I Am Boring and Vague

When you want to keep the player’s attention, sometimes it is a good idea to have a bit of mystery. I Am Alive seems to think that mystery should never really be resolved.

As you start the game, you’re walking into your home town, having spent the last year walking across the country after “The Event” caused society to collapse. I’ll spoil it right now: “The Event” is never explained. It is the fundamental core of everything that is going on, but it is treated like the noodle incident. It seems especially strange given that all of the strangers in the game refer to it as “The Event” as though this common language sprang up everywhere despite the post-apocalyptic nature of the world. However, this “Event” is the only explanation we have for the story.

Our intrepid main character has come home searching for his family. Instead, he finds his home deserted and the city is mostly populated with smatterings of violent and paranoid survivors. Oh, you’ll be killing most of them too. Worse, “dust”–dangerous, sand-like fog  that seems to have started showing up after the “Event”–starts blowing into town. Of course, this can only mean one thing: your character must wander around the dangerous environs doing fetch quests for various entitled survivors and trying to the lives of a child he randomly met on the street and a woman that he’s never met at all.

If it wasn’t obvious, the entire structure of the story is basically a sad joke: characters’ motivations make no sense; important backstory is left unexplained; and the ending is nothing short of a slap in the face. If not for the fact that everything is taken with a deadly seriousness, I might honestly think that it was a parody of post-apocalyptic stories. It really is that bad.

Unfortunately, the gameplay isn’t much better. Most of the game consists of exploration–which seems to be trying to invoke Silent Hill (They even color in the map with red annotations!)–or climbing sequences of the kind you might see in an Uncharted game. These are both rather frustrating due to the game’s stamina mechanic. Much of the explorable areas of the game are full of “dust” which both dramatically reduces vision distance and causes constant stamina loss. The main way to restore stamina is to rest in an area without dust which is usually done by climbing up the side of a building. Oh, did I mention that  climbing reduces stamina, too? Exceeding the end of the stamina gauge reduces the size of the gauge and can only be fixed with consumables. These two things coupled together basically mean that the game punishes you for exploration or for not knowing exactly where to go.

If the game has any redeeming value, though, it is in the combat. There are survivors throughout the game that you run into. The vast majority want to kill you. Here, I Am Alive really channels its post-apocalyptic setting by showing how rare and valuable bullets are. You start the game with zero bullets. Over the entire span of the game, there was never a time that I had more than 4 of them. This constant resource shortage meant that every encounter had to be considered before being handled. Even on the normal difficulty, shooting your way out of a situation was almost never the right decision and trading health (as enemy damage) for ammunition was usually a reasonable strategy. That said though, the game didn’t actually offer that many unique scenarios–two gunners and a machete dude, three machete dudes, gunner and a machete dude–maybe a half-dozen in total. This meant that once you understood how a particular fight scenario needed to play out, it mostly became a task of applying the optimal strategy for the group.

Ultimately, I can’t recommend the game. The abysmal excuse for a story would be enough of a reason to reject it on its own. Coupling that with the frustrating exploration leads to a game that can be safely skipped.

I Am Alive: 0

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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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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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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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Oh Crap

The Uncharted series has always been about a few things: beautiful graphics, crazy treasure hunting, and Nolan North saying the phrase “oh crap”. The third entry in the series–Drake’s Deception–keeps each of these, but still manages to be somehow less than its predecessors.

This iteration of Uncharted focuses primarily on Nathan Drake’s past. Up until now, his existence and history had largely gone unquestioned. He claimed to be a descendant of Sir Francis Drake and nothing in particular conflicted with that narrative–it was ahistorical, but that was an acceptable break from realityDrake’s Deception seems focused on pulling the strands of his backstory and teasing out who Nathan really is.

The game opens by revealing that Nathan spent some portion of his youth as a thief and met his father figure Sully while stealing the ring that he had in previous games used to prove his identity from a Museum. This opening completely subverts his long-standing back story. It also opens the way to the main plot of the game: finding the treasure that this ring supposedly leads to.

