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.


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

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.


Opening a PS Vita (the Non-Review)

I thought I was really clever. Since Soul Sacrifice came out I’ve been having my eye on a Vita.  I asked a few people about a price drop, and the consensus was that since they didn’t declare it at E3, it probably wouldn’t happen until the PS4 releases. So when I saw a sale last weekend at Target I scheduled a grocery run to get me close enough to pick one up. It turns if I had been slightly patient I could have picked the thing up with Telltale’s Walking Dead and a memory card this week for the same price. Therefore, less than a week after the purchase, this review is partially obsolete.
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When the clerk hands me the box the first thing I notice is how small and light it is. The cardboard is thin and it seems more like a box for a knock-off retro console, than a legitimate system.
Outside
Opening it up there’s not much inside. But it’s compartmentalized pretty well, almost like the original wii’s bento box appeal. Inside I’m surprised to find a pack of AR cards, not that I ever used them on the 3ds, but its a nice touch.
Inside
I loved my PSP.  The thing was beautiful and slick, and in my opinion the most underrated system since the Saturn.  But the initial setup was a horror (and it happened every-time the battery completely drained). So I’m shocked when I turn on the Vita and I’m through the setup, including wifi and my PSN account, in 2 minutes. The screen is also beautiful and movement fluid. It’s only now that the little thing starts to impress. Logging into the store and finding all the Playstation Plus titles for download is easy, significantly better than the process on the PS3, which is plagued with long load times and convoluted menus. However, when I go to download it freezes on the “Preparing to download” screen. A quick Internet search reveals this happens ALOT. Literally hundreds of people are complaining about it. I have to power it down twice before it finally downloads everything on the third try.
As for holding it in my hand, it doesn’t fit quite as naturally as the PSP, which had the analog stick perfectly placed on the left and the four Playstation buttons on the right. On the Vita the dual sticks seem to sit low, and the back touch pad remains a novelty. But all in all, its a hell of a lot more comfortable than the brick that is the 3DS.
Really, my biggest complaint, is the complaint that has always existed with Sony. The characters and the voice that guide you along lack the personality of a Nintendo system. A door opens, and a small orange stick figure walks through. Is he supposed to be my guide? Why would I bother with this? Then I notice that the tutorial considers itself enough of a game to have a trophy set.  Ok, maybe I’ll give it a try.
Conclusion- All the strengths and weaknesses of the Vita are evident the moment you open the box. The system is beautiful, well designed, but horribly neglected. Flimsy packaging, an unsolved critical but easily identifiable download problem, and just a general lack of games, shows how little attention has been paid to the thing. I think it has the potential to be a tremendously enjoyable system, like the PSP, but will inevitably be underrated and underutilized.

Spec Ops: The Line Review

Title:  Spec Ops:  The Line
Maker: Yager
Publisher: 2K Games
System: PS3
Cost: $50

White Phosphorus – This stuff is grizzly

I certainly wouldn’t have picked up Spec Ops if I wasn’t aware of it’s concept.  But it was billed as Heart of Darkness set in Dubai.  Ok, I can get into that.  And it’s reference to the source material aren’t subtle, but they’re appropriate.  You’re on the hunt for a man named Konrad, pronounced the same as Joseph Conrad.  And as you push deeper into Dubai, things unravel further and further.

The setting is cool.  But ironically, you rarely feel that you’re marching through Dubai except when you’re out in the open sands.  The buildings, what you assume would make for the most interesting environments, are usually the most forgettable.  The indoor settings are extravagant but seem to also conjure up colors from the 60s-70s, just in case you were to miss the Heart of Darkness references, they can hit you with Apocalypse Now.  And maybe that’s the biggest complaint you can make against the game:  that with the occasional fourth-wall breaking, and the Vietnam War style radio stations, all in an effort to show callousness, they sometimes push so hard that it pulls you out of the game.

But this is a small complaint to make. Many things about it are spot-on.  The voice acting is solid, from the Dennis Hopper radio DJ (an Apocalypse Now reference that hits the mark), the main characters, and especially Konrad.  Konrad’s look and sound is about as perfect as you can hope for.  The charters repeat phrases in fire fights, but it doesn’t detract as they usually reaffirm the players mental state.

As a game it plays acceptably.  A little too much stop-and-pop, and lacking some polish (trying to run from a grenade is way more difficult than it should be), but as you continue to play things meld together and on a second play through you’ll find yourself covering huge parts of the game rapidly.

And that’s really the thing about it.  The initial experience is a solid three stars.  But it demands a another play-through.  The second time is better than the first.  The pace of the story makes it difficult to appreciate everything the first time.  On the second you find things more enjoyable, it moves briskly, and all the implications bear themselves out.  Foreboding hangs over everything, and you realize it from the very beginning.  One scene in particular is amazing, and having missed it the first time, that alone validated the return.  The second play-through is enough to make the game worth another star.

Review:  4 stars

Memory:  Difficult because most memories are spoilers.  A safe one- Viciously beating someone to death with a rifle butt when they startle you.


Jikandia Review

Jikandia: The Timeless Land

Platform (Format): PSP (UMD)

It looks pretty cute, right?  The outside is charming enough I bought the game for $10 before a flight to Europe.  As an iOS game I would still consider it quite unpolished.  The characters and story are generic, but have the potential to bring the whole thing together into something worthwhile, but sadly they are the most unbearable part.  The fact that the translation was run through something like babelfish acts as a constant reminder while playing how much of your time you’re wasting (much like an iOS game).

The gameplay is enough of a grind that you develop a routine after the first few levels (go in for a few minutes, die, reequip and gain bonuses from meeting goals, go back in for longer and beat the boss).  Even on an Atlantic plane ride I couldn’t bring myself to play it longer than a couple hours.  Although I can’t help but feel it might have been pretty funny in it’s original Japanese.

Rating: 1 star