Friday, October 31, 2014

Five Nights At Freddy's is Overrated

It's Halloween, which means it's time for the obligatory horror game review. Tonight's game is Five Nights at Freddy's, the latest indie sensation to wet the pants of YouTube "let's players" proclaiming it to be the scariest game they've ever played. Hold it there, chief, you're telling me a game about friendly animatronic animals at a children's pizzeria/playground/arcade is supposed to be scary? What's that? They come to life and roam the building's halls at night attempting to murder anyone they find so they can stuff the human remains into an empty animatronic suit? Well, that's a start, I guess.

In Five Nights at Freddy's, you play a security guard tasked with spending the night at Freddy Fazbear's Pizza to keep an eye on the robotic band members, who're set to "free roam mode" every night because they (supposedly) need the exercise to keep their servos from locking up. Except, really, they're trying to murder you. You have to survive six hours each night (roughly eight minutes in real time) by flipping through camera feeds to keep track of where each animatronic character is so that you can close the doors to your office when they get close. What's stopping you from keeping the doors closed all night, I hear you ask -- a limited power supply. Using the cameras, turning the lights on, and locking the doors all consume power.

Therein lies the game -- a simple matter of clicking through camera feeds, watching the screen, and closing a door at the right moment without using too much power -- but can such a simple game succeed at eliciting genuine horror, or are the masses simply overreacting? The answer is a little bit of both, but more of one than the other. How much you'll be scared by Five Nights at Freddy's depends heavily on how much of a wuss you are, and on how much you can suspend your disbelief and immerse yourself in the security office's confines.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Impressions of Super Smash Bros 3DS

The Super Smash Bros series has been a longtime staple in my party gaming lineup, ever since the original was released for the Nintendo 64 back in 1999. Super Smash Bros: Melee was the one reason I absolutely had to buy a Nintendo GameCube; my friends and I enjoyed that game so much that we played it nearly every weekend over the span of three years. When Super Smash Bros: Brawl came out in 2008, I found myself underwhelmed by its slow movement and clunky physics, yet friends and I have continued to play it on occasion to this very day.

By now, my enthusiasm for new Super Smash Bros games has waned to near non-existence, since each new game has been the same as the last but with more characters, new stages, and new tacked-on game modes. After 15 years of playing essentially the same game, it feels like I've been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt, but I simply could not resist the allure of the appropriately-yet-unimaginatively-named Super Smash Bros for Nintendo 3DS. After all, it's a timeless formula that I can now play when I'm away from home, on a platform I already own. What's not to enjoy about that combination of features?

I've had my copy of Smash 3DS for a couple weeks now, having unlocked all of the characters and stages and having tried each and every game mode, and I feel pretty confident in saying I like Smash 3DS a lot more than Brawl, and perhaps almost as much as Melee. It feels faster and more responsive than Brawl, and the controls feel right at home on the 3DS. The new characters are all really fun to play, and the plethora of unlockable content is enough to ensure a long lifetime of playability. And yet, after about nine hours of playtime, I've basically lost interest.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Risen 3: Titan Lords Doesn't Suck

It's been over a decade since Piranha Bytes released a game worthy of praise and recognition. Gothic 3 was a bloated, broken mess that required extensive community patching to make it remotely tolerable; Risen showed some promise but was essentially only half of a game; and Risen 2 was so thoroughly mediocre that I couldn't even write a proper review of it. Gothic and Gothic 2, on the other hand, were such phenomenally outstanding, perception-altering experiences that I'll continue to play every Piranha Bytes game until the day I die, just on the chance that they'll make another masterpiece as good as the original Gothic games.

I'm pleased to say that Risen 3: Titan Lords is the most fun I've had playing a Piranha Bytes game since Gothic 2. That's not to say Risen 3 is as good as Gothic 2, but it comes close. Indeed, there are times when Risen 3 feels a lot like Gothic 2, and it captures the spirit of the original Gothic games better than any other game since. Risen 3 even goes so far as to (finally) fix nearly all of the major issues that afflicted both Risen and Risen 2, making it the most polished and thought-out PB game of the "modern era." At no point did I ever encounter any glaring oversights or questionable design decisions like the things that pissed me off in the other games.

Unfortunately, Risen 3 is not without its problems. The combat is too easy, the progression lacks focus, and the story never really gets going, but compared to previous PB efforts, these problems are minimal and don't actively take away from the game's enjoyment. Rather, it feels as though Risen 3 simply missed some of its potential. It's disappointing to realize how much better the game could have been with some simple tweaks and a little more time in development, but the game itself, as it exists now, is a respectable effort by the small German team that deserves some success. If you like action-adventure-RPGs with immersive worlds that are genuinely fun to explore, then Risen 3 is definitely worth your consideration.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Uncharted: Golden Abyss Sucks Most of All

