I’ve spent much of the past week in the charming New England town of Kingsmouth. It’s one of those places that seems trapped in time. Unlike the quiet hamlets in central Iowa that typically merit such descriptions, however, Kingsmouth is not of the belief that Eisenhower is president and horn-rimmed glasses are fashionable. No, Kingsmouth is perpetually celebrating that most fantastic of holidays: Halloween.
As the first exotic destination in the newly-released MMO The Secret World, this quaint town is not without its problems. For example, I thought I would spend my first evening enjoying a quiet drink on one of the many piers along Fletcher Bay. Not only was the place I chose somewhat rundown, but the service was terrible and the wait staff lacked charisma.
Once I was done taking in the local charm, I set to work exterminating all manner of evil things. Zombie, draug, wendigo, and hippie alike fell before my sword and my axe (yes, my in-game persona is as awesome as Aragorn and Gimli combined). It only took me about a week to play through most of the Kingsmouth quests at a fairly casual pace of 2-4 hours per night. My storyline now calls me toward the Savage Coast, but I have temporarily delayed my progress so I might serve as Tori’s guide through the lovely port town.
Things I Liked
-Horror-themed MMO. Let me say it again: HORROR-THEMED MMO. After spending years frolicking about lesser copies of Middle-Earth, MMO players now have the chance to crawl down the twisted paths of dark mythologies ancient and modern. No more elves with floppy ears and orcs with horrible dental hygiene. Now we can explore modern cities, crushing the un-life out of Lovecraftian spawnlings and ancient Egyptian deities. Even better, Funcom gives the player NPCs with personalities and dialogue that is fun to listen to.
-The ability wheel lets you take your character in any and all directions you choose. Equipping seven active and seven passive abilities gives you a “deck” of skills, much like a Magic: the Gathering player’s deck. As you can see from the screen shots, my character favors swords and hammers/axes, but I’ve also started exploring the mysteries of chaos magic. I’m intending to craft a solid tanking deck for running dungeons before branching out into heavier damage-dealing powers. The powerful system for selecting and equipping powers means I don’t have to roll and level different toons to play various roles. There are no tank, healer, or DPS classes, just different builds.
-Combat is a good blend of traditional hotbar with the flexibility of free movement. Spells and other channeled abilities don’t require nailing your boots to the ground, and most mobs have some sort of AoE power (advertised by white lines on the ground) that one would do well to dodge roll away from. While still not up to par with true hack-and-slash titles, it’s still a cut above standard MMO offerings.
Things I Didn’t Like
-As with most MMO launches, there are quite a few bugs. Quests glitching out, rough animations, server dumps, etc. Teething problems happen to all games, and Funcom has actually weeded a surprising number of them prior to launch (I was in <1.0 beta builds). It’s certainly no buggier than Skyrim was at launch, but that doesn’t mean the bugs are any less annoying.
-I rolled my character on the RP server Arcadia hoping to find two things: a strong roleplaying community and a lesser chance of moronic toon names. I haven’t joined up with any serious RP guilds yet, but the vapid chatter and rampant spoilers in every chat channel I’ve joined (local, global faction, and help) are absurdly effective immersion-breakers. Similarly, the server rules (if there are any) regarding character names are not enforced to any degree I’ve seen. I’m not one to go around reporting violators, but the sheer amount of idiocy people display in their name choices never ceases to amaze.
Verdict: I’ve been anticipating this game for four years now, so it’s frivolous to restate my opinion here. I own it, I play it, I love it. Furthermore, I seriously recommend it to those questioning the future of the MMO. After the disappointment that was SW:TOR, you may be mistrustful of the genre as a whole. While not perfect, The Secret World builds on tried-and-true delivery methods while innovating in all the right areas.
My unexplained, unexpected, and certainly unforgivable hiatus from posting last week was unequivocally due to an unexpected head cold that left me unable to properly let my thoughts undulate, resulting in an uninspiring lack of topics to discuss.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I have elected to continue my coverage of Xenoblade Chronicles. In my defense, I should probably say that my utter lack of other topics is only a portion of my reason for posting this. It’s rare that I have the chance to cover a new release, and the game is far too large to squeeze into a single link of the great sausage chain that is my blog. Tori’s already put well over 30 hours into it, and her ragtag group of impossibly pretty adventurers has yet to make it to the enemy country (located on the other god’s corpse for those who aren’t familiar). I assume the second half of the game takes place within the steely loins and supple curves of the Mechonis, so it seems the marketing guys weren’t lying when they said 60+ hours for the main story alone.
