Sunday, December 15, 2013

#20: Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode 1 - DLC Worth Digging Up

Downloadable content rarely receives the same scrutiny as its parent game. It’s not quite taken for granted that DLC is a bad value, but it is certainly a creeping suspicion of the informed consumer. It’s refreshing, then, that Burial at Sea – Episode 1 offers a bite size portion of the main course instead of the tasteless imitation some have come to expect.

Burial at Sea drops the player into Rapture, the underwater objectivist utopia from the first two Bioshock games, right as society seems to be a powder keg ready to blow. You’re still Booker DeWitt, but this time you work as a private detective hired by Elizabeth to . . . well, I’ll stop there. In such a story driven game, the less I share, the better.

The game offers fans of the first two Bioshocks an illuminating glimpse into the day-to-day life inside Rapture before its collapse. Citizens discuss the pressing issues of the day as you walk by, generously heaping story fodder for series vets and setting the stage for those who started with Bioshock: Infinite. Rapture looks noticeably more pleasant when the lights are on, the water stays outside, and hulks in diving suits aren’t trying to skewer you with their drill-fists. Of course, the ugliness is still there, underneath.

The environments are astonishingly detailed.
The gunplay remains benign, with a minor selection of firearms that behave more or less as you’d expect. Luckily, plasmids (or vigors, for those who have never been to Rapture) make a return, giving players a way to ignite, freeze, electrocute, and in general channel their inner Avatar. While many sing Bioshock: Infinite’s praises, I have never found the combat terribly satisfying, especially compared to earlier entries in the series. In a concession to players like me, the “weapon wheel” returns. This simple device allows players to hold all of their weapons at once and switch between them easily on the fly, to my relief. I’m of the opinion that only being able to hold two guns makes sense in some FPS games, but much like it felt anti-fun in Duke Nukem Forever, I felt the same in Infinite.
This scene? Hidden and totally optional.

Burial at Sea – Episode 1 is a campaign that I’ve heard others claim they completed in less than two hours. While I can certainly understand a “point A to point B” playthrough being so thoroughly abbreviated, that is a blistering pace compared to my own. I stopped to absorb every conversation, every environmental detail, every secret. I ended up taking four hours. I imagine the length of a playthrough will vary drastically based on whether one is just playing a shooter or exploring Rapture.

Featuring a fan favorite setting, tried-and-true combat, and even a cool battle with a Big Daddy, Burial at Sea – Episode 1 also sneaks in exposition as far as the eye can “sea” (get it? Sea? Rapture’s at the bottom of the sea. I’ll see myself out). It’s well polished and worthy of the Bioshock name, but could be a bit short for some players’ tastes. To mitigate that, one thing is certain: you’re much better off splurging on the season pass containing all DLC for $20 than paying $15 a la carte for part 1 of Burial at Sea. Now go get it, and try and wrap your head around that ending. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Book Review - 33 and 1/3: "Doolittle"

You can barely throw a limited-run vinyl without hitting a band that claims to be influenced by the Pixies. They stand as one of the most brashly innovative alt rock bands even to this day. As Ben Sisario points out in his entry in the 33 and 1/3 series, “Doolittle”, the seminal album by the same name is so irreplaceable that not only is it never duplicated, it’s rarely even imitated. Even bands that proudly invoke the Pixies heritage seem unwilling or unable to display their bloodlines loud and proud.

So then, why did this album released in 1989 by a small alt rock band sell more copies after their dissolution than during their heyday? Why do their stop-go songs sprinkled with nigh-unintelligible lyrics reeking of sex, death, violence and rage resonate so persistently? Sisario, impressively, comes as close to pinpointing the answers as anyone ever may, combining the style of a storyteller and the attention to detail of a historian.

His book alternates from scenes of personal discussion with lead singer Charles Thompson to insightful and incisive backgrounding on the state of alt rock and the industry. Even for readers with not the slightest clue of why they should care about the Pixies, Sisario presents a compelling case for why the Pixies were and to some extent still are avant garde. You don’t even have to like them. After reading and listening to Doolittle, you will at minimum respect their contributions.

Sisario has the advantage of studying and personally speaking with Charles Thompson at a time providing clarity of hindsight. Thompson and his band have since reunited in 2004 for touring and begun producing new music only recently, though with a slightly shuffled roster.

Pixies songs have long perplexed listeners with their lyrics. Thompson explains his inspiration and songwriting process in detail, reaffirming some claims he’s made all along while at other times providing glimpses into authentic meanings. Citing surrealist filmmakers as influences on his style, Thompson might have lost the reader if it weren’t for Sisario’s constant and highly welcome explanation.

While Sisario occasionally includes the terse input of guitarist Joey Santiago, drummer David Lovering had little to offer and estranged bassist Kim Deal seems to have stonewalled any attempts to include her side of the Pixies story. A regrettable exclusion, though it does not noticeably impact Sisario’s ability to explain why the music itself matters. In fact, he admirably avoids mucking most of the book with personal interjection until the very end, where his 121-pages-proven musical chops give him more than enough clout to draw some conclusions.

Readers of “Doolittle” might find themselves surprised, impressed, taken aback, disappointed, or all of the above. It will depend largely on their existing knowledge of the Pixies. Musical pariahs who have long claimed Pixies songs to be overrated strummings behind rambling incoherence might find themselves googling “un chien andalou.” On the other hand, members of the if-you-haven’t-heard-the-Pixies-you-don’t-really-know-about-music-at-all club might find themselves ever so slightly disillusioned. Sorry guys, “Silver” really doesn’t mean anything. Even Thompson himself doesn’t know what it’s about, describing the lyrics as “throwaway rhymes.”

Sisario’s thesis on Doolittle is incredibly approachable, weaving personal encounters of the alt rock-kind with well-researched conclusions and elaboration. He leaves even the completely oblivious with a rock solid grasp of why musically inclined folks can’t seem to shut up about the Pixies, while at the same time satiating alumni with fascinating minutiae and inside stories from the band. I would go so far as to say that this little analysis stands as a necessary companion for any owner of “Doolittle”, an album that will forever mark a paradigm shift in alt rock history.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Music Review: Avicii - True-ly Great

Avicii has made a name for himself ahead of the release of his first full album through a string of hit singles including “Seek Bromance, “Fade Into Darkness”, “Levels” and “I Could Be The One”. Indeed, being personally invited to a weekly residency in Ibiza by none other than dance music king Tiesto himself is a sign you’re on your way up. Luckily for just about everyone, Avicii’s newest album lives up to the hype and delivers (almost) twelve infectiously danceable tracks.

The album opens with his teaser single, “Wake Me Up”, immediately catching the listener with his or her guard down. It’s twangy, it’s country, but it’s still got the up-tempo thump and bump that keeps one expecting something more. It’s a dance song, after all; there’s always something more. Amidst the wobbled strums of probably-a-banjo, pensive vocals belt out between choruses that make any room without a dance floor feel incomplete. “Wake Me Up”, more than any other song on the album, is a foolproof crowd pleaser.