Given my history with the Uncharted series, I wasn't expecting great things from Bend Studios' Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the PlayStation Vita. I'd grown weary of the series after playing all three of the main installments back-to-back-to-back, but thought Golden Rainbow Golden Abyss might be a decent game to play on a mobile platform where my expectations might be a little more restrained, especially since it didn't cost me anything as a PlayStation Plus subscriber. It turns out even my modest "I'll enjoy it for what it is" attitude wasn't enough to prepare me for how utterly boring and disappointing Golden Abyss would turn out to be.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Silent Hill 3: Not Quite as Good as SH2

Survival-horror is one of my favorite genres, and yet I don't like most of the survival-horror games that I play. It's a difficult genre to pull off, considering the entire point is to instill feelings of dread and horror in the player -- if a survival-horror game doesn't do that one, specific thing, then it's failed at its job. I've played enough of these games that basically nothing scares me anymore, and I'm good enough at these types of games that the mechanics don't do much to inspire tension within me, either, so it takes a rare, special type of survival-horror game to satisfy me.

Silent Hill 2 was one such game. I didn't think very highly of it at first, but it grew on me as I played, and even stayed with me long after I'd finished. Looking back, I realized how much of an impact its story had in elevating a borderline decent-good gameplay experience to something truly excellent. Silent Hill 3 had the unfortunate luck of following what has been commonly regarded as a monumental survival-horror game; it's difficult to top a masterpiece, and SH3 therefore never achieved the same level of acclaim as SH2. In some ways, SH3 is actually a better game than SH2, but I wasn't all that impressed with it.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Resident Evil: Revelations - Better Than Expected

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. Revelations blends those two game styles (survival-horror adventure and action-shooter) relatively well, but it rarely reaches the full potential that either of those two styles are capable of delivering. The gameplay works surprisingly well on the 3DS, however, which makes Revelations a pretty good game when you can't take your PC or consoles with you.

Monday, June 23, 2014

L.A. Noire Sucks: "More Like L.A. Bore"

L.A. Noire showed a lot of potential back in 2011. Going down its list of features, we have: a unique setting and theme, based around 1940s Los Angeles in a film noir-inspired detective story; a finely-detailed open world to explore, complete with side-missions; an emphasis on old-school adventure-style crime scene investigations; and never-before-seen facial animation technology allowing for realistic interrogations. This game had a lot to be excited about, and all of the pre-release hype and post-release praise had me quite eager to play it. But, as is seemingly always the case with such critically-hyped games, I found it incredibly disappointing and overrated.

L.A. Noire is one of the most expensive games ever made, and it shows. An astonishing amount of research went into accurately recreating 1947 Los Angeles, right down to traffic patterns and smog levels, and every square foot of the city is rendered with extraordinary detail. The facial animations, meanwhile, are some of the most realistic I've ever seen in a video game. All of this historical and graphical fidelity comes at the expense of gameplay, however, as if developer Team Bondi spent all their time and money bringing this wonderful world to life aesthetically, and then forgot to design some worthwhile gameplay to bring it to life mechanically.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Review of The X-Files FMV Game

My wife won't answer my calls, my partner is secretly working for a shadow agency, I can't get in touch with the Seattle Police Department's Computer Crime Lab, and I can't remember the password to my own computer. Such is life for Seattle-based FBI agent Craig Willmore, who's been tasked by Assistant Director Walter Skinner with locating his two missing agents, Diana Scully and Wolf Mulder.

Released in 1998 during the height of The X-Files' popularity, the aptly and succinctly named The X-Files Game is a point-and-click, full-motion-video adventure game designed to look and feel like an interactive episode from the television series. Featuring a story conceived by the series creator himself, Chris Carter, and cast appearances by virtually all of the series' regulars, The X-Files Game uses the license with great authenticity and is a real treat for fans of the series. If you've watched the show, you'll probably enjoy seeing all of the familiar characters, picking up on the references and in-jokes, and perhaps even treating it as a "lost episode" of the series' mythos. The game behind the license, however, isn't all that good.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Board Game Review: The Cave

The Cave is a game in which two-to-five players take the role of speleologists competing to earn the most prestige for exploring a newly-discovered cave system. The board begins with only a single tile at the cave's entrance and then progressively fills itself out as players explore beyond the starting point, laying new tiles for each section of the cave that they choose to explore. Along the way, players will face perilous drops, tight crevices, flooded chambers, and underground wonders. To get the credit for these discoveries, players will need to be well-prepared with the right gear for the job, and will have to use their limited actions and resources wisely before returning to base camp to resupply. Whoever manages their resources best and explores the most of the cave wins the game. 

I was drawn to The Cave for a lot of reasons, but the primary factor was that I liked the idea of an easy-going, tile-laying exploration game that I could play with a variety of people. Seeing your cave expand the longer you play, shaping itself into its own unique configuration each time you play is very appealing, and the theme of scientists exploring a cave is something that I think everyone can enjoy. More importantly, the rules are simple enough to learn that this game could be played by just about anyone. The Cave is therefore a pretty good game to play with friends and family members who aren't very big gamers, but I find it a little disappointing to play in any other context besides that. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

I Love/Hate Tomb Raider Anniversary

Tomb Raider 2013 was the first Tomb Raider game I'd ever played. I liked it quite a bit, despite all of my criticisms, though I realized it was a very different type of game than what was originally established in the 90s by Core Design. To get some more perspective on the series, I decided to try the one-two combo of the original 1996 Tomb Raider and its 2007 remake, Tomb Raider Anniversary. Originally, I planned on playing corresponding levels in each game side-by-side for direct comparison, but I gave up on that endeavor after only completing the first level in the original game.

