Category Archives: Playstation 3

Puppeteer Review: Whimsy on a String

Puppeteer

What makes children’s folklore have real sticking power is a fine blend of whimsy and an unexpected darkness. “Jack and the Beanstalk,” for example, features beans that grow a humongous beanstalk into the sky where a hidden floating castle awaits (whimsy) only to find that a giant lives there, one who wants to grind human bones into his bread (darkness). Or “Hansel and Gretel” where a brother and sister stumble across a house made of sweets (whimsy), but unfortunately for them a witch who wants to cook and eat them lives there (darkness). It’s the darkness that makes the story stick, far more than one about boys and girls made of sacks.

That is where Puppeteer, a 2D platformer from Sony Japan, excels. It is masterfully crammed full of whimsy: you play as a boy named Kutaro who must fight back against the Moon Bear King; the entire game is framed as a theatrical play where sets quickly and almost violently shift as you reach the end of the scene; and nearly every character is acted with such extreme melodrama that it’s hard not to just smile at the voices. It is also, however, tinged with darkness: the Moon Bear King is taking the souls of children and trapping them into puppets; Kutaro is one such child until he gets his head bitten off; and many of the 12 generals you fight are rather…unsavory.

As you can tell, there is a lot of stuff going on in the game. None of it is very deep, but there is enough variety to always keep you smiling like a kid listening to his favorite story. Kutaro’s head, for instance, isn’t much of a problem. It reveals that he is the only one who can stop the Moon Bear King (who isn’t a Moon Bear made into a King, but rather a Bear calling himself a King after stealing the Moon Goddess’ Moonstone and mystically inclined pair of scissors called Calibrus) and wield the snippers. So he just gathers up three replacement heads at a time and sets off to fix the order of the universe.

The three heads add a lot in the way of whimsy. Each one is different and pops off whenever you get hit or damaged, forcing you to either catch it as it rolls away (kind of dark, don’t you think?) or put on a new one, though if you run out of heads, you lose a life and start over at a checkpoint. Each head has a special action, but they really only matter in very particular locations where you can unlock bonus levels or items. On the rare occasion, they will come into play during boss battles where they will change how you approach your combat strategy, something I would have liked to have seen more of throughout the entire game.

The scissors, though, carry quite the load in terms of mechanics and milieu. Everything in the game’s stage production is presented as a prop-heavy play, so a giant pair of scissors is actually quite the powerful tool. With it, Kutaro can defeat enemies (which he can follow up on by walking over and freeing the trapped soul contained within) and chop through any paper-like material. As clouds and leaves and flags go by, you can jump up and start cutting by hitting the square button in rhythm. This will help you propel yourself along in the air where you can remain aloft as long as there are things to cut and you are cutting them.

This adds a very nice wrinkle to the otherwise overly simplistic proceedings. While the base level of jumping between things is sufficiently engaging, the scissors make it so you now have a considerable manipulation over the timing of faraway platforms and moving obstacles. And then you introduce the zip-line (snip-line?) sequences and the mesh-cutting and so on, well it’s easy to see where the do-it-all attitude comes in.

Puppeteer

Pikarina is another facet that adds another layer to the 2D platformer foundation. You control her, a spritely fairy, with the right stick and activate her against the background with R2. She can reveal treasure and pop out extra heads and general do things for Kutaro when he can’t. She sometimes requires an annoying precision in her placement to get these things to happen, but I was usually mashing and moving the button and stick too much to notice or care. What is unequivocally bothersome, though, is the character herself.

The rest of the world is rife with overacting and sincerity. You won’t find a single person who doesn’t carry on with the vaudevillian bravado consistent with this otherworldly stage and the genuine belief in every word they say…except for Pikarina. As your sidekick and guide, you hear her talk a lot, but she delivers every line as more of a valley girl and with the acerbic cynicism that usually comes attached. She undermines a lot of the gleeful nonsense that spouts out of the game and it’s kind of a buzzkill. (She’s also the only character who pronounces it as koo-tar-oh instead of koot-uh-roh.)

But that doesn’t matter because there’s such so much of that joyous, carefree randomness in Puppeteer that you don’t really mind. The commitment to the theatrical presentation is absurd and lovely and altogether unbelievable, especially when it looks so good doing it. If you had shown me Puppeteer and told me it was a PlayStation 4 launch title, I would have believed you. There is an overwhelming amount of variety and charm to the artistic design that it’s hard to wrap your mind around it all.

Puppeteer

The way the sets haphazardly swap as you finish scenes really makes you feel like the stagehands backstage are actually moving the pieces and props around, and when the audience oohs and ahhs with big, overacted monologues or battle sequences, you feel like you’re watching this fantastically fantastical performance as much as you are informing it. And as you linger about in the game or in the menus, the audience and the narrator will let you know. You can see the proscenium, you can see the light rigging, and you can see all of painterly details on the props and sets; it’s impossible to not fall in love with this overwrought and whimsical production.

The music, the art design, and the sheer variety in the things you’ll do (and see and hear) are all simply exemplary. As much as I enjoyed actually playing the game—moving the sticks and pushing buttons—seeing the delightfully silly story unfold in such a wholly genuine presentation is the true joy of Puppeteer. The whimsy and the underlying darkness are irrepressibly impressive and lovable when taken hand in hand, and Puppeteer is something truly to be taken whole cloth.

