The Mini Boss Diaries, October
It’s hard enough to balance a full-time job and a time-consuming hobby, but when that time-consuming hobby is gaming—an activity that has a predetermined minimum amount of time that can be put in per game—even having fun can get tiring.
I previously tried to balance working and gaming and writing full-length reviews of what I completed. The problem, though, is that my game-completion rate is currently much slower than it ever was: I used to beat 60-hour Final Fantasy games in two weeks or less, but as an adult, I’m lucky to see the ending of a 10-hour Ratchet and Clank game in that same amount of time.
So, rather than continuing to very slowly write full reviews, I plan to live up to my blog’s name and create an ongoing gaming journal: The Mini Boss Diaries. Let’s start with a catch-up entry.
October, 2013 Last month was a slow burn of GTA V missions and catching Pokemon in Pokemon Y, but I took a break from those games to tackle the sure-to-be-short Beyond: Two Souls.
I attended the Beyond presentation at the Tribeca Film Festival this past summer (and wrote about the event), and became very excited for its mid-October release. It had all the promise of Heavy Rain plus the acting abilities of Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page. After following the game for so long, I felt connected to it, but I knew from the first few minutes that it wasn’t going to be what I’d expected. It was being told out-of-sequence and, for me, it gave me less of a connection to the characters than I would’ve had if the story was told chronologically. Following Jodie’s childhood into adulthood would have been more interesting, as we’d get to see her life with an entity attached to her unfold. Instead, the story is told as if her whole life is happening at once, jumping back and forth through her timeline like vaguely connected flashbacks. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s jarring. Over all, the story was interesting, but it wasn’t nearly as powerful as it could have been.
Then there’s the gameplay issue, in that there was very little of it. For most of the 10-ish hours the game lasts, you’re watching cutscenes and walking Jodi around. Sometimes you control Aiden, though the controls aren’t great, and you are always, always on a predetermined path. You’ll get dialogue choices, but no matter what you do, the major plot points will happen in the same way and you never will feel like you made a difference. The game can go on without you, and does: if you take too long to choose a dialogue option, the game will choose one for you and keep the scene moving. There are also quick-time events, which are implemented similarly to Heavy Rain, except they are few and far between. Heavy Rain’s controls were far superior in that when an action needed to be done, the controller prompts attempted to emulate the real life action. Beyond’s controls are more simplified, and you’ll feel more like you’re pressing on a controller than performing real world actions. And then there’s the fact that even if you botch the button-pressing scenes (in a fight or a burning building), Jodie will survive and the game will go on. She’ll show cuts and bruises, sure, but you can set the controller down for (most of) the 10 hours and the game will go from beginning to end without a “game over” screen.
Beyond: Two Souls would have been more at home as an anime. I guess I didn’t enjoy it as a game, but I kind of enjoyed it as a miniseries. There are crazy things that happen, there are human connections, there’s character development…but I wasn’t playing. The most input I had on the game was making on-the-fly decisions that affected what trophies I received, and a couple of final choices that showed me one of several endings. This is why it’s labeled as an “interactive experience;” this is what “interactive cinema” is. I greatly preferred Heavy Rain’s dark consequences, sense of peril and lack of time, and storytelling, even if I had to hear “ori-geh-mi killer” mispronounced over and over again. But at least Beyond only took me a week to finish.
The world of The Last Story is a place of magic, monsters, friendship and betrayal, and it unfortunately played out as derivative and full of clichés as that sounds.
The game revolves around a ragtag group of mercenaries with hearts of gold who aspire (under the leadership of play-it-cool Dagran) to be knights. But in typical JRPG fashion, you play as Zael: the unconfident sword-wielding type who has things to learn and room to grow and is never feigning his innocence.