“You Make Me” features a ferociously pounded piano beat paired with standard up-and-down synth, punctuated by sections of falsetto calm. An enjoyable foray into angry 88-key instrumentation, but mostly just above average filler.

“Hey Brother” returns to the fascinating country-dance fusion, opening with over thirty seconds devoid of any variety of synth and taking nearly two full minutes to achieve dance frenzy status. This is an eternity in dance music time. Still, while the horns triumph during the few sections conceding supposed genre of the album, the song drives home Avicii’s unique, uncompromising style. Dance music needs more of that.

“Addicted to You” continues the trend, with throaty female vocals reminiscent of Florence or Adele alongside well-balanced piano and bass. It is at this point that a listener who is not a fan of dance music might realize the feat the album has pulled off: you can just listen to it and tap your foot sometimes, if you prefer. The song transitions passively into “Dear Boy”, where velvety and passionate Lana Del Ray vocals feel as if lifted from a dusty record, placed between now-you’re-talkin’ bouts of dirty, wobbly thumps and synth. A song that pushes all the right buttons, but might be a tad too long.

The anger of “Liar Liar” stands in contrast to the prior moodiness. Svelt female vocal amalgamations alongside Avicii’s new pet piano build the listener up. In chorus, one man’s angry claim summons the only organ solo in recent memory into a dance music album.

A vague flavor of enthusiastic ragtime boogie lingers around “Shame On Me”, with a faster tempo that invites vigorous footwork almost enabling swing dancing, of all things. A merry arrangement of prior-mentioned ingredients are featured here, but overall this song is somewhat stale.

“Lay Me Down” is a throwback, a nod to the days of “Sweet Dreams” and “Stayin’ Alive” being dance floor material. Austin Powers would feel at home. “Hope There’s Someone”, on the other hand, opens with over a minute of emotional, bare-bones female vocal solo, building alongside that piano again into a drop into nothing but vocals, into the final drop that would no doubt cause a frenzy in a live venue if for no other reason than the nearly five minute wait.

“Heart Upon My Sleeve”, while overall dull and lacking vocals, at least offers an attention-grabbing choice on Avicii’s part: angsty cellos find their home in front of standard wubs, ticka-tickas, bonks and synth-waves.

Sadly, the album ends on somewhat of a weak note, with “Canyon” offering a by-the-numbers dance floor beat. “All You Need Is Love” similarly offers fare that’s enjoyable yet forgettable, though it at least has pleasant vocal injections to prevent the album from ending on a completely sober, inhuman note.

Avicii’s first full album, “True”, is somehow accessible while incorporating elements in directions other dance musicians may not have even considered treading, let alone feared. It stops short of greatness at the precipice, but that’s what playlists are for. Your party probably wasn’t going to feature only Avicii anyway, right?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Anime Review: Gurren Lagann - My MacGuffin Shall Pierce the Heavens

Gurren Lagann is a strange beast. It’s a 26 episode anime that is self-aware yet sloppy, childish yet undeniably clever. The same studio that created the critically acclaimed half-season anime FLCL is responsible for Gurren Lagann. Whereas FLCL aggressively subverted genre norms to the point of nearly disowning it altogether, Gurren Lagann is not quite as daring. It ends up relying heavily on winks and nods to the absurdity of giant fighting mech animes combined with a blistering pace to keep viewers interested.

The vantage from which one views Gurren Lagann will have a drastic influence on what you see. I have little doubt the show was created for those with an appreciation of (as opposed to disdain for) common anime themes and tropes. Various fighting robots in downright silly designs attack each other with their signature moves while yelling the move’s name in a way that reminded me of watching Digimon when I was eight years old. Characters regurgitate inspirational “good guys win through fighting spirit” babble and “resistance is futile” taunts. No one (well, almost no one) seems to face ultimate defeat when they lose. They’ll be back.

From my perspective, there are three real reasons to watch Gurren Lagann.

The first reason is the pacing. Even if you find yourself predicting the outcome of the episode or even the next five episodes, your prediction stretches further into a story than many shows would dare go in two entire seasons. Just as Gurren Lagann has a hyper-sweet anime flavor, it also has a skim milk sensibility for getting to the point. The story travels outward (figuratively and literally) at an alarming rate, functioning as both an element of the plot and a great way to avoid boring those who feel they’ve seen much of it before.

The second reason to watch Gurren Lagann is the way it subverts expectations. This does not contradict the earlier point about playing into the hands of the classic hero-with-special-abilities-versus-evil plot skeleton; on the contrary, the story relies on the way the protagonist has a special power and drives nearly the entire plot forward using this MacGuffin. Gurren Lagann uses the ham-fisted and full-frontal anime elements to deliver sucker punches at several key points in the series right where viewers least expect it.

As opposed to Game of Thrones, in which it becomes apparent for better or worse that anyone is fair game for any kind of misfortune, Gurren Lagann has some internal consistency issues. Still, it keeps the story fresh and signals unexpected shifts in tone and motivation. These dramatic shifts are why many Gurren Lagann fans will say they loved one portion of the series, but were lukewarm on another.

Finally, Gurren Lagann is an anime for people who like anime. The hero has an explicable power making them better, but they have to grow as a person. Pilots will have long-winded conversations in split-second timespans. Epic fights full of overblown carnage will generally leave anyone important unscathed. Everyone thinks grunting and nodding is a valid response. Events that don’t make sense visually will be explained in completely unapologetic forced exposition. And if you watch much anime, you’ll see that even when events take an unexpected turn, they’re turning from homaging one kind of played-out anime storytelling to another. 

The show knows what it’s doing. It’s just checking to see if you do too.

I enjoyed Gurren Lagann, and I can appreciate what it was trying to achieve. However, after 26 episodes, I had become frustrated and bored with the laziness of the storytelling and the constant stream of nonsensical escalation and plot devices. One can't hold a conversation entirely with winks and nods. I can recommend it primarily because it’s short and because after this review, you should know what you’re getting into: if you don’t watch anime, Gurren Lagann will not change your mind. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Book Review: The Cuckoo's Calling - From Wizards to Detectives

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” has received more than its fair share of buzz following the news that Robert Galbraith is actually a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling (which is, itself, a pseudonym). The book is simply too solid to be a true debut, as many critics agreed upon release. As the author of a series so famous and universally loved as the Harry Potter books, it’s no surprise then that Rowling has created an enjoyable novel that scores high on easy readability while still providing quality storytelling that readers crave.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a lean story. Like Rowling’s previous books, there’s very little fat dangling off the edges, ready to bloat the reader with unnecessary information. This is quite a feat for a 464 page detective thriller, a genre that Rowling had not yet touched and now attempts for reasons unknown. The result is a story that starts where it should start, ends where it should end, and keeps the reader guessing and turning pages the whole way through.

