Video games don't stop being good just because they get old. That's good, because I have a lot of games to play through - old AND new. This blog will offer thoughts and progress reports on the games I'm playing, plus my musings on video game news, history and the industry in general.

I seriously love Final Fantasy XIII so far (and it should probably feel bad about that)

Are you in for nearly 5,000 words about one HALF of a game, my friend? I hope so. BUCKLE UP.

We’re gonna divide this bad boy out into subsections so that it doesn’t look like a wall of text, but make no mistake – it’s still a wall of text, it just has some bolder text thrown in occasionally.

I Kinda Hate Old-School RPGs (Usually)

Here’s the thing, dear (long-abandoned) readers… as stated in that subhead, I don’t care much for the standard tropes of your “old-school” RPGs. I could summarize my feelings thusly: Fuck a Dragon Quest.

To clarify, Mass Effect is technically an RPG, and I love that franchise more than I love SweetTarts, but I’m talking about the old standards of what constitutes an “RPG.” More specifically, here are my sore points:

  • I despise random battles. DESPISE. I want to see my enemies coming at me, not “surprise! It’s a fight!” I’ve actually quit playing games entirely because I walked so tantalizingly close to someplace I was going, only to get jumped by an invisible battle that I wanted no part of. Then I realized that I would rather do almost anything than fight another random battle, and I turned off the game forever. Fuck that and fuck you, random battles.

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    Go back to hell
    .
  • The above is made worse by the fact that I don’t like turn-based fights very much either for multiple reasons. Firstly because I like to have more direct control over my character instead of feeling like some goofy spectator. Second because managing the actions of four or more characters is some tedious bullshit (Oh noes, Terra is 2 HP away from dying! I’d better tell her to heal herself or else she’ll just be retarded and let herself die!). Third because I find it unintentionally funny when I see RPG characters just standing there, unmoving, waiting politely to take their turns to attack a gigantic drooling monster standing right in front of them. And of course, they only attack one at a time, because SPORTSMANSHIP.

  • I’ve often discussed this, but I love short games. I love getting a wide variety of gaming experiences or playing a game that  I might actually take the time to replay one day, as opposed to playing some 90-hour grindquest where I limp my way towards saving the world after downing hordes of “surprise!” enemies in random battles.

  • “Grinding” (i.e. the process of wandering aimlessly in an RPG JUST SO you can encounter more random battles JUST SO you can get more battle experience JUST SO you can get your characters leveled up JUST SO you can fight the monsters you actually need to fight) was invented by Satan to make you realize the world is an inherently evil place. Some people like it; those people are masochists.

  • This is a lesser issue, but uh… I’m disinclined to go in for classical “Fantasy” worlds. Elves and dwarves and fairies and shit? They’re… okay… but I need either a lighthearted or distinctively unique context to truly care.  I’ve never been one for dirty horse-riding dudes that desperately need proper washing habits. Game of Thrones? NOT my scene.

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    TAKE A BATH, HIPPIE.

Occasionally, despite everything I just said, an RPG will sneak into my heart and live there. I absolutely loved Earthbound because it has hilarious dialogue, a semi-modern setting, a great story, NO random battles at all, and even in the turn-based battles, you never see your characters sittin’ there all lazy and dumb! I even played through the original Pokemon because it A) took place in a modern setting , B) there was a reason why the Pokemon needed to be ordered around (they’re idiots!), and C) grinding was unnecessary.

But when it comes to Final Fantasy, I’ve never successfully gotten into it. The gameplay has never captured me, because… well, just read that bulleted list.

A Brief History of My Final Fantasy Experience and an Intro to “Explorer’s Ruin”

I’ve been curious about Final Fantasy for a long time. It’s hard to be a gamer and NOT feel curious about any series that so many people burn with passion for. I try to be a renaissance man when it comes to video games; I’ll play almost any genre in the hopes that I can finally learn to care. And who doesn’t like the base concepts of Final Fantasy titles? World-threatening evil comes to a world of medieval/steampunk/cyberpunk technology, and a bunch of people fight it using ridable yellow birds, phoenix feathers, and dudes named “Cid.” Sounds good to me!

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Beware the dangers of CIDs.

Ever since Nintendo Power dedicated an entire issue to loving all over the original NES title, I’ve read about the series’ development at great length, often wondering if I could into the franchise with X game or Y game. And so, on various occasions, I’ve tried to do that.

After the series went all steampunk on us in the game we used to call Final Fantasy III (you know it as Final Fantasy VI), I picked up that game and gave it a shot. Hey, everybody loves it and keeps talking about an opera scene, it’s got mechs and great music, what could go wrong?

Yeah, I made it maybe 15% of the way before throwing in the towel because I was expected to grind in order to progress. By that point, I had already encountered enough infuriating “random battles” to make me grit my teeth in rage, and I’d seen nothing to make me interested in the story just yet, so I sold it for a high price and felt great about it.

Final Fantasy III/VI also marked my first experience with what I call “Explorer’s Ruin.” You see, RPGs often seem like they encourage exploring. Sometimes it’s even true! But then you start to discover that there are many areas – many, many areas – where exploring them just seems to get you DEATH. You’re left to figure out for yourself if this is because A) you’re supposed to return to this area later in the game, or B) you’re supposed to grind and then go through that area if you want to get anywhere at all. You might think that the sheer magnitude of how hard you die would be a clue, but oddly, it’s rarely that clear-cut. Final Fantasy III/VI contains some problems like this, but nothing like, say, Golden Sun (where the area you’re NOT supposed to go yet is often filled with ever-so-slightly-deadlier monsters, leaving you very unclear on whether you’re supposed to just man up and forge through it, so then you stumble your way through it by the skin of your teeth and you get somewhere and the characters in that place are like “We’re not ready to talk to you yet” and you’re all “Motherfucker, I am NOT walking back through that hell,” but then you do anyway and OF COURSE you die and man, fuck this RPG shit).

With that notion in mind, I went over to a friend’s house to play Final Fantasy VII when it came out. He rented it the week it came out, and the world was abuzz with FF Fever. Now, ignoring the hideous polygons of the PS1 for a moment, those CG cut scenes were really pretty for the time. We made it a little bit past some weirdness involving cross-dressing before we stopped for the weekend, but I must say… despite some interesting supporting characters and a lot of cool pre-rendered scenes, I still screamed and growled at every hideous, horrible random battle. I have to give them props for the fact that we were only punished for veering off the main, expected path on one occasion that I remember, at least. Even so, RANDOM BATTLES ALL UP IN YO GRILL. Yeah, I never actually played FFVII again. Given that this is often cited as one of the greatest games of all time, I’m sure some people see that as a crime.

Years later, I saw Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles land on the GameCube.  It was supposed to be a multiplayer-focused hack-n-slash action title set within the larger FF mythos, and I thought this sounded like it could easily be my “in.” Sure, I didn’t have access to two GBAs, two link cables and two gamers (much less FOUR of each of those), but there was a single-player mode included, so I was up for it. About six hours later, it was pretty clear to me that the single-player mode was thrown in as an afterthought, and the conceit of being tied to a bucket of water that creates a survival bubble within the overworld’s “miasma” made the entire thing feel similar to a slow death. Speaking of which, you know what else suffers an incredibly slow death? Every single boss monster in this game when you’re playing alone. Apparently, if I really want a short, action-driven single-player Final Fantasy game, I need to play Final Fantasy: The Crystal Bearers for the Wii, but I only recently learned that game isn’t a bog-standard Crystal Chronicles sequel, so I haven’t gotten around to that.

Shortly thereafter, I opted to give the original Final Fantasy a whirl when it was reborn on the PSP with a supposedly easier difficulty level. I was an adult by that point – more patient and more nostalgic for those old pixelated games of yore – and I figured I might be more forgiving than my teenybopper self was towards FFVI and FFVII. But… nope, I played about 25-30% of the way through the original game in its PSP remake before I got sick of random battles always interrupting me and fucking me over when I was just trying to walk somewhere. (This, until recently, would mark the farthest I’ve gotten into a Final Fantasy game. )

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The four heroes in the PSP version FF1 looked adorable, if nothing else.

