Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lilly Looking Through - Review

* Read this review as it originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Adventure Lantern.

Lilly Looking Through is the creative effort of husband-and-wife team Steve and Jessica Hoogendyk of Geeta Games. As fans of adventure games like Myst, Ico, and Beyond Good & Evil, Steve and Jessica wanted to create an adventure game that could be enjoyed by all ages. A successful campaign on Kickstarter allowed them to see that goal through to fruition, leaving us with the wonderfully charming game that we have today. With much of the game's development inspired by their daughters, you can tell that Lilly Looking Through was a true labor of love.

Lilly Looking Through takes the form of a point-and-click adventure game following the young protagonist, Lilly, as she attempts to catch up to her younger brother, Row, after he's whisked away by a red scarf-like fabric in the wind. The world in which these two siblings inhabit seems to be relatively primitive; the opening scene features round, wooden cottages along a lakeside buried deep in the woods with gas-powered lanterns illuminating wooden walkways. As Lilly ventures forth in search of Row, we're treated to imagery of run-down, abandoned bits of technology, seeming to suggest that this world has regressed to a simpler time after experiencing an era of prosperity and technological growth.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Red Dead Redemption is Not That Great

I remember walking into a GameStop in the spring of 2010, intending to browse through their collection of old PS2 games in search of rare gems. When one of the employees saw me reading the back of the box for Gun, a western-themed shooter, he immediately launched into a sales pitch on Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar's latest western-themed sandbox game. I told him I wasn't interested, and even after explaining that I didn't even own a PS3 or Xbox 360, he continued on his rant, hyping up all its minigames and trying to get me to pre-order it.

A few months later, Red Dead Redemption was released to immense critical acclaim and went on to win numerous "Game of the Year" awards. It's currently the sixth and seventh-highest rated game on PS3 and Xbox 360, respectively. At the time, the allure of a western-themed sandbox game with tight action, tons of content, a great story, and a complex morality system was certainly very strong and had me seriously considering buying one of the consoles to be able to play RDR (among other console exclusives).

Three years later, I've finally played Red Dead Redemption, and as seems to be the case with nearly every critically-hyped mainstream game, I wasn't very impressed with it. Sure, RDR is a decently enjoyable experience with some good qualities in its favor, but it came far short of living up to its grand hype. The introductory area and missions were all quite good and really drew me into its world and atmosphere, but after a while the gameplay grew stale, boring, and tedious, while certain aspects of its overall design proved downright disappointing or outright frustrating.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Narrating The New Stanley Parable, 2013 Edition

What can I say about Galactic Cafe's retail release of The Stanley Parable that I haven't already said in my previous article on its original, free source mod? The problem now, as it was then, is that any kind of description of what The Stanley Parable is, or why it's absolutely worth playing, would spoil its mystique and ruin many of the pleasant surprises in store for gamers unfamiliar with its premise. So the best I can do is attempt to describe its setup as basically as possible, and to describe its allure as vaguely as possible.

The Stanley Parable is a first-person adventure game of sorts, albeit one far from the typical adventure game formula. The Stanley Parable fits in with the crowd of games originally popularized by Dear Esther, wherein you simply walk around a setting and experience an unfolding narrative. Where TSP distinguishes itself from the crowd is the way it embraces freedom of choice and player agency; whereas games like Dear Esther force a rigid storyline upon you, TSP allows you to explore off the beaten path and shape its very course, all in terms of how you choose to react to the narrator.

You play as a man named Stanley, a droning office worker whose job is to sit at a computer terminal pressing buttons on a keyboard as commands stream in through the monitor. Stanley relishes this job and feels contentedly satisfied with life pointlessly typing away at the string of commands. But one day, the commands stopped coming in, and Stanley faces a choice: does he get up to investigate, or does he stay at his post and wait for the problem to solve itself?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Folklore: Such a Folking Disappointment

Folklore hails from the early days of PS3 exclusives -- back when the console cost $600, was the size of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and sported that slick, stylish stupid-looking Spider-Man 3 font -- back before trophies even existed. Good exclusives were a little hard to come by back then, and when Folklore was released back in 2007 it seemed to fly largely under the radar. Given its relatively obscure status, interesting premise, and promising beginning, I was ready to feature Folklore as the next entry in my "Great Games You Never Played" series, but the more I played it the more I became disappointed with it.

