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Review – Shadow Hearts: From the New World

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.

Really, they would bring a lot of personality to any event.

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.

Bastard still got what was coming to him. Curvy Hilda takes no prisoners.

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.

 

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Categories: Game Reviews

Fanboy glee and schadenfreude

March 16, 2012 Leave a comment

The press embargo on GDC was lifted yesterday, and my concentration has absolutely gone to shit because of it. Fortunately, I”m experiencing a brief lull in workplace responsibilities due to spring break, allowing me to do nothing but read articles and watch videos. All covering one game, of course.

This game has a way of holding your attention.

The flood of information Funcom has released in the last few months was carefully crafted to generate the most hype possible, and I’m falling for it full-tilt. Yes, even though it involves a guy with full-body tattoos wandering around a seedy Seoul hotel wearing only a loincloth and a frown. After nearly four years of following this game as it developed, greedily slurping up the paltry dribblings of information they released along the way, I am now gorging myself on this wealth of in-game footage and reviewer analysis. I typically don’t pay much attention to professional game reviewers; their scores match up with my own tastes too erratically to be of much use in determining whether or not I’ll like a game. However, in the case of The Secret World, I find myself agreeing with pretty much everything that they’re saying. Refreshing take on the MMO? Check. Classless, free-form character development? Check. A simple crafting system not based on grinding lists? Check. Near-continuous reiteration of how this game is doing everything The Old Republic tried to do, only doing it well?

Check, motherfuckers.

Of course, there lies the tell-tale ridge marking the passage of a writhing, burrowing fear that The Secret World will not be what Funcom is showing it to be. Never having any interest in the Conan mythos beyond Jon and Al Kaplan’s song on the subject, I never played Age of Conan. General Internet consensus rules it enough of a failure to haunt every goddamn thread relating to The Secret World, though. I understand that AoC and TSW were developed by separate teams, so I’m hoping that the latter will dispel such trepidations handily.

Still, there were legions of players hoping The Old Republic would be the scion of a new age in MMOs. BioWare played up that angle and failed to deliver. As much as I’m enjoying watching their forums erupt in acrid self-consumption, a quiet voice is whispering that the same may happen with The Secret World. I don’t doubt that it will bring new elements to the table, but I’m still ever so slightly worried that it won’t do it well. A buggy launch, or disjointed features, or ludicrously overpowered builds. Yes, every MMO has bugs at launch (something the feral bands of comment jackals always seem to forget), but will they be irritations, gimps, or full-on crippling? This unknown quantity makes me apprehensive.

One thing I’m not concerned about, however, is the P2P/cash store model that The Secret World will be using. Despite having wadded too many panties to count, this particular feature doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I’m old-school enough to recognize that a P2P system is essential if you want a game that works well, looks fantastic, and delivers quality updates. Yes, there are a lot of F2P games that are fun, but P2P games tend to achieve a higher level of all-around quality. Furthermore, Funcom has confirmed that the cash store will be strictly vanity; no IWIN buttons for sale, just a lot of fancy getups and other things that make your toon prettier to look at. WoW does this (fuck you and your sparklehorse). EVE does this. Both games still function with both dedicated and casual followers. I have never puchased vanity items in either game despite my years of playing, and it hasn’t impacted my experience in the slightest. Far be in from me to speak to the entitlement complex that supposedly infects the majority of Internet denizens, but seriously, shut the hell up about this being a “greedy” maneuver by “grubby” corporations. Funcom is taking an enormous financial risk with The Secret World: they’re introducing new ideas, new gameplay, and a completely original world into an industry that rewards sequels with enthusiasm and innovation with vitriol. That is not the MO of a greedy dev team. In my mind, the epitome of a cash-hungry, soulless game company is one that buys rights to a mega-popular IP and makes the gameplay identical to another mega-popular IP.

Oh wait.

Categories: Games

Catherine – Midterm Evaluation

March 2, 2012 3 comments

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.

Must my milkshake bring ALL the girls to the yard?