Next up? Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest! I downloaded it on the Wii Virtual Console, thinking that an “introductory RPG” sounded pretty nice for someone of my ilk. You know, it does have some mildly amusing puzzles, and I like that I can see all the monsters right on the map. But dear lord, this game is too stupid for me. I often fear the complexity of the maths behind RPGs, but this is about as complex as stacking two blocks on top of each other. For once in my pitiful FF career, I got bored with how much I rocked instead of frustrated with how micromanage-y their bullshit was.

My last historical experience with Final Fantasy came with Dissidia: Final Fantasy on the PSP. A fighting game, right? I should be golden!

Ha-ha, but no, seriously, this game is bullshit. Well, all right, it’s actually more like “fandom navel-gazing to the max,” and that’s not INHERENTLY bullshit, but promoting it as a “fighting game” is very much bullshit. If you play it as one, you will be miserable. The fact that it takes place in wide-open three-dimensional arenas in which only two people are really fighting can really make each battle a drawn-out slog, and the fights themselves are definitely catering more towards the “RPG Battle System Complexities” mindset than the “Fighting Game Complexities” mindset.  There’s only a little guidance given on how shit works, so the finer details are up to you to figure out. If you can take hold of the system, I know plenty of people who’ve been addicted by this. Me? I played through Cecil’s campaign, then I was like “Whatevs.” I think if I had a stronger background in these characters outside of word-of-mouth, I might’ve cared more.

Which bring us to THE NAKED NOW.

Final Fantasy XIII is totally rad!

Why did I decide to try Final Fantasy XIII? Many reasons: I wanted a background in the universe before Lightning Returns comes out (because that looks like a cool action/RPG hybrid), and I wanted a game that would let my fingers take a break after the intense combat I’m used to made my joints start aching. So I gave it a go and just hoped for the best.

Ahhh, but you know how that turned out. As I stated right at the top of this wee diatribe, I love the crap out of Final Fantasy XIII so far. I’m at roughly the game’s halfway point (they say it lasts roughly 50 hours, and I’ve spent 25), and I suppose that things could go downhill from here. Maybe when I start on Chapter 11? I hear it’s more open and full of death. But it’s earned a lot of goodwill from for the first 25 hours, so I’ll probably be a little bit forgiving even then.

If you read the first section of this post, it’s pretty easy to see WHY I’d love the game up to this point. This is a game that directly addresses most of my complaints about RPGs in general.

  • There are no random battles. You can always see enemies approaching you or lying in wait; you can even sneak up on them sometimes for a pre-emptive strike attack!

  • When those battles then start up, they’re not turn-based. You watch your action meter (also called an “Active Time Battle” or “ATB” meter in a vain attempt to appeal to the old-schoolers) fill up, then you have the ability to take whatever action you choose to fill each section of the meter. Typically you wait for the meter to fill completely, then watch your hero of choice whip out four or five or however-many moves in a row, but you can also jump right in immediately  after any section fills and just do the move you have the strength/energy for at that moment. And because the meters for everyone in the party fill separately, this also means that characters team up to attack simultaneously!

  • Oh, and these battles are utterly dynamic . They look amazing in action, with leaping slashes into the air, backwards-jumping gun firing and whatnot. And the characters are ALWAYS MOVING. Even when they’re not attacking, your party is moving around, their weapons at the ready, biding their time and watching for an opening.

  • You only directly control one party member at a time. The rest of the party? You just tell them what role you want them to fill, and then they’re smart enough to do it their own goddamn selves. In fact, they’re so smart that they understand when a particular attack is weak or SUPER EFFECTIVE! (Pokemon ref, lawlz) against a foe, and they’ll remember that fact FOREVER. For the rest of the game, they’ll spam whatever they know to be strong against that foe. YEAAAAAAAAH!

  • The game is designed to NOT require grinding. True, you can get screwed if you skip over too many battles by using a shroud-based item to hide from the bad guys and then run around them, but if you play the game straightforward like they want you to, you’ll always be at the proper level needed to challenge your current foe. Unless, of course, the game says “Dude, you’re not strong enough to fight this guy; you should probably run.” Yes, it actually tells you that – which is either terrible or wonderful, and I’m not sure which. You can even power yourself up extra by doing sidequests once you hit a certain point in the game, but I’m not there yet, so I don’t know how mandatory that is. Hopefully the answer is “not at all mandatory.”

  • Now, I’m not usually a huge fan of super-linear games, but by making this game so linear, there is nearly ZERO Explorer’s Ruin.  Even if you get killed in battle, you can start up again right BEFORE that battle, so that’s not bad at all. Usually. Unless that battle’s been going on for 20 minutes. (We’ll get there.)

  • Much like… well, almost every Final Fantasy since VI… this is a sci-fi/fantasy fusion world full of interesting concepts instead of just elves/trolls/fairies/hooey. No straight fantasy, but lots of intriguing ideas about how our fates are manipulated by forces beyond our control, and seriously, FUCK those forces, yo.

  • The game’s systems are pretty crazy-complex when they’re fully explained, but the game is kind enough to introduce each idea nice and slowly. It’s like they’re giving you a 20-hour tutorial interspersed with character development and combat, yes, and that’s kind of… well, it’s… it’s kind to someone like ME specifically.

Where the game still stumbles in its relentless attempts to appeal to me personally is in its length. This game takes forever to play (I’m only just past the halfway point after 20 goddamn hours!), and a big part of that is spent in lengthy, interminable battles. It’s a good thing the battle system is so cool, because that makes it ALMOST tolerable that many fights can last for 10-20 minutes at a time. Which is absoludicrously asinine, but I guess I can’t actually have EVERYTHING I want. A 10-hour or 15-hour Final Fantasy was too much to demand (again, yes, I now know about The Crystal Bearers, and no, I haven’t played it since I last mentioned it). But more enemies with shorter battles would be better than this drawn-out blow-trading. If you’re looking for a way to pad the experience, seriously, I think “more and quicker battles” is better than “it takes an hour to whittle down this HP wall.”

It’s all pretty much a blast of fun up until Chapter 7, however. That’s about the point when some of the battles start lasting for-freaking-ever. Some fights in Chapter 7 and Chapter 9 go on for longer than 20 minutes, even. And no, I don’t mean BOSS fights. Just regular-ass fights. At the very least, I can take comfort in the knowledge that this is a sporadic occurrence. Most battles continue to move at a decent clip.

You get to control six characters. All of them can fight, and all of them have hair that looks like cotton candy. Here’s your character breakdown:

Lightning - Lightning is a rage-fueled security officer in a coastal community, and most Final Fantasy fans in North America apparently don’t like her. I can’t imagine why. Whenever a character starts acting like a tool, she usually punches that character. If Lightning senses injustice, she kills it. If that injustice is committed by THE GODS THEMSELVES? Fuck it; she’s going to murder all gods and destroy the world if she has to FOR GREAT JUSTICE, BECAUSE JUSTICE IS ABSOLUTE IN ALL THINGS. And I can’t imagine anything I’d support harder than that. Lightning is the person that humanity should always aspire to be if they want to transcend our mortal bodies and become something greater than themselves. Also, she carries a big sword that folds up into a gun because that’s the kind of thing you do in Japanese video games. Final Fantasy fans in Japan apparently LOVE Lightning, because everyone should. 

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"God, I’m awesome. Why am I hanging out with these losers?"

Sazh – Single father/old guy/walking bird’s nest Sazh is basically the “in” for the audience when the game begins. He’s the guy who acts normal and asks questions. Then he becomes the funny guy, and then the depressive guy. Sazh is a pretty cool pistoleer-type, but for some reason he insists on only shooting bad guys when he can pose dramatically first. He uses his ATB/action meter to build up the strength to vogue.

Snow – King Tool of Moron Mountain – the kind of guy you’re really scared that your daughter is going to marry one day. He leads a group of idiots who think they’re an army but really just pick fights with wildlife on the weekends, and he thinks this makes him the ultimate badass. Snow’s little gang hangs out in a bar when they’re not pissing off innocent wolves. They all look and act like fratties. As Tim Rogers of ActionButton.net said: “You keep expecting [Snow] to say, when the camera slides in his direction: ‘Hey, have you guys seen my keg?’ … He is dumb enough to misplace a keg of beer. He is strong enough to carry a keg of beer like a Double Big Gulp and then forget that he’s not carrying it. He drinks kegs of beer all the time. He drinks them completely by himself. He wouldn’t mind just buying another keg to replace the one he misplaced.” On the occasions when someone actually makes him feel real human feelings, Snow gets so confused and angry that he starts punching walls and railings. His trenchcoat has circuitry in it that allows him to fistfight robots and battle machines, and he’s still not cool even when he punches a tank to death.  Lightning hates him because she is so awesome, and he is so terrible.

