Why does anyone hang out with Qwark?

Insomniac Games has recently been on an experimentation spree. Rather than continuing with a new, full installment in their flagship Ratchet & Clank series, they’ve been putting together games in the R&C universe but with unconventional play mechanics. In 2011, it was Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One with its design around 2-4 player co-operative play. This time around, it is Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault.

Full Frontal Assault follows after the events of All 4 One–Qwark is no longer president and has become restless. For some unknown reason, Ratchet & Clank are still hanging out with Qwark and are all contacted by a mysterious masked villain who informs them that various planetary defense systems across the galaxy have been disabled. The R&C crew must thus personally defend each of these planets against invasion by marauders for if they call in the galactic police, the evil villain will destroy the defense systems completely.

With this we end up with something like a cross between tower-defense and a (mostly) single-player DOTA clone. Each level presents a wide open map to explore centered around your base. As you complete objectives, your base comes under attack and you’re forced to rush back to defend it or to use the bolts that you’ve gathered in the mission to put up base defenses.

The problem with this setup is that every level feels the same. You always start out without any weapons and must go find them. You always start out without any money to build base defenses. You always must go out in search of everything you need to do your job. Making matters worse, the game only has five maps–two of which are palette swaps of each other and one of which is the end boss level and thus doesn’t have base defense.

What little of the game there was, I enjoyed, but there isn’t anywhere near enough game here. Even for the relatively low cost of admission (its release MSRP was $30, its now down to $20), I can’t recommend the game.

Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault: 0

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No Longer Innuendo

At some point, sexual innuendo ceases to be innuendo and instead becomes something else. In Shadows of the Damned, we reach that point before the end of the prologue.

In Shadows of the Damned you take on the roll of Garcia “Fucking” Hotspur. Hotspur is a demon hunter by trade. Having irritated the legions of hell, the head demon decides to attack his home, kidnap his girl, and make disparaging remarks about Hotspur’s “endowments”. Of course, Hotspur won’t take this lying down and chases after the head demon into the underworld.

Gameplay wise, Shadows of the Damned is probably most reminiscent of the Dead Space series. It has mostly melee enemies with a gun wielding, third-person protagonist. They also crib a bit from Alan Wake in that enemies can sometimes get covered in darkness that needs to be cleared before they can be hurt. There’s nothing terribly revolutionary in the gameplay and nothing terribly bad either. Mediocre is the word of the day.

Of course the plot is end to end sexual innuendo or whatever innuendo becomes when it ceases to have any subtlety. Your main weapon is a sentient skull named Johnson. He can take the forms of various weapons–the main of which is the “Boner”. Of course, it fires bones, so that makes it OK, right? At first, it is mildly humorous, but it quickly becomes tired and almost sad. Constant innuendo is not a substitute for humor.

Ultimately, even if you take the best view of the game it is mediocre and mediocre is never worth your time.

Shadows of the Damned: 0

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Not Sure Where the Diary Comes In

I’ve never really been a fan of either the Visual Novel or its sub-genre the Dating Sim. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that the game I bought on a whim during the Linux Steam sale was just such a game. Nevertheless, it was a game that purportedly worked on Linux, so I gave Magical Diary a try.

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The default character name is “Mary Sue”. I’m not sure if the creators were trying to be self-aware and ironic or if someone just gave up.

The premise of Magical Diary is that you’re a “wildseed” magic user–born to normal parents and then whisked away to learn the ways of magic once you reach the appropriate age. The game opens at the beginning of the freshman year of high school for your main character. You have two roommates (the studious one and the sporty/carefree one) and are thrust into the life of a high school magician with very little guidance.

The game progresses in three parts. Firstly, you decide your character’s actions for each week–which classes you’ll go to (or not) each day. In between (and sometimes during) your activities, you might run into the second part which is your standard visual novel type interactions with other students and teachers at the school. The last bit are the periodic “practical exams” wherein your character is dumped into a first-person dungeon and must use their magic to escape.

