Category Archives: Review

Review: Prototype

[Blaugust Day 23]

Game: Prototype
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: ~13 hours
Buy If You Like: GTA Supervillain, Collateral damage simulators

Definitely scores points for having cool abilities at the start.

Definitely scores points for having cool abilities at the start.

Prototype is a 3rd-person open(ish) world game that is GTA meets… the opposite of Batman. You play as Alex Mercer, a recently infected man who, once killed, finds himself resurrected as some kind of viral superweapon. The game revolves around Alex trying to figure out what’s happening to him, and the conspiracy that surrounds both his infection and the events leading up to it.

In one of the articles I read about the controversial game Hatred, someone pointed out that the coverage surrounding Hatred was especially hypocritical given we already had games like Prototype. Having completed Prototype, I am inclined to agree. Prototype doesn’t intentionally reward you for killing random civilians, but between the bystander density in New York City and the collateral damage you cause simply by walking around, there may as well be a body count score in the corner of the screen. And when you aren’t just walking around? Holy slaughter, Batman!

See, Alex Mercer’s powers come from consuming organic matter, or perhaps just specifically human beings. If you are running low on health, you can snatch the nearest person and kill them in a context-sensitive but always-gruesome manner, then consume them whole to heal. This ability is actually an important plot mechanic, as you hunt down members in the “Web of Intrigue.” See, as you kill and consume these individuals, you can not only copy their form, but you gain their memories. This leads you to infiltrate military camps by consuming scouts, then the base commander, then entering the base itself to consume the juicy (and skilled) members inside, upgrading your abilities to use machine guns, fly helicopters, order artillery strikes, and so on.

I was actually trying really hard to not kill a million people there.

I was actually trying really hard to not kill a million people there.

After a while, everyone just looks like walking power-ups.

The gameplay of Prototype is both visceral and involves viscera. Attacks are controlled with just the left and right mouse buttons, with E occasionally thrown in there. While the moves are limited, the various powers and upgrades that become available are not. As you complete story missions and the various side events, you unlock additional upgrades by spending Evolution Points. These upgrades give you new attacks – claws for hands, tentacle arms, etc – and all sorts of other goodies, like more mobility. Even from the very beginning, Alex Mercer automatically parkours his way across vehicles and smaller obstacles while being able to run up the sides of skyscrapers. Later unlocks will have you leaping 60 ft into the air with a single press of the Spacebar, changing direction in mid-air twice, and Gliding into the alleyway.

While I enjoyed my time in Prototype overall, there were a number of areas and missions that were absurdly frustrating. Some of those involved waves of enemies, in which death or mission failure (due to escort dying or similar) cause you to restart the entire wave sequence over again. Other times, you will be facing bosses in which the limited control scheme starts making you suicidal. For example, one of the supermoves you can do is “In the air, hold Left-Click, Press E.” If you press Left-Click + E simultaneously, that completes a different move. But if you hold down Left-Click too long before pressing E, you suddenly perform a jump-kick straight into the gaping maw of the hideous beast. Other times, the weird targeting system causes you to grab or fail to the grab the wrong thing at the wrong time. Would this have played better on a controller? Maybe. Still, I wish there was a “Bind Devastator move to Q” option or something like that.

Okay, this kind of thing was really cool.

Okay, this kind of thing was really cool.

Prototype is not exactly a game that I would recommend people to spend money on specifically; there are a lot of other, better games out there. But if you look at your Steam library tonight and notice that Prototype happens to already be on there for some reason, go ahead and boot it up. If you aren’t having some amount of fun within the first 10 minutes, you can go ahead and uninstall because the game is basically going to be that for the next ten hours.

Review: Dead Rising 2

[Blaugust Day 9]

Game: Dead Rising 2
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 78
Completion Time: ~17 hours
Buy If You Like: GTA Zombies, Frustrating mechanics, Improvised weapons

A very serious game for very serious people.

A very serious game for very serious people.