Folklore stars two playable protagonists, both of whom arrive at the quaint town of Doolin at the behest of mysterious messengers. Ellen, a young college student, receives a letter from her supposedly dead mother urging her to meet at a cliffside in Doolin; Keats, a journalist for an occult magazine, receives a phone call from a woman in fear of being murdered by magical creatures called faeries. Unable to find their respective contacts when they arrive in Doolin, they witness an apparent murder and become key figures in uncovering the mystery of a few deaths that have been looming over the towns' surviving residents for 17 years.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dragon's Dogma is Pretty Damn Good

Dragon's Dogma is an open-world hack-n-slash action-adventure role-playing game by members of Capcom who had previously worked on games in the Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, and Breath of Fire series. To me, Dragon's Dogma feels more like a cross between Skyrim (in terms of its open-world exploration and quest structure) and Dark Souls (in terms of its combat and its dungeon-crawling feel), which pretty much makes Dragon's Dogma the best of both worlds. After sinking 128 hours and counting into a single playthrough, I feel confident in saying that Dragon's Dogma is one of the most compelling games I've ever played in this genre.

Dragon's Dogma begins with the resurrection of a dragon prophesied to bring about the end of the world. After emerging from a hole in the sky, it sets its sights on the small fishing village of Cassardis, the hometown of the player's self-created avatar. While attempting to fend off the dragon, the player becomes marked as the "Arisen," the hero destined to slay the dragon when his heart gets ripped from his own chest, creating a bond between the Arisen and the dragon. The dragon flies off in possession of the Arisen's heart, while the resurrected Arisen begins his epic journey to fight the dragon and reclaim his heart atop the Tainted Mountain.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Outlast: Over-hyped and Overrated

If you believe the hype, Outlast is the scariest game to hit the market since Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In case you somehow missed it, Amnesia is the game that basically set the new standard for horror games back in 2010. I was extremely impressed with Amnesia when I played it and still consider it one of the best horror games ever made. Outlast takes a lot of lessons from Amnesia, and indeed it even feels a lot like Amnesia (which is perhaps reason enough to play it), but unfortunately my high hopes were dashed by what turned out to be a simplistic, repetitive survival experience. Instead of being the new heralded champion of horror games, Outlast feels more like a merely "average" horror game.

The game begins with you as Miles Upshur driving up to the front gate of the Mount Massive Asylum. You're a journalist who received an anonymous tip warning of illegal activities at the psychiatric hospital; you're there to document evidence and expose the story. The only thing you bring with you is a battery-powered video recorder, capable of recording in complete darkness thanks to night vision. In the beginning, Outlast seems to get the formula right, with this introduction sequence emphasizing a slow, atmospheric build-up before your adventure descends into madness. It's calm, creepy, and foreboding with the lightest sprinkling of jump scares to keep you wary of what you might encounter up ahead.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ain't No Rest For the Wicked - Killzone: Mercenary

The PlayStation Vita is a pretty powerful piece of technology capable of delivering console-quality gameplay. With its dual joysticks, large screen, and impressive graphics processor, the Vita seemed poised to become the first handheld to deliver a proper first-person shooter experience. And yet in the system's 20 months on the market there have been fairly few FPS games, most of which have been received by gamers with a decisive yawn of indifference. Enter: Killzone: Mercenary.

Killzone: Mercenary is the FPS that Vita owners have been waiting for ever since the system's launch back in February 2012. It's been a while since I played a console FPS and I've never played any of the other games in the Killzone series, so I can't vouch for how well it holds up to any current console shooters or the Killzone series, but Mercenary is leaps and bounds above any FPS I've ever played on a handheld. Even compared to what I've come to expect from "typical console shooters" (imagine me saying that as disdainfully as possible), Mercenary managed not to piss me off and actually impressed me a little bit.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Dazed and Confused: Gravity Rush

A young girl wakes up in the gutters of Hekseville, a towering city in the sky, with no memory of her past or her own identity. Accompanied by a black, star-speckled cat, she's immediately thrust into action to save the life of a young boy whose house is being ripped from the city structure by a gravity storm. It's then that she becomes aware of her powers -- or rather, those of the cat who follows her -- to shift gravity. With this ability she runs along walls and even flies through the sky, but despite rescuing the boy, she's unable to save the house, and is met with contempt by the townsfolk who still look down on her and her kind; gravity shifters.

Gravity Rush, a PlayStation Vita exclusive (and one of the most compelling reasons to own a Vita), tells the story of Kat and her gravity-shifting companion Dusty as she attempts to adjust to life in Hekseville while putting her superpowers to good use. Initially, this means finding a place to live and furnishing it, but she quickly becomes a key figure in fending off the monstrous "nevi" afflicting the city, and in restoring sections of the town lost to the gravity storms. It's basically a superhero origin story with lots of deep, subtle storytelling and tons of mind-bending, gravity-altering physics bent around platforming, combat, and exploration.

In a market saturated by sequels and franchise spin-offs, it's always refreshing to play a completely original game with its own unique identity. Gravity Rush is a solid new entry from Project Siren (makers of the Siren series), but as with basically all new games, there are a few kinks holding it back from reaching its full potential. It's a diamond in the rough -- fun to play and pretty to witness, but rough nonetheless.