Just don’t let those scissors near it.

Puppeteer

+ Absolute commitment to the theater conceit
+ Gorgeous world and unbelievable art direction and design
+ Voice (over)acting is phenomenal
+ The sheer variety makes the simplistic base platformer engaging again
– Pikarina doesn’t fit with the rest of the puppet world

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Puppeteer
Release: September 10, 2013
Genre: 2D platformer
Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3
Players: singleplayer offline, multiplayer online
MSRP: $39.99
Website: http://us.playstation.com/games/puppeteer-ps3.html

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The Last of Us Review: Living Among the Dead

The Last of Us

I’ve been punched twice in my life and both were directly in the gut. If you’ve never been in a fight, you should know that they are intense. Your hands are shaking from a briny cocktail of adrenaline and nerves and your vision narrows as it blurs out everything but the guy in front of you. It’s something you don’t really forget, so those two punches and their effects are still rather fresh in my mind. The ambiguously placed pain, the need to double over and just breathe, and way your lungs feel like they’re collapsing from the lack of air in your entire body. I know what it’s like to be hit in the stomach.

And I still wasn’t ready for The Last of Us.

In the latest from developer luminary Naughty Dog, The Last of Us tells the tale of a hardened fellow named Joel and an oddly sprightly young girl named Ellie. The two are stuck together in a journey across the country as they try to survive the perils of suburbia, public transit, and shopping malls. Oh yeah, there are also zombies everywhere. The very real Cordyceps fungus that infests and controls the minds of insects and arthropods (before bursting out of their bodies like the most tragically beautiful piece of modern art you’ve ever seen) has taken a terrible turn and started to infect humans. So they’re not really zombies, but they’re the closest analog you’ll find.

The Last of Us

Anyways, it’s 2033, years since the outbreak began, and Joel has since gotten over—or rather managed to cope with—such an incredibly well done and immensely heartbreaking opening 30 minutes to a video game I’ve seen in quite some time. The rest of the world hasn’t done much better, though, as quarantine zones are overly militant compounds of malnutrition and smuggling operations while the outside is full of murderous bandits and unknown infected. Joel, however, has made a name for himself here in Boston as a smuggler not to be trifled with and eventually falls into an encounter with a rebel group known as the Fireflies, other smugglers, and a whole mess of trouble.

I won’t go into much detail about the story like how Joel and Ellie end up together, their histories, and their eventual destinations along this bloody road trip, but I will say that their relationship is so…genuine. It is disgusting how well realized and heartfelt every word and movement is that comes out of their mouths and bodies. Every prop and compliment must be given to voice and motion capture actors Troy Baker (who is nigh unrecognizable as an old Southern fogey) and Ashley Johnson (who plays 14 years old so much better than anyone over the actual age of 14 has the right to) but the writing is also just terribly immense. Little touches like the conversations they have about music and whistling to how Ellie sidles up right under Joel’s arm whenever they take cover really adds to their relationship so that when you get socked in the stomach, it hurts all the more.

Which is good because without those two and their bond carrying the story, it would be an otherwise run-of-the-mill tale of the undead and a cross country trip (to wit, when things go wrong). Most of the story beats were easily guessed, but the way they are presented and the way they develop are masterful. Even the genre itself of survival zombie horror is a bit tired, but it’s a bit of meta tragedy when you hope against hope that the things you don’t want to happen inevitably happen and you curse yourself for allowing your heart to be fooled again. By the end of it, you’ll definitely feel like you’ve been through a fight.

The Last of Us

The combat itself, however, is less pugilistic than you’d think. For the most part, you’ll spend a lot of your time crouched behind desks and tables and slowly walking behind dudes. Joel—for reasons I won’t get into—is a fairly proficient killer, but he is also still realistically fragile, or at least compared to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted hero Nathan Drake. At least in the beginning, it only takes a few hits for you to go down, so it’s often best for you to sneak around enemies rather than engage them directly. Not to mention that one of the more terrifying enemy classes called Clickers are a one-hit kill, so mind your surroundings.

Clickers are a totally blind enemy, what with their entire head engulfed in Cordyceps fungus, but they can sufficiently navigate based on sound and touch. They emit this unsettling croaking sound that will eventually haunt your dreams, so they’re impossible to miss, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to avoid. A listening mode allows you to similarly echolocate enemies through walls and floors which facilitates your sneaking—which unfortunately and strangely doesn’t work when the game wants to deliberately hide enemies from you to scare you—but you’ll often find yourself battling a mix of Clickers and Runners (generic, fast fodder enemies) and such, which makes it quite interesting to navigate each encounter. And that adds into the feel that each arena feels unique while remaining open, so running away and simply poking and prodding at the rather impressive AI until your hand is forced into action is a totally viable and heart-pounding tactic.

The problem is that each encounter is a specific type of encounter, and you don’t really know which type it is until halfway through. You either have to kill everything in the area before being allowed to proceed, forced to actively engage in open combat with throngs of foes, or you have to sneak by the best you can. Of course, you can always go for open combat if you want, but unarmed melee doesn’t work on Clickers and getting overwhelmed by Runners is a common effect of your brutish cause. But the game seems to present to you the notion that stealth is always the best option early on and then throws that out the window by forcing you to get violent.

