Project X Zone

by bhayden
9. August 2013 16:58

“This is the most Japanese game I’ve ever seen.”

That isn’t something I said, my friend Watts said that as I was showing him this game on my last trip to Chicago.  We were sitting in a suburban sushi restaurant – one of those places that you only know exists because of the magic of Yelp.  We were getting ready to swap Fire Emblem armies and then do some multiplayer Fire Emblem (which deserves a post of its own).  I was playing X Zone at the time so I showed it off to him.  In the moment it didn’t actually register the full impact of what he meant.

It didn’t take long for it to sink in.  This is a game of pandering.  It panders to what, and I’m likely overgeneralizing here, must be the inner Hentai fan in every male.  There are jiggling breasts, suggestive quips between members of your party and innuendos galore.  There’s even sequences in the game where one of the characters snaps pictures of the females and the sub label Erotica is slapped over them.

This is  a fan service game.  It brings characters of all different games from several different companies into one universe and tries to meld it all into something coherent.  Normally I prefer not to delve deeply into mechanics but it’s important here.  Rather than the traditional strategy RPG mechanic of having a single unit, you’re given a pair of characters who can then optionally be backed up by a solo character.  Further, instead of having set attacks (they do have those some to an extent) when you fight an enemy you’re taken to a Street Fighter-esque  screen where you execute D-pad combos to perform damage and build up XP (not to be confused with EXP).  EXP gives you levels, XP unlocks your more powerful, unblockable attacks.  This is fresh at first but eventually becomes a mundane routine and by the end devolves into a chore.  In addition to this your units get AOE attacks, which makes combat more tolerable.  Unfortunately they have a high cost of When the enemy attacks your units you then have the choice to counter, block (reduced damage), full block (no damage) or do nothing.  Each one of these options takes XP.

I’d like to say there was coherence in presentation here but the story line was all over the place.  You’re dimensional hopping and picking up and losing characters and picking them back up again at a breakneck pace.  Still I fist pumped when KOS-MOS joined my party because she’s one bad ass motherfucker.  When Mega Man trotted out and joined my group I smiled.  This is the fan service and it is awesome and confusing and hard to keep track of.  There is at least consistency of presentation, if not coherence.  Meaning that each map plays out roughly the same way.  Your units appear, some bad guys appear, after a few turns the real boss for the level shows up and then the battle is on.

Despite all this, I found myself quite hooked.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the flaws I felt like this was a group of devs that just wanted you to have a good time.  It might also be because it’s part of my favorite genre and I’m willing to give those a bit more of a pass than other games.  X Zone delivers a solid, if not spectacular, experience.

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Enslaved: Journey to Mediocrity

by bhayden
6. August 2013 21:27

There is a certain amount of tragedy in games like Enslaved.  At some point there was a meeting, in that meeting someone said let’s make this game, after that some people went and made this game.  Unfortunately I don’t think anyone ever took a step back to consider if they were making this game great.

There is a tendency, I feel, for game developers to overrate their own games.  In the case of Enslaved, I could see why.  There are gorgeous levels, laid out in great detail with nooks and crannies and things to explore.  There are fights, there are puzzles, there are all the ingredients to make a great game.  To continue with the cooking metaphor, they unfortunately forgot to add butter to their cake.  In this case, it’s the story.

It’s not that Trip and Monkey and their relationship isn’t interesting.  There are touching moments in it.  Perhaps I’m being overly critical after playing The Walking Dead.  Enslaved is an older game, and so maybe, maybe I shouldn’t hold it to the same standard.  Sadly I cannot.  I cannot because there is no reason that the story had to be lacking here.

The elements are all there.  You’re thrown into a post apocalyptic world where it’s man vs. machine and the machines have clearly won.  You start out with a pretty epic sequence: you rush to get out of a crashing mech slave ship while it breaks apart around you.  The whole opening was extremely well done, and after it I was pumped.  Even as I played more, and the story began to fall apart I held out some hope.  What was Pyramid?

There is the possibility of an interesting conclusion to this game.  The writers of the game either lacked imagination or time to flesh it out.  I’m not sure, but *SPOILER ALERT* when the end sequence rolled by and Pyramid turned out to be some dude on a monitor capturing people to show them what the world used to be like I was disgusted.  Not since Star Ocean on the PS2 have I seen a story derail as badly.

It makes me feel bad for the other people that worked on the game.  The rest of this game is perfectly fine.  Perhaps some minor tweaks to the camera controls as you jump around fighting.  The duo puzzle solving mechanics with Trip and Monkey are a nice twist to the typical platformer aspects.  As I mentioned before the visuals are excellent.  The first time I dropped onto Monkey’s hover board and zipped around the collapsed ruins of one of NYC’s bridges I was impressed.

