Show; Don’t Tell

There is a piece of advice that has been applied to media for years: “Show; don’t tell”. The idea is that, if something happens and is worth being relayed to the viewers, it should be shown in detail rather than merely being described. Of course, there are always exceptions, but in general it is useful advice. Gaming has its own equivalent which is “Play; don’t show”. The idea here is that it is important to give players agency–let them carry out the actions–as it provides a more immerersive experience. NIS, the creators of Mugen Souls, doesn’t seem to have learned the first bit of advice, much less the second.

Mugen Souls’ plot is a bit thin. The main character–Chou-Chou–wakes up, see some pretty things in the sky, and decides to make them hers. Of course, it turns out that she is the (self-proclaimed) absolute god of the universe, so she may actually have a shot at it. She carries out her ill-conceived plot by using her power to turn things into her “peons” to capture a spaceship (which is inexplicably always called an airship) and going from world to world turning the two most important people in each–the demon lord and the hero who fights said demon lord–into her peons. Since she controls the most powerful  people and those people presumably control the worlds, she presumably controls the planets (by the transitive property of intergalactic conquest). The whole thing is rather tongue-in-cheek with characters routinely pointing out the lack of sense that Chou-Chou has and the insanity of the actions that occur. Sometimes the more set-upon characters even make comments about their lack of screen time.

Of course, the real problem with Mugen Souls is that nearly every important interaction is carried out without stimulus. An airship crashes? Rumble the controller and do a fade to black; don’t bother to show the aftermath. Final Fantasy VI provided more  on the SNES for the same situation! Main character turns a hero into a peon? Fixed image with voiceover. One character physically assaults another? Let’s just show their usual dialog pictures and have some text and/or voiceover describing the scene. Of course, we have less than a dozen images for each character, so they’ll never be anything more than vaguely similar to the situation at hand. Mugen Souls isn’t even meeting the standards that one would expect from modern film or television. Forget having anything like agency when it comes time for the plot to happen. All the player is expected to do is carry out the battles and of course to grind.

Therein lies the problem of so many JRPGs, including Mugen Souls: their developers seem to think that the kind of grinding that was acceptable back in the PS1 and PS2 is still appropriate today. Perhaps it is unfair of me to say it about Mugen Souls since it is coming from the creators of Disgaea (The Industry Leader in Obsessive-Compulsive Grinding™). They’ve made over half a dozen games in which grinding was a primary focus.

The gameplay itself is rather similar to the Star Ocean series. There are world maps to explore with enemies on them. When you run into an enemy, you get dropped into a battle mode. This battle mode is turn based, unlike the real-time battles preferred by the Star Ocean games. The battles can be a bit of an over-the-top spectacle, especially early on, but they quickly become tedious. By half-way through the game, I’d turned off the battle animations entirely just to speed things along. It turns out that if everything is made into a spectacle, then nothing really surprises anymore.

I’m sure that there is someone out there who Mugen Souls will resonate with greatly. However, I think most people will find it to be more of a chore than anything else.

Mugen Souls: 0

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Outtatime

There have been many games based on the Back to the Future franchise. Most of them have suffered from the problem of licensed games. TellTale games, however, has managed something that few developers have: make a game true to its license.

Back to the Future: The Game is an adventure game à la Monkey Island or The Dig. Since it was originally released as a series of five short episodes, though, it manages to avoid some of the more troublesome things that plague the genre: such as the flashlight that you have to pick up in the first room and carry the whole game.

BttF:TG starts two years after the movies in 1986. Doc Brown is nowhere to be found and his belongings are being sold to pay off his debts. Inexplicably, the Delorean reappears containing Doc’s dog Einstein, and a message that the emergency recall system was activated, but no Doc Brown. Thus begins Marty’s quest to save Doc from the past.

The writing in BttF:TG is both sharp and true to the original movies. Characters are well defined and the dialog is well executed. It doesn’t hurt that the original Doc Brown–Christopher Lloyd–comes back to do much of his own dialog. The game’s episodic nature also allows it to have the sort of cliffhangers that the movies have, this time between each episode. Even though its very much a cribbing of the source material, each one feels reasonable based on the time travel shenanigans that are carried out.