As it turns out, the original Tomb Raider hasn't aged very well, and I just couldn't bring myself to put up with its clunky control scheme after getting a taste of the more modernized Tomb Raider Anniversary. From what I could tell of that first level, Anniversary seems like a faithful remake that captures the spirit of the original game with all of the same setpieces and puzzles, but with obviously better graphics and better controls. Anniversary takes it one step further by adding some of its own original content in the form of extra explorable areas on the side with extra hidden rewards, which I think makes Anniversary the definitive edition of this game, which is not to be confused with 2014's Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition.

Whereas my opinion of Tomb Raider 2013 remained a flatline from beginning to end, consisting of enthusiastic enjoyment marred by disappointing missed potential, Anniversary marked a much more dramatic rise and fall as I played through it. I was so impressed by its level design, its puzzles, and its convincing emphasis on platforming and exploration over combat that I was prepared to declare Anniversary one of my all-time favorite platforming games early on. The more I played, however, the more I realized how much I'd grown to despise it.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Uncharted 3 Kinda Sucks

I didn't think it was possible, but Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is almost as bad as the first game, Drake's Fortune, albeit for different reasons. After the second game demonstrated some competence in its design, I figured Naughty Dog had ironed out the wrinkles in their formula and would only improve the experience with a third opportunity to polish and refine said formula. If nothing else, they could have repackaged the exact same gameplay with a new story and new locations, and I probably would've been content not to see significant improvement as long as it was merely "as good as" the previous game. I certainly didn't expect it to get worse

Uncharted 3 is a decent game in the sense that it looks nice and its gameplay isn't completely broken, but almost everything feels worse than it did in the previous game. The story is full of plot holes and undeveloped characters, the platforming sections are completely cursory, and the combat feels like a tedious chore once again. Worse than that, the game wants so badly to be cinematic and visually exciting that it comes at the expense of gameplay -- it feels like the game only reluctantly lets you play it, and whenever you do, it only serves to interrupt the game's script and ruin the effectiveness of its dramatic scenes. Uncharted 3 is a pretty good "interactive visual experience" but kind of sucks as a video game. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Uncharted 2 Is So Much Better Than UC1

The first Uncharted is one of the worst games of the previous console generation that I've ever played. I absolutely hated it. If I had to decide whether or not to play the sequel based solely on my experiences with the first game, I never would have given it a chance -- but since I'm a glutton for punishment and everyone insisted that the second game was better than the first, I figured I'd give it a shot and see if the general public would be wrong about the same series twice in a row.

As it turns out, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a competently-designed game. Basically everything that was wrong about the first game (which was basically everything) has been fixed and improved in the sequel; the story has more momentum behind it, the puzzles actually require some thought to solve, the platforming requires careful timing and precision, the combat feels much more fluid, there's much more variety, and the different gameplay elements are balanced much more appropriately. This is what I expected (and did not get) from Drake's Fortune.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune Sucks

When it comes to PS3 exclusives, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune may be the most overrated, most over-hyped game in existence. This game was so immensely popular and successful back in 2007 that it instantly became a flagship series for Sony and a prime selling point for the PS3. This was the game that you absolutely had to buy if you owned a PS3, and it was reason enough to consider getting a PS3 over an Xbox 360 just to be able to play this game. I have no idea what people saw in it, because it's absolute rubbish. 

The thing that annoyed me the most is that I was expecting a fun, lighthearted action-adventure / puzzle-platformer game in the style of the Indiana Jones movies and the early Tomb Raider games -- that's exactly how the game was marketed, and those are the exact comparisons everyone made when describing the game in reviews and forum posts. What I got, however, was a straight-up action shooter that only borrows the general theme from Indy and Lara's adventures. That would be fine, of course, if the game were actually any good as a shooter, but it simply isn't.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Tomb Raider 2013: "It's Not Terrible"

How do you describe a game that lies somewhere between "mediocre" and "decent"? If you can think of an appropriate adjective, please let me know, because that's the kind of word I'm looking for to describe the recent Tomb Raider reboot. Nothing about Tomb Raider 2013 is overtly terrible -- the gameplay, story, and pacing were all good enough to keep me going for long stretches of time -- but things that should have been great turned out to be kind of bland or just never lived up to their full potential. As a result, for every time I felt really impressed with the game, I also found myself feeling like I wasn't having as much fun as I should have been.

