The Gaze of Avadon Destroys

A little over a week ago, I finished up my run-through of Avadon: The Black FortressAvadon is a third-person, isometric, turn-based RPG in a Fantasy setting.

The titular Avadon is both a fortress (as it says in the title) and an organization. In Avadon’s world, four powerful but beleaguered kingdoms decided to band together for common defense against various outsiders–Ogre, Titans, Dragons as well as other kingdoms. These four kingdoms needed a way to exert their combined military might and to maintain their own internal peace. To that end, they created Avadon–a place filled with the most powerful people with nearly unlimited authority to act to ensure the survival of the alliance.

When the game begins, the player is dropped in as a new recruit to the fortress at a moment of crisis. The fortress is being set upon by outside forces that are organized and powerful. Though they have been rebuffed at every turn, the attacks have taken a toll on Avadon–lost people, strained resources, angry allies.

Everything that makes Avadon compelling is in it’s story and the unfolding of the truths of it’s world as the game progresses. Perhaps most central is the notion that Avadon makes its own morality. More succinctly, what Avadon decides must be in order for it continue to be. The implications of this fundamental tenant drive the plot.

From a gameplay perspective, however, Avadon leaves something missing. The style of the game’s interface reminds me of the old Fallout games–top down, isometric view; action point-based turns. Though it doesn’t have guns like its ancient predecessor, it does have crazy special abilities and spells to balance things out. Character gain experience through quests and combat and get more powerful via a skill-based leveling tree. Its a system that has largely been seen before–not outstanding but certainly adequate.

Where I have to complain about Avadon is in its overall difficulty balance. Rather than feeling like a steady progression as the game goes on, there are periodic, sudden, and often overwhelming spikes in difficulty. Sometimes, these are almost reasonable–attacking an enemy stronghold should be hard–but more often it is due to enemies simply being immune to one of the core damage types. Though fire elementals being immune to fire damage seems reasonable on its face, when an entire character class (the sorceress) uses fire as its default damage type you’ve gone from “seems reasonable” to “completely and utterly terrible game design”. This is even worse when the immunities are not obvious from enemy names or models or when an enemy is immune to more than one of the core damage types. At that point, we’ve descended into trial-and-error gameplay. Unfortunately, damage immunities are all too common and almost always result in a press of the quickload button when found unexpectedly.

While the game has its flaws, I think they are largely worth overlooking. The story is interesting and compelling enough that I kept being drawn back in even though I would occasionally throw my hands up in frustration.

Avadon: The Black Fortress: 1

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Where is the Atom Smasher?

Sometimes, it takes days and days to play through a game and get a feel for its strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, however, it takes hours. Usually, as in the case of Atom Zombie Smasher, this is a bad sign.

In this middle of an alternate history version of last century, zombies have sprung up. As the leader of a society, you must try to save as many people as possible while fighting off the zombie threat.

The “meat” of Atom Zombie Smasher is the rescue/attack portion of the game. In it, you are given a handful of “squads” with which to repel increasing hordes of zombies. While you’re trying to kill the zombies, you must also try to evacuate civilians. If zombies (represented by purple dots) run into the civilians (represented by yellow dots) then there are suddenly more zombies and fewer civilians. This is, obviously, not a good thing.

There are a fair number of different kinds of squads which allows for somewhat interesting interactions. Squads themselves level up in various ways, becoming more useful as the game goes on. Although the zombies are the primary enemy, the game also has a constant ticking clock in the form of a day-night cycle. During a mission, whenever a day ends, a huge wave of zombies inundates the map. This is usually a tactically intractable situation making the day-night changeover a hard cutoff for missions.The game also has a strategic component to go along with the tactical one. This part of the game allows you to choose which territories to attack. As the game progresses, more and more zombies spawn on to the strategic map. This forces you to choose your battles to try to mitigate the spread before any particular area becomes overrun.Although AZS has lots of interesting ideas, the game itself seems to suffer from cripplingly bad balance. In the basic gameplay mode, squads are assigned (seemingly) randomly. This might lead to you having to try to carry out a mission using only barriers, a couple of landmines and maybe an artillery piece. Worse, while the game does allow squads to level up and become more useful (and thus make the higher level missions more possible), the speed of leveling up in incredibly slow and the progression doesn’t carry over from one game to the next. Of course, since the squads are assigned randomly, you might not even be able to use them once you’ve leveled them up.

