Monthly Archives: May 2014

Transistor Review: Functional Programming

Transistor

When I finished playing Transistor, I immediately started it up again, much like it did with Supergiant’s other game, Bastion. It is a sleek, beautiful, and satisfying experience with touches that just ooze the studio’s signature (as much as a signature as you can have after one product) embellishments. But more than that, it’s the foundation that supports the fancy, artful veneer that makes it so good.

Transistor is, as previously mentioned, the second release from Supergiant Games. The developers have returned with a remix of what made their freshman product Bastion so distinctive: an isometric view, a unique and voiceless hero, moody and charming voiceover from Logan Cunningham, and a deliciously beautiful and colorful world built so richly and completely that it’s impossible to ignore.

This time, however, they tell the story of a woman named Red, a famous singer in the city of Cloudbank, and entirely digital realm governed by the same rules and regulations as would run a computer. She pulls a sword from a body only to discover it embodies the voice and, ostensibly, the consciousness of a person. It is the Transistor and soon becomes her partner and her voice as she prepares to engage with an ominous foe called the Camerata.

There’s a great deal that the game reveals as it progresses and turns this already intriguing premise into one of revenge and mystery, almost in a neo noir fashion. But the delivery of the story loses some of its steam as the flavor text you discover through terminals and logs of text quickly become far more interesting than the main event but infinitely slower to get through. The plot starts off quite nicely, throwing heavy impetus at you as problems and urgency pile up like bruises in a moshpit.

As you meet more characters, however, it starts to feel like the events of the story happen and you are meant to care more about it than they or even Red does. It’s a little disappointing since the world of Cloudbank is so well realized and interesting, begging to be explored and mined for tasty morsels of backstory, but in the end, Transistor‘s story sits closer to the bewildering side of the table than the memorable.

That is but one side of this multifaceted game, though. Its core sits as an action game, centered around combat and strategy, and it excels so incredibly far and above what you might expect from it. It looks an awful lot like going around and whacking things with a sword, but the Transistor actually enables Red to freeze time and plot her moves out in advance.

Transistor

While you can go about and stab Processes (the game’s nomenclature for enemies) to your heart’s content, you probably won’t find much success. At any given time in combat, you can stop time and move around the battlefield and queue up Functions (read: abilities) without being impeded by silly things like taking damage. You can undo or redo or simply sit and think as much as you want before you engage. Well, so long as your action bar can support your moves.

Doing so, however, will leave you vulnerable and unable to do anything for a few seconds. This forces you to consider the balance of inflicting damage and taking cover and always thinking a step ahead of where either you or your enemies are. And given the varied combinations of Processes you encounter, you will always have to predict and discover what that advantage really means. It’s an incredibly satisfying cycle of enemy engagement.

Not utilizing your brain and trying to just pound through foes will result in an unconventional and severe punishment as each time you go down, you lose one of your Functions. Like, completely. You can’t use it until you make it to the next save point, rendering perhaps your primary and most successful strategy totally worthless because you can’t even try it.

Transistor

This, though, is not a negative, as much as it might sound like it. You see, as you collect Functions (another benefit of the Transistor, turning citizens of Cloudbank into discrete abilities), you can either equip them directly onto a face button for usage or you can combine them with a previously equipped Function, resulting in a new attack.

For example, Jaunt is normally just a dash move, allowing you to dodge attacks. Spark just dumps out explosive nuggets. Throw Spark onto Jaunt and you then shoot out bombs in your dashing wake. Bounce fires off ricocheting projectiles while Help calls in a friend to aid you in battle. Put Help on Bounce and now you have a 50-percent chance that Cells, the floating collectibles that appear after you defeat and enemy and threaten to become new ones, won’t even spawn.

The combinations are deep and almost entirely useful, which means that the strange punitive measures of taking away what you’ve earned and learned to use and rely on is really an encouragement for you to explore new options and find new Functions to appreciate. It’s partly the sense of discovery but also the idea that strategies and advantages and disadvantages are always appearing and disappearing, gaining and losing relevancy, as you play the game that makes the combat so appealing.

Transistor

It also helps that the game is so gosh darn pretty. It’s flush with super saturated and bright colors and fantastical vistas that make you wish you could live vivid walls forever. Things glow and move and bounce and roll with such character and liveliness that it’s nearly disarming. And combine that with the unreal music—catchy and haunting and comforting all at once—that plays such an integral part of the story and you have a sensory treat in every possible regard.

Then there are the small touches that are easily glossed over but are seemingly quintessential to a Supergiant game. Much like in the way Bastion worked within a wholly recognizable and particular idiomatic speech, Transistor tells you to “come closer” to things worth inspecting. It sings with personality in its comments on online forums and becomes interactive in its polls. And if you’re worried about Logan Cunningham being a one-note performer, his turn as the Transistor’s voice is totally fresh but equally compelling as before.

For as tepid as the actual story was, Transistor found its way through its layered and incredible foundation of deep and fulfilling combat and its unbelievable aesthetic, bringing to life a mysterious but infinitely intriguing world of digital denizens and functions and processes. It has its problems, but Transistor more than makes up for them with its overflowing and overwhelming strengths.

Transistor

+ Gorgeous visuals and chilling, brain-addling music
+ Deep and complex combat and ability configurations
+ The world of Cloudbank is endlessly exciting to think about
– Story falls short of what it promises in the beginning and perpetuates through its worldbuilding

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Transistor
Release: May 20, 2014
Genre: Turn-based action
Developer: Supergiant Games
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC
Players: Singleplayer
MSRP: $19.99
Website: http://supergiantgames.com/index.php/transistor/

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , ,

X-Men: Days of Future Past Review: Going Backwards

X-Men: Days of Future Past

There are plenty of great performances in X-Men: Days of Future Past, but it doesn’t do much to conceal the fact that the film itself doesn’t have much to say. It instead focuses on telling a story and doing it well, and in that regard, it succeeds. But the story it tells with its fun cameos and elaborate setpieces fail to go beyond the realm of spectacle and occasional nonsense.

