Dark Souls Review: Memento Mori

Talk to nearly anyone about a video game, and the ever-present question will come up: is it fun? For some, the answer may be a simple yes or no. Others may delve into details and the nerdery associated with such in-depth analysis (myself included). But how many times has someone told you that a game was painful? That for every moment of joy exists orders of magnitude more suffering?

Dark Souls is that game. Dropped into an unforgiving world with only steel and shield, the player soon realizes just how bleak a virtual world can be. Developer From Software has constructed some of the most harrowing, but austerely beautiful castles, caverns, and creatures ever to grace a video game. Conquering these obstacles results in some of the purest satisfaction that interactive entertainment offers, but doing so will take a toll on your patience.

As a chosen undead warrior, you are tasked with rekindling the flame of the Lordran realm by eliminating arch-demons and ringing the Bells of Awakening. Outside of an opening cutscene telling you all this, there is hardly any plot in Dark Souls, but there is plenty of atmosphere. Dialogue is delivered with a distinct creepiness by nearly every NPC, making the world feel unwelcoming. Music is eschewed for sounds of enemies breathing heavily around corners. You start to feel a sort of dread in every area of the game.

This mood mixes well with a running theme permeating Dark Souls: restriction. Using a precious health potion? Well don’t plan on moving out of the way of an incoming attack while you do so. Resting at one of the game’s sparse checkpoints? Have fun fighting through the enemies that just respawned. Summoning in another player online to help you through a tough boss fight? First you’ll have to deal with mercenary players known as “phantoms” who can invade your world to take your souls (experience points).

This Newtonian “equal and opposite” design can be immensely frustrating, but establishes a pace that just isn’t seen in many video games. You must slow down, observe what is around you, and take into consideration how your actions are going to both negatively and positively affect your character. It is very refreshing compared to the usual kill-everything-that-moves-right-now design that too many games follow.

The driving currency that you’ll chase is souls. Souls double as both money for buying much needed weapons, shields, and consumables and experience points to level up with. Leveling up is of paramount importance and always feels like it is pushing the scales back in your favor. After slogging through dozens of undead soldiers and massive bosses, plugging some points into your health, stamina, or any of the other stats gives a very slight advantage. Unfortunately, dying sends you back to the last bonfire checkpoint and you drop your souls where you perished. Die again without picking them up, and they’re gone forever.

Designs like this show how From Software is more than willing to slap the player around and make them uncertain. Another example: much of the game’s loot is stashed in wooden chests. Sounds simple enough, until some chests snap you into their jaws as you open them.

The developers also had a heyday with enemy and boss designs. The farther you get into this seemingly dulled world, the bigger and nastier enemies seem to get. A huge taurus monster swings a hammer with a tornado-wake of debris, smashing even the stoutest shield aside. Colossal dragons and demons are even worse, with one shot kill attacks that can only be dodged with skill and a bit of luck. This is one of Dark Souls’ greatest problems. I understand that hideous monsters are powerful, but getting killed over and over only to respawn twenty minutes back at the bonfire (read: checkpoint) is egregious.

Some of the frustration of dying is alleviated by the wonder imbued into the ruins and caverns of the land. At first, the grayish green hue of the world and simple castle walls don’t inspire much exploration, but Dark Souls really does has a surprisingly large color palette and architectural aesthetic: an otherworldly, blue crystal cave and a massive, winding library being examples of both. The sense of scale in the realm of Lordan is also amazing, with wide vistas showing the interconnected areas that lie ahead. Looking over an entire area that I’d already fought through from a high parapet was very satisfying.

Unfortunately, the journey to get to these high places is often not so satisfying. Again, death comes swiftly, and Dark Souls’ combat is going to polarize players. You’ll either get into the hard swinging, shield banging melee, or you’ll just hate having to block all the time. Me? I stand on the side that enjoys the methodical brutality of this game. Weapons swing out slower than in other action games, but they also hit harder. Get the right weapon in your hands and you’ll find that you are incredibly capable of taking out lesser and even some greater foes. An awkward looking dodge roll seems silly at first, but proves crucial in keeping your health bar intact.

All this is great until you encounter some of the more boneheaded designs that the developers came up with. Too often you’ll run into unblockable attacks, enemy grapple moves that drain far too much health, and some demons that can semi-permanently curse your health bar down to half. They all drag down Dark Souls with needless frustration, but he first two feel particularly cheap. I had several boss fights end within ten seconds because I got locked into a grapple that ripped all my health away instantly.

So can I recommend this insanity to people? I don’t know. I was hooked on the game for over 30 hours, but I often ended play sessions with cursing and yelling. Stress and satisfaction are intertwined into the very design of Dark Souls, and your triumph at conquering an area will probably be preceded and followed by plenty of cheap deaths. A rental may help you decide if you are ready for the task.

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Borderlands 2 Review: World of Guncraft

The MMORPG genre has been in a slow state of decline for the past few years, but if the first Borderlands, Dead Island, and Torchlight are indicators, the designs behind it are still strong. Even though Borderlands’ blend of cel shaded graphics and slap-happy humor was odd back in 2009, the real time shooting blended well with stat heavy RPG elements. Gun lust tied it all together, even though the sheer novelty of the whole thing hid some serious pacing issues.

After three years of development, it is clear that Gearbox Softworks has addressed almost every problem fans and critics had with the first game for Borderlands 2. Sluggish first act? Gone. Static enemy routines? Axed. Without a doubt, Borderlands 2 does feel much more polished than its predecessor, but still relies on grinding and a cocksure tone far too often.

The fact that Gearbox secured the rights to the profane Duke Nukem franchise makes perfect sense after playing Borderlands 2. The wild and wooly world of Pandora is filled to the brim with some of the most idiotic and offensive characters ever created. The voice actors try their hardest, but one can only go so far with a script that slings out, “Bonerfarts”, and, “These powers are the tits!” with such reckless abandon.
Far too many quest-givers, companions, and even the main antagonist try too hard. Base humor is fine, but not when it is paraded out yelling, “CHECK OUT HOW EDGY THIS IS!” When Borderlands 2 gets out of its own way and sticks to pop culture parody and reference, the jokes play much better and the script is given some room to explore more somber storylines. I’ll be damned if I didn’t actually feel a little bit sad for some characters when the game reined in the cock jokes for rare serious moments.

