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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Title: Dragon’s Crown
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):
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.
Title: Gargoyle’s Quest
Publisher: Armor Games
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.
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.
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
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.
Title: The Banner Saga
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 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.
When I began “4”, it was my intention to see the latest Shin Megami Tensei through to the end. And as I’ve come close to completing the game, again I find that my desire to see it through isn’t strong enough. There are definite reasons for this: the characters exist only to serve as mirrors, and the difficulty curve that was captivating at the beginning, starts to fall apart mid-way through (especially if you put in extra time outside the main quest). And yet, those problems exist in many great games. So where does it really stumble? And here again, it goes back to that simple A,B,C choice. Technically, there are more than three endings, but in reality they all fall in the same Law, Neutral, and Chaos silos that have framed many (but not all) of the SMT games before it. So as soon as you realize what path you’re on, the illusion disappears, and it becomes the same old grind.
So where does that leave the game? Well, it’s gorgeous (especially the dungeon perspective), it’s creative, it has a decent degree of freedom, and like most SMT games, it allows you the option to do as much or as little as you want. It’s not a bad game by any means, and considering I spent over 30+ hours in the world, there must be something captivating. However, this is not a side project, not a Persona game, but one of the “4” core games, and it deserves better. The previous game in the main series was Nocturne, which came out nearly a decade ago, and from a technical level “4” is a strong improvement, but from a story and emotional level, it’s a rather large retrograde.
Title: Thomas Was Alone
Maker: Mike Bithell
Cost: Humble Indie Bundle 8
Feeling it for quadrilaterals
I’ve been sitting on the Thomas Was Alone Review for awhile, because I’m not quite sure how I felt about the game. Full disclosure: I read several reviews for TWA, and I remember everyone praising the music, the narrator, and the fact it brings personality to little colored rectangles. And while that’s all true for awhile, pretty soon the narrator starts to grate ( I don’t know if you can call it self-importance, but he sure seems pretty proud of the job he’s doing), the music veers so hard into Explosions in the Sky that it’s shameless, and all you’re really left with from those first positive impressions, is the fact that you’re having feelings for these little rectangles. But really, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Graphically it’s more than serviceable, because while it’s simple, it’s exactly what it needs to be, clean. The platforming controls feel good, but the action itself isn’t all that satisfying. Often the action breaks down into trial and error puzzle solving, instead of actual platforming. However, this isn’t to take away what from what’s been created, as the platforming gracefully ties in the personalities and abilities of each specific block. This gives more life to small quadrilaterals, than the characters that exist in games with budgets a hundred times larger.
Conclusion: You have to pay tribute for what’s been created. Even if it’s not bringing gaming bliss, it’s laid out a pretty good road map for bringing any character to life.