For the record, Dead Rising 2 is the only entry in this series that I played. Coming into this entry, my expectations were fairly minimal, and I knew only that the game featured wacky weapons and… that was it. What I discovered was a title that both exceeded my expectations wildly, and one that almost immediately squandered all the goodwill it generated.

The premise of the game is that you play as Chuck Greene, a father desperately trying to make ends meet and pay for his daughter’s Zombrex, the toxic daily prescription drug that is the only thing standing between her and undeath. Unlike many other titles in this genre, the setting takes the zombie apocalypse as a given – Chuck participates in a televised gameshow with prize money being awarded to whomever is able to kill the most zombies with their chainsaw-motorcycles. After the latest Live event, someone dressed as Chuck manages to frame him for terrorism when they release said zombies into the greater Fortune City casino area.

What follows is perhaps one of the most, if not “authentic,” certainly the most interesting takes on the zombie apocalypse. There are zombies everywhere, hundreds of them. Frankly, there are so many zombies on screen at a time that I’m honestly surprised that the devs were able to pull it off.

Submitted without comment.

Submitted without comment.

Despite said zombies being of the shuffling variety, they always feel like a threat by sheer numbers alone. At the same time… it’s difficult to describe, but the zombies felt like understandable obstacles. By the midpoint of the game, I found myself not just capable of weaving through dense crowds of them without stopping or even taking damage, but it feeling correct for this to happen. In other words, it wasn’t that the zombie AI was dumb or that I “exploited” their behavior, but rather that the zombies followed natural rules in terms of range of motion and the like. If you approach a zombie from behind, for example, it had to turn to its left before it could attempt to lunge, and thus you could escape by passing on the right. And even more than that, said swiveling zombie would act as an obstacle to the zombies that were following behind you.

Another great aspect of the game was the refreshing take on narrative. The game is structured around the inexorable passing of time – your daughter needs Zombrex every 24 hours at a minimum, and your window of opportunity in clearing your name similarly closes with each passing hour. Inbetween the big events, you will get notifications about trapped survivors and such, most of whom will be dead soon without assistance. You might be having fun crafting weapons and collecting cash on one end of the Strip, for example, but unless you book it to the other side in a hurry, those survivors will be zombies themselves right quick. The clock creates a subtle tension throughout the game, without (usually) being too overwhelming.

The problem with Dead Rising 2 are the Psychopaths, e.g. boss fights. Along with survivor quests, you will occasionally get vague quests to head over to a specific location. Once there, some random survivor will have snapped from the stress and be out for human blood. Generally speaking, these fights are total gimmicks and stupidly, inexplicably deadly. Whereas you might be able to sustain 20+ zombie bites across a period of time, Psychopaths will kill you in a few hits or less, especially if you don’t immediately understand the gimmick.

Some weapons are more effective than others.

Some weapons are more effective than others.

Compounding the problem, the Save Game structure of Dead Rising 2 is that progress is ONLY saved when you go to the bathroom. Psychopath on the other side of the Strip across four screens of zombies and nary a Porta Potty in sight? Guess what you’ll be replaying over and over? This isn’t even taking into consideration that Psychopath fights are scripted to occur at specific locations at specific times, which means you can suddenly find yourself in the middle of one while you were trying to escort some abysmally dumb survivors across a sea of zombies.

Indeed, I remember one Psychopath battle in particular as it was the most god-awful situation I have experienced in videogames. Basically, this encounter was with four redneck snipers who decide to take residence in the central open area of the game. You know, the place with the most zombies per capita? That you had to routinely cross through all the goddamn time? And they never left, even after the end of the proper game. What the literal shit, Capcom? Those snipers hounded me the rest of the game, on into the epilogue, and by that point I did not have the time or ammo to take them out.

The bottom line was that Dead Rising 2 felt and played as an innovative zombie game, with enough cool things going on to make one horribly disappointed with the superfluous bullshit tacked on for no good reason. From