At the very least, even the idiotic characters add to a sense of place in Pandora. A sort of blend of futuristic sci-fi, Old West martial law, and dude-bro humor, this world is eclectic to put it mildly. The variety of climate is really noteworthy, taking the player from glacial tundra to floating city in the sky without feeling dissonant or unbelievable. The amount of color afforded by the cel shaded graphics is also amazing considering this is an Unreal Engine 3 based game.

The story of Borderlands 2 starts with a poorly explained cutscene and a fair bit of exposition. After an alien vault was opened by four legendary Vault Hunters, Hyperion Corporation leader Handsome Jack swooped in with his legion of robots to take advantage of the new growth of Eridium, an alien mineral with mysterious powers. You play as a new Vault Hunter looking to strike it rich in the wilds of Pandora only to be nearly blown up by Jack, who harbors a deep hate for, well, pretty much everything. Jack is heinous in every sense of the word; too psychotic to be a humanized villain, and too snarky and long winded. He is bound to end up on some “Worst Character of the Year” lists.

But Borderlands isn’t trying to be some amazing piece of interactive fiction. From the first hour of the game, it is clear that your main focus will be killing all sorts of creatures, bandits, and freakshow oddities. This main goal is so well executed that I found myself tolerating the game’s most egregious personalities, particularly an explosive expert that happens to be a 12 year old who spouts a sort of gangster/instant messenger slang, because I was still having fun blasting dozens of foes. Enemies don’t just suicidally charge like in the first game. They dive out of the way, jump off platforms and railings, and seek cover when it is near.

Gearbox also succeeded in making every weapon feel punchy and unique. The assorted shotguns, pistols, rifles, and explosive ordinance all have raucous sound effects to match their lethality, yet none of the weapons are exactly the same. Modifiers like elemental effects, ricochet, and different ammunition types are just dandy for killing on their own, but become truly effective when used in concert with specific weapon makes and a blend of class based abilities.

The different weapon brands distinguish loot drops the most, as each has wildly contrasting effects. For example, a Tediore gun will act as a makeshift grenade when reloaded, whereas a Maliwan will always have an elemental effect such as fire, electricity, or corrosiveness. I found some of the brands to be less useful or too cumbersome to be bothered with, but it is conceivable that different players will find every one to his or her own liking.
The four starting character classes available are the same way. There is the stealthy Assassin, dual wielding Gunzerker, turret toting Commando, and otherworldly Siren. I picked the last, but even though her stun-lock ability seemed to be geared towards defensive play styles, the way the skill trees work allows much more flexibility. They also seem to be intended for co-op play, which works really well. The difficulty increases drastically even with just one other person playing, as more “Badass” enemy types show up.

At level 10, my Siren was a healing machine, capable of keeping co-op teammates and myself at full health relatively easily. The only caveat was range; there was no way I would last for long in any close quarters situations. Thankfully, Gearbox allows the player to reset skill trees, so at level 20 I opted for a more aggressive set of perks. It radically changed the way I approached every fight, allowing me to fight from all ranges with any weapon of my choice. I also decided to keep some healing powers that I had before as well.

Reinvention like this usually isn’t something that is facilitated in any RPG, since it can have balancing implications, but it works really well in Borderlands 2. But while Gearbox is more than happy to shun certain conventions of MMOs, the developer still clings to some of the worst. The eternal fetch-questing grows tiresome after the fourth or fifth time that you’re asked to go collect five Arachnid Spines or gather 15 Bandit Brains. The game tries to use humor to distract from the monotony, and occasionally manages to pull it off, but again, the facade is thin.

Inventory management is another problematic holdover in Borderlands 2. There is simply too much loot and too few vendors to sell it all at. At least you can mark gear as trash and sell it all with one click, but you have to be at a vendor or at your home base Sanctuary to do it. An option to sell items in the field–like in Torchlight–would’ve been much appreciated.

Borderlands 2 has a strong gameplay core, but surrounding elements that fail to fully capitalize on it. The hit or miss script alternatively exacerbates excruciating fetch-quests and manages to make the game’s sense of place and action gel. I suspect many gamers will either love that they are getting more Borderlands, or just be bored with the fact that they are getting more Borderlands. I fell somewhere in the middle, pleased with the great weapon designs and pop culture references, but scorned by some poor choices in dialogue and quest design.

My Brother’s Keeper: A Close Reading Essay

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky don’t have to appear in front of the camera or even utter many words to get a specific message across in their 1992 film, Brother’s Keeper. The two filmmakers demonstrate a clear understanding of how to mix the observational and reflexive modes effectively by staying behind the camera at all times, allowing the presence of the camera to be a component of the film, and carefully editing scenes to the advantage of their goals. What I will be examining is how these cinematic choices strengthen the filmmakers’ message of wrongful accusation towards Delbert Ward, and how some do not.

By the end of Brother’s Keeper, it is clear that Sinofsky and Berlinger believed Delbert Ward was the innocent victim of an unjust investigation. This is the central message of the film, made with few interjections or appearances on camera by either filmmaker. Instead, one tactic they use is letting the subjects of the film speak their opinions at length. They catch the real thoughts and feelings of the social actors through long interviews and simple fly-on-the-wall cinematography. All of the Ward brothers are given numerous chances to speak their minds—though most times there is little comment from any of the three—and much more screen time is given to them than to the police. This is most likely due to investigators not wanting to get involved with a documentary about a case they were currently conducting. While neither filmmaker outright says what view audience members have to take, the sheer amount of interviews of the Wards and Madison County residents present much more support for Delbert’s innocence and block many of the contrary opinions and assertions.

Outside of interview scenes, Berlinger and Sinofsky take care to make the audiovisual content support Delbert. Long scenes of the Wards doing farm work, chewing tobacco, and watching television give support to Delbert’s case by showing his simple humanity. He doesn’t talk much, barely reads, and has little social contact outside of his brothers. The scenes of the brothers’ dilapidated house communicate that these are people who care for their hygiene and wellbeing in the most elementary way imaginable, but they still are portrayed as human beings. Relatives and neighbors admit “the boys” aren’t educated individuals, but they still can interact and function well enough to stay alive and content.

