Rayman Legends: Ancel Grins, yay.

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Until Rayman Origins, I had never played a Rayman game.  It took about half the game for me to adjust to the fact that it wasn’t Mario, but once I did, I had a pretty good time.  Rayman Legends required no such period of adjustment.  Before I even exhausted the demo, this game had me hooked.  This did not change in the slightest when it came to the game’s release.  I wanted every trophy, every challenge, every teensie, and did not mind having to spend extra time playing the beautiful and brilliant levels of Rayman Legends in order to do it. Continue reading “Rayman Legends: Ancel Grins, yay.”

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Saints Row: The Fun

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“Open world” was a descriptor heard early and often this past E3.  Evidently, next generation is all open world, to the point where open world doesn’t even mean anything anymore.  Once upon a time, “open world” meant one type of game: Grand Theft Auto.  Its success led to quite a few clones, including the Saints Row series.  Then something beautiful happened with the third Saints Row game.  A change occurred that would redefine the series, and remind us all what it means to have fun in a video game.  Some games are about bending rules, others about breaking them.  Saints Row IV takes the idea of rules, transforms them into dub step, and shoots them into the brains of alien invaders. Continue reading “Saints Row: The Fun”

Shin Megami Tensei IV Review: Black and White

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I closed the 3DS lid on Shin Megami Tensei IV after a total of roughly 80 hours played.  Nearly 30 of those hours were spent thinking that the game was going to end soon.  Shin Megami Tensei IV threw so many twists at me that by the time I had reached my particular ending, I more than half suspected that I would have to complete one more boss fight after which another world shattering change would be introduced.  Being wild and unpredictable doesn’t necessarily equate to a great story, but it does equate to the video game equivalent of a page turner. Continue reading “Shin Megami Tensei IV Review: Black and White”

Shadowrun Returns Review

It is an odd feeling to find myself sitting and reading paragraphs of text at a time in a video game released in 2013.  It is even more odd to find that the writing is actually pretty good.  Shadowrun has returned as a role-playing game after an awkward experimental excursion as a first-person shooter, and as a role-playing game, it manages to deliver a good story and good writing, if not good gameplay.

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Shadowrun Returns places the player in the middle of a murder investigation in the cyberpunk-meets-fantasy universe of Shadowrun (a primer of which can be found here) that predictably becomes deeper and more twisted than it first appears.  The story is delivered through copious amounts of dialogue and extensive scene descriptions during loading times and conversations.  As previously mentioned, the writing is generally very good, but the sheer amount text makes Shadowrun Returns a game that requires your complete attention to follow.  Like a lot of gamers, I like to listen to podcasts or have something else playing the background while playing certain games, and Shadowrun Returns is not one of those games.  Not only is the text and dialogue worth reading, but if you thoughtlessly click through something, there is no going back.  I liked this for anything that involved a dialogue choice (which may or may not have an effect on anything.  I’m leaning towards not, but I couldn’t really tell) but hated it whenever I skimmed through something expository and wanted to read it again.

There are times, though, where a podcast or background entertainment would be nice.  Those times are when you find yourself in combat.  While the isometric, strategic combat of Shadowrun Returns isn’t a complete atrocity, it is frustratingly slow and a pain to control.  It is often hard to get your characters to move exactly where you want them to, and infuriating when they arrive there only to not have line of sight on the target you want to hit.  I also find it offensive to play a game on the PC and have to select and control everything with a mouse, since there are absolutely no keyboard controls aside from the Escape key opening the central menu (but not even closing certain other menus) and the arrow keys and WASD panning the camera.  The camera is another problem, as there is no rotation (presumably because the environment is only rendered in one perspective) and many objects that obstruct your view.

