What I’ve Been Playing, Summer
I’ve been trying to spend less time writing about games and more time actually playing them, but it hasn’t really helped. I’ve been a bit schizophrenic about gaming, switching between a variety of games I’ve slowly progressed through over the past six months to a year, but have not yet finished. I assume it’s me and my current attention span and not the games, but in the case of Bravely Default (3DS) I had to put that down because of the massive redundancy of the later chapters. Instead, I picked up Shin Megami Tensei IV (3DS), which is my first SMT game. I’m really enjoying it and am about 5 hours in (though I can’t tell if I’ve moved slowly or at a regular pace—I’ve just escaped the first Domain). It’s different from what I usually play: the turn-based battles are first person and very dependent on your strategy rather than your strength, and it’s a Japanese school-based game—a setting I haven’t played since Valkyria Chronicles 2 (PSP). I’m not sure when I’ll go back to Bravely Default, but I hit Chapter 6 (of 8) and just ran out of steam.
Another thing keeping me busy is that I’m now one-third of a new gaming podcast: One Giant Pixel, an opinioncast by your regular, non-industry gamers. We have a few episodes up so far, but they haven’t made it to iTunes or a Google Play yet, so you have to listen in your browser from the site at the moment (though some podcast apps will let you add the URL to access it from within the app). We also made a Twitter account for it: @onegiantpixel. Please give an episode a try, and follow the podcast if you like it.
And to further split my attention, I started playing Assassin’s Creed: Pirates (iOS), Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation HD (PS3), and have been playing Super Metroid (VC), Pikmin 3 (Wii U), and The Wonderful 101 (Wii U). Oh, and Watch_Dogs (Steam), but it hasn’t been compelling me to play—the story and writing’s a bit flat.
In AC Liberation, I’ve just completed Sequence 3, but I think maybe I shut the game off too quickly after, because I never got the trophy for completing the sequence. Argh. It had better show up after I finish a Sequence 4; I’d hate to have a gap where a mandatory trophy should be.
Oh, and ia tried to continue playing Mario & Luigi: Dream Team (3DS) but I got distracted by SMTIV. I’ve realized that, as an adult with less free time than I used to have, I’ve started gaming for the sake of whatever whim makes me feel like playing a particular game instead of sticking with a game until I’ve finished it. This is probably more due to the fact that so many games come out so close together these days, and my attention turns to those new games. I guess I shouldn’t mention that I also just picked up Persona 3 Portable (PSP), Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (Wii U), which I’m sure I will never ever get to, given my backlog. Sigh. I think I’ve become a collector rather than a gamer (and if you saw the number of I played Steam games I have, you’d agree).
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).
Beyond: Two Souls at the Tribeca Film Festival
As games continue to increase in realism, more and more film industry players’ interest has been piqued. This year, the Tribeca Film Festival has explored games as cinema within several of its events, and on April 27th hosted a screening of new Beyond: Two Souls footage to demonstrate how creating the game has been similar to creating a film.
Anticipation built as people waited on a line that ran halfway down the long New York City avenue to enter the School of Visual Arts’s Theater 1. The medium size theater merged old New York with today—a fitting setting for an even celebrating traditional cinema merging with a modern medium such as video games. The HD theater screen treated the audience to 35 minutes of chronological in-game footage—a mix of gameplay and cutscenes that highlighted the acting and storytelling overall. While it was clear the lengthy clip was a polished chunk of the game, a trained eye could see there had been some careful editing involved to make it theater-appropriate: There were no load times, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some bits were edited out for the sake of in-theater pacing. But the portion shown was a coherent narrative—there was a beginning, middle, and end to this plot arc, and it further highlighted that the acting and storytelling worked so well that you could piece together what brought protagonist Jodie to that point without having played the previous parts of the game.
The footage showed Jodie (motion captured and voiced by Ellen Page) as a young adult living on the street. She’s run away from her old life, from herself, but without any plan for what comes next. The result is her getting a helpful hand from a homeless man with a heart of gold and his equally homeless posse, including a pregnant woman who ran away from her husband. The whole game could take place with these characters and the player would likely be satisfied with that, but it’s made clear that this is simply a snapshot in the slideshow of Jodie’s life.
Jodie has been connected to an entity she calls Aiden for as long she can remember. She doesn’t tell her new friends about it, but that doesn’t stop her from using Aiden to help them out when necessary: It breaks into a supermarket to help Jodie find supplies to help deliver a baby, shields her as she runs through a burning building and leaps from what would have been a painful height, and more. The footage shows us glimpses of Aiden’s involvement in Jodie’s life (both wanted and unwanted), how the burden of being linked to this spirit has broken her, and what life on the street is like for her. The acting is top-notch and the script is believable. Quantic Dream has clearly pushed the quality of their game-making from what Heavy Rain accomplished, and while Beyond: Two Souls utilizes the same control scheme of emulating the activity Jodie is doing through similar movements and button-presses on the controller, the storytelling has evolved. The full game runs about 10 hours—enough time to follow Jodie through 15 years of her life, to watch her grow, wither, and restrengthen in a way a film would have a difficult time portraying. We get more time with her, but we also get to see her story at our own pace, and that is where video games excel.
Following the footage was an interview and Q & A with David Cage (CEO of Quantic Dream), lead actress Ellen Page, actors Kadeem Hardison and Eric Winter, and moderator Harold Goldberg. The actors raved about their experiences acting for this game, and David Cage explained how motion capture for Beyond: Two Souls was different from Heavy Rain. In Heavy Rain, the actors had to do two takes: one for audio, and one for motion capture in which they had to repeat the lines they recorded so their face would look correct when speaking—and this was done individually, even if other characters shared the in-game scene. In Beyond, however, audio and motion capture were recorded together, and the actors acted out a scene as a group, just like they would on a film (albeit with cardboard props that would be filled in digitally later on). Motion capture was recorded over a 12-month period, moving at a rate of about 30 pages per day through the 2000-page script, including the capture of many stunt actors.Ellen Page noted, though, that it does become difficult to maintain the emotional intensity of a scene when you have to record multiple responses to the same dialogue (due to the player being able to choose how to respond).
As David Cage put it: “You don’t need a gun to interact [in a game],” and Beyond: Two Souls, like Heavy Rain before it, doesn’t rely on action or violence to tell the story. I’ll know more when the game is released this October on the PS3, but from what I’ve seen and heard, I am very excited to see this game through.
- Me: I got Ni no Kuni. Gonna start it tomorrow or the day after.
- Gus: What is that?
- Me: JRPG drawn by Studio Ghibli. Getting rave reviews. PS3.
- Gus: You saw my PS3 collection, right? I'll get around to it in 2016.
- Me: The battles are Pokémon-ish. You yell out commands to creatures.
- Gus: ...2015.
Assassin’s Creed III: The Good and the Meh
I’ve played and thoroughly enjoyed every main entry in the Assassin’s Creed series (plus Assassin’s Creed II: Discovery for the iPhone), but If you were to ask me how Assassin’s Creed III is, I might pause and stammer, unsure of how to answer.
On paper, Assassin’s Creed III has everything going for it. In practice, though, the game turns into an unfocused, 16-hour glitchfest.
Spoilers will ensue.
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.