Meanwhile, scenes of media reports and the prosecuting attorney are interspersed to show the lack of understanding between the two sides of the crime. The dichotomy between their lifestyle and the Wards’ is positioned as a reason for Delbert’s innocence; how could state police and media outlets positioned in urban areas understand the Wards’ plain life? Berlinger and Sinofsky don’t have to use Michael Mooreian outspoken words to make it clear that there is stereotyping and a lack of understanding between the police and the Wards. A media outlet reports that William Ward may have been killed after having sex with Delbert, and little evidence is brought up through the entire film. The filmmakers present both the cultural misunderstanding and lack of evidence as objectively as they can while staying silent. They use the dialogue of the real people involved in an observational mode to bring about a truth claim.

Even when the filmmakers do include their voices during interviews, it is almost always to the advantage of supporting the Wards. For example, any time that Lyman is asked questions by either filmmaker, he tentatively answers and nervously begins to walk away. Likewise, Delbert says, “I don’t know,” to even the simplest questions that Berlinger and Sinofsky ask, and Roscoe appears to be either deaf or incapable of understanding many things that are asked of him. This works wonderfully because it makes the audience wonder what dubious tactics police investigators used to get confessions and statements from the brothers. It also foreshadows the trial when the brothers have difficulty remembering anything they signed, said, or heard. Their lacking education hasn’t been exaggerated, and the filmmakers are smart to show the audience that early on and reiterate it later.

The presence of cameras around the Wards comes up as a reflexive component of the film and is commented on during interviews. At least two different interviewees claim that all the attention has changed Delbert’s personality. The filmmakers themselves don’t break their observational objectivity to comment on this, so the audience is free to make their own conclusion. One strange affect of this assertion is that it highlights Delbert’s behavior and actually serves to make the audience more wary and cynical of him. The audience starts to wonder if Delbert is playing coy. In a way, it works against the filmmaker’s message, but adds to the objective realism of their observational practice. If the doubt and opposing opinions weren’t a part of the film, then it would fall into more of an expository mode than an observational one.

The editing choices that were made cannot be understated as a major force in the message of Brother’s Keeper. I already mentioned crosscutting of media and police interviews with long scenes of the Ward brothers, and many more examples exist that clearly reinforce the police as antagonists. The choices to not only keep the camera on, but to include a large amount of Lyman’s time on the court stand sticks out clearly. As Lyman sits shaking violently, the goal is clearly to make audience members feel that the prosecutors are in the wrong. Lyman’s questioning is split between two scenes, clearly on two different days of the trial, and the reactions of relatives and friends to his breakdown are situated directly after the second episode. The filmmakers don’t include the reactions of either the defense or prosecution to Lyman, just the community members. Clearly Berlinger and Sinofsky want to win the audience over even more with these editing choices. In fact, the entire trial, which lasts nearly thirty-five minutes, is edited to maximize sympathy towards Delbert, and maximize contempt for the coroner and prosecutor.

Another example is the pig slaughter scene, which is edited in just after both medical examiners have given their opinions on how William Ward died. Directly after this scene is one where the defense brings up the fact that the medical report was made after the examiner had knowledge that Delbert had been charged with murder. The positioning of the pig slaughter just before this information is a clear indication by the filmmakers that it is a metaphor for Delbert’s case. He is the pig being led to slaughter by an unjust investigation. This scene could’ve been edited in to achieve a much different effect as well. If it occurred early in the film or when Delbert was demonstrating covering someone’s mouth, it would make a completely different claim at the truth.

Brother’s Keeper stands as a great example of how to mix observational and reflexive filmmaking together. The message of the film is complex and feels authentically objective, not expository or subjective. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to add voice over or ignore opposing opinions, but they chose to include them to add to the observational quality of the film. Like the Ward brothers, it feels raw at times, and certainly Berlinger and Sinofsky made some tough decisions when shooting and editing this film. But the end product is a powerful look into a simply human story, roughness and all.

Rock of Ages Review: Sticks and Stones

Not so long ago, if a development studio pitched a game that was a mix of Super Monkey Ball, 19 century history, a healthy dose of pop culture parody, and some fart jokes, it would probably be shut down. The fact that Ace Team, developer of Zeno Clash, got to make that vision a reality is stunning and encouraging. Rock of Ages is an artsy, sophomorically humored ride through 1800s Europe that clearly lacks some great design choices, but certainly manages to attain some chuckles and bewilderment in its style.

Eff!

Describing Rock of Ages is different to say the least. To start with, you play as Sisyphus’s rock. You know, the one that has to be pushed up the hill over and over? Well old Sisy’ has gotten tired of that and decides to break out of Hades. When he busts down the exit door with his trusty boulder, it reveals a portal, which—for really no reason at all—leads to throw downs between the Greek legend and various figures from European history. Each match has you steer your chunk of stone down a course that has been obstacle laden by your opponents—among whom are Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles III, and Vlad the Impaler—while they steer their own rock down an identical course. The end goal is to break down your enemy’s door and roll over the cowering fiend inside (accompanied by a girly shriek and wet squish when finished).

Typically each match takes three hits to win, and in between rounds you get to use a simple tower defense mechanic to slow down your competitor. You earn money from knocking over buildings, and your options of how to spend it range from catapults to bombs, and more outlandish choices such as stampeding cows and elephants. Cash also can be used for different rock power ups such as fire to increase your destructive potential, and protective metal bands to keep your rock from fracturing. Fracturing and falling off the track are due to enemy defense placement and lessen your door-smashing prowess, so keeping your boulder safe until the door is vital.

The weird, surreal quality of the story set up permeates everything in Rock of Ages: from the visuals to the voice acting, Ace Team has injected a great amount of cynical irony to make, shall we say, a unique personality here. In less soft terms, this game is freaking nuts. The cut scenes involve energetically animated, Photoshop cutouts of your opponents, all voiced with little grunts and hums. Your boulder itself has a strained face carved into it that gets more and more disgusting as you take damage. The artistic quality is silly, and technically it looks pretty good for an Arcade title.

