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.
Castle Crashers Still Great On PS3
When my XBOX 360 bricked two years ago I thought I’d never get the opportunity to play the full version of Castle Crashers. Once it was fixed, I wanted to finish Fallout 3 (the system had to be repaired 30 hours into the game) and with so many new and old games to play I never got around to the delightful flash game-like side-scroller slash-em-up, especially after my 360 died again last Winter out of warranty - almost exactly one year after it was fixed.
I refused to pay half the price of the system for the repair, and was not about to lay out my scarce extra money for a new system that may break again. Instead, I set my sights on the PS3 release date of Castle Crashers, which for a long time was shrouded in mystery.
I was overjoyed when it finally came out this past Tuesday, though I quickly realized I could only play a level or two at a time after just coming off of another great side-scroller beat-em-up, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.
From another room, my fiancee immediately knew what game I was playing before I’d mentioned it, recognizing the fantastic soundtrack as her favorite to background listen to during my long stints of gaming in our small apartment. These tracks are charming renaissance modernizations, with some electronica influence as well, and always keep the player pumped and ready to attack.
You begin with a choice of four knights, each with a different type of magic at hand, and are partying with your fellow knights and wenches when a dying comrade falls into the room with an arrow through his chest. Sword in hand, you immediately join the fight to defend your land against an invading kingdom and rescue the four princesses that have been kidnapped. You’ll face mercenaries, various ranks of knights, and ridiculously large bosses, even fight atop an enemy carriage while a monster chases you. There is a good variety of enemies, environments, and helpful animal orbs ensuring the game never gets stale as you button-mash your way to the damsels’ hearts.
The added Volleyball mini-game is a chuckle-worthy addition to the full game and the arena mode, though it is more often than not frustrating because no one can judge the depth of field of their jumps when trying to slash at the volleyball. The game is played like traditional volleyball, but with less rules. A team wins when they have both 10 or more points as well as a 2 point lead. The ball is hit by attacking it, and magic can also be used on the ball, the ball sometimes taking on characteristics of the magic. I didn’t see any trace of the “All You Can Quaff” button-mashing eat-off mode that was in the XBOX 360 version, so I assume volleyball has replaced it.
Unfortunately, the online mode is not entirely satisfactory, which I remember being the case with the 360 version, as well. Several days after the game’s release I was hardly able to find players in the Quick Match setting, and of the co-op, arena, and volleyball modes only found two volleyball games after a total of ten attempts to connect. I also have no idea how to invite friends through the game itself. You may have to do this through the XMB only by sending an invite message. Of the two games I played, I experienced lag on the second, which caused all the players to quit after the match.
Castle Crashers was great on the 360 and it’s still great on the PS3, just keep in mind the PS3 only allows you to sign in with one username at a time, and you will therefore never be able to use characters saved on separate accounts during a local multiplayer game. This game caters better to single player and online friends than random matches with strangers.
And now to save the next princess…
Rob’s SRPG Month
|Gallian Militia’s Rosie blasts away at a lowly Imperial scout in Valkyria Chronicles.|
|A magical armlet attaches to Joan of Arc, allowing the French to better stand against the English.|
What I’m NOT Gaming: Demon’s Souls
Demon’s Souls is not fun. The beginning of this game has no redeeming qualities. I’ll admit, I only played less than an hour but within that time the game spoke volumes.
An adventure game in a medieval setting would usually be exactly my type of game, yet somehow Demon’s Souls fell flat.
There is minimal music - I was carefully walking through a dungeon and all I could hear was the sound of my own footsteps, an audio technique that would be great if used occasionally to build tension, but by the next area and the area after I still hadn’t heard any background music. Running around in the dark to no music just made the game feel boring. How could a game about knights fighting demons feel boring?
Fight, Die, Repeat - The structure of the game is such that players can leave notes on the server for anyone connected to the internet to find and rate, you can see the spirit version of live players running around and fighting enemies they can only see in their game, and players can also find another player’s bloodstain and see what the character (in spirit form) did to get themselves killed. This is helpful, sure, but it doesn’t prevent you from facing tough enemies or falling off a ledge to your death. Most bloodstains I viewed were due to people accidentally falling to their death. This is made worse by the fact that no matter how far into a dungeon you get your only checkpoint is the beginning of the level, meaning you have to go through the entire place again and if you’re similarly unlucky you’ll have to start over another time. To add insult to injury, you lose all the souls you’ve collected and can only reclaim them by taking them off of your cold, dead body (which you must first journey back to).
I didn’t get far enough in the game to find out what you use souls for (upgrades, I presume), but losing anything you’ve collected is a knuckle-slap in the kneecaps.
In my brief time with Demon’s Souls I can say that there was nothing I enjoyed about it. I had no fun at all. If a game is devoid of fun from the very beginning what’s the point of continuing? Even the trophies aren’t easy to get. I saw no reason to continue playing, so I stopped.