I was cynically expecting the new Tomb Raider to be as shallow and overrated as most "AAA" games are these days, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I was actually enjoying the experience. Having never played any of the previous Tomb Raider games, the reboot felt to me like a cross between Resident Evil 4 and The Last of Us, and it was, at times, as deeply satisfying as either of those games. With the added benefit of the series' traditional puzzle-solving and platforming, Tomb Raider 2013 seemed like the best of three worlds and made me eager to like it. As I played, however, I started to realize how subtly disappointing the game really is. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Bulletstorm: Pure, Simple Fun

Once upon a time, a Polish developer by the name of People Can Fly created a game called Painkiller. During a time when first-person shooters were shifting more towards gritty realism, People Can Fly decided to make a shooter that harkened back to the good old days of fast-paced, cathartic action shooters, wherein the only goal was to kill everything in sight. Featuring a wealth of exotic locales, varied enemy types, and unique multi-function weaponry, Painkiller was a breath of fresh air in a genre that had seen most of its creativity stripped out in favor of copying the growing trend of military shooters, and it was awesome.

In 2011, People Can Fly came to the rescue once again with Bulletstorm, this time working in conjunction with Epic Games. Like Painkiller, Bulletstorm has no pretense about being anything more serious than a fun, chaotic romp. Eschewing the popular modern cover system, Bulletstorm is all about getting you directly into the heat of combat. In this game, your goal is not only to survive and make it to the end of each level; it's to do it in the most stylish way possible. In this game, you're rewarded with skill points for finding creative ways to kill your enemies using the game's elaborate "skillshot" system.

The skillshot system alone is enough to set Bulletstorm apart from the crowd, but it has a few other tricks up its sleeve that lend it a unique personality. The environments are simply outstanding, the weapons have cool, original functions, the levels feature their own specific gameplay mechanisms, and the humor is, well, also rather unique. I'm not sure that Bulletstorm has enough lasting impact or sheer, rounded quality to survive the test of time -- it has a few significant flaws that bother me -- but it's pure, simple fun, and definitely worth playing if you're tired of mainstream shooters and want to try something a bit different.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Dark Souls 2 Sucks: So Much Disappoint

I don't like to consider myself a "hardcore" Souls fan, even though I've played each game in the series (in order, multiple times each, starting with Demon's Souls) and consider them among the most satisfying, entertaining games I've ever played. Demon's Souls was a real gem of a game, and its cult status made it easy to love and praise, but when Dark Souls came along and everybody started jumping on the bandwagon, I found my interest and appreciation waning a little. The community's obnoxious fandom ruined certain aspects of that game for me, but the whole thing just felt a little underwhelming compared to Demon's Souls.

Since Dark Souls proved to be such an immensely profitable venture for publisher Bandai Namco, it was inevitable that they would seek to produce a cash-grabbing respect-worthy sequel, and thus, nearly three years later, we have Dark Souls II. If the first Dark Souls felt "a little underwhelming" to an avid Demon's Souls player, then Dark Souls II can only be described as an outright disappointment. Don't get me wrong -- there's a lot to like about Dark Souls II, and it's worth noting that a "bad" Souls game is still a much better gaming experience than the average video game -- but there's an awful lot to dislike as well.

With Dark Souls II, my hope was to play a game that blended the cohesive world style of Dark Souls with the tight mechanical precision and bleak atmosphere of Demon's Souls, in a more refined package that cleaned up and improved upon some of those games' notable shortcomings. In a way, Dark Souls II feels like a faithful blend of those two game styles, but it's a lukewarm, half-hearted mixture that never achieves the brilliance of either of its predecessors while also feeling significantly sloppier in the process.

My intention with this article is to review Dark Souls II in direct comparison to its predecessors, but this isn't going to be a thorough "Demon's Souls vs Dark Souls vs Dark Souls 2" type of article because I've already done that with my Demon's Souls vs Dark Souls article. It would be redundant for me to make an entirely new article of that sort to include Dark Souls II in the comparison, so instead I'll direct you to read that article for some background on my thoughts going into this review, which will focus mainly on Dark Souls II using examples from the previous games to compare and contrast Dark Souls II's relative strengths and weaknesses within the series.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Board Game Review: Forbidden Desert

Do you like cooperative games? Are you interested in a game that will appeal to your extended family, your children, and your serious gaming buddies? Do you like dying miserably in a hostile, unforgiving desert? If you said yes to any of these questions, then you might be interested in Forbidden Desert, a cooperative survival game designed by Matt Leacock (of Pandemic and Forbidden Island fame). 

In Forbidden Desert, two-to-five players team up as a group of scientists on a mission to excavate a fabled ancient city that's been lost to the desert sands. When they arrive at the site of the buried city, a powerful storm wrecks their helicopter, stranding them at the mercy of the blazing sun and a raging sand storm. To survive, the group will have to work together to unearth the city in search of ancient technologies and, in the process, rebuild a legendary flying machine before succumbing to dehydration or being swept away by the storm. 

