No Man’s Sky Review

A year and a half ago, I was grabbing some takeout, and while they were wrapping up the thai, I circled though the neighboring Gamestop. On the shelf in beautiful pastel colors sat No Man’s Sky. It had been described by a CEO friend as “very relaxing”, and the image of Stan slouching into the couch, chasing the dragon, in the South Park Guitar Hero Episode episode came to mind. That’s about perfect, I thought.

Beautiful Planet

I played it for a little while, marveled at the beauty of interstellar travel and exploration, and then put it away. Fast-forward a year to a quiet Friday night when I decided to pick it back up, and to my surprise discovered an almost entirely new game. It had added large gameplay changes like bases, vehicles, star freighters, missions, and difficulty settings. And then there were small enjoyable changes, that while unnecessary, added to the experience: like charming little quotes when you died (which now, thanks to the new difficulty settings, actually happened).

Albert Einstein Quote

And yet the best parts of the game remained. And it was as it had been described to me- “very relaxing”.

I’ve never seen a game continually iterate and provide so much free post release content. Another massive update has released this past month, which shows a continued desire to bring more structure to the experience. And while I appreciate the additional story content, there was something beautiful about how little the game held your hand before. The mixed reviews I had read when it released appeared baffled by the pacing and lack of purpose. The story itself is an exercise in restraint, in which you can take as much or as little of it as you want. What is revealed is typically cryptic and haunting.

It’s in this interstellar loneliness, punctuated by moments of deep meaning, that the game becomes something incomparable. For it’s original aspirations, for what it is, for what it continually tries to be, it’s a phenomenal game. And one that was dismissed too quickly.

Review: 5 stars (out of 5)

Memory: The desperation the first time you get stuck/lost on a planet.


Title:  Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Maker:   Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony
Platform: PS4

The Lovable Kind of Sociopathy
Let’s start with the facts- Nick Drake and everyone he associates with is a sociopath. If you don’t dwell on that too much, there is much to be enjoyed in Uncharted 4.
To start, it’s easily one of the most beautiful games ever created. Ever locale is special, and each one builds upon the previous, until you’re actively excited to see what the game will throw at you next.
Africa

Africa

Island Paradise

Island Paradise

Scotland

Scotland

There is also considerable time and energy put into the character development. Not just through dialogue, or story arches, but actual investment by the player into these characters. The game asks you to go through the mundane necessities of day-to-day life that are required in building a close relationship with someone (before then asking you to go rampaging across the world with them). It’s in these moments that you develop the sincere feelings that carry you through the entirety of the game. As further testament to the writing, each section is stronger than the last, and each moment with the characters builds upon what has come previously
But in the end, it’s impossible to fully invest in the characters, as a result of the moral contradictions presented through the gameplay.  You will mow down literally dozens of people on your adventure, only to show sensitivity towards deplorable antagonists. The game would be better served to have protagonists that avoid killing almost entirely, or are more authentic in their willingness to commit violence.
With all of that in mind, it was built from the ground up around the story and character development. While not as haunting as The Last of Us, you will find it lingering, for different reasons, days after the music has stopped playing, and all you’re left is the opening screen of a skeleton in a gibbet.

 

Review: 4 Stars (out of 5)

Memory: The writing throughout.


Slayin’ Review

Title:  Slayin’
Platform: iOS (reviewed), Android

How many slimes can you kill?

Cleaning out a closet I found an old Game Informer list that I had torn out of the magazine. It gave the top mobile games of 2013. On the list in the one-two spot is Year Walk (pretty cool) and Ridiculous Fishing (legitatemly awesome). After that it’s a bunch of Star Wars, infinite runners, and adventure games that could have been something if they weren’t redundant. Towards the bottom of this rudandant list was a game that pulled me in with a straight forward name: “Slayin”.

And the name is accurate. It’s simple, short, and a little sweet. It lasts a few sittings, and by the time you’ve beaten it, you feel you’ve seen everything it can offer. But to its credit, it asks very little in return. Its appeal is limited, but it wears it on its sleeve, and how can you blame a game like that?