Days of Future Past is based on a storyline of the comics that has Kitty Pryde going back in time to prevent a dystopian future where mutants are hunted and fighting a losing battle for survival. But replace phasing herself into the past with Kitty throwing the malleable mind of Wolverine into the 1960s and you have this Bryan Singer adaptation-turned-prequel/sequel.

In this setup, it is perhaps the most comicbookish movie ever made. It is rife with inscrutable logic, which isn’t necessarily a knock against the illustrative medium but instead a note of the story’s transition from page to screen. It fails to explain the gap of how the major death at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand is casually patched or how Kitty’s phasing powers can transport a mind (and only the mind, not the body, which can then exact repercussions on the universal timeline) days or years into the past. Things just are, which is fine for any singular story, but a failure when it comes to franchises.

Through this, we then eventually land on the only tangible conclusion—even far before the actual end of the film—that whatever happens, nothing quite seems substantial enough for fans of this cinematic, ostensibly cohesive universe. Success in the time-traveling escapades will result in the negation of all we’ve held dear through out the seven X-Men films (or not so dear in some cases), while failure will result in an outcome far too depressing for mainstream audiences.

This yields a tepid response as events unfold. Initial momentum is held high as we finally see familiar faces with new ones, teaming up against seemingly insurmountable foes in a future we can’t ever fully understand. But once we’re back in the 60s, we trod along a predictable path, most because our goal is laid out at our feet before we even embark on the journey.

There are moments, though, where intrigue rises to the top and new questions are asked while old ones like the outcast metaphor is wholly discarded. A few aren’t terribly original (is the future set in stone, etc.), but seeing James McAvoy’s past Charles Xavier talk with Patrick Stewart’s future Professor X brings to light a more subtle side of the destiny through the question of personal discovery. Granted, the device through which they speak is ultra nonsense, but good god is it riveting.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Truth be told, much of what makes Days of Future Past worth watching is its performances. Through a mashup of the old franchise and the new, we are treated to a smorgasbord of phenomenal actors. I could sit and watch McAvoy and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto go at it all day, each one maintaining at least some semblance of the youthful vigor and sleek energy present in Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. And who doesn’t love the masterful and pitch perfect embodiments of Stewart and Ian McKellen as Xavier and Magneto?

Of course having Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique is a continued treat. Her menace is always surprising in retrospect, considering how bubbly she is in press junkets and as she charmingly stumbles across red carpets, but in the moment, it is unforgettable. And while Peter Dinklage does well with what he is given as the instigating antagonist Bolivar Trask, the character itself is decidedly less compelling.

The big surprise, however, is Evan Peters as Quicksilver, one of the original speedsters. Not only does Peters pull off the casual annoyance of a man moving incomprehensibly faster than anything in the world has ever moved rather well, but the situations the character is placed in are both funny, endearing, and visually exciting. His Pentagon excursion is perfectly loaded with humor and action.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

That balance is further extended to the general construction of the film. While the overarching narrative and implications are somewhat roughly hewn, Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg deftly hold together the vessel as it pounds through potentially indecipherable and dangerous lattice of temporal mines. The foundation of how things work may not be there, but the pathos and ethos are impressively clear.

The same can be mostly said of the action sequences, especially in the opening moments where several new characters and powers are introduced amidst the tease of the import of Bishop and Kitty’s retreat. Especially considering that one of them includes Portal-like teleporting, the intuitive layout of the visual action is well appreciated. The consistency falters a bit in the latter moments of future conflict where 3D, computer-generated bombast unfortunately sits higher than physical grip.

Days of Future Past ends up feeling a lot more inconsequential than it probably should. Its actors exude confidence and gravitas at a whim, but they are doing nothing more than telling a story of the sake of the story, not for the sake of saying anything particularly interesting. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially given how cool the story is that it’s telling, but it is disappointing considering where Singer had left off with the X-Men in 2003. X-Men: Days of Future Past is definitely worth watching, but perhaps not remembering.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

+ Fantastic performances all around
+ Quicksilver is pretty damn cool
+ Wrangles time traveling impetus (and potential confusion) expertly and adeptly
– Fails to mine the material for intrigue or substance
– Consequences yield uninteresting outcomes

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Wolfenstein: The New Order Review: Blast Away

Wolfenstein: The New Order

I was right. Wolfenstein: The New Order is an incredibly confusing combination of what the series used to be—a stilted Nazi shooter—and what it aspires to be. But I was so incredibly wrong as well; this confounding mishmash works. Not only that, but it works extremely well. With nuanced and intriguing narrative impetus, Wolfenstein: The New Order succeeds at being as fresh as it bows to its roots.

As a direct sequel to 2009’s Wolfenstein), the crux of this follow-up is that B.J. Blazkowicz attempts to take down nutso doctor / lead Nazi scientist Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse and fails, resulting in him failing into a comatose state for a solid 14 years. When he awakens in a Polish asylum, he discovers that through some strange twist, the Nazis have somehow managed to utilize advanced weaponry and handedly won World War II. And Blazkowicz simply won’t stand for that.

It is, however, a rather dire situation out there in this alternate history world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Reich is not a very friendly ruling institution. Blazkowicz wants to save the world, but there may not be much left to save. It feels like saving the frame around a burning picture simply because it was the only thing salvageable. It is bleak.

This is where the strength of the game truly lies. In terms of narrative, The New Order holds nothing back in making sure you feel the urgency and the consequences of what has happened, what is happening, and what you hope to achieve. Given the pedigree of Machine Games—most notably including a good chunk of former Starbreeze Studios devs, the people behind similarly narrative-driven and effective The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness—this isn’t entirely unexpected.

The story manages to focus broadly over the personal cost of war (and, more specifically, war against a victorious and hateful regime) while still being rather pointed and particular. For example, the asylum that Blazkowicz finds himself in post-war is run by a family. And you witness the professional morals give way to personal preservation through no easy dilemma only to devolve into a raw emotional reconciliation of the two. It’s intense and meaningful in ways you wouldn’t expect.