Private Investigator Cormoran Strike is not a man who is friends with good fortune. A leg lost to a landmine in Afghanistan, a rollercoaster romance ending in a wreck, and his struggling business leave him with almost nothing. It’s only when he is approached to reinvestigate the months-old suicide of world-renowned super model Lula Landry that he finds an outlet for his energy. All the evidence points toward suicide, with little information to lean on. He throws himself into this high-profile case that has long since been closed because he desperately needs the money and distraction, but soon finds that perhaps there’s more happening in the high-flying world of the super rich and regrettably famous than meets the eye. His temp that he can’t afford, Robin, brings a contagious enthusiasm for detective work helps keep Strike on the right track and sane.

Rowling makes the shift from the puerile though enjoyable wizard fiction of Harry Potter to the world of the reader, shared by this detective. Removing the whiz-bang of wands and puberty, “The Cuckoo’s Calling” instead offers an edgier, grown-up and worn-down character in the form of Strike that succeeds spectacularly considering how much more practice Rowling has in the realm of coming-of-age and ministries of magic.

As mentioned, Strike doesn’t have much going for him at the outset of the book:

“Other people his age had houses and washing machines, cars and television sets, furniture and gardens and mountain bikes and lawnmowers: he had four boxes of crap, and a set of matchless memories.”

Despite his troubled childhood of frequent free-spirited uprooting and shabby parenting, Strike is a cool, calm, and nearly unshakable figure. With nerves of carbon fiber (because steel isn’t strong enough), he extracts what he’s looking for from witnesses, suspects, family members, and friends-of-friends. Each new encounter is a pleasure to read, as Strike exercises his practiced and perfected art of gathering a thousand little puzzle pieces and fragments of memories from eccentric figures throughout London’s social strata.

From his office in London, Strike embarks on a distinctly modern detective tale. While historically famous investigative thrillers might take place before the advent of the computer or even electric lighting, Strike gathers information with the help of London’s ubiquitous security cameras, smart phones, and Google. Deducing the past with the help of designer brands and records of who-called-who while chowing down on a Big Mac helps lend the drama an air of recency.

Strike’s emotional duress also ensures that our expert detective is a human with emotions and needs. Of course, his stoic avoidance of self-pity both endears him to his reader and keeps him going through a time that would crack most people. In a moment of self-reflection, Strike considers:

“Seven and a half million hearts were beating in close proximity in this heaving old city, and many, after all, would be aching far worse than his.”

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” is littered with “Strikisms”, little observations of human nature and the modern world vaguely pertaining to the case. His thoughts, even unspoken, always reveal themselves in the calm and clinical verbiage of a detective accustomed to considering and including all available information:

“Couples tended to be of roughly equivalent personal attractiveness, though of course factors such as money often seemed to secure a partner of significantly better looks than oneself.”

The story tightly follows a theme of social class, income and privilege. Strike himself has a complex background reaching both up and down the social ladder. Each person he interviews is clearly represented as having their own unique destitution or opulence, each placed in stark contrast as Strike alternates from speaking to the homeless to investigating a night club.

And yet, Rowling (and by extent, Strike) stays refreshingly far away from the temptation to editorialize about the superior lives that the wealthy and famous live. If anything, it makes clear the toxic nature of fame and money on both those who seek it and those who have it. As Strike ponders:

“How easy … to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.”

The story breathes life into London as Strike walks down Charing Cross, takes the tubes, grumbles at construction and grabs a pint. With each new character testimony introduced, readers find themselves slowly piecing together the tragic life of Lula Landry. Disaffected and detached, The Cuckoo’s Calling presents the glitz and glamour of the celebrity life in all of its dismissed irritating details, casting a garish light on our infatuation with rich humans.

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” deliberately defies and subverts many genre norms of crime fiction. Far from a hard broiled detective in a noir world of dames and robbery, it features a protagonist with real problems, real (though stereotypically masculine) responses, and a tragic crime. The suspects, the secretary, everything about the supporting cast doesn’t just fall into a lame trope. It’s down to earth and so is Strike, which is to his distinct advantage in his investigation.

The book may be lean, but it also sticks insistently to the kindergarten advice of using words instead of violence. In our day to day lives this is excellent advice, but in a detective thriller tailored for modern audiences one might expect a bit more action instead of pure, Holmesian deduction. Rowling puts the weight of developing the investigation almost entirely on characterization and conversation for most of the book, and like Strike’s hulking frame on his prosthetic leg, carrying such a burden for so long can cause irritation.

Without giving away too much, I also found the conclusion of the story to be unsatisfactory. After putting so much effort into making a detective novel fresh and exciting, it felt like a cheesy about-face.

Taken together, “The Cuckoo’s Calling” is a modern detective story about fame, fortune, and family ties. It’s not a heavy read, it features “tell me more”-worthy characters, and it’s all tied together with that inherently suspenseful IV drip of clues for the case. While some might complain that they expect more zip-bang-pow action for their buck in crime fiction, I think the book is more palatable, interesting, and universally enjoyable as a result of the shifted emphasis.

Despite the few disappointments, I still like the idea of a sequel with Cormoran Strike. If Rowling grew as attached to the characters as I did then perhaps she will oblige.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

#19: Hotline Miami - Some of That Good Old Fashioned Ultraviolence

It might seem a tad strange to begin my own review by borrowing the words of someone else's. However, with a description as fitting as the one made by Sophie Prell over at The Penny Arcade Report, I feel I might be excused:

"Hotline Miami is the split second between an inhale and an exhale. It’s the rush that comes from planning, thinking ahead of how you’ll react once that door in front of you is busted open and the white-tux, bald-headed baddies are heading your way."

Brutally murdering bad(?) guys in Hotline Miami is simple yet rewarding in a way that even the most visceral and eye-candy-bloated triple-A action games fail to achieve. Barging from room to room and ruthlessly cutting down your enemies with increasing efficiency, players have only the most basic control functions combined with a hair-thin margin for error. It's twitchy, reflex-driven, with a hint of sadistic plotting.

Good job, everyone is dead!
The brilliant art and sound direction shines even brighter through the limitations of pixel art and 8-bit bleeps. As you don different unlockable animal masks that grant unique powers, you'll witness blood spattered against every imaginable surface, shades of neon and dirty light at every turn. It draws heavy and obvious inspiration from Drive and Miami Vice. In particular, the psychedelic soundtrack merits a listen or three even if you never touch the game.

Your journey through this trippy, hazy tale of an unstrustworthy narrator will become ever more perplexing. While some have hailed Hotline Miami for its story, I believe that the story and the message of Hotline Miami are two subjects that need to be divided.

The plot struck me as a deliberately incoherent trip designed purposely to leave the player confused. It resulted in a tale akin to those magic eye illusions on children's cereal boxes and magazines: if you look but don't focus too hard, you'll see something cool. From what I can tell through some basic background research, the story may very well have no correct interpretation. Some people appreciate this narrative trick; I tend to feel betrayed.