The biggest problem though seems to be the strategic map. The whole progression of the game is based on a scoring track. Evacuating civilians and capturing towns get you bonuses. The issue is that, every turn, the zombie faction gets more free units than you can reasonably be expected to deal with. This gives them more points which makes it harder and harder to keep up.

Now, it may be that extended practice and experience might help mitigate these problems. It might also be the case that I might just not be a solid enough tactician to make the game tractable. I’m willing to accept that either of these might be the case. Unfortunately, the frustration that the perceived (if not actual) balance issues cause mean that I have no interest at all in exploring these possibilities.

Atom Zombie Smasher: 0

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Capitalism, ho!

Some time ago, I decided to pick a game at random from my Steam games list to play. In a moment of ennui and with a desire for something different, I decided to play Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale. I had picked up the game long ago during a Steam sale, but like so many other items picked up at Steam sales, it had been forgotten.

There is a term, defined on TV Tropes, called the “widget series” — the Weird Japanese Thing (WJT). If ever a game qualified, I believe Recettear is the exemplar. In Recettear you take on the role of Recette, an air-headed, happy young girl who has suddenly been saddled with the debt taken out by her missing father. In order to save her home, you must earn a great deal of money to repay the debt which is coming due in less than a month. On the urging of her fairy companion/creditor, she decides to open an RPG-style item shop to provide equipment to the local town as well as the burgeoning adventurer community who search through nearby ruins.

Just a bitThe core of the gameplay is straightforward. You buy items from wholesalers and then display them in your shop where people will come in and buy them from you. The selling of items is itself a haggling mini-game wherein you attempt to ascertain what each particular customer is willing to pay. As customers become regulars, they start carrying larger amounts of cash and can buy more expensive items. Buying and selling items levels up Recette as a merchant and allows access to better items, bigger shops, and new interactions such as taking orders. The main weakness of this system, however, is that once you’ve figured out what people are willing to pay for items, the process of buying and selling becomes uninteresting. For instance, the character called “Man” will always buy an item at 125% of its value. Once you know this, there is no real reason to haggle. Finding these sort of statistics for every character (which other people have already thoughtfully done in FAQs and wikis) removes most of the mystery and suspense from the shop.

She shoots 8 arrows at once.

In addition to running the shop, Recette can also try to cut out the middle man by diving into the nearby ruins with an adventurer and finding items for free on monsters or in treasure chests. In this part of the game, it is more of a Zelda or Dark Cloud endeavor. Dungeons are randomly generated and come in five level chunks with bosses at the end of each set of five levels. Unfortunately, this is one area where Recette’s Japanese RPG origins shine through. Most of the bosses qualify as Nintendo Hard and the penalty for failure is quite steep–the forfeiture of all items found in that particular dive save one or two.  Of course, level grinding is a necessity for success in these ruins as well.

Kill the ones in front and behind, simultaneously, with our special bows.

Even with the ultimately robotic merchant experience and the frustratingly difficult dungeon bosses, I still feel compelled to recommend this game for one reason which counterbalances all of those problems: the writing. The translation of the game is brilliant, hilarious–sometimes intentionally, sometimes not–and clever. Dialog is almost universally witty and the characters’ quirkiness gives it a charm that many games lack.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale: 1

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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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I’m Still Batman

A few weeks ago, I finished up my runthrough of Batman: Arkham City. I was torn about it and so it took me a while to finally get around to reviewing it.

Arkham City is a direct sequel to Arkham Asylum and lifts most of its design and play from its predecessor. The developers have managed to tighten things up a bit, this time around–combos ear easier to pull off and are smoother, for instance. Rather than being a relatively linear game like its predecessor, though, Arkham City went with a sandbox design. At first, this seems like an obvious path for a game about a superhero fighting crime. Unfortunately, though, Arkham City manages to feel very small in comparison to its predecessor.

Though there are many things to explore, the main plot–finding out the secrets of the asylum/prison/post-apocalyptic-hellscape that is the game’s namesake–feels short. Worse yet, the side missions dealing with other characters feel more like the “collect the token” games from the Nintendo 64 era rather than anything deep or richly connected to the rest of the experience. Compounding it further, some of the side quests don’t even get real conclusions. The worst offender ends up with a villain walking out of the city and Batman saying that he’d “deal with him tomorrow”.