And then it also manages to raise questions it leaves for you to mull over, as if to fill all of the open nooks and crannies untouched from its more discrete narrative developments. The necessity of violence for purpose, conflicted Western racial implications, and the toll of pursuing what you believe to be right all fall under the lens of what The New Order leaves in your hands.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

The visual design of the world helps support all of this. While a familiar blend of retro-advanced technology that seems to creep into a lot of more temporally liberal games, it’s all rather consistent in how it presents which aspects both military and civilian life. Tone appears to be a specialty of the game, and so much of it nails the feel it (ostensibly) is going for.

On the flip side, a surprising amount of sound design seems to be rather bland, if not seemingly missing altogether. Things you would expected to have rather overt effects like recharging your laser cutter seem to be entirely missing rather than just too soft or incongruous with the proceedings. It feels strange when you miss that feedback.

But that aside, the narrative juxtaposition of the old school gunplay is strange at first. The story has modern sensibilities brought to harvest by a studio that excels at the act, but so much of what the game offers in the moment-to-moment shooting throws you back to a time when UI was, at best, an animated face at the bottom of the screen.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

There’s armor and health overcharge and an absolute arsenal at your disposal, your armaments accumulating over the course of the level rather than choosing which two to carry with you. The only recent consideration that seems obvious is the recharging health, and even then, it only goes up to the nearest multiple of 20. This forces a leveled focus on the player, actively seeking out armor as you simply dump dual assault rifles into the air. The pace takes an unfortunate dip as you manually collect goodies post-battle, but it’s not terrible by any stretch.

Strangely enough, outside of discrete mechanics, stealth makes an appearance. More than that, it is above the haphazardly inserted concession you would expect from most shooters. With a double whammy of a fantastic silenced pistol and automatic, cinematic melee kills thrown on top of fulfilling AI awareness (commander enemies have a literal meter that you must supersede with their death before they call in endless reinforcements).

Then, as you fight, you are also working towards unlocking perks. As you accomplish certain tasks within combat like five stealth kills or sliding kills, you gain abilities and upgrades along the way. These are critical and genuinely affect your effectiveness, so as you progress down the different talent trees (they’re not really trees, but you get it), you realize your full Blazkowicz potential. It certainly contrasts many times with the cerebral story, but most of the time, it works (save for the one-liners).

Wolfenstein: The New Order

But then, for a game so centered around the idea of big swings supported by smaller, more personal considerations, it fails to bring anything to the table for the struts to hoist up. Outside of a few exceptions, boss battles are rather disappointing. Whereas the more open arenas of general combat gin up a sensation of rapid, action-oriented puzzle solving (though the solution is generally just better movement and better shooting), these one-off encounters are more like banging your head against a wall.

The villains, however, are quite villainous. In the first act of the game, you will encounter what is perhaps the most unnerving antagonist you’ll find in many recent games. This permeates into later encounters with other bad guys, even drawing a sense of dread in seeing what the grunts are capable of. And once the fan starts chopping the shit, you realize that the dire moments are more than just farming reaction but legitimate occasions of concern for the people you’ve been surrounded with.

I wouldn’t call it surprising, but it is at least somewhat unexpected. After the many demos of the game, I was still unsure of where it would land in its finished form. But given the pedigree of its studio and its developers, Wolfenstein: The New Order‘s story and characterizations shine through, guided by more than capable hands. It carries the gameplay when it falters, but that is a rare occasion as it is. Wolfenstein: The New Order is more than worth your time.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

+ Fantastic, nuanced characterizations of former one-dimensional archetypes
+ Genuinely intimidating villains and unsettling atmosphere
+ Gunplay that supports both old school, bombastic shooting and slower, deliberate play
+ Convincing setting and alternate history setup
– Boss fights that end up making you want to take an angry nap

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Game Review: Wolfenstein: The New Order
Release: May 20, 2014
Genre: First-person shooter
Developer: MachineGames
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC
Players: Singleplayer
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://www.wolfenstein.com/

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Super Time Force Review: Back to the Fun

Super Time Force

Expectations can be a strange thing. When I first saw Super Time Force, it came across as a severely action-oriented side-scrolling shooter with a pixel art veneer, and it looked immensely fun for that exact reason. The trailer looked like absolute chaos with bullets and bodies going every which way. The truth is that Super Time Force is an incredibly cerebral game that maintains a lowbrow comedic slant, and it is totally rad.

Super Time Force follows the adventures of the titular Super Time Force as they follow their leader Colonel Repeatski through time, attempting to rectify the injustices and wrongdoings of history. Well, injustices and wrongdoings in the eyes of the Colonel, which is rather skewed. But through this setup, the game goes from a straightforward, retro-coated shooter to an intelligent action puzzle game.

True enough to the superficial format, you go from left to right and shoot things, often with a pressing time limit of 90 seconds or so. But lucky for you, with the ability to manipulate time, you can rewind and fast forward through your brief existence in the scenario. Each time you do, you can choose a different character, but all of your previous lives still push on, mimicking to a T your past movements.

This comes across as a stock concept in the realm of temporal puzzle games, but when applied to one with a shooting slant, it becomes infinitely more interesting. This copying allows you, for instance, to stack damage on enemies, sometimes becoming the only way to defeat a boss. You can save yourself from death, providing you the ability to pick up your past self as a health and special attack boost, forming a unique strategy to dying in amiable locations.

In this, it reveals the multitude of layers to the game as you peel away with each educational session. On the outset, you attempt to play as an otherwise unremarkable Contra-like, moving forward, dodging, and shooting (emphasis on dodging as you only get one hit). Then you understand how you can massively increase your damage output through multiplication. But finally it hits you: you can work ahead of yourself.

You can simply dump into an enemy that you can’t damage with the knowledge that you’ll force his weak points open on a later life. You can move just into the right place at the right time as a phantom blows up a water tower and a collectible falls into your hands. You can see how this game can be surprisingly taxing on your brain now, mentally tracking past and future progress as you move to both set up and capitalize on opportunities.