Forbidden Desert is a deceptively simple game -- so simple that kids and non-gaming adults will be able to grasp its mechanisms and quickly contribute to the welfare of the group. Beneath that first layer of sand, however, lies a fiercely difficult game that will challenge even the most veteran of gamers. It's a game that strongly promotes teamwork and careful strategizing, and its theme shines through the gameplay so strongly that you'll feel genuine tension and desperation as you attempt to escape the forbidden desert.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tearaway: The Vita's Iconic Killer App

If anyone's been waiting for the emergence of a "killer app" to justify buying a PlayStation Vita, then Tearaway is your answer. It took a while -- nearly two full years, practically a lifetime for a fledgling console struggling to find its feet -- but the Vita finally has a game that takes full advantage of its unique hardware and which provides a gaming experience unlike any other on any console. Tearaway is the singular game showcasing what the Vita is capable of, and it's the singular game for which it's worth owning a Vita.

Tearaway is, essentially, a 3D platforming game set in a world made entirely of paper. You take control of an anthropomorphic envelope, known in this world as a "Messenger," on a mission to deliver a message to the mysterious face that's suddenly appeared in the sun -- your face, as captured by the front-facing camera on the Vita. You are technically not the Messenger in this game; you are yourself, a sort of godlike figure peering into its world, literally holding the world in your hands. Using your special godlike powers (ie, your fingers) you're able to physically reach into this world and manipulate it, shaping its appearance and helping the Messenger on his (or her) quest to deliver a message to You.

The concept of being a "god" overseeing a world and altering it to your liking has been done many times before. So has the concept of the player being a real person whose computer screen is actually a portal to another world. Tearaway is not entirely unique in this regard, but I've never played (nor heard of) another game that gets you so personally involved in the experience. You're an on-screen character in this game, and every input has you reaching through the fourth wall to physically touch and interact with the world. It's unique, wonderful, and immensely charming, but what's perhaps more surprising is that it's actually a pretty good platformer, too.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Board Game Review: Eldritch Horror

For the second time ever, I'd like to talk about something other than video games. The last time I diverged from the chosen topic of this blog was to complain about that one really disappointing Batman movie; this time I'll at least be sticking to the general topic of gaming while I review my recent purchase of the narrative-driven, H.P. Lovecraft-inspired Eldritch Horror board game by Fantasy Flight Games.

My friends and I all enjoy playing video games, and whenever we get together there's a strong tendency for us to setup a multiplayer game to pass a couple of hours. After a few years of playing the same games over and over again, I was getting a little tired of it and made the radical suggestion that we try playing a board game instead. Being completely unfamiliar with board games, the difficult part of that suggestion was narrowing such a wide selection of interesting games down to one. After reading through lists of popular games, I decided to go with Eldritch Horror because of its Lovecraftian subject matter and its blend of strategy and role-playing elements.

In Eldritch Horror, players assume the roles of up to eight investigators as they attempt to solve mysteries across the globe in order to prevent one of four "ancient ones" from awakening and ravaging the earth. Each investigator has their own unique stats and abilities; during encounters, investigators draw a random card from the deck, which describes each scenario as the story progresses, and resolve skill checks by rolling dice. As they travel the globe, investigators acquire arcane spells and artifacts, battle other-worldly monsters, close gates to other dimensions, and deal with horrifying supernatural encounters.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Planescape: Torment - The Best RPG of All Time?

"What can change the nature of a man? If there is anything I have learned in my travels across the Planes, it is that many things may change the nature of a man. Whether regret, or love, or revenge or fear - whatever you *believe* can change the nature of a man, can. I've seen belief move cities, make men stave off death, and turn an evil hag's heart half-circle. This entire Fortress has been constructed from belief. Belief damned a woman, whose heart clung to the hope that another loved her when he did not. Once, it made a man seek immortality and achieve it. And it has made a posturing spirit think it is something more than a part of me."
-- The Nameless One

Whenever people talk about role-playing games, Planescape: Torment  inevitably comes into the discussion as an example of how great RPGs used to be. Torment was largely overshadowed by the likes of Baldur's Gate and Fallout at the time of its release and was not much of a commercial success for developer Black Isle Studios, but it developed a cult following over the last 15 years and is now commonly regarded as the greatest RPG of all time. Its reputation has been so tenaciously uttered for so long that I suspect people just take it for granted without actually understanding why, and it's not uncommon to see someone name-drop Torment in online message boards as a way of validating their opinions and credibility. Over time, the shroud of Torment has grown from that of a cult icon to the holy grail of RPGs, taking on a mythological mystique entirely of its own.

It was about six or seven years ago that I played Torment for the first time. As a fan of old-school RPGs, I had to know what I'd been missing all these years, but my time with the game was cut short upon discovering that one of my discs was so badly scratched that my computer couldn't read the files, thus preventing me from progressing past a certain point. I liked what I had seen of the game, though, and have since considered it among the best RPGs I've ever played, even despite never finishing it. With its spiritual sequel Tides of Numenera on the horizon, I thought it was time to take another look at Planescape: Torment, to see what it is about this game that makes people speak its name with such passionate reverence, to figure out why, exactly, Torment is so often heralded as the best RPG of all time. 