These people were let down. That so many people put work into something and it turned out to be a total disappointment in the end.  Not because of failure of mechanics, or failure of the engine but because someone couldn’t think of a more interesting story for mech slavers than some referendum about how much better life was for us now.  Maybe there’s some hidden meaning here, that we yearn for some robotic future.  That as race if we progress too far we are destined to be destroyed by whatever we make. It doesn’t matter.  Those themes are only explored as tangents. 

As the title suggests, this is a mediocre game.  It feels like it was pressed out of some soulless game generator.  That’s the tragedy here.  That a team couldn’t come together and tell their writers that their ending sucked and to create a new one that better served by their efforts.

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by bhayden
27. February 2013 22:18

There are few things more dangerous than the Steam Summer and Winter sales to a man that collects video games.  Darksiders was a game that had been on and off my list at various points as I culled my wish lists.  Then this Holiday sale there was the THQ pack on Steam.  Catnip meet cat. 

I should start by saying that I love angel and demon based lore.  I eat it up.  Few forms of mythos get me as excited as Heaven vs. Hell.  I have no real explanations for this.

There are many things necessary to create a great game.  There is art, there is sound, there is gameplay and all the things that bring it together.  This game has atmosphere in spades.  There is a richness in world and lore that’s conveyed in small bits and pieces.  The artwork is simply outstanding.  Of all the things that I'll remember about this game, the way it looks will be foremost among what I remember.

The game is Zelda, basically.  It’s Zelda with an uptake of violence.  Instead of Link, you are War, one of the Four Horsemen.  Its take on the End of Days might be one of my favorites ever.  War is a man on a murderous rampage and he delights and ripping things apart.  As he should, he’s War after all.

I haven’t played a Zelda game since Wind Waker, and there’s a reason for that.  The triforce hunt on that stupid sail boat ruined what was an otherwise solid game. Zelda is one of the trailblazers, and if homage provided money to Nintendo’s coffers they’d be rich.  This is pure homage, with a bit of extra combat through in.

Homage can be taken too far.  At times it feels the game drags, that by trying to mimic their inspiration the developers forgot to trim and hone.  Whereas a game like Batman maintained its precision, this game could’ve used a bit more tightening.  It’s a game that tries very hard to be great, but doesn’t quite make it.  There is no shame in making a good game, but when you mimic the steps of giants you have to either be as large as them or strike out on your own.  You bow with respect and walk beside them, or climb their shoulders and hope you don’t fall off.

With the disintegration of THQ, the makers of Darksiders were not sold.  This makes me sad.  I know there is a sequel for me to play, but it seems like this tale will be left untold.  When I watched the ending cinematic I got a bit of the chills at War’s closing line, “Not alone.”  It’s a shame that we might never see the end of this.  The making of a great series is here and in an industry that needs new series I’m left wondering what could have been.

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The Awakening

by bhayden
22. February 2013 23:50

I didn’t own a 3DS.  I didn’t have any plans to own a 3DS.  Then Nintendo announced the release of a game that gave me pause; a new Fire Emblem.  I was reticent still, clinging to the belief that it would be ok to wait.  Then they upped the stakes again.   They released a special edition 3DS with Fire Emblem bundled.  It was like kryptonite.  A special 3DS along with the new entry in my favorite series?  Sign me up.  One credit fraud alert and a call to customer support later and my 3DS arrived on Valentine’s Day.  I told my wife thanks for that even though she had nothing to do with it .  She shook her head and smiled.  I bought her flowers.  I think I got the better end of this Valentine’s Day for once.

This game.

I don’t know how often I repeated that phrase to my former Gamer’s Logik alumni and fellow Fire Emblem enthusiast, Watts.  It has been some time since a game has reached out and grabbed me in such a manner.  I found myself consumed by the game, head buried in my DS while my wife and kids wondered what happened to Daddy.  My toddler found it especially enlightening.  I play games around him, but I never played games around him if you catch my meaning.  He loved the roads on the map, and always wondered where the cars were.

I was this obsessed before I discovered that who you married your units to really mattered this time.  I spent some amount of time debating if I should restart to scratch that power gamer itch.  I came to a compromise and made the best of my army with what I had already done.  To be clear, the damage was not crippling but it niggled at those power gamer instincts that WoW sharpened in me. 

I’ve always maintained that Fire Emblem games exist for the sole purpose to display their exquisite battle system.  While Shadow Dragon challenged this assumption; being a remake of the first Fire Emblem you could see the evolution in the series that was present in newer versions.  I almost gave up hope of ever seeing a Fire Emblem stateside again.  Awakening answered with a bang.  Like Lebron in the open court, Awakening is breath taking and beautiful sight to behold.

Back to the dating simulation.  By simulation I mean that you pick and choose who your characters love through the sheer act of killing things.  That’s romance and love.  Hi honey, I know we just killed fifty swordsmen together, I’m so hot let’s go make babies!  I’m being flippant. I made a spreadsheet of who should marry who.   That’s love.