Monday, October 7, 2013

It's a Jungle Out There: Tokyo Jungle

Tokyo Jungle has quite the unique premise -- after humankind has mysteriously gone extinct in Tokyo, the urban city has become a sprawling jungle for animal wildlife. You play as an animal attempting to survive in this jungle, scavenging for food, defending yourself against bigger and stronger animals, claiming territories, and reproducing. When I bought the game ($14.99 on PSN), I was expecting a slow-paced, realistic survival simulator with a unique twist -- that would've been such an awesome gameplay experience. But it turns out that Tokyo Jungle is a much faster-paced, arcade-style roguelike. Not what I was hoping for, but the game is still surprisingly addicting.

Tokyo Jungle consists of two gameplay modes -- "Story" and "Survival." In story mode, you play specific scenarios with certain objectives that tell a loose story arc for different animals. The story mode, however, is not the game's main emphasis; it's survival mode. The entire game is built around survival mode, with the story missions consisting of derivative survival mode mechanics forced into certain situations. In fact, you can't even play the story missions until you've unlocked them in survival mode. The story missions and unlockable story logs are a welcome component, offering a little more depth and insight to the backstory of what happened leading up to the current situation, but if you're looking for something more than a survival roguelike, you should probably look elsewhere.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

PlayStation Vita Impressions

A week ago I made a bit of an impulse purchase on the PlayStation Vita, intending to get some quality mobile gaming done during downtime at work. Over the summer, I'd been using an old hand-me-down PSP-1000, but used it almost exclusively to play old downloadable PSOne classics, since hardly any of the actual PSP games interested me. The Vita seemed like an appealing option since it retains the same backlog of PSOne classics as well as various downloadable versions of PSP games, all on newer and better hardware with the expanded library of Vita exclusives. The recent price drop to $199.99 USD was also an appealing factor in the decision. 

I bought four Vita games with the device: Gravity Rush, Soul Sacrifice, Dragon's Crown, and Killzone: Mercenary. Of these games, the only one I've played thus far is Gravity Rush, which has proven to be a pretty fun experience. The Vita came bundled with the full first season of Telltale's The Walking Dead, which I've already played on PC. I was also able to download the Vita version of Playstation All-Stars for free, courtesy of Sony's cross-buy policy, since I'd already bought the game on PS3. Finally, I bought the updated PSN version of Spelunky, after having played the original version extensively on PC. These are the seven games I have to start my Vita library, and here are my thoughts on the system after one week of use.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Dream Machine: Chapter 4 Review

Evidently it's been nearly 16 months since I reviewed the first three chapters of Cockroach Inc's The Dream Machine. When I played those three chapters, I was immediately hooked and couldn't sing enough praises for the game. An interesting story with great narrative pacing, intelligent brain-teasing puzzles that felt incredibly natural and plausible in context, and a fairly unique atmosphere and visual style had me anxiously awaiting the release of chapter four. And yet it's taken nearly two years since the release of chapter three for chapter four to finally become available.

Fortunately, chapter three didn't end on a major cliffhanger -- there was still obviously a lot of the story yet to be told, but it sufficiently resolved one prominent story arc before promising others. Chapter four picks up right where chapter three left off; after rescuing your wife Alicia from her own dream, you realize that you have to do the same with the other residents of your apartment building in order to shut down the landlord's haywire dream machine. Chapter four thus consists of a self-contained dream sequence as Victor goes into the dreamscape of his elderly neighbor Edie. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tiny Tina's Assault is Halfway Decent

The trend I've noticed with the Borderlands 2 DLC campaigns is that they're all kind of "meh." In each case, the three preceding BL2 DLCs offer mostly just "more of the same" and don't offer a whole lot of truly unique, interesting content. Speaking as someone who'd spent hundreds of hours in just the base game, playing across multiple characters with multiple friends, the DLC campaigns have all felt like fleeting sideshow distractions, rather than something new and fresh. 

Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep (hereafter referred to as "Tina's Ass") is the last of four originally planned DLC campaigns, and it's by far the best one. Boasting totally original landscapes to explore (no more boring desert wastelands) with a nice variety of aesthetic themes, entirely unique enemy types to fight (no more boring bandits), and a compelling narrative premise of being set inside a Dungeons & Dragons-style role-playing campaign, Tina's Ass feels like a proper expansion, and not just a bloated cash grab. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Thoughts on Final Fantasy VI

Final Fantasy VII is frequently lauded as one of the best games of all time, being the JRPG that introduced many-a-young gamer to the world of JRPGs. But there are those who believe firmly that its predecessor, the aptly-named Final Fantasy VI, is actually the better game. I played FF7 recently and didn't think too highly of it, but wanted to get some more perspective on the series, seeing as I had virtually no experience with Final Fantasy. So FF6 seemed like the natural place to start.

