FEZ Is A Good Good Game

Proteus Review

I’ve dreamt of a game like Proteus for many years. A game that plunks you down in a virtual world where your only task is to just exist. You look, listen, and just exist. No violence. No shooting. No context or explicit story arc. Just a little place that you get to observe and enjoy. This is arthouse gaming at its finest, taking up only as much time as it needs and nothing more.

In Proteus you experience the course of a year on a small, randomly generated island. Each season only gives maybe ten minutes of gameplay each, with weather, ambient music, and wildlife all changing as you progress. The natural beauty, if digital representations of nature and animals can be called natural, of this game is minimalist but profound. Chasing small pixelated frogs, listening to the digital plink plonk, plink plonk of a group of chickens, and gazing at a deep-blue, night sky are the kinds of little joys that Proteus has to offer. It is magical realism at its finest, evoking a sort of childish wonder at the strange details of this small biome of a world.

Saying anything more about this game would spoil it, so I’ll finish with this: play it. Take a trip into this enchanting space and see if you feel the same way that I do about it. It shows how far the indie scene has come that we can finally have these kinds of ambiguous, interactive experiences as well as the usual genre fixtures.

 

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon Review

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is a standalone expansion to 2012’s tropical island survival romp, Far Cry 3. But beyond the name and a few core mechanics, Blood Dragon shares almost nothing else with its namesake. Instead of following a group of angsty, privileged white kids through hell and high water, this set of missions puts players in the role of Rex Power Colt. Rex spits the same kind of one-liners that you’d expect from Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China, and the world around him is bathed in CRT scan lines, nuclear fallout, and explosions. Blood Dragon is just the kind of unexpected project that I want to see more of in gaming, but it could have been much more focused and impressive with more development time.

In an alternate 2007 that could only come from a B-film of the 1980s, cyber soldier Rex is sent to an unnamed island to stop his former commander and his army of cyborgs from launching a host of nuclear warheads on the United States. But really, who gives a damn? This is action flick schlock; full of awful dialogue, cheesy synth-rock, and absurd humor. The aesthetic, while ridiculous, is Blood Dragon’s greatest strength. Jamming out to a bumping beat in an underground base, mowing down dozens of cyborg enemies with RoboCop’s pistol while Rex’s partner Spider yells, “Fuck yeah!” works surprisingly well. You can’t take any of it seriously, or else you’ll see just how nonsensical it all really is.

That is sort of a double-edged sword though, as examining any individual design choice or joke too closely threatens to fold the entire facade. Why exactly does Rex throw a D20 to distract guards? Why did the female lead just try to make an acronym for the word “fuck”? Why is Rex seemingly confused about everything anyone ever tells him? And what about the titular Blood Dragons? Why in the world did the designers decide that laser shooting cyber-T-Rexes would really mesh with a 1980s action theme? I just don’t know. The sense of humor present in Blood Dragon feels half baked at its best, completely unfunny at its worst.

Despite the particulars of the story and characters not really gelling with the overall premise, Blood Dragon iterates on enough of the core Far Cry 3 mechanics to make the 6 hour experience interesting. Now instead of unleashing Bengal Tigers on unsuspecting pirates, you can lure Blood Dragons to enemy encampments to do the dirty work for you. Or you can waltz in the front door with a minigun and mow everything down in a hale of hot lead and explosions. Oh, but you’re not the explosive type? Well you can always use the fantastic stealth takedown system that Far Cry 3 so ingeniously introduced. Having this many ways to interact with encounters reinforces just how much variety the folks at Ubisoft Montreal packed into both the original game and Blood Dragon.

As long as you don’t question Blood Dragon’s schizoid sense of humor, you’ll find plenty to like in this homage to 1980s home VHS action. I just wish the developers had taken a few more months to revise and edit some of the questionable dialogue and humor. But I can’t complain too much when I consider the fact that this could have been a crappy multiplayer expansion that required the original game to run. More big developers and publishers should learn from the risks taken here, and improve with just a bit more time and consideration.