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.

Pictured above.

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.

You know what, guys? Go fuck yourselves. I'm not an LCSW.

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.

Well done, my good and faithful paladin. Here comes your happily ever after.

Categories: Game Reviews, Games

The Darkness II – First Impressions

February 16, 2012 2 comments

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.

BURN!

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.

Which, come to think of it, don't differ too much from the average restaurant-goer.

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.

Incidentally, generic white women are always beyond their reach.

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.

Attempting to talk me out of said hype is strongly discouraged.

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.

Although, to his credit, he does appear to have a skinned cat on his head.

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.

Categories: Game Reviews, Games

A few thoughts on [JW]RPGs

February 2, 2012 1 comment

Faithful followers of this blog might be familiar with my stance on this generation of Bioware RPGs.

Google Image result for "utter crap." Presented without comment

However, as much as they would like to think otherwise, Bioware isn’t actually synonymous with WRPG. The term “WRPG” is even somewhat misleading, as many people equate it solely with American RPG giants Bioware and Bethesda. Lesser-known (but arguably more skillful) studios like CCP, CD Projekt RED–to whom PC gamers owe limitless fealty for their brainchild Good Old Games–or Runic Games aren’t often considered in the great WRPG vs. JRPG debates.

Captured here, their intricacies intact, by the Internet.

I’m resisting the urge to pull out the “just play what you enjoy” copout here; this is the Internet, and people expect uninformed, half-baked opinions. This past winter, I’ve watched Tori play through both 360 and PS2 RPGs while immersed in The Witcher 2 and Skyrim. This experience has outlined what to me seem like the key differences between the genres: WRPG fans favor engaging gameplay and the illusion of choice, and JRPG fans choose epic stories and dynamic characterization. YES I KNOW THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS AND CLICHES SHUTTHEFUCKUP. I am making a generalization. For every Geralt of Rivia, there is at least one BrickShep. For every Auron, there is a Yuffie Kisaragi. Nothing is perfect.

Why do I say JRPGs are better with story and character in the face of OMGMEGASTORY Mass Effect? Quite simply, I never felt emotionally invested in any of BrickShep’s crew during my playthrough, to say nothing of the dead-faced automaton himself. Making the gut-wrenching choice between Kaidan and Ashley boiled down to simple utility. Ashley was useful in combat; Kaidan used up valuable oxygen on the Normandy to whine about being bullied. Choice made, chuckle had at the image of Kaidan disintegrating in that nuclear fireball, reflection that if the game really did allow freedom of choice, it would have let me chain Joker to the bomb as well because fuck that guy.

Seriously.

By contrast, while watching Tori play through sleeper JRPG Nier (as fantastic a game as ever there was), I felt myself choking up when one of the characters sacrifices himself to save the others. The event is 100% scripted, unavoidable, no you do not get a goddamn fucking choice in the matter, and it was far more powerful than any option on any dialogue wheel ever made has ever been.

I suppose the bottom line is this: I view the video game RPG (not pen-and-paper RPGs) as an electronic, interactive novel. I want the story to be so amazing that I am willing to grind for hours on trash mobs to see how it ends. With Mass Effect and most of the rest of the WRPG line, I feel as though I am reading a choose-your-own-adventure book. Story length and depth are sacrificed to write in alternate paths and endings that really don’t matter all that much. Combat tends to be more engaging (Fable is loads more fun than Final Fantasy XII, for example), yes, but I don’t play RPGs for gameplay. If I want fast-paced, enjoyable combat, I’ll pop in Arkham Asylum. If I want a sweeping storyline full of memorable characters and fantastic music, I’ve learned to put up with squeaky voices and big eyes.

Fuck you too, Norma.

Categories: Games

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning – First Impressions

January 19, 2012 3 comments

I’ve spent the past two nights playing around with the Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning demo available on Steam. It’s one of the more interesting-looking new IPs scheduled for release in 2012, so I was rather eager to try a nibble or two. I may have also been looking for an excuse to prove to myself that I am capable of playing anything other than Skyrim.