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"Have you guys seen my keg?"

Vanille – One look at her tells you that Vanille was designed specifically for sexy coplay girls. But beyond that, she’s also a bubbleheaded pathological liar who is, oddly, really hard to dislike. She’s just so SUNNY. She has a secret so obvious that you’ll figure it out in less than two hours, but the characters won’t figure it out until Hour 17 or so, because video games. She fights with a feathered wooden pitchfork that is also a fishing rod, I shit you not.  

Hope – When Hope first shows up, he’s pretty much the most hatable character in the game. He acts like a snotty, misguided little brat for the first 10 hours, but then he starts getting kind of sympathetic and interesting. By the time he was (at last!) ready to stab Snow, I finally liked Hope and hated Snow, so I was actually pretty okay with his plan to become a 14-year-old murderer. That’s real progress.  Also, he hits bad guys with a giant boomerang.

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Vanille and Hope in a scene where they’re probably lying and fantasizing about murder (respectively).

Fang – A young Claudia Black with a spear. She is boring.

For the first eight chapters, the game forces you to control individuals and parties that they foist off on you. It’s really annoying initially but then emerges as a stroke of genius in its own way, because it forces you to get to know the different characters – both from a personal perspective and a gameplay perspective. You get to know them through plenty of well-handled cut scenes with great voice acting and gorgeous visuals. Meanwhile, different characters have different roles they can play in combat, and you have to learn all those roles as you work through these chapters. Square Enix refuses to let you just rot away with a single character in one or two specific roles; this is wise, for stagnation is the enemy of the game’s combat system.

“Paradigm Shift!” That’s what the game cries out to you whenever you change the characters’ “jobs.” You see, ever since Final Fantasy X, the series has been trying to shake up the combat with every entry. Whereas X was a smaller shift, XII and XIII are out to rock the combat to its very core.

Combat strategy in XIII revolves around “paradigms.” You get 2 or 3 characters to manipulate at a time (because the game wisely knows that, at any given point in the story, there’s a good chance you only like 2 or 3 characters anyway), and you set up a series of job roles within “paradigms.” So maybe you want Lightning to slash bad guys to hell and back while Fang provokes the enemies to keep all attention on him, and Hope focuses on healing the whole party. If that’s the case, you’ll set up a Paradigm where Lightning is a “Commando,” Fang is a “Sentinel,” and Hope is a “Medic.” (I realize these jobs sound like jargon-y crap, but trust me, you’ll understand them in context). There; that’s one paradigm. When you might set up another paradigm where Fang focuses on inflicting bad status ailments (like, y’know, SLOWGA) on the bad guys (“Saboteur”), Hope gives healthy status buffs to the good guys (“Synergist”) and Lightning heals everybody while this happens (“Medic”). That’s another Paradigm, and you can switch between the two paradigms you just created by simply hitting a shoulder button on your controller and selecting a different setup in a matter of seconds.

There’s other stuff to the combat, like “Staggering” and items and whatnot, but I’m not going to spell that out for you. This isn’t a gameplay tutorial, it’s a review. Well, it’s kind of a review. It’s more of an essay. ANYWAY… the point is that it feels good to outsmart these enemies and keep them on the defensive with your paradigms. It feels nervewracking to be on the defensive, jumping into a protective paradigm while you try to do some party maintenance. The whole thing feels clever and nice; I just wish the battles didn’t take so stupidly long.

Sure, the game has some goofy irritations to it, such as the need for the game to animate each “Paradigm Shift!” and then show you a bunch of meaningless numbers as you pound a bad guy into submission. (“1221” … Uh, 1221 of what? What’s the total hit points on this guy? What does that mean? Answer: Enemies are like piñatas full of numerals. Just keep hitting that dude until all his numbers fall out, and rest assured that the exact numbers have no relevance to anything.)

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Collect all the numbers!

…but it’s rad in the WORST way
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Now, if you’re a fan of Final Fantasy as a whole, you probably read that bulleted list I posted under “I Kinda Hate Old-School RPGs (Usually)” and told me to go fuck a Moogle. That list is the enemy of RPG fans in general, and Final Fantasy games in particular. The majority of this series is founded on the four principles of:

a) Random Battles

b) Turn-Based Combat

c) Grinding

d) Doing all of the above for 50 hours or more before the game is over.

Generally speaking, this is also a series that revels in exploration. That’s not always the case (my time with Final Fantasy VII was pretty linear), but it’s usually available to those who seek it, complete with all the Explorer’s Ruin you deserve if you actually dare to explore. Hell, even Final Fantasy XIII-2 is reportedly full of exploration and free-roaming opportunities, because enough people missed that in XIII that it became a cornerstone of the direct sequel.

So basically, everything about my tastes is at odds with the majority of this franchise. It’s kind of weird that I keep coming back to give Final Fantasy another opportunity to disappoint me.

It’s weirder still that I enjoy Final Fantasy XIII so much. I love a well-told story with character-building cutscenes, I love dynamic action, I love forward momentum. Naturally, I’m loving this game so far.

But it’s called Final Fantasy XIII, guys. Final Fantasy Ex-Eye-Eye-Eye! I SHOULDN’T love this game, because by this point in the series, the fanbase should probably have a pretty good idea of what they’re getting into. And although this game does feature the obvious components of ridable chicken-beasts, phoenix downs and a dude named “Cid,” those are pretty much window dressing. You can find those in The Crystal Bearers, for god’s sake, but that short single-player action-adventure is at least a spinoff. This is a main-numbered entry in the franchise, for the love of Bahamut, and it’s got shockingly little in common with most of the other 12.

I feel for you fans. It’s easy to see why all of these linear adventures through dynamic battles and cut scenes would turn y’all off. You have my sympathies, but at the same time, I’m… kinda grateful that I’m getting this slice of the series to enjoy. It’s good to feel like I’m on the INSIDE of Final Fantasy for once, even if I probably don’t belong here.

Despite the sensation of being out of place, I’m obviously not alone. This game is one of Square’s top-four biggest sellers of all time in terms of sheer numbers of copies. Even after decades of re-releases in almost every format known to man, much-beloved entries like Final Fantasy VI and IV still haven’t sold as many copies as Final Fantasy XIII already has in a much shorter lifespan. That says something.

Who knows? If I ever finish FFXIII, maybe I’ll even play XIII-2. And I’ll DEFINITELY play Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. That thing looks white-hot to someone of my tastes.

But I can imagine what it must be like for the nay-sayers. What if I showed up for Mega Man 11, and they gave me a first-person shooter with no robot powers to steal and no selectable stages? Hell, I’d be bitter, too.

For the sake of you embittered long-time fans, I hope you get more of what you’re seeking in Final Fantasy XV. You shouldn’t have to resort to playing a spinoff like “The 4 Heroes of Light” on the DS to get your classical Final Fantasy fix.

In the meantime, I’ll keep digging on FFXIII. But I promise that I will try to feel properly shamed while doing so.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and Uncharted: Golden Abyss

I’ve talked about the first two Uncharted games on this site before. I’ve covered how the gameplay is generic, with uninspired platforming and above-average cover-based shooting, but I’ve also covered how that’s not the main reason people play these games anyway. These games are popular for two things: story and spectacle.

Does that mean they’re a case of “style over substance”? Maybe to some, but not so much to me. Storytelling and characterization IS substance, as far as I’m concerned, and a damned important piece of substance at that. Sure, the huge set pieces where Drake escapes a burning building or leaps across speeding cars are part of the thrill, but the gorgeous graphics and sweeping orchestral score this series consistently provides wouldn’t be worth a damn without characters we grow to care about.