What there was of Arkham City, I mostly enjoyed, even with its flaws. Nevertheless, I don’t think that I can recommend the game. It just leaves you wanting more in a way that a game of its pedigree shouldn’t.

Batman: Arkham City: 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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Locked In

Before I beat Mass Effect 3, I had actually beaten Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Revelations is the third, and hopefully final, game in the story of Ezio Auditore, a Renaissance era assassin. Like the previous 3 Assassin’s Creed games, Revelations is a third-person, free-exploration game.

Mechanically, Revelations has very few gameplay changes beyond what its predecessor AC: Brotherhood had on offer. Though they’ve added a “hook blade” which effectively increases climbing speed and maximum reach and a mildly complex bomb creation system, neither of these additions fundamentally alter the game. Careful planing, stealth and precise application of the hidden blade remain the easiest way clear most missions.

From a plot standpoint, Revelations feels like it could mostly have been replaced by a few cutscenes. Most of the game isn’t spent on a great struggle against an unassailable enemy, but instead on an extended fetch quest. The best parts of the game are the short sequences in which we see bits and pieces of Altaïr’s life post Assassin’s Creed 1 and those amount to perhaps 6 scenes scattered over the length of the entire game. Of course, I hadn’t had lingering questions about Altaïr’s life before playing Revelations, so it is difficult for me to say that this was necessary information.

It doesn’t help that Revelations removed both the ability to interact with the “real” world and the interesting (if not terribly fun) puzzles that lead to true revelations about the game universe. The first game’s “subject 16” data were puzzles layered on top of puzzles. The lack of something similar is a real disappointment.

Though the game is solidly constructed, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations feels a bit too much like Ubisoft just phoned it in. It certainly isn’t terrible, but from a franchise with the consistent level of quality that Assassin’s Creed has brought to each game, this feels like an expansion pack in the clothes (and with the price tag) of a full game.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations: 0

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They Were Warned

Over the weekend, I finished up my play through of Mass Effect 3. Being a blockbuster franchise, I’ll be dispensing with the description of what it is. Now, the real trick in reviewing Mass Effect 3 is that, based on murmurings that I’ve heard round the Internet, the game may be vastly different to different players. Given such, anything I say about the plot should probably be taken as just one view into a multifaceted work. And finally, before I finish my disclaimers, I should say that there’s going to be plot talk about the two predecessor games and some about this final one. You’ve been warned.

For me, Mass Effect 3 began with Shepard under house arrest on Earth, after the events of the Mass Effect 2: Arrival DLC mission pack. The Reapers have finally invaded and decided to hit Earth first and hard. Honestly, given that the only person in the galaxy to kill a Reaper was a human, this seems a fair way to get started. With the fight on Earth hopeless, Shepard is sent off world to find some way, any way to fight back against the seemingly unstoppable Reaper threat.

After locating the plans for a MacGuffin capable of defeating the Reapers, Shepard instantly launches into a galaxy spanning campaign to recruit allies to both build it and hold back the Reapers advances to give time for said MacGuffin to be built. This section of the game is where it really shines. Unlike many other “save the world” or “save the universe” games, Mass Effect 3 manages to give the struggle real weight. People who matter die and decisions have real consequences. Most notably, the game often forces you to choose between having the best possible force now and trying to ensure a stable post-Reaper galaxy with the caveat that winning with anything less than everything (or even with everything) isn’t assured.

From a gameplay perspective, Mass Effect 3 follows very closely on Mass Effect 2‘s model. Nothing of great substance has changed, though weapon modifications are back from the original Mass Effect. Of course, the gameplay in Mass Effect 2 was extremely solid, so this isn’t a major issue. Given the nature of the story, however, there seemed to be less diversity in enemy opponents this time around. I wonder if that might make certain classes weaker this time around than previous.

My main irritation with the game was the available endings. I didn’t dislike the choices themselves–I’ve written a large analysis of them elsewhere on the site–what I didn’t like is that I was forced to make a choice and then was not shown the implications of that choice. This same problem appeared in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, though I would argue it is worse here.

Nevertheless, the sheer strength of the story in the mid-game largely makes up for the lack of denouement, at least to me. It is rare that a game can make me feel real emotion about it’s characters, but Mass Effect 3 did. It may also be the only game in which a forced loss didn’t feel like it can from stupidity being the only option.

Mass Effect 3: 1

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