As far as that main story is concerned, I’m pretty impressed with it thus far. Although slow in getting started, it’s seeded with enough mystery and quality worldbuilding to make me honestly interested in seeing how everything fits together. Everything from (what appears to be) soul-swapping main characters with villains to one-line mentions of genetic designs implemented centuries before is designed to make an invested player cock their head and say, “Huh?”
These moments are all the more important because this game can go from amazing magical land of wonderment to curse-inducing vortex of frustration in a matter of seconds. This is due to the self-same combat system that I praised so highly in my last post. While the combat itself is still fun, Xenoblade‘s designers also decided to import another, less entertaining aspect of MMO combat: the add swarm. In certain areas of the game, mobs can become fairly concentrated due to the landscape. Floating coral reefs, for example, force the monsters to group up, which can devastate even a same-level party if you’re not cautious. Complicating matters further is the rare spawn feature, which is far more common than the name implies. These mobs are elite, wielding status ailments and bone-shattering melee attacks from within the safety of their own HP fortresses. They also love to hang out in groups of regular mobs, presumably pushing them around and stealing their girlfriends. Pulling one such group can wipe your party off the face of Bionis, and not even the game’s “pull” feature can eliminate this difficulty altogether. Thus, one can quickly find oneself cockblocked from proceeding further in the story not by a boss, but by the unfortunate placement of a rare mob.
The other main difficulty I have with this game isn’t one of gameplay or design. It’s a simple matter, really, and one to which I can give a partial pass because of cultural differences. Still, it crops up in the most unfortunate of places, screaming its presence, distracting me from what was surely meant to be a powerful moment. It bounces through cutscenes, always present, rarely silent, reminding you that you are indeed playing a game designed by people whose native tongue includes the word kawaii.
This fanged horror with the X-Box logo on its abdomen is Riki, the only non-humanoid member of the party. He joins up as a means of clearing his debt to his tribe of…things (said in the voice of Detention Block AA23′s overseer) and acts like a 15-year-old girl on Facebook from then on. Speaking of Star Wars, the Japanese apparently never got the memo that everybody fucking hates Jar-Jar Binks because they decided to shrink him to hobbit size, trade his ears for floppy wing-scarves, and stick him in this game. Yes, Riki is overzealously cute, but much like your seventh-grade crush, the adorability stops when he opens his mouth. The crude pidgin English that pours forth from his lungs (again, think seventh-grade crush) completely ruins any serious tone the game may be setting during a cutscene. Some of the banter between Riki and Reyn can be entertaining, but watching a crown princess weigh the decision to go to war with an animate beach ball shouting “HOM HOM FRIENDS HELP MELLIE!” behind her sort of kills the mood.
As promised, here is another coveted installment in my world-bending series of half-congealed thoughts on new releases. Today’s selection should come as no surprise to my loyal readers, but for all of you stopping by on a completely unrelated search, what follows is my evaluation of the first eight hours of Xenoblade Chronicles. Sadly, this post will not feature high-res screencaps documenting my intrepid journey up to the Bionis’ knee; unlike some people, I did not pirate the game for use on a certain cetacean emulator, so I have no PC screens to show off. Truth be told, I didn’t buy it, either, but I am living vicariously through Tori’s expedition and my own brief experimentation with the combat system.
As evidenced above, the story begins in the midst of an epic last stand between three dudes (one of which looks like a pirate) and an army of asymmetrical mechs. The guy with the glowing blue sword is intrepid, taking his buddies in for one final stand before their entire army gets annihilated. Not wanting to cut the story short at half an hour, our plucky hero turns the tide of the battle with his bravado and his ethereal, phallic blade. After the day is won, the narrative jumps forward a year, dropping into a happy little hamlet displaying an unclear level of technological development: these people have lasers and missiles, but they fight robots with swords. Were this Star Trek TNG, Captain Picard would lock himself in his ready room for days trying to decide whether or not making contact violated the Prime Directive.