Torment is without a doubt a unique and finely-crafted game that absolutely deserves to be near the top of any "best ever" list. It's one of very few games that takes full advantage of video games' interactivity to bolster its storytelling in unique ways that you can't get from books or movies. It's one of very few games that uses the "main character has amnesia" trope in a crucial way that permeates the very essence of the story and gameplay. The nature of the story, the way it's told, and your role in uncovering it (both as the nameless protagonist and as a person playing the game) are unlike anything I've seen in perhaps any other game. The story is Torment's best feature, but there's a lot more than that under the hood that consistently propels it into the discussion of being the best RPG of all time.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Great Games You Never Played: Alpha Protocol

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

Formed from refugees of Black Isle Studios -- the development team responsible for some of the best RPGs in the golden era of RPGs -- Obsidian Entertainment has been making games for over a decade now. For the longest time they held the earned and much-deserved reputation of being "that game company that makes buggy sequels to other people's games," after releasing Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (a followup to BioWare's original Knights of the Old Republic) and Neverwinter Nights 2 (a followup to BioWare's original Neverwinter Nights). That reputation continued with Fallout: New Vegas (a followup to Bethesda's Fallout 3) and Dungeon Siege III (a followup to Gas Powered Games' Dungeon Siege I & II).

In each case, the games were maligned by critics and gamers alike for being buggy, unpolished, and in the case of KOTOR2, even unfinished, yet keen observers were able to look past those shortcomings to find games with a deeply rich soul and personality. In the case of KOTOR2 and FO:NV, the only two Obsidian games I've played, I actually preferred their versions of the game to their predecessors', since Obsidian's games showed a much deeper complexity and understanding in terms of RPG mechanics. I was easily willing to overlook the technical flaws in favor of their inspired and ambitious design. It's natural to say, therefore, that I hold a lot of respect for Obsidian and consider them one of the best designers of modern RPGs.

Alpha Protocol, released in 2010, was Obsidian's first attempt at creating an original IP, their first chance to establish themselves as a company that could do something worthwhile with an original formula instead of simply building upon other people's success (and, in the opinion of some gamers, ruining it with bugs). With this great opportunity before them, Obsidian failed big time and Alpha Protocol was gashed by critics. Besides the usual complaints of crashes, glitches, and it feeling generally unpolished, the game was criticized for its tedious and repetitive stealth-action sequences, its poor enemy AI, and its inconsistent game balancing.

Buried within this mess of a game is the soul of a good RPG, where your skills and stats determine your efficacy in encounters and where your decisions can lead to vast alterations in the course of the plot, complete with interesting characters and settings as well as one of the better dialogue systems in existence. It's clear that Obsidian know what they're doing when it comes to implementing compelling RPG mechanics in games, but it's also clear that the team had no prior experience with stealth-action gameplay. In most ways, Alpha Protocol deserves its bad reputation, but there's also enough here to enjoy if you're a fan of RPGs and want to experience one of the more unique RPGs we've seen in the past few years.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

16 Game Mechanics & Tropes That Need to Die

Video games are as much a science as they are an art; for every subjective opinion there also exists objective fact. Much of video game criticism stems from personal taste, with different individuals liking different games based on their past experiences and their own preferences. As with any art form, beauty ultimately lies in the eye of the beholder, but there are occasions when we can look at a certain aspect of a particular game and universally agree whether it's good or bad. If an advertised mechanic doesn't work the way it was intended, it's both fair and accurate to say that mechanic is broken and hurts the game's overall quality.

Over the years, a lot of mechanics have worked their way into the games we play. A lot of them are welcome innovations for the sake of convenience and have contributed positively to games as a whole. Some mechanics, on the other hand, show up with the best of intentions and ultimately prove disappointing and underwhelming. Some of these mechanics have stuck around and become so prevalent that their presence in games has started to annoy me, while certain other longstanding tropes have really begun to wear their welcome with me. The following are, in my opinion, 16 game mechanics and tropes that need to die.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Critical Flaws of BioShock Infinite

"If you're used to insipid boomfests like Halo then BioShock will seem like the shit, but if you're a long-time PC gamer spoiled by more complex FPS-RPGs then you're in for a kick in the balls." -- Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw.

Yahtzee's review of BioShock basically sums up my thoughts on the original game. Like everyone else at the time, I bought into the hype and bought BioShock for $50 on launch day -- a decision I quickly regretted once I discovered it came boxed with crippling DRM. The actual gameplay did little to assuage my disappointment at the technical problems as I grew increasingly frustrated with its excessively contrived sidetracking, unrewarding exploration, and binary morality system. Looking back, the first BioShock may in fact have been the catalyst that led to my current state of jaded cynicism whenever it comes to massively hyped mainstream games.

Going into BioShock Infinite, I was hopeful that the gameplay would at least be an improvement over the original, but I was still fully prepared for it not to live up to its hype. I had the distinct feeling in my gut that it would be another case of "all flair, no substance," and I probably never would have bothered playing it if not for PlayStation Plus putting it into their lineup of free games. Fortunately, many of the things that actively bothered me in the original have been improved or removed. Unfortunately, what we're left with in Infinite is a game that's been so streamlined as to cut out any form of meaningful interaction, while the game stubbornly insists on being something it probably shouldn't have been in the first place.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Impressions of Warframe

I spent most of my weekend playing Warframe, a free-to-play online cooperative shooter. It had been on my radar for quite some time, ever since it showed up on Steam almost a year ago, but as usual I never got around to playing it. Ever since Killing Floor jumped the shark in mid-to-late 2012, I've been looking for a new coop shooter with the same kind of depth, intensity, and longevity to replace it, and it seems like Warframe might have the potential to be that game.

