Monday, November 7, 2011

Multiplayer Madness.

I've never really been one to get in on the whole online multiplayer thing. PC users have been hep to this for ages, but I have a personal abhorrence for using computers as game machines (long story), so over the years I've just sort of chalked this up as 'not my deal' and moved on. No Doom or Quake or Unreal multiplayer. No World of Warcraft or Everquest. I dabbled in Alien Front Online wth my Dreamcast (complete with voice mic) and that was fun... but after the Dreamcast dropped off the planet I just couldn't muster the resolve to keep at online play. I enjoy single-player campaigns just fine, and my own preference for competitive play was definitely informed by my arcade days of live, face-to-face opponents.

But I've finally taken the plunge with Warhammer 40,000 Space Marine on the Xbox 360. As I understand it the multiplayer is kind of no-frills, and pretty difficult for its type since the weapons are so deadly. But it is pretty fun and is definitely teaching me why online frag-fests are so popular.... though I don't see myself putting making a huge time sink out of it. Exterminatus just got released last week as free DLC. It probably should've been included with the main game release, but I'm not complaining.

Exterminatus is multiplayer co-op. Basically the survival or 'horde mode' of other titles. You and up to three other players make a stand against waves of Orks, Gretchin and other baddies thrown at you with an unique selection of maps. So far I've mostly played this against my own kid. Being local our connection is good and our headset chatter fun. He's really enjoying it, though Sonic Generations recent release made it kind of a difficult job getting him back to this 'old' game!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Jeez, Sorry.

Wow. Have I been off the blogging thing for a while or what? Sorry about that.

Between my Xbox 360 having drive problems (and having to go in subsequently for repair), working out compatibility issues with same machine over some of the newest releases I wanted, and trying to get my head around a new gaming platform (iOS on my phone), keeping this place up just fell further and further down the priority list.

I also have a weekly gig writing game reviews that is non-paying, but that I want to cultivate. That work has suffered the same absence for all the reasons given above.

I've still been watching movies and buying new music in the gaming downtime. I'm extending the sidebar movie listing to kind of catch up on this. I'll summarize some music opinions in the next entry.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bloody Hobo Justice

Okay, I have to admit I enjoyed Hobo With A Shotgun a lot more than it probably deserves.

Originally a winner in a contest amongst a slew of trailers made for Tarantino and Rodriguez's Grindhouse double feature, Hobo With A Shotgun is the second of those trailers to get made into a film after Rodriguez's own Machete.

Filmed in Halifax, Nova Scotia and armed with Rutger Hauer in the lead, this is an extremely violent, profane movie with its film stock and color saturation look firmly in the seventies and its over-the-top colorful punk style ripped from the eighties. Hobo knows it is a cult film, and is aiming straight at that audience, checking off all the boxes for transgressive or weird that it possibly can. But in amongst all the garish intestines and shouted f-bombs, Hauer is STILL pretty damn decent as the titular hobo.

If you do nothing else, seek out the trailer. It is an edited version of a monologue that's in the film, and it pretty much effectively sums up what the viewer is in for. But unlike most of the old grindhouse movies that frequently couldn't deliver on what their trailers promised, Hobo easily comes through. Even though the film is over the top and cartoonish, I can't decide what the most disturbing, horrific scene is. The film is about vigilante justice in a town that is impossibly crime-ridden (though I'm betting places in Mexico at present come pretty close), with the offenses running the full gamut, of murder, torture, etc. right up to torching a school bus full of children.

Lock this one away in the absolutely-not-for-kids box. I'll let my children see this when they are, say, forty.

Now I enjoyed this. But I've got a fucked-up streak a mile wide. Your mileage may vary.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Game of Two Terries

Rock of Ages, a downloadable game on Xbox Live (and PSN I'm pretty sure), looks and plays like it was spawned by Monty Python's Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam.

Mash Jones' absurdist method of teaching history, like his Crusades TV series, together with the cutout animation and funny voices of Gilliam's Python days... you get this awesome video game. Neither person had anything to do with Rock of Ages as far as I can tell (the developer is Chilean collective ACE), but I hope they've been alerted to it!

Essentially you play the game as the legendary Greek character Sisyphus. You break free of your endless toil rolling a rock for Chronos' amusement and then move down through the ages of history using that same rock to conquer various kingdoms. The opponent kingdoms are laid out as a pair of paths (with terrain, obstacles, and gaps) that lead to castles. Players must roll Sisyphus' boulder (think Monkey Ball or Marble Madness on a bigger scale) through the gauntlet of their assigned path, ultimately smashing into the enemy castle gates with as much speed as possible. Your opponent will be trying to do the same thing to you, over his mirror image course. At its simplest it'd just be a race between two players (your opponent can be human or CPU), but the game is complicated by a tower defense aspect. You can build additional obstacles and hazards for your opponet to navigate, in an attempt to either slow him down (so you get to their gates first) or damage their boulder enough to reduce its mass at impact... maybe even destroy it altogether effectively costing them a turn.

I think maybe I like this game a lot more than the general run of gamers would. It has awesome, sometimes crude humor, a lot of historical references, and constant continual nods to a Pythonesque aesthetic. Everytime you roll on down toward the enemy gates the path is littered with soldiers and citizenry all represented as moving, dancing paper cutouts that shout 'oohg' or 'blah' when you roll over them. I never get tired of it! All backgrounds and landscapes resemble the bright, airbrush-enhanced backgrounds Gilliam used to do in his animation bits. The bosses are incredible absurd CG creations. The intro to each stage is a humorous history lesson, with some of your opponents a complete surprise.

I dunno, the whole thing is probably designed to appeal to me and very few others... at least few game players that'd be on Xbox Live! It hits a lot of my buttons and basically came out of nowhere. My kids think it is awesome, even though their exposure to Python and the other works of the two Terries is pretty limited. But they don't play it as doggedly as I do. I'm trying to get golds in all the time trials, find all the hidden item, everything. Whatever I can do to stretch out the longevity of this goshdamn game because it is too fun!

I read somewhere a reviewer complaining about how the defenses you build aren't enough to really 'defend' your castle. I think the dude was missing the point. The game is REALLY about rolling the boulder and getting to the enemy gates as fast as possible. It is primarily an action game with controller-facility and an understanding of physics and the boulder's momentum as your top tools. The defenses are there to slow the boulder's course. It is rare that a boulder actually gets destroyed and even going off the course only resets you in place with a small loss of time. Even if you lose some layers on your rock, from getting hit by catapults or running into dynamite, and it is smaller when it hits the enemy HQ, it is still basically going to take three hits to win no matter what. So when it comes to building defenses, you are not going to prevent the enemy from hitting you. That isn't the point. And the computer player WILL be better than you are at making the defenses until you put in a lot of time and learn what everything can do and the best places to set them up on the tracks. But you can still win. This CPU's advantages are balanced out by the fact that a human player is going to be better at controlling the boulder. Finding shortcuts and attempting insane jumps is part of YOUR advantage as a non-CPU.

If you want something really funny (and violent in a decidedly different way), try out the Rock of Ages demo. You'll know in two minutes whether it is the game for you. An utterly different, refreshing break from all the murder and grimdark games crowding the field.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Be A F@#%&ing Space Marine

The new game Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is out for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.

Reasons why it is a good game:
Robust graphics engine better than it has any right to be from RTS developer Relic Entertainment.
Seems like a cover shooter, but changes things up a lot to emphasise close combat.
Emphasises close combat, including health ups from finishing moves.
REALLY smooth system for moving from shooting to close combat.
You get to learn why 40K Space Marines are THE Space Marines.
Decent voice acting and music. Cutscenes good and also pretty short.
No weapons really suck if you no how to use them.
Customisation in multiplayer quite deep.
Multiplayer maps tight, interesting, and well-designed.
Perks in multiplayer varied and useful.
Ability to copy an agressor's loadout a great balancing tool.

Reasons why it might not be such a good game:
Close combat strikes and facing frustrating when finesse is required.
No block or shield button. And you could really stand to have one.
Levels very linear, encounters mostly staged the same way through the game.
Limited enemy variety.
Little play variety beyond run 'n' gun action (no vehicles, only one 'shooter' section, etc).
Extremely limited starting weapons and abilities in multiplayer.
System for unlocking weapons and perks in multiplayer arduous.
Only two multiplayer scenarios.
Some significant lag issues at times.

Reasons why it is a great 40K fan game:
You get to be a fucking Space Marine.
Narrative mostly accurate to 40K universe.
Setting and trappings accurate to 40K universe. Effectively disguises simplicity of the levels.
Hearing Orks speak. Seeing Guard hold the Marines in awe.
Definitely feels like part of a bigger war, with lots of incidental NPC actions.
Good choices made on visualisations of potentially difficult ideas like Bloodletter daemons and various plasma and power weapons.
Deep multiplayer customisation includes tons of Marine and Chaos chapters, and many armor types.
Again, you get to be a fucking Space Marine.

Reasons why it is a not-so-great 40K fan game:
Three man Marine squad around a Captain. No explanation for rest of squad.
Titus cool, but pretty underwhelming compared to canonical Marine Captains.
Health restore mechanic really out-of-place for Marines (it's clever, but almost vampiric).
Plot will seem 'same-old same-old' to those familiar with 40K universe.
Effect of Chaos on people and places treated too casually.

So basically, good fun for run 'n' gun players, especially those who like the GW game worlds. Sticklers have to be willing to overlook some oddball things put in for 'video game reasons'... seriously Relic, you couldn't include a Marine medic in Titus' squad instead of the life-sucking Execution finishers? Probably the first multiplayer shooter that has trappings cool enough to get me onboard with that particular type of timesink.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Bloody Irony

My son is about to turn 13… become a teenager as it were.

His mother and I have been pretty careful about what he gets to watch on TV, see in the cinema, listen to on ipods, and play for video games. I think it is important, regardless of circumstances, for parents to stay on the same page and present a united front in family policies, and that includes what the kids take in for entertainment.

Up to now it has been pretty simple to clearly divide what is inappropriate content-wise from what is okay. Sex and violence, dubious morality, drug use, torture, and all that… pretty easy to say ‘no’ when your kid is grade-school age. But like the Harry Potter films’ and their gradual creep up in dark tone and violence, so one’s children gradually expand their sphere for what is appropriate for them to see. It is every parent’s judgment call just how much to let in the sphere.