Super Time Force

And then the characters themselves add so much to the proceedings. First and foremost, they have names that are simply incredibly fun to say, either subtly or overtly referencing something. (Jean Rambois, Jef Leppard, and Dolphin Lundgren, for instance.) And then their weapons and special attacks are unique enough that they make considerable impact based on when and how they’re used in any given situation, making it worthwhile to explore and find them.

The aforementioned Jef Leppard, for example, has a grenade launcher with great splash damage, and Shieldy Blockerson, most obviously, has a shield. Put two of their lives back to back and you have a protected turret of explosive damage. Even a purely close range character has his uses (I won’t spoil who or what he is, but just know that he’s worth it.)

Action in the game also controls rather well. Tight is one way to put it, but coupled with the intellectual and informed designs of how the world and the combat is conveyed to you, it makes moving about and shooting in the game incredibly enjoyable. Your eyes are usually drawn right where they need to be, and then you can execute upon them with smoothness and proficiency.

Super Time Force

This, of course, has something to do with the actual visuals of the game. While steeped in the pixelated throwback styles of the current generation, the colors are fun and bright and the animations are bouncy and spritely to the point of making you want to do the same. It’s a really nice visual bow on top of a complex, time-altering present.

On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much to say about Super Time Force. It looks like what you think it is: a side-scrolling retro-themed shooter. But once you understand its deeper temporal mechanics, it begins to reveal itself as an intelligent, thinker’s game. If you’re tired of shooting things for the sake of shooting them, or even just tired of playing mediocre games, then give Super Time Force a try.

Super Time Force

+ Cerebral gameplay that involves backwards and forward thinking
+ Tight, fun, and informative visual design
+ Responsive and enabling controls
+ Characters are distinct and strategic (and have fun names)

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Super Time Force
Release: May 14, 2014
Genre: Side scrolling shooter
Developer: Capybara Games
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One
Players: Singleplayer
MSRP: $14.99
Website: http://supertimeforce.com/

Tagged , , , , ,

Trailer Roundup: Transistor, Wolfenstein, and More

Trailer Roundup: Transistor, Wolfenstein, and More

Whoa, where did all these trailers come from? Last week was surprisingly busy in the three-to-five-minute-video-game-videos arena, so I’ll be doing more pruning than usual, but there are some winners up in this piece. Also, totally unrelated, but I held a baby raccoon today. That is all. Here are the trailers!

Transistor

Given that Bastion is one of my all-time favorite games, it seems only fair to be excited about Transistor, the next project from Supergiant Games. Actually, make that imminent, nearly completed project as it is set to release next week on May 20, 2014. I love the art style, the music is thus far amazing, and I’m just excited. I don’t necessarily have expectations; just that I’m anxious to find out what it’s all about.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

I’m still vacillating super hard between looking forward to Wolfenstein: The New Order and thinking what I’ve played and seen so far is incredibly skippable. The demos have touched on so many interesting ideas of necessary violence, psychological sustainability, and other complex personal bits of introspection, but it’s wrapped in a 90s B movie blanket of one-liners and explosions. It also comes out this week on May 20, 2014, so I guess we’ll find out soon where it ends up falling.

Bombshell

So here’s the gist of this exceedingly inscrutable trailer: Interceptor Entertainment, the studio behind the surprisingly fun Rise of the Triad reboot last year, is teaming up with 3D Realms to create an isometric action RPG called Bombshell, which features Shelley “Bombshell” Harrison, a former bomb tech turned mercenary.

There are some serious flavors of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but it’s actually built on the ruins of that Duke Nukem lawsuit from earlier this year between 3D Realms and Gearbox Entertainment. This incarnation of the project is aiming for Q1 of 2015, which seems somewhat aggressive, but those Interceptor guys sure know how to crank out a game crazy quick.

SpyParty

SpyParty is really cool. It’s made for getting in and out of another person’s head while trying to guard your own. I’m sure you’ve heard of it before, but this trailer explains rather succinctly what the actual gameplay is like in terms of mechanics, but it fails to capture how much sweating is involved in panicking to make a decision. This feature on the Omegathon from PAX Prime last year captures pretty well the anxiety involved in playing SpyParty.

Nuclear Throne

Rebranded from Wasteland Kings (I personally like the sound of that a bit better), Nuclear Throne was pretty fun back when I played it and looks like it’s still plenty fun. You might recognize the name from Vlambeer’s idea to livestream development to usurp game clones.

Fantasia: Music Evolved

While certainly less bombastic than its announcement trailer, this video shows a bit more accurately what it’s like to play Fantasia: Music Evolved from Harmonix. Rather than irresponsibly gesture about in some abstract space, you’ll be pseudo-conducting in your living room. And it still looks fun. Expected to release this fall.

Microsoft Drops Kinect Requirements

Not really a trailer, but it is pretty big news. Microsoft has dropped the Kinect requirements for the Xbox One. This video adequately conveys that bit (and the lowered $399 price tag for the lack of the peripheral), but it more interestingly makes it very apparent that the company is only doing it begrudgingly. It’s the closest you’re likely to get to a flustered sigh coming out of Yusuf Mehdi. I would have preferred that they stuck to their guns. It also seems terribly unfortunate for the aforementioned Fantasia: Music Evolved.

A Story About My Uncle

Weird title, indecipherable premise, cool gameplay. From what I’ve read and seen, A Story About My Uncle about a boy who tries to find his uncle and instead ends up in a strange world full of floating rocks, potential aliens, and the ability to swing from stuff like Spider-Man. It comes out May 28, 2014.

Never Alone

If they kill that dog, I swear I will burn Utica to the ground. I can’t take any more animal best friend deaths in video games. Or even close calls. I still never fully recovered from Shadow of the Colossus. But Never Alone seems pretty interesting. It’s being developed in association with Alaska Native communities, drawing directly from cultural fables and the people’s rich heritage. Come this fall.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sportsfriends Review: Sporting Friends

Sportsfriends

Sportsfriends is built on the simple premise that you don’t need to play video games to have a good time with them. And in that regard, it succeeds. It is an absolute blast to play regardless of innate or earned skill level with a controller because it reduces everything down to its basest form. From input to strategy, it allows depth without complication. Just be sure to have some friends on hand to help.