Warframe is a futuristic sci-fi shooter in which players take the role of an ancient civilization of warriors known as the Tenno, battling a variety of humanoid armies throughout the solar system. As the Tenno, players have the ability to move like ninjas, running and jumping along walls and sliding across the floor, while their warframes (the suit of armor they wear) give them a variety of unique active skills. The action is fun and exciting, the controls are tight and responsive, and the visual style and atmosphere are very immersive.

The only problem I have with Warframe is that it's fundamentally designed like a free-to-play game: "free to grind, pay to have fun." In a way, that works in the game's favor because it offers a psychological satisfaction to be had from earning your improvements while giving you long-term goals to work towards. On the other hand, the grind can force you to spend dozens of hours slogging through repetitive missions with boring starting equipment you may not even like before you can even get to the fun part of unlocking new warframes.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

On Video Game Difficulties

I don't consider myself a "hardcore" gamer -- I'm not the type of person who has to play every game on the hardest difficulty or hunt down every single achievement or trophy to get satisfaction from the games I play. When it comes to playing video games, it's not about proving how good I am to the rest of the world; it's just about having fun. For the longest time my philosophy was that whenever a game presented me with difficulty options, I would play the default, normal difficulty unless I knew in advance that the normal setting would be far too easy and therefore unsatisfying. And yet lately I've noticed myself consistently playing games on the "hard" setting, because it seems like in most mainstream games these days, "normal" has actually come to mean "easy."

It's no secret that games have been getting easier over time. Classic NES games were so difficult they even inspired their own trope. The idea at the time was to make less total content last longer and to cause arcade players to spend more money on the machines buying continues after reaching a game over. Those games were so hard that only the most dedicated players mastered the skills and know-how to reach the end. Nowadays, with advents like regenerating health and frequent checkpoints, the idea seems less about challenging the player and instead about ensuring that evern the lowest common denominator will be able to reach the end of the game.

I find myself playing on "hard" more often lately because I want to feel some sense of challenge, and most "normal" modes don't provide much real sense of accomplishment. I like that feeling of satisfaction that comes from developing my own mastery of the game, the realization that it was my own skill, wit, and determination that got me through to the end. That's what makes the experience unique and personal, because otherwise I'm having the exact same gameplay experience as everyone else, and I don't always get that feeling from playing games on the default, "normal" difficulty.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Kingdoms of Amalur: Why Must You Suck?

Open-world RPGs have been dominated the past decade by the likes of Bethesda, a developer whose games I regard with utter contempt. When smaller studios try to compete with Bethesda, their ambition usually outstretches their own abilities or resources, and they wind up with a janky mess of a game that falls way short of its potential (I'm looking at you, Gothic 3). With Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, I hoped that it might be the game that would finally offer some contention for Bethesda's stranglehold of the genre.

In an industry that relies so heavily on sequels and established franchises, it's always nice to see a fresh new product from a fresh new company, so I really wanted KoA:R to succeed just for that reason alone. On paper, KoA:R has all the requisite parts to be a good game and shares many similarities to some of my all-time favorite games, but what made it seem all the more promising was the blend of headlining talent working on the game combined with its enormous budget. It was to be a big game from big names, and there was an awful lot of hype surrounding its pre-release anticipation. 

I really wanted to like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, but the game itself is a sad, mediocre disappoint punctuated by the developer, 38 Studios, going out of business shortly after its release and company owners (and Rhode Island taxpayers) losing tens of millions of dollars on the financial flop. My experience with the demo almost exactly two years ago made it seem like a good game that just wasn't worth the full $60 asking price, but even after numerous price drops and sales putting it in a more comfortable budget range, I feel like KoA:R just isn't worth anyone's time.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Journey: Separate Ways (Worlds Apart) - Review

Journey is a somewhat difficult game to classify, or even to describe. At the time of its release, I remember reading a handful of reviews all struggling to put into words what makes it such a good game, with their final recommendation only offering the promise that it is, in fact, a good game and that you should absolutely play it. "It's one of those games you just have to experience for yourself." Having now played the game myself, I can't elaborate on it much more than that, other than to say it's indeed a really good game.

Journey is what I guess you would classify an "art game" -- a short two or three hour game with simplistic gameplay meant to tell a metaphoric story through its use of visuals and music. Perhaps what's most impressive about Journey is that it's an art game where interactivity is crucial to the experience; it's an art game that gives the player goals and obstacles that require problem-solving and careful platforming and navigation to surmount. And the experience of making the journey from the outskirts of the desert all the way to the summit of the mountain truly is a beautiful one.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Link to the Past Between Worlds - Review

A Link to the Past is one of my favorite Zelda games (second only to Majora's Mask), so it should seem only natural that I'd be excited to return to the Hyrule I spent so much time in as a kid. But when Nintendo first announced The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, their quasi-sequel to ALTTP set in the same world and featuring the same top-down gameplay, I was a little skeptical. It seemed to me like it had the potential to be just a cheap, gimmicky, nostalgia-based cash grab that might even put the legacy of the original game to shame.