The film rating PG-13 is pretty terrible. I mean the usefulness of it. I find myself paying a lot more attention to those little black and white words underneath the rating to get a better idea of content. PG-13 is so far-ranging that I find myself expending a shitload of effort trying to find out just where on the scale this or that particular film is falling. A film with this rating can be a family film with the word ‘damn’ in it or a few too many scat jokes. Or it could have the levels of violence, including the occasional decapitation, of an R-rated movie but without mature levels of cussing. More than once I’ve had to go to the movies a day or two ahead of my kids just to be able to make this call.

I’m no prude and I’m not easily shocked—certainly not by entertainment content. In fact my commitment to pushing my own boundaries in film viewing may make me the best filter on content that I know of. I’ve been determined to observe my children, their behavior and their reactions, and introduce various levels of onscreen mayhem if and when I think they can handle it. If I’ve gotten a bad reaction, then I dial it back. Unless I’m feeling mean on Halloween or something. Because my daughter is almost two years younger than my son, she has sort of set the bar for what I can allow, since keeping two separate standards going for the two is not really manageable. So she probably sees things a little too early (but she’s mature), and he sees things a little late (he isn’t mature) so it has been made to work out.

TV is simple. I can use the cable box to simply lock all programs above a certain rating, and look at individual programs on a case-by-case basis as they come up. With music, we’ve sort of gone with a looser policy altogether. Given the lack of visual component, the content seems less impacting. So I’m not going all ‘parental advisory’ on the kids about what they listen to. I just keep an eye on it, and if I see playlists that start to lean towards gangster rap or graphic deathgrind, I’ll bring the hammer of censorship down. Lady Gaga and Rhianna have me wincing a bit at times, but I’m letting it go for now.

Games are more complicated. In terms of keeping a different game standard for my younger kid… there’s no issue because she isn’t interested in the games that push that envelope. The worst I have to worry about here is a bit of cussing or some of the sexual content in her DDR games, the same as her music basically. But with my son there’s a whole different need for monitoring in place.

It has only been about two years since I loosened up the reins on violence in first person shooters and let him play Halo. The lack of violence to humans (little conventional ‘gore’) and the emphasis on the game world’s aesthetics and the music, made it more palatable. And this turned out to be a positive decision. He became enamored with the whos and the whats of the Halo universe, including getting toys and books… and not just focused on painting the walls in neon-bright Covenant blood.

BUT. Like his friends, the baseline favorite game genres are first and third-person shooters. So as he’s gotten older, and shown he has been levelheaded, I’ve moved him on up to more mature material. Not too long ago he was playing Serious Sam. This game is pretty violent, with tons of enemies to mow down in a sort of abstractedly gory manner. But the type of enemies, the stylized graphics and the whole over-the-top attitude of the game tempered it for me. When I was his age I was drawing big pictures of war scenes or underwater views of boatloads of people getting attacked by sharks. It had the adults around me rolling their eyes, but not calling for a straightjacket.

Later still, I let him play Wolfenstein. Now this game ups the ante, being by far the most realistic representation of violence he’d yet played. Along with seriously creepy or scary enemies and a sound effects aspect that will make you duck your head from incoming fire even days after you’ve started playing it. But Wolfenstein also has clear-cut, no-ambiguity enemies—Nazis. And their historically supported penchant for occult artifacts. So y’know? No drug dealers, no prostitutes, not much in the way of dubious moral choices, unless you count slaughtering Hitler’s minions a dubious choice. It’s still pretty clearly not in Grand Theft Auto territory. So at this point, the violence is becoming almost secondary, helped in large part by the fact that he isn’t showing an increasing tendency to punch his sister or talk about headshots at the dinner table.

So this brings us to the present. At the moment he is pressing his way through the various episodes of Half Life 2. Half Life is kind of on the order of Wolfenstein. Realistic human enemies mixed with otherworldly fiends. There are also no morally questionable paths through the game. Gordon Freeman is a standup guy whether the player wants to be or not, but the game does a good job of not making it feel too restrained. Half Life is also a cut above almost anything else in terms of drama, story, and overall quality and has seriously given Halo a run for its money in my son’s list of favorites. The world built by Valve has him thinking about a lot more than just the killing, and he really cares about the people populating the resistance against The Combine. By association he also likes the Portal games which emphasize puzzle-solving over blowing things away, though death for your avatar(s) is never far away.

Far and away the most extreme thing he’s played is the new Mortal Kombat. And I really had to think that one over. It is extremely violent, never mind the somewhat scantily clad sexed-up looking women. And it encourages matches to be finished in as violent a manner as possible. I kind of looked at it like some old monster drawings I might’ve done as a kid. Gory, yeah. But MK is also populated by otherworldly creatures and almost every human has superpowers and is dressed accordingly. It is pretty far removed from reality. I actually found The Krypt, where players buy the various unlockables, to be the most objectionable part of the game. You basically have to push a button to kill some hapless prisoner in order to ‘unlock’ his soul, which then flies off to provide you with your ‘reward’. These deaths are by torture device and creature infestation. They don’t provide the meat of the game, and actually get tiresome after a while owing to the amount of shit that’s in The Krypt. But it is still ‘push a button kill an innocent dude’. A didn’t stop my kid from playing MK because it IS just a sidebar to the game, but it was a moment of realization in how casual ‘murder’ has gotten to be even apart from the obvious ‘murder simulators’ that are the typical first person shooters.

But his friends are all about this graphic killing. And apparently have parents knowingly or unknowingly abetting the carnage. When his friends talk about their coolest games they are almost invariably talking about a Call of Duty game or something like it. The only real-world war FPS I’ve really let him play are the Battlefield Bad Company series for Dice. The first one actually didn’t even get up to a Mature rating and what I saw of it, emphasized tactical thinking with its destructible scenery and the comradery between you and your comrade NPCs more than it did running up to the enemy and capping them. So the Battlefield games got a pass. He’ll probably get to play the new one just coming out soon. His friends know these games and think they’re ‘okay’… I’m sure they don’t rate super-high for the very reasons I green lighted ‘em. They’re not in-your-face enough about the killing.

I have since put the nix on some other games, almost always coming up because some friend of his has recommended it. It makes you wonder if these parents really have no fucking idea what their kids are doing, or have just written them off because their ‘only games’. Remember in the old days of Dungeons and Dragons when some kids showed marked behavior changes from taking their characters too seriously? Yeah. Those were only games too.

This brings us to Fallout. Specifically Fallout 3. Fallout is the cat’s ass as far as my son’s buddies are concerned. I knew these games probably had objectionable material in them, because I knew enough about the Fallout game world. I hadn’t played any Fallout games since previously they’ve been PC titles. The Fallout titles I knew about were also role-playing games. So when my kid asked to get Fallout: New Vegas after seeing it briefly at a friend’s house, it was not too difficult to dissuade him since I knew FNV was also an RPG, albeit one with some real-time action aspects. I just knew he wasn’t into games to manage inventories and get into long conversations. He’s done a bit of RPG stuff on his handhelds and is currently stalled in Chrono Trigger on the VC, but it is amongst the least appealing genres to him.

Then some friend let him borrow Fallout 3.

I don’t know if it is because of the way Bethesda actioned-up specifics of the game that were strictly RPG staples before, but the game appears to have changed enough things to where my son wants to get into the Fallout world. Or maybe he has matured enough to where the RPG aspects don’t hinder him. Either way, he took the game home along with Portal 2. I looked at it thinking ‘hm, I don’t know…’ but put it off because I figured burying himself in Portal would buy me some time to research just how bad Fallout 3 is. Nope. He apparently went straight to Fallout. I know this because I his Mom heard screams of agony coming from some NPC he was working over. So she pulled the game for his Xbox 360 until such time as I could render a verdict. I had some explaining to do on how he had a game where the rating box out shows ‘sexual situations and drug use’ right under the M rating.

Needless to say after doing a bit of poking around about what-all is in the game, he’s not going to get to play Fallout 3 for the foreseeable future. Drug use, prostitution, and the ability to murder innocents, are dodgy enough when seen in some RPG-typical isometric view, but Bethesda’s work to make the experience immersive and ‘cinematic’ pretty much shreds any rationalizing I might do. Oh, and hearing ‘fuck’ about five times in as many minutes kinda does that too. Fallout has a karma system where doing the civil thing clicks you towards a certain ending, and doing evil another. But that’s not enough for a kid still in formative years. If he CAN do the horrible thing, he’s going to do the horrible thing. Just to see how the game handles it. If he gets a shitty ending for it, he won’t be happy, but it’ll have been worth it just to see all the forbidden crap we’d never let him watch in a movie.

And I don’t blame him for doing it. I tried to see inappropriate sex and violence when I was kid. But my Mom went apoplectic catching me at it sometimes. Back in the day, the film Jaws (understandably) had a serious public rep for excessive violence. Based on everything she’d seen and read there was no way I was going to see it. So I snuck. And she caught me. Now there were worse things I’d seen and read. But THAT movie was the one she specifically had inside her blinders. I think parents today are doing the same thing. They all have their shields up for Grand Theft Auto, the scapegoat of today, but are missing the Fallouts getting by them. So my kid? Not happy. Not at all. He got caught watching Jaws. There won’t be any disciplinary action to speak of—I mean I looked right at the damn box and handed it back to him. But that’s another game his Dad cut off.

He’s found compensation though, and the irony is almost suffocating.

Yesterday we downloaded the demo for Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. The full game releases next week on September 6th. If you’ve read my previous post about Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team, you know we played that little lead-in download to death and are eagerly awaiting this game, its big brother.

So the kid has started in on the demo, and it is one of the most violent games I’ve ever seen. And I've seen A LOT of video game violence.

Games Workshop’s 40K universe isn’t replete with sex or drugs or the exploitation of fuzzy kittens. Controversy around it mostly has to do with the fascist nature of the Imperium of Man (though all the ‘armies’ take a sort of kill-everyone-else stance since the species’ survival is frequently at stake), or the demonic imagery associated with the forces of Chaos. The Space Marines, though the most elite and haughty of human forces, are also frequently far enough above politics that they are shown taking something resembling moral high ground. That is, a Space Marine commander can follow what he believes is right and there’s precious little the more pragmatic human forces like the Imperial Guard or Inquisition can do about it. So playing a Marine captain as you do in this game, you will probably be taking as noble a road as possible given the context, that of protecting humanity and its resources against the invading Ork hordes. So, in terms of narrative choices, I’m not too worried that my kid will be complicit in holding some human victim’s testicles over an open flame. A Marine isn't going to do that.