As you might guess, you ordinarily do not survive even one bullet.

Separately and more importantly, however, Hotline Miami makes the player feel uncomfortable. The game doesn't glorify violence, and it doesn't even reward it; it's simply necessary to play. Everyone on each stage must die, full stop. There's an unease that settles in, I hope, with every player as they plumb further into the depths of Hotline Miami. With that unease comes this question: "Why am I having fun doing this? Do I even care what reason I have?" Unlike, for example, the Uncharted or Assassin's Creed series', no effort is made to hide the player from the fact that they're assigned to murdering dozens of people at a time.

At only $9.99 and available on PC, PS3, and PSVita, Hotline Miami brings a lot to the brain-splattered table. Though I played it on PC with an Xbox 360 controller, its blistering pace and short sessions strike me as perfectly suited to a handheld; if you've got a Vita, you have little excuse for not picking it up.

4 out of 5

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Movie Review: Elysium - Self-indulgently Macho Sci-fi Satire

Elysium stands as an excellent example how to fashion a brilliant setting welded to a political statement and then largely waste the effort. While Neill Blomkamp succeeded in social commentary via sci-fi in his previous outing, Distrinct 9, his new movie Elysium failed to convince me that this splendid society of economic inequality was created for something more than furistic gunshots and exo-suit powered fist fights.

The story takes place in 2154. Matt Damon is the Earth-bound Max, a man with a criminal past just trying to make his way on a planet that has long since been abandoned by the wealthy elite. This patrician class has fled the desolate and ruined surface to a luxurious man-made habitat satellite in the sky called Elysium. When he finds himself with only a few days to live, he makes it his desperate mission to travel to Elysium where his solution awaits.

With Jodie Foster playing homeland security chief for the satellite promised land, the two soon find themselves at odds. Max battles an agent in her employ, Kruger (Sharlto Copley). Kruger is amoral, lives for combat, and has a terribly confusing accent. And of course, he has a major case of JWD (Just Won’t Die).

This conflict steals the show, but not for the better. The brutality of their back-and-forth devours the intended satirical effect of the movie. I was left longing for more exposition about the fascinating state of Elysium, or the day-to-day toils of those down on the surface of Earth. Instead, I got explosions, guns, and fistfights. These could have been lifted from any number of movies you’ve seen before. For example, within the whole fascinating world of Elysium, Blomkamp chose to put a protracted ten minute fight seen on a barren patch of dirt. Not only are the fights nothing special, they aren’t even performed on the proper stage.

With a premise as promising as Elysium’s, every punch thrown and shot fired felt like another wasted opportunity. It seems to me like Blomkamp might have taken the wrong lesson from his previous movie, District 9, ascribing its success to the action-packed bits at the end. What made that movie splendid was its attention to world-building and the characters that lived there. On the other hand, Elysium teases a dystopian future with depth to spare, yet barely dips a toe in the pool and fails to deliver characters that can carry the story. Perhaps next time Blomkamp ventures back into the realm of bleak sci-fi as social commentary, he’ll give his viewers a bit more credit.

#18: The Showdown Effect - Carnage and Cliche

The Showdown Effect is a mish-mosh of action movie tropes proudly assembled in the form of a 2.5D action sidescroller. Surprisingly, it focuses on fast-paced multiplayer matches with several unique game modes, with no true single player mode. These games are no longer than your average session of Call of Duty, with an equally impressive body count. Competition is fierce, and the skill required to be the best is deceptively high. If you're into skill-based multiplayer games and have a hankerin' for something fresh after you've exhausted Chivalry: Medieval Warfare and Natural Selection 2, then The Showdown Effect delivers.

There are two basic varieties of weaponry: ranged and melee. Ranged weapons hit the opponent only if you click directly on the opponent, not behind them, a task that can be more difficult than expected. Melee weapons, on the other hand, deal massive damage and can be used to deflect incoming damage but are by their very nature more difficult to touch an opponent with. Add to this mix some dodge rolls, dives, bandaging, special moves, customized loadouts, wacky game modes, and active reloads a la Gears of War and you've got a Showdown.

Why shoot while standing when you can shoot while wall-jumping?
The basic deathmatch mode did not impress me. I found it to be relatively slow paced and uninteresting. With no single-player to speak of, the choice cuts of Showdown Effect lie in the less-played modes of One Man Army and The Expendables (referencing this). One Man Army is a different take on the classic FPS variant called Juggernaut. Everyone gets one turn per round as a super-powerful character while everyone else gangs up on them. The One Man Army who gets the most cumulative kills during their turn is declared winner.

My favorite, however, was The Expendables. Both teams are the same size, but one is stronger, spawns with their loadouts and special abilities, and can self-heal. How could the other team possibly win with their weaker characters and randomized weapons? Simple: they have instant respawn times while the super-team respawn timer gets longer and longer. Then teams switch. A sample game:

I join a game and choose Dutch McClone, whose terrific and intentionally generic backstory involves having no memory, being a clone and trying to figure out who took away his memory. My loadout has me using dual hand-crossbows, a rifle, and a golden ax. I load in on the overpowered team, where we fend off the henchman hordes for about twenty or thirty points. Suddenly, things go downhill: two team members fall, with respawn times above forty seconds.
Blue here is on the "Heroes" team, so if he dies to that rocket, he's got a long
respawn timer ahead of him. 

I flee from the marauding hordes of rocket-toting rabble. They outnumber my remaining teammate and me, and we both know our only hope is to run, try and pick them off one at a time, and stall until we can re-assemble. The tension of holding out against the endless henchmen as long as possible is one of the most enjoyable multiplayer moments I've had in recent memory, made even better by playing on a team with a few friends.

I do doubt the long-term replay value of the Showdown Effect, but I would have also said the same about games like Call of Duty. Many gamers continue to play the franchise with only glacially slow modifications to the formula, so what's fun may stay fun.

There is also the issue of map variety and the amount that player skill can be tested by awareness of surroundings. There are limits to how much these factors matter in a game that only moves from side to side. Bringing some buddies will drastically improve your mileage; when you get tired of gibbing folks with your shotgun, you can always get into a healthy diving-enemies-off-of-cliffs competition.

Its shortcomings aside, the Showdown Effect is a kitchen sink-salad of disparate game genres that shouldn't work nearly so well as it does. The simple deathmatch I first jumped into underwhelmed me, but my experimentation with the novel game modes alongside my friends made it clear that the risks Paradox took making this were rewarded. As I often find myself saying in my reviews, for $2.50 on sale or $10 full price, it's a worthy purchase. I'd more strongly recommend a 4-pack though; this is a game best played on a team with three friends.