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Its tough being a beginner–having no skills and all…

Unfortunately, though, each of these bits is rather lackluster. Doing activities during the week grant you a random zero to three point bonus to a relevant skill. The problem is the random bit. Since the game allows saving at any point, the best course of action quickly becomes scumming each week until you get an average or better result. This makes one of the other core mechanics–stress increasing failure rates–into a non-mechanic. If you’re already scumming the random number generator, why not do it a bit more?

The visual novel bits suffer from two main problems. Firstly, there are a large number of characters who seem interesting introduced near the beginning of the game. Of them, almost none can be interacted with. In fact, the number of pursue-able characters in the game is about six. And two of those are incredibly grating. The second is the classic problem of this sort of game–completely unclued events. If you go and look at a calendar of events for this game, there are dozens of missable events which are triggered by going to certain places on certain days. The vast majority of these have no clues to suggest that doing them is any better than doing anything else. These are both classic problems in the genre and new games shouldn’t still be making the same mistakes.

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Maybe I should light this door on fire…
Fire solves many problems…

The dungeons/practical exams are probably the most interesting part of the game. As your character levels up her magic, she gains spells. Mostly, these are useless items kept in a list. Periodically, they might provide an additional option during a visual novel scene. In dungeons, though, you can finally make use of them. The first real exam, for instance, puts you at one end of an empty chasm. If you’ve focused on force magic, you can push a bridge over to fill the gap. If you’ve done teleportation magic and some scrying magic you can just zip across. This does suffer a bit from the Deus Ex Problem: if every school of magic needs a way to succeed then any school of magic can succeed. For instance, it also turns out that having about 30 points to the teleportation school of magic can get you successfully through every single exam, by itself.

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Every Mary Sue character should have cat ear, right? Too bad I couldn’t afford the fairy wings, too. You can see my whole character here.

Perhaps worst of all, though, is that the game lacks real meat. The plot is short, and, because it only covers a single year of school, it lacks anything like finality or resolution. It simply ends. Couple this with its other, more concrete flaws, and it becomes a game that I cannot recommend.

Magical Diary: 0

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Evolutionary Optimization

Mobile gaming on phones (and similar devices) is a field that is still trying to gain legitimacy. Though there are many puzzle games and many games which are nothing more than glorified time sinks, some people are trying to bring more substantive gaming experiences to phones. Chaos Rings (Android, iOS) is one of Square-Enix’s forays into this space.

At its core, Chaos Rings is a Japanese-style RPG. It uses a turn-based battle system and random encounters–features common for over a decade. The main unique feature of its battle system is its idea of “pair/solo” actions. When you spend a turn doing solo actions, the system plays identically to most other JRPGs. When you chose to do a pair action, though, both of your characters perform the same action–even if that action isn’t usually available to both characters. For instance both characters could use a multi-attack power that is usually only available to Screenshot_2013-01-09-10-39-20one of the characters. The downside to using pair attacks is that, when pair, the two characters also take damage together and are both hit by attacks that are normally single target.

The real judge of a JRPG’s system, though, is less about what it does and more about the amount of grinding necessary to play the game. It is a greatly unfortunate thing that Japanese-style RPGs far too often substitute grinding for gameplay. While there Screenshot_2013-01-11-10-28-13are cases where grinding is necessary, these cases do seem to be mercifully few and well separated in time. In fact, I believe there were only two bosses in the first scenario that I played that required any grinding at all, and, aside from the super-secret optional boss, there were no other bosses that required grinding in any of the other scenarios.

Screenshot_2013-01-09-06-56-20Of course, the scenarios are what really makes the game. The general premise of each of the scenarios is the same–a group of four couples has been pulled into the Ark Arena tournament. The winning couple will gain eternal life and eternal youth. The losing couples will find only death. What changes in each of the game’s four scenarios is two-fold. First, and most obviously, the characters that you control change. The same four couples are always involved, but the pair the player controls slides about. Second, and more important, the details of plots in the scenarios Screenshot_2013-01-09-06-49-01change: back stories change subtly, personalities shift, and motivations cloud.