As 2011 wound down, Sony and series creator Naughty Dog gave us Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception for the PS3. Then, as 2012 opened up, we were quickly delivered Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the PlayStation Vita - created by Sony Bend rather than Naughty Dog. When two installments in the same series come along so quickly, it’s inevitable that they’re going to be compared. But what surprised me about these two is how one succeeded in bringing spectacle, yet disappointed in the story department. And the other one gave me the exact reverse set of results.
So let’s talk about them in the order they were released. Uncharted 3 brings us great all the same old characters we love, plus some great new ones - I adore Charlie Cutter, and at times, couldn’t even stop playing out of fear for what might become of poor Charlie. We finally learn the origin of Nathan Drake’s monkey-like climbing skills (it turns out he was an Aladdin-style street rat in his youth), and we even find out where that ring that he wears as a necklace originates from. It’s kind of surprising that they waited so damn long in the series to explore these topics, frankly.

The gameplay is largely the same as it’s ever been, but it takes both a step forward and a step back compared to Uncharted 2. The step forward comes in the melee combat, where Drake now has a set of counter/punch/grab attacks. No more mindless button-mashing for this brawler — you can now observe the movements of your foe while you face him down in one-on-one fisticuffs. Extremely satisfying.
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You won’t just be mashing “Square” anymore, kids.

The step down comes in the platforming. Uncharted 2 was the first game in the series to give you mixed signals on the best path out of a room or up a mountain. You could actually jump to your doom by misjudging the location of a handhold! This will never happen in Uncharted 3. It’s once again plain as day where you need to go. The handholds are practically glowing at you, and you’ll very rarely miss a jump. But hey, at least it’s possible. We haven’t reverted to Uncharted 1’s “you will always make that jump, just barely, no matter what” setting.

There’s no doubt that Uncharted 3 is gorgeous to look at, and the spectacle never gets any grander than it is during a sequence where the player, as Drake, is clambering around a graveyard of rusted-out ships, attempting to shoot bloodthirsty pirates amidst rollicking waves and the ever-present threat of tetanus. This sequence encompasses both the game’s primary strength and its greatest weakness. It’s epic and breathtaking in scope and style, yet it really has no place in the story. It’s just shoehorned in awkwardly, accomplishing nothing in regards to the primary narrative. A narrative that, quite frankly, doesn’t really work to begin with. This is the sloppiest Uncharted game to date in terms of its storytelling.
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A floating city made out of rusted-out shipwrecks? Seems legit.

Why are the “villains” even considered evil here? Sure, they act kind of mean after Drake’s killed like, one freaking hundred of them. But that could be seen as justified. None of the characters even theorize on why their intentions are “bad” until the very last two chapters, and by then, Drake has snuck up behind numerous henchman working for the “secret society” and snapped their necks without a second thought. The society in question has been searching for the truth about Francis Drake’s travels for centuries, and really, they seem more entitled to those sequels than some random Indiana Jones-wannabe who’s always looking for the next treasure score. Early on, we’re even shown the “evil” Katherine Marlowe’s distaste for actually killing her enemies. She honestly tries to just give a huge payment to Drake and Sully in exchange for the ring, which they foolishly refuse. These two treasure hunters shoot down real cash (by pretending it’s fake and acting insulted) just so they can get there first! Oh, lord.

So Drake’s looking like the bad guy, and the appointed bad guys? They’re looking kind of ridiculous. Look, we accept that our hero can climb around like a monkey, although it was a little tough to see Elena do some of the same thing in the first game. In the second one, the only characters climbing around were other treasure-seekers who had experience running with Nate, and of course, Elena again. But then this game comes along… why oh why can the suit-wearing, prim-and-proper Talbot scamper around like a parkour master? He’s an uptight British dude with insane powers that are never explained, such as when he disappears down a dead-end alley at a historical site. Then he climb, leap, lunge and swing like a master athlete, and don’t worry, there’s no chance we’ll see him in any other games, so what the hell was that?
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"Yes, I have access to incredible mind-control technology, I can disappear mid-sentence like Batman, and I’m as spry as the Prince of Persia. So naturally, I will face you down in a knife fight."

A lot of the game’s story advances based on even more stupid luck than the kind Drake usually shows off (really, he stumbles across the baddies in an endless desert), and they seem to forget major plot points at the drop of a hat (the “locally unique” spiders appear everywhere around the globe, the “nearly dead of thirst” Drake is suddenly ignoring water sources and ready for intense physical combat). Uncharted 3 is just sloppy in the storytelling, but at least we still like these people, even if their adventures don’t really gel.
On the flip side, the tale told in Uncharted: Golden Abyss COMPLETELY gels. The storytelling is tight as can be, even if the campaign stretches on a bit too long. Drake’s interactions with his old “friend” Eddie, not to mention new love interest Marisa Chase, are perfect, and his reasons for his behavior - even the killing of those who attack him, are logically provided. In fact, let me provide another one of my unpopular opinions here: I’m now a Drake/Chase ‘shipper. She’s the perfect foil to bring out the best in Drake. Elena got pulled into these adventures in order to get a “story” out of them, and frankly, no responsible journalist would be so dumb as to call Drake and Sully’s life a piece of worthwhile journalism unless they know in advance that they’re going to prove the existence of zombies or something. Elena gets more adorable as the series goes on, but she still points out everything that’s illogical about Drake. She wants him to quit the lifestyle, even though the game series will never allow that. Why IS he risking his life in Uncharted 3? She asks, but no answer is given for why he recklessly pursues “treasure,” even though it constantly puts those he loves in harm’s ways.

Chloe? You saw how she behaved on the train in part two. A fine woman, but when the chips are down, Chloe’s loyal only to herself. Obviously not long-term relationship material.

Yet now there’s Chase. She’s more than just another spunky action-girl. Sure, she provides that, but more importantly, Chase climbs around ruins and solves puzzles because they’re important to the record of history and to the legacy of her family. The idea of stopping or failing just leaves her emotionally vulnerable, and that even means she’s more open with her emotions than the other girls, too. Her noble reasons for the hunt give Drake an honest, likable reason to do what he does. It’s not just about “treasure” anymore… now it’s about making her grandfather proud and doing something that matters in a historical context. Her reasons are much more important and more valid than Nate’s own, and as such, they provide a chance for him to grow. Or they would, if this wasn’t a prequel game, and we aren’t shown clearly in Uncharted 3 just how far off of his nut Drake has gotten without Chase to ground him. If nothing else, Chase even has a reasonable story reason for being good at all the climbing stuff they always do in these games.
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In a series with many great female characters, Chase stands out as my new favorite.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss was produced by Sony Bend using only the knowledge they had of the first two games, and so it naturally doesn’t incorporate some of the advances of Uncharted 3, particularly the melee combat. However, the touch-based melee is probably the series’ second-best version of close combat. The first two PS3 games devolved into button-mashing in close quarters, so both GA and 3 tried new approached to the one-on-one scraps.
Golden Abyss’ tactic is to present the player with close-up scenes of Drake getting into it with the evil thugs, and you have to swipe across the Vita’s touchscreen to move his fist or foot in the correct manner to escape/take out the offending baddie. So if an evil dude grabs Nate by his right leg and pulls him in, you’ll be directed to perform a fast swipe starting at Drake’s LEFT foot. You can then direct the grounded foot towards the enemy’s chin, and Drake will do a hop and kick the bad guy square in the jaw. See? Simple, yet surprisingly satisfying, and it makes for some really well-choreographed brawls in the game’s final chapters. You wind up swiping pretty furiously to keep yourself in the fight when you start taking on the Big Bads. And it’s not like the directions you need to use aren’t obvious - there’s a giant arrow that appears right on the screen, showing you the motion that will serve you most ideally. Not bad!
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Swipe down and left to pull that dude’s skull into your knee.