The Last of Us

It’s really quite unfortunate because sometimes these encounters devolve from intricate stealth to chaotic brain-bashing due to ineptitude or carelessness, so those moments of pure, abject terror are lessened, a quality further brought to light with somewhat ineffectual boss fights. Especially towards the end where enemies and bullets far outweigh sneaking and shivving, you start to feel like these are less instances of your scraping your way out of a skirmish and more like you are playing into the game’s hands.

Those hands, though, are quite nice as this is a spartan survival game through and through. At first, it feels like you don’t have nearly enough of anything to get you through any meaningful portion of the game. Health packs hover around one, ammo supply can’t fill an entire magazine, and your crafting supplies are dwindling. And as the game progresses, you eventually squirrel away enough to have what appears to be a stockpile before you’re forced to use most of it just to survive a single chapter. This inventory economy and progression is nicely done, and feels even more appropriate when you play on Hard difficulty.

The great thing about it is that you have to make choices. Molotov cocktails are great at taking out clumps of infected and dudes, but they take the same supplies as health packs to craft. Shivs can take out any Clicker or Runner quickly and silently but they also can crack open locked doors that hide workbench parts and valuable training manuals. And you simply won’t have enough parts to upgrade all of your weapons, so you have to choose what attributes and what guns are most useful to you. It’s a nice contrast from most other games that make you choose what to do first and instead asks you what can do you at all.

The Last of Us

A perfectly viable option for not progressing in the game but thoroughly enjoying it is to just stop and look around. In a delicious Cormac McCarthy-ish slant, the world has been reclaimed by the whole of nature. Trees take root where construction workers had once laid down foundation and vines climb up skyscrapers like they would a sheer cliff face. It’s a direct visual metaphor for things The Last of Us and McCarthy’s The Road address: the conflicting will within ourselves for protecting those around us with only keeping yourself alive. There’s a character that you meet about halfway through that shines an especially sad light on this contrast.

Ellie and Joel will, in fact, remind you to breathe every once in a while. Walking through the woods, Ellie remarks to her grayed and grumbling companion that it’s a remarkable sight to be seen. It’s a reminder that all the horrible things that they do and see (both of which Ellie will comment on with stark relatability) are still in service of a blissful hope, and that’s necessary in such a dark game. The Last of Us is unequivocally tough to play; you will feel exhausted and drained at the end of each session.

There is one thing, though, that tends to break this cohesion created by the world: your companions. All of them are fully capable of handling themselves in combat, but as a concession to you as a player, their actions are nipped in the bud during stealth sections and never alert enemies or anything. So they never ruin a perfect ninja run for you, but seeing Ellie run headfirst into a Clicker and bounce off with zero consequences is rather world-shattering. The incredibly impressive enemy AI with its flanking and retreating and searching tactics more than makes up for the necessarily blundering companion AI.

The Last of Us

However, that is a fault I’m willing to give considering how much better off the gameplay is for it. And there’s still so much in The Last of Us that just works. Joel and Ellie are now ranked among my favorite duos in any sort of fiction, let alone video games. They help spin an unbelievable and somewhat rote tale into a humanized and empathetic story of loss and compassion. And the combat and systems therein craft an interactive version of that narrative where a strident brutality manifests in figuring out when to kill and when to let sleeping Clickers lie. How many other games have enemies react differently when you brandish a weapon?

The Last of Us is a massive story and enormous emotional undertaking and substantial mechanical device. It presents a complex woven fabric of morality and questions of what it means to live and love and need that occasionally gets torn by the game itself, but perhaps that’s because of its heft. Such a heavy game is bound to put stress on the struts, but I do love it all the more for that. Even after getting punched in the gut and the face and everywhere else, even after feeling like I just finished a fight with the biggest kid in gym, The Last of Us is something that simply won’t be forgotten.

+ Believable and heartbreaking relationship crafted by amazing actors and fantastic writing
+ Genuine horror moments brought to you by Clickers and darkness
+ The immensely depressing and overbearing world of an infected land is totally engrossing and tonally and thematically consistent
– The dopey companion AI breaks the narrative fabric you envelope yourself in
– Pulls a bait ‘n switch on open stealth tactics with generic gameplay scenarios

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: The Last of Us
Release: June 14, 2013
Genre: Survival horror
Developer: Naughty Dog
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3
Players: 1, 2–8 online
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://www.thelastofus.com/

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A Question of Identity in The Last of Us

A Question of Identity in The Last of Us

“Shut up, man. Don’t you know who that is?”

He doesn’t. His friend, apparently, does and apologizes for speaking out of turn. The pair was simply lingering out on the street, leaning against a wall and talking about the rather mundane activities within the quarantine zone. Walking by, I stop and listen for a while. What they’re saying is filling in a lot of blanks that I have about where I am and what’s going on, but I drop one too many eaves and the confrontational fellow instigates with a hearty “what the hell are you lookin’ at?”