The first quest features three tweenish people with British accents taking bladed melee weapons to go retrieve some fuel rods so they can move a piece of mobile artillery that crashed into somebody’s house. Things go swimmingly until a flying armada of evil robots arrives and puts their entire colony to the torch. Suddenly one friend short, the two remaining heroes band together and, with the help of the techno-magical sword Monado, drive the metal-faced menace back. They swear vengeance for their fallen comrade and set out on a half-cocked quest with nothing but the clothes and swords on their backs. Along the way, they save a younger person from monsters only to have him drive away in his internal-combustion-powered buggy and get caught by another evil mech. The kid’s older sister and her oversized sniper rifle join the party, and the trio sets off to save the dipshit from himself.
Things I Enjoyed
-The combat system takes some getting used to, but once you have it down, it’s a great new take on single-player RPG combat. I say “single-player” because it feels a lot like the standard MMO combat style; autoattacks, cooldowns, and real-time combat. It’s even a step above MMOs in that the AI-controlled party members aren’t the standard bong-bashed idiots one typically finds in a pug. You can control whichever character you want, meaning that individual play style can be somewhat accommodated. If you prefer guns to swords, jump into the skin of gratuitously-cleavaged gunner woman. Prefer tanking? Take resident meat shield Reyn for a spin. Best of all: no items, which means no running out of phoenix downs in the middle of a boss fight. Resurrection is handled via the party gauge; as long as you have one full bar (filled with combos and teamwork and crap), you can run over to downed allies and pull them back on their feet.
-The world is rich, colorful and evokes the bygone days of JRPG glory on the PS2. Some reviewers have listed this as a drawback, and I can understand the position. The character models do look like they belong on a previous generation’s hardware, but that’s okay with me. The developers may be cashing in on the dated graphics inducing waves of nostalgia, and it works. At the same time, the size of the world around you–complete with alternating day/night cycles and weather–adds a depth that the PS2 could not have matched.
Things I Didn’t Like
-While the older art style is charming, the silly voice acting that accompanies it (another hallmark of bygone days, right, Skyrim? RIGHT?) is either the mockery tree’s low-hanging fruit or an annoying impediment to immersion, depending on my mood and what’s going on. I realize that Nintendo probably didn’t redub the English version when they brought it over from Arthur’s kingdom (evidenced by the spelling of certain words in the subtitles), but it seems they never put much money into the voice cast to begin with. I’m not asking for Hellsing-esque levels of quality, but at least make sure the actors have read the script once before putting them in front of the microphone.
-The various party mechanics in combat are ambiguous, especially given that I wasn’t paying all that much attention to the tutorial (those Shadow Hearts: From the New World side quests won’t finish themselves). Thus, I find myself pressing B without knowing why and seeing little hearts fly around the screen as a result. Am I performing joint attacks? Offering time-critical buffs or heals? Waggling my eyebrows in a suggestive manner? Could be all three; I’ll never know unless I overcome my laziness and go back through the tutorials again, which are handily on file for the benefit of such idiots as myself. Still, it’s a lot of information to take in when you’re still adjusting to the combat system.
Verdict: This is kind of a moot point since we already own the game, but yes, I recommend picking it up. While not the paradigm-shattering revolution to the genre that people have claimed, it is more than a few steps down the road toward updating the JRPG for future generations.
The third and latest installment in the critically acclaimed role-playing game series, SHADOW HEARTS: From the New World takes place in the United States during the Great Depression. The Story Begins as Johnny Garland, a young 16-year old detective who lost his father, sister and his memory in an accident, accepts an investigation to track down a criminal suspect who has escaped from custody. As he closes in on the suspect, Johnny witnesses a supernatural occurrence – a huge monster appears from a green light known as a “window” and swallows up the criminal. Apparently, a series of horrific incidents similar to this have been plaguing cities across the nation. Johnny’s female counterpart is 21-year-old bounty hunter Shania, a Native American who is searching for these mysterious windows, determined to close them using her spiritual powers. Together, they travel across North and South America and are joined by a colorful cast of characters.