It's got the makings of a good sequel

It’s got the makings of a good sequel

It’s not a terrible game, it’s just not much of one.

Review: 2 Stars (out of 5)

Memory: The music would randomly stop, but I could never figure out the trigger.


Bloodborne Review (a review for Souls fans)

Title:  Bloodborne
Maker:   From Software
Publisher: Sony
Platform: PS4

Making it to Morning

What should be said about Bloodborne, that hasn’t already been said? Well a lot actually. There are so many steps forward, and so many steps backwards, that’s it’s nearly impossible to tells who’s coming or going.

Let’s start with “who’s coming”: The story and the setting is so significantly improved it’s staggering. After three outings, the Souls games had started to rest on their laurels.  Not Bloodborne. I don’t know if they had a whole team of writers that ate, bathed and slept together for months, or if they had one half-insane screenwriter channeling the ghost of HP Lovecraft, but whatever they did, it’s brilliant. How you can keep all that in your brain without losing it baffles me. The Gothic motif, also allows it to give life to images that normally have no place in games. It’s well orchestra genetic disgust when you meet gigantic bugs with piercing shrieks, or tentacle face brain suckers. It’s also more cinematic. The story still doesn’t hold your hand, but does use beautiful cutscenes, instead of a complete reliance on dialogue. An improvement that I’ve been waiting for since the first Demon’s Sous.

Unofficial Cthulhu bastard child

Illegitimate Cthulhu bastard child

Add in a solid combat engine and this is a 5 star game, except for one massive glaring “going”. They recycle the same enemies, like an 80’s button masher, simply increasing their stats and experience. For a game that rests on combat, this is a huge issue, because the same enemies you’re fighting at the beginning, you’re fighting at the end. What this effectively does is skew the difficulty curve to the beginning, when you’re still learning how to stun-lock enemies, and first memorizing their patterns. By the end, you’ve seen them enough that no amount of extra health and damage is going to take you down. It’s understandable why this was done, the designs, and the enemies; they’re all details and cost a ton to create. But it’s a huge step back from the Souls games in this regard.

Frightening at first, it's muscle memory by the end.

Giant Boar – Frightening at first, muscle memory by the end.

Other than these two main points, it’s minor incremental plusses and minuses. Pros: Beautiful graphics, well thought out warp system, cool-dual weapon system, great endings. Negatives: Repetitive boss battles, terrible healing system (forces grinding), and obfuscating environments.

It’s clear From Software set out to make a game that’s different than it’s predecessors, and stands on it’s own merits. In that, they have objectively succeeded.

Review: 4 Stars (out of 5)

Memory: Everything about Rom, The Vacuous Spider (especially the name)


The Wolf Among Us Review

Title:  The Wolf Among Us
Maker:   Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platform: PS Vita
Cost: $30

Much More than the Sum of Its Parts

Pop culture references the Walking Dead so incessantly, that I could never play the Telltale versions. They looked fine enough, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, even though I have the series sitting in Steam from a Humble Bundle. The Wolf Among Us is so enjoyable that it makes me want to go back and give those early games a try.

The story and universe carry the most weight.  The game does a tremendous job of weaving actual fairy tales into scenarios. For example, in a rage, you’re given the option to rip off the arm of a character named “Gren”. Once you realize it’s Grendel, the homage becomes clear.  When TWAU is at its best, it forces your hand in split second decisions. The options provided are often true to the situation, yet uncomfortable. As many games as I’ve played I would assume I’m desensitized to violence, but it turns out I can’t tear someone’s head off when given the choice.
Grendel
The biggest problem is that it’s glitchy as hell. It’s not clear if this is all versions, or just the PS Vita one. As testament to this, it’s the first game that has actually crashed my Vita and forced a hard reset (the error screen that appears is terrifyingly similar to the blue screen of death). Even when it’s running normally there are long loading times, stuttering between scenes, and a few points that require closing and reopening the application.
Choices
However, it’s well worth the bugs and the minor character inconsistencies, to have an experience in Fabletown. No single episode (of the 5) is nearly as powerful as the story taken as a whole.  They’re made to be played together.  And it’s this consistency and patience that elevates the package to something special.