Sportsfriends is actually a compilation of four different local multiplayer games with the gestalt release funded through Kickstarter from back in December of 2012. Rounded up by Danish indie collective Die Gute Fabrik, it includes their own Johann Sebastian Joust, Noah Sasso’s BaraBariBall, Bennet Foddy’s Super Pole Riders, and Ramiro Corbetta’s Hokra. Tied by a single thematic thread, they all focus on the idea of face-to-face competition. The most obvious (and the headliner) takes the face-to-face part quite seriously.

Johann Sebastian Joust

Sportsfriends

What is there left to say about Johann Sebastian Joust? You’ve been hearing about it since forever and probably even played it at a PAX or E3. It’s well known for one as being a video game with absolutely zero visuals given or needed through any electronics. It’s also well known for being one hell of a good time.

Between two and seven players hold either DualShock 3, DualShock 4, or PlayStation Move controllers and attempt to, for the most part, not move. Or at least that’s how you stay in the game. To win, you’ll have to knock other players out, which requires you to push, pull, trick, intimidate, and psychologically abuse everyone else. You see, the controllers are there to monitor your movement, and based on the tempo of the music being played (Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg concertos), you are permitted a certain leeway to your ambulations.

Sportsfriends

Move too fast, and your controller will go off and you’re out of the game. It’s a brilliant setup to get video game fans and non-gamers alike playing a video game while moving about. It’s definitely a throwback to the idea of folk games where there are minimal rules and the indeterminate interactions between players are the real game. Playing JS Joust is an endeavor to strengthen your cheeks because you will never not be smiling. Seeing your six-foot-five friend run like a child from an actual child is just natural beauty in motion.

And while it’s still fun play one on one, the game excels in a mass of at least four players. That way subterfuge can still play out without the target fully aware, or at least not able to fully anticipate and defend from it. It also opens the floor to the most chaos, which is inherently the most exciting part to human interactions.

Hokra

Sportsfriends

Hokra is perhaps the sole weak point of the Sportsfriends collection simply because it absolutely requires four players. In it, you assume the role of one of four squares split between two teams. The goal is to fill up your own blocks with color by keeping a ball within your opponents’ blocks. By bouncing and throwing both the ball and your opponents around, you control the game.

It’s very simple but incredibly intuitive. Even those that have never played a game before understand the idea of maintaining both possession and territory to win, especially because the criterion for victory is so highly visible. The problem is that because it’s so simple with little to no randomness or integration for interactions outside of its predefined framework, it becomes a tiring exercise rather quickly.

Chasing after the ball and moving to keep yourself between the ball and an opponent happens over and over again, but your movements are so deliberate and tepidly slow that you can generate a mental model of every possible outcome long before it actually plays out. And then you lead into predicting the entire outcome of a match soon after. Hokra is a fun excursion, but not one I’d revisit very often. That way, all those predictive models stay fresh rather than tired.

BaraBariBall

Sportsfriends

Having first played it nearly two years ago at an indie dev house party during Fantastic Arcade, expectations for BaraBariBall were already in place. It is once again a very simple game: you have to get a ball to the bottom of one half of a watery pit without throwing yourself in as well. Dunks in are worth a point but suicides at the bottom of the abyss take away a point and you need to get those points to win.

Between the three different characters, you can run, jump, punch, kick, and special attack the ball and opponents alike. The progression of players is always interesting to watch here because it starts out so simple. Get the ball, throw it to the bottom, and defend it as it lazily heads down. But then they start to learn the limits of their character, including multi-jumps and recovery times and the like. And they start to employ strategies to maximize those limitations, first their own and then others.

It’s fascinating because very quickly everyone comes up to the same level of understanding of the game. BaraBariBall is so good at teaching through consequences because both the positive and negative outcomes of any remarkable action are immediately recognizable in a score increase or decrease. It succinctly ingrains what is bad and what is good and encourages players to do good while forcing opponents to do bad. Not only that, but it easily throws those tactics into camps of solo and cooperative strategies without so much as a word. BaraBariBall is something worth playing anytime you have even just one friend over.

Super Pole Riders

Sportsfriends

While the most overtly sports-oriented, Super Pole Riders is also somehow the strangest of the quartet. It features goals, a ball, and even pole vaulters, but in combining all of that, it comes out to be a fantastically strange, deep, and altogether entertaining competitive affair.

In it, you compete either solo or with a buddy to smash a ball that traverses back and forth on a rope from one end of the screen to the other. Once you get the ball into the opposing goal, you get a point. The catch is that the ball is something like 15 feet off the ground and the only way you can either get up there or otherwise manipulate it is to use a pole, vaulting, whacking, and kicking your way to victory.

It’s an incredibly foreign sensation at first, what with the flaccid, floppy nature of the pole making it hard to maneuver or predict but also how it impacts your vaulting. But very quickly, it all becomes natural (or as natural as it could be, which is still not very, but at least the input cause-effect chain is easily absorbed). From toppling over from one side to the other or getting that extra bit of air in launching yourself or the ball across the screen, the game is wide open to your abuse of its physics, which makes both precision strikes and happy accidents (and disastrous attempts) all the more fun to see unfold.

Sportsfriends

Super Pole Riders undeniably requires the most effort of any of the Sportsfriends games, but it also feels the most earned of any victory. Learning the nuances of both the interactions as well as the strategies combine to become a prideful win. Hokra is too predictable and BaraBariBall is a bit systemic (and JS Joust is just too crazy), but Super Pole Riders hits that magnificent blend of known, unknown, and shenanigans.

Conclusion

With the assumption that you have friends, Sportsfriends is an easy recommendation to make. Across the four games it contains, you have such an incredible and diverse set of experiences to share with your buddies. Push and shove in the game as you push and shove on the couch, or clear it all out and make room for objective-based physical abuse with Johann Sebastian Joust. They offer a simplicity that makes it accessible to anyone but they contain the educated design of much more complex games so as to keep you entertained. Definitely get in on this Sportsfriends action.