I don’t know what I’m looking at. In fact, I don’t know who I am. I’m not capable of answering either question, despite both being mostly rhetorical in nature. Gruff as I am, though, an apology is thrown at my feet, one that I dismiss. “No harm, no foul.” But what if there was harm? What if these two fools had crossed me in some way? The hasty verbal retreat, the confidence with which I respond, the assertiveness I bear as I stand my ground. What exactly am I capable of?

Having played so many franchise titles as of late (in this year alone we saw DmC Devil May Cry, Dead Space 3, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Crysis 3, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Tomb Raider, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum), it’s somewhat rare now that we get to experience a triple-A title in hazy wonderment like in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. Reboots and spin-offs skew only slightly from the source in Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Sequels like Crysis 3 continuing pulling out the thread their predecessors had already teased loose.

It’s a specific type of mystery, though, that I’m talking about. BioShock Infinite had plenty of questions to answer, mysteries to solve as you played the game. But those were tied to telling a compelling narrative. Even by forcing myself to limit the amount of marketing I took in, I already knew the setup to the story. I knew Booker was looking for Elizabeth, I knew Elizabeth had unknown powers, and I knew we would be in a city in the sky that was ruled by a fellow named Comstock. I knew all of the ingredients to the soup. I just didn’t know how it would taste.

But I also knew Booker. I knew all about him before we started the adventure. He was a Pinkerton, he obviously regrets the things he did, and he is in a bad way with some unsavory people. Finding out about who Booker is and used be was not the point of BioShock Infinite‘s story. Instead, it was all about finding out how he fit into the skyward city of Columbia and the blossoming life of Elizabeth. The mystery shrouded the story, not the character.

These men on the street, though, seem terrified of me and I don’t know why. The opening chapter of The Last of Us is powerful and intense in ways I haven’t experienced in video games in quite some time (maybe ever), but it shows a different man. Joel pre-plague and Joel post-plague only share a name and a past, but now they are different people. Would that same family man with a brother and a daughter be the one that scares people just be staring at them?

Slowly, things begin to come into focus. We take our lens and point it at Joel and Ellie and the image gradually sharpens. And it’s not because we can but because we want to. Situations like this where two men are visibly scared of a single man beg questions and questions always deliciously demand answers. They had vocalized what I’d been wondering for the past 10 minutes. Who is this man?

It’s a subtle psychological affirmation of your gaps in knowledge. Something diegetic to the game doesn’t know the answer to your question, so it feels reassuring that you don’t know either. But that makes your thirst that much stronger. To find the solution to the riddle, to crack open this peanut of answers and be able to push back against this substantive intellectual pressure is an intrinsic human desire. We may not have the answer right now but we’ll get it, god dammit.

This type of desire is reinforced with the introduction of Ellie. Joel doesn’t care to find out who she is and doesn’t even much want to go through with the deal that brought them two together in the first place, but pertinent questions arise that tie back to things we want to know about Joel. The implications of who Ellie is and what she’s capable of invite a deeper analysis of what Joel hopes to gain from this newly ravaged world. And it opens up a wound long sewn shut that left little more than emotional scars and a strident personality.

Same as before, we know what we’re making. We know this is going to be a stew, but what are the ingredients? We know Joel takes Ellie across the infected country, but we know nothing about either of them. Joel is a man, Ellie is a girl, and that’s it. With BioShock Infinite, I could have at least pumped out two paragraphs on both Booker and Elizabeth before the game even started. The Last of Us crafts a more complex narrative around the question of what we’re doing with who we are. It adds texture and layers to a rather straightforward tale and set of tropes and is refreshing amongst a familiar world of well-met cyborg soldiers and space miners.

“Don’t you know who that is?” No, but neither do I.

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Hands-On With Diablo III, Console Version

Hands-on with Diablo III, Console Version

Blizzard, it seems, is really into drinking and gaming. Hanging around outside of one of the Diablo III demo rooms in the private Activision area at E3, one of the game’s marketing team members tells me that this is his favorite way to play the game. He describes it as Gauntlet (Legends, probably) and perfect for sitting down some with buddies and knocking back a cold one while you slay hordes of demons and ambulatory trees. The guy giving the demo also says that relaxing with a brew and playing this would be a great way to spend an afternoon.

I think I’m inclined to agree.

Based on what I saw, the console version of Diablo III is primed to be a distinctly different but still enjoyable take on the game. Heading into this, the biggest question I had was how they would manage to turn a click-heavy PC game into a controller-based console port that people would actually enjoy playing. Well, they did it by simply taking out the clicks and turning an indirect control scheme into a direct one.

Diablo III (PlayStation 3)

Indirect meaning you previously would just click somewhere and your character would go over there and do at thing. What that thing would be, however, is up to the context of the environment. Walk over somewhere, go flip a switch, or just stand there and cast spells. It was about as indirect as games come, but with a controller, Diablo III feels much more like a traditional action game but, you know, Diablo, which is to say it’s pretty great.