Imagine my surprise when A Link Between Worlds turned out to be one of the best Zelda games I've played in the past decade.

With the exception of Link's Awakening, I've had a difficult time getting into any of the handheld Zelda games. I've played each and every one of them, but always got bored, lost interest, and stalled out before ever completing them. I basically stopped considering them part of the main series and stopped caring. A Link Between Worlds is the first handheld Zelda game I've actually finished since Link's Awakening, which says a lot in and of itself, but even compared to the console games, it's the most fun I've had playing a Zelda game since Majora's Mask.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Last of Us: It's Pretty Good, But ...

Whenever a critically-hyped mainstream game receives nothing but unanimous praise from professional critics and ordinary gamers alike, I tend to become somewhat skeptical. It seems like more often than not, I tend to disagree with the masses; I've been burned too many times by games that just don't live up to their hype and end up disappointing me. On occasion, however, the masses are actually right and I'm left with no choice but to agree with them. Such is the case with The Last of Us, Naughty Dog's latest foray on the PS3 -- a post-apocalyptic survival game starring two characters, Joel and Ellie, trying to make it across the country with a cure to the fungal virus afflicting mankind.

I enjoyed The Last of Us. It's a pretty good game that understands how tension and survival mechanics are supposed to work in these types of games, and its story is genuinely interesting to see through to its conclusion. More appropriately, its characters are worth seeing through to the end. Joel and Ellie's journey is a very riveting one that kept me playing for long stretches at a time, not wanting to put it down. But for as good as The Last of Us is, it's also an imperfect game -- one that really irritated me at times, and which still isn't as good as it could have been.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Nintendo 3DS impressions

When the 3DS was first announced in 2010, I was kind of indifferent. I owned the original Nintendo DS and enjoyed it at the time, but steadily lost interest in its games and all of its size/hardware variants (DS Lite, DSi, DSi XL, etc). Mobile gaming stopped appealing to me in general, and it's been about seven years since I've given it a fair chance. It started in September when I bought a PlayStation Vita, and now after Christmas I also own a blue 3DS XL. I've been playing it for a little while, so here are my initial thoughts and impressions on it.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Super Mario 3D Land, aka "Super Easy 3D Land"

It's been a while since I've played a true Mario game in its entirety. I've dabbled briefly with New Super Mario Bros on the Wii, as well as Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U, but for whatever reason Super Mario 64 is the last Mario game I've actually played from beginning to end. And what a great game that was. Other than that, the only Mario games I've played since the days of the Nintendo 64 are the spinoffs -- Mario Kart, Mario Party, Mario Golf, and so on.

I'm a bit rusty and out of the loop in terms of the mustachioed plumber, but when I received a Nintendo 3DS XL (with zero games) for Christmas Super Mario 3D Land seemed like the natural place for me to start. After all, you'd think Nintendo's flagship series would best encapsulate their vision for the 3DS, and 3D Land is exactly what I would expect from Nintendo -- a solid platformer that ultimately feels a little uninspired and which relies a little too heavily on pure nostalgia for its selling value.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Undead Nightmare is .... Interesting?

I wasn't very impressed with Red Dead Redemption, but since I bought the Game of the Year edition which comes with the DLC expansion Undead Nightmare, I figured I may as well give it a shot. Besides, the concept of taking a familiar game and turning it into a zombie survival scenario was just too interesting to pass up. "Interesting" is the key word with this DLC, because I'm not sure whether to call Undead Nightmare good or bad. On the one hand, it's really cool to see how different everything is, but on the other hand, Undead Nightmare proves almost as tedious and repetitive as the base game. 

Undead Nightmare picks up between the ending moments of the base game, after John Marston is reunited with his family, but before he's murdered by the government agents. After a serious storm hits, John's wife and son are bitten by the undead, zombified "Uncle," leaving John to tie them up in the house while he sets out to find out what's going on as well as a way to cure them. Along the way he reunites with familiar characters in familiar locations, while rescuing survivors and cleansing graveyards of the undead. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Dragon's Crown: Good, But Not Great

Side-scrolling beat-em-ups are not usually my cup of tea, but Dragon's Crown looked interesting nonetheless. With its classic western-fantasy theme, evocative hand-drawn visuals, and randomized loot and skill trees, it seemed like it had the potential to transcend the typical shallowness I often experience when playing side-scrolling beat-em-ups. As it turns out, there's quite a lot of unique charm and variety in Dragon's Crown's presentation and gameplay, making it a generally satisfying experience, but it still seems lacking in overall cohesion. 

After spending 20 hours in the first playthrough, the game tried encouraging me to do it all over again in a sort of "hard mode new game plus." I said "no thank you" and was content to be finished with it. As much promise and potential as there is within Dragon's Crown's formula, it just didn't compel me to keep playing.