My biggest complaint about the game is probably system related. I played it on the Playstation 3 and it doesn’t feel like a native there. The walking controls are a bit wonky, especially when there are camera transitions. There are some noticeably (and consistently) laggy bits. The object selection system is also a bit cumbersome. Given that, I’d probably recommend avoiding it on the consoles and to pick it up on the PC or Mac (I imagine the iOS version is also decent, but can’t vouch for it personally).

And I do recommend picking it up. Adventure games died for many reasons–some of them fair. This adventure game is one worth playing though, especially for fans of Back to the Future which, as far as I’m concerned, should be the entire human race.

Back to the Future: The Game: 1

 

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Where’s the Horror?

The Resident Evil games have been changing for the last few installments. The earlier games were concerned about resource management and puzzle solving as their primary focus. Beginning with RE4, the games started to become more like action games. There were still puzzles, but they were fewer. This also coincided with a general improvement to the games controls which made action segments more reasonable. Resident Evil 6 brings us to the completion of the transition: a survival horror game in name only.

It’s true, of course, that Resident Evil 5 had started the actiony trend, but RE6 seems to be going even further. Rather than claustrophobic spaces, the game lavishes on huge set pieces. It almost feels like the creators were trying to emulate the Uncharted games. There’s a problem with this though–the writing of RE6 isn’t tight enough to make me suspend disbelief for the crazy action sequences. Sure, fleeing from an avalanche over collapsing glaciers may sounds awesome and fun on paper, but when the former lacks anything like a cause and the latter was never mentioned even in passing, the whole thing feels like a writer ticking off a check box which reads “spend no more than 20 minutes between action segments”. In fact, much of the game feels like inexplicable locales strung together by the need to have something, anything going on constantly.

The plot of RE6 is rather standard fair: zombies threaten the world and only our intrepid heroes can save the day. That’s not really a surprise and it was what I expected going in. The story itself is divided up into four interweaving campaigns–each of which involves two characters: one is a returning character (Chris for RE1, Leon from RE2, Sherry from RE2, Ada from RE2) and the other is a completely new sidekick, here to fill the roll of co-op buddy. This interlocking campaigns may be the most interesting point of the whole game.

Each individual campaign can be played solo or co-op. Like in RE5, the companion is always there, unlike in RE5, it is relatively easy to allow anyone to drop into the co-op slot when you’re playing. Sometimes this can be annoying–such as the companion with the infinite ammo grenade launcher continuously knocking you down–more often though, it is nice to have a truly useful partner. While that isn’t interesting in-and-of itself, what is interesting is when two of the campaigns have an overlap. At that point, the game searches for another set of players who are also about to play the overlapping section and has them join as well for a real 4 player experience. It isn’t quite perfect–some campaigns don’t have the greatest timing–but it is an interesting idea.

And therein, I think, lies the problem: even its most interesting idea is imperfect and lacks polish. I’m not sure if the plot itself can be blamed on a lack of polish–the problems feel deeper–but I do know one thing that can: too many screens. Just going from the PS3 dashboard to in-game play requires almost a dozen button presses: “Loaded data, press X to continue”, “Press Start”, “Play game”, “Select campaign”, “Choose character”, “Choose settings”, “Configure game mode”, etc. Just getting through the menu system should give you an achievement. There are so many things here that should have just been hidden or auto-completed. The fact that you have to go through a substantial subset of these things every time you want to play makes them all the worse.

Once you actually get into the game, most of it is pretty solid: the controls are mostly suitable and the movement is smooth. There are, however, two glaring flaws in the game. The first is the lack of a legitimate dodge move. Action games, especially games where taking any damage is a bad idea, need a spammable dodge move. While RE6 has a dodge, it is mostly single use only and is more likely to get you killed than to help you. Secondly, there just isn’t enough feedback on when you’re hurting enemies. I tend to like knowing if the giant monster is taking any damage at all from my constant barrage of fire, but without any flinching or health bars, its impossible to tell. This problem is compounded  twofold by the fact that some creatures seem to have weak bits but actually take damage anywhere and that pretty much everything at all boss-like has far too many hit points.

So there you have it. Resident Evil 6: inexplicable plot, lousy enemy design, terrible menus. How did you fall so far, Capcom?

Resident Evil 6: 0

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