved combat in 2001–almost ten years ago, and we are still playing it. I understand why of course–there’s many reasons, chief amongst them I would say is the accessibility as well as the emphasis on multiplayer over single-player. FPS games basically thrive off their competitive (or occasionally cooperative) play, and when a formula works, folks don’t seem to want to change it. Half the people who contributed to the 55  million Modern Warfare 2 units sold are the kinds of gamers who only play first person shooters anyway. They’re the ones who want a simple, familiar, pick-up and play experience so they can shoot people online for hours on end. It’s a kind of sad reality, especially considering just how innovative FPS games can be.

Look at Metroid Prime. Or Half Life 2. Mirror’s Edge, Vampire: The Masquerade, Fallout 3–also first person, mostly shooters. But each is radically different from each other, and from the mainstays of the genre–Metroid focuses on platforming and exploration, Half-Life on story and physics, Mirror’s Edge on falling off tall buildings a lot, Fallout on the 1950’s. The first person perspective opens up as of yet untouched, fertile avenues for storytelling and gameplay. The idea, the concept of not just experiencing events through an avatar, but through your own literal two eyes is incredibly alluring, and there’s still so much to be done. The shooter genre has fallen behind even the most conservative gaming genres, and while the smart developers have taken the FP part of FPS to new and exciting places, the S remains stuck in 1944, still trying to liberate France.

...familiar.

So what can we do? Simple. Stop it. Stop buying this shit. Stop accepting the bare minimum–you have Modern Warfare, you have it. Don’t pretend like you don’t, everybody does. If you want it, you have it–why buy the same game again and again and again? Wake up and smell the ashes! We live in a world of easy information, where we can compare and contrast anything and everything, where we can be as informed about what we buy and consume as we care to. Does nobody care? Does nobody care that one of gaming’s cornerstones–one of the most enduring and historic gaming genre in the history of the medium–is also one of the most stagnant, most bereft of creativity, thought or innovation? Who is going to be the first person to shoot these lazy games in the kneecaps and shake them until they give you something new and unique? Will it be you?

Or do you just not care?

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.

http://www.tindeck.com/listen/txev

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.


Jade Update

Hello loyal readers. Right off the bat I should apologize I’ve been lacking in updates for the past few days. I’ve been busy getting resettled into my old house and packing for my move at the end of the month–updates may be slow around the first of August as well. Of course, it doesn’t help that I haven’t gotten a good idea for my next article, but fear not–I’ve got some stuff planned, and some things I’d like to try. This site is in flux at the moment, and there’s gonna be some awesome stuff coming in within the next month or so, so look forward to that.

That out of the way, I won’t leave you without any kind of entertainment. So, let’s talk about Jade Empire.

Yeah! Jade Empire! Anyone else remember this? This game was Knights of the Old Republic developer Bioware’s follow up to their big hit, and I always felt that this game was never as well received as KOTOR was. Jade Empire came amidst a flurry of hype, plenty of build-up and talk in the leading magazines, and I know it sold decently, but it never caught on in the hearts and minds of gamers as KOTOR before it or as Dragon Age or Mass Effect after.

There’s plenty of reasons for this, not the least of which is that the game isn’t all that great. Now, don’t get me wrong, it isn’t bad per se, but considering its pedigree and considering what came before it, the game is oddly…shallow. It is still an open-ended RPG like KOTOR–you create your character, picking from one of three builds–speedy, bulky, or balanced–and one of four initial fighting styles–fast, very fast, balanced, slow–and are unceremoniously dumped in the midst of your idyllic martial arts school that is just begging to be firebombed by the time the tutorial ends.

The game goes through all of KOTOR’s basic motions–you talk to various peoples around town, find out what their problems are, and then you have a choice of being heroic and nice and help them out or the choice of being a colossal asshole and kick sand in their faces. Yes, the moral choice system is back, but instead of “light side/dark side” (or the more clever Renegade/Paragon system of Mass Effect) you have “Open Palm” and “Closed Fist”–to fit into the ancient China motif, I guess. Though the game describes these two philosophies as being more complex than just “good or evil”, in execution it rarely plays out the way they describe.

The Way of the Closed Fist = Bloody Giblets!

Rather, Open Palm people are calm, collected, and totally non-confrontational. They have the power to destroy, but choose only to wield it if necessary. They believe harmony is better than anything else. Closed Fist users are supposed to be “Might makes Right” sort of pseudo-fascists, who believe that only the strong survive and have little sympathy for the weak. If you are enslaved, it is because you were not strong enough to defeat the slavers, etc. Not evil, but a harsh philosophy–right?

Not so much. Jade Empire basically boils your choices down to this: nice guy or bully. You can help an old lady across the street or break both her legs and that’s it. People complain that KOTOR’s Dark Side choices are nothing more than cartoon supervillainy, but Jade Empire’s Closed Fist is just being a schoolyard bully, full stop. While occasionally the actual philosophy behind it is brought out to justify your decision, the game opts early on to ignore any nuance or subtlety to the choices and just make them clean cut, black and white “good” and “bad”.