All image credits go to the respective Giantbomb community members who posted them to Giantbomb.com. 

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune Review: Ain’t No Fortunate One

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune strikes me as Naughty Dog’s coming of age project. Though the Santa Monica based studio has been around for over 20 years, most of their games have been cartoony, lighthearted platformers with little in the way of story. So it is sort of weird playing a serious action-adventure game in the vein of Indiana Jones from the same folks who brought us Crash Bandicoot.

That doesn’t mean that Uncharted is completely different from the studio’s earlier efforts; the DNA strands of Naughty Dog’s PS1 and PS2 classics are clearly here. But the game struggles to find a good balance of combat and character throughout. Uncharted ends up as a good launchpad for a series of globe trotting adventures, despite being a mess in terms of gameplay.

We open with treasure hunting protagonist Nathan Drake and broadcast reporter Elena Fisher reeling in a coffin from the Panamanian Coast floor. The box supposedly holds Sir Francis Drake’s remains, and Nate believes himself to be one of the Elizabethan privateer’s descendants. But when Nate and Elena crack open the casket, there is nothing but Sir Francis’s diary. Drake is elated, for this diary records all of Sir Francis’s adventures and treasures; namely, the location of El Dorado. Just like Raiders of the Lost Ark however, there is another faction vying for Drake’s diary. A competing treasure hunter named Gabriel Roman sends a legion of pirates after Nate, Elena, and their money obsessed partner Sully to capture the diary and find El Dorado.

And so opens the 8-10 hour adventure wherein you’ll shoot countless pirates, navigate through swamps, jungles, and ancient ruins, and watch some of the best cutscenes in the business. For a game released in 2007, Uncharted still looks good, with some great facial and motion captured animation. There are tons of little effects on display like Nate’s shirt only getting wet up to the point where water actually touches it instead of a binary wet or not wet state. It’s a testament to Naughty Dog’s visual artists and programmers that this game still holds up in purely graphical terms.

But, as the old nerd’s proverb tells time and time again, graphics do not a good game make. Back when it was originally released, Uncharted dropped right in the middle of the post-Gears of War boom of third-person, cover based shooters that altered the course of the genre. And at least it tries to hit all mechanics that Gears did. Hit a button to stick to cover? Check. Two weapon slots plus a grenade? Yep. Rolling dodge move and ability to vault over cover points to the next cover point? Done and done.

Beyond the initial layer of imitation, Uncharted’s gameplay fails to capitalize on anything further. Enemy encounters are stacked stupidly against the player; dozens of pirates will flood from a single point, and when they are all taken care of, another wave comes out to beleaguer the player to the point of frustration. These enemies start easy enough, perhaps taking more shots than you’d like, but it isn’t too hard to get the upper hand. But somewhere around the second half of the game, enemies become Herculean in their ability to take and deal punishment. Ammo becomes scarce at the same time, making any missed shot a severe blow to your progression.

These factors aren’t insurmountable individually, but the last third of the game starts to join them in a sort of perverse concert. A late game encounter in a cathedral stacks nearly a dozen enemies with one-shot-kill weapons against Nate and Sully. Banish any notion from your head that Sully may support you; like so many other games, his AI doesn’t include being able to do anything other than wisecrack occasionally. It has been a long time since I’ve had to put the game on “Easy” difficulty because I could not progress through some fights. But no matter how conservatively I played, the pirates nearly always had an advantage. I seriously contemplated putting the game down for good at many points.

There is also a startling amount of ludonarrative dissonance in Uncharted. Nate is supposed to be the flawed, but good-hearted protagonist, but he also kills hundreds of people in order to plunder ruins and temples. The mechanical ability that the player has at their fingertips is in stark contrast to Nate’s everyman image that the story conveys. He is always on the cusp of danger, but never incurs any damage or consequences. This wouldn’t be nearly as noticeable if the characters weren’t so well written and acted. As it is though, It felt strange killing every brown person in sight and then segueing into a cutscene where Nate is cracking wise.