The gist of the plot is that Zael and his mercenary comrades pass through some ruins and a legendary entity bestows upon Zael a powerful, oft sought-after magic. We see in a few cutscenes what it can do, but in battle it’s only moderately useful. The ability can be switched on to draw the attention of enemies while Zael’s party members do damage unhindered. And later on, he can use the ability to absorb some damage while defending, and then blast that stored up energy back at his foes. But that’s really it. Any other showing off of his powers happens outside of the player’s control. Enter “Lisa,” a runaway bride who too quickly falls for Zael, despite her upcoming arranged marriage to a right arse. She is quickly revealed to be Lady Calista of the noble Arganan bloodline, and is betrothed to the count’s son: an unbearable nobleman named Jirall. She must eventually return to the castle and appear by Jirall’s side for the sake of peace between nations. But, though she decides to suck it up for the greater good, she is soon kidnapped by Zangurak, the Gurak king who greatly resembles’s Gannondorf from The Legend of Zelda’s Wind Waker. He happens to be after this power, and Zael happens to stand in his way.
And The Last Story seems to borrow from a handful of works. There are several Final Fantasy-inspired subplots woven in, characters that, in the back of your head, will remind you of Square Enix characters, and some very interesting ideas that never quite reach greatness. There’s a sort of Final Fantasy VII-esque planet energy, for example. And at one point, Zael and his band of murderous do-gooders are thrown into a prison cell. During this section of the game my memory flashed back to the prison break portion of Final Fantasy VIII, which I’ve always fondly remembered as intriguing, challenging, and a great plot point. However, Zael & co.’s time in prison never reached even shades of that FFVIII scenario. They are thrown into a cell with an archaeologist who gets them access to an underground passage in hopes they can all escape. The passage is full of monsters, and Zael’s party fends them off—their weapons were never taken away from them. And after completing that part they end up back in the cell. The whole thing was just filler while your party is negotiated for off-screen. Even more frustrating: As Zael is led out of the cell and to the court to be tried, he passes a level of cells full of monsters. Instead of taking this opportunity to explore the origin of these monsters or any portion of their existence as both creatures and a core component of the game, or to find deeper moral ambiguity within the kingdom, you simply get a passing comment.
Battles are fun, at least—that is, until you stop learning new moves and each battle becomes similar to the last. Each fight is predetermined, as in there are no random encounters. However, after clearing certain areas a rune circle will appear where Zael can summon new monsters to fight for XP. It’s a cruel idea, summoning something just to end its life, but it does give the player a way to level up outside of the main story (though it’s usually not necessary to do so).
The player controls Zael in nearly all battles. He can indefinitely aggro the enemies and can use a tactics menu that lets him tell the other party members to use certain special moves. But throughout the game you will only have 2-4 special moves to choose from per player (they cannot be changed later on), and once you get your strategy down you will end up using the same tactics over and over again. Later on, some plot-based scenarios require you to control another party member, which tends to feel alien after controlling one character for most of the game, and does not give you much time to get used to controlling that character. Thankfully, these portions are brief.
I went into The Last Story expecting something similar to the well-written emotional journey of Lost Odyssey—also by Mistwalker Studios. But while The Last Story appeared to aspire to greatness, it falls short, never quite reaching the heights of a truly great RPG.
Review: Sleeping Dogs
Sleeping Dogs may at first look like a knockoff of Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row or the like—and it is similar in a lot of ways—but at a closer look it sets itself apart well. In fact, for most of the first half of the game protagonist Wei Shen doesn’t even use a gun—something that a series like Grand Theft Auto and other crime-based sandbox games wouldn’t dream of.
The game takes place in a well-detailed version of Hong Kong (which naturally includes Hong Kong’s driving rules—you drive on the left), Arkham City-style hand-to-hand combat, and the kind of intricate character-based story you would expect from a game Square Enix is attached to.