Review: 5 stars (out of 5)

Memory:  The End

Dragon’s Crown Review

Title:  Dragon’s Crown
Maker:   Vanillaware
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: PS Vita

Enjoyable Bursts of  Style Over Substance

There’s was a time half a decade ago when Vanillaware was killing it. It had developed Odin Sphere, which was gorgeous, had great reviews, and sold enough to warrant a “Greatest Hits” rerelease.  But the reality was that while Odin Sphere was gorgeous, there wasn’t much too it. It plays it’s hand early, which makes it a chore to see it through to the end.

Fast forward a few games, 6 years, and we have Dragon’s Crown. It’s graphics also received a tremendous amount of publicity, but more in the NSFW category. The graphical style itself hasn’t changed that much since Odin Sphere, only now every man and woman is hyper sexualized. It’s an odd choice that’s more awkward than sexual (see below for a few of the less cringe worthy examples):
gal Guy
 
So what kind of game is Dragon’s Crown? Here’s the run down:
-Is the story any good? What story?
-Is the battle system improved on Odin Sphere? Memory is fuzzy from that part of my life, but I would say negligible.
-Is the game world more engrossing? Less than their other titles.
-So what does it get right? Three things: On screen mayhem. A quest system that encourages quick play. And gameplay which grows in enjoyment as you learn the system and your character becomes a beast.

In the end, it’s a beautiful game of limited scope.  A single town, few NPC characters, limited differences between classes, and a shortage of levels, all betray that it’s a minor game. But it’s a minor game where you’re going to have more fun the final time you play it than the first.

Review: 3 stars (out of 5)

Gargoyle’s Quest Review

Title:  Gargoyle’s Quest
Maker:   Capcom
Publisher: Armor Games
Platform: Gameboy
Cost: $3.99 (on Nintendo eShop)

AKA, the “Nonexistent Difficulty Curve” 

I’ve wanted to play Gargoyle’s Quest ever since I found the Nintendo power card with Firebrand (Red Arremer if you’re a stickler) on the front of it. Described to me as mix between an RPG and an Adventure game, it seemed to straddle that “Zelda 2″ spectrum of early Ninentdo games. And while you do walk around in an overview, and there’s a few command prompts, it’s really an action game through and through.

Not sure why he's Green in this one...

Not sure why he’s Green in this one…

I loved my first gameboy. It was my first videogame system, and I literally played it until it died. But even as a child I knew the controls weren’t the most responsive thing in the world.  There’s a button-input delay, but I didn’t care.  And usually it worked out alright, because most games worked around it. When making Gargoyle’s Quest, they either didn’t realize this or didn’t care.  It requires pin point precision in parts that can be absolutely infuriating.  This means that in classic Ghost & Goblins tradition, the first tower is ridiculously hard.  It wouldn’t surprise me if three quarters of the players dropped right there.
This fucking level

This fucking level

However, despite this early difficulty spike, the game becomes significantly more enjoyable as Red’s abilities start to increase. For example, the hover ability at the beginning is more a hindrance than a help.  However, later on you can float in place and pick off enemies one by one.  Play towards the end gives that same feeling as a powered up Mega Man X with a bunch of E-Tanks in reserve.  In fact, most of the abilities in the game: floating, clinging to walls, power-ups, are prescient of what would become staples in later Capcom classics.

So in the end, alls well that ends well.

Review: 3 stars (out of 5)

Memory:  It’s the only game I can remember that doesn’t provide development credits at the end


Infinity Blade 2 Review

Title:  Infinity Blade 2

Maker:   Chair Entertainment and Epic Games
Platform: iOS
Cost: Free from iOS Anniversary (Normally $6.99)

Faded in the Rinse and Repeat

I had fun playing the first Infinity Blade.  There were a lot of flaws but it wore them on its sleeve.  Repetition was necessary because you’re immortal… ah, clever.  And the controls for battles were simple yet effective, at a time when it seemed like only endless runners had made an effective use of the touch-screen.  Even the story, which was still needlessly complex, worked out ok because it was so understated.  A few lines here or there, odd reveals abound, and you’re left with something that your mind could fill in.

