FEZ Is A Good Good Game

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.

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.