Approximately 35 hours later (spread out over the course of eight weeks), I've now finished FF6 and can confirm that it does in fact have better gameplay mechanics than FF7. The main things FF7 has over FF6 is its improved graphics and its more "epic," more dramatic presentation. What I'd really like to see if FF6-style gameplay with FF7-style presentation, and then I think we'd have the best of both worlds. As it is, it's difficult for me to say which I prefer as the overall better game, so here are just some of my thoughts on how Final Fantasy VI holds up on its own and how it compares to Final Fantasy VII.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dishonored: No Clever Subtitle for This Review

Dishonored is a thing. To be more specific, Dishonored is a video game by Arkane Studios, the team responsible for Dark Messiah of Might and Magic and Arx Fatalis. Both of those games were known for allowing a lot of creative freedom in terms of how you wanted to play with the game mechanics, and Dishonored follows that same philosophy. In Dishonored you play as Corvo Attano, personal bodyguard to the empress of the quasi-steampunk region of Dunwall. After being framed for her murder, you set out for revenge, collaborating with a group of loyalists in assassinating key figures responsible for the coup on the empress.

Besides the other games by Arkane Studios, Dishonored reminds me a lot of the original Deus Ex and Thief games. Like Deus Ex and Thief, there are just so many different ways to play Dishonored, based on how you choose to invest skill points and resources, how you choose to explore levels, how you choose to complete objectives, and how you choose to eliminate hostile targets. In that regard alone, Dishonored is a mighty fine game that also boasts a very convincing setting with a satisfying mission structure. Unfortunately, the story leaves a little something to be desired, and the great quality of the gameplay still lets some crucial things slip through the cracks.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Evoland: A Little Rough Around the Edges

June has nearly come to an end, and I still haven't written a single article. It's tough working six days a week, but it doesn't help that I've been trying to play three games simultaneously. So I figured I'd try to play through a short indie game and write a quick review of it, and on an impulse bought Evoland for $9.99 on Steam. Less than 48 hours later, and before I'd actually started playing the game, Evoland went on sale on both Steam and GOG for $4.99. So the lesson learned is this: never buy a game unless it's on sale, because it will surely go on sale immediately after you buy it.

Evoland is supposed to be a nostalgic tribute to classic action/adventure/RPGs like Zelda and Final Fantasy. The gimmick, here, is that the game progressively "evolves" from the historic roots of video games up to something more modern. The gameplay begins at its most basic, with visuals reminiscent of the original GameBoy; as you play, you unlock extra mechanics (like background music, health meters, save points, etc) and watch as the graphics steadily upgrade themselves to that of the early GameCube. It's an intriguing premise that does manage to kindle nostalgic memories of fonder times, but is the game itself any good?

Unfortunately, the full game experience doesn't quite deliver on the great potential of the premise. We've all replayed some of our favorite games hoping to relive childhood passions, but the problem with Evoland is that it merely reminds us of other games, without offering much substance of its own. That's good for jogging fond memories (which is without a doubt fairly low-hanging fruit), but the experience rarely transcends simple nostalgia. It's basically like the game is trying to stand solely on references without having its own unique stamp to tie everything together. Don't get me wrong -- the "evolution" gimmick is very unique, but that's not enough to carry the weight of a $10 game. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Witcher vs The Witcher 2

The Witcher is one of my all-time favorite RPGs. When I played it in 2007, I was immediately engrossed by its incredibly complex quest design and was particularly impressed by how it handled moral choices. It felt a lot like an old-school RPG dressed up in a modern skin -- it was sort of the best of both worlds. So I had pretty high hopes and expectations for The Witcher 2, but it didn't wow me as much as the original did. There are some things about The Witcher 2 that are technically superior to the original, but the two are ultimately beasts of a slightly different nature.

Whereas The Witcher is predominantly an RPG designed for enthusiasts of classic, old-school RPGs, The Witcher 2 is more of a cinematic action-RPG designed to interest a more mainstream audience. There are things I like about each game, and they're each very fine games in their own right, but I definitely prefer the greater complexity of the first game. In this article I'll compare and contrast the two games on specific points like quests, story, exploration, combat, atmosphere, and so on, in an attempt to determine which game's execution works better.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Resident Evil: Revelations - Demo Impressions

Once the reigning king and quintessential embodiment of the survival-horror genre, the Resident Evil series has spent the better half of the past decade trying to recapture its former brilliance. Unsuccessfully, it would seem. I used to consider myself a fan of the series, from the slow-paced adventure-style gameplay of the originals to the stronger action focus of the fourth main installment. But ever since Resident Evil 5, which was itself an underwhelming letdown, I've found myself cynically jaded by the barrage of spin-offs to have been churned out by the grand corporate machine.