Monday, August 12, 2013

#17: FTL: Faster Than Light - Boldly Go Where You'll Go Many Times Again

In FTL: Faster Than Light, you captain a starship on a secret mission. You carry information critical to the success of the last stand of the Federation fleet. As you can imagine, the "Federation" isn't doing too well if they're having a last stand. Outer space is full of people that want to shoot missiles, lasers, and people into your spaceship until it blows up. Once it blows up, it's game over, and it will blow up. And you will start over. But that's how the game works.

You see, FTL is randomly generated each time. As you jump from waypoint to waypoint across the stars evading the advancing rebel fleet, unpredictable encounters with enemies and conditional-friends will help you collect fuel, missiles, weapons and scrap with which to upgrade your ship. Upgrading is essential: the opposing ships rapidly increase in power and will leave you in the dust unless you use every trick in the book to stay alive and make your ship battle ready.

The UI is initially overwhelming, but you'll quickly be rerouting power from healing bay to shielding like a pro.
A typical game sees me starting out in my bare-bones ship, sending my crew members to their stations and warping to the nearest point of interest. I encounter a basic automated drone; because knocking out the oxygen will do nothing, I opt for the simple and direct approach of blasting at its shield generator until it explodes in a shower of debris, awarding me with some scrap.

Next, I find a slave ship. It offers to sell me a slave for a sum of scrap I cannot afford. My other two options are to fight it or leave. I opt to fight it; after beating their ship within a few seconds of death, they offer me terms of surrender: I take a slave for free, or else they will all die. Acknowledging my need for another crew member more than scrap, I agree to their terms. My crew member is not human, though; he's a rock-person, with 50% more HP, fire resistance, and half speed.

Jumping to the next waypoint, I encounter a planet of strange, six-legged, doe-eyed creatures. I am given the option of harvesting them to sell or attempting to communicate with them peacefully. In my greed, I opt to harvest them for money, only to have them turn aggressive and kill one of my crew members.

The best part is that eventually, your ship will be unprepared. You'll be boarded and your crew overpowered, your ship obliterated by overwhelming firepower, or simply gimped by an opposing ship that knocks out your engines and has defenses you can't penetrate in time.

"That's the best part?" you might be justified in asking. "Dying?" 

Of course it's impervious to heat. I mean, why wouldn't it be?

Yes. It is the knowledge that your ship is woefully unprepared that makes the run when the stars align and you power your way through the universe that much sweeter. For those who have ever played The Binding of Isaac or another rogue-like, it's the blistering difficulty and element of the unknown combined with permanent death that makes every attempt intense and enjoyable.

If it was not already obvious, I've enjoyed my time with FTL. I admit it was improved by my appreciation of sci-fi TV shows like Star Trek and Firefly, but I think that's more of a cherry on top than anything. However, the game has a few snafus.

After a few runs, it starts to feel like there are too many ship fighting events and not enough of everything else. The way ship shielding works can create a brick wall for players that, through sheer luck, are unable to properly equip themselves with appropriate weaponry in time, and this can be frustrating when it puts an end to an otherwise flawless run. And lastly, without revealing too much, you may very well never fully complete the game, and I would not blame you.

Despite its flaws, I think FTL is one of the most bold. inventive, and lets not forget fun indie games around. I recommend it sincerely and particularly because it is only $15 even at full price.

4.5 out of 5

If you found this review useful, please comment below, follow me on twitter @CraigCainkar, and follow, share, bookmark, staple, or lick this blog if you enjoyed it! And if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in future entries, please leave that in the comments as well. If you suggest a game and I own it, I'll play it for a future entry.

Monday, July 15, 2013

#16: Dust: An Elysian Tail - A Furry Case of the Metroidvanias

Dust: An Elysian Tail is an exercise in genre-blending. With its 2D platforming elements and slowly trickling supply of new tools to navigate hidden areas, it quickly prompts comparison to the famous Metroid and Castlevania games. Where it diverges noticeably, however, is in its approach to combat. Put simply, it's a brain-melting frenzy of projectiles, sparks and numbers, with combo counts in the hundreds for even basic enemies.

There's probably a Dragon Ball Z move to reference here,
but it's not one that I'm familiar with. Missed opportunity.
Within minutes, I was hitting X, Y and B in essentially random arrangements, with my Dust (the name of the protagonist) soaring into the sky, comboing baddies with my talking sword, and flooding my screen in a manner I would normally expect from a Japanese bullet-hell shooter. I was expecting the classic game design trick of "now that you know how powerful you can be, we'll take away all your powers!" But it never came. You start Dust: An Elysian Tail with most of your combat skills, and quickly gain those that remain. The rest of the game feels like that final hour of most RPGs when the player is a nigh-indestructible demigod. Once you gain a basic grasp of how to fight, the game actually expects you to achieve 300+ hit combos: you gain bonus experience for chaining hits! And you will. It's easy and satisfying to alternate between covering the screen in projectiles to stack up your combo meter and attacking foes directly to recharge your special gauge.

As you can see, the whirly-blur is using lightning to create
yellow numbers out of the purple smears.
The RPG elements spill over to the quest-driven nature of the game, with towns full of NPCs just chomping at the bit to send you off on a fetch quest. You equip Dust with various armor which enemies can drop or by crafting recipes using specialized materials (that enemies drop and are sold in stores). Level ups let you prioritize your favorite stats first, although for the most part it doesn't make a huge difference.

In fact, there were only two occasions I wasn't enjoying myself during Dust. The first was any time I was being forced to
backtrack because enemies respawn in rooms behind you.
Luckily, this did not happen too often.

Beware: for better or worse, this critter follows you all game.
The second issue, unfortunately, was more front and center: the characters and plot fell completely flat for
me. Within the first ten minutes, Dust is established as an incredibly talented warrior with amnesia who is mysteriously united with a sentient, talking sword. Without going further than that, I can assure you things don't get much better. If that weren't groan worthy enough, your flying orange squirrel companion has an appearance and irritating voice straight out of Digimon. In fact, all the main characters had melodramatic voice acting combined with hackneyed writing that made me want to play with subtitles only. Additionally, the decision to make every single character an anthropomorphic anime animal did not fit the attempted seriousness of the story. If you were wondering why the subtitle says "tail" instead of "tale", that's why.

It's my opinion that Dust: An Elysian Tail is an excellent expansion upon the 2D platformer explore-a-thon genre typified by games like Metroid, adding incredibly stylized combat to the mix and empowering the player with more RPG elements. The attempt to introduce a serious plot using essentially cartoon animal characters, though it fell flat, was at least an admirable risk. For $7.50, I'd certainly recommend giving it a shot. Go grab it while it's on sale.

4 out of 5

Sunday, June 9, 2013

#15: Darksiders II - Who Knew Death Could Be So Much Fun?

I must admit that I originally planned on reviewing both the original Darksiders and the sequel, but I found that there were enough similarities that discussing them back to back would be a waste of words. So instead, I opted to talk about by far my favorite of the two: Darksiders II.