But cripes. I love GW and 40K, but this is like Mortal Kombat with about a dozen combatants on the screen at the same time. Amongst the 'goodness' is performing ‘executions’ (of Orks mind you) that GAIN YOU BACK SOME HEALTH. I realize they need a healthup mechanic but turning the paragons of humanity into vampires? Actually, there is a precedent for that amongst the Blood Angels Chapter of the Space Marines.

But that’s a long, complicated story. The protagonist in WH40K: Space Marine is by default an Ultramarine—a chapter based in Greek imagery and who run their own empire of Ultramar about as close to 21st century standards of fairness and equality as you’re going to get. So the boy is using his Marine to hack about with a chainsword (chainsaw sword) throwing up clouds of blood and popping off the occasional Ork head with a bolt pistol. Of course he stops every now and then to EXECUTE an enemy which is usually shown as hoisting them in the air on the chainsword while the blade chews through their abdomen and bursts them apart in a shower of blood that then stains the Marine’s armor for the remainder of the combat. Yay!

When I get involved in 40K games or painting or drawing or whatever, yeah BLOOD is implicit or explicit in all of it. The novels are probably the place where the violence actually gets the strongest, particularly where anything has to do with Chaos (the really uber bad guys). But the video game is VISUAL. I’ve rarely seen a GW spinoff that so revels in carnage. And this is the ‘good guy’.

Now for me, this would be fine. I still look askance at the vampire health thing (what the fuck?)… it just seems like there’d be a canonical 'Ultramarine way' to make this happen instead of such a weird, macabre manner. But graphic gore doesn’t rattle me. The problem is that I set this up to my kid as, ‘yeah, you’re gonna love it!’ And boy does he ever! Right down to the smoking, headless, eviscerated Orks lying all over the landscape. He plays the 40K tabletop game, but the brutality is still totally abstract even if the body count was the same… which it isn’t. If the ten minutes I saw is any guide, before the game is completed this Marine is going to kill twenty times more enemies than a similar character would manage in a dozen tabletop matches.

I’m just dismayed looking at this as a parent. It IS over-the-top like Serious Sam. It IS about facing non-human alien enemies out to destroy humanity like Halo. And he isn’t being exposed to any attitudes or philosophy he doesn’t already see in the 40K wargame literature.

So I won’t put the brakes on for this. It might be difficult to explain to another parent the nuance here that makes Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine different from Fallout 3. But there’s a difference. I'll admit to bristling less at violence than the other objectionable sorts of content that Fallout has on display, along with its giving the player the ability to indulge in some of it. He's already been exposed to everything in Space Marine except the execution mechanic. So, though it is off-putting, I'm not lumping it in the same league as Fallout 3.
At least with this new Space Marine game, he’ll be on the hip side with his other blood ‘n’ guts buddies for a little while. He's just going to have to wait awhile longer to be allowed to be totally amoral.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


As summer draws to a close so does my cigar-smoking season.

This year I've indulged in my regular smokes, Partagas Almirantes, to a reasonable degree, but I also bought a handful of the same maker's new release, Partagas Black in a toro size. Almirantes are thinner than a traditional toro but just about every other cigar I smoke is a toro and I like trying new things and making comparisons by sticking to that particular size. I was, however, not impressed by the Black. Almirantes are good because, though they aren't really strong, the Cameroon wrapper and the particular choice in fillers combine to make a really fragrant cigar while it is burning. The smoke AND the smell of the heated but yet-to-be-burned wrapper both. And the flavor has a lot of nuances to my palate. They're also not too pricey so I can afford to stay stocked without breaking the bank.

The Black was just dull. A really dark maduro wrapper (hence 'black') on this stick, so I wasn't expecting it to be as fragrant while burning or as nuanced as the Almirantes... but it is just so 'meh'. I was really hoping for more *pow* to it, especially since it is advertised as a full strength... which isn't really an indicator of flavor, but given the pedigree... yeah. I have a few more to finish, and they aren't bad in any way, but color me unimpressed.

Most of my experimentation this season has been in getting selections of Rocky Patel brand cigars in small amounts. The store I buy from, Famous Smokes in Pennsylvania, has a huge range of Rocky Patel products. Many many of them are exclusive to their shop, and I sampled some from the Famous exclusives and some from the mainstream Patel products that are available everywhere.

The exclusives are not bad... and they are fairly inexpensive all told... but there are two non-exclusive, regular Patel cigars that have become firm favorites. I'm kind of shocked at the difference actually.

The Rocky Patel Edge Lite is medium-bodied with a bright Connecticut-shade style wrapper. The Patel Brothers was a full-bodied bruiser with a maduro wrapper. So one light and one dark. Different 'hefts' of smoke for different occasions. And I gotta say these two were WELL above the other Patels I smoked including a couple of different sorts of the lauded Patel Vintage. Wow. I'm going to stick with getting little 5-paks of these for now because over the coming winter it just won't be available to light them up frequently. But I better start budgeting for a box each now at around 130-150 dollars a box from Famous.

So this whole post is kind of a roundabout way of saying if you buy from Famous (or anyone else), and you've been tempted into trying Patel cigars by the various catalog and website deals frequently run on the brand, don't blow 'em off over the bargain marks. Cast your net a little further and snag some of the non-exclusives. I can at least say for me, The Edge Lite and The Patel Brothers (not the Patel Bros. Next Generation, I haven't tried that yet) were great. And most Patels aren't outrageously spendy.

The Best Of All Possible Worlds

13 Assassins (2010).

Jidaigeki (samurai film), check.
Crazy director who is no slouch at violence, check.
Cast of new and old faces in Japanese genre films, check.
Respectful remake of classic film, check.
Hits ALL marks that make samurai films compelling, particularly giri/ninjo (duty/conscience) conflicts.
Has TWENTY times the action quotient of recent samurai films like Twilight Samurai or The Hidden Blade, check.
Has flashes of director's trademark grotesquerie and weirdness, check.
Uses real martial arts training scenes and has frightening fight choreography, check.
Awesome Blu-Ray edition, check.

I'll cover this film in more detail after I've composed myself. Nonetheless if one is a fan of samurai or martial arts films in general, RUN, do not walk, to catch this movie. It has been released on home video here in The States.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lola Runs Away With It

I don't know how I missed ever seeing Run Lola Run over the years. But I watched it recently, and I have to say it is about the best 'time travel' movie I can remember. And all on a budget that was probably shoestring even back in the day.

German-language with subtitles but don't let that put you off. There is a commentary track on the DVD from the director Tom Tywker and star Franka Potente with both speaking fluent English. A major shout-out for the soundtrack too. Mostly industrial-tinged electronica, with some vocals from the lead, Potente.

Some comparisons to video games have been made about this film, but that didn't occur to me at all while I was watching it. After the fact, I can see that point, but I enjoyed it strictly on its narrative ideas, aesthetics, and extremely kinetic cinematography. Even counting the years and all the overuse of crazy techniques in cinema, the visuals were still really cool.

This movie confirms my faith in the strength of ideas over budget. Totally compelling.

Not Without Its Faults pt 2

The other game defying my expectations was Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team. I got this for ten bucks on my Xbox 360.

Unlike the giant-budget Epic Mickey, Kill Team is one of those little downloadable titles that publishers more and more frequently release as an apetite-whetting cash grab. Part of building hype for an upcoming triple-A game. Sometimes these are little flash games on websites, sometimes they are more elaborate... like the 2D 'retro-styled' game released in conjunction with Capcom's Dark Void. Usually these little side stories aren't anything to write home about, but Kill Team is now out about a month before the much-anticipated much-hyped Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, and is definitely an exception.

It is actually REALLY good.

The upcoming Space Marine game looks to feature the player in the role of a Marine Captain. In the tabletop wargame Warhammer 40,000 Space Marine Captains are legendary hero-level characters, typically commanding good size armies, and capable of laying waste to whole squads of trooper models on their own. They get their Chapter's pick of the best custom-made armor and weapons, and are typically very old, very experienced war leaders who have seen battle on countless worlds against all manner of enemy. They're also every inch the super-sized no-nonsense shoot-first type of warriors that western sensibilites seem to require. So a Space Marine Captain makes a great player character in the third person blast and chop-fest that this new game is bound to be. One of 40K's iconic enemy races, the Orks ('futuristic' versions of fantasy orcs), appear in most of the screenshots and videos I've seen for the game. Video games based on GW franchises don't always work out so well, but Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine *looks* like it hits all the right marks.

Which leads to Kill Team. This little downloadable game starts of showing an Ork Kroozer (warship) heading into Imperial Space to attack a Forge World (industrial complex planet). Space Marine boarding craft intercept it, and your game begins. I think the game represents a different specific conflict, but is attached to the larger that also encompasses the upcoming WH40K: Space Marine.

You can choose between four 'types' of Space Marine, and the differences in them basically reflect how much balance you want between ranged and close combat. You can also choose between five different Chapter color schemes, for a bit of personalisation. Each Marine type has three different weapons available but the high power ones need to be unlocked through play. The game also provides various levels of buffs (again most have to be unlocked) and you have opportunities to swap weapons and buffs in the course of blasting through each stage. You're never stuck with an unworkable combination. The controls are simplicity itself, the game is a twin-stick shooter. Moving in one direction while firing in another is a piece of cake, and use of special abilities, running and all that are mapped in logical places. There isn't that much to keep track of anyway.

Now for 40K purists there's going to have to be a little give here. The player is expected to run and gun through the corridors and chambers of a large ship killing hundreds of Orks and Gretchin (SF goblins). None of the Marines on offer would canonically be capable of accomplishing this. In the upcoming Space Marine game it might be a bit less of a stretch considering Captains are top-level hero characters, but in Kill Team you are using (for variety's sake) squad leader and lower level heroes. It is a bit like the stretch you have to make when Guile is fighting the Hulk in Marvel vs Capcom games. For the sake of even having a playble game, some bending of canon is required. So if a 40K goober can just have an open mind and set aside the limitations imposed on these Marines by the tabletop game, they'd find most of the rest of the game is a really neat little exploration of the 40K universe.