Resident Evil: Revelations was said to be a return to form for the series, offering a gameplay and atmosphere style that more closely resembled the originals while still retaining the over-the-shoulder third-person-shooting mechanics and control scheme that made Resident Evil 4 so successful. Not owning a Nintendo DS, I was unable to play ResERev until it was ported to the PC. With its release date looming a couple of days away, I decided to give the demo a shot and see if Revelations lives up to its hype. Unfortunately, judging by the demo, Revelations appears to be another disappointing letdown. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Parasite Eve: Survival-Horror for RPG Fanatics

I remember seeing copies of Parasite Eve on store shelves all the time back in the day. Curious, I'd pick it up, feel somewhat intrigued by the premise, but ultimately always ended up passing on it. Being a game by Squaresoft with the tagline "the cinematic RPG," I was worried the game would be all style and no substance. Since I'm in my current trend of playing old PlayStation games on my PSP when I'm away from home, and since the game is cheap enough to download, I figured now was as good a time as any to give the game a shot.

When a game describes itself as being "cinematic," I interpret that to mean the game wants to be like a movie. To me, that means a game should emphasize its visuals, its story, and its characters, to make the game's overall presentation more closely resemble that of a typical Hollywood movie. Well the bad news for Parasite Eve is that its story and characters are absolute garbage, and nearly all of the game's audio-visual aesthetics fail to impress outside out of the pre-rendered cutscenes. Thankfully the gameplay is pretty good, providing an interesting blend of RPG and survival-horror elements, but that's the game's only saving grace.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Final Thoughts on Final Fantasy VII

Last night I finished playing Final Fantasy VII, so I can now confirm my prejudice that FF7 is overrated. The game itself is decent, but it didn't impress me nearly as much as some other RPGs of that era. Chrono Trigger (released a couple of years prior) and Fallout (released later that year), are both better games in my opinion, and many people believe Final Fantasy VI to be superior to VII. It seems to me like FF7's success is primarily a result of the times, of being perhaps the first major RPG on the PlayStation and, for many young gamers, their first RPG.

After numerous failed attempts at playing this game, I mentioned in my first impressions article that, after finally finishing the first disc, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I was enjoying FF7. Unfortunately, as the game progressed, I started to grow weary of it, and the game stopped impressing me. There was still a ton of stuff left to do in the game (defeating the various Weapons, collecting final limit breakers and ultimate weapons, etc), but I was ready to be done with it and just pressed to the end. So here are my thoughts on the second half of Final Fantasy VII.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Impressions of Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII is one of the most iconic video games of all time, and as with virtually all popular games of legend, I've never played it. Well, I've tried numerous times -- twice on the original PlayStation, and once or twice more on the PSP -- but never made it past the first disc. I always inevitably got bored with it, or had to put the game down for weeks at a time, and upon returning had no idea what I supposed to be doing. I don't have much fondness for Japanese RPGs, but I've always meant to finish FF7 just to see what the hype was all about.

So I've been playing FF7 on-and-off for the past few weeks (basically during downtime at work), and for the first time ever, I've actually made it past the first disc. For the first time ever, I've actually seen that fabled cutscene where Aeris dies. Since this is such a long game and I'm taking even longer to play it, I figured this was a good point to stop and document some of my initial thoughts and impressions on the game. I may or may not do a final review of the game, if I don't have anything substantial to add to this article, but I wanted to get my thoughts in writing before I forget everything. So here are my initial impressions of Final Phantasy Star VII.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt is Kind of "Meh"

Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt is the third DLC campaign for Borderlands 2, and as the title suggests, it didn't do much to impress me. This seems to be a continuing trend with the BL2 DLCSir Hammerlock's strongest (perhaps only) selling point is that it features some really interesting environments that provide a much-needed change of pace from the typical BL2 scenery, especially after Torgue's Campaign marked a return to drab desert wastelands. The maps are huge and promote a lot of fun, engaging exploration (even though, in typical BL2 fashion, it isn't always rewarded), which is almost enough to make this a passable DLC on its own.  

The big issues with this DLC lie with the quests. The main questline itself is way too short, easily finished in under two hours -- half that time if you just plow through it. The main quest is straightforward and devoid of any interesting twists or other such developments in the plot, and there's very little reason to care about the practically non-existent "conflict" between the Vault Hunters and the new antagonist, Professor Nakayama. The central conflict is even introduced as a nuisance that Sir Hammerlock has absolutely zero interest in, and he only reluctantly sends you off to deal with Nakayama so you can go about the hunting expedition further undisturbed. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Torgue's Campaign is Kind of "Meh"

I just finished playing the second Borderlands 2 DLC campaign, Mr Torgue's Campaign of Carnage. It was alright, but I wasn't particularly impressed by it. It features a number of mechanical improvements over gameplay elements that were introduced in Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate's Booty, so it's nice to see that Gearbox are actually learning some lessons in their development process, but it also features a much less interesting story in a far less interesting environment. And there's not even a whole lot of unique loot to get out of it. 