This is the best strategy RPG since Final Fantasy Tactics.  Yes it maintains the tropes of the series.  It pays homage to its forbearers but it also cuts a new swath.  The brilliant battle system is still there, intact and refined as it has become.  It’s the new additions that raise it a level – swapping classes along with promotions and pairing up.  Those two things don’t sound like an awful lot, but they add depth and richness that I didn’t even know were missing.

The story is there, did I mention I play the game to enjoy the battle system and not the writing?  I actually found the writing to be ok.  It’s a Japanese RPG, and if you’re down with the anime, you’ll make it through this game.  The characters take a turn for the wacky, especially some of the second generation ones.  This adds to the game’s endearing charm.  It vacillates between serious and silly as anime often does.

The worst part about this game was that it ended.  Sure that’s kind of their purpose but it’s been a long time since I was disappointed that I finished a game.  I’ve still got that glossy stare and a hole in my mind that it burned through.  The after image lingers and I whisper to myself, we will meet again and you shall be broken once more.

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Into the Asylum

by bhayden
10. February 2013 22:30

I have a confession to make.  I’ve never read an entire Batman comic.  I’ve thumbed through them, glanced at them, but never picked one up and read it cover to cover.  I have, however, always been fascinated by the superhero mythos.  Batman ranks among one of my favorites.

The thing about Batman is that if you suspend your disbelief enough you can almost imagine that he could be a real person.  Not only that but that you could be Batman.  Unlike most of the other superheroes that exist, Batman’s advantages are his intelligence, money, technology (via his money) and good old fashioned training.  There’s no spider bites or power drawn from the sun, only human ingenuity and muscle powers Batman.

This is never more apparent than in Arkham Asylum.  The stage is set from the opening sequence as Batman proceeds through the roster of Gotham’s most famous villains.  This is a game about beating up simple thugs and outsmarting those that are stronger than Batman.  The combat system is fluid and occurs just often enough to leave you wanting for more, but not so much that the game feels like a beat-em up.

I say simple thugs because you do enough sneaking around through man sized grates and vents and they never seem to get why or how you drop them without them seeing you.  The first few times you do this you feel like a ninja assassin, creeping through rooms and popping out to drop an enemy.  Near the end it feels more like a chore and I wished that I could simply beat the crap out of them instead of play hide and seek.

There are puzzles in this game.  Aside from saying they are there I’m not sure what else would be worth noting.  They follow the tried and true Zelda formula of get new item, use said item to solve the next dungeon/boss. 

Batman is a conflicted character, and the best moments of Arkham Asylum are when this conflict is bubbled to the surface.  The other aspect of Batman that makes him interesting is that he walks a very fine line between hero and villain.  At times you can almost feel that Batman could be on the other side, and that’s only one or two key moments that drove him to be a vigilante.  Criminal histories are filled with those who have experience what Bruce Wayne has.  Those who turned their rage to pursuits less noble.  Unfortunately these moments are too few. 

Instead what Arkham Asylum delivers is an experience that is like a thumbed through comic.  It is rapid in progression while remaining focused in its delivery.  This is fan service at its best.  It’s a game that delivers a great experience and atmosphere from beginning to end.

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Grotesque Tactics

by bhayden
28. January 2013 21:18

Many years ago I fancied myself a writer of the game review kind, and while it didn’t work out I do miss it dearly.  Following is my (incredibly) rusty attempt at rediscovering that part of my brain.

I’ve had my eye on Grotesque Tactics for quite some time before playing it.  For reference the game was released in October of 2010.  I picked it up in the latest Steam summer sale and finally got around to playing it.  As a man starved for some strategy RPG action, I was hoping Grotesque Tactics would be an oasis in a veritable desert.  It’s not that strategy RPGs don’t exist.  They haven’t quite reached bigfoot level yet but outside of the handheld market they’re sighted almost as often.

Grotesque Tactics sets its tone early and often.  As the anti-hero Drake has failed has Hero test and seeks oblivion in the mouth of a giant mushroom.  From there the writing and wit is crisp, if sometimes overt in its pokes at the giants of the RPG industry.

The meat of any strategy RPG is in its combat system and this is where Grotesque Tactics turns out to be more like a mirage than oasis.  The combat is incredibly shallow and limited in its execution and rarely are you ever punished for a mistake by the AI (disclaimer: I played on normal difficulty).  The game’s one unique element, obsessions, are hit and miss.  It’s here where I think the desire to be witty and clever backfires.  The obsessions don’t behave in the same manner as your characters’ other abilities.  Whereas normal abilities exclude hitting your allies the obsessions hit both friend and foe.  While it is possible to mitigate this it often leads to annoyance over anything else.  It’s this inconsistency that ultimately left me wanting for some additional depth.  Clever plotting of obsessions would’ve added some extra, predictable depth that the combat was lacking.

In the end Grotesque Tactics provides a great tongue-in-cheek experience that’s easy to get into and out of.  While the combat could be better not every strategy RPG is going to be Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea.  Nor should they try to be.  By avoiding this pitfall it ultimately delivers a successful and satisfying experience that did leave me wanting for more.

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