I read a review (after I'd played it) that said Kill Team's environments were drab and same-y. Well, there are only five levels and they will take the player about forty minutes each the first time through. And all the levels take place on a big Ork spaceship. So a certain amount of consistency could be expected. The devs structured this, actually working to NOT break canon in a sense, similar to the tabletop system's penchant for campaigns, scenarios strung along in narrative form to reach an ultimate goal. Most typically official individual scenarios do NOT range all over the galaxy and pit an army against a variety of enemie armies. 40K game narratives don't have an everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach, though in their own home games players frequently battle with little regard to a functioning narrative. So I found focusing on just the Orks and THEIR environment to be a good idea. Especially considering the short length of the game and the focused nature of the narrative.

As a long-time 40K fan, I found the portrayal of the cluttered, ramshackle Ork ship to be really cool. It had lots of great details, like every time there was an explosion big enough to rock the ship, all kinds of carp lying around would slide across the floor-- the Orks don't tie anything down! There are great vats of radioactive material just open to the air with no safety railings, and catwalks made up of metal planks barely riveted together. And everything is lit with harsh white lights or hellish red and green glows. The game totally nails the anarchic and heedless nature of Orks and their technology. It's a miracle they could build anything space-worthy. For a little variety's sake there is one level in the game where the Orks have sealed off the ship because of yet another alien presence that they haven't quite been able to eradicate. This was a good bit of fun, with a few visual cues here and there (heavy use of maroon and purple) to indicate the 'changed' nature of the region. The player must make their way through this area, of course, and battles a totally different, well-known 40K force, before confronting the Ork Warboss in the finale.

The in-game player and enemy models are also worth mentioning. I read somewhere that these were basically the assets from the Dawn of War strategy game series, but jazzed up with a few extra details. I haven't played Dawn of War (aversion to PC games, aversion to strategy games!) but the characters and enemies are all perfect for this type of game. The game is played in an on-high isometric view, very much like you were looking down on a tabletop wargame. You get a pretty wide field that you can see to allow time to see what's coming at you-- though the game has a lot of ambushing going on-- and to give room for many enemy to be on screen at once. Consequently, the actual size of the models for most of the game is quite small-- again, like a tabletop view, but every now and then the camera zooms down in for a slo-mo enemy death scene and then the level of detail in the scenery and characters becomes apparent. It isn't Halo Reach levels of sophistication, but there's a lot more texture and bling than was really necessary for such a cheapie twin-stick arcade game. Interestingly, with all the details the dudes in this game all look like well-painted 28mm figures, with the figure proportions and chunky details... as opposed to the upcoming Space Marine game's properly proportioned realistically rendered game characters.

There might be a lot of video gamers who will look at this game and think it is some kind of science-fiction ripoff of stuff from World of Warcraft, but GW's designs, both fantasy and futuristic, were full-fledged and established well before even the first early generations of Warcraft came along.

This game doesn't really do anything new, mechanics-wise. If you can play Robotron 2084, Expendable, Loaded, or Geometry Wars you're good to go. It just has everything tuned really well. It makes it seem ludicrous that no one has applied the twin-stick formula to 40K before. The graphics, the sound, the voice over (sounding rather like Patrick Stewart or Sean Connery at times), it is all just badass.

And the game is just as fun, if not moreso, in two-player couch-cooperative. The powerups, and their judicious use is pretty critical to getting through the game and Kill Team lets both players share the advantages of a powerup that either grabs as long as they stay in proximity to each other. Players can then stack the powerups in a way you can't do in single-player. Player one can grab the power field creating a dome around the Marines impervious to enemy fire. Player two can then grab triple fire, granting awesome sprays of bullets. So for as long as these pickups last, both players are protected, both players have spread guns. It really encourages the players to strategise together and not just be every-man-for-himself and dick the other guy by grabbing the good shit. Since my kid is a 40K fan, this game is tailor-made for he and I to just pick up and play. And it was actually fun trying to find all the hidden medals and acquire all the weapons and buffs. The usual confusion ensuing from two players wreaking havoc is a major part of the fun because with all the cooperative aspects, including reviving a downed partner, it almost never causes a game over. I never found the camera a problem either, and in fact its dynamic tracking actually added a lot to the game.

I've also read some complaints about game length, but to me it was perfect. I'm so damned tired of games that require such a huge commitment in time and effort... even fun games can bog down. This game is only four hours for one play through, as I've already said. But it was really fun on repeat plays and it rewards the primary player with unlocks, achievements, etc even when played co-op. So I've put much more than four hours into it, and none of it has felt like a chore or grinding.

Other writers seem to largely agree with everything I'm posting here. Even non-40K fans give the game a lot of props. BUT. I have to go along with the one huge glaring fault:

NO online co-op. Let me repeat that. A pick-up-and-play game with an expansive user-friendly field of view and multiple aspects to encourage teaming up, but has NO WAY for you to play co-op other than with a friend in the same room. Local two-player ONLY. Wow.

Now for me this isn't really a problem. I have a fanatical kid gamer and 40K goob right in my own home, and I'm not that big for online play anyway. This does, however, seem like an absolutely massive oversight. I can only think the money ran out. Since the game is so well-done in just about every other way, maybe the room wasn't in the budget to implement this. I don't know what all it takes to enable smooth netcode but looking at this game it isn't much of a resource hog. I can't believe it would require anything like a Halo or Street Fighter game to banish lag and get really efficient bandwidth usage out of it. It has a mostly fixed view, tiny characters, and minimal, straightforward controls (son not a lot of inputs to have to read).

Anyway. Huge oversight, yes. But for me personally, this is the best cheap game I've bought all year, and one of the better games overall regardless of price. I don't feel too keen to diss Mickey, and I'll admit to 40K frothing probably enhancing my enjoyment of Kill Team... but I'm probably not going back to the Disney game. I will, however, spend a lot more time in the Ork Kroozer icing greenskins.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Not Without Its Faults pt 1

I’ve ploughed through two more games recently, seeing through to completion both Disney’s Epic Mickey for the Wii, and Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team for the Xbox 360. Each of these games presents a case study in defied expectations.

Epic Mickey is a big budget, high-profile release from Warren Spector’s Junction Point Studios with some collaboration from Disney animation and Pixar Studios. The idea originally was to reboot interest in Mickey Mouse as a character, trying to shed some of his goody-goody image and go back to his roots where he tended to have more curiosity and mischief in his makeup. Mickey’s bad judgement in Fantasia might seem out of place to modern folks used to his squeaky clean image as Disney’s figurehead, but a look at his cartoon shorts from early in his career shows a much more troublesome mouse.

At any rate, all this high-concept thinking, pushed around with high-power talent and technical ability should’ve resulted in a game for the ages. That’s what the hype machine was saying prior to the game’s release (of course) and nostalgic as I was to see THAT old Mickey (not to mention some of the other characters being touted) I bought into it. Once reviews got actual hands-on time, they were less than fulsome in their praise. But I thought they were just strung out on dope, not really ‘getting’ how the awesome concept should override petty concerns like the odd bad camera angle or repetitious quest. My kids saw the ads and really wanted to play a game that plopped happy lil’ Mickey Mouse into such a Tim Burton-looking game world. So even if the game turned out to be not-so-good to me, they’d probably love it (not being so picky). I was so confident they’d love it, I bought the guide at the same time. I’d insist they NOT use the guide for their initial play-through if possible, but have it around to manage the huge collect-a-thon that I knew the game was going to be after they’d beaten it. And the book is pretty nice, a decent collectable in itself.

Well, I was right about the kids. They do love it. My son is on his second playthrough. My daughter hasn’t finished it, but only because she’s been really distracted by DDR. She just broke her dance pad (wore it out actually), so now she has no excuse. But who gives a crap what they think? They’re just dumb kids. This blog is what I think.

Epic Mickey is pretty damn good looking. The visuals are amongst the best I’ve seen on the Wii. Maybe not quite Muramasa great, but pretty far up there. Being a third-person 3D platformer, the graphics are all polygonal but they have a very moody hand-painted style. And the soundtrack is terrific. Composer Jim Dooley did a great job of coming up with original tunes and riffs on well-known songs (like It’s A Small World and the Pirates of the Carribean leit-motif) and imbuing them all with a Danny Elfman tinkle-tinkle creepiness. If you’ve seen any Tim Burton film that Danny has scored you know the kind of music I’m talking about. The game is not as dark and edgy as the ads made it sound, mostly because the game is almost non-violent (little in the way of real threats for most of the game takes a lot of edge off), BUT the aesthetic aspects and parts of the narrative (lost and forgotten cartoon characters) do imbue a lot of atmosphere and melancholy into the game.

It also does make Mickey an adventuresome hero once again. Plumbing the archives for the old Mickey and bringing along Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and plenty of other little-remembered characters was a great idea. Mickey has to own up to his mischief and deal with its serious consequences. You do this by performing tasks (a lot) and defeating minions and bosses (not so much) in order to undo YOUR original catastrophic mishap.

The controls worked fine for me. I’ve never really understood flat out hostility or antipathy for the wiimote controls. For older games come down the Virtual Console pipe I’ll use a joystick or the classic controller. But for modern Wii-designed games I never seem to have a problem using the waggle stick. For running, sneaking, jumping, and pointing at the screen to stream paint or thinner, the standard controls were fine.

But even with all this, it turns out much of the critical sniping is spot-on with my own opinion. The camera IS pretty effin' bad. I read a lot of 'kills you during critical jumps' complaints, but actually since you can have go pretty slowly and carefully you almost always have time to swing the camera around with the d-pad. If anything, actual onscreen visibility was more of a problem when making harrowing jumps. The game is dark, so the questions of whether you need to jump or where you could safely land seemed to crop up periodically. My problem with the camera was during combat. It tries to keep the same perspective as it does during most of the exploration time, but this is not the best choice in a fight in this particular game, especially where multiple enemies are involved. Honestly, the camera chooses not to be helpful even in battles with a single large beastie. I spent more effort trying to run and keep the camera facing the foe, than I did dodging or shooting paint. The battles aren't actually all that hard, but making the view work for you is an additional challenge that just did NOT need to be there. If I'd had a say in this particular aspect of the game, it'd have been to probably zoom out and up to give a higher, more encompassing isometric view, sort of like Powerstone 2. You'd sacrifice some detail during battles, but you'd know where everyone was at all times, and not have to fuck with camera facing. Again, this is a fault that is manageable, but because you're under duress in the battles, managing the camera while trying to dodge and shoot will seem a lot like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time while driving a car in traffic.