In this DLC, you travel to the Badass Crater of Badassitude to compete in a gladiator-style arena organized by the manufacturer of Torgue weapons, Mr Torgue himself. The premise is vaguely similar to the second DLC from the first Borderlands, Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot, except with a more fleshed-out story. After being cheated and disgraced in your first arena match, you go around knocking off other gladiators, working your way back up to the top of the leaderboard for a chance at retribution and the grand prize that awaits the arena champion.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Phantasmaburbia - Bustin' Makes Me Feel Good

Phantasmaburbia is an indie RPG set in a small suburban neighborhood that, overnight, has become host to a large population of ghosts and dark spirits. In the middle of the night, four teenagers are woken up by ghostly disturbances in their houses; seeking weapons with which to defend themselves, they each meet with a friendly spirit who helps them quell the ghosts in their homes. With their new ghost buddies, the four protagonists set out into the neighborhood on their own personal quests, but soon come to join forces to defeat the demon responsible for awakening the evil spirits and casting their families and neighbors into unwaking slumber.

The premise itself is pretty interesting, but there's a whole lot going in this game's favor. It has a really nice atmosphere (thanks to the visual design and the music), an engaging and unpredictable story, pretty decent character development, fun battle mechanics, clever puzzles, and several interesting twists on the typical RPG formula. Certain elements of the game even remind me of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. And with a single playthrough lasting 10-12 hours, with good pacing throughout, I had a very wholesome, fulfilling experience with Phantasmaburbia.

As usual, if that summary isn't enough to convince you, I have more thoughts on the game after the jump.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Vampire Lemmings - An Indie Game Review

Vampires! is a (wait for it....) vampire-themed puzzle game by CBE Software, the developer behind the recent sci-fi adventure/puzzle game J.U.L.I.A. and Ghost in the Sheet. Vampires! plays loosely like the classic Lemmings game (except with vampires) -- it's almost dawn, and the vampires have to get back to their crypts before the sun comes up. The problem is that they seem to roam through hallways almost aimlessly, so it's up to you to help them avoid traps and make it back to the crypt safely, before sunrise. 

The game is played from an overhead perspective with small, self-contained map scenarios. Using the mouse, you click on tiles to alter the environment while the vampires drone ever onward through the hallways and intersections. Your primary interaction is rotating tiles so that you can shape the path you want the vampires to take, even rotating a tile while a vampire is currently in the tile. At first, all you have to worry about is patches of sunlight, which kill the vampires instantly if they walk into it, but things quickly become more complicated.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Bundle in a Box: The Cerebral Bundle

A few hours ago Kyttaro Games launched their fourth Bundle in a Box, a pay-what-you-want collection of clever indie games. All games are available DRM-free as direct downloads, and some are supported on Steam, Desura, Mac, and Linux. The minimum asking price for the bundle is $1.99, which will give you five base games, but paying above the current average will give you four extra games. Other bonuses (like soundtracks and comics) unlock as more people purchase bundles. From the press release:
Paying anything above $1.99 will get you: deep, retro-esque and utterly elegant RPG Phantasmaburbia; artful, being-stood-up-sim Dinner Date; undead infested puzzler Vampires!; illustrated interactive fiction exclusive debut Necrotic Drift Deluxe; and beautiful puzzler exclusive debut D├ędale De Luxe
Beating the average price will allow gamers to enjoy four more cerebral games: sci-fi puzzle exploration adventure J.U.L.I.A.; hilarious boring-job-sim I Get This Call Every Day; Jane Jensen powered point-and-clicker Cognition, Episode 1: The Hangman; and just released dystopian adventure Reversion: The Meeting
A portion of all sales will be given to charity, and another portion will be set aside to help fund other indie developers, so you'll be supporting some good causes in the process. The current average price is hovering around $5.82. I'll try to write some quick reviews for some of these games in the next few days, but you can also check the bundle out for yourself by clicking here

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Witcher 2 Screenshots & Wallpapers (Part 2)

The Witcher 2 is easily one of the best-looking games I've ever played. The amount of detail in the graphics is simply astonishing, and there's an awful lot of artistic splendor in many of the landscapes. I took 701 screenshots during a single playthrough -- here are some of my favorites. Continued from part 1.

The Witcher 2 Screenshots & Wallpapers (Part 1)

The Witcher 2 is easily one of the best-looking games I've ever played. The amount of detail in the graphics is simply astonishing, and there's an awful lot of artistic splendor in many of the landscapes. I took 701 screenshots during a single playthrough -- here are some of my favorites. Continued in part 2.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Witcher 2 is Pretty Good

In 2007, The Witcher earned a strong reputation among RPG enthusiasts because it felt like a traditional, old-school RPG in a modern era of streamlined, dumbed-down pseudo-RPGs. Its sequel from 2011, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, feels less like a true RPG and more like a mainstream action-RPG, as if it's trying to appeal to the crowd of gamers who turn to Bethesda and BioWare for their annual RPG fix. That would ordinarily be a pretty damning criticism coming from me, but compared to the likes of Bethesda and BioWare games, The Witcher 2 is a mighty fine game that still understands what makes a good, satisfying RPG.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

I Miss Rareware Difficulties

Back in the 90s, Rareware was a juggernaut among game developers, rivaling and perhaps even surpassing the great and almighty Nintendo. Games like GoldenEye, Perfect Dark, Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, and Conker's Bad Fur Day were just as essential to the N64's library as any of Nintendo's flagship IPs. Without Rareware, the N64 would've only been half the console it was. When Microsoft bought Rare, it was an attack on Nintendo that's still felt to this day; Nintendo lost one of its best developers, and Rare has since developed barely anything of worth on the Xbox.