History told through pop culture reference

The failing of Rock of Ages lies not in the art or humor, but entirely in its design, which is unsound most of the time. As mentioned, matches end after three hits, and I mean only three hits. While it may be theoretically possible to beat a level in less than that, I never managed to do it even with power ups and a great run down the track. This means that every match is really similar and the track layouts and humor can’t compensate for it. Even some intermittent boss battles, visually impressive as they may be, bow to the three hit rule and fail to create any healthy challenge. Instead, a difficulty spike in the regular matches comes abruptly, leading to multiple trial and error restarts that are only avoidable by precise placement of defenses, not skillful control. The enemy AI manages to maneuver hairpin turns, and snake through most defenses with ease, rarely fracturing or falling. Meanwhile you’ll get stuck in a gauntlet of hellacious stampedes, barrages, and blockades that are perfectly placed. I found myself cheesing and exploiting certain defenses and items to win since any sort of skill of control didn’t matter.

Complementing the uneven story mode are two multiplayer options. At least, there were two options at some point in time. As of this writing, Rock of Ages’ online multiplayer is completely dead on the Xbox 360. I’ve tried quick match, I’ve tried custom matchmaking, and I’ve tried hosting my own match; no one is playing. There is split screen, which has the potential to be great depending on who you recruit to play. You also get to pick different rock faces and historical figures when you play locally, which is a nice detail.

One wrong placement and the match is over

One wrong placement and the match is over

I’m all for some unorthodox games being released, but when design gets shunted for ridiculousness—and trust me, it gets deranged here—I can’t help but feel some more serious direction was needed. Rock of Ages is fun for a week or so until you finish the story mode, but with nobody to play against on Xbox Live it is a hard sell. There is a basic fun quality to Rock of Ages, but many structural issues chip away at that core, exposing some cracks that humor and silliness can’t fill. It may not last you long, but it will entertain you just enough to get your 10 dollars worth.

Assassins Creed Brotherhood Review: Less Polish, More Desmond

 

 

 

If there is one thing Ubisoft can’t be described as, it’s slow. By using several different studios and hundreds of developers, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was blasted out in 12 months. This short schedule surprised me considering the two-year gap between the first and second games and, to be honest, I didn’t really think a quick release would do the game any favors. I liked that Ubisoft Montreal took two years to polish and refine Assassin’s Creed II, and the change to flamboyant, colorful Renaissance Italy was a fantastic choice compared to the washed out, gray tenements of the first title’s Middle Eastern setting. Despite my worries about the game’s development cycle, AC: Brotherhood continues both Ezio and Desmond’s stories literally right after the last game. This continuation is made more exciting by a few key additions to the combat, but the level design, control, and mission parameters lack the same polish that made its predecessor so great.

The triumphant return of Ezio and Desmond is easily the best part of Brotherhood. The story’s first act commences directly after Ezio’s conversation with the otherworldly Minerva. He plans to take a break from the assassin gig to get some T&A, but unfortunately the Borgias cut Ezio’s lady-killing act short. This Templar family of evildoers has come for the Pieces of Eden that Ezio repossessed. Despite his efforts to repel Cesare Borgia—Rodrigo’s son—the Auditore family’s fortress is destroyed and our garish assassin master must relocate Rome to end the templar rule. He plans to do this by liberating the city from the complete rule and intense corruption that has been inflicted. Meanwhile, Desmond is a real, playable character—at least more than he was before—and you can leave the animus at any time to play as him. Truth be told, there still isn’t much to do whenever you voluntarily play as Desmond; most of the important revelations in his story happen during the course of the main missions. The Truth puzzles make their sophomore appearances in Brotherhood as well, and while you could conceivably solve them on your own, you’ll probably have to use an FAQ for some of the harder puzzles. Even if you do have to cheat, it is worth it to get some more glimpses into Subject 16’s crazy, labyrinthine mind. Fans of the series will love the new conspiracy theories that seem to exist just to fuel conversations and forum threads, and the cliff hanger ending is unexpected and nothing short of astounding.

Even with Desmond as more direct participant, this is still very much Ezio’s show. You’ll spend much of the game doing mostly what you did in Assassin’s Creed II: pursuing and assassinating smaller targets in order to pursue and assassinate larger targets. If you played the last game, you’ve done most of what is here before but there is one large new addition that is both a good and bad thing: Borgia towers. In order to gain support from the Roman citizens, you must take down these towers that are surrounded by guards and a captain. Devising ways to stealthily kill the captain is really fun and often very challenging. Once you kill the head honcho, the tower is open to burn down which will relieve the denizens around it and allow you to purchase shops. This functions the same as Monteriggioni did in the last game, with revenue slowly growing over time as you accrue more property. The only problem is that the massive Roman landscape feels less personal than Monteriggioni did. I never felt as if any of my renovated blacksmiths, brothels, or art trades were anything more than a cog in a money machine.

Fortunately, destroying the Borgia towers does allow you to recruit assassins for Ezio’s cause. They can be sent on missions across Europe and Asia to gain experience and add to the assassin treasury, and while I ended up not caring about the money, sending my young greenhorns to cut their teeth on a Russian assassination plot sent my imagination whirling. After your recruits have some experience and an upgraded arsenal, calling upon them is both comical and useful. Once you whistle for them, they’ll often pop out of the nearest haystack to quickly eliminate the selected target. It is amusing from start to finish and alleviates some pressure you might have during a mission. Killing enemies by yourself is also made easier by execution combos, which allow you to dispatch enemies even faster than before. You start a combo by countering one enemy and then taking the momentum from that first kill through to other enemies. Essentially, it is a one hit kill combo that may sound over powered, but it makes sense because Ezio is a master assassin with several hundred kills under his belt. Another fun repurposing is the Romulus Lairs, which are just refined versions of the Assassin Tombs from AC II. Running through all of these catacombs heavily reminded me of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and a significant bonus is given for completing them all.