+ Slow motion tackling your friends in Johan Sebastian Joust
+ Denying a goal in BaraBariBall
+ Having a noodle war in Super Pole Riders
– Figuring out the outcome of a match long before it actually plays out in Hokra

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Sportsfriends
Release: May 6, 2014
Genre: Multiplayer
Developer: Die Grute Fabrik
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC, Mac, Linux
Players: Multiplayer offline
MSRP: $14.99
Website: http://sportsfriendsgame.com/

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Late to the Party: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Late to the Party: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

If you’ve been browsing the Xbox Video store, you might have noticed a new addition under the Featured section. It stands out quite prominently as the only Asian foreign film among the more recent Western releases, but more so as Stephen Chow’s latest attempt at a feature length piece. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is a retelling of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West (also the basis for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, one of my favorite games), but with Chow’s signature flair.

For those of you that don’t recognize the name, Chow is the man behind 2001’s Shaolin Soccer and 2004’s Golden Globe-nominated Kung Fu Hustle. And if you don’t recognize those two movies, then you really need to reprioritize your movie-watching. They’re both outlandish action comedies, the former about a Shaolin kung fu master playing soccer and the latter about two-bit thug being an unknown kung fu genius. Both are quite well known for being of a cartoonish nature.

Unsurprisingly, that is also one of the most striking features of Journey to the West. It doesn’t go quite as far as Kung Fu Hustle what with the knife-throwing and the Road Runner-esque chase sequences, but it certainly retains so much of what makes Chow’s films so easily identifiable. Especially held against the aesthetics of ancient, rustic Chinese villages, the sensibilities of modern action choreography and comedic cadences contrast quite nicely.

But even beyond that for Chow is his seemingly undeniable sense of heart. Everyone in this film takes up the part of some personable caricature—a dangerously skilled demon hunter with a propensity for schoolgirl crushes, a master swordsman who makes play he’s a prince (with less-than-ideal results), and so on—but they are so endearing for both their faults and their strengths.

For example, if you take our lead character Tang Sanzang (played by Wen Zhang), he’s a bumbling, oafish doofus of a demon hunter. He’s knowledgeable, but in the first instance we see of him doing his job, he attempts to sing a river demon to becoming nice. Not the worst plan considering how many fairy tales go, but given the very obvious lack of effect on the demon and the subsequent beating Sanzang receives, he should have gone a different route.

Then we see where this character truly is coming from once he returns to his master. He’s unsure of this tactic as well, but convinced and encouraged by his master to continue on. He must believe that there is good in these demons and that they are redeemable, even when he doesn’t believe in his own abilities. And then we see him soldier on into a den of demon shenanigans, still unwilling to compromise on his ideals.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Most affecting, though, is the relationship between Sanzang and rival demon hunter/love interest Miss Duan (played by Shu Qi). She is a talented hunter with a number of magical armaments that make her infinitely more effective than Sanzang. She’s serious and takes no guff when there’s a battle to be fought.

But she’s also weak to the idea of love, or at least weak to the idea of being loved. Try as she might, she can’t seem to get Sanzang to admit what she believes he feels, which she has roughly zero evidence to substantiate. But one elaborate plan after another lands her more and more in the grasp of some belief that their love is mutual.

While the specifics of these characters’ circumstances are rather unique and wholly improbable in modern times, the sentiment behind their actions is timeless. Chow not only has an ability to infuse humor in the strangest ways into the best possible situations, but he also manages to consistently distill the essence of human trials into outlandish yet relatable characters.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

The only disappointing aspect of Journey to the West is that once again he seems to fall under the spell of deus ex machina. By some innate ability activated through a higher power, the final crisis is averted. It makes for an emotionally compelling climax to the film once again (see Kung Fu Hustle for reference), but upon reflection or with sufficient context of his other films, it comes across as a bit tired.

I’d like to see Chow try a more subdued, less divine intervention conclusion. He can do subtle, and he can do it well, even if he is known for going over the top and being ridiculous in every way imaginable. But Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons riles up a desire within me to see him tip the scales the other way, moving towards quiet and tempered over bombastic and spectacle. Still, though, it’s quite a good movie, and if you’re looking for a laugh and a warming smile to be left across your face, then give it a shot.

(Check it out on iTunes, Xbox Video, PlayStation Network, and On Demand.)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Trailer Roundup: The Walking Dead, Sunset Overdrive, and More

Trailer Roundup: The Walking Dead, Sunset Overdrive, and More

So how was your weekend? I don’t want to get into it, but I ended up putting socks on a dog (for his safety) and also playing beer pong with a bunch of college kids. It was pretty weird. Anyways, I’m thinking about breaking these out into separate posts. Some people have been telling me loading all those YouTube videos at once makes their browsers unhappy. Not sure yet. Time for decisions is later. Now it’s time for trailers!

The Walking Dead

I’m still pretty much hooked on Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. I don’t think Season 2 is as good as Season 1, but much of that has to do with the novelty—the fact that I hadn’t experienced such abject resignation to a fate worse than I could have previously imagined—of that initial round of episodes.

Here, you can see that shit just keeps getting worse. Clem is in deep, possibly over her head, and it’s looking pretty dire. It’s a masochistic sort of thing, I guess, playing this game. I love the idea of a good decision only being good by virtue of being the one you had to choose. No regrets here. Episode 3 comes out this Friday on May 16, 2014.

Sunset Overdrive

I guess I can’t really explain why, but I’m pretty excited for Sunset Overdrive. Oh wait, yes I can. It’s Insomniac Games doing what they do so well. It’s what they did that made the Ratchet & Clank games so fun. I mean, look at that gun with the bowling balls. That looks pretty spectacular. (Nothing will ever beat the RYNO V from Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time.)