You move around with the left stick and you have attacks and abilities mapped to the face and shoulder buttons (somewhat making up for the expansiveness of a keyboard). The most meaningful change, however, is the right stick. It’s dedicated to dodges which means you can roll or flip in any direction to evade attacks. This turns what is normally just a rote routine of spamming attacks and spells into a skillful interplay of movement, positioning, and inflicting damage. That’s not to say that wasn’t there before, but having a stick that can quickly put you somewhere out of or into danger really moves that up to the forefront. One problem, however, is that I found myself constantly wanting to move and attack in different directions, which meant a lot of quick flicks to fire off some potshots before continuing to hove around.

Visually speaking, the game looks most identical to the PC version. The default camera view is much closer and presents a tighter frame for the action so that the aging PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 can keep up. This does, however, make the assets look a bit softer since you can see things much more clearly.

Diablo III (Xbox 360)

A big change is the UI. Obviously adapted for controllers, your equipment is mapped across a rotary dial on the left half of the screen that you select with a spin of your stick. A high-level overview of your equipment is presented to you on the right that spells out which piece is generally better, though you can still see the nitty-gritty details, too. And when you pick up loot, you can press up on the D-pad to cycle through your recent stuff and see from a glance if something improves your attack or defense and if you want to equip or drop it.

I played shared-screen with another fellow on a PS3; I was a demon hunter and he was a wizard (we swapped after realizing we’d each gotten what the other preferred). Instead of going split-screen, the game will zoom further and further out (the default camera position is much closer than in the PC version) until it hits a maximum range, at which point movement will warp an idle player to the active one. The second player and beyond can log in with his own account or play a guest one with the option to load saves from the cloud or a USB stick, though you can also play online. And while no cross-platform capabilities were discussed, the console versions will be updated with the 1.07 patch.

Diablo III (PlayStation 3)

From what I saw, this may be my new favorite way to play Diablo III as well. It feels much faster and much more gratifying when you successfully kill a large group of enemies with nary a scratch on you. But we also saw just a very small, 15-minute slice of the game, and most of the problems with Diablo III come out in the tail-end. I’m not sure if those will be addressed in any meaningfully different way from the PC version (probably not), but I can at least say that so far, Diablo III for consoles is shaping up quite well. Now where did I put that beer…

Look for Diablo III on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on September 3rd and PlayStation 4 sometime in 2014.

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The Unfinished Swan’s Unfinished Thought

Along with Journey from thatgamecompany, The Unfinished Swan is probably the most affecting game I’ve played this year. Hell, maybe ever. It joins a very small group of games that I could just write about forever and ever (the others include—among others you can probably guess—Dark Souls, Red Dead Redemption, Deus Ex, and the aforementioned Journey). I’ve read and been told accounts of Giant Sparrow’s debut bringing players to tears, stopping them cold as they realize the world they’ve entered and how they are at the mercy of the game and yet everything is within their control. I never reached the point of waterlogged eyes, but trust me when I say that if I was not such an emotionally empty shell of a human, I might have wept.

Just a little.

The potency of the game likely has something to do with its brevity. Not even rushing through on my first playthrough, I completed The Unfinished Swan somewhere in the neighborhood of two or three hours. Perhaps that affects the cost proposition for some, but to me, it felt refreshing. It was a game that did what it wanted to do and didn’t water it down to fill some arbitrary temporal mandate, stretched thin with unsatisfying filler that doesn’t fit and throws a kink in the otherwise lovingly crafted rail. After all, no one likes their drugs cut with sugar.

Or water. Or I don’t know what I’m talking about. Come guys, cut me some slack. I’ve never been a drug dealer!

The Unfinished Swan‘s problem might be that it concentrates its doses a bit too strongly. As mentioned by designer Ian Dallas in a post at the PlayStation Blog, the mechanic most widely associated with the game—splattering an entirely white, blank world with black blobs of paint—”is actually just the first 15 minutes.” That, to me, is probably an overstatement of how quickly that section passes, but it is representative of the philosophy of the game’s final design.

Dallas says “things get really weird” after that, and it’s true. You’ll continue on to work with variations on that same splatter mechanic. Well, “variations” probably isn’t the right word. You can see from the PAX trailer that you’ll also shoot blobs of water to guide plant life, but there’s more. You’ll also be bumbling your way through a harrowing nighttime land of scares and then an abstract plane of crafting after falling through a drafting table, each one with its own, very distinct methods of gameplay. I don’t want to get into much more since half the fun of the game is discovering how to use those particular tool sets, but know that Dallas was right about the weird thing.

So you take the two-ish hours required to beat the game and divide it among the four chapters and you’ll get just a little over half an hour per shift in the gameplay, which is a god damn shame. At the end of each bit, I felt like each one could have gone on twice as long. Just as you feel like you understand the depth to which each mechanic could go, the game changes nearly whole cloth and you’re left just the tiniest bit confused. Why did it change? Are we coming back to this? God I hope so.

You never do. “Always leave them wanting more,” I believe is how the saying goes, but The Unfinished Swan leaves you wanting a bit too much. An early example in the monochromatic section is that the paint doesn’t really affect water (or what we’re led to believe is water). It just sort of plops down and sinks in an oddly fascinating way before being gobbled up by a fish or dissipating beneath the surface. It causes a mild revelation that though it is your best (and only) tool in the world, the black paint still can’t reveal everything to you. And then a frog you recently blasted—err, revealed with said paint is gobbled up by some swimming beast, so are there things that are already blackened in this white and eerie tableau? There are so many implications and unexplored nooks and crannies of the black and white world that as soon as you leave it, you’re still left pondering those mysteries.