Combat is a fun change of pace from KOTOR. They ditched the turn-based dice mechanics for a real-time, combo-driven system. It’s tragically simple, meant surely to appeal to those pasty, vein-clogged bloated seals whom all RPG developers feel is their target demographic (I’ll refrain from expressing my own insult at the assumption), but it just translates as dull. Combat isn’t particularly difficult, and no enemy can really throw more than the same two tricks at you time and time again, so the only time you are ever in any danger is if you just get way too cocky and pick a fight with too many foes at once. You can beat the game just by blocking and using your quick hits, and the first two styles you get in the game are more than enough to carry you through.

Oh, yes, let’s talk about the styles, hm? This part I actually like. Instead of managing equipment and armor and a big inventory, just about all of your skills and stat boosts come from styles and tactics you learn from various martial arts masters. Your styles are essentially your weapons, and they come in 4 types–support, magic, weapon, and coconut–I mean, martial. You can have any 4 mapped to the D-pad at any time, and you’ll find that you’ll always have the same three on at any time, so the only main variable is what you put in your fourth one. After getting a third of the way through the game being a heroic kung-fu fighter, I decided to use that slot for the one gun you get in the game, which amounts to a “win” button, as fists < bullets.

Tactics are essentially your armor and accessories. Learning them usually boosts one stat whilst detracting from another. Since there are only three stats, you have to be careful in how you balance yourself, though keeping every stat well-developed isn’t too hard to do. Anyway, it’s a nifty system–a bit shallow, sure, but it does eliminate most of the genre-typical micromanaging and lets you go about murdering things.

I haven’t beaten the game yet, but the storyline is pretty basic–your master is kidnapped, you have to go get him back, and also maybe save the world from a zombie apocalypse. I’m…really not joking that much. Within the first ten minutes, you are informed that there is no room in Hell and the dead are overrunning the living and you are the only person whose fists are strong enough to punch ghosts. Yes, in this game you punch ghosts to death. I give it points, if only for the sheer cheek of it all.

EDIT: The game’s story is actually quite decent, if a bit rushed towards the end. There’s a really cool twist near the end and the characters all shine as much as they can. It’s not stellar, but it’s probably the best part of the game.

If anything radical changes as I get further in it, I’ll post my thoughts, but as it is, the game is an interesting glance back at an older age of RPGs, and for 12 bucks on Xbox Arcade, there’s no reason not to pick it up–though I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. It’s got its big flaws–dull combat and a shallow morality system–and add to this the fact that the developers seemed to run out of ideas for their setting long before they’d run out of gameplay time, and you find yourself with a game that could have been amazing, but is only mediocre at best.

Hey kids, let’s talk about Pokemon!

No no, not that Pokemon. While the original TV show remains a nostalgic guilty pleasure that most of us would rather forget, we’re talking about the actual games that started this whole lunatic craze. Pokemon has and probably always will hold a special place in my heart, if only because unlike so many of the big Nintendo franchises–Mario, Zelda, Metroid–Pokemon started and got big during my gaming life–in fact, right at the start. I was 6 years old when Pikachu first reared his adorably marketable head upon the world stage, creating a media sensation on par with Beanie Babies, Tickle Me Elmo, and–if you ask me–formally starting the invasion of all things Japan into the Western (and especially American) media world.

Looking back, it’s kind of funny how insane us kids went over anything and everything Pokemon. We ate up the trading cards, the action figures, the insipid-yet-strangely-entertaining cartoon, the whole nine yards. Pokemon became the status symbol of the elementary school social circles, and if you weren’t in, you weren’t anybody. But putting aside the possible social, psychological and emotional impact these games had on us, let’s actually talk about the games.

Pika Pika

This is the culmination of centuries upon centuries of successful marketing

Pokemon Versions Red and Blue hit the states in 1998, a full two years after Japan had been growing increasingly obsessed with them. They established the formula that has unerringly continued to this day–you, a young boy (or, in later versions, girl) wake up one morning in your sleepy small town, visit the local scientist, and end up getting sent out on a quest to catalog each and every one of these strange, pseudo-sentient creatures called Pokemon. To do this, you must find and capture them, and then train them to battle other Pokemon, either in the wild or under the commands of rival trainers. Eventually, you end up taking the “Pokemon League Challenge”, where you must prove yourself by beating 8 tough trainers in 8 “gyms” across the land, then challenge the ultimate Pokemon masters at the end. Thus, you have basically two goals–become the Pokemon Champion, and…well…catch ’em all.

The first game had 150 different Pokemon, requiring both versions to get all them. Now, 14 years later, there are about 507, and more on the way, as Pokemon Black and White has been announced, which will expand the Pokedex even further. Pokemon games remain incredibly popular and incredibly successful, though the fervor in the West has died somewhat. Now, as gamers who once played the games when they were six hit adulthood, they have to find more fulfilling reasons to invest their time in these games than they used to.

Nowadays, you check any message board about Pokemon where the average poster is older than 15, and you’ll find that Pokemon has become less a game about catching cute critters and battling with them, and more an absurd mathematical experiment in number crunching as it correlates to the growth of digital monsters. Pokemon’s all about numbers now–you got your IVs, EVs, DVs and STDS. You have websites dedicated to the refining of these values, to the development of perfect movesets catered to each and every Pokemon, and a healthy online battling circuit, complete with tournaments. Pokemon has completely warped an entire generation, and that generation continues to play these games even now, despite–or maybe because–the fact that these games haven’t changed in 14 goddamned years!