Even THAT is actually not the games biggest fault though. Some reviewers refer to 'tedious fetch-quests'. And boy are they right. That's all this game really is. I bitched about the fights up above, but they only constitute a fraction... a frustrating fraction... of the overall game time. Everyone in the game has some goshdamn thing or other that they need you to do. And you will back track over and over again, to make things happen for the NPCs. And many of the deeds have multiple layers. So you might have to ferry ingredients back and forth between two locations more than once, or have the same mission repeat but with a bit more challenge. You learn several of the levels and their connecting 2D stages far more than you'll want to. You'll be able to navigate 'em with a blindfold on. Bafflingly (and also frustrating) there are a number of levels you CANNOT get back to. So if you fuck up a quest, you're done. I don't have a problem with that, but trying not to use the guide, I didn't know if I exited certain levels I'd never be able to get back... because many levels you can. Ugh. Points I guess for so much non-violent challenge. But it's a challenge just staying awake or maintaining interest in monotonous tasks, finding another flower or rounding up more annoying Bunny Children.

What really gets me about the fetch-quests though, is not the number of them, the repitition or the happy banality. Its the 'guide-itis'. This is where a game contains a puzzle that cannot be solved with normal logic or without a working knowledge of what the games' designers expected from you strategy-wise.

Spoiler alert: Here's an example. At one point the game wants you to find 'power boxes' scattered around a level. These are more or less analagous to the electric meter that every home (in the USA at least) has located on the outside of it. The game shows you one on the outside of a house-- blue with a voltage symbol on it. Then it says 'find three more'. So naturally I go looking all over the other houses. On the back of the buildings, like the one shown. But when that fails to turn up anything, I figure it's a game so they might be stuck on roofs or cornices or something. So I get on top of buildings and look. This turns up an additional one. I cannot find the final two anywhere. After way too much time spent looking, I crack open the guide.

One is located behind in an alcove INSIDE A WALL. The other is in a pit UNDER SOMEONE'S LAWN. What the fuck? Yeah, I could've found them... IF I'D SPRAYED THE ENTIRE LEVEL WITH THINNER... to uncover these hidden spaces. Another time I got stuck, and the answer this time was a hard-to-see route that again, YOU SPRAY WITH THINNER TO UNCOVER. After those two times, I never had another problem finding shit, because the answer is SPRAY EVERYTHING WITH THINNER. There are no hints from the NPCs, no 'fault' in the walls or ground like almost every other video game has in similar circumstances to keep you from hitting every possible spot on a stage. Nope. You pretty much have to thin ever goshdamn spot that looks like it can be thinned. And not only was this tedious, but it was antithetical to how I was trying to play the game. I was kind of playing like Mickey was unhappy that he caused the 'thinner disaster' that started the bad stuff, and created the villain. So I tried to be as positive and lean toward the constructive 'paint' end of things. Covering a whole level in thinner was just NOT what I wanted Mickey to do, purely from a character standpoint, let alone it's just dumb and arbitrary. End spoilers.

So I went to the guide twice to help me get on with the game. I'm not proud about it, but I maintain that I just couldn't get my head around what the game was after from me, the player. AFTER that, no difficulties. I didn't even try to do every quest that came my way. About 60% of the way through the game, the endless whining needs of the game world just stopped mattering. Some of the quests even 'improve' the ending cutscene, but I just didn't have the stamina.

The cutscenes were good, though I'll agree with the majority of critics that not having them fully voiced was odd. As much of a budget as this game obviously had, you'd think having Mickey and company talk would've been a no-brainer... at least during the cutscenes if not during all the in-game conversations. But no, it's all exclamatory oohs and ahs and the occasional grunt of effort. That's it.

Whatever the faults, the game's final act was pretty cool and I'm glad I stuck it out. That game becomes much more what I was hoping the whole game would be like actually. More focused on play skill with some timing on the jumps and peril from enemies while you are trying to perform other tasks. There's a fake-out with the final boss that works better than most final boss fake-outs.

I have NO desire to run through this game again and find more shit. I did do that for Brutal Legend and a few other games, but this game just emphasizes the wrong things for me. It certainly isn't the lack of violence or relative lack of difficulty. Not all games need to be as bloody as Mortal Kombat or as challenging as Ketsui. At first I welcomed the change of pace afforded by Epic Mickey. But it got old pretty quickly. It is hard for me even to say this game is great for little kids and their patience for fetch quests because the game is so damn long, and it does have that camera. My own kids like it, but they are nearly in middle school. I think younger gamers would get totally bogged down on the first run-through.

Unless they have the guide. But you didn't hear that from me.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


I passed fairly lengthy judgement on the new film Captain America: The First Avenger elsewhere on an online forum. So to save time I'm going to paste that diatribe in here:

"I was disappointed by the movie. But I had unreasonably high hopes.

Too much CG for a character that screams practical effects only. Was done for Indiana Jones and every early Jackie Chan movie. So here you have the ultimate human combatant in a story set in the 1940s. Seems like as solid and non-tech as you could get it would be the way to go. They were already pushing things with all the Hydra gear.

I also think they missed some essential things that make the character great. I enjoyed the first act while he was skinny Steve and actually liked the handling of the experiment's saboteur a lot... it was better than most comic re-tellings. The cast were all fine, mostly correctly pitched as the simple pulpy characters they needed to be.

But after that origin section Cap never gets beyond 'kid from Brooklyn with big heart'. I realise this is 'Cap's early times' and all that, but by the time he was 'removed' from the war, his training, experiences, and exposure to all facets of humanity had made hime the embodiment of many American ideals (as opposed to propaganda, which is what he started as). When he awakens in modern times in the comics, he is a master tactician, incredibly adaptable, in full understanding of the limits of the super-soldier serum, and probably the Marvel Universe's foremost close combat specialist. The Avengers, Shield, and everyone else grossly underestimated him because they thought of him just as a beefy out-of-his-time-and-depth relic.

The film doesn't really get him past that. They give you glimpses... ie, memorising Hydra's goal map in about four seconds... but he just didn't become the Cap I always picture. Different people emphasize different things, so I'm grateful he got a picture good enough to erase memories of the old TV specials. I think as a movie it is better than Thor or the Edward Norton Hulk film... but I think all the other Avengers movies so far have nailed the essence of their heroes better.

....and him hitting a heavy bag for twelve seconds after the credits is no substitute for months and months of physical combat training he had prior to even being sent out on his first mission. He should, in a lot of ways be treated like the Batman. Not dark and scary, but unswerving, dedicated, and extremely well-trained.

Cap's comics are frequently at their most fun when modern characters act like Cap is literally old or from a more ignorant time. And then they not only find he is lightning quick and mentally adapatable but his supposedly out-of-date viewpoint is highly relevant to modern situations. Its like when Clint Eastwood cranks out a powerful filmic statement on racism. Old two-fisted Clint seems like the last guy that would make anything sensitive (if you buy into liberal establishment stereotypes) but there he goes making Invictus and El Torino, the crazy old bastard. People have more to them than just some checklist based on age or background.

The new Captain America film just keeps the character like he's a kid more-or-less. The Cap I know doesn't still have a lot to learn on-the-job by the time he wakes up with the Avengers."

Now. I realize my view, what I wanted out of the movie and the portrayal, comes from an extremely fanboyish/slavering comic nerd perspective. I'm pushing at little nodules of dislike that most viewers, even a lot of Marvel comic fans are never going to notice or care about. But I care. It is possible that the filmmakers can recapture lost ground with me in subsequent movies. But as it stands, Captain America: The First Avenger, despite my applause at the idea of a big-budget treatment, didn't do it for me.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Getting Gold For Releasing Your Load

A lot of people are pretty passionate about so-called 'social games' on computers and smartphones currently. Okay, passionate is not the right word. ADDICTED is probably the right word. Like there’s a thin membrane laced with crack cocaine right under the touch screens and its been seeping into their skins. None of that namby-pamby baking, shopping, or tending for me though.

My crack-game of late has been Akai Katana Shin on the Xbox 360. I’ve spent more recent hours on Mortal Kombat attempting to get a last few achievements, in what should’ve been an afterthought, but turned out to be way too much work. Freeing myself from that bloodbath, I’ve been playing Cave’s latest shooter in earnest now, and I find it really hard to put down.

I enjoy Cave shooting games in general, but this title has even more of ‘the one more try’ factor than the rest of their catalog. The disc has three versions of Akai Katana on it, Shin, Arcade, and Zetsu. I’ve been playing Shin mode predominantly, and it has weapons and scoring so awesome and cathartic that replaying the early stages on restart hasn’t gotten the least bit tiresome to me. This post is going to deal mostly with Shin mode, then. The disc is region-locked to Japan. If you don't have a JPN console you can't play this, though I'd dare to say this game would be a big incentive to get one.

Like any Cave shooter, you can either play ‘for survival’ or ‘for score’… these terms used by gamers as nutshell phrases trying to encompass the balance between risk and reward. If you want to generate more or bigger scoring items you are going to have to put your ship (or avatar) at risk by getting closer to enemies before you shoot them, letting the screen fill with extra bullets, or milk boss characters for extended lengths of time… some version of ‘extra jeopardy’ rather than simply trying to kill every enemy as fast as possible to increase each ship’s survival time by minimising enemy fire. It is these sorts of risk/reward mechanics that make shooters compelling, and it’s where Cave’s particular style of STG excels. Also in Akai Katana Shin, as in most Cave games, learning to play well for score eventually ends up benefiting your survival as the extends come sooner or more frequently, and the timing and strategy you needed to get that score translate into survival skills. Once a player learns the ins and outs of a Cave game, playing for score IS playing for survival.