Infinity Blade 2 is none of those things.  Err I take that back, it’s all of those things, which is why it’s disappointing.  It’s the same graphics, the same mechanics, just more of it.  The first games graphics were impressive because of when it was released and the unique art design.  The second is a complete recycle of these.  The dialogue that was enjoyable in small doses becomes schlock in long monologues.  It’s only after people keep talking that you realize how little you care about any of the characters.  If they had kept their mouths shut maybe they could have fooled me.  What is perhaps the most unforgivable is that low-hanging fruit like rebalancing the magic system, and improving the grinding level system, remain bizarrely untouched.

One of the few new environments.  But it comes and goes quickly.

A few new environments. A brief detour as most takes place in the same enlarged castle.

The battles are still fun, if growing tired (again recycled), and the secrets that reveal themselves on multiple play-throughs remains an incredibly fresh mechanic that is executed on a high level.   Murdering giant secret bosses was literally the only thing that kept me coming back after the short story runs to completion.  In the end, it’s a incredibly safe game that’s unable to realize why the first was such a success.

Review: 2 stars (out of 5)

Memory:  Accidentally stumbling on a secret boss early and being decimated in seconds.


Review – Kingdom Rush Frontiers

Title:  Kingdom Rush Frontiers
Maker:   Ironhide Game Studio
Publisher: Armor Games
Platform: iOS
Cost: $1

Probably what freemium should be

At 99 cents, Frontiers technically isn’t a freemium game, but that extra dollar provides so much value over the average shovelware garbage that’s capsizing the app store, that it’s hard to not advocate for it.  That’s not to say the game is perfect, because it’s far from even being great.  What that dollar gives you is a reasonable difficulty curve, normal cool-down periods, and completely optional in-app purchases.  This provides a game that helps kill time as you calmly wait in a doctors office before jamming the keys into the ignition to race back to work afterwards.

It's not beautiful, but there's a few surprises

It’s not beautiful, but it has a few surprises

Oh right, and it’s a tower defense.  No surprises, it’s simply one that’s better than most, but probably not better than Pixeljunk’s.

Review: 3 stars (out of 5)

Memory:  Turn the sound off


The Banner Saga Review

Title:  The Banner Saga
Maker:   Stoic
System: Mac
Cost: $25

A display piece

When you see screenshots of the Banner Saga it looks beautiful.  In motion, it doesn’t quite hold true.  This encapsulates most of the game- a series of ideas, all of which could be magnificent, but in reality never come together.  This feeling stretches throughout.  The caravan you drag along serves as nothing else but a glorified high score.  Combat is a cake walk until a massive difficulty spike at the end (hope you didn’t spread your levels).  “War” events don’t seem to serve a purpose, and new character development is heavy at the beginning and nearly non-existent by the end.

The-Banner-Saga

The game is the first of a trilogy, and it’s easy to use this as an excuse for lack of execution.  But anytime you pay $25 on Steam, you expect it to be self-contained.  As it stands it’s less than half-realized.  You could also make a case for the game being too short, but why fault a game for removing the padding?  The pace is brisk, with little fluff, and to it’s credit it’s easy to sink yourself in.

The story remains the high note, and the dialogue is decent but forgettable.  Much has been said about the moral ambiguity the game provides, and while it’s revolutionary next to the black and white morality of Shin Megami Tensei or Mass Effect, most of the time it feels arbituary.  You make a decision and just wait to year if the wheel stops in your favor.

In the end, it’s clear that what was written on white boards in development sessions became to much in execution, and needed to be paired back considerably.  A reduction isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is when compromised versions of the original ideas are left in the game.

Review: 2 Stars (out of 5)

Memory:  The setting.  I want more games with Nordic influence.