You jump in as Wei Shen is knee-deep in an ongoing undercover investigation with the triads. He’s known among the triads as a badass: the kind of guy who is revered. Wei is part of the Sun On Yee, a dominant group of triads that is having trouble with a rival group run by a man called Dogeyes. Though Wei is currently under deep cover, he was once a true gang member; he had left for America to clear his head after things got too crazy. Dogeyes also happens to be the guy responsible for the death of Wei’s sister. The conflict of interest causes Wei to act a little too triad-like for someone who’s supposed to be a cop, and he gets dirty when the job necessitates it, regardless of his handler’s dislike for Wei’s methods. Sleeping Dogs is the story of vengeance, twisted relationships, and twisted loyalties, with situations that leave the player unsure of whether Wei will ultimately back the Sun On Yee or the cops.
Wei’s dual loyalties are built into gameplay through an experience meter. Doing triad-like things will add more experience points to Wei’s triad meter, but breaking the law will have him lose cop points (stealing cars, destruction of public property, harming civilians, etc.). Balancing the two can be challenging but rewarding (trying to keep up your cop score while in a high-speed car chase through traffic proves tricky, as you can imagine). Each meter has its own level, and as you level up each loyalty you will unlock abilities related to that group. A higher triad level will grant Wei better fighting abilities while a higher cop level will allow him to hijack and handle cars better, for example. There’s also a “Face level” system, which tracks how high your reputation is. This mainly increases when doing side missions for people on the street. Your Face level will allow you to pull off better clothing and accessories (which often come with stat bonuses), buy better cars, raise your stats, and eventually gets Wei a hefty discount at stores.
You’ll spend most of your time doing Sun On Yee missions and cop missions. The Sun On Yee missions are the meat of the game and carry the plot, and the cop missions consist of a string of three or four missions per case file that, in combination, help close a few unsolved cases. And while the story is compelling and the characters feel complex and often real, the plot is set, and none of the player’s actions—be it triad-centric or cop-centric—effect the endgame. The ending is still satisfying, though it’s disappointing that there aren’t multiple endings based on whether you played as more of a triad or more of a cop.
There’s plenty to do outside of the main missions, as well. There are street races, missions that ask Wei to steal rare cars to sell and unlock for later, pedestrians who need Wei’s help, drug busts, and a slew of collectibles to be found that boost Wei’s stats or gain him money and clothing—not to mention several DLC missions that are currently available.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, Part 2: A Nearly Proper Game, Ei’nt It?
Being an adult gamer with a job and a real life can drastically stretch out the time you take with one game. I began playing Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch over a month ago and ended my playthrough with approximately 55 hours, having played through the main quest and doing only a small chunk of side quests when convenient. I could have spent many more hours outside of the main quest.
In Part 1 I talked about what it was like to journey through the other world with Oliver—an ordinary boy-turned-wizard, and Drippy—Lord High Lord of the Fairies. But approximately eight hours into the game the dynamic changes, when a second controllable party member, Esther, joins the team. Esther’s specialty is taming familiars—cute-but-fierce creatures that inhabit the wild. Familiars are kind of like feral animals: they’ll attack you if you come too close, but impress them and they’ll get all lovey dovey, giving Esther the opportunity to tame them with a song from her magical harp.
Having more party members allows the player to switch between them on the fly and control other familiars—eventually three per character, one at a time. Unfortunately, the party AI in the game is not great. Whether controlling Oliver or Esther, the other will always try to use up all of their MP, exhaust their familiars’ endurance, heal too often or too little, and generally not fight wisely. Your AI-controlled characters are going to get knocked out often at first, and will continue to be knocked out often later, depending on whether you overlevel or just play the game straight through. This becomes problematic in new areas with higher-level creatures and in boss battles. There were quite a few bosses I had to defeat using only one character (of the three in my party) for a quarter or more of the fight. But at least your party members can’t use your items—they’d surely waste them. Of course, it means they can’t use Phoenix feathers to revive members, either, which could have been helpful at times. The difficulty of battles increases when your party first expands, and increases further when you gain your third character (about 17 hours in).