I’ve been playing the latest Pokemon remakes, Heart Gold and Soul Silver, and while I am aware that they are shamelessly cashing in on my childhood nostalgia in order to drum up revenue, I cannot deny that Pokemon games remain engaging. The monster-collector genre (or subgenre, if you prefer) is never better represented nor refined than in Pokemon games, with each and every genre taking the basic formula and improving upon it in subtle ways. Fans of the game will take great pains to illustrate to you just how different Pokemon games are from generation to generation, and while they aren’t technically wrong, they are just as full of it as you might think.

Generation 1

Generation 2

Generation 3

Generation 4

Just…just look! Besides the spritework being cleaned up and improved upon, more detail and more effects put in, the games all look alike. There’s common visual style at work, sure…but it remains true that no essential or important aspect of the Pokemon franchise has changed since the series’ inception. Even on a handheld that can easily produce very good-looking 3-D models, Pokemon remains 2-D, handheld and turn-based.

I’ve played every major Pokemon release and some of the spin-off games too (more on those in a sec) and I can tell you what–nothing essential about the experience has changed for me since the beginning. Yes, the games play a lot better now–battles are more streamlined, the options and customization of your various mons have never been broader or deeper, there’s more to the games’ storylines than “catch ’em all and be the best” and the music/graphics have all improved considerably. But the essentially experience of playing a Pokemon game? Unchanged–much like every other Nintendo franchise, Pokemon seems content to do what it does and simply perfect upon it.

It works. It may not be the best use of technology or innovation, but this approach…it works.

Now, whether it works for the best? Well, that’s arguable. Pokemon games sell 50% on nostalgia. The only reason any adult or close-enough-to gamer is picking these games up is because they still remember how much fun they had with them when they were a kid. They want that experience again, and hey–if there’s a bunch of new monsters, new challenges, and if the system is improved, why not go down that memory lane again? Sure, you’re essentially buying the same game over and over again, but if it’s fun, why complain? I mean, eventually the well will run dry, but by then a new generation of kids will be hooked on the mons, and Nintendo will continue to reap the profits.

I admit, Pokemon games don’t enchant me nearly as much as they used to. I still enjoy them–I think my love for the Pokemon universe, the various creatures and their colorful, elaborate designs will never fully fade away. The main Pokemon games retain a child-like innocence in tone and an inviting, relaxing atmosphere that I can just sit down with whatever the latest game is and let all my troubles fade away. I can engross myself in finding new monsters whom I’ve never trained before, leveling them up and discovering their untapped secrets and potential–but with every generation, I love it less and less. I mean, how many times can you play the same game before you get bored of it? Pokemon will probably be the test of that.

There is some hope though–or at least, an alternative. The Pokemon franchise has grown so big that not even a single game series is enough for it. There’s a variety of Pokemon spin-off games, ranging from bland (The various Stadium games) to entertaining, but shallow (Pokemon Colosseum) to surprisingly inventive (The Pokemon Ranger games). There’s even a Pokemon rogue-like dungeon crawler series that’s supposed to be pretty good, though I’ve never tried it. The more I see the Pokemon franchise expand, the more I realize that its growth and development seems isolated to only these spin-off franchises. None of the innovation–be it good or ill–is vested into the main generation games. They remain untouchable, and I think that’s not healthy for the franchise as a whole.

Yeeeeeeeaaaaah!

Seriously, check out the Ranger series. It's childish, but surprisingly fun.

Games have a sad tendency to get stuck in ruts. Due to the high costs of making games, and the fickle nature of the market, most developers will play it safe in order to ensure making ends meet. Pokemon is one franchise that could absolutely get away with experimentation, has a system that lends itself well to branching off and exploring all manners of gameplay and story progression, and has the financial capital of gaming giant Nintendo backing them up, but refuses to do so. Brand loyalty is one thing, but seeing how creative the spin-off games can be, and how much potential remains untapped within the Pokemon world, it comes across as less loyalty and more laziness.

I’d love to see Pokemon shrug off its turn-based shackles and boldly try something new. Even Dragon Quest, a franchise that literally advertises itself as old-school and unchanging, decided to discard series traditions with Dragon Quest IX. Pokemon is just as established and arguably even more popular. Pokemon had such an impact on my childhood because it was something radically different. Yes, monster-raising sims existed before Pikachu was even a twinkle in his Raichu daddy’s eye, but none were so accessible and so mainstream. As times have changed, Pokemon hasn’t, and what is accessible and mainstream today is nothing like what it was when I was young.

If Pokemon wants to regain its former glory, retake the gaming throne once again, it needs to step up and become relevant once again. Challenge us, excite us, give us something we’ve never seen before.

Of course, this is Nintendo we’re talking about. I’m wasting my time, I’m sure. Still…it’s nice to dream, eh? Now, if you excuse me, I’ve got one last Gym Leader to clobber…