The most egregious bit is definitely the last section where you fall into that blueprint in the, um, attic(?) of the previous chapter’s world. I don’t want to ruin it for you (though you can see a bit of each section in the Giant Bomb Quick Look, something Patrick should have restrained himself from doing), but an entire game could be built from this mechanic alone. In fact, some have and yet I feel like The Unfinished Swan may have done it the best and still explored the concept the least. About midway through that chapter, the game will brush against what feel like revelatory moments but then just walks away from them to show off even more half-explored experiments.

But it’s saying something when I believe that even in these underutilized moments, The Unfinished Swan exudes so much brilliance and creativity that it brings out a sensation and optimism in the medium within me that is normally reserved for games like Super Mario Galaxy and, well, Super Mario Galaxy 2. The difference is that in SMG and SMG2, those ideas are fleshed out and fully realized. They take those ideas as far as you would like to see them go and even further into territory you didn’t even know existed. The Unfinished Swan instead points you in a direction, shows you a thing, says “wouldn’t that be neat,” and walks off before you get to say “HELL FUCKING YEAH IT WOULD.”

Everything The Unfinished Swan gives you is engrossing. It’s enchanting and all-consuming to a fault. It’s as if the wrapping on a present were the gift itself—and what a gift it is. It is brilliant and shining and something you wish you had created so others could understand the beauty in your mind as you do that of Ian Dallas. Giant floppy bow and all, it inspires you to dream up what is on the inside, how beautiful and life-affecting its contents must be. Too bad you never get to open it. Too bad.

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Why Not Guacamelee!

“So why can you turn into a chicken?”

“Why CAN’T you turn into a chicken?”

Though the response doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it’s very fitting of the world of Guacamelee!, an upcoming Metroidvania-style game about a luchador, alternate dimensions, and absurdity. In the time I spent playing the game and speaking with Drinkbox Studios designer Chris McQuinn (who said the chicken thing actually has some serious story implications), I gleamed two facts about Guacamelee!: it’s 100% silly, and it’s 100% worth your time.

As previously mentioned, you can turn into a chicken, but as you would expect due to the nature of luchadores and the title of the game, you also have a wide variety of melee moves at your disposal as you explore the world in search for El Presidente’s daughter. You are down-on-his-luck Mexican Juan Aguacate and you can punch, kick, dive roll, wall jump, air charge, and so much more to get around.

And as is true of Metroidvania games, not all of these abilities are unlocked right from the get-go. At one point in the demo, you are presented with two paths: upwards or through a door (opposite an entrepreneurial personal trainer, but we’ll get to him later). Upwards, however, is seemingly unreachable at this point. You can see the exit up top, but with the lack of any platforms along the way, you are left with two sheer walls and a very ornate door, so the door it is.

You eventually return to this room, but as a slightly more improved luchador than before. Taught to you by an old man that can turn into a goat (or is the other way around?), you learn the Goat Jump, which is basically a wall jump but presumably in reference to how mountain goats seemingly and effortlessly ascend near vertical cliffs. So you have an open world with progress cordoned-off by gaining additional abilities from currently accessible areas. Metroidvania? You bet. Only Metroidvania?

Not even close.

Remember those alternate dimensions I’d mentioned earlier? Well, they play a significant role in the game, too. Throughout the game, there are floating portals, black hole-ish things hanging around in the world. Whenever you touch one, the world flips into one of these alternate dimensions (such as The World of the Dead and The World of Nightmares, neither of which sound particularly pleasant to be in). These transitions will affect the existence and placement of traversal elements and environmental obstacles as well as enemy vulnerability. It happens in an instant and will require you react accordingly. If you think you can stop to catch your breath, you’re dead wrong.

You may start out by wall jumping across an open chasm, but you’ll pass through a portal, swapping in the fickle solidarity of another wall for abject emptiness and certain doom in the pit below. But then you’ll have to avoid another portal to get through to the other side that will allow you to fall through to your goal. It feels a bit like the water-freezing mechanic of Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, which is a good thing considering that was one of my favorite parts.

They also add a nice wrinkle to the co-op play where the second player takes the place of an ostensibly female character named Tostada. If you don’t work together to time jumps together, you’ll quickly get out of sync and one of you will probably be cursing the other as you fall and die. Dying isn’t that big of an issue, though, as you’ll simply come up as a bubble à la New Super Mario Bros. Wii. You’ll float around until your partner can come around and pop you out of purgatory. I don’t know what happens if both of you get bubbled, though, as my newfound PAX buddy and I were not wanting for skill.

But the biggest thing Guacamelee! has going for it is that the game is just absolutely funny. Upon meeting a mostly ineffectual seductress, she eventually succumbs to being overt rather than subtle and even finds time to make a pun along the way. It’s hard enough to make a game entertaining but to create one that will have you outright laugh out loud is a feat in and of itself.