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As finicky as the combat is, the scenarios and missions that the game present are interesting and varied enough that it doesn’t get completely tiresome by the end of the game.  Some combat situations are a single room where others are long, meandering facilities with different hazards to avoid.  There are others where half the battle is fought in the real world while the other half involves the computer world of the Matrix.  There is enough combat variety that even if the inputs are tedious, the missions aren’t.  That is, unless you happen to fail one near the end of a level.  There is no way to manually save in this game in any way.  The only time the game saves is when you transition from one level to another.  There was one mission in particular, where I had essentially cleared one of the lengthier missions in the game only to lose my player character in the Matrix and have to replay the entire sequence.  In general, the save system made me stop playing the game earlier than I would typically end a session just because I didn’t want to find myself in the situation where I wanted to stop playing, but had to play on to the next autosave.

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The classes and abilities offer their fair share of variety, but as much fun as it is to magically buff your movement speed and hit rate and rush in swinging your sword, it feels much more safe and equally effective to hide behind cover and shoot things with boring old guns.  To credit the class design of the game, however, I did experiment with guns, drones, magic, shamans, and melee and each was fun to play and effective in its own way, which isn’t easy to do.  Unfortunately the game itself simply doesn’t control well, and using abilities besides “point at guy and fire your gun” require a cumbersome amount of clicks when I have a perfectly good keyboard to use.  I understand that this game was designed to be on both PC and tablets, but that doesn’t mean the PC version should be roughly as feature rich as a tablet game.

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While the classes end up being fairly well distinguished and developed, I found that the skill trees were incredibly vague.  I could figure out how and where I wanted to specialize, but it’s not always clear whether certain nodes give incremental passive bonuses or are only gaps that need to be filled to get to the next big bonus.  Also, a single playthrough doesn’t really give you enough skill points in order to experiment, so if you make a mistake or want to develop a jack of all trades, you are out of luck.  Nothing is stopping you from spreading the points around, but this will leave your main character quite weak, and the combat can get fairly difficult by the end of the game.

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Shadowrun Returns is a game with some rough edges.  There are some questionable interface compromises that lead to some clunky gameplay, but the story, writing, and art mostly make up for it, and serve to paint an appealing portrait of the Shadowrun universe as a whole.  Additionally, the prospect of community generated content is means the game has the potential to be much more than it is today.

Dragon’s Dogma scratches nearly every RPG itch I’ve had in the past several years.

My first reaction to Dragon’s Dogma was that the name is stupid.  I’ll be the first to concede that naming things is really hard, but come on.  Dragon’s Dogma?  That barely means anything, which leads me to believe Capcom either really wanted to be alliterative, they were alluding to Dungeons and Dragons, or it’s just another case of something Japan thought sounds good in English.  In any case, between the name, unimpressive demo, and middling reception, Dragon’s Dogma fell quite far down on the figurative list of games to play for me.

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Meanwhile, I spent a lot of time, going through more and more games, searching for a new roleplaying game experience I was starting to think doesn’t exist.  A major reason I could not like Demon’s Souls for the longest time is because I wanted it to be something it wasn’t.  After years of playing unhealthy amounts of World of WarCraft, I basically wanted a better looking, single player approximation of what I liked best about it that had nothing to do with being a massively  multiplayer game. I wanted a steady stream of fun spells and abilities, I wanted a skill system that allowed me to experiment and customize my character, but most of all, I wanted weapons and armor to look good and come in sets.  Dragon Age: Origins was probably the first game I played consciously hoping for it to be a single player WoW substitute, and while it certainly comes very close in a lot of ways, the armor designs were bland and the skill system leaned a bit too heavily on active abilities, the usage of which felt a bit too limited in combat due to the heavy resource requirements and limited mana bars.  Interestingly, the widely panned Dragon Age 2 did a much better job at satisfying my personal RPG wants, but everyone else seemed to hate it.  Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was seemingly built with my exact tastes in mind and it failed so miserably that it brought down the state of Rhode Island with it, which led me to start believing maybe the game I want simply isn’t viable.  Then I played Amalur and it was so generic, unexciting, and aimless, that after about 20 hours during which I felt like I was running in place the entire time, I decided I didn’t need to play anymore.