Despite this, I found myself compelled to finish Uncharted because of the characters and the popcorn flick, action-adventure vibe; Elena and Sully are great supporting characters, and Nate is as charming a rogue as any. Elena is particularly noteworthy for being a really strong female lead. At no point did she feel like a damsel in distress or a hopeless fawn; she knows how to take care of herself, and tells the player as much. The game’s story did start to lose me in the final chapters due to an ill conceived supernatural twist. The game forces you to fight against mutated Nazi-Gollums for nearly two hours, and it just feels out of place. Not only are those enemies overpowered, but they break down what was up to that point a semi-believable storyline.

Another area of Uncharted that just doesn’t have quite enough polish is the climbing and platforming elements. Sure, I got a little rush of nostalgia when the camera pulled in front of Nate and forced a Crash Bandicoot-esque running sequence. But I also found myself frequently missing jumps even when I was squared exactly in front of a ledge. It is also difficult to differentiate what is a grabbable ledge and what isn’t. It isn’t always an issue, but it happens enough to add just a hint more annoyance on top of the gunplay.

Uncharted is definitely a product of the early years of this console generation, and has not aged well. So many other games have done gunplay and linear platforming better in recent years that it is hard to make it through. Everything but the story and characters could’ve used just a few more months of refinement and attention. To be fair, this game is dirt cheap now, but bad gameplay is bad gameplay regardless of price. I would recommend just watching this edited version of the game’s cutscenes and skip to Uncharted 2. You’ll save yourself about six hours time and lots of frustration if you do.

Journey Review: One Way Trip

With thatgamecompany’s first two games, the Los Angeles based developer established some serious arthouse cred. Both flOw (2007) and Flower (2009) used the Playstation’s Sixaxis motion control to create some minimal, ethereal experiences. Their latest game Journey doesn’t follow suit with motion controls, but it does continue the developer’s goal of creating airy, emotionally driven games. What Journey lacks in substance, it makes up for with pure feeling.

As a robed Bedouin figure in a vast desert, your goal in Journey is, well, to make a journey. It starts simple and remains so for the entire two-and-a-half hour pilgrimage. A large mountain in the distance soon becomes your goal, as it sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the endless dunes. This becomes the crux of the narrative as you weave through ruined highways and grand halls. What will happen when you get to the mountain? Well the game doesn’t give up any sort of answer before the very end, and only conveys story through intermittent cutscenes that feature absolutely no dialogue.

As you make your way forward, the loneliness of the desert can be a little harrowing. If you are playing online however, you’ll occasionally run into other players making their own way to the mountain. It is random, there is no way to contact the other person besides a chirping sound that you can make, and there is no guarantee that the other player will stay with you. But when they do, it adds a sense of companionship that changes the entire dynamic of the game. You’re sharing this experience with another person in a very restricted, yet powerful way.

Besides walking rather slowly forward, sliding down dunes, and chirping incessantly, players are given a kind of gliding ability that can only be used when charged up via magical pieces of cloth. These little scraps of cloth often serve as markers for which way you’re supposed to go, and also lead to some of the more impressive moments in the game. An early puzzle has you reconstruct a bridge made entirely of the stuff, and then lets you fly over it in a wide arc. These moments of elation pop up between much solemnity, and give the game much of its emotional appeal.

At all times, Journey is a beautiful game despite not pushing a huge amount of polygons. Sand blows across the land like a golden ocean, and the entire aesthetic is sort of like a mosque drawn in a cel shaded style. The game makes liberal use of pink, maroon, gold, and even cooler tones as you move through the world. The soundtrack supports this style even further, with long, buzzing cello pulls that reinforce the isolated vastness of the desert. But in moments of joy and excitement a full orchestral ensemble blends in naturally.