This is on top of, however, the fact that it is also a tight brawler. Things can get a bit hard to keep track of and you will occasionally feel overwhelmed at the fault of the game and not your skill, but the breadth of your abilities makes for some fun combat. You can punch and kick and whatnot, but you can also grapple with enemies and kick straight into the air for either additional juggling or heightened jumping capabilities. Rolling will get you out of sticky situations and past thorny walls. It feels a bit like Shank in the way that every move is short yet impactful but it is also much more about movement in combat than straight-up ravaging foes.

And either out of coincidence or homage, there is a portion of the demo that is similar to the Skulldozer level of the Mariachi-theme area of LittleBigPlanet where you are running away from a giant, stumbling, bumbling dragon-ish beast in a bit of forced scrolling platforming. You’ll beat up a few guys along the way, but by and large, the best way is to avoid them altogether and handily navigate your way to safety rather than punch your way through.

These aforementioned skills are things you can upgrade, too. That trainer in the room I mentioned before will trade skills for coins, improving your melee damage or health or whatever. It makes upgrading easy without the need to include experience points.

But Guacamelee! is also still very much under development. Just to the left of the trainer is a chest full of coins, enough, actually, to help you actually afford an upgrade. As I played, McQuinn said, “you know, it seems like it would be better for the chest to come first.” And you know what, he’s not wrong. That definitely would have helped understanding the trainer menu a bit better and removed an unnecessary instigation of trainer dialogue.

With that being the only qualm I have so far in my short 15 minutes with the game, I must say that I’m extremely looking forward to Guacamelee! It looks to be a more than capable side-scroller with the Metroidvania trappings that make me play and obsess over Metroidvania-style games; it’s genuinely funny; and it looks so incredibly charming.

Though playable since PAX East this year (and announced just the October before that), this is the first I’ve had with it and you know what? Everyone was right; Guacamelee! is pretty great. As I bring up that the only moderately recent luchador-themed games involved Saints Row 3 and that one pretty bad brawler for XBLA, McQuinn is sure to point out that they are trying to explore the lesser known parts of Mexican culture without poking fun at it, which seems that so far, they’ve done.

But still no word on that chicken. Look for Guacamelee! on PSN and PS Vita sometime next year.

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Review – Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (360/PS3)

The “Prince of Persia” series has been around for quite some time, but one of its most recent incarnations, “The Sands of Time” trilogy, garnered most of the praise and acclaim that the Prince has so far seen.

The plot of the trilogy involves the mystical sands of time and a magical dagger that can turn back time. This is also the basis for the recent Jeremy Bruckheimer film, “The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” which is in theaters now and is (in my opinion) a pretty good popcorn flick, though it certainly won’t win any Oscars.

Thankfully, Ubisoft decided not to make “Prince of Persia: The Movie: The Game,” despite the plots of the game and film being different enough to allow for that absurd possibility. But much to my dismay, they didn’t make a sequel to 2008’s fanasy-heavy “Prince of Persia” either, which featured an entirely different story and cast. Instead, in order to attract more people who plan on seeing the film, they went back to the much-loved “Sands of Time” saga.

“Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands” for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 takes place in the missing years between “Sands of Time” and “Warrior Within” on last generation’s consoles. The nameless prince has gone to visit his brother who, under attack by enemy forces, decides to release a fabled army. This, unsurprisingly, ends up being a bad move.

Thing is, the story here barely matters, which is kind of a shame. The Prince in “Warrior Within” is very different from the Prince in “The Sands of Time,” so in setting “The Forgotten Sands” between those two games, you would think there’s a lot of room for exploration of the character and everything he went through. But the developers completely missed the boat. The game doesn’t even end with a hint of the events to come.

In fact, oddly enough, the infamous Sands of Time don’t even really play a role in the plot. Your powers – including the classic time manipulation – come from a completely different source altogether. This among other things make the story feel horribly out of place.

Solidifying water plays a huge part in the gameplay.

The gameplay, though, is pretty solid, if unoriginal at this point. All the trappings you would want from a “Prince of Persia” title are here, including a ton of wall running and leaps from platform to precarious platform. This is still a formula that not many other games attempt, much less do well (the closest comparison would probably be another Ubisoft series, “Assassin’s Creed,” which allows for plenty of building scaling), so a new game is always a welcome addition to fans of the style.

That being said, I certainly found “The Forgotten Sands” to be enjoyable. I loved the original “Sands of Time” trilogy, as well as the 2008 fantasy reboot, so I’m always up for more parkour mixed with sword slashing.

The game requires the usual precise jumps and careful moving around the environment, but not to worry. If you make a bad jump and plunge over the edge of a tower, you can always rewind time a bit in order to go back and fix your mistake. This is the twist that made the original “Sands of Time” such a success, and it still works here.

This isn’t a complete rehash, though. The Prince has a few new skills, both for traversal and for combat.

The combat skills, though fun to use, aren’t terribly original or exciting, so I’d rather focus on the ones that matter.

You'll battle hordes of enemies at a time.

This time around, you can manipulate the environment in certain ways. Most notably, you can freeze water and use it to your advantage. For example, if you see spouts of water streaming out the side of a building, you can temporarily freeze them and use them to swing on. Similarly, if you see a waterfall, you can freeze it and run on it as if it were a solid wall.