And so on, and so forth, I play games which are good, but left me wanting for just one or two mechanics for me to completely fall for.  I had no idea that I was about to get exactly what I wanted from Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen.

That isn’t to say Dragon’s Dogma is everything I wanted.  It isn’t even close.  But after just a few hours of playing it, I felt like it was scratching an itch that I have had for years.  I picked fighter, because naturally, I wanted cool plate armor.  Once I saw the non-player character Mercedes in her armor, I had a goal in this game: to look as good as that.  Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls had more than its fair share of weapons and armor, but the impact on mobility that comes with equipping heavier armors kept me away from most of it.  The penalty in Dragon’s Dogma is far more forgiving.  Everything in Dragon’s Dogma is pretty forgiving, and not just in comparison the notoriously unforgiving Souls games.  You can freely switch between character classes, or vocations, as they’re referred to in game, at the main inn after paying a small cost to unlock them initially.  I stuck with fighter and mystic knight throughout the entire game because again, I wanted to wear heavy armor.  I dabbled in warrior for a bit to see if it had any interesting augments to offer, but found it painfully slow and limited to play a rank one warrior after playing a full rank fighter and mystic knight.  After I got the armor lust out of my system in the first playtrhough, I began new game plus as a strider, since my play style really suited assassin more than anything.  The vocations themselves are nicely varied, with only mage and sorcerer seeming like maybe they overlap in play style significantly (I have yet to experiment with either, so I can’t say for sure, but it looked that way to me as I was recruiting pawns).  The skill progression through each vocation is fine.  It is not as robust as it would be in my dream scenario, but there is more than enough to play around with, and perhaps it is better that it is not overly complicated.

Aside from doing a great job in the western RPG fashion department, Dragon’s Dogma also has great, and great looking, action combat that integrates spells and abilities very well.  The combat animations are great and fighting large, impressive looking monsters is more than just hacking at their ankles until they die.  There were very few times where I avoided or resented being in combat in this game, and to me, that’s an achievement.  Sure, any battle that is actually challenging exposes the terrible pawn AI, but that is unfortunately to be expected.  I would rather games feel like they are more aware of this frequent shortcoming and design around it rather than being something we just accept and deal with.  There is one encounter in Dragon’s Dogma that unless you are one of a handful of classes (which I wasn’t), you cannot win unless your pawn (who also needs to be one of those two or three vocations) does something that it is very unlikely to do, which to me, is just bad design.  There is a lot of excitement over the next generation of video game consoles at the moment, and until now, I didn’t really know what I wanted from next gen, but it just hit me that what I really want is good party member AI, since AI controlled party members are clearly here to stay.  They might as well be good.

As I played more and more of Dragon’s Dogma, I began to feel like I was playing a tighter, more refined, third person Skyrim.  The map is much smaller and has far fewer points of interest, but evoked a similar feeling of exploration and discovery.  Each cave and dungeon is tied to a side quest, which lessens the incentive to explore, since there is no simple fast travel and ideally, you will ideally only go somewhere when you need to, but each dungeon is fairly substantial, with plenty of items tucked away into corners, waiting to be discovered.

Speaking of items, there are a lot of them in this game.  In fact, I think there are far too many items in the game.  A lot of the superfluous armor is there for cosmetic reasons, which would be hypocritical for me to criticize at this point, but the amount of redundant consumables and materials is simply overwhelming.  There are dozens of herbs that do essentially the same thing and countless items I have in storage after nearly 50 hours of playtime that I simply have no idea if I’m supposed to hoard or sell, which, when money isn’t an issue, the answer is easily to hoard.

I waited a long time to play Dragon’s Dogma, and while I think the minor adjustments that came with Dark Arisen contributed a lot to my enjoyment of the game and minimizing my frustration, the entire time I was playing it, I couldn’t help but think that I should have played the game much sooner.