Rare's presence is sorely missed, but one thing I miss in particular is how they handled the difficulty in their games. When most game developers put different difficulty options into their games, they tend just to provide the same game experience with certain statistics on a slider. Enemies deal more damage and have higher hitpoints, resources are more scarce, there might be more or fewer checkpoints, and so on. What Rare did, by contrast, was provide a completely different gameplay experience for each difficulty.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Retro Review: Conker's Bad Fur Day

Ever since its release back in 2001, Conker's Bad Fur Day has been lauded as one of the best games on the Nintendo 64 and is considered by some to be Rareware's best game. Rareware and Microsoft liked it so much they remade the game for the original Xbox in 2005 in the form of Conker: Live & Reloaded. For some reason, the game never appealed to me when I was younger (I guess because it had a cartoon squirrel as the protagonist and I didn't really know what the premise was supposed to be about), and as such I never played it. Until now.

I can definitely see why Conker was so highly praised back in 2001. It's a very impressive game for its time, especially in terms of the technology in its graphics and sound, and many of its gamepay elements still hold up well today. The thing I like most about it is that it was a refreshing change of pace from similar platformers of that era. It does show its age in a few areas, however, and there are a couple of design choices that bother me and things that I think could've been better.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Should Dark Souls II Have an Easy Mode?

When it was announced that Hidetaka Miyazaki -- director of both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls -- would be stepping down as director for the new Dark Souls II, his successor, Tomohiro Shibuya, expressed an interest in making Dark Souls II "more straightforward and understandable." With news of a new director who said he wanted to make the sequel more accessible for gamers inexperienced with the series, fans immediately began to speculate that the difficulty of Dark Souls II might be "dumbed-down" in order to appeal to a wider audience.

The argument, as these fans proposed, goes that the challenging difficulty is one of the core, fundamental elements that made those games great, and that making the difficulty easier would ruin the experience of Dark Souls. This brouhaha got me thinking: would the inclusion of an "easy mode," or having a more accessible start to the game actually ruin the Souls experience? After some consideration, I don't think it would be such a big deal, and I think a lot of people are just overreacting.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Impressions of Chivalry: Medieval Warfare

This past weekend, Steam held a free weekend event for Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, an indie first- or third-person action multiplayer game. As its subtitle suggests, the gameplay revolves around medieval warfare, with armored knights and archers waging war against each other in bloody, brutal combat. You play as one soldier on the battlefield, selecting from four classes and picking specific weaponry. The various game modes include typical team deathmatch, free-for-all, and last team standing, with "team objective" pitting teams against each other in attacking or defending specific objectives.

The combat is based mainly on timing and stamina management; blocking attacks and stringing together combos requires precise timing, and each attack or parry consumes stamina. These features make Chivalry's combat feel a little more tactical than your average hack n' slash game, while the weapons have an authentic feeling of weight and impact to them. Coupled with the intense gore and the in-your-face nature of one-on-one combat, Chivalry has a lot going for it. It's exactly the kind of game I want to like, but I just couldn't convince myself it was worth it from the free weekend event. Here are my impressions of Chivalry, based on the free weekend.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Impressions of Playstation All-Stars

With the introduction of Playstation All-Stars: Battle Royale into the gaming scene, the "mascot brawler" can now be considered something of an actual genre, as opposed to just being that one game series by that one company. In case you didn't already know, Playstation All-Stars is basically Sony's answer to Nintendo's Super Smash Brothers franchise; it's a side-view multiplayer fighting game starring characters from iconic Playstation exclusive games. I've been playing the game on-and-off for a few weeks now, so here are my initial impressions on it.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Great Games You Never Played: Afrika

"Fine, obscure gems." Part of a periodical series: Great Games You Never Played.

Back in 1999, Pokemon Snap proved that games about photography can be just as engaging as an action-packed shooter, yet ever since then, games with photography as the central gameplay mechanic have been few and far between. Some games like Dead Rising have featured elements of photography, but Afrika (a PS3 exclusive released in 2009) is the only other game I know of where photography is the main and only point of the game.

In Afrika, you play as one of two photojournalists sent to photograph and document wildlife in an African conservation. Each day begins in your tent at base camp, checking your email and conducting any preliminary business before setting out on safari. Email is the source of your missions, with various clients requesting photographs of certain animals, sometimes in specific poses or in a particular setting. You're then free to roam about the African wilderness sandbox-style, taking pictures and completing missions at your leisure. At first you're limited to the nearby steppe region, but as you advance through the main missions, you gain access to a swampland, a large lake, a rocky canyon, and a green plains region.