Both games are a mash-up of several other famous game franchises, Darksiders II even more so. This creative franken-game combines the combat of God of War with the loot and talent system of Diablo II, the questing of an MMORPG, the wall-running gymnastics of Prince of Persia, the dungeoneering of Legend of Zelda, and even a little bit of Portal. While some might expect these elements to jive poorly, I found them to combine to create a game greater than the sum of the ingredients.

Fans of Norse settings will love the first 1/3 of the game
3rd person shooter section? Why not?
Perhaps you've seen Darksiders before and been intrigued by the darkly ornate art style or the classic "Angels and demons, heaven and hell" setting. Both games are heavy on the visual flair and light on the story, so appreciating the aesthetic is important. I could tell you everything you need to know about the story of both games in about three sentences, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers I will simply say that you play as Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I am personally a huge fan of what they've accomplished both in character design and in their environments. Whether tearing into an enemy with dual scythes or simply galloping about the overworld, I found myself marveling at my surroundings and taking copious screenshots.

The combat in Darksiders II, as mentioned earlier, borrows heavily from God of War. What makes it unique is the presence of equipment and two distinct skill trees that lend themselves to either a merciless melee-heavy shredding machine or minion-and-ranged necromancer play style. You can painlessly respecialize Death with a simple trip to a vendor, so players can feel free to experiment with whichever style they prefer. The equipment drops off of enemies and from chests throughout the game, and comes in multiple levels of rarity, including legendary weapons from specific bosses and possessed weapons that players can "feed" extra items in order to boost their stats. The level of customization the player is offered for combat is frankly remarkable for this style of game.

Most dungeons have some kind of twist. This one gives you huge
rolling stone golems with rocket fists.
Death finds himself plundering Legend of Zelda style dungeons with regularity in Darksiders II, even down to the grappling hooks, bombs, switch puzzles, and long-running collect-a-thon sidequests. While the puzzles never quite seem to reach too far in complexity, they're enough to make most players do a double-take before coming up with a solution. The original Darksiders had puzzles that were too easy for most of the game, but the follow-up gets it right. Darksiders II is not a short game, either; it contains a solid 20 to 30 hours of gameplay for those who do the side quests, and that's before the "New Game+" that lets you bring all of your equipment, levels, and stats into a second playthrough.

Death's "Reaper Form" is only available in short bursts, but
 is completely awesome and unstoppable.
I came very close to ending this review with a wholehearted seal of approval, but I simply can't in good conscience ignore a few major flaws, particularly in reference to the DLC (an area of discussion that often doesn't get a proper review; aren't you glad I was late to the party now?)

First of all, the game never explains the stats beyond giving you a number that goes up or down. I guess most gamers can probably figure out that "Strength" helps you with melee attacks while "Arcane" helps you with abilities, but what about melee attack abilities? What about abilities that summon minions? Does it increase the health of the minions or the damage? What about defense, does that reduce all damage? Is it a linear reduction or are there diminishing returns to stacking defense? What does "health regen: 36" even mean, that isn't a rate! While this might seem like nitpicking, I believe that trawling the internet to find this information is ridiculous when it's central to the function of your character.

The Darksiders franchise has a uniquely mechanical
take on the appearance of angels.
The second issue is that the DLC has some quality control issues. The first DLC, Argul's Tomb, is very bland, with the only highlight being the use of an icy mountainous setting. The second DLC, The Abyssal Forge, is acceptable though short. The third DLC, The Demon Lord Belial, is fine enough . . . if you can even play it without your game crashing.

See, there's a crippling freeze bug in Darksiders II that can happen to anyone but tends to rear its head for players working their way through the DLC, particularly those who reach the third one. Eventually, your character's safe file is "too big" for what the game is set up to handle, and basic actions will cause the game to crash. Despite this being known for months prior to THQ's own death, it was never fixed.

Luckily, one intrepid internet troubleshooter created an executable that fixes this bug as long as your Darksiders II game is saved in the Steam default location. I personally thanked him for his troubles, as it allowed me to finish playing this otherwise enjoyable game. For those who are interested, you can find it here (make sure to turn off Steam auto-updates for Darksiders II after applying the fix):

The Verdict

Darksiders II was an excellent hybrid of several phenomenal game franchises. In addition, it has its own endearingly intense and unabashedly over-the-top artistic direction. I recommend Darksiders II to nearly anyone who enjoys one of the "component games", with the caveat that you might need to do some self-troubleshooting. The publisher THQ is now defunct, so I can only pray that someday the IP for Darksiders gets picked up and a third entry (starring Fury or Strife) is given the attention it so clearly deserves.

4 out of 5

Thanks for reading! Please comment below, follow me on twitter @CraigCainkar, and follow, share, bookmark, staple, or lick this blog if you enjoyed it! And if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in future entries, please leave that in the comments as well. If you suggest a game and I own it, I'll play it for a future entry.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

#14: Resistance: Burning Skies - Better Than Nothing

As I was just freed from a lengthy 17 hours worth of flights, you can imagine that I had an awful lot of time to kill. I spent a reasonable chunk of that time sleeping awkwardly in the fetal position, to take advantage of the adjacent empty seat. At some point I clawed the businessman next seat over in half-awake confusion.

The other chunk of time was spent playing my freshly purchased PS Vita that came with Resistance: Burning Skies. I'm aware it's not a Steam game, but I personally believe that consoles and handhelds have great offerings as well. Unfortunately, this particular entry in the Resistance franchise was average in almost every way, which was both a slight disappointment and better than nothing, especially considering a certain critically-reamed Call of Duty spin-off on the Vita.

The gameplay is everything you'd expect from a shooter on the Vita, which comes with the caveat of "there is no gold standard for what to expect from a shooter on the Vita". You aim down various gun barrels at various baddies, with just enough of both to be kind of interesting. There's generous aim correction out of necessity, because even though the Vita has two control sticks, they simply cannot replicate a console controller.

Because the plot is just so incredibly forgettable and cliche (you play as a one-man-army fireman fighting for his family), Resistance: Burning Skies really depended on the gunplay to save it and only barely succeeded. Enemy AI is a joke; they move in a jerky, illogical manner and seem to always enter the battle in strategic locations in lieu of actually having any logic governing their behavior to lead them there. There are really only five types of standard enemies, each assigned a specific gun, and they all have quirks that don't feel quite intended. For example, I found the enemy type that sports the wall-penetrating "Augur" gun to be easily countered by stepping left and right and firing an Augur back at him. They don't seem very inclined to move while shooting.

Generally when I died, it was because I was caught by an enemy with a clean line of sight on you at close range. I get the impression enemy accuracy was reduced by giving them unnaturally high bullet spread; this means that when even the lowest level baddie gets a few feet away, he can still kill you in two seconds by himself. I think switching it to "Hard" would have perhaps caused me to die to other things as well, but even on normal, point blank enemies hurt so bad that the shotgun was often too dangerous to use.