Sadly, the platforming is just as mindless here as it is in Uncharted 3. Once again, you have no real danger of getting lost or confused while climbing. But fear not! Because the handholds are so obvious and the climbing so mind-numbing, why not just speed past it? You can simply drag your finger across the areas you want Drake to climb, and he’ll rapidly move along those handholds platforms just as you directed, without all the push-direction, mash-button inanity we’ve come to expect. Hey, it’s not ideal, but it’s a pretty damn good fix.
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I’ll also defend the soothing sensation of using the touchscreen to “row” your way downriver in a canoe. You control the rhythm and speed of your travel quite realistically via this mechanism. Yet other uses of the Vita’s special features are not as well-though-out. Having to constantly “swipe up” in order to either hoist your companion to a handhold or bash down an old stone wall (the latter requiring three swipes in a row!) gets old FAST. And we’ve brought back the irritating “balance logs” from the first game thanks to Vita’s tilt sensor. Lord knows we really missed THOSE in parts 2 and 3, right? At least the puzzles aren’t too invasive. Sure, you need to constantly move, rotate and revolve various puzzle components, but they’re pretty user-friendly and actually a little bit more taxing on the mind than the standard low-pressure Uncharted puzzles. Less successful is that you need to use your Vita’s zoom to accurately zoom in a camera when taking photos requested for certain side quests.

Wait, Uncharted with SIDE QUESTS? Yes, even the hidden treasures now help unlock extra detail about the history of the area, the history of the main story, the history of the characters, and even monologues from Drake or Chase’s grandfather discussing all of the above. This is much more appealing than the usual “You got a trophy!” reward for collecting hidden treasures in the prior games. Sure, it can seem like a lot of busy work… but it’s extra voice acting from characters you love! That makes it busy work of the best kind.

Now, you long knew this was coming, but it’s true, and it has to be said: The “wow!” factor of the set pieces in this game is severely diminished when compared to the last two console games. For starters, most of the settings look the same from chapter to chapter in this adventure, because our heroes never leave Panama. Things don’t really look different until you’ve already wandered into the forbidden kingdom of Bibbity Bobbity Boo, and by then, you’ll be tired of this jungle. Now, I realize that the first game didn’t really shake things up much, either, but hey, that game was also SHORTER than this one. Maybe the Vita just couldn’t handle that many locations, however. Who knows? At least the locations we get look as gorgeous as ever, with all the water effects and outdoor splendor you expect from the franchise.

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Both of these games include a chapter where the heroes must escape from a burning building, but the one in Golden Abyss can’t live up to the one in Drake’s Deception.

Maybe the Vita can’t handle the kind of insane sequences that the PS3’s famous Cell processor can, either. That seems like the most logical explanation for the lack of crumbling buildings and epic leaps from speeding trains. There are still some cool set pieces, mind you — the mudslide being a highlight — but nothing as big and epic as what you see on the home console. When you escaping the burning French chateau in Uncharted 3, you’ll realize just how quaint a similar sequence is in Golden Abyss.

Ultimately, what do you want more from your Uncharted adventures? Epic action scenes with big-time “wow” factor, or a compelling story with lovable characters and logical turns along the way? I’m inclined to prefer the former, and that’s why, against all odds, I kind of preferred Golden Abyss to Drake’s Deception. Both are a good time for what they provide, and both feature obvious problems. But if you’re anything like me, and you’re more annoyed by plot holes than you are by repetitious touch-based minigames, you might wind up sympathizing with my perspective on these. Either way, both are well worth the time of anyone seeking another exciting Indiana Jones-style adventure with Drake and company.

I just hope that, next time, we can really explore what drives Drake to be the person he is. Let’s not just hint at the fact that he knows how his rampant gun use has changed him as a person (as he references in Golden Abyss) or that he has a strange obsession with risking everything for obscure treasures (as discussed repeatedly in Drake’s Deception)… let’s really dig into those issues. What do you say, Sony teams? See you for another adventure on the Vita, or maybe on the PS4?

A Brief History of 2012

One my new year’s resolutions (if you insist on calling it that, as I’ve never been a fan of those things) is to get back on the horse with this blog. I hope I can try to post once a month, at the very least.

What better way to start out on that endeavor than to look back on the preceding year? After all, it was the first year I even HAD this blog. The year when the great experiment began and died! But I’m not content to simply navel-gaze and finger-wag in my own direction. Let’s talk about the games of 2012 instead. See, now that’s MUCH more uplifting.

So. What games did I actually finish/beat in 2012?

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (PS3)
Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem! (DS)
Rainbow Six: Vegas (PSP)
Resistance: Fall of Man (PS3)
Sonic Colors (Wii)
Giana Sisters DS (DS)
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (PS3)
Super Metroid (SNES - VC)
Sonic Colors (DS)
Superman (iOS)
Mass Effect 2 (PS3 - beaten twice)
Captain America: Super Soldier (PS3)
Resistance 2 (PS3)
Mass Effect: Infiltrator (iOS)
Epic Mickey (Wii)
Gunblade NY (Wii)
L.A. Machineguns (Wii)
Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus (Vita)
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)
Ghostbusters (PS3)
Tron: Evolution (PS3)
Batman: Arkham City (PS3)
Resistance 3 (PS3)
Infamous 2 (PS3)
Infamous: Festival of Blood (PS3)
Mass Effect 3 (PS3)
Mass Effect Galaxy (iOS)
Resistance: Burning Skies (Vita)
Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters (iOS)
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)
Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon (Wii)
Journey (PS3)
Rainbow Six Vegas 2 (PS3)
Alpha Protocol (PS3)
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (Wii)
Monster Tale (DS)
Double Dragon: Neon (PS3)
L.A. Noire: The Rockstar Pass (PS3)
Dead Nation (PS3)
Uncharted: Golden Abyss (Vita)
Battleship (PS3)
Silent Hill: Book of Memories (Vita)
Flower (PS3)
James Bond 007: Blood Stone (PS3)
Mortal Kombat (Vita)
Fallout 3 (PS3)
Mega Man Zero 3 (GBA)
Karateka (PS3)
Street Fighter x Tekken (Vita)
Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale (PS3/Vita)
Afrika (PS3) ? … (I mean, it stopped giving me missions, but there was no visible ENDING… )

I realize that listing some fighting games that don’t have story modes can make for some questionable counting, given that you get an ending every time you beat the game with ANY character, and then you can just keep on getting more endings. But whatever. The total comes to 51 games for this year, and that’s pretty damn good.

That’s not even accounting for all the games I played and didn’t finish due to loss of interest for one reason or another, either.

I played a ton of GREAT games this year, too. That list is no slouch. It’s crazy to think that i only discovered Mass Effect, Resistance and Uncharted this very year.

Favorite game released in 2012? Mass Effect 3, I think. I really fell in love with Mass Effect this year. But I discovered so many more games than those! I also fell in love with Resistance (and played all five games, though I couldn’t bring myself to complete Resistance: Retribution), got attached to Uncharted (long after most everyone else had), and received many new entries in classic franchises that were actually worth purchasing. I can heartily recommended Double Dragon: Neon to ANY fan of Double Dragon or beat-‘em-ups, and Silent Hill: Book of Memories is a great exploration of the Silent Hill concept in an exciting new way if you’re open to it.

2012 was pretty great, all told. Here’s to 2013.

Add to Your Backlog with Holiday Sales! Plus the Games I’ve Beaten in 2012

Fair warning: Tomorrow, Amazon is hosting another one of its “all video games” Gold Box sales events. And if you’re like me, holiday games sales are a great way to increase your intimidating backlog!

Also: Hi, I’m alive, and I’m still working on the ol’ backlog, obviously. The holiday season’s sales have made me think of this, my tumblr full of reviews, and how much I want to get back to it. I’ve lately lost all creativity in my writing, and I think that returning to this blog will be a wonderful way to get those juices flowing once more.

So I hope to start posting around here again on a semi-regular basis quite soon, but for today, let’s just do a quick update on the games I’ve beaten this year. Ready?