Results of experiment: unclear

After a brief introductory cutscene in which two gnomes discuss your cadaver, you get to select how that cadaver should look. Character creation is fairly limited, which expedites the process for those who aren’t all that concerned with character appearance, but obsessive nose depth tweakers will find the experience lackluster. The gnomes toss your pretty corpse into a chute, and there your adventure begins.

After climbing down from atop a pile of corpses, you pad your way through a cave until you meet up with one of the gnomes from earlier. He whispers and shouts you through the tutorial as you battle rats, spiders, and Tuatha soldiers. Despite sounding like reject soldiers from Star Wars, the Tuatha are war-crazed Fae bent on destroying humanity. While nobody explicitly states it (at least as far as I went), it comes across fairly clearly that you are the Chosen One, the only one that can put an end to this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

The first DLC pack is rumored to be code-named "Betty"

Upon escaping the doomed laboratory, you find yourself in a lovely spring glade, the sort where gnomish centurions stand guard or writhe in agony here and there. Running along down the path, you soon encounter the game’s first human, a drunken Tarot card readerfateweaver who tells you that he can’t see your fate at all. Unsure of whether this is because you are the only person in the history of forever to be revived via the late great Well of Souls or if he’s simply had too much to drink, he tells you to make for the isolated shack of another fateweaver for a second opinion.

He may or may not also boast about his recent sexual exploits

At this point, I chose to pick up some side quests, and they consumed the remainder of my 45 minutes of play time. I only finished one–rescuing some poor sot from falling in with thieves–because the next quest made me angry. It was easy enough to steal a book of scriptures from a monastery. However, when I returned it to the questgiver, she only cowered before my now-terrifying visage and would not accept the book or give me my payment. Other villagers treated me with similar fear and trembling, and the guards suddenly found great sport in trying to arrest me. Figuring that stealing the book was not how I was supposed to go about it, I attempted to make what peace I could with the injured villagers before leaving town.

My nickname "Lightbringer" is often misinterpreted

Having concluded my adventures thus, my time ran out and I slept.

Things I enjoyed

-Combat is fluid, responsive, and fun. Mixing magic with melee is simple (on standard PC bindings) and helps mix up the standard stab-me-rip-stab-stab MO of the rogue archetype. I haven’t yet played as a warrior or mage archetype, but I imagine their play styles offer similar fluidity and variety. The ability to combine classes as you see fit should also add some dynamic.

-The art direction feels like a stepped-up version of Torchlight. After spending over a hundred hours in the hyper-realism of Skyrim, running through a colorful, stylized world was refreshing. One can hope that the whimsical appearance belies a main story that doesn’t take itself way too seriously (see: Fable). The all-caps EPIC nature of the trailers may indicate that it will fall into Molyneux’s  folly before the end, however.

Hopefully, they can at least avoid blowing giant, smoking holes in their own plot

Things I Didn’t Enjoy

-The combat tutorial happens after you select a race, meaning that you may be locked out of (admittedly trivial) racial bonuses if you end up favoring a style different from the one you expected to play. This can be easily remedied by rerolling your toon, but wading through the opening sequence again could get tiresome.

-Dialogue with NPCs features the all-too-ubiquitous dialogue wheel. Personal opinion, but I fucking hate dialogue wheels.

-Gameplay would sometimes freeze mid-combat for a few seconds, and animations would occasionally blur way out of proportion. I haven’t verified that this is a problem with the game and not my computer, so this may be a moot point. Actually, given the number of bugs still present in Skyrim nearly two months post-launch, I doubt very much that these will be addressed prior to Amalur’s ship date. We have grown accustomed to imperfect games, it seems.

I'm sure there's a frustrated coder or two that would tell me exactly where to shove such minor complaints

Verdict: this won’t be a day-one purchase for me (given my budget, very few games are), but I do plan on picking it up at some point. The synthesis of Fable-style combat and Torchlight-inspired visuals fleshing out a skeleton of Elder Scrolls design is very promising, and I’m hungry for a new take on fantasy WRPG games.