While I do have reservations (mutating energy drink? Come on. They’re basically zombies, not to mention that tap was hit in DmC: Devil May Cry), I think Insomniac has it in them to pull it off. With a bunch of other Ratchet games flying perfectly under the radar and Fuse and Resistance performing, well, subpar, that studio definitely has the capacity to do far better than they’ve been doing. It comes out sometime this year.

Watch Dogs

I’m still into it. I don’t know if Watch Dogs is actually going to be any good, but at least the marketing is still doing well. The characters in this trailer fit a bit too well into the “Let’s Diversify” mandate of after school specials and the idea of a master hacker makes my eyes roll (besides, it seems like Aiden can already hack anything), but the villains seem pretty interesting. Iraq looks original enough and Lucky comes across as appropriately menacing. Releases May 27, 2014.

Hohokum

Richard Hogg, co-director and art director of Hohokum, comes out with a biting and totally true statement at the opening of this trailer: video games are visually conservative. Absolutely accurate for the most part (there are exceptions, of course). And watching Hohokum in motion makes me so happy because I feel like it comes from somewhere very free and open. Also it looks totally bonkers. Comes out sometime this summer.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

I love the idea of a historic war game that’s not a shooter. In this case, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a puzzle-adventure game that puts you in the shoes of four different soldiers during World War I. Granted, we’ve already seen the multi-faceted story thing with Medal of Honor and Call of Duty in the world’s biggest wars, but I’m interested to see how it fairs in the light of pointing and clicking that doesn’t result in shooting. Look for it June 25, 2014.

The Stomping Land

Historically and scientifically inaccurate and I don’t give a fuck. YOU’RE RIDING A GOD DAMN DINOSAUR. I mean, there’s no guarantee The Stomping Land will be any good, but if there was ever a concept distilled into a single sentence that can make almost anybody excited, it’s the idea that you can ride a dinosaur. Hits Steam Early Access May 30, 2014.

DreadOut

This trailer makes DreadOut look exactly like the kind of game my pounding heart tells me not to play but my brain tells me too late, dummy, you already paid for and installed it. Comes out this Thursday on May 15, 2014. (You can play the demo now, if you so desire.)

EVE: Valkyrie

Finally, here’s a reminder that this thing exists. While your chances to play it are high, the chances of you playing it right are far lower. EVE: Valkyrie was made with the Oculus Rift in mind. Imagine zipping through the already mind-boggling, free form battlefields of space with an HD 3D headset strapped to your dome. I can tell you firsthand that it is disorienting, horrifying, and incredibly exciting. Look for it sometime this year.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Child of Light Review: Heavy on Beauty

Child of Light

Child of Light tells the story of a child, lost in a magical kingdom, but just like a child telling a story, it often gets lost in its own words, stumbling and catching itself over and over again. At first it can be endearing, or perhaps not even noticeable, but as it goes on, you start to wonder when does it end. For as good as the good parts of Child of Light can be (and there are a lot), there are some bits that go just as wrong.

Child of Light comes to us from—surprisingly enough—Patrick Plourde and Jeffrey Yohalem, the director and writer respectively of Far Cry 3. It’s a sizable swing, going from bro-in-the-jungle to child-in-a-dream, but they do well. The pint-sized progeny in question is a girl named Aurora, daughter of a duke in late-19th-century Austria. With her birth mother not in the picture, a stepmother steps in, and true to any fairytale, well, you get the idea.

In fact, you get the idea almost wholeheartedly if you’ve ever heard a fairytale in your life. Aurora falls ill one night and tumbles off to a dream-like kingdom of evil creatures, a dark queen, and yet lively new friends. To a T, the story falls off into lockstep with what you’d expect from such a fable. By the end of the 12-hour or so adventure, I was left wondering if I’d actually read it all somewhere before.

(Perhaps in my Shakespearean studies, given the ham-fisted rhyming and metered verse that every line of dialog bears, an ambitious and admirable decision that unfortunately only ends up distracting you from taking away meaning from each line rather than a judgment.)

Save for a few crucial points, namely the characters. Just as Aurora, they take the roles of familiar people like a talking animal or a magic-inclined friend or tumbling acrobats, but their characterizations are rather unique. For instance, they’re mostly women. Fully capable women not in need of rescuing, in fact. It’s nice to see the Damsel in Distress trope dismissed, but it’s more than it’s refreshing to see such a breadth of new, hearty swings instead of trepidatious ones.

It all more or less coincides with the unobjectionable beauty of the game. Built on the same technology that powered the similarly sprightly and gorgeous Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends, Child of Light is essentially a moving watercolor painting. Still or in motion, nearly every scene is fit for framing. It really inspired hoped that more of the game’s story would match its visual splendor and ingenuity.

Child of Light

The game’s combat somewhat makes up for it. As an RPG, fights function somewhere between an active time battle system and a turn-based affair. You see, everything is based on a timeline at the bottom of the screen, and each character and enemy has a marker on it that progresses from left to right. The first 90% or so has everyone attempting to cover the same amount of space at a varying, character-defined pace.

This means that slower characters take longer to get to the casting line and faster ones take less time. And getting the jump on enemies puts you further ahead than you would otherwise start. However, once you reach the casting line, time freezes, and then you can pick how you’ll spend your turn. Attacks and spells have varying impact and thus have varying cast time, so within the last 10% of the bar, your velocity will undoubtedly alter.

Here’s where it gets interesting, though. If you attack an enemy while they are within the red casting zone, you’ll interrupt them and they will be reset back to the idling section. Play your cards right, and they’ll never get to land a single blow. However, they can just as easily interrupt you. So you’ll have to pick when to land your heavy blows and when you take potshots more carefully so as to not waste your turn.

Child of Light

You can choose to defend, though, and that will take up your turn in lieu of an advanced reset position. Or you can utilize your floating light buddy Igniculus (which, in Latin, literally translates to “spark”, so lol?) and hover over enemies and press the left trigger to slow them down at the cost of his magic meter. This active bit of toying with enemies in real time adds a fantastic layer to the combat, micromanaging not only who you will allow to attack you but who you want to interrupt, as well.