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (PS3)
Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem! (DS)
Rainbow Six: Vegas (PSP)
Resistance: Fall of Man (PS3)
Sonic Colors (Wii)
Giana Sisters DS (DS)
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (PS3)
Super Metroid (SNES - VC)
Sonic Colors (DS)
Superman (iOS)
Mass Effect 2 (PS3 - beaten twice)
Captain America: Super Soldier (PS3)
Resistance 2 (PS3)
Mass Effect: Infiltrator (iOS)
Epic Mickey (Wii)
Gunblade NY (Wii)
L.A. Machineguns (Wii)
Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus (Vita)
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)
Ghostbusters (PS3)
Tron: Evolution (PS3)
Batman: Arkham City (PS3)
Resistance 3 (PS3)
Infamous 2 (PS3)
Infamous: Festival of Blood (PS3)
Mass Effect 3 (PS3)
Mass Effect Galaxy (iOS)
Resistance: Burning Skies (Vita)
Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters (iOS)
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)
Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon (Wii)
Journey (PS3)
Rainbow Six Vegas 2 (PS3)
Alpha Protocol (PS3)
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (Wii)
Monster Tale (DS)
Double Dragon: Neon (PS3)
L.A. Noire: The Rockstar Pass
Dead Nation (PS3)
Uncharted: Golden Abyss (Vita)
Battleship (PS3)
Silent Hill: Book of Memories (Vita)
Flower (PS3)
James Bond 007: Blood Stone (PS3)
Mortal Kombat (Vita)

That brings us up to 45 games I’ve beaten this year. That’s not a bad run by any stretch, and I might still manage to squeeze out one or two more before it’s all over.

And yes, I’m counting the entire collection of DLC for L.A. Noire as a separate game. It wound up being seriously longer than many full games I’ve played this year, and it contained some of the game’s longest cases as well. So I’m doing it. Hey, it’s my list.

Games I’ve Beaten This Year: Fourth Update

God, there’s so much I want to post about… and so little time to do it! I’ll try to do a roundup soon-ish. For now, an updated list of games I’ve beaten in 2012.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (PS3)
Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem! (DS)
Rainbow Six: Vegas (PSP)
Resistance: Fall of Man (PS3)
Sonic Colors (Wii)
Giana Sisters DS (DS)
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (PS3)
Super Metroid (SNES - VC)
Sonic Colors (DS)
Superman (iOS)
Mass Effect 2 (PS3 - beaten twice)
Captain America: Super Soldier (PS3)
Resistance 2 (PS3)
Mass Effect: Infiltrator (iOS)
Epic Mickey (Wii)
Gunblade NY (Wii)
L.A. Machineguns (Wii)
Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus (Vita)
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)
Ghostbusters (PS3)
Tron: Evolution (PS3)
Batman: Arkham City (PS3)
Resistance 3 (PS3)
Infamous 2 (PS3)
Infamous: Festival of Blood (PS3)
Mass Effect 3 (PS3)
Mass Effect Galaxy (iOS)
Resistance: Burning Skies (Vita)
Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters (iOS)
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)
Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon (Wii)

This makes 31. That’s not too bad for a year with a new baby running rampant through the house!

Mass Effect = Delightful Addiction

That’s right, I’m back with yet another Mass Effect post. It can’t be helped.

Between the baby, Mass Effect, the new job and a crushing lack of sleep, it’s tough to find the time to post.

But here I am, ready to talk about the second item on that list.

I’ve played Mass Effect 3. In fact, I’ve finished Mass Effect 3 as part of an all-encompassing Mass Effect campaign I’m in the middle of.

And Mass Effect 3 was amazing. It was a face-rocking conclusion to the story of Commander Shepard… whom, if you’re playing as a woman, is an incredibly compelling character that completely grabbed me on an emotional level. (And whom, if you’re playing as a man, is a soulless robot creature that powerfully drags down a game that’s otherwise full of personality and life, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Left: An emotionally engaging heroine. Right: A black hole from which no charisma can escape.

That ending especially was phenomenal, but of course, I was playing the “Extended Cut.” Afterwards, I went back and looked up what the original ending was like, and… I completely understand why everybody hated it so much. Dear lord, talk about your leaps of logic and massive plot holes.

Mass Effect 3 really streamlines the core experience of the series. No more hacking mini-games, endless ammo and gun strength power-up items, or mining (er, “scanning”) for sundry elements. We’re here for dialogue and combat, and we get dialogue and combat. Every storyline that we’ve followed through the series comes to a close here — at least if the player allows it. Whether those endings are happy or sad is also largely at your discretion.

I was pretty satisfied by my story’s conclusion, although the final decision is a tough one no matter how you slice it. I even managed to unlock all of the ending options by playing Mass Effect: Infiltrator on my iPod Touch and making use of the Mass Effect Datapad on the same device.

Datapad isn’t really a game so much as a fun way to ensconce yourself even deeper in the Mass Effect universe. You can get messages from the characters in the game (which are every bit as well-written as the in-game dialogue), explore the Codex of the game while on the go, and play a “Galaxy at War” mini-game that allows you to dispense fleets to all sectors of the Milky Way, which in turn raises your Galactic Readiness level.

Mass Effect: Infiltrator is a linear third-person shooter that contains collectibles which can be traded in for additional Galactic Readiness. That’s just a minor part of a game that really serves as an impressive tech demo for the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch. The game looks great, especially on those smaller screens. How does it play? About as well as you can expect from a touch device. The game allows you to place your thumbs anywhere on the left and right side of the screen, and it will pick up any movements relative to your original position as you slide around. Then you basically control the game like any FPS title; right thumb mans the camera, left thumb makes your character move. You can tap on any enemy to zoom in and target them more precisely, which is pretty much mandatory with this control scheme. It’s surprising how well this all works, but at the same time, it still feels really clunky compared to real, tactile controls. Bottom line: Impressive for an iPhone game, but what does that even mean?

It looks great for an iPhone game, and it doesn’t play terribly either!

If you’re a Mass Effect addict, the extra side story will probably be worth the price of admission. The lead character is actually a reasonably cool anti-hero type. He’s certainly much more personable than Male Shepard. Then again, so are most of your standard pastries.

Speaking of Male Shepard, I also have gone back to Mass Effect 2 and created a new character. I used “Mass Effect: Genesis” to make his entire story the opposite of my primary Female Shepard’s biography, then proceeded to act like a total Renegade instead of a Paragon. Unfortunately, even when acting like a complete bastard, Male Shepard gives an intolerably emotionless performance that would fit right in with the video game voice acting circa 1995.

The obvious fix? Put him in some armor that covers his face and makes him look like a robot, complete with a slight touch of helmet-induced reverb. The effect really makes the dead, cold-fish vocal delivery a lot easier to swallow! That’s how I’m managing to put up with this clown shoe. It’s not a perfect fix, and maybe I would’ve been better off playing as a Female Renegade, but this is an acceptable solution.

As part of my flashback to ME2, I’m also playing Mass Effect Galaxy. Yeah, that’s the OTHER iPod Touch/iPhone game in the series. It’s not even available on the App Store anymore, but you can still get it through… unofficial channels.

This one has you controlling Jacob Taylor (from Mass Effect 2) on a quest to save the Citadel from Batarian terrorists. You get to do the whole “dialogue tree” thing from the main games, and it really makes Jacob a lot more interesting than he ever was in ME2. Miranda’s also there to help out, and she’s far more sympathetic than she is in ME2. In fact, I have to wonder if the writers of ME2 had any input on this thing at all, because this kinda made the sucky characters seem cool.

Oh, but don’t take that to mean that Mass Effect Galaxy is a good game. It’s not. Aside from the dialogue trees (which don’t have nearly enough variation in them), the whole game is a top-down shooter where you control Jacob by tilting the iPhone/iPod Touch around. I guess that’s one way to get around the system’s lack of a decent control scheme. Quite frankly, it allows a level of precision that surprised me — it’s better than standard “virtual d-pad” controls, which is NOT what I expected — but it’s also still clunky and not exactly engaging. Because tilt controls being better than the virtual d-pad setup is like licking pavement being better than the taste of asshole.

I mean, Jacob does all the shooting for you. You have a couple of touch buttons to fire off a missile here or a biotic there, but the shooting is automatic. What’s THAT all about?

Behold: The most adorable Jacob and Miranda imaginable.

At least the cartoony art style is cute as hell to look at. I’d totally watch Mass Effect: The Animated Series.

So yeah, I’m going to watch this thing. Obviously.

And I’m going to go play some more Mass Effect.

I Live Again! More on The Games I’ve Beaten This Year (So Far)

After two weeks of focusing heavily on my new job, it’s definitely time to get back into posting around here some more.

I’m diving deep into my new workplace and embracing the new opportunities that come with it. But along the way, I’m still playing plenty of games. Check out my updated list of games I’ve beaten this year!