But the game’s charm cushions the often-frustrating battle system. The world is lush and detailed, the score feels ripped straight from an epic Disney film of yesteryear, and everything has life and personality. And the places, people, and creatures have names that will make you smile—from Ding Dong Dell to characters Kublai and Khan. If you’ve played Dragon Quest IX you may be familiar with Level-5’s penchant for name puns. And while I found them cheesy when I first played DQIX, I found them endearing and adorable in Ni no Kuni. Maybe it was because of my wife’s constant swooning over the creatures (the cat-thief-swordsman “purrloiner”, for example, or the “Sasquish”), but I hold fast to the idea that her reactions only enhanced it. You can certainly see Level-5 in the game, from the quirky creatures and characters’ personalities to the overall look, and their collaboration with Studio Ghibli truly brings the world to life. The world map is presented roughly to scale—mountains and cliffs are, well, mountainous compared to your party, and lands take a little time to traverse. A nice part of this presentation is that, on the world map (though not in cities or dungeons), the entire party appears on-screen, including any guests traveling with you.
The cities and towns, while gorgeous, are not as scaled. Yes, there is plenty of space to move and their sizes fit the pace of the game, but they more resemble very small cities than the sprawling metropolis they are often implied to be. This is further highlighted inside kings’ palaces—you usually enter into a large, spacious throne room that is nearly empty.
But I loved visiting the cities because each one captures a separate culture (complete with foreign travelers), customs, and the scenery truly feels pulled from an animated movie. I even find myself humming the city score when I’m not playing.
On top of it all, the story is well-crafted and the dialogues are great. There are moments that will make you giggle and moments that will make you sad—such is the power of good storytelling. Unfortunately, by the end of the game it becomes obvious that the White Witch was not present in the original DS version of the game and was added on just for the PS3 version, as the wrap-up of that plotline does not have as big a bang as it should have. The aftereffects of defeating Shadar could have been the true ending—and perhaps in the DS version it was—but you get literally under one minute of an ending after the White Witch business is resolved. It almost felt like a DLC story that the game would have been fine without.
But despite AI frustrations, grinding detours, and the abrupt ending, I enjoyed this JRPG more than many games I’ve played recently. It will make you smile, tear, and occasionally rage, and for the most part you’ll appreciate it doing those things to you. It’s a fairy tale built upon fairy tales, and it’s stronger for it. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a charming entry into the JRPG genre with a good balance of tradition and modernity, and a fully fleshed-out world.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (Part 1: The First 8 Hours)
Note to Reader: This review will be divided into 2 articles, and this one covers the beginning of the game up until your second party member joins.
If it were up to my wife, Oliver would be left to die and the worlds would fall into ruin—but the animals (see monsters) of the “Another World” would be safe and free to mutilate whomever they choose. Such is the curse of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PS3), a game so full of life, detail, and utter adorableness that you won’t want to harm anything that inhabits it (until monsters are chomping at your torso).
You’ll first meet 13-year-old Oliver as he is peer-pressured into sneaking out of his house one night to try out a friend’s homemade car—a vehicle that is the hallmark of the sleepy 50’s-inspired town of Motorville. We get our first glimpse of Oliver’s cleverness as he carefully negotiates a conversation with his mom to find out how he can get away with leaving in the middle of the night.
But Oliver’s being watched from another realm; in a Wizard of Oz-style scene, a mysterious helmeted figure in a cloak peers across worlds at Oliver, noting to her bird-of-darkness that Oliver is the “Pure-Hearted One” the prophecies speak of who will save the world. She does not like that one bit, and waves a spell across space that sabotages the car. After a series of unfortunate events set in motion by this sabotage, Oliver survives, and locks himself in his room for days. But his tears awaken a stuffed doll he has had since he was a child, bringing back to life Drippy, the once-cursed Lord High Lord of the Fairies (who, notably, has a small lantern that hangs from his nose). Drippy wastes no time when he realizes Oliver has no clue of the bigger picture (and this helps to keep the pace up for the player, as well). Drippy concisely explains that there are multiple worlds, and a dark djinn called Shadar (from Drippy’s world) has terrorized the people. In a Kingdom Hearts-like move, Shadar stole pieces of the people’s hearts and left them “brokenhearted” so they never rise up against him. Oliver’s magical tears proved that he’s the pure-hearted one of legend, and Drippy quickly spews out some history and rules of the universe.