These freezing powers are accessed by a mere press of a button, and water will stay frozen until you let go of the button, or your power runs out. Later on, this makes for some really tricky (but really fun) sequences in which you must quickly make water solid, liquid, and solid again, depending on whether or not you need to run on it or fly through it.

Another environment power you get later in the game is the ability to “recall” areas of the environment that should be there, but have fallen to ruin. At first, this feels like a total contrivance. You can obviously see where the object in question is supposed to be, and it just seems like a hassle to require the player to press a button in order to interact with it. However, the levels evolve in such a way that this skill seems more important and more entertaining, and by the end I didn’t mind its inclusion.

The controls feel pretty good, and for the most part do their job perfectly. However, I did encounter a few issues where the game would simply not do what I told it to. One of these cases was when I wanted to backtrack a bit in a level, in order to search for a hidden object. As the game was designed for me to go forward, not back, I had a real struggle getting the camera positioned the way I wanted, and then I was unable to make the Prince go exactly where I needed to go, resulting in a few very frustrating deaths. This isn’t a problem for most of the game, which doesn’t try to limit where you go in the world (forward or back), but problem areas certainly exist.

Combat powers can be purchased and upgraded for devestating attacks.

Another such area was near the very end of the game. A certain piece of environment absolutely refused to be “recalled” unless I was positioned exactly where the game wanted me to be, which wasn’t at all where I wanted to be myself. Not only did this result in more frustration, it also resulted in a terrible, terrible glitch that almost forced me to replay through the entire game from the beginning. Part of this stems from the fact that this is only one save game available, and it only ever auto-saves. There is also no form of level select or anything. Kind of a bummer if you want to go back to a favorite section or something.

“The Forgotten Sands” isn’t terribly long – easily under 10 hours – but it is enjoyable. The main problem, though, is that it’s nowhere near as remarkable or memorable as former games in the series, such as the original “Sands of Time” or 2008’s “Prince of Persia.” At times, it certainly feels like a game that they rushed through in order to release it alongside the movie. While it’s certainly better than most movie-related games, and a pretty enjoyable “Prince of Persia” adventure, I do feel like the Prince deserved a little more respect with this game. It could have been better. Instead, it might be more worth a rental than a $60 purchase.

The Wii version of “The Forgotten Sands,” interestingly, is a completely different experience – from story to gameplay. Ubisoft sent us a copy of it alongside this 360 version, so we’ll have a review of that in the future.

Beta Impressions – Blur

Bizzare Creations, known primarily for its popular Project Gotham Racing series as well as the Xbox Live Arcade smash hit Geometry Wars is back with a new racing experience, Blur.

Blur has been called “Mario Kart meets Forza,” and after spending some time with the game myself, that holds very true. The game is a high-speed arcade racer not too unlike Burnout, but the main twist in the gameplay is the addition of power-ups. That’s where Mario Kart comes in. The power-ups vary in function, from weapons to mines, from boosts to shields. How you use these power-ups will be absolutely critical to whether you succeed or fail. You can hold up to three at a time – their symbols are displayed beneath your car as you race, and you can hit the X button (on the 360 at least) to switch between any power-ups you hold.

As fun as this system is, what I found even more appealing was how online play works. They have essentially taken the Modern Warfare model of earning experience and leveling up and placed that into a racing game. The result is just as addictive as it is in a first-person shooter. You earn experience, or “fans,” for drifting, hitting opponents with power-ups, dodging attacks, winning races, etc. You also get bonus points for completing challenges, such as “Hit 5 opponents by launching a bolt backwards.”

This sort of stuff should sound extremely familiar to Modern Warfare veterans, so it should come as no surprise that as you level up, you unlock new gameplay modes and customization features. At level three, you unlock the Mod Shop, which allows you to select three features – basically Perks – for you car, such as doing more damage in collisions, or repairing your car any time you successfully use a shield. You also unlock new cars to use and new gameplay modes to play.

Races can involve anywhere from 2 to 20 racers, which can get pretty crazy considering the Mario Kart-style insanity on the race track. Considering every racer can up to three power-ups at a time, you sometimes have to be really careful not to crash ask lightning and missiles are flying around.

I feel that the game is going to live or die based on its online community. 20-player races can be a blast, but what’s going to happen if you can’t find 19 other people to race against? But if a solid community sticks to the game, I think it could be a big success.

The full game will have what I assume is a rather standard set of single-player features, but I have not had the opportunity to try them myself.

Now for the fun part. There’s still a bit of time before the multiplayer Blur beta ends, and I have three beta  codes to give away. If you want one, just leave a comment on this story with your e-mail address. Three random people will score codes, unless only three people comment, in which case everybody wins.  The beta is for Xbox Live only. Sorry, PS3 users.

Blur is coming soon for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC.

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Level Up – Episode 5: GDC and PlayStation Move

GDC is wrapping up tomorrow, but the biggest news probably already happened. Well, according to Britton, the second biggest piece of news, but regardless, some shizz went down. Obviously, we’re talking about the PlayStation Move announcement from Peter Dille & co. during the Sony keynote on Wednesday. This motion controller revelation trumped even the OnLive official launch date announcement, which is pretty hard to do.

As you’ll notice, I didn’t mention what Britton went gaga over. You’ll just have to listen to find out.

Listen here or download direct.

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