Unfortunately, these slick additions and refinements fail to compensate for several key issues. Brotherhood has more instant fail missions than the first and second games combined. If you are detected just once—and Borgia guards often manage to scream bloody murder just before you shank them, alerting all their friends to your presence—many missions kick you right back to the last checkpoint, loading screen included. This punitive design wouldn’t be unbearable if the game also didn’t have some weak platforming to compound it. Ezio just doesn’t control quite as well, and many indoor sections feel like they weren’t play tested. I often couldn’t see where to jump next which meant a lot of blind jumps. And even when I could see the next jump, Ezio sometimes would opt for a face plant six stories down. I got the feeling that certain areas were designed by another studio and weren’t revised before the game went gold. Assassin’s Creed II was such a comprehensively refined experience that it really sticks out when Brotherhood doesn’t meet the same established quality. It isn’t a deal breaker by any means, but it makes me wonder what six months more development could’ve done for this game.

I don’t want to sound completely down on the game because Brotherhood is not a failure. Hell, just continuing the storyline is a great reason to pick this game up. If you are a fan of the series you’ll be sucked back into the canon immediately, just be warned that actually playing the game can be tedious and it doesn’t exude polish like Assassins Creed II. What I really hope is that the next game—which is slated for a release sometime between late 2011 and early 2012—gets enough development time to match the series’ high polish mark. After playing Brotherhood though, color me worried for the future.

Note: I did play some multiplayer, and I’m happy to say that it is pretty fun. The customization helps out the basic multiplayer modes, which are quite exciting on their own. I still view this series as a single player one, but there is a lot worth seeing in this game’s competitive mode.

Bayonetta Review: Aiming for the Stars

It would be foolish to bring up character action games without praising Viewtiful Joe and Devil May Cry director Hideki Kamiya; without him, I’m not sure the genre would’ve flowered as much as it has for the past two cycles of consoles. The Japanese developer once again fills the director’s seat for Bayonetta, a sort of cross between his past two combo based fighters. Stylistic to a fault, Bayonetta fires off cheesy one-liners, absurd break dancing combos, and massive boss encounters with amusing and consistent abandon, while everything else in the game is drawn out to the point of boredom, confusion, and frustration. For a game that tries so hard to be lightning fast and quirky, there is too much excess and imbalance to amount to anything particularly great.

As far as weird games go, this is one of the weirdest. Bayonetta is the titular witch whose clan of magic users use hair as both bodysuits–not as weird as you might think–and as shape shifting weapons. Higher combos and quicktime event “Climaxes” use more of her hair (and magic meter), revealing some skin–it is as shameful as you think– and tearing apart opponents easily. Witches don’t like Heaven, so Bayonetta must fight a smorgasbord of quite monstrous angels that have descended on Earth to start a resurrection of God.

There is more narrative depth than this, but even after 10 hours of play, I couldn’t tell you many details or make much sense of it all. Instead, what stand out are the boss fights, which borderline on colossal, and decidedly Japanese flair to everything. A J-pop only soundtrack, plenty of anime tropes, and lots of sexual humor often painfully weave into what has to be one of the strangest and dissonant games to come out this generation. Bayonetta herself is ludicrously sexualized, eliciting audible groans from the depths of my being every time a lingering butt shot or joke about her breasts assaulted my mind.

Kimiya wrote the story himself, and his attempts aren’t commendable but often boring or convoluted. The anime influence that works well to make the game absurd comes back to haunt it when it actually wants to tell some semblance of a story. Frequent, lengthy cutscenes are the only time that any exposition or dialogue takes place, sometimes in full motion and sometimes in strange frame-by-frame film reel footage. A Danny DeVito clone makes up most of the early companionship and suddenly vanishes–or maybe I didn’t care enough to pay attention to his exit in the story–leaving only an angsty, pseudo-love interest and possible love child to fill the void. Multi-minute scenes with these weak characters drag on and on, revealing only tiny tidbits of story twists that amount to nothing but melodrama and poor humor. Sound good already? It only gets worse as the game drags on through its final fourth, content to marry short action sequences–admittedly the best in the entire game–with vapid cutscenes and fake endings.

The story weakness isn’t really surprising; this genre is known more for punching than forming great narratives. The combination based fighting is extensive and responsive and it feels really good to slice, shoot, claw, and break dance enemies to death. As you fight, your magic meter fills, letting you use “torture attacks,” such as throwing an enemy into a mini-guillotine or iron maiden for an experience boost and instant kill. Once you get farther into the game, using several weapon combinations and attack strings in tandem makes fighting very dynamic and wild. Sadly, a number of poorly matched encounters left me dying sometimes upwards of 10-15 times because I had little health and no healing items available. Some enemy types tend to ignore attacks and score cheap shots almost every time, and I swear I fought some bosses at least four times. One begins to feel like enemies are just being thrown out with little to no care or concern, turning a great combat system stale around the fifth or sixth hour of play.

I’ll leave you with one of Bayonetta’s most temper testing flaws: Chapter ending bonuses. You’re rated for each fight you win, culminating in an award that gives you more experience to spend on new moves and powerful items. Naturally, dying and using continues degrades your final score, but so does using healing items. That’s right, you’re punished for looking out for your well being in Bayonetta. Since I used too many health items, the majority of my ending bonuses were the “Stone Award”, giving me no experience despite the fact that I could nail most every combo I attempted. Flawless dodging and fair bit of cutscene skipping are the only options for a smooth ride with Bayonetta.

If nothing else, Bayonetta is perhaps the most confident game I’ve possibly ever played. About five hours of filler and plenty of imbalanced encounters, drawn out cutscenes, and shameful hyper-sexualization keep this game from being a must-have for those who haven’t visited and revisited Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden Black. Even at a reduced price, be wary of the issues surrounding this one.

Trials HD Review: Popping a Wheelie on the Live Arcade

Throughout my life, the little exposure I’ve had to motorcycles of any sort is the X-games and a bike that my dad owned for several months. I vaguely remember playing several mediocre PS2 era motocross games, but nothing has ever stuck in my mind as particularly noteworthy. It is to Red Lynx’s credit that they have developed a motorcycle game that has lit a competitive fire in myself. Trials HD is a simple, yet devious physics puzzle that just so happens to be conveyed through dirt bikes, but isn’t so much for fans of professional motor sports. Instead, this game is more for people who enjoy conquering stiff challenges, perfecting time trials, or just blasting off some sweet jumps.