But Drippy needs Oliver. All living things have a “soul mate” in the other world—a connected counterpart that shares some of their traits but are not similar enough to be a doppelgänger. Oliver’s mom’s soul mate happens to be Alicia, one of the four Great Sages, though she was taken out of commission by Shadar and the only way to ensure Oliver’s own mother will be alright is to help her soul mate. Drippy recognizes that, given a wand and a spellbook, Oliver has it in him to become a proper wizard and, using said spellbook, they cross a gateway to the other world (where the majority of the game will take place). The spellbook, a. k. a. the Wizard’s Companion, is a fully realized, fully browsable book you can read from the in-game menu (the special edition of the game came with a printed hardcover version as well). The book runs 300+ pages and unlocks bit by bit as Oliver progresses through his journey. Spells are described, tales are told, and background is given on all major aspects of the world. It deepens the player’s understanding of the game world while simultaneously serving as a plot device, though any mandatory plot information is given outside of the book. This book was clearly given a lot of love and attention; it resembles exactly what you would imagine a fairytale spellbook would look like, and you can easily spend hours panning and zooming around its content—in fact, Drippy encourages it!
The first 8 hours of the 40—60-hour adventure spends its time letting us get to know Oliver and Drippy, both as characters and as a duo, and it does a great job of balancing the pacing without holding your hand too hard through the tutorials. Drippy gives out some info in brief tutorials, but the majority of the player’s information comes from characters who are actually intelligent, clever, and can draw their own conclusions. Oliver is a great lead, as despite his youth he is as wise as the wizard he sets out to become. You won’t end up yelling at the screen during a dialogue when you know an answer—either Oliver or someone else involved will quickly catch on to what needs to be done and helps keep the plot moving. Oliver is no whiney, stuck-up, kid with amnesia or a cold heart: on the surface, he’s a regular lad who grew up with a regular family, and he cares about the worlds and the people within them. He represents the wholesome son with every fiber of his character, down to his expletives (he cries often out, “Jeepers!”). And while he may be the chosen one of legend, he works for his greatness, and he works hard.
Level-5 and Studio Ghibli have done a great job at realizing the worlds and answering every question a player could possibly have about it. The other world is a world of magic, though magic in practice is rare: Shadar left all great wizards brokenhearted or defeated, and most wands were lost or destroyed in fear of Shadar striking back against magic-users. Monsters run loose as well, making the world a dangerous place.
Not all creatures are aggressive,though; tamed monsters are called “familiars.” Not too long into their journey Drippy teaches Oliver how to summon a familiar from his own heart, and the result is Mitey: an adorable little warrior with a sword and shield. And while Oliver does fight on his own for much of the first few hours (he excels at magic casting but is weak in physical attacking), he benefits from Mitey’s high physical attack and defense ratings. Battling with Mitey becomes a Pokémon-style mechanic of controlling the creature and giving it commands in an action-RPG way—you’ll manually run around the area, landing and dodging attacks based on your proximity. As you’d imagine, different creatures have different strengths, weaknesses, and abilities, so oftentimes Oliver will have a better chance at winning a battle using a familiar than by doing the fighting himself (he later acquires Lemahl, a lemur with high evasion and quick jabs of medium-strength attacks, and Sid, a healer that can learn magic attacks). But switching back and forth is also a helpful battle strategy, as Oliver has his own set of spells that come in handy, and can use items. You’ll find yourself looking for fights because they work so well and feel so good without being too easy. Oliver or Mitey run around the battle area with Drippy visibly cheering from the sidelines as Oliver takes on such ridiculously cute creatures as the Ruff and Baatender. The dynamic changes after the 8 hour point, when your second party member joins, and I’ll discuss that in Part 2 of this review (coming soon).