While the games areas, monsters, and other assets are mostly unchanged, these changes in the plot slowly unravel the mysteries surrounding the Ark Arena. In fact, the game doesn’t really begin to take shape until you’ve cleared at least one of the scenarios and have a good understanding of the motivations of the Arena’s masters. And that is where the game really begins to shine. Piecing together the motivations, back stories, and tragedies of the characters across the various scenarios makes completing Screenshot_2013-01-13-16-38-03later scenarios more rewarding in some ways than completing the first scenario. As you become more familiar with the characters, there becomes a real desire to see each of their stories to the close.

Chaos Rings is by no means the best game nor the best RPG or even the best JRPG that I’ve ever played. It is, however, one of the best games I’ve yet played on my telephone and perhaps one sign that not every mobile game will be a micro-payment infested grindfest. And for that, it is certainly a game worth playing.

Chaos Rings: 1

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Keep Digging

The game looks beautiful, when it isn't chugging to keep up...Murder for hire requires a certain mindset. Patience, diligence, attention to detail, caution, detachment: all of these have defined 47 for the previous four Hitman games. In Hitman: Absolution, however, it appears that 47 has forgotten a decade of his experience and training.

Sometimes, 47 has to fight giant Mexicans while pretending to be a masked fighter called "The Patriot". I'm not sure what should be inferred from that confrontation...

Sometimes, 47 has to fight giant Mexicans while pretending to be a masked fighter called “The Patriot”. I’m not sure what should be inferred from that confrontation…

In the opening level, 47 turns his back on his agency, deliberately fails to complete his mission, and goes rogue. From then on, he is either seeking to learn the history of a girl named Victoria or attempting to get her back from those who’ve kidnapped her.

The gameplay in the Hitman series has been very similar since Hitman 2. Each game used a very similar system and each had a similar feature set. Most of the innovation was in level design and the creation of interesting assassination scenarios. Absolution is the first major change in system since then, and, unfortunately it is mostly for the worse. Arbitrary saving has gone away, replaced with checkpoints which are all too rare. The graphics have been updated to be appropriate with the times, but that has led to the game having a very inconsistent frame rate. If data is loading, the frame rate will often slow to a crawl.

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Sometimes, 47 likes to relax.

Unfortunately, bugs aren’t limited to the graphics subsystem. I’ve repeatedly had problems with the game corrupting its own data files and then crashing when it attempts to read the same. If left paused for an extended period of time (say a few hours), the game will be unplayable–lagging, stuttering and otherwise being finicky.

Hitman: Absolution Digging your own Grave

It’s easy to relax while someone else does the work. By the way, keep digging.

Absolution is really divided into three kinds of levels. The first–and best–are the open assassination levels. These give 47 a great deal of freedom in carrying out his mission and there is enough room to maneuver to make it fun while still being challenging. The second type are the highly restricted assassination levels. These levels often occur in entirely hostile places with highly restricted areas of movement and filled to the brim with guards. Often, these levels are just exercises in patience until the scripted kills can be identified. The third–and worst–type are the sneaking levels. They have no killing, no interesting mechanics, just waiting, sliding along cover, and dodge rolling. In a sense, they are entire levels devoted to the least interesting aspect of the Hitman series.

When you’re playing its good levels, Absolution is as good as any other Hitman game. I just wish that the good levels occurred more often. As it stands, less than half of the levels fall into what I would classify as the “best” type of level. And with a ratio like that, I just can’t recommend the game.

Hitman: Absolution: 0

Hitman: Absolution Sniper Scope

I see you. Do you see me? I guess it doesn’t really matter.

 

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Narrative Recursion

There are certain narrative devices that I’m a sucker for. One of those is the time loop. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare takes the time loop and runs with it. As this review covers a sequel, expect there to be spoilers about the previous game: Alan Wake.

American Nightmare picks up after the two DLCs for the original Alan Wake. Wake is still lost in the Dark Place and attempting to find his way back into the real world. To do that, he has written himself an escape plan. Of course, as with the original game, the act of calling upon the world-shaping narrative power of the Dark Place has mostly destroyed his memory of what he actually planned to do.