You need to be able to make your own fun in Resistance: Burning Skies. Your various weapons all have imaginative secondary fire modes, like the franchise trademark "Bullseye" automatic rifle's "tag" that causes all bullets fired to home in on the tagged target. Because the environments are lazily-made hallways with cover leading to rooms with cover leading to hallways with cover, the only meaningful variety must come from the player's usage of their toys.

Let me put it this way. Resistance: Burning Skies is not worth the price unless you are truly a die-hard Resistance fan or you're desperate for a shooter on the Vita. I personally acquired my Vita for so cheap that the copy of Resistance was just a bonus, so I don't feel slighted in the least.

I'm going to start assigning numerical values to my evaluation of games, because the way I look at it, if Tom Chick can end up on Metacritic while shattering the "game review scale" under the justification of total subjectivity (2/10 for Halo 4?), then my number is just as good. So...

2 out of 5

Thanks for reading. Please comment below, follow me on twitter @CraigCainkar, and follow, share, bookmark, staple, or lick this blog if you enjoyed it! If you agree, disagree, or have something to add, please comment below! I'll give you a personalized response.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

#13: To The Moon - I Hope They Have Kleenex There

Borrowed from the Wiki page!
If you've ever wished your video games made you get weepy more often, then To The Moon is the game for you. We're going to cover some ground similar to my Dear Esther review here, but rest assured that I think To The Moon stands on its own two feet as an enjoyable experience. Just make sure to play it alone and in one sitting, because it's like a movie both in structure and length.

To The Moon is a touching story about fulfilling a dying mans wish to, you guessed it, go to the moon.. It's got a sort of science-fiction tint to it since it's done through a device that allows traveling through memories and modifying them in a manner similar to a combination of Inception and Memento. As with any tearjerker story, a romance is involved. Considering the game uses a retro pixel-heavy art style, you've got to have at least a little bit of imagination for it to work, but I think the creator has done an admirable job.

To The Moon's gameplay is shallow at best. It can be played with a gamepad, arrows and spacebar, or a mouse as a point and click adventure, but it makes little difference because there is no skill element whatsoever except for a simplistic panel-flipping mini game you encounter in order to progress. Essentially, the story is stapled to a skeleton of a game that sometimes feels utterly unnecessary except to keep the player directly involved in what's going on. The story truly carries it all the way from beginning to end, to the extent that sometimes it feels like segments that are player controlled would be better off as cut scenes. Whether you feel cheated when you play To The Moon will be determined largely by whether you're in it for the story or for depth of mechanics. Luckily, I knew what I was getting into when I played it, and the narrative was more than enough to make me happy (and sad).

Image credit: MajorMitch at Giantbomb.
My Steam overlay wasn't playing nice for taking snapshots. 
I don't think it's possible to talk about To The Moon without mentioning the soundtrack. The score truly sets the mood. The music is haunting and beautiful, particularly the "main song" of the story. You'll know which one I'm talking about when you play, because it's played so much it almost (almost) loses its effect.

I must make a few comments on the narrative while hopefully avoiding anything too spoiler-y. I do not think that the story was well served by the "sci-fi memory diving machine" aspect. It was almost entirely separate from the true story being told, the dying man's life story. I also found that the dialogue was sometimes painfully unrealistic or awkward, particularly between the two doctors working through his memories. There were too many moments that felt like the writer was saying "Look! This character is a nerd! You are probably a nerd! This makes this character cool!" I found that particular character obnoxious because he was inconsistent with the tone of the story.

Despite my narrative bashing and dislike of cliches, my cynical self was shedding manly tears by 2/3 or so through the game. I cry when things are sad, so your results may vary, but there's a certain twist that left me pleasantly surprised.

To The Moon is a good peek at how narratives in video games could develop in the future. Between Bioshock: Infinite and this, I am optimistic (though I think I've had enough stories with lighthouse motifs for a while.) It's nowhere near perfect, particularly in the "game" aspect, but it's a step forward. For that, To The Moon was totally worth $2.50, and I'd recommend picking up the soundtrack as well if you've got the cash.

Thanks for reading. Please comment below, follow me on twitter @CraigCainkar, and follow, share, bookmark, staple, or lick this blog if you enjoyed it! And if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in future entries, please leave that in the comments as well. . . If you suggest a game and I own it, I will most likely play it for the next entry.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

#12: They Bleed Pixels - Taking a Stab at "Good Difficult"

They Bleed Pixels is an H. P. Lovecraft-themed 2D platformer in a pixel-art style with an emphasis on wall-climbin', baddie stabbin', and dying an awful lot. Subtract the Lovecraft and stabbin' elements from that description, and you might notice a similarity to a certain other well known 2D platformer that starts with "Super" and ends with "Meat Boy". The similarities between the two games are occasionally so noticeable that if the Game_Design.doc for They Bleed Pixels doesn't make reference to Super Meat Boy at least once, I will eat my keyboard.

In my best Christopher Walken impression: Spooky!

It's not a crime to borrow elements from other platformers. To an extent, that's what nearly every genre in every entertainment medium does in order to move forward. There are many aspects of They Bleed Pixels that are innovative in the sense that at least I have not personally encountered them before. Therefore, let's discuss what TBP does differently than Super Meat Boy, what it borrows, and what I think works and what doesn't work.

The levels are often heavily vertical. Don't look down.

In TBP, you've got the classic full-stop-in-mid-air double jump and wall climbing abilities, which you will use about a million times per level, so familiarizing yourself with how it works is important. There's a basic combat system revolving around a rapid stabbing move and a kick that can send enemies away into environmental hazards or upward to be juggled further. There is no ability to block, though you'll find yourself often wishing there was one as you only can survive two hits before dying. The more variety in your combos, the more "pints of blood you spill" (translation: points earned). The more points you earn, the faster your checkpoint meter fills up and you can lay another checkpoint in any spot you choose, so long as there are no moving environmental hazards in your immediate vicinity and you can stay still for two seconds.

Exhibit 1: The purple glyph that indicates a fresh checkpoint.
Exhibit 2: The reason the game is called "They Bleed Pixels".
This sounds like a totally rad, hip way of dealing with the ancient problem of saving progress in a platforming game, right? Unfortunately, it becomes irritating after the first time you accidentally place a checkpoint in a terrible spot that requires you to repeat the same section over and over in order to get another stab at the part you're actually dying on. 

The odd thing is that this is a quality endemic to platformers; it's pretty much tradition that until you can do the whole level all the way through, you repeat the sections you've already mastered on your way to the tricky part (which is always toward the end). However, this treatment tastes far, far worse when it's obvious that it's your fault as the player. It also hints at the necessary question: why introduce a feature that does nothing but allow the player to screw themselves compared to static checkpoints intelligently chosen by the developer to minimize frustration? I was unable to find a good answer. The only saving grace is that there is no limit to how many times you can die and retry at a checkpoint. Be forewarned: I died upwards of 100 times on some levels before completing them.