You aren’t likely to spend more than a few hours at most playing Journey, but if you’re into the minimalist indie scene, you’ll be very glad to have spent that time with it. I can see how it would be too barren for some to appreciate; I fully admit that what story is here isn’t well explained. But the point is to feel your way through the game. To get caught up in the moments that the designers have carefully crafted. If you can’t get into it, then I don’t know what would pierce your cynical soul.

Journey is available only on the PSN for PS3. All screenshot credit goes to thatgamecompany’s own selection of screenshots available via their website.

A Short Review of Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving

“Cinematic experience,” is a common phrase in the game critic’s repertoire, but I’m not convinced that it should always be connoted with merit. For example, the Metal Gear Solid series has deep roots in anime and action movie cinematography, but often at the expense of player control. Cutscenes can go on for nearly a half hour without any player input, which often makes me wonder why the game wasn’t just a CGI film.

Brendon Chung’s Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving are the antitheses of that design philosophy; shining examples of how to pull off cinematic qualities in a video game without compromising player agency. Chung experiments with jump cuts, montage, on-screen text, and nonlinear narrative in ways that some bigger studios could benefit from.

From the first greeting horn blast of Xavier Cugat’s “Maria Elena”, Gravity Bone presents itself as a sort of 1960 spy flick crossed with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Though the visuals are based in the Quake II engine, Chung’s modding resulted in an amazingly simple, but gorgeous art style. Characters all have the same cheese-cube on a stick physique and the color palette is predominantly golds and browns. Despite the abstraction, this wood panel filled throwback feels appropriate to the time period it is trying to evoke.

It’s a world where everything looks like it was made from wood and metal, not plastic. It’s a place where a tape recorder with actual film stock gives you instructions on how to carry out your mission, and works well to steep players in the vibes put out by Mr. Cugat’s Latin swing. This is also a technically good looking game of its time, with plenty of lighting tricks that bathe the world in plenty of colors and contrast.

While the art style and audio are immediately in your face and bombastic, the narrative remains minimal and purposefully vague. More is learned through flashback montages than any exposition. In fact, most of story is something the player gets to kind of fill in with their own imagination.

You’ll probably wonder, “Am I supposed to be playing as some sort of corporate espionage agent?” Well I certainly felt so, but Brendon Chung never programmed anything in the game to make me outright know that I was. All I knew was that a cutscene (appropriately shown as a slide projector series) told me that my first mission pleased my “clients”, so I knew I had to be a fix-it man of some sort.

This is something that some people are going to hate. They are going to hate that the game is only about a twenty minutes long, and they are going to hate its experimental, art-house energy. And it only gets worse in Thirty Flights of Loving, which is about half as long and twice as willing to take risks.

Which makes it the better of the two in my opinion. For all its amazing atmosphere, plethora of unique art assets, and mysterious story beats, Gravity Bone has one platforming section that I kept messing up because I didn’t know where exactly the edge of the platform and my feet met. It feels much more like a traditional first-person-shooter (not that you’ll be shooting anyone) with some unorthodox story beats packaged around it. Thirty Flights makes no such mistake, instead making jump cuts, montage, and uncertain narrative the main feature.

Instead of forcing players through long walkways and platforming sequences or backstories that are relegated to “quest logs” that you’ll never check, Chung cuts out most traversal–which is crazy if you consider that first-person shooter lineage practically demands plenty of time spent in corridors full of nothing–and there is nary a dialogue interrogation ala Mass Effect in sight. Any part of the game that could be considered slow, or god forbid boring, is simply made into a jump cut, and players simply jump forward in time. And player interaction with the two supporting characters is told through flashback and small character moments.

Short montages let you know that your female companion is a sharpshooter, but what is she sharpshooting? And for whom? Likewise, your other buddy is the best man at a wedding, but you only see the after party (which is one of the game’s highlights because of its great use chronology) and you don’t really know anything that’s going on. Again, like Gravity Bone, you are set loose in a set of often non-linear events that give you just enough to make a story out of it.

