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.
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).
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
Review: 4 Stars (out of 5)
Memory: The writing throughout.
Platform: iOS (reviewed), Android
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 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.
Maker: From Software
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.
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.
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)
Title: The Wolf Among Us
Maker: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platform: PS Vita
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.
Title: Dragon’s Crown
Platform: PS Vita
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.
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.
Title: Gargoyle’s Quest
Publisher: Armor Games
Cost: $3.99 (on Nintendo eShop)
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.
So in the end, alls well that ends well.
Memory: It’s the only game I can remember that doesn’t provide development credits at the end
Title: Infinity Blade 2
Maker: Chair Entertainment and Epic Games
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.
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.
Title: Kingdom Rush Frontiers
Maker: Ironhide Game Studio
Publisher: Armor Games
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.
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