Note the "Lives Lost" section. This was the last level, so it was particularly nasty.

For whatever reason, the creators of TBP chose to eschew the platformer genre convention of the "invincible grace period" after being harmed, an element that exists primarily to minimize frustration and feelings of "cheap deaths" from being trapped or hit multiple times in a short time window with no chance to react. While Super Meat Boy avoided this by not allowing the player to survive any hit whatsoever, TBP gives the illusion of durability through the three heart health bar. In practice, however, it quickly becomes apparent why most games elect to include that grace period; death in TBP can and almost always will be swift and brutal. This brings me to what I consider the primary issue with TBP, which is a pervasive feeling that you don't always deserve your failures. Super Meat Boy managed to be incredibly difficult without leaving the player feeling cheated, TBP does not achieve this same zen.

Here's why, when combined with the lack of a grace period. TBP has more saw blades than Sears, and these buggers will always send you flying harshly in some direction, such as off the platform or into further hazards. Thus, saw blades are often fatal despite only supposedly doing one heart of damage. The stock enemy has an attack that has the same effect of knocking about. Most enemies will simply cause you damage anyway if you try to hit them during their attack animation. Plus, a particularly annoying enemy type resembling a flying squid has a tendency to move in your way while you're platforming, resulting, of course, in an irritating "cheap death". 

Aside from the single saw blade on the bottom left, these are stationary. Regardless, hitting one will knock you into the others and result in death. Also, there's one of those pesky squids.
The game clearly aspires to be "fun because it's so difficult" in the way that is hip right now among smaller game developers, much like pixel art (not to say I think either trend is necessarily negative). At times, it succeeds gloriously; in my opinion, these are the sections heaviest on platforming and wall-climbing, like a spikey-armed Spiderman. However, the combat is relatively shallow, and sections with too many hazards everywhere are often frustrating because of being knocked around like a pinball to your death. If the extremity of some of the achievements for They Bleed Pixels is any indication, there are people out there who are much more dedicated than I (I'd like to see a real life human beat the last level without dying once). 

Oh, and slippery ground. There's a level early in the game absolutely loaded with slippery ground. There's a reason ice levels are always loathed in games: because having less control over your character is awful and everyone hates it. Only more so in a game like this.

I know I likely gave the impression that I didn't enjoy They Bleed Pixels at all. That would be incorrect. I'm pretty sure I only paid $5 for the game. Overall, not too shabby, especially from a value perspective. The main takeaway should simply be that I think the game had potential that it didn't quite live up to. It's the result of an accumulation of minor frustrations hindering enjoyment of the game as a whole for someone like me.

Still, if you like deliberately hard platformers like Super Meat Boy or Mega Man 9, then They Bleed Pixels is worth your time because it was designed for you. However, I don't believe it has the mass appeal of some of its brethren. Perhaps the developers understood that anyway when they chose a Lovecraft theme. 

Thanks for reading. Please comment and follow/share/bookmark/staple/lick this blog if you enjoyed it! And if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in future entries, please leave that in the comments as well. . . If you suggest a game and I own it, I will most likely play it for the next entry.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

#11: EDGE - Rolling, Cubed

EDGE is a puzzle-platformer in which you play as a rolling cube. You have all the incredible powers typical of rolling cubes, such as existing in three dimensions, having mass, and rolling with more difficulty than, say, a sphere. 

In EDGE, the gameplay is the entire game. Much like most puzzle/platformer games, there is no story line or multiplayer. You simply roll your cube in one of four directions through the elaborate levels collecting rainbow-colored prisms and reaching the end zone as quickly as you can. Getting all the prisms may take you longer than a straight roll through. While the game does not force you to meet any particular time threshold to progress to the next level, you do receive a letter grade at the end letting you know whether your cube rolling skills could use some work. For people like me, the game is about completing the levels, not about training to get an S on each one, but at least it's there for the more obsessive among us.

"Close enough."

There are two noteworthy aspects of controlling the cube in EDGE that make this game feel more novel than merely a four-direction platformer. 

1. You are rolling a cube. Think about the last time you tried to roll a cube in real life. It didn't roll very easily, did it? One might argue that cubes don't even roll at all, they merely flop one side over until flopped again, in rapid succession. Regardless, this translates into controlling the game. You need to push your arrow keys / control stick pretty firmly in a given direction to get the cube to tilt far enough to fall into the next square over. Momentum helps with that as well. This means that there is no "walk" or "roll slowly" mode, for the most part. But that middle-range of movement control still sees some usage, as you're about to see.

2. Your cube has the strange, almost Catherine-like property of being sticky to whichever cube of ground it is rolling toward (as in Catherine the game). It can also climb a maximum of one cube upward via this same property. However, this means that if the cube you're moving onto is itself moving, you cling to it until you're firmly in one space or another. If you can prolong your movement by edging your control stick that direction just enough to keep the cube suspended in attachment without landing anywhere, you can travel that way. This method has the added bonus of subtracting any time spent "edging" from your final time, so hardcore speed runners will no doubt take every opportunity to "edge" while waiting, even when it's not technically necessary.

This would be an example of using edging at a time when it is not technically necessary, but it does shave off time to get a better score.
Sometimes the levels can be creative beyond just the puzzle design, either in some kind of resemblance to an object, a tie-in to the funky chip tune soundtrack, or because they temporarily made your cube into a Mechwarrior:

While entirely cosmetic mechanically speaking, stuff like this helps break apart the otherwise somewhat monotonous level design.
Now, the important part: did I think the game was actually fun?

Sort of. I was enjoying myself initially, but as the levels became longer and more intricate they started to lose my interest, as the central game mechanics remained essentially the same but with more elaborate setups and more opportunities to clumsily fall or get crushed. I have never been one to stay interested in platformer or puzzle games for too long, so this was no surprise to me. My main complaint, honestly, was that the deliberate clumsiness of controlling a rolling cube stopped being novel and started being frustrating. I like tight and responsive controls, and even if a cube being bad at rolling is realistic and required for the "edging" mechanic, I found it frustrating. I did not complete the game, but I did get about 3/4 of the way through the original levels, and 1/4 through the free DLC levels (props to Two Tribes, the developer, for going the free DLC route).

I would say I got my mileage out of EDGE despite not liking it that much because I either got it as part of a Humble Bundle, a bundle on Steam, or a daily deal. With a base price of $8, there's a good chance I paid $2 or less overall, which is about the price of a microtransaction purchase in a disappointing phone game. Not bad.

Thanks for reading. Please comment and follow/share/bookmark/staple/lick this blog if you enjoyed it! And if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in future entries, please leave that in the comments as well. . . If you suggest a game and I own it, I will most likely play it for the next entry.