Thirty Flights is a much different looking game than Gravity Bone as well, if only because of the color palette. Pinks, reds, oranges, blues; this is the kind of stuff that makes you balk at Unreal Engine titles like Gears of War (which I do enjoy despite its gray tones). Technically, perhaps this isn’t quite as stunning as Gravity Bone was back when it was first released in 2008. Still, Chung gets plenty of mileage out of the quirky design.

To continue detailing both these games would be getting into dangerous spoiler territory considering that they are both only about a half hour in total length. So I’ll leave this review with this: buy these games. Soak in the collective 30 minutes of gameplay and enjoy the feeling of existing in these rich vignettes. If you aren’t into the whole, “games as art,” thing, then perhaps you won’t enjoy you time with Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving. But if you are that person, you probably aren’t searching WordPress for blog reviews of them anyways.

Dishonored Review: Curing Regicide with Tyrannicide

It seems only fitting that the latter years of this console generation would foster a resurgence of the stealth genre. Bellyaching about the Call of Duty and Battlefield style of extremely strict gunplay has only increased in recent times, giving titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mark of the Ninja, and Hitman: Absolution the chance to show that there is still plenty of interest in more open game design.

Dishonored is one of the more anticipated titles to ride this new wave of RPG, stealth hybrids, and it is by far one of the most ambitious. Arkane Studios has succeeded in crafting a great bunch of meticulously designed missions set in an intriguing setting that is equal parts steampunk and Victorian-era England.

They wisely focus on giving players incentive to fully explore the wildly original city of Dunwall using a trim selection of weapons, powers, and collectables. It is sad that some of the surrounding systems and the storyline aren’t nearly as supportive to this end, instead creating dissonance and dragging down what could have easily been a classic of this generation.

In Dishonored, players inhabit the silent royal protector Corvo Attano just after he returns from an important mission to find a cure to a rat plague that has nearly crippled Dunwall. Just as Corvo reports to the Empress, a group of mysterious assassins kill her and take her daughter Emily hostage. Corvo is conveniently blamed for the murder and sent to jail to await execution.

Corvo gets sprung out of the big house by a group of Loyalists soon after, and a plot of betrayal and the thirst for power becomes clear. The Loyalists enlist Corvo to become an assassin himself and eliminate the new government leaders that seized the empire in the absence of the rightful heir to the throne.

After setting up this initial conflict, the writers are in the perfect place to spin a great narrative as they play with themes involving the relationship between corruption and power, spirituality and superstition, and mercy and cruelty. Plenty of books and other readable texts expand on the culture of Dunwall, delving most often into whale oil harvesting, bourgeois extravagance, and religious superstition.

This builds Dunwall as a simultaneously artistic, yet scientifically crude place; its inhabitants well cultured, yet credulous people. The city itself is beautifully rendered, with bold, geometric architecture that shows it was built by a strong people. The sense of setting is amazing and sometimes a little overwhelming. The dozens and dozens of books are interesting, but delve into almost too much minutia.

Dishonored gets much more mileage out of its art style–full of exaggerated features, almost visible oil-paint brush marks, and a wide color palette–than any technical proficiency. In fact, much of the texture work on buildings and landscapes is flat and bland. At least on the Xbox 360 everything is kept at 30 fps even when a dozen guards, a pack of plague rats, and a few explosions are on screen at one time.

The focus on setting seems to have taken time away from the actual story and main characters of Dishonored. Small little tidbits of character work are sprinkled amidst a sparse, poorly acted script. This is particularly surprising considering how star studded this cast is: Brad Dourif, Susan Sarandon, Chloë Grace Moritz, and Lena Headey all lend their voices to the game. Perhaps it’s just that these actors didn’t have enough to work with, or perhaps they just didn’t fully invest in their characters; either way, most of the dialogue is delivered in a stiff, “I’m just reading a script here, guys,” sort of way.