The complication this time, though, is that his foe is no longer the large and unknown dark place, but a sentient, and clever at that, doppelganger. Wake’s opponent has trapped him in the work that Wake created to escape the Dark Place and simply keeps looping him through it, making this more difficult each time.

In gameplay terms, this comes together as playing through each of about 4 or 5 areas three times each. Though the levels are the same, the other characters in each place slowly become aware of their situation and help Wake more on each pass.

The game plays much like its predecessor, but has become somewhat more actiony with the introduction of a greater variety of enemies. In keeping with that, this iteration, unlike the original, doesn’t periodically confiscate your equipment.

I think that, as a bridge between Alan Wake and its eventual sequel, it is pretty solid. What I really want though, is Alan Wake 2.

Alan Wake’s American Nightmare: 1

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Revolving Indians

The Assassin’s Creed series has a problem. That problem is the yearly release schedule. Unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed III is the result of a schedule that is untenable.

Producing a continuous series with an iteration every year is a monumental effort. Even more difficult, though, is ensuring that each entry into the series is fresh and interesting enough to pull players in. I don’t think Assassin’s Creed III has managed that.

From a gameplay standpoint, little has changed about the Assassin’s Creed games since Assassin’s Creed II. Equipment, weapons, and tactics all remain virtually unchanged. Yes, there are now firearms, but they mostly don’t matter. Their damage output isn’t extraordinary and most enemies only ever fire once.

What has changed, however, is uniformly for the worse. Enemies now seem to spawn endlessly and to be nearly unshakable once alerted; it is common to spend several minutes escaping from a single bad exposure. Double assassinations–a great feature that was added in Assassin’s Creed II–are gone without any explanation. The countering system has been made even more finicky with combo assassinations now failing randomly. Worse yet, the “rock-paper-scissors” of the countering system has now been replaced with “rock always works” as  long as “rock” is either a gun or the bow and arrow.

If the system changes weren’t bad enough, they’ve also brought in a wonderful smorgasbord of general bugginess. I was once attacked in the middle of a cutscene. The attack wasn’t part of the cutscene, the game just didn’t properly disable the logic to prevent me from being attacked. On many occasions, I had enemies fail to die because the air assassination technique just failed to hit. I had to redo many an optional objective because the game decided that I simply wasn’t killing correctly enough. And of course, I spent countless hours filling in the “Encyclopedia of the Common Man” because an NPC decided to repeatedly do the same action without ever switching to one that I hadn’t seen.

I could probably have taken the bad gameplay changes and the general bugginess if there had been a worthwhile plot underlying it.  There is not. The whole game seems disconnected and random. Connor’s motivations are rarely clear and often entirely bizarre, especially when coupled with general gameplay. He seems to flip back and forth between being a cold-blooded killer and a man trying to take no life. It seems like he has no narrative inertia. Whatever is convenient to the plot is what happens without anything really tying it back to the character development or existing narrative.

I don’t know who at Ubisoft greenlit this game, as it is. I do know that that person should be fired.

Assassin’s Creed III: 0

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The Kid Had It Rough

He always has a comment. One for every moment.

He always has a comment. One for every moment.

Narrators are a strange thing in games. When they do appear, it is often only in cutscenes. In fact, aside from the occasional “meanwhile, at the big bad’s hideout”, they are quite an oddity in the medium. In Bastion, though, the narrator is the first–and only–voice that the game uses to relate the plot to the player.

Throughout the game, the ever-present voice of “The Stranger” narrates both the plot and the gameplay. Do well, and he speaks of how nothing can bother you; do badly, and he describes how you were given trouble but managed to scrape through. This slightly detached interplay between the game and the player is surprisingly effective at drawing you into the game. It also makes easy work of providing information to the player.

Though the narrator is probably the most memorable thing in the game, the visuals themselves are nothing to forget. The whole game carries the feel of a watercolor painting.