Trials is a unique “racing” game because it doesn’t focus on racing against others; in fact, there are no opponents or competitors other than you. You are simply tasked with making your way along the two dimensional plane to cross a finish line. Controlling your bike is simple since you can only control the gas, breaks, and weight shifts of your biker, and the 2D plane keeps your biker upright regardless of slope or bump. This simplicity couples with the virtual gravity and friction and creates a lot of depth to the game play. This dynamic physics engine makes every run slightly different and rewards those who learn how to follow its rules efficiently; smoothly entering slopes and quickly snapping your rider backwards then forwards on the lip of the jump will allow you to rocket through the air and can even throw you onto alternate paths. t

Some levels are designed to mix it up with dynamic track materials such as wood or tires, which can break, bend, or spin. These materials, and hell, even the regular tracks, require practice and a good feel for the game; in most tracks a split-second decision of whether to lean forward or back stands between you and victory. Nuance, in movement and speed control, often is the key to success, not blasting on the gas pedal. At first, you’ll likely choose the latter technique, but the excellent checkpoint system keeps punishment to a minimum. Checkpoint markers are abundant and allow for players of all skills to enjoy the game without (too much) undue stress. The levels start off slowly and acclimate you to the vast intricacies of the physics engine. But once you blast through the first 30 or so easy levels, the difficulty spikes and starts to put you through actual trials. These later levels really showcase the great addictive nature of this game. The feeling of accomplishment from conquering a 75 degree sloped jump and landing perfectly is paramount. Even if it takes you 50 restarts it is worth it. I come back to beaten tracks just to feel get that good feeling of running a track as smoothly as possible.

But what good is straining your patience for no actual reward, you ask? This is where the medals (bronze, silver, gold, and platinum) come in. Beat a level within a certain time with less than a certain number of restarts and you’ll be rewarded with one of the medals. This carrot on a stick method of keeping you playing long enough to achieve the next mark is amazingly well crafted. Excluding the hardest “Extreme” level courses, the requirements for the gold medals never feel too out of reach as long as you keep plugging away at it.

Oh but you don’t care for medals, you say? The slick friends leader board will keep you playing to beat your friends’ scores. This is the best integration of a leader board I’ve ever seen in any game. When you highlight a level to play, it automatically shows your friends’ scores and who is the best at that level. Then, when you actually start to play the level, a meter at the top shows your position relative to your friends. I cannot accurately say how many hours I’ve spent beating not just every score my friends made, but also going for gold medals, but I’m sure it is over 40 at least. It is so damn addictive to see yourself at the top of every level, and gives what is otherwise a solo experience a nice social aspect.

Some side attractions to the game are skill games and a level editor. The skill games are essentially mini-games such as pulling a bomb with your bike until it explodes, flying through flaming hoops, and breaking as many bones as possible while bailing out. They are interesting diversions that are not necessarily the deepest part of the game, but they are fun to check out from time to time. Unfortunately, the level editor is a poorly executed waste of potential. The editor itself allows for great designs, but there is no way to share your creations with anyone outside of your friends list. Imagine if Little Big Planet had done this! It is disappointing to say the least, because I know some amazing levels have to exist out there, but most people will never play them. If a sequel ever comes out, it has to fix this issue.

Regardless of the missed level sharing potential, Trials HD is definitely a model of how to make excellent use of virtual physics, leader boards, and motorcycles in video games. For 1200 Microsoft points, and 400 each for the two add on level packs you get one of the most amazing Xbox Live Arcade experiences available. It rewards nuance and control, while also being accessible to less devoted players. Even if you don’t care for motorcycles at all you’ll probably find something to like in this game. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some more medals to earn…

Darksiders Review: Change of Template

Vigil Games is probably a little ashamed at how blatantly similar most of Darksiders’s design is to The Legend of Zelda and God of War. And you know what? They should be. That isn’t to say the studio’s debut title is bad, because instead of adhering too closely to the formulas of its benefactors, they avoid problems that have been in Nintendo’s series for too long. Darksiders proves that it is worth your time by polishing and tweaking key components that it borrows from other games and then adding enough new content to make them its own.

Darksiders must be commended for not wasting any time with tedious tutorials, something that Link’s adventures seem to get worse at with time. The story kicks off with a bang, introducing players to the basics quickly. From there, a dozen hours of story are stuffed with a fast travel system, five dungeons, and few chances—or reasons really—to explore. There are some collectibles and hidden items for the obsessive, but you’ll mostly follow a fairly straight hub and spoke path from each story beat to the next, with some interesting on rails sections breaking up combat and dungeon busting. This is a trim game in both design and narrative, with only one late-game item hunt that clearly exists just to fatten what could’ve been almost entirely lean.

The specifics of the story get a little more detailed, but boiled down to its core, Darksiders is an apocalyptic tale in which humanity is all but eradicated. A war between Hell, Heaven, and humanity was foretold to begin when humans were strong enough to defend themselves, but something went wrong and the war started early, killing all life on Earth. Normally, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would come down from the ether to mediate, but only War is called and quickly blamed for instigating the bloodbath. Players control War as he sets out to kill every angel, demon, and creature in between that had a hand in framing him, accompanied by a minion of The Council, the bosses of the Horsemen.

War himself is a thick, brutal figure, decked out in more spikes and skulls than a Rammstein concert. All the demons, weapons, and dungeon designs follow the same aesthetic, which definitely makes Darksiders instantly recognizable, if a little too Todd McFarlane’s Spawn at times. Still, there are tons of little details and great animations for everything. Dusty remains wisp across cracked city streets where the last zombified humans lurk, heat rises in an arid desert, and War’s attire shows a great amount of fidelity.