Paper Mario: Sticker Star Review
Paper Mario: Sticker Star on the 3DS is charming, cute, clever, and fun, drawing inspiration from past Super Mario and Paper Mario games. With thought-provoking puzzles, smart level design, and zany dialogue, Sticker Star is a game to love despite a few frustrating flaws.
For those new to the series: Paper Mario takes place in a paper-based Mushroom Kingdom in which everything is 2D within a 3D plane. The 3DS’ technology highlights the dimensional differences well, giving the paper Toads, goombas, and other Mario Bros. elements a truly flat feel amongst the three-dimensional environments. But having been released for a 3D system, it’s curious that the developers didn’t create a world similar to that of Super Paper Mario for the Wii, where the player would have to switch on the fly between a 2D and 3D view of the world. (Maybe they felt the switching back and forth would cause headaches?)
In Sticker Star, the kingdom has gathered at the square for the annual Sticker Fest to watch the passing-by of the Sticker Comet—said to grant a wish to the person who touches it. Princess Peach plans to wish for peace, but after a struggle Bowser touches the comet and it splits into six royal stickers. They scatter across the kingdom, and Bowser gets away, kidnapping the princess in the process.
But Mario will need to do more than papercut Bowser to save the kingdom and its princess. Enter Kersti: a shiny sticker fairy who arrives to protect the sticker comet. Kersti, who resembles a tiara, grants the reknown hero Mario the ability to collect in an enchanted album the stickers that were scattered when Bowser wreaked havoc and use them offensively. She also grants him the ability to “paperize” an area, flattening it out like a book so Mario can peel off specific pieces of the environment for use in other areas. This becomes integral to solving the game’s puzzles and advancing to the next level. Mario is also given a hammer.
Together, they travel the world map in search of the royal stickers and clues of Bowser’s wherabouts. Along Mario and Kersti’s journey, they encounter plenty of Bowser’s minions: goombas, koopas, shy guys, boos, and many more. Battles are initiated by jumping on or swinging Mario’s hammer at on-screen enemies, which takes you to a turn-based battle scenario in which Mario can spend stickers to use associated attacks, block incoming attacks, and spin a slots wheel for attack bonuses—a boot sticker allows Mario to jump on an enemies; a fire flower sticker allows him to hurl fireballs, etc.). But battles feel bare and often pointless with no experience or growth system in place. If you can actively avoid many enemies and only lose stickers (your only means of attacking) by fighting, what’s the player’s motivation to fight? Yes, you’ll win a few coins, but coins are used to buy stickers or spin the slots wheel, so why spend the stickers in the first place?
Saving stickers often proves to be a more useful tactic, as each suped-up royal-sticker-wearing boss requires you to throw everything you have at it if you didn’t already have the appropriate “thing” sticker for the battle in your inventory. “Things” are three-dimensional real-world items like a vacuum, pillow, goat, jackhammer, bowling ball, and more that can be found and converted into powerful stickers. As you can imagine, scissors in a paper-based world can be devastating in battle, but other stickers (like an upright fan) need to be placed within a level using paperization in order to progress. More often than not, however, you will not know what you need until you are standing next to the spot where it needs to be placed, as there are usually no hints as to what things you will need to bring with you to a level. Carrying them all with you isn’t feasible because they take up so much inventory space (thing stickers are much larger than regular stickers), so you will often find yourself going back to the town square to convert things to stickers and then traveling back to the level in which it is needed. The same goes for boss battles: some battles are incredibly difficult or even impossible without the right special sticker, but you won’t know what that sticker is until you’re already in the battle. These are battles you of course cannot run from, so the only option is to reload your last in-level save or world map auto-save. This can become very frustrating, as some of the needed stickers for levels or bosses are particular to one specific sticker and it’s not apparent which is needed, but others are interchangeable. For example, I tried to wake a sleeping creature up using a jackhammer, but only a musical instrument worked. However, an oven or heater could be used to melt snow.