This is further compounded by a lack of characterization in general. Exploring the Loyalists’ rooms gives plenty of insight to their quirks and some underlying vulnerabilities and vices, but its never connected into the main story. The Loyalists simply exist to dole out assassination targets to the player and move the story along. They don’t make themselves out as very likeable people, and ultimately their motivations aren’t known either. Why are they loyal to the dead Empress? What were her political ideals? What do they plan to do after reinstating Emily on the throne? Most of these questions are never answered, or kept vague for a late game twist that isn’t telegraphed in a reasonable way.

The developers also made a grave mistake when they decided to make Corvo a silent protagonist. Without any sort of personality, it is hard to connect to Emily or any of the other characters. The game tries to make you feel compassion and companionship for these people, but you have literally no reason to feel these things without a voice in the narrative. If you need reason to put the mute-hero trope out to pasture, look no further than Dishonored.

Even without a great cast or storyline, Dishonored manages to be one of the most satisfying gameplay experiences this year. As Corvo, I felt powerful even without using lethal means–though there are plenty of those. The toolset at your disposal isn’t very large, but each and every power, trap, and weapon can be used in multiple creative ways and in tandem to create amazing chain reactions.

You could take out a hallway of guards by carefully sneaking up behind each one and either knocking them out or slitting their throats, or you could stick a razor-wire mine at the end of hallway, lure one guard through it, slow down time and teleport behind the other two and tranquilize them both. Or perhaps just circumvent the entire area by possessing a rat and running past them all. And if all else fails, just throw a grenade around the corner while using the time-stop power and watch the bodies fly.

These are just simple examples of the variety of ways encounters can be managed. The different levels that you explore in Dishonored are never very large, but they are dense with pathways and secrets. The verticality of Dunwall is impressive, and easily traversed by the teleporting ability, Blink. Mastering that ability in particular is enough to make the game almost unfair. Enemies are not the brightest bunch on Normal difficulty, and effective Blink maneuvering outsmarts them nearly every time.

Still, it’s hard to deny the tactical joy that comes with outfoxing enemies by pure stealth and clever exploitation of the level design. Arkane really stacks the deck in the player’s favor, giving plenty of options at every point of the 6-10 hour story. Going in with reckless abandon, or just incredible Blink utilization, will definitely make your experience shorter and less impressive.

No, the way to play Dishonored is much more methodical. This is a game that begs you to turn off several of the user interface elements and waypoints and play on Hard. Feeling your way through the city, watching guards complete patrol paths before acting, and really planning out traps and attacks is the way to get the most out of the gameplay systems.

Oddly enough, Arkane created a morality system for the game that appears to limit the very openness of the gameplay. Killing creates “Chaos” around Dunwall; the more guards you kill, the more plague victims and reinforcements you’ll have to deal with. Other characters will also talk to you curtly and generally act rude towards you. The problem with this system is that it limits you to an even smaller amount of weapons and powers than you already have. If you want the good ending, you can probably get away with using lethal means every once in awhile, but don’t expect to be regularly setting up razor-wire traps.

This wouldn’t be an issue if there were more non-lethal options, but there are literally only three: tranquilizers, sleeper holds, and possession. Meanwhile, there are easily over half a dozen lethal choices. I didn’t feel held back by other games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution nearly as much as I did by Dishonored.

That was my unfortunate final impression when I finished the game. I felt restricted despite a wealth of options, unconnected to all the characters, and unimpressed with the narrative as a whole. Dunwall is an amazing set dressing, but without a great story to support it, Dishonored ends up feeling half baked in many ways. If you loved the Thief, Deus Ex, or stealth heavy games in general, then you’ll find something to like here. But you’ll have to deal with a host of caveats in order to find the core embedded within.