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (PS3)
Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Mini-Land Mayhem! (DS)
Rainbow Six: Vegas (PSP)
Resistance: Fall of Man (PS3)
Sonic Colors (Wii)
Giana Sisters DS (DS)
Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (PS3)
Super Metroid (SNES - VC)
Sonic Colors (DS)
Superman (iOS)
Mass Effect 2 (PS3)
Captain America: Super Soldier (PS3)
Resistance 2 (PS3)
Mass Effect: Infiltrator (iOS)
Epic Mickey (Wii)
Gunblade NY (Wii)
L.A. Machineguns (Wii)
Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus (Vita)
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)
Ghostbusters (PS3)
Tron: Evolution (PS3)
Batman: Arkham City (PS3)
Resistance 3 (PS3)
Infamous 2 (PS3)
Infamous: Festival of Blood (PS3)

What can I say about these games? I can tell you that Resistance 3 is the best FPS I’ve played this generation and one of the best I’ve experienced period. From story to gameplay, it’s got everything, and everyone should play it.

Arkham City? It may be better than Arkham Asylum, or it might not. I’m not sure. In some ways it’s better, in others it’s worse. Right now I’m leaning towards the first one, but both are phenomenal games.

Infamous just might have become one of my favorite franchises. That’s a big statement, though, so let’s just call it “my favorite open-world franchise.”

Yeah, it’s been a good streak of recent updates. How’re you guys? How much did E3 disappoint you? Man, my predictions were way off, weren’t they?

Catch you around…

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - The Dumbening Continues

(You may notice that I’ve changed the title of this blog. Given my new job and the baby in the house, I’m accepting that “daily” is probably too high a bar to reach right now.)

I’m really rather disappointed that it seems we’re fully embracing the stupid new Castlevania continuity that started with Lords of Shadow. A sequel was inevitable, but even the 3DS spinoff that’s been announced is sticking to that new universe now.

To be fair, Lords of Shadow was a totally acceptable God of War ripoff combined with a sub-par knockoff of Prince of Persia/Uncharted platforming, but it really lacks any of the distinct identity and majesty of the original continuity.

That’s okay, though - it’s not such a terrible thing to make a game that rips off some of the most popular and most successful in the action and platforming genres. They don’t have to make a game that’s for me as a long-time Castlevania fan. I just wish they didn’t write me off entirely. I mean, I don’t even like God of War. I like my attacks in my action games to feel like they’re a little more powerful than hitting a turtle shell with a plastic knife, y’know?

What’s really frustrating, however, is how freaking stupid the writing and storytelling is in Lords of Shadow. I played through the whole damn thing, and I kept waiting for the story to, y’know, not suck. I really got attached to some of the character designs in the earlier games, true, but it was the characters and writing of titles such as Dracula X the “Metroidvania”-style games that got me seriously hooked on the franchise for life. That’s all gone now thanks to whatever rambling ten-year-old is now writing this story while on a sugar high.

There are two major issues with the story. One of them runs throughout the whole game. The other one is specific to the entire ending sequence, which wraps up the story in an asinine bow made of the wasted hopes and dreams of many a Castlevania fan.

So let’s start with that first issue.

The First Grand Dumbing: Show, Don’t Tell

It’s a basic rule in storytelling of any kind. Particularly in a visual medium, however, you should SEE major plot events. More importantly, if someone tells you over and over about something, you should probably see SOME kind of on-screen evidence.

Patrick Stewart provides an opening narration for every level as you stare at a open book. Although the game contains numerous cut scenes, you will not see any visuals to back up Stewart’s narration. Moreover, you have the option of SKIPPING his narration by pressing “Start” once the level has loaded. So really, you should be putting your major plot points solely in Stewart’s ramblings, with nothing on-screen to back them up.

Stewart spends most of the game going on and on about the rage that’s filling our hero, Gabriel Belmont. He tells us how Gabriel barely eats, he barely sleeps, he is consumed with anger. Gabriel’s wife has been killed, and now all he cares about is his quest for revenge! He has no pity for anyone, he cares nothing for the world around him! So says Stewart.

Meanwhile, in the ACTUAL GAME SCENES, we see Gabriel rescuing some local villagers from vampires and making friends with them, bonding with a young mute girl, and not acting remotely tired. Stewart raves and screams about how Gabriel doesn’t care about the world, and can’t feel any emotion towards those around him! And yet, um, he seems COMPLETELY FINE, and actually pretty nice. He doesn’t even start to act angry, in either words or expressions, until Chapter 11… of a 12-Chapter Game.

And that’s laying aside the fact that, no matter how many times Stewart tells that Gabriel values his quest for vengeance above all else, the bottom line is that he’s not even fucking ON a quest for vengeance. Gabriel doesn’t KNOW who killed his wife. So obviously he’s not out for REVENGE. Who would he be exacting his revenge upon? Everything he sees? Is that why I have to destroy statues to find items - because Gabriel hates the CRAP out of those statues, because maybe they killed his wife?

No. That’s beyond stupid. There’s no vengeance quest here. Gabriel only ever shows interest in bringing his wife back to life, and he believes his quest will lead him to something that can make that possible. Stewart (and by extension, his character of Zobek) is just talking out of his ass for the duration of the adventure. Unfortunately, the final cut scenes of the game - even before the ridiculous “epilogue” - strongly agree with him, and basically tell us that everything Stewart said about Gabriel was 100% correct. This, despite the total dearth of on-screen evidence to back up his dumb, dumb words.

"You have changed, old friend. You know only HATE now. You feel no pity, no remorse. You kill without MERCY!"

"I have? I mean… I do? ‘Cause I feel fine. Hey, you wanna get some burgers after this, or what?"

Oh, but it gets better.

Late in the game, Gabriel encounters a witch from many tales of myth - the evil Baba Yaga. She is powerful, we are told, and has lived for centuries - according to Stewart’s narration. In fact, we’re told in the game’s cut scenes that she’s killed and EATEN many knights who have come her way before Gabriel. She sends Gabriel on a quest to retrieve a blue rose for her, because it’s the prime ingredient in a potion that can make her look young and beautiful.

As soon as he gets the rose to her, he’s whisked away to another location. Do we see her make the potion or turn young? No. Do we fight her? No. But, most hilarious of all, we are told by Stewart/Zobek’s narration “I have killed that bitch; she will trouble us no more.”

WHAT.

"And then… she died somehow.”


The Second Grand Dumbing: That @#*%ing Ending

SPOILER ALERT! I’m going to blow the whole ending now, but don’t worry: It’s stupider than the ending to the Bionic Commando reboot where it turns out your wife is actually your ARM, so it doesn’t really matter.

So throughout the whole game, Gabriel Belmont - he’s a Belmont, like most of the heroes of the classic games, please remember this - has been trying to get the “God Mask.” It’s a mask that supposedly grants you powers rivaling those of God himself, enabling you to ascend to heaven, bring the dead back to life, etc.

In the ending, it’s revealed that Zobek was only using Gabriel to get the God mask for HIMSELF, so he could have such epic power. And then SATAN shows up out of nowhere, revealing that HE was only using ZOBEK to get the God mask for HIMself, so that HE could ascend to heaven and have powers rivaling God’s. (And then he kills Zobek and you fight Satan and stuff.)

And THEN… they’re all wrong. The God Mask can’t do any of that shit; it can only allow you to view the world “through god’s eyes.” So you can see the dead around you and even touch them, and see the spirits of things, but… that’s it. No epic power. You can’t even raise the dead.

So Gabriel, Zobek AND Satan all wasted their time. Which is hilariously goofy in and of itself, implying that no one - not even Satan - was as smart as the ghost of Gabriel’s dead wife. Yet in the epilogue sequence, things get much worse.

MUCH, MUCH worse.

Even if you only know about Castlevania from watching Captain N cartoons in your youth, you know that these games are about Belmonts fighting Dracula.

In a final twist ending, we cut from our current adventure in 1047 to… the modern day, complete with cars and skyscrapers and electric signs and whatnot… um… where we reveal that Gabriel Belmont is now Dracula.