Still, the level design is well-done, usually having Mario traverse a 3D plane (moving toward and away from the 3DS screen), requiring you to avoid or take down enemies while searching for areas to paperize. Secret paths exist too, leading you to hidden sticker stars or items. Levels like the Enigmansion in World 4 (of 6) functions as a callback to Luigi’s Mansion and the infamous haunted houses of past games, and also demonstrates smart level design, showing off the series’ strength for collecting hidden items, taking multiple paths, and remembering where each room is for when you need to return and place an integral sticker.
And then there’s the music: fantastic arrangements that are reminiscent of old Mario tunes but modernized and made appropriate for the quirkiness of Sticker Star. With full orchestral tracks that would feel at home in old Hollywood productions, the music is very much its own star. Not only are the tracks festive and catchy without becoming mind-numbingly repetitive, but they work perfectly with the world they are playing within. For example, the desert world’s soundtrack includes mariachi-style clap beats that are perfectly fitting with the acoustic guitar-playing Sombrero Guy enemies perched in the sand. It created a strong sense of atmosphere, and I couldn’t help but smile when I first came across this.
But through the good and the frustrating, the game also suffers from not knowing what genre it is. It’s scant on RPG elements and the platforming is weak, and what feels like an effort to merge the two genres just didn’t work. Instead, we’re left with a Mario who can’t jump high or far and who doesn’t earn experience points or work with other party members. The writing saves the game, though, because no matter how frustrating battling may become, there is always someone with a clever line or a fun personality quirk.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star was drawn for younger players, but planned for adults. You’ll need your wits about you and to always be ready to problem-solve. While I wouldn’t call the game hard, it does require a sense of logic and creativity other games rarely ask for. But without an experience system or clues for what special stickers to bring to boss fights, battles can become a frustrating chore. Still, it’s a clever, well-written adventure worth taking that feels fresh while often calling back to previous games in the series without sacrificing itself.
New Super Mario Bros. 2: More Bling Than Sequel (Review)
It’s impossible not to be enamored with a game that includes Koopa Troopers that do jazz hands to the musical cues in each level’s soundtrack—something that’s just the tip of New Super Mario Bros. 2’s charm.
The game is more of an extension of the first game than a direct sequel: the mechanics are familiar, as are most of the power-ups and level elements. But the game’s core goal has changed: Yes, you have to chase Bowser’s underlings across the game’s six world’s (and three secret worlds) to rescue the princess, but Mario’s main goal is to get paid. The game keeps a running tally of every coin you’ve collected since you first began your save file, including coins collected before losing a life (though on the occasion that you do, odds are you’ll still have over 100 lives left). I suppose after all the work Mario’s done for the Mushroom Kingdom he is looking for what he hopes to be his big payday before settling down with Princess Peach (and probably securing a position as prince).
And with this game, Nintendo’s made coin-collecting relevant again—we’re talking coin-collecting for coin-collecting’s sake. There are no in-game trophies or achievements for grabbing every coin you see and spending hours replaying levels,but you’ll want to do it anyway. Why? Not so much for the unlockable post-game levels (though you’ll enjoy those), but because of a simple counter on the screen, a community total, and the on-screen suggestion that you should do it.
The modern-day gaming community loves stats. We like to use services like Steam and Raptr to track how many hours we put into each game; we like to keep a running count of trophies and achievements, and we like asinine statistics like the collective hours a game has been played worldwide. But New Super Mario Bros. 2 takes its own spin on the idea of the leaderboard. Like every Mario game, you compete against your own coin-collecting score per level, but you also have a running total of how many coins you’ve collected game-wide, which contributes toward a worldwide counter Nintendo keeps (as of 8/25/12, the total worldwide coin count was 50,610,416,353). The running challenge is for individual players to collect one million coins.