Photographs submitted for missions are graded based on technique, and your pay is based on the picture's grade. The money that you earn can be spent buying new tools and equipment (such as a portable tent so you can spend the night in the field, instead of having to return to base camp at sundown), as well as upgrading your camera body and lenses for better pictures. Missions are split between sandbox-style side missions where you observe the wildlife in real time, and important main missions where you watch a more dramatic, scripted cutscene (such as a fight between a lion and an elephant) and take pictures of critical moments.

The photography in Afrika is rather satisfying, thanks to the breadth of options for getting the right shot as well as the game's emphasis on emulating real photography. For instance, you can unlock eight different lenses, and some are more suited for certain kinds of shots than others, and you have to worry about settings like depth of field, aperture, and shutter speed (among other things). While the photography aspect is great fun, there are, unfortunately, a number of really annoying things about the game's design that feel like noticeable blemishes on a great formula. Still, there aren't many photography games out there, so Afrika is easy to recommend if you're interested in that style of gameplay. More of my thoughts await after the jump.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Video Games in TV: Criminal Minds

"Some TV shows just don't get it." Part of a periodical series: Video Games in TV

In this season eight episode of Criminal Minds, "The Wheels on the Bus..." two gamer addicts abduct a bus full of high school students so they can reenact their favorite video game, Gods of Combat, after getting banned from online play. They strap 10 of their victims up with shock collars and bluetooth earpieces, divide them into teams, and send them out to kill each other one-against-one while the kidnappers watch and issue commands to their respective subordinates. 

Compared to other episodes I've watched, this episode of Criminal Minds actually doesn't offend me too much. It doesn't get very much overtly wrong and manages not to stereotype gamers as some kind of comically absurd caricature. There are just a few inconsistencies and hiccups that bother me, and these come more from a screenplay standpoint than a gaming standpoint. Continue reading for the rest of my breakdown.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

DmC: Devil May Cry - Demo Impressions

From the very beginning I was prepared to dislike DmC: Devil May Cry, the poorly-named reboot to the Devil May Cry series starring a new Dante in a parallel universe. I really enjoyed the originals (well, the first and third ones, anyway), and the DMC series is not so old as to warrant needing a reboot, which makes the whole thing seem like a dumb gimmick. I didn't like the look and personality of this new Dante, and the fact that it wasn't being developed by Capcom had me even more concerned.

With skeptical curiosity, I decided to try the PS3 demo; as it turns out, the game actually seems alright to me. It's not spectacular, and there are some things that kind of bother me, but it's raised my interest level from "absolutely no interest" to "might consider buying it sometime." It's been maybe a half-dozen years since I played any of the original PS2 games and I haven't even played the fourth one, so I can't make hard comparisons to how DmC lives up to the legacy of the originals, but here are my thoughts on how DmC stands up on its own, based on the demo. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Top 10 From 2012: Reviews

With 2012 now a distant memory, it's time to reflect on the year's greatest achievements and rank them in order of their success. Since I hardly ever play new releases, I can't compile a list of the top ten releases from 2012. Instead, I'll be highlighting some of my best articles from 2012. Shameless self-promotion with an opportunity to get some of my favorite pieces on the front page again. Huzzah.

This time I'll be ranking some of my reviews. Criteria for this category isn't which games I enjoyed the most, so much as which I enjoyed writing about the most and which articles I feel have the most profound statements to be made about their respective games. Continue reading for the full list.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Top 10 From 2012: Editorials

With 2012 now a distant memory, it's time to reflect on the year's greatest achievements and rank them in order of their success. Since I hardly ever play new releases, I can't compile a list of the top ten releases from 2012. Instead, I'll be highlighting some of my best articles from 2012. Shameless self-promotion with an opportunity to get some of my favorite pieces on the front page again. Huzzah.

This time I'll be ranking some of my favorite editorials, those opinion pieces where I talk about some aspect of gaming and compare the relative strengths and weaknesses of a few games. Continue reading for the full list.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Top 10 From 2012: Free Indie Games

With 2012 now a distant memory, it's time to reflect on the year's greatest achievements and rank them in order of their success. Since I hardly ever play new releases, I can't compile a list of the top ten releases from 2012. Instead, I'll be highlighting some of my best articles from 2012. Shameless self-promotion with an opportunity to get some of my favorite pieces on the front page again. Huzzah.

I didn't play as many free indie games as I would've liked in 2012, so this list isn't much of a "top 10" -- it's more like "the only 10" ranked in order of preference. Some of them were a little disappointing, but the top half of the list were all outstanding, and even the bottom half showed a lot of potential. Continue reading for the full list.