This is a concept that’s roughly on par with that upcoming Channing Tatum movie where Peter Pan and Captain Hook are brothers living in the same orphanage. Or it’s about the same as when Uwe Boll made that House of the Dead movie where, in the last minute, you learn that our protagonist turns out to be the doctor who created the world-destroying zombie horde in the games. Do you guys really want to be like Uwe Boll?

In other words, it’s easy to imagine an idiotic intern pitching this idea as something that he thinks is “totally awesome,” failing to understand that it completely ruins the characters and the universe. It’s one thing to reboot a property - it’s another to turn it unrecognizable in an attempt to be “cool.”


Oh, and for a further twist, Zobek is alive in the future - after being killed and pulled into hell by SATAN - and is asking Dracula Belmont to help him fight a new invasion by… Satan… so wait, if Satan didn’t bring him back to life, how could he… OW MY HEAD WHY.

Even setting aside how stupid this “twist” is for a second, there’s a bigger issue here: The “epilogue” has jack-all to do with the game before it, and actually undoes an otherwise intriguingly ambiguous conclusion.

See, in the end, Gabe is despondent over the fact that he can’t bring back his wife and feels like his order of knights has betrayed him and he’s lost everything he cared about … but his wife believes he will do good for the world, he will atone for his mistakes, and that God forgives him for being a violent warrior, and he can be with her again if he only finds redemption, blah blah blah. So you’re left unsure of Gabriel’s future, yet hopeful in the knowledge that he will try to redeem himself so that he can one day go to heaven and be with Marie. After all, being with Marie again has been his only driving force throughout the whole game, so obviously he wouldn’t throw that away and go against his entire characterization…

Then we cut to the future and he’s become Dracula. So there goes all that ambiguity and hope… and there goes any logical characterization.

"I know I spent all this time trying to reunite with you, my love, but I’ve been thinking… it’d be pretty rad if I was, like, the Prince of Darkness."


Hell, the downloadadable levels add insult to injury by tossing in the idea that he takes him like, a couple weeks after the ending of the game to just up and become a vampire of his own volition. Way to fail at life, Gabriel. And un-life, too, even.

As I said, the game is still fun to play and full of cool designs in the levels and concepts. It’s also flawed in some very obvious ways, and the combat takes too long even on the lowest difficulty. But the biggest shame is that the developers at MercurySteam suck so hard at storytelling that I can’t even make an appropriate analogy to fully express their crappiness.

At least the newly announced sequel appears to continue with the logic of “rambling ten-year-old writing style.” I can totally imagine some kid being like “So this Belmont is the firstest Belmont ever, and he fights and fights to save his wife, but then he doesn’t get to save her so instead of being with her he gets SUPER mad and BECOMES THE DRACULA, so now a Belmont is a Dracula, WHOA, and then he’s all evil and stuff and you control Dracula in the next game, because being evil is totally sweet, but the rest of the people want to kill you, so naturally since vampires are all vulnerable to like, wood, they build, like,an ENORMOUS WOODEN ROBOTto attack Dracula Belmont, SO AWESOME!”

I’m not joking. The teaser trailer for the sequel really does contain Dracula Belmont being assaulted by a skyscraper-sized wooden robot-thing.

I’m just going to try not to beat my head against a wall now.

Random E3 Predictions

We’re less than a week away, so why not?

- The Wii U will obviously be the focus of Nintendo’s conference (no-brainer), and it will keep its name. Sorry, haters. Launch titles will include “New Super Mario Bros. Mii” and “Pikmin 3.” They’ll also unveil the first images of a unique Zelda game for the 3DS, and reveal that the 3DS Fire Emblem game WILL be localized in North America.

- Microsoft’s press conference will have an obvious Halo 4 focus and will likely unveil an all-new alien race that Master Chief will be battling in the game (forget the ever-present Covenant), but they’ll still throw some weight behind Kinect.

- Sony’s press conference will spend half of its time pimping the Vita, including a full unveil of Killzone for Vita. They’ll also show off Nathan Drake in Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale. Also, maybe something new in the inFamous universe? I’m going to say “yes.” Also? Vita price drop of $50 for both models. Of course.

- Konami still won’t reveal that new Contra game they teased a year ago, but WILL finally show off Silent Hill: Book of Memories for the Vita.

- Capcom will push Lost Planet’s return heavily while simultaneously teasing Dead Rising 3, and they’ll have zero MegaMan content even though it’s still his 25th anniversary…

- Namco will bump the release of Ni No Kuni up to the end of 2012. They originally pushed it into 2013 to avoid many of the major releases at the end of this year, and most of those games are now early 2013 games… there’s no reason to hold Ni No Kuni any longer.

- UbiSoft will announce that Rayman Legends will be released onto PS3, Wii U, 360 and 3DS, but not Vita or the original Wii.

- Majesco will give Double Dragon: Neon a release MONTH at the very least, and maybe even a specific date.

I’ll enjoy seeing if I’m correct next week.

Resistance 2 (PS3)

Much like with Uncharted 1, the first Resistance game left me with a mostly positive impression of a title that still had some notable flaws. You might remember me saying as such in my earlier review.

And much like with Uncharted 2, by the time I’d finished Resistance 2, I was in love with this franchise. That’s not to say that Resistance 2 is perfect, mind you. It makes some unfortunate moves away from some of the things I really liked about the original. But it also fixes my primary gripes along the way.

All the same amazing weapons are back, and there are even new ones that every bit as good or better. The awesome Bullseye has been a bit gimped here - the shots hover in the air in front of the target for a few seconds before making impact, giving ample warning to the recipient that they should get out of the way. But that’s a minor complaint, obviously.

The world is explored even more thoroughly now. You get a lot more background on the Chimera threat, and you see many new types of the aliens. Even better is that Nathan Hale becomes a full-fledged character here. He has plenty of dialogue now, and it’s obvious that the man is a hero in his actions. He’ll do anything to protect America, its people and his comrades.

The story places Nathan Hale in the company of a team of Americans who have a genetic resistance to Chimeran infection. They’re turning into monsters, but very slowly, and scientists have discovered a way to further slow - maybe even prevent - the eventual change. Even so, the risk of change means that these mean are cut off from their beloved friends and family, making them tragic figures. It doesn’t help that many never wanted to be military fighters in the first place. This team of “Sentinels” stands as the best hope against the Chimera that now are invading America.

Heroes to some, monsters to others.

As the invasion progresses, more information comes out about the nature of these alien foes. Perhaps they aren’t as “alien” as we once thought… or perhaps they’re even moreso. It’s a pretty sweet narrative for sci-fi junkies on the hunt for unique mythology.

Yeah, so you have a whole squad of people now, and they all have distinctive personalities. Instead of being a lone wolf who ambles from conflict to conflict, you get to fight alongside teammates who have your back, and you grow to care about them as you find yourself paired up with each of them at different times.

The colors are far more vibrant in this game than in the first one, bringing the world to life as never before. The levels don’t stretch on for as long as before, the structure is much more varied and cinematic. However, this comes at the expense of some of the more open-ended areas in the first game. You won’t really find yourself in situations you can approach in multiple ways nearly as much anymore. It’s pretty linear; it’s just much more winding and scenic than the hallways that made up much of Resistance: Fall of Man.

Resistance: Dawn of COLOR!

Although the first level is a pretty by-the-numbers tutorial stage (to the point where it feels depressingly similar to the hand-holding found in Call of Duty), the game quickly takes off and embraces its unique setting, characters, weapons and gameplay. However, it also embraces a few gameplay concepts best left to the other guys. The “only two weapons at a time” rule from Halo has been adopted, as has the ever-popular “regenerating health.” I don’t care for either of these additions to the series, given that they lose some of the uniqueness of the franchise. I understand that Resistance 3 fixes these matters, however, so there’s not much reason to stress over it.

Prepare for ridiculously massive, epic battles against gargantuan bosses. Prepare for a heroic tale that’s also, as I once mentioned, something of a tragedy about characters fighting against impossible odds. Prepare for a narrative that lets you really get a feel for this alternate vision of the 1950s.


Did I mention these bosses are crazy huge?

Resistance 2 is a gorgeous game both visually and aurally. This is one of hell of an FPS, and one of the best ones that I’ve played this generation. The faults such as the “me-too” regeneration health and the linear level structure don’t outweigh the pros of the experience.