The thing about Akai Katana Shin for me is that the visual and audio depiction of the scoring system is so frickin’ cool… it just has ‘something’. But the risk, most of the time, is not nearly as brutal as other Cave games. And it is recoverable. If you fail to take advantage of a high scoring section, it won’t take long for you to reach another opportunity. It doesn’t feel (though I could be wrong) that getting the highest scores is nearly as ‘scripted’ as it is in say Ketsui or Dodonpachi Daioujou.

I also found that the blending of score and survival play styles came MUCH sooner. I love Ketsui, and I’ve dumped a lot of hours into it, but I’m still playing the entire second half of that game in pure survival mode. With Akai Katana Shin, I’m deliberately risking ruining great runs to the end by trying to keep huge chains alive and lining up as many bullets as possible in the sights of my super-weapon… and loving every minute of it. Yeah, yeah, I still curse when I die, but I think Cave hit on the perfect combination for me. In an earlier post about Bangai-O HD, I remarked on the cathartic thrill of that game’s over-the-top screen-filling uber-weapon. Akai Katana Shin pushes the same buttons with its ‘Ninja mode’ katana blitz.

For those who can’t be bothered with trying to dig up the info online: In Akai Katana Shin you pick one of three pilots/planes. Each corresponds to the typical Cave rules; one with narrow, straight but strong shots. One with a fair amount of spread to the pattern, but a little weaker. One with wide, fanned out shots that catch most of the screen but are quite weak and will not make short work of many of the enemies. Each pilot also has a ‘Ninja’ companion, who normally exists as a sort of ‘option’ orbiting the player’s plane. After building meter, you push a button and your plane switches out for a large, flying human (and no option), who has enhanced abilites and is the secret to triggering the aforementioned uber-weapon awesomeness. Again typical of Cave (and danmaku in general) if you hold down the fire button in any mode it focuses your shots at the expense of speed. The bombs in Akai Katana do clear enemy bullets as well as destroying the enemy themselves. A form of auto-bomb is the default. If you get hit by an enemy, while on your last life, the game will trigger your entire remaining bomb stock to keep you alive.

--If you use normal shot (rhythmic tapping), dead or injured enemies release light blue orbs (magatama actually, the comma-shape that figures heavily in Japanese history and myth) that power a couple of your Ninja abilities and keep a chain counter going.
--If you use focused shot (button held) the enemies release green energy orbs that increase the amount of time you can spend in Ninja mode.

When you are all ready to go, switching to Ninja form gives you two options;

--A defensive ‘blue Ninja’ (rhythmic tapping) who slows incoming bullets down and can continue to collect blue orbs.
--Or the offensive ‘red Ninja’ whose fire collects ‘katana’ swords from dead enemies. .

So basically, you fly through the stages, mostly using regular shot to collect blue orbs, with the occasional dip into focused shot to get some green E’s, it doesn’t take a lot of energy to fill up and sporadic use of focused shot won’t break your hit chain.

Progress collecting is indicated by a glowing ring of characters around your ship and a green bar at the top of the screen. At any time you can switch to Ninja mode and it will consume whatever you have in green bar. The blue orbs you collected will be reflected in the number of magatama surrounding your ninja. You can stay ‘defensive’and treat the Ninja like your regular old ship albeit he/she can slow down incoming fire somewhat, but there’s a time limit based on how much green you had in the meter before you changed. Or you can go ‘offensive’, by holding down the fire button, switching to red. This shoots out the circle of magatama and they cause damage to enemies and cancel bullets. As they do this, they fling katana back to your ninja. So really, the more blue orbs you collect before you switch, the more magatama, and katana, you will have to work with. If you hold fire down as the red Ninja portions of your fire output will gather additional katana from dead enemy, but your green bar timer is still counting down, so it’s better to collect what you can before triggering Ninja mode.

With a cloud of katana surrounding you, here’s the REALLY fun bit. Apart from the blue orbs and green E items, there are gold scoring items marked with a red G. You get these in various sizes when you kill enemies in different ways in Ninja mode. As I said earlier, when you switch BACK to ship mode, any katana hovering around your ninja will shoot forward (or wherever you aimed them). Anything they strike, will be destroyed and emit clouds of the biggest form of gold item. They blossom all over the screen and then get immediately sucked into your ship. Opportunities to do this come frequently in the game. And if you amass enough swords before unloading, any enemy apart from end bosses will go down with one glorious, slowdown-inducing barrage.

If I had any criticism about the game itself, it would be that all this orb-gathering and gold-fountaining frequently obscures the awesome artwork on display in the game’s graphics. Akai Katana’s art style is reminiscent of the stodgy ironworks machines found in titles like Metal Slug or In The Hunt. But you’d have to play through seriously reducing your scoring attempts in order to see a lot of it! The way it all works is so awesome however, that the complaint is kind of pathetic and hollow really.

The above explanation does not encompass many of the subtleties in the game and its scoring but it gives the gist. Essentially what you have here is a game with such cool and layered weaponry, that the time-honored, screen-clearing bomb is almost unnecessary. Through some strategic timing, you almost always have overwhelming force on tap. It is seriously boner-inducing when you get a full complement of swords lined up on a huge midboss, let some popcorn enemies gather around him, and then wait for scads of enemy fire to blanket the screen and almost reach you… then trigger twelve katana right into the heart of the shitstorm, flying your plane behind that steel wall of consuming death so that you can vacuum up all the gold that much quicker.

Practically a video game orgasm. Ooh! That’s what the appeal actually is! Cave has distilled human sexual response into a shooting game! YES!

Seriously, I could go on and on about the other things the game does so right. I think Cave soundtracks are generally ‘okay’. Usually I think they are appropriate for whatever game and usually there’s one or two standout tunes (ie, the TLB theme from Ketsui), but not the sort of thing I’d spend a ton of time listening to on my iPod. The music from Akai Katana Shin isn’t going to make my favorites list, but it is a damn sight better and more memorable than most of their previous music. I’ve already mentioned the visuals, but additionally, this is the first Cave game in a while where ‘lolis’ in some form were NOT front and center. Instead the game has a sort of old-fashioned industrial feel with clunky little tanks and turrets, and prop planes. All the player characters, teen girls included, are dressed in a military manner, and pretty lacking in fan service opportunities. That isn’t to say the character art is particularly manly. It is still pretty swishy, as seems to be the style these days. But the armies and weapons are glorious. Rendered in HD-friendly resolution, and with plenty of screen adjustment options. Also, it’s horizontally-oriented, so no tate required.

I don’t think this game will necessarily make a gamer a fan of the bullet hell style. And it may actually vary from the Cave formula, with its multiple uber-weapon system, too much for a lot of Cave diehards. Also, since it’s a hori like Progear and Deathsmiles. So vert-only players might shun this too. But to me this game just does everything so right. It is absolutely spectacular, and brings enough new things to the table that it doesn’t play like any other Cave game… or any other shooter that I can think of.

There was one massive oversight, though, and I’m kind of baffled that Cave, at the time of this writing, has not issued a patch to fix: you cannot enter your initials on the high score tables. If you post your score to an Xbox Live leaderboard it DOES use your gamertag, so proper credit is attributed. But in ‘local’ terms you can’t ID the scores played on YOUR console. Pretty glaring considering high score tables, and their three initial entries, are pretty much rock-standard in shooters since Space Invaders.

That error aside, I can’t recommend Akai Katana Shin highly enough. I haven’t even really scratched the surface on Arcade and Zetsu modes. Arcade is essentially a recreation of the original game, complete with the faults that got it kind of a lukewarm reception in Japanese arcades. But it is the mode that allows two players at once. Zetsu is a sort of ‘fixed’ version of Arcade and would be the de facto standard now for basic Akai Katana (without the Shin part of the title). Unless some super surprise entry blindsides me between now and Christmas, Akai Katana Shin will probably end of Game Of The Year for me in 2011.
(screenshot ripped from Andriasang)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My Absolute Favorite...

File:Captain America The First Avenger poster.jpg

...superhero of all time.

I collected every comic I could and watched reruns of the old black and white serial shows. I've stomached more recent, but terrible color TV movies, and his criminal underuse in the otherwise excellent new Avengers cartoon show on the Disney channel. I threw up my hands in despair at his apparent assassination after Marvel's Civil War (which I enjoyed on its own).

But this could make up for the misfires and mistakes. I may just crap myself waiting for July 22nd.

Mexican Boy Done Good

I’m really digging the film work of Guillermo Del Toro lately. He works in the dark fantasy and horror sort of area, doing Spanish-language films and then bouncing over to English films for Hollywood. Even in low(er) budget films he manages to provide intricate, believable visuals and work his settings and situations into incredibly atmospheric and forbidding viewing.

Most people in this country are probably most familiar with the two Hellboy films, which were so much better than 90% of movies based on comic book properties. But NetFlix has some of the other stuff; the early Cronos, and his two period dark fantasies set in Franco’s Spain, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Del Toro has described himself as fascinated by clockwork and insects. You can see this fascination all through his films, where even a creature as innocuous as a faun becomes horribly fascinating and frightening. Even though he's from Mexico, I get more of an Old World vibe from his stuff. Peeling paintings and corroded brass more than adobe and red brick, if that makes sense.

I’m still working away at catching everything he’s done. There’s a new film in the near future, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark. The previews make it look like every other haunted house movie with a child as the central victim/avatar. But it ALSO looks like it could mine the same veins as Pan’s Labyrinth or The Orphanage, and that would cut the film well above the typical bullshit.

Del Toro was going to be the director on the two Hobbit films, but that fell through. Nothing against Peter Jackson, but holy hell! I would’ve loved to see an earlier Middle Earth through Del Toro’s eyes.

In other Spanish-language news I’ve also been catching up on the much more limited back catalog of Pedro Almodovar, but I’m not sure I can even comment on that weirdness.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Times of Excess

Video game players who've been around a long time, like old-timers in any culture, frequently pine for the good old days... frequently its those never-to-be-equaled times when 2D was the order of the day and your-choice-of-dead-system ruled the kingdom.

But honestly we've never had it so good. I've done my share of cranky old bitching with the rest of 'em, but we are living in a golden age game-wise. When I was a kid, I'd have let a pack of grimy gnomes pull half of my teeth out if I could've had access to all the amazing shit players have today. There are times like, uh NOW, when I think gamers, journalists and players both, are almost assholes for complaining.