Unfortunately, the way the plot is structured is somewhat difficult to believe. In essence, Nathan steals everything necessary for him to find some treasure, then sits on the information for 20+ years. Although Nathan is characterized in many ways, patient is rarely one of them. Furthermore, when the first game is added to consideration, it raises yet more questions about why he would have pursued an alternative lead (the plot of Drake’s Fortune) when he already had these other leads to follow.

The plot is also strange in a few other ways. Although every sequence of interactions makes some sense when considered from Nathan’s perspective, when the same interactions are considered from the antagonists perspective, things make far less sense. Motivations are unclear. Plans seem nonsensical or pointless. It almost feels like Nathan’s foes are just doing thing to screw with him rather than doing things to further their own interests. Taken together, this severely undermines the flow of the game.

From a gameplay standpoint, however, it is very difficult to fault the game. It keeps the very solid mechanics that were developed in the second game largely unchanged. This means that the cover-based shooting is solid and the platforming is tight.

I’ve said before that games can’t stand on gameplay alone. Drake’s Deception is an exemplar of that stance. If I only considered the gameplay, this game would get as good a score as its predecessor. However, the nagging issues with the plot just don’t sit well with me and become so bright and apparent with a second pass through the game that I can’t possibly recommend it.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception: 0

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Co-op is the new Black

Last night, I got the platinum Trophy in Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One. This was the third Ratchet and Clank game that I’ve played–all three being on the Playstation 3. Though the first two rated very highly with me, this one was something of a disappointment.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Ratchet and Clank follows the world/galaxy-saving exploits of the titular Ratchet and Clank. They’ve previously faced off against various great evils such as Dr. Nefarious and Emperor Percival Tachyon. As might be detectable merely from the names of its villains, the serious has a humorous bent and tends to not take itself too seriously. The gameplay itself tends toward a very refined 3d-platformer style.

All 4 One, maintains much of the tone of the previous games–great one-liners are everywhere–but loses something in the gameplay department. Rather than the usual single-player affair, this iteration is an explicitly co-op game allowing up to four players to work together to get through it.Though playable as a single-player game, the entire design is driven by co-op as the primary mode of play–bonuses for working together to destroy enemies or complete objectives, periodic level-end scoring rounds where the players are ranked against each other, and puzzles requiring multi-character coordination are all in attendance. Taken together, the game is very good at being what it was trying to be.

Unfortunately, this co-op design focus also resulted in a game which is very dissimilar to its predecessors. Although the platforming and action-y bits are still around, there is no real ability for exploration. In fact, the game could be described as a single long hallway. This is as bad or worse than what was seen in the earlier parts of Final Fantasy XIII. There are periodic side areas, but they are so small that calling them alcoves would be overstating things in most cases. Of course, a lack of areas for exploration also means very little in the way of diversity in gameplay, no sidequests, and very little which is hidden. All of three of these are things that I would normally expect from a Ratchet and Clank title.

Perhaps worst of all, however, is the game’s strange bugginess. Periodically, crates will fly out of the starting positions as if the goddess of physics engines was ejecting them from her vision. Sometimes, your AI companion will valiantly leap out into a bottomless chasm for no discernible reason. And even better, sometimes enemies that must be defeated to advance will simply vanish from the screen leaving the player unable to advance lest he himself jump headlong into a bottomless bit in hopes of reloading a recent checkpoint. That last bit happened to me more than once in the final boss fight.

Well executed, funny dialog is great and I wish that more games made the effort to have it. Unfortunately, that alone can’t carry a title. Here’s hoping that Insomniac’s next iteration of the series is worthy of its pedigree.

Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One: 0

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Temporal Paradox

Final Fantasy XIII was a game which induced mixed feelings in me. Like many, I recognized the long, seemingly interminable, part of the game where players are taught how to play. I was, like many, disheartened by the preponderance of linear sections punctuated with cutscenes. Nevertheless, the late game content, the story, and the gameplay itself (as manifested in the battle system) all resonated well with me.

It’s sequel, cleverly titled Final Fantasy XIII-2, manages to take the core criticisms of its predecessor and produce a brilliant counterpoint to those criticisms. The story begins with Serah–the sister of one of the playable characters from FFXIII and former damsel in distress–trying to build a new life in the aftermath of the events for the first game. Everyone in the world remembers her sister vanishing at the end of the previous game despite both her memories showing her sister surviving and the displayed ending of the previous game. Serah has largely put this down to her wishful thinking until the attack of creatures from the future and the arrival of a time-traveler who has met Serah’s sister in the future. Thus begins a wild trip through time to try to correct whatever damage has occurred to the timeline as well as to find Serah’s sister.

In gameplay terms, time travel is represented as a large directed graph of accessible time periods. As the game progresses, more areas are unlocked, alternate versions of some time periods are produced, and changes propagate through the timeline. This results in some interesting plot lines that involve going to a “dead” timeline (one which has been rendered no longer part of the “true” timeline) to find things that may be necessary to advance either before or after it should have had happened.

The paradigm system from the previous game returns and is largely similar. The major change that has occurred is the replacement of a third character with an interchangeable assistant monster. This simultaneous enhances possible choices and dramatically restricts them. Since the creatures can be modified, combined, and leveled dramatically differently, it adds a great deal more diversity in the end game experiences of players than existed in Final Fantasy XIII. At the same time, though, by being restricted to only having three active assistant monsters, the number and types of paradigms available is substantially reduced, make the tactical aspect of the game somewhat more important. It feels like the changes deepened the system and the game is better for those changes.

One thing that may put some off, however, is that Final Fantasy XIII is really required reading for the sequel. Not only does this game open with great big spoilers about its predecessor, but it also doesn’t invest too heavily in characterizing the people who were core to the previous game. This seems reasonable for those of us who have completed Final Fantasy XIII, but is likely to put off the many who did not.

When I first heard that there was going to be a Final Fantasy XIII-2, I prepared myself for disappointment. I am happy to say that my expectations were wildly exceeded and that this game is very much worth playing.

Final Fantasy XIII-2: 1

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You got your Adventure Game in my Police Procedural

L.A. Noire was the “active game” in my PS3 for a very long time. Usually this means one of two things: 1) the game is amazing and I can’t get enough of it, or 2) the game is tedious and playing it is a chore. L.A. Noire is, unfortunately, the latter.

The premise of L.A. Noire is interesting enough. Players take control of Cole Phelps, I returning World War II veteran as he readjusts to civilian life as a police officer. His strong dedication to the job and attention to detail allow him to quickly move up the ranks to detective. Here, however, he finds that his idealism is insufficient for the world around him. That premise, and its payoffs, are the strongest and best parts of the game. I’d even go so far as to say that the game has one of the best endings that I’ve seen in recent memory.

Unfortunately, the gameplay lacks much. It wavers from being a third-person cover-based shooter in its action sequences, to a hunt-the-thingy adventure game, and back to a guess-what-the-facial-expression-means game. Each of these different modes tends to feel somewhat disconnected from the others. Moreover, the most important mode–guess the facial expression–commits the sin of “screw up and you lose”. It isn’t a complete loss, one can always replay the mission, but one has to replay the entire mission. Worse yet, it isn’t always clear how bad any particular error is. Sometimes, a wrong choice in guess the facial expression results in no downside save a lowered score. Sometimes, a wrong choice completely prevents you from finding the true culprit.

This sort of frustrating, inconsistent, and time-wasting gameplay shouldn’t be seen in a modern game. I might expect it in a Sierra Adventure Game from the mid-90s, but I don’t expect to see it in a AAA title from less than a year ago.


L.A. Noire: 0

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