All of the bits and pieces of Igniculus and the active/turn-based meter and interrupts all form a cohesive foundation to the battles. Right from the get-go, fighting is engaging and simple to grasp a hold of. It’s just disappointing that it doesn’t really progress beyond that. All of that is categorical, so no enemy has any immunity that would force you to shake things up. And when you have you turn, time freezes, so you can take that moment to refill Igniculus’ magic.

And most disappointing of all is that swapping out characters hinders you in no way. That sounds strange, of course, complaining about a game not making things harder for you, but when you can only have two characters of your party on screen at once and swapping them out has no turn penalty, it becomes trivial who you enter combat with and who has what abilities. You might as well just have two characters that can do it all. It’s a missed opportunity to add an advanced wrinkle to a fantastic start to RPG combat.

Child of Light

In fact, much of the RPG side of the game feels a bit too light. You don’t collect loot or gear at the end of battles and instead only improve your characters by leveling, which happens incredibly often. Since enemies can be seen onscreen before you engage them, battles can also be easily skipped, and even then, leveling occurs strangely frequently. Granted, much of what you spend skill points on is on minute improvements (a five-point health boost? Come on.), it is a shame there are no surprises as to how your party will develop since it’s all laid out tech tree-style.

Still, much of what you do experience in the game is functional—pretty damn good, even. And considering its creators and their past titles, it’s also impressive. A truly whimsical world with incredibly fun and genuine characters with unbelievable art and rock solid combat make up for a decidedly unnecessary and fruitless literary rhyming and structure and trite story, and that goes without mentioning its squandered potential for advanced RPG combat. Child of Light has a lot to offer, but far too often it stumbles over its own overgrown ambitions.

Child of Light

+ Incredible art that deserves to be framed and hung
+ Fantastic structure for refreshing RPG combat
+ Characterizations and world design are topnotch
– That metered speech is awfully distracting and often poorly executed
– Combat fails to fulfill its potential
– Trite, predictable story

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Game Review: Child of Light
Release: April 30, 2014
Genre: RPG
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, PC
Players: Single-player and multiplayer offline
MSRP: $14.99
Website: http://childoflight.ubi.com/

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Spider-Man and the Clinical Work

Spider-Man 2 and the Clinical Work

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a disappointing film. We can get that out of the way right now. In fact, you can read our review if you want to find out exactly why it failed to develop into anything beyond a vehicle for beautiful people standing in beautiful shots. And strangely enough, that may be why The Amazing Spider-Man 2 video game is the best video game-movie tie-in ever made. It matches precisely every step the movie stumbled but in an interactive digital form.

The game, in effect, goes through a checklist of what makes a game of its ilk. Third-person action. Spider-Man. Simple enough. We’ll take the Batman Arkham series combat, mix in some web swinging, enable dialog options, and make sure there’s a tutorial! Each of these things feels like they were thrown in for the sake of being there, not for improving the game. (Including the Arkham predator sequences. Ooph.)

Fighting, for the most part, feels almost exactly like any of the Batman Arkham games where you leap to and fro, bashing bad guys right in the face, trying to keep a combo counter up. When the game tells you, you’ll dodge out of the way or counterattack and keep slugging away until you get a slow motion view of the last dude going down. It is exactly the same.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Except it feels so much worse. It really only looks the same and mechanically operates the same but going about it feels like going from driving a Porsche to tumbling down a hill inside a cardboard box and making vroom vroom noises with your mouth. It feels like the developers took a look around, said that one did pretty well, and then tried to go with that.

Then, throughout the game, you can engage in dialog options as you converse with various characters…for no particular reason. Not only do they divulge no exceptionally interesting information, but they also result in nothing even resembling consequential. What do modern games have that engage players with a cutscene? Oh, of course, dialog options! People loved those from Mass Effect. (And don’t forget the quick time events. They’re here as well, and in spades.)

Perhaps the most egregious offense of the “just put it in there” development mentality is the tutorial. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Spider-Man mythos. Whether you’re fans of his or not, pop culture couldn’t possibly have let you elude the “with great power” quote of the Sam Raimi versions back in the day, and you know it came from a dying Uncle Ben in the arms of our hero Peter Parker.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

That, in every iteration of Spidey’s origin story, is a pivotal moment. It kicks off Peter’s entire obsession with fighting the good fight, let alone using his powers to do so. Even with possibly so little invested in the character when you encounter this moment, it is emotionally potent simply because you understand this basically tears away half of Peter’s known world.

And Beenox, the studio behind The Amazing Spider-Man 2 video game, saw fit to make it the tutorial. In the moment when you walk up to find Uncle Ben’s body, his fading mortal form is nothing more than a mission marker. It’s nothing more than a blip that coincides with instructions on how to walk. It absolutely and totally subverts the idea that this is a formative moment in this character’s history and instead relegates it to some bin in the back of your head where you store useless tutorial segments in games.

Checkbox? Consider yourself checked.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

So where does the web swinging fit in? Well, it just might be the only good thing about the game (and “good” is still somewhat of a misappropriation of the notion). And, much like the action of the movie, its redeeming qualities are that it looks great and makes sense. As Spider-Man flips and twirls about in the air, he simply looks like Spider-Man. And mapping each web-slinging hand to one of the triggers just makes sense. Beautiful and logical.

The problem is that it doesn’t function very well. When you can flow between swings and come around corners and Web Rush to the top of a skyscraper, it’s all fine and dandy. The camera is incredibly cinematic, almost giving you the sensation of soaring through the air yourself. But the moment you hit a wall and start to crawl or run up the side of a building, it all goes wrong. The camera says fuck it and you immediately lose all perception of time and space.

It’s a largely broken game, just as it was a largely broken movie. Not necessarily that you couldn’t play or watch either one at all, but that they failed to execute on their ideas properly. Both felt like they were going through a laundry list of “how to make a game” and “how to make a movie” taken straight out of a Complete Idiot’s Guide to doing both. So clinical and, as a result, clunky. Strangely enough, these matching attributes might make this the best commensurate video game-movie adaptation ever made. It’s just not a good game.

Tagged , , , , ,