Some things were the same then as they are now. There are still cheesy or cheating players. The companies ARE out to make a buck and sometimes they do things or make decisions that suck. Some design choices could've been implemented a lot better. Games with frustrating difficulty.

But we are such absolute spoiled little shits. I mean I look around at what I have... what my kids have. Maybe not everyone has the gaming setup my family does... some have more, some have less obviously. Currently I have a large plasma screen with multiple consoles hooked up (through nothing less sharp than s-video) to two switch boxes, including a Neo Geo AES which was an untouchably expensive system when it came out. My kids each have an LED flatscreen in their rooms with my daughter having a Wii attached to hers, and my son having an Xbox 360 and PS2 on his. Both of them also have DSi handhelds, and a box with most generations of Nintendo portables ready to hand. Currently they are enamored with iOS games because they've each gotten an iTouch this summer. All the games... and these number in the hundreds by now... are all readily available, neatly arranged on shelves organised by system and whether it has been 'beaten' or not. Compared to most 'civilian' households this is a bit deranged, but compared to many homes where video games are a big part of the landscape this is nothing. We don't even have any video game merch apart from some Sonic shirts my son owns.

But what the fuck, yeah? I mean 'the good old days'? What is that really supposed to mean? If there's some old system you want, you just go buy it on ebay or emulate it on your laptop or play downloaded versions of that system's games on a newer console. Lamenting the passing of good old 2D gaming? Through these means you can relive all the old shit OR just take a look at the dowload or portable spaces and see where 2D platforming and fighting and shooting lives again.

It's endless. I can't even keep up with it anymore. If you want to talk about games, gamers, or gaming, communities small and large are never futher away than your mouse opening up a browser. I can have an online conversation with a buddy in Australia and then go see what he's playing on his Xbox 360 right then, live. My son frequently puts on his headset to chat with one friend who's playing Fallout, while he himself is fighting seven other guys in a Halo retread!

Recently my kids have taken to the so-called social gaming scene. These are retardedly casual games that require little more than patience and the ability to resist spending real money on virtual objects. Tap Zoo, Bakery Story, etc etc ad nauseum. It looks like most of the 'fun' is in making friends and looking in on what other people are doing with their versions of the game. Not my cup of tea. But the point is that it is a whole new form and venue that doesn't even have an analog in the 'old days' of video games.

Child of Eden is the first game I've seen that makes me think about buying a Kinect. Standing in your room and moving your body about to play a game is something out of Tron, kids. We could only imagine it. You can join a MMORPG and thousands of fellow adventurers are pushing around in the same sandbox as you are... at the same time. The closest thing to that in the really old days were MUD dungeons. Those almost aren't even recognisable as games by today's standards.

There ARE things that have gone away, and not for the better. Shit that I miss. As connected as we all are, none of it replaces the thrill and immediacy of arcade gaming. All the lights and sounds (particularly in GOOD arcades). The competition, particularly in fighting games. Even in shooting or platforming, getting your initials up on the high score screen, knowing the next person to come along might knock you off, that was something. Civilians frequently picture gamers as solitary loners, sweatily pawing their keyboards to slog through onscreen dungeons between visits to porn sites, but video gaming has always had hugely social aspects to it. The whole world is the arcade now, but fighting teabaglulz99 from Novia Scotia doesn't have quite the thrill, to me, of sending little Billy packing after he's beaten four previous players spamming Genan's spin move in Samurai Shodown.

A lot of the creativity SEEMS to have left. Favorite franchises get mired down in their same old mechanics. But then the fans shit noisy geese if the devs try to change anything. These are more contentious times. Everyone thinks they should have a say. Access to other gamers is so easy, the noise can be overwhelming. Print isn't really dead, but in terms of game magazines, the information mainstay of the old days, it might as well be. Getting all your gaming news, reviews, and opinions from the internet seems so very soulless. And how much work is it to separate out all the fucksticks at Kotaku, Destructoid or wherever, from worthy information. Developers often seem to operate like movie studios and their summer blockbusters. Big budget titles pandering to the lowest common denominator. Committees deciding what gamers want, and the creator/auteur aspect squeezed completely out of the equation.

Games these days are too easy. Or too hard. Or too short. Too long. Too expensive. Really?

I'm dabbling with Mushimesama Bug Panic on my kids iTouch. It is five 'worlds' long, with each world having five stages and a boss stage. It has hidden items and areas if you wish to look for them, and rewards you with pieces to a jigsaw puzzle mini game for each item you find. Each stage probably takes about five to ten minutes if you try to search out all the hidden items and manage not to die. Bosses take only a few minutes but you are not likely to get them on the first go. I'm currently stuck myself on one of the stages in the middle of the last world. So adding togther thirty stages at say ten minutes apiece, you could say you get three hours of game assuming you play perfectly AND don't replay anything for a better score or fiddle with the jigsaw puzzle bonus game. On an iTouch, it is a pretty small screen, but the graphics are colorful sprite-based objects typical of Cave. And of course loads of bullets on screen and a bazillion point items all being vacuumed up by your avatar, Reco. This would probably be the cat's ass on an iPad.

I paid five bucks for it. That's only one dollar an hour assuming I get ONLY five hours total out of it. Here's a game that answers all the complaints. It isn't too short, it is a few hours for a five dollar game. There's more with the replay value. It isn't too long, it is perfect pick up and play gaming, you can leave off wherever and get right back to it whenever. It isn't difficult to get pretty far in the game, but it isn't so easy that there's no challenge. As I said, I'm currently rather stuck near the end. Just as it should be.

Also? Five bucks. My biggest complaint is the controls, but I'm a big fat baby when it comes to touchscreens so my complaint about that should be taken with a grain.

In a world where video games are so common and available there IS a fuck-ton of dreck out there, no doubt. But a little looking around and a willingness to read up on shit and mess around with demo versions will do wonders. My kids will download and play with any piece of crap on their iTouches, but that's part of the fun too.

I guess this rant is a bit of a call for perspective. There are reasons to bitch. It's fun to bitch and vent. But to go back to the good old days? Time and memory paint those days rather rosy. It WAS more exciting to get a new game back in the Genesis days. Games weren't just falling around us like they are now. Every purchase or gift was an event. But the actual PLAYING... there's so much more to it now. AND you can have the games from the old days if you want to. I can jump and dash Sonic through his contest with Metal Sonic just as I did then. But I can also play a game where a single controller handles dodging, flying, slashing, and pointing into the screen to shoot (like a lightgun game) ALL AT THE SAME TIME. See Sin & Punishment: Star Successor for the Wii.

I'm grateful my kids get something good out of video games just like I did (and still do). They also have an appreciation for the older stuff, as I've gone on about before in this blog. I've been around, and playing, from the early early days of video gaming, and I need to appreciate the NOW. Games are still really fun. a player just might have more sifting to do now then I did back then. That seems like a small price to pay for all the choices.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Composed In The Baroque Mode

I’ve been sinking quite a few hours into Sting’s role-playing game, Baroque for the Nintendo Wii. One variant of the several, historically mutable, definitions of the word ‘baroque’ is: ‘adorned or decorated so heavily the original intent is unclear’.

That would definitely fit this video game and the choice for that title has to be intentional despite Japanese developers penchant for devising titles in English that are nonsensical or ill fitting. Baroque’s mechanics are so convoluted (though the controls are simple) and its narrative so obscure that, personally, I’m incredulous that somehow this thing actually got made at all, let alone was successful enough to warrant conversions to multiple platforms.

In the heyday of the Sega Saturn, the lion’s share of my purchases were Japanese import titles. Baroque first released in 1998 looked really interesting from the screenshots and descriptions. Very murky and mysterious and cool. But the Japanese-only language issue was a problem. I’d just gone through Samurai Spirits Bushidoretsuden, the Samurai Shodown RPG, with the help of a guide and that was pretty damn labor-intensive. Good game and fun, but a lot of work. I also had the Saturn’s Japanese-language Grandia in my to-play stack. I really didn’t want yet another guide-aided slog. So I didn’t buy it.

Flash forward nearly ten years, and I see copies of a game called Baroque at my local GameStop in both the PS2 and Wii sections. WTF? Cover art and screenshots looked sort of like the game I thought of as Baroque, but not as dark and evil. Yep, plot description seems to jibe with my memory. I looked up online to be sure. Sure enough Atlus USA published remakes of the RPG Baroque in the United States. Not only was the game now totally accessible to my English-speaking self, but a lot of additional information was also in the form of an online mini-community. And while trying to avoid outright spoilers, I was reading that Baroque’s graphics were brightened up, the mechanics for controlling and fighting modernized, but that it was still considered a grueling hardcore dungeon crawl (original Wizardry came to my mind reading that stuff).

I’m already on the fence about RPGs as it is. Given that I used to play pen & paper role-playing games, and used to work for Games Workshop (not an RPG company, but fantasy toy soldiers and a lot of its customers and staff are also role-players), you’d think the genre would form a regular part of my balanced breakfast, but not so.

My indulgence in RPGs has never been more than occasional. I’ve racked up far more minutes in action games with RPG elements; basic item management and leveling up as games such as Odin Sphere or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. But actual role-playing games I have played I can probably count without having to include my toes or other appendages. Two real reasons: one, I’m impatient with the learning curve and strategy aspects. While I like ‘exploring’ well-conceived game worlds, I want to just get to it. And I am (or believe I am) suck-ass at the more think-y aspects of many games including puzzles and tactics. Two, RPGs typically require A LOT of time put in. I play a lot of video games for a working parent, but sometimes it can be sporadic. I mostly go for short-burst pick up and play games that suit my lifestyle. So that’s why my ‘currently playing’ list is so dominated by arcade games like fighters and shooters. When I do have some kind of long-play title I’m working on, it’ll be an ‘action-RPG’ (SOTN mentioned above), or some first or third-person shooter, games that are not nearly as intricate and attention-demanding as RPGs are. I’m also pretty easily immersed. I don’t require dense, novel-trilogy levels of detail. I grew up as an arcade gamer and so it isn’t so easy for me to find the patience for games that really drag out at all, let alone to the levels many RPGs pad themselves out for maximum perceived value.