The bulky art style translates nicely into motion. War has a zippy dodge move and every swing of the Chaoseater, your thick-as-a-tree trunk sword, feels like it is really messing enemies up. Rigid responsiveness is the key difference here from say, God of War, which is a little more sinuous and loose. War packs plenty of combat moves and melee weapons to use, and what is available can be used on the fly. This leads to some natural variety where you might start a combo with a thrust of the Chaoseater, switch to a wide scythe swing, and end with a quick-time-event finisher.

War also wields plenty of special items ala Zelda’s hookshot, boomerang, and bow (in this case, a gun). Several need to be used in tandem to solve puzzles, and combat gains some more depth when these items are thrown into the fray. There is even a horse—War is a horseman after all—that can be summoned in wide-open spaces, making regular foot travel seem slow and plodding, and adding new combat options as well.

Dungeons don’t always shine quite like the combat does, with some easy environmental puzzles that get a tad stale by the end. This is where Darksiders should have distanced itself from Nintendo’s bag of tricks. A few too many puzzles just don’t give a sense of accomplishment because they don’t take much thought or skill to solve. Sometimes, solutions are too quickly telegraphed: see that red rock over there? You better blow it up with a bomb plant. See that crystal block in front of that door? Hit it with your tremor gauntlets. Rinse, and repeat.

Even worse are when any gear switches are involved, which should have been a simple affair but instead grows tiresome as you watch War do the same overly long animation to turn them time and time again. Let me make it clear that not all the puzzles are like this, but enough stick out to make it an issue.

When the dungeons do work, they really satisfy that same adventure itch that some of the best 3D Zelda titles did in the past. You’ll do the typical block moving, boomerang throwing, and hookshot swinging that you’d expect from this type of game, as well as some unexpected elements such as using portals to get from one place to another, and changing the flow of time to maneuver past dangers and timed doors. Darksiders feels really fresh and fun when these newer concepts take over and stray from the same old staples.

The voice acting in Darksiders augments these moments, and really sells the story. Mark Hamill does a fantastic job as the Council’s henchman, with biting remarks and a clear disdain for War. The Horseman himself isn’t particularly personable and spits out more than a few groaners, but what do you expect from a guy who looks like he just rolled around in iron shards and human skeletons? It still sounds appropriate considering his position.

Darksiders does end up feeling thin towards its final act, and I sometimes found myself enjoying the narrative and combat more than the dungeons. Still, I’m glad Vigil took chances by changing the combat, introducing new item functionality, and telling a dark, modern story, even if sticking so close to the Zelda formula often drags those changes down from potential greatness.

Super Meat Boy Review: Full of Fuzzy Animals and Cotton Candy

XBLA box art (cropped)

Super Meat Boy could be described as a platformer, but that wouldn’t be quite accurate; this game is more of a masochism simulator with an indie platformer’s skin. Whatever genre it falls under, SMB is a tightly designed game that rewards precision gameplay similar to Trials or Ninja Gaiden. And although it makes me more frustrated than any game of the past five years, there is a great sense of style and humor that softens the blow of dying 50 times in one level, and the tightly designed levels and control make it a one of a kind.

Super Meat Boy does have a narrative, but in true platformer style it is kept to a minimum: Meat Boy’s girlfriend Bandage Girl has been snatched by Dr. Fetus (literally a fetus in a glass robot suit) and you must get her back. It’s Super Mario Bros. trope to the core, but the game has a weird, dark humor that manifests itself in several cutscenes and boss fights. This is a game where squirrel genocide, talking feces, and a trip to Hell are the norm. This may have been the first time I’ve been delighted and disturbed simultaneously by a video game.

The story and humor are merely the icing on the gameplay cake. You must navigate Meat Boy through hundreds of levels that take both aesthetic and gameplay inspiration from 4, 8, and 16 bit platformers. The end goal is to run into Bandage Girl, who is positioned at an end point in the level, all the while admiring the old school graphics style and jamming to the midi soundtrack. Getting to her is easier said than done though. This game is without a doubt the hardest game I’ve played in recent memory. You will die hundreds upon hundreds of times, but your eventual success gives both a sense of great accomplishment and a replay of all your deaths at once (splashes of meat blasting everywhere all the while). The levels all exhibit a great verticality that isn’t seen in most platformers or games at all. Meat Boy’s speed hinders this slightly since it is very easy to blast off past a platform into a kill pit. The control is tight, but loose which also can lead to some “undeserved” deaths. You can stop on a dime, but jumping onto small platforms is often unwieldy and difficult due to floaty in-air control.

There are also “dark world” versions of all the regular levels which take the difficulty to a whole different plane. Negative worlds and unlockable character levels also do the same (I will never unlock “The Kid” from I Wanna Be the Guy… his level is impossible). Most of the unlockable characters are found by collecting enough bandages that float in hard to reach spots in many levels. These characters consist of Indie All-Stars such as Tim from Braid, Alien Hominid from Alien Hominid, and, as I mentioned, The Kid from I Wanna Be the Guy. My worry is that most gamers will not unlock most of the characters due to the bandage requirement even though certain levels can be beaten with less strain with the extra characters.

Honestly, I feel like recommending this game is almost harmful. Beating each level is an achievement in itself and every triumph is preceded by dozens of deaths. If you are up to the challenge, Super Meat Boy will give you a tight, extreme platforming experience that is unmatched by any. All others (sane human beings) stay far, far away.

The Magic Touch: A Look at Exchange and Ritualistic Magic in Wamira

As Miriam Kahn’s book Always Hungry, Never Greedy shows us, the Wamiran people of Papua New Guinea have a culture that is almost exclusively concerned with control through the vessels of taro and pigs. Two of the ways that express this are strengthening their food through sorcery and then exchanging said food. Both are used as ways to control and keep a balance in tribal life. When comparing Wamiran traditions with other ethnographies and articles, it is clear that there are both differences and similarities in the way that people use magic and exchange.