Dust: An Elysian Tail Review: Auteur Theory

Dust: An Elysian Tail is unique even by indie game standards. Dean Dodrill, who had almost no experience in game design, computer programming, or story writing, designed it almost entirely by himself.
Knowing that fact along makes it shocking that this game’s mechanics work as well as they do. The juggle heavy combat is simplistic, but responsive, and the RPG elements are deeper than most other XBLA games.
From a narrative perspective though, Dust has some serious pacing issues, and a glut of dialogue performed by irritating characters. For every great moment of story telling comes many more moments of overacted melodrama. Because Dodrill was the sole creator, he could put whatever he wanted in the game, and however much of it that he pleased. Auteur theorists may be pleased, but all I could think was that some editing would’ve helped greatly.
In Dust, you play as, well, Dust. Joining the annals of amnesiac protagonists, Dust awakens in a Wonderlandian forest with no recollection of how he got there, why here is there, or who he even is. A magical sword named Ahrah and its winged keeper Fidget find Dust and tell him that he is the chosen one to wield one of the Blades of Elysium and bring order back to the land. A great war between two factions has raged for years, and Dust must find a way to end it and figure out his past.
Much of your time spent with Dust focuses on killing monsters and other evildoers with Ahrah. Dust only has two or three main combos and a whirlwind attack on his own. Use Fidget’s projectile attacks with the whirlwind however, and things get really interesting. The whirlwind causes the normally puny fireballs to explode across the screen, racking up the combo counter and experience bonus quickly. There is a fluidity to combat here that can’t be understated. Dust is incredibly agile, able to jump from side to side to dodge incoming attacks or high into the sky to continue slicing up enemies. To put it simply, fighting feels good in Dust.


The world of Dust is also of high quality. The soft focused style evokes a lushness and color palette not seen often in games. Teal, purple, yellow, and orange all work in ways that most other contemporaries don’t dare attempt. There is a small amount of exploration, helped along by a map system cribbed from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Sadly, the character animations also look like they were taken from the PS1, which is jarring in front of the meticulously detailed environments and abundant HD particle effects.
The story here is clearly inspired by SNES and Playstation era RPGs, and anime. The focus is on surprisingly dark themes such as death and loss. The side quests are where most of the whimsical and goofy writing comes out. As you travel the Elysian lands, the lesson that all things will eventually die is married with pretty well characterized quest givers.
One of Dust’s greatest failings is how such heavy and poignant story content is buried beneath a surplus of dialogue delivered by nearly every character. I don’t even care that all the characters are anthropomorphic animals. That’s fine. But the endless amount of talking is unforgivable. When it isn’t grating—Fidget’s unfunny attitude never hits the mark—it is just pointless. The game stops the action for literally every interaction. Hitting up the store for some health items? Well prepare to hear the shady shop-keep spout some nonsense every single time. At a certain point, I just quit listening and skipped as much talking as possible.
And then there’s the last hour of the game, which is quite simply terrible. Forget that the story takes a complete right turn and refocuses on characters that are either introduced entirely too late or not characterized well before hand. The real killer is a difficulty spike leading up to the final boss, and the final boss itself. Enemies suddenly gain the ability to block your attack chains, bringing what used to be a great sense of combat momentum and fluidity to a full stop. Oh, and good luck buying enough health items to make it past the final confrontation where one strike eliminates ¾ of your health bar.
I have a feeling that plenty of people will like Dust more than I did. There is a huge amount of content here for $15, and who knows, maybe some folks actually like Fidget’s annoying voice. Ultimately, I found the game sloppy and amateurish, which is to be expected from a first effort. Dodrill has a lot of promise, and Dust isn’t a complete waste of time at all. There are plenty of moments where the story and gameplay mesh, but there are also plenty of moments where the action gets bogged down in melodramatic, snarky, or just plain boring dialogue. Give this guy a team of 10 other developers, and there could be greatness in the future.

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.

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.