However, the core of the game is unchanged from the first New Super Mario Bros. This is the same side-scrolling 2.5D gameplay you saw on the DS and Wii, and while it remains a fun, solid game with smart level-design, it is ultimately the same experience with a handful of new elements. Yes, you now have the tenooki suit with the ability to fly ala Super Mario Bros. 3, as well as a golden flower power-up that lets you turn nearly everything to coins, but it doesn’t much alter how you take Mario from the beginning of a level to the flag at the end of it. You can also co-op with a friend as Luigi, but it’s local co-op only. And, in New Super Mario Bros. style, the boss fights are built for five-year-olds.
There is a new mode, though, called Coin Rush. This is a Street-Pass-enabled mode that gives you a set of three levels with a time limit of 100 seconds each and the goal of collecting as many coins as you can. It can be tricky, and you’ll trade high scores with other players through Street Pass. Nintendo also recently released new Coin Rush content as DLC—but keep in mind the DLC is tied to your 3DS system and not to an account or to the cartridge.
I did really enjoy the game, but it ultimately fell short of the fun I had with the recent Super Mario 3D Land, which did some things that felt unique to the game even when they weren’t. New Super Mario Bros. 2, on the other hand, does everything it can to recreate the original experience of the series and, depending on how you feel, that may not be what you actually want from the game.
Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance Review
By Robert M. Errera
Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance for the 3DS is an epic amalgam of every Kingdom Hearts game in existence, with nearly every character referenced, every plot line relevant, and every moment of the series significant. Heartless, nobodies, key holes, the Mark of Mastery exam, Disney worlds, black coats, time travel, and more—the game is only missing the unversed and Final Fantasy characters in order to have thrown in every element of the series (though the salesmoogle is included, as well as characters from Square-Enix’s The World Ends With You). Prepare for a compelling tale of snowballed convolution that only someone who’s paid attention through each of the other six games in the series will fully comprehend (though written reports in-game will summarize the previous installments well enough to get by). The intricate plot of Dream Drop Distance will take some effort to wrap your head around, and if you’re just now gaining an interest in the Kingdom Hearts series, this game is not for you.
But complex story aside, it’s a great game, and a great addition to the mythology.
Review: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
(Disclaimer: I played the PS3 version.)
When Darth Vader slaughters your parents and promises you a badass life, you don’t argue. And Starkiller didn’t, as a boy; instead he embraced the dark side and became a terrible force to be reckoned with (which, of course, no one reckoned with if they could help it). But Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is not a choose-your-own-side game, and Starkiller’s alliances are predetermined by the plot. It is a tale of morality, betrayal, and ultimately revenge and redemption—with a ton of force-unleashing along the way.
Battlestar Galactica fans may recognize the main character of The Force Unleashed as Crashdown (who also played the zombie in the tank in The Walking Dead TV show), and he provides a majority of the game’s great voice acting. Unfortunately, the script itself is incredibly mediocre, and there were points where I smirked and shook my head at the terribly flat and predictable dialogue. The redeeming qualities are the battle mechanics and music (beautiful Star Wars orchestra pieces), which taken together create a cinematic feeling that allows the game to rise to the level of the Star Wars universe. You’ll combo-slash wave after wave of the Empire’s minions and soldiers, leveling up your character to the point in which nothing can withstand the variety of force powers at Starkiller’s disposal—all to the sharp notes of recognizable Star Wars instrumentals. And while a powerful, charged force push can be satisfying—enemies bounce off of walls and decrease their health with each inevitable concussion—sometimes the situation calls for high-powered force lightning. Or for lifting foes with the force and smashing them against the ground (or each other). Or for lifting all manner of objects in the environment and using them as large projectiles. A quick warning, though: There are a fair number of God-of-War-style quick time events, though they are often slow enough that you probably won’t miss very often. But this is made up for by your quick-paced battles against other users of the force, including Darth Vader, and the particularly awesome feeling of taking down a space ship with your mind (yeah, that happens).
The game is mostly about the action, but the storytelling is directed much like a Star Wars movie, notably the screen wipe scene change. The plot covers politics, force politics, a love interest, and the expected evil-to-not-so-bad character arc typical of a tale of good and evil. In the end, the 10-hour adventure is a great way to blow off steam after a long day.