2012-11-08_00002The game itself takes place in a world destroyed by an unknown “Calamity”. Bits and piece of the world rise up to form a makeshift platform as you move about, but the world itself is largely inhabited by monsters that have survived the end and now overrun the places that used to be. The “rebuilding” of the world as you move around provides a beautiful symmetry with the central plot of trying to collect the bits and pieces of the old world necessary to repair it.

As a game, Bastion is something of a two-stick shooter. Though different from many other2012-11-09_00003 games in this category in that the pace tends to be much more relaxed and the available space for movement limited. If one were just take a glace, it would seem much like any other isometric action game. The depth of gameplay, though, mostly comes from the large supply of weapons that the game has on offer. The game only lets you bring a pair with you into each level, so it forces a choice based on what you expect to face and which weapons you’ve managed to become skillful with. Even so, most all of the weapons are very useful and none of them ever really become useless, even as more are unlocked.

Overall, the game is quite good. My only real complaint is that the game can easily overwhelm you with enemies–especially if you crank up the difficulty. Nevertheless, I recommend the game quite highly.

Bastion: 1

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What is a level 24 cleaver?

I have long been a fan of the survival horror genre and zombie games in particular. Though I’d heard mixed reviews of Dead Island, I decided to give it a chance nonetheless.

This was a poor decision.

The premise of Dead Island is that a hopeless git wakes up in his hotel room after a night of alcohol, randomly taking drugs he found lying on the floor of the women’s restroom, and attempting to woo women who were entirely uninterested in him. In between last night and now, zombies have taken over the island resort where he is making an idiot of himself. A voice over the radio entices him with the promise of rescue in exchange for his help.

Gameplay wise, Dead Island wants to be Boarderlands: it is a level-based action game with randomly generated loot and auto-scaling enemies–Diablo with guns and zombies. The whole thing takes place from a first-person perspective and features both melee and firearm combat…sort of.

Despite having a character who specializes in firearms (the one that I picked), ammunition doesn’t ever seem to appear until almost a quarter of the way through the game. Worse still, even when firearms are unlocked, ammo is scarce and the weapons themselves do far, far less damage to the zombies than the melee weapons–even when using head shots.

But then, maybe that doesn’t matter, the game’s only penalty for death is a 7 second respawn timer, 10% of your money, and being randomly relocated to a nearby respawn point. Once you’re back on your feet, you can rush blindly into the enemies again with full health and little in the way of repercussions. In fact, on at least one occasion, I completely subverted a difficult area filled with enemies by dying inside of it and then respawning in a place I hadn’t yet reached–the room that I was trying to get to.

This problem is endemic of something that permeates the game. That is, the game feels like it hasn’t really been thought through. You’re tasked to run from objective to objective– all too often through the same few areas–but the objectives seem arbitrary and unrelated to your ultimate goal of escaping the island or even saving survivors. Zombies start inexplicably carrying weapons about halfway through the game which seems bizarre given that they are never shown to have anything like intelligence. Whole plotlines are just dropped on the ground as soon as your characters get more than 100 yards away from their participants.

Eventually, I decided to skip all sidequesting and just run down the main quest path as quickly as I could. This made the problems of the main quest all the more glaring as I wasn’t spending time doing other things that might make me forget about the idiocy of it all.

This game is irredeemable. The only way to win is not to play.

Dead Island: 0

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The Definition of Dilemma

I actually finished up Spec Ops: The Line quite a while ago. I knew as soon as I finished it that I would rate it quite highly, but I was at a loss as to how to review it.

Fundamentally, Spec Ops is a third-person cover-based military shooter set in the Middle East in the present. There’s nothing particularly spectacular in the mechanics nor in graphics. They’re both competently done, of course, but there are no revolutionary leaps in either.

The entire strength of Spec Ops is its story and therein lies the rub. Much of its quality lies in its evolution and its key revelations. Giving away those would essentially ruin the game. So, I’ll just say that the game’s plot is probably the best that I’ve seen in a shooter in at least the last five years and implore that you play it despite my vagueness.

Spec Ops: The Line: 1!

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