Categories: Game Reviews, Games

In Which I Express Unabashed Envy

January 12, 2012 Leave a comment

I like to believe I am not an overly envious person. Yes, I do have my green-tinted moments when I consider the runaway success of famous authors, actors, musicians, and other creative sorts, and the shade does tend to darken when one such person appears to have achieved their success with marginal or indiscernible talent. Examples gross as Earth exhort me in this latter category, so I don’t think going into a list of who and why would be fruitful. Just use your imagination. Failing at that, pull up Google news.

Is she really a Kardashian? The 2011 Pulitzer prize winner Chicago Sun-Times investigates!

Lately, however, I’ve found myself in the grip of an envy much more powerful, something that can’t be dismissed with a wink, a shit-eating grin, and a public display of my sternum. It doesn’t stem from reading about Adam Christopher’s wildly successful launch of Empire State (congratulations on that, by the way), seeing the pictures my former boss sends me of her retirement in Belize, or even contemplating Mojang’s extraordinary combination of talent and timing. This envy is far older and deeper than any passing thought or errant news article. It even moves me to sadness and frustration if I think too precisely on the event, a reaction I’ve not had much experience combating.

What is it, you ask? Simply put, I envy the culture that today’s youth have.

Who, in all honesty, wouldn't?

Psychology Today published an article this week explaining the benefits that playing video games can have for children. While some of them are self-evident to any long-time devotee of the medium (hand-eye coordination, problem-solving skills, etc), the ones that slapped me in the face were the social benefits. The article quotes several studies that found “that video games, far from being socially isolating, serve to connect young people with their peers and to society at large.[3] Other research has documented, qualitatively, the many ways that video games promote social interactions and friendships.[4] Kids make friends with other gamers, both in person and online. They talk about their games with one another, teach one another strategies, and often play together, either in the same room or online.”

That kind of culture, one that accepts gaming as a valid hobby, would have improved my life in many ways while I was a kid. Youth today have books of video game music that they can buy and learn to play on the piano. If somebody had told six-year-old me that I could play Zelda and Metroid themes on the piano, I might very well be an accomplished pianist today. It never occurred to me that the music my brother and I loved recording on cassette tapes was something I could reproduce on our tiny Casio keyboard. My parents, informed by the parenting wisdom of the nineties, limited our gaming time as much as they reasonably could. This fostered a strange guilty-pleasure mentality regarding the games we played; while fun, they were inferior to other hobbies like reading, playing soccer, or building forts. You know, real kid stuff.

My attempts at compromise were not well received.

My high school served to reinforce, upgrade, and expand this mentality like a dedicated Minecraft construction project. At the time, I was just discovering and becoming quite enamored with Command & Conquer and Pokemon. My best friend and only fellow Pokemon trainer made it absolutely clear that we were not to discuss any aspect of our experiences at school. Girls, you see, would not approve, and the approval of the fairer sex was the Holy Grail to my 14-year-old mind. Thus, I was encouraged to hide one of my greatest passions from the public eye so I could increase my chances of getting that cute girl two seats over to say she’d go out with me. This association of video games with shame lead to the final and greatest regret of my teenage years: I didn’t realize I could make video games for a living. Had I seriously considered the possibility, had I been told just once that video games were as valid an interest and passion as my love for writing or theater was, I might have majored in computer science and game design rather than English. The rest, as they say, would be history.

Over Christmas break, Tori and I played classic N64 games with her younger sister and her boyfriend. As the younger couple succinctly KO’d all three of my chosen fighters in Pokemon Stadium, I realized how much I wished that such a scenario would have been possible when I was seventeen. The chance to freely express my love for video games around girls and have them acknowledge and share it would have blown my adolescent mind, possibly to a life-changing degree.

I could be in ur codez, killing ur doodz.

Categories: Games