So weirdly, I am in some aesthetic ways someone who should like RPGs, but based on practical concerns I tend to shun them. Every now and then I'll get enough of a hankering. Most recently I played through Skies of Arcadia on the Dreamcast. I also bought the Virtual Console version of Chrono Trigger, like two weeks ago, but my kids have beaten me to that one for now. Baroque’s bizarre science and religion mash up story… revealed as your character continually cycles through death and rebirth…looked pretty intriguing. That the play style involved some ‘roguelike’ features; randomized dungeons, complete reset of characteristics and items upon death, just made it appealing to the so-called hardcore (okay, masochistic) side of my gamer self.

In any case, I chose to go with the Wii version. And the wiimote/nunchuk combination works fine with the game. The combat in Baroque is rather action game-y and the part of the game that resembles ‘standard RPG’ mechanics the least. You have to actually run around and fight in real-time. You can avoid enemies or circle around them to strike when they are vulnerable. My understanding is that this was tricky in the Saturn original. The dark graphics and the limitations of a first-person view made fighting difficult. Switching to third-person and clearing away the murk makes Wii Baroque much less frustrating, although it is still tough until you learn what you are doing. These fixes came at the expense of much of the game’s evil atmosphere. It may have made things difficult, but Saturn Baroque had a grim, grimy ambience that is lost to a shinier (but still fairly plain) new version. The soundtrack has been re-done too. The new one is fine to me, and quite fitting for the game, but players of the original frequently say it isn’t a patch on the Saturn’s moody industrial tunes. The story itself is largely unchanged.

Now having spent a considerable time with the game, I do find even the new version to be problematic. Most players used to other games would probably find the combat inflexible, the dungeons repetitive, and the dying/resetting aspect quite off-putting. None of that bothered me. The graphics, sound, music, and controls; none of these are cutting-edge, but they all came together for me personally.

Nope, my difficulty comes from the very heart of the game designers’ philosophy, and one of the things that made me want the game a decade ago. The way the mysterious plot and the in-game objectives are doled out.

As I said in the beginning, Baroque hides the particulars of its narrative points under layers and details. At first, you play and are trying to just figure out how to survive. Then you are trying to figure out how the items work or interact with each other. Then you are trying to figure out how to find or keep the best items. THEN you want to figure out what to do next. Apart from just going through the dungeons—what is the point? Well, NONE of this stuff is spelled out for the player. The manual has a lot of words in it but doesn’t really put the system together. The manner in which items are used for various effects (there’s no magic system) is discovered through trial, error, and numerous deaths. The non-player character dialogues are cryptic in the extreme, but critical to the game. All of this reflects the Japanese original quite accurately and effectively simulates your avatar who, in the story, has no memory and no idea what to do. Story and objectives are progressed by hearing dialogues, but it can frequently take many conversations with multiple characters just to dial in a single goal. And the whole time you are running around trying to find these conversations, you are highly vulnerable and still trying to work out other basic aspects of the game, like trying live long enough and not just die and repeat the upper few levels of the dungeon…again.

Most dialogues are triggered by items given to the speaker. There are hundreds of items in the game, with the player having a limited inventory. So again, a lot of running around and experimenting. This may be the first collect-a-thon type of game where collecting every goshdamn thing is integral to the story and not just a bonus for completists. You can complete a Mario game without finding all the stars, but in Baroque, you really have to pay attention to what you’ve acquired so you know what moves the game itself along. Add to THAT enemies and objects that can take your shit away from you… and yeah, a TON of work. And you MUST die multiple times. On paper that seems like a cool, hardcore concept, but in practice it isn’t so simple when the game severely limits what you will be able to keep with you the next time you resurrect. There IS a system for moving items around or hanging on them for your next incarnation, but the way its done is all part of the game’s strategic underpinnings… and while I wouldn’t say it is tedious exactly… it is a lot of work.

The game lets you save after each completed dungeon level. So I kind of found myself keeping a couple of save points running at all times, so that I could revert to a previous happier moment if something untoward happened, frequently the loss of a needed item rather than a death. I generally didn’t allow myself to ‘die’, as it were, until I’d gotten to the end of each dungeon run, where you have to either die or be absorbed by the game’s deity. Which usually furthers the narrative.

At this point, near the completion of the game, I’ve had numerous restarts from save points but my character himself is on his eleventh incarnation. From my understanding this is pretty fuckin’ speedy. A lot of players have logged many many more hours than I have. Here’s the thing, though. This is a game for completionists. For players who like to winkle out every detail and every nuance. It is for gamers who don’t mind plugging through the same hallways and rooms, because there’ll be some other weird item to find or slice of dialogue to hear. The game has extensive screens for tracking everything you find. I get the appeal of this, and I even find it compelling myself to a certain point… but it isn’t for me. I made time for an RPG, but I didn’t make time for the most demanding collect-a-thon I’ve ever heard of. So I did something I’m not proud of:

I used a guide.

Not just for one hint. Not just to find some devilishly well-hidden item. I mean I used it EXTENSIVELY.

It happens every now and then that I’ll hit up an online guide or walkthrough when I’ve reached my limit on trying to figure out an objective. That’s probably my most common reason. I can’t get my head around the various clues given in the game, if in fact there are any clues—some games as we know, don’t always work logically—so I hit up some online help to connect me to the next step. Less frequently I might look up tips or strategies to beating a troublesome level or boss. But in the main, I consider it pretty easy to get too much help and spoil the experience. So I try to be judicious. This is really the way most mature gamers use helps or walkthroughs, but it has been a bitch to explain to my son, who doesn’t understand how figuring shit out is ‘more fun’ than having your hand held through the whole thing. I’ve resorted to hazing and sarcasm to keep him away from guides.

If I’m going to use help in any significant way, I’ll buy the actual printed official book and use it AFTER I’ve completed whatever basic story mode or campaign is the backbone of the game. As I said, I’m not a collector-maniac in video games, but sometimes it is cool to continue to poke around for stuff. So for some games like Bayonetta, Vanquish, or Brutal Legend, I liked the game worlds so much that it was fun to buy a guide, and explore to get to previously unseen areas or find items or learn to play the game better or in unconventional ways. I don’t think looking under every rock and tree is loads of fun, but having the guides gives me a bit more incentive to spend some extra time in a game world without the tedium of endless clueless searching. I also frequently buy guides for fighting games. For some reason I just prefer my move lists in front of me in print, rather than pausing the game to look it up onscreen.

I avoided buying Saturn Baroque because I didn’t want to eke through it inch by inch using a guide to get around the Japanese…but that feels like what I did with the English version anyway! As I was playing, early on it became apparent I would not have the patience to work the details of this game out on my own. So I went to a walkthrough intending to just learn how the items, item combination, and inventory system worked.

But as I played and discovered that every single tidbit of information (necessary and otherwise) was going to be delivered in the same obtuse, miserly manner, I caved and started fishing out what my actual goals and objectives were. Who to talk to, where they were located, and what item to give them. I managed to avoid actual plot spoilers, so the central desire to find out what ‘the story’ was about remained for me, but that was about the only discovery aspect I got to experience. As much as I hate using a guide it is hard for me to say this actually ruined the game for me. I would like to stumble upon meaningful events on my own, but the amount of play time required for this was just more than I could possibly afford. So I sort of reduced the actual play mechanics to the same level of directness that almost every other RPG employs. ‘Take this magic book to the wizard who lives in the tower’ might be something an NPC would say to you in your traditional role-playing game, so I kinda forced that onto my game of Baroque. I’m not thrilled to admit it, but as compelling as the story is, I would NOT have stuck with the game if left entirely to my own devices. Life’s too fucking short.

In hindsight, I can now see a sort of ‘play formula’ that I could’ve used to get through the game without a guide to the objectives. It’d still require that the player know more about the basic mechanics than the manual or the game really tells you, but I could write up a breakdown that would leave all the surprises and discovery intact while giving the player a better shove out the gate. And in fact, some people have done this; they just aren’t quite ‘explanatory’ enough, I don’t think. Maybe I should start up a page on this blog for this purpose. ‘KOG’s Truly Useful Guide To Baroque’.

Here’s an odd final note: Like some RPGs (and a few other types of games), Baroque has a post-campaign scenario, an endgame. If a player completes these epilogues it’ll usually net you the complete, true, or additional ending. Chrono Trigger is pretty well known for this, allowing you to take your fabulously leveled-up protagonist back through the story, now able to take on the final boss at his earlier appearances in the game and so get a different ending, depending on where in the chronology you destroy him.

After Baroques’ credits roll, you strangely find yourself resurrected yet again. Ostensibly, this would help the collecto-freaks this game caters to continue to work at filling in all the item slots in the database, but supposedly if you accomplish such-and-such-and-such (yes, I used the guide to see if there were, in fact, any goals in this endgame) you actually bring some dead NPCs back to life and redirect the course of events again. The such-and-such-and such are actually pretty complicated, involving hunting down dozens of items and bringing them out of the dungeon over the course of multiple runs. So I figured that was pretty much all she wrote for my continued involvement. As I said, this game makes fanatic collecting a literal part of the game, and there’s this huge stretch ahead that I didn’t really want to indulge. But on a whim, I thought I’d just check out the dungeon one last time, seeing what was different now that I’d ‘saved the world’.

Not much was. BUT. At the bottom of the dungeon, I got the dialogue saying I’d triggered the final set of events. I didn’t DO the such-and-such-and-such that the guide says you need to do. I just played as well as I could and then went back in one more time for old times’ sake. So just to test if I really was in the final stretch, I entered the dungeon and headed right for the floor the guide indicated would house the first set of ‘final’ enemies. And there they were. I was loaded up on invincibility items (just in case) and it wound up that I needed them. Then I actually killed the creatures. So now I find myself somewhat jazzed at the idea of actually completing the full story arc, which seemed like a lark only a day ago. I don’t know how it happened, but I am only three or four dungeon runs from finishing the narrative aspects of the game. One run for each set of the final enemies. It seemed like I was going to have to resort to reading the dialogue online or watching Youtube clips of the final section, but I’m glad I held off on doing that.

In a day or two, the game should be done, and I’ll feel really fortunate that somehow, using a guide, I manage to play this intriguing, difficult game while divesting myself of all the bullshit in it that would’ve made me throw in the towel ages ago. Despite my guide-guilt I feel like it’s a really good game, but there’s so much about it that makes it difficult to just outright recommend.

(image kyped from Daily Record UK)