After watching Ongka’s Big Moka, which takes place in New Guinea as well, it is clear that the Wamirans have a different way of dealing with exchange. One factor that I think sets them apart is the level of globalization in both exchanges. When Ongka delivered his large collection of goods to the neighboring tribe, it included not only pigs, but also a large sum of money, a motorbike, and other western trinkets. Material goods such as the bike were clearly western influenced additions, and Ongka took great pride in including them with the pigs. Though Jeremiah of the Inibuena Wamirans did have some canned goods and a bag of rice in a feast, there were no material goods, just food. The Wamirans were still almost purely traditional, while Ongka’s area was not. Though both ethnographies date from the 1970s, it is clear that global trading was becoming more of a presence in Ongka’s area than in Wamira. As we know from Contemporary Warfare in the Highland New Guinea, the somewhat peaceful moka was descending back into warfare due to the influx of western trade (Podolefsky). Crosscutting ties and reciprocity were breaking down during Ongka’s time, and Kahn even warns of this at the end of her book saying, “We should encourage true independence, as well as equally weighted interdependence, for new nations rather than making them dependent on cash, imported food, and outsiders’ often exploitative ideas of development” (Kahn 156). Unfortunately for Ongka’s tribes, this warning wasn’t heeded.

The Inibuena feasts are also different because of their reciprocity. As Kahn writes, “Jeremiah gave the people a pig. In return, they supplied him with vegetable foods, especially taro and plantains…” (Kahn, 133). The main symbol of male control was given to him, symbolizing faith in his leadership. The male villagers gave up their symbolic babies to him, thus quelling any conflict or unrest since the men gave up control to Jeremiah. Ongka’s moka functioned much more aggressively, mainly as a surrogate to warfare. Ongka shot for the stars politically, clearly to establish himself as an important Big Man. Jeremiah already gained his position and respect; therefore he had no reason to go overboard with his contributions to the feast. He merely was reinforcing the established social order through a more equal trade. Doing otherwise may have resulted in a breach of taboo, similar to Richard Borshay Lee’s mistake in Eating Christmas in the Kalahari. Lee didn’t understand the taboo of bragging, and was subsequently chastised, berated, and beaten down (Lee). Jeremiah was a smooth leader, alternating his food contributions from feast to feast as to not disrupt the social balance, which hinges on taboo.

Before any of this can happen, the taro must be grown with loving care and—perhaps more importantly—magic. Most westerners have great difficulty accepting these practices, but as George Gmelch says in Baseball Magic, “To professional baseball players, baseball is more than a game…they use magic to try to control or eliminate the chance and uncertainty built into baseball” (Gmelch 276-277). In fact, a better word for magic in our society is probably superstition. Growing vegetables has much of the same uncertainty as sport performance superstitions. Weather, planting procedure, and harvesting techniques can falter at any point of the growth, and since taro is such an important facet of male power and livelihood, much like the baseball players who must perform well for their means, failure is a heavy burden to incur. Sorcery becomes a dissociative measure that can be blamed without the sorcerer taking too much psychological damage. It is important to understand that magic is in nearly every culture, and empirical science hasn’t necessarily eliminated it at all.

Taraka’s Ghost dealt with this issue, except vulnerable Indian girls were the ones creating dissociative measures (Freed). Sita was, like many girls her age, married off very young. She was put in a village with no family, friends, or control over her life. To shield her psyche, almost exactly like patients suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, she was “possessed” to manipulate the situation indirectly and keep the unwanted sexual advance of her new husband at bay. She convinced herself that she wasn’t behind the possession. The men of Wamira use magic similarly to shield themselves from the potential failure of crops. They cast spells that “ensure” crop yields and keep their pride from breaking if there is no yield. Magic is a safety net for cultures without empirical science. As Bronisław Malinowski has shown, magic, science, and religion all play important parts in culture, and don’t necessarily override each other as the culture evolves. For example, science is incredibly important to our society, but we still have ritual and religious practice in more limited forms. The Wamirans put much stock into magic, and, as far as Miriam Kahn tells us, don’t have much in religion or science.

Magic isn’t benevolent though, and when wielded often brings strife and conflict. Kahn writes, “Jeremiah, while working his garden, noticed that his taro was withering and developing brown leaves. He, too, accused Osborne of sorcerizing the taro” (Kahn 138). Though Osborne merely sat in another man’s garden, and not even Jeremiah’s, he was still accused of evil sorcery. Feeling that his taro was deficient, he employed magic to seek revenge on those who still had their pride in their work. When Jeremiah noticed his vegetables turning brown, he immediately blamed the sorcery of others to protect his pride. Osborne subsequently was forced to throw a “transaction” type feast to repair the rift he had created. Taraka’s ghost was a malevolent form of magic despite the good it did in protecting Sita from more sexual torment. As the Freeds write, “The various amulets they gave her for protection from Taraka’s ghost relieved her anxiety and helped to reduce stress” (Freed 291). The dissociative episodes were very hard on Sita and her family. Though I would argue that the stress of her early marriage was much harder than the episodes themselves, it was still better for Sita to be done with the entire ordeal. The Wamirans also feel this way, and there was peace for many months after Osborne threw his apologetic mini-feast.

Osborne’s breach of conduct mirrors an event in Ongka’s feast as well. A rival, Reimar, disrupts Ongka’s feast by creating a rumor in the crowd as they watch the moka money being counted. This simple act, just like Osborne’s simple act of sitting in the garden, sets off a huge chain of bickering and fighting. The village that is involved in his rumor even goes so far as to march towards Reimar’s to either beat him, or kill him. Even Ongka’s persuasive speech cannot deter them. As a result, the moka is delayed, Reimar is forced into hiding, and as a consequence has four of his pigs slaughtered by the mob. Osborne also had to slaughter a pig of his own for repentance, and though he does it willingly, it is clear that he isn’t happy about it. Exchange clearly has many facets and variables at play. Reimar upended things politically through a vengeful rumor, Osborne employed the suspicion of magic to get back at more successful taro growers, and the core of reciprocity can either be strong, or weak.

The basic cultural structures at work in Wamira are very close to many other societies and tribes. Ethnocentrism has an incredibly bad habit of making us feel more elite than those in the third world, to the point where they aren’t even really considered part of humanity as a whole. This essay’s function is to break that down a bit, and I think it succeeds in this. Reciprocity and magic aren’t exclusive to Bushmen or Wamirans; they just go by different names in our culture. We have gifts and superstition like they do, and realizing this can perhaps create more of a sense of unity between seemingly disparate cultures of the world.