The box art for this game is fairly misleading. Despite her minimalist approach to clothing, the distraught Native American
princess in the arms of Johnny Blue-Eyes is a much more capable fighter and interesting character than he is. She wields twin tomahawks, can fuse with the spirits of ancient totemic deities, and is hell-bent on taking revenge for her slaughtered village; he has a pocket knife and a can-do attitude. But, because this is a JRPG from the PS2 era, the feather-haired teenage male must cradle a vulnerable, highly sexualized female. It’s the rules.
Once past the silly cover, however, one finds some unexpected surprises that lift this game out of the sea of tropes common to JRPGs from this period. Yes, some of the old standbys are still there (random battles, turn-based combat, status ailments, lolitas), but there are enough surprises to keep things interesting. For one, the cast of party members is absolutely bonkers. In most PS2-era JRPGs, the characters fall within a fairly narrow band of personality types: broody badass, plucky youth, naive girl-woman, etc. This game has a few (see Johnny Blue-Eyes), but the others more than make up for the cliches. What do a mobster mariachi guitarist, a chubby vampiress, a delusional German ninja, and a drunken kung-fu master who is also a giant anthropomorphic cat have in common? If you answered, “They all chew on the edges of my fever dreams,” then you must have been one of the developers responsible for this title. Still, for all the nonsequiturs involved, the batshit party gives a lot of personality to the story.
Another refreshing deviation from the norm is the setting. No pre-industrial castles, steampunk cities, or reimaginings of historic Japan for this title; the party is planted square in the middle of Prohibition-era New York and traipses all around the Western hemisphere on the trail of world-destroying antagonists Lady and Killer. Awkward names, I know, but they sort of make sense in context. Actually, “Lady and Killer” might not be a bad title for a book. Anyway, hopping from the Grand Canyon and Roswell to Chichen Itza and various Pacific islands makes immersion in the world easy.
The battle system, on the other hand, is a double-edged sword. It is simple and straightforward, which is nice, but it also carries some flaws inherent to the Shadow Hearts series. The biggest, shiniest pimple on its face is the sanity point system. Each character has a sanity meter that drains as they are attacked by enemies. Once it hits zero, the character goes berserk, randomly selecting abilities and targets until they are killed or some sanity is restored to them via spells or items. Thus, one must waste valuable combat turns making sure the characters don’t snap and self-immolate. Had the sanity system any grounding in the story, it might be more tolerable; lacking that, it’s just an irritating chore.
Some of the boss battles are also absurdly cheap. I’m all for a tough round of fisticuffs; it gives me cause to satisfy my inner grind whore. What I don’t appreciate is a boss with an automatic IWIN button unless you’ve geared specifically against it. This sort of thing doesn’t happen until late in the game, but it still happens. One boss has a “petrify all” spell that is in no way announced, meaning you will most certainly lose your first attempt unless your party just happens to be wearing the anti-petrify trinket. Another’s regular melee attack has a fairly good chance of an instant KO. Very few (certainly no more than half a dozen) enemies in the game have this ability, so protecting against it seems useless. Then you fight this boss, spend half an hour trying to compensate for his cheap move, and end up redoing the fight anyway.Overall, though, the game is fun, funny, and endearing. Fans of Okage: the Shadow King should certainly give this title a shot. The main quest isn’t too long, either, so you’re not signing up for a Xenosaga-esque commitment by picking it up.
Catherine is, in many ways, like a JRPG. Anime-style art direction, squeaky-voiced women with sculpted bosoms, and a main character who continually bemoans problems that most of the target audience would flay their own mothers to have.
This is no surprise given Atlus’s long and proud tradition of publishing games exclusive to a Japanese audience (portables notwithstanding). Yes, some of their titles have been published (and subsequently banned) in other regions, but it’s clear that they largely cater to the Japanese gaming audience in their level of difficulty, themes, and aesthetic.
Catherine incorporates the near-ubiquitous binary morality system seen in many of this generation’s console games. However, this is the first time I’ve ever found myself questioning the honesty of the system. Unlike the ham-fisted morality systems of today’s big WRPGs (wherein the player must choose between adopting an orphaned litter of puppies or turning them into an adorable source of biofuel for his mechanical heart), Catherine makes the player choose how best to counsel NPCs through various relationship and emotional issues. Just as in real life, the “correct” answer is not as plain as the birdshit on the nose on your face.
For example, last night I found myself in the role of therapist for a sheep with regal hair. Said sheep divulged how his father used to abuse and neglect him. When given the choice between saying “It’s your Dad’s fault!” and “It’s in the past”, I went with the latter. The game promptly shifted my morality dial slightly toward the red angel, indicating that my response was, in fact, reprehensible and I should feel badly about it.
Other morally ambiguous questions and actions have surfaced, each with a predefined “right” and “wrong” outcome. Now, this could be just some bad writing, but I’m starting to wonder if this game will turn the morality system on its ear at some point. The first half of the game gives the clear impression that choosing for long-time girlfriend Katherine instead of cutesy fling Catherine is the “right” thing to do. However, events develop that cast Katherine in a dubious light, making the previous “good” decisions uncertain. I would love to see a game subvert the now-standard binary morality system by having good choices lead to a bad ending, and I’m hoping Catherine does exactly that.
Yes, this is the beginning of a trend. Such a trend, in fact, that I am already in negotiations with a VERY BIG PUBLISHER for rights to my “First Impressions” series. It will be like “Stuff White People Like” in its scope, tone, and appeal. What makes it special is that it will actually continue to update after the book deal has been signed.
The Darkness II demo does a good job of pulling the player into the story right away. It achieves this by crucifying said player and having Two-Face’s working-class cousin growl semi-coherent drivel about “giving up the darkness” to him. Were the main character a woman, I imagine this tirade would be met with great umbrage by campus feminist alliances nationwide. The Saw-style interrogation is interrupted by playable flashbacks featuring a classic mobster dustup in what appears to be New York City. The faceless protagonist, Johnny Estacado, arrives at a posh restaurant for a nice supper with two identical examples of puberty’s generosity. Before he can take the proper time to ogle, a truck crashes through the wall, splattering the women’s overzealous pituitary glands all over our hero. Guys in bright orange overalls pour through the windows, and the shooting begins. A short time later, a bomb explodes, and little Johnny grows two hideous demonic snake things out of his shoulders.
More shooting and screaming and grabbing of guys with evil snake jaws ensue as Johnny fights through the crowded back alleys with his faithful Cockney demon monkey at his side. The bad mobsters employ limited vocabularies to taunt him, he rips them in half, civilians scream and hide. In a reversal of Alan Wake logic, Johnny must shoot out the lights in the alley and metro station to survive; his toothy appendages apparently don’t flourish beneath compact fluorescents. In addition to the snake arms, Johnny has access to standard gangland armaments: pistols, Uzis, and shotguns. The firearms come in handy when the sinister orange jumpsuits are beyond the reach of the vicious black tumors.
Things I Enjoyed
-The combination of regular FPS pew pew with the om-nom-nom of Medusa’s assertive wig collection make for some pleasant diversion from the genre standard. There’s also a touch of Dead Rising in the left-hand snake’s ability to weaponize a lot of objects in the environment. Car doors, corpses, dumpster, and steel rods may all be used to rack up “essence” kills–the gorier the better–for unlocking new powers.
-The story itself seemed like a plot one might see in the Illuminati branch of The Secret World. I’m a sucker for anything that looks like it belongs in that game, so great is my anticipation for it.
Things I Didn’t Enjoy
-While the combat is fun, I could see it getting very repetitive very quickly. The five-taunt list given to the bad guys–which they fire off as energetically and frequently as their bullets–grows tiresome before you get through the first flashback. If the fight scenarios follow suit, I can’t see this title holding my interest for long.
-The monkey-demon thing is rather out-of-place, even in a game about a guy who has Satanic monsters living in his shoulders. The sidekick insists Johnny created him out of his own head, but we’re given no explanation beyond that. He doesn’t add much combat utility and seems only to serve as crude comic relief. Given that I had no intense emotional investment in the culling of the Pumpkin Patch Punks, seeing the monkey piss on their corpses didn’t do a whole lot for me.
Verdict: not a full-price purchase, not even a priority discount purchase. Had it come out this time last year, I may have been more interested. With 2012′s fantastic lineup, however, I’m afraid this one will fall by the wayside. Soon enough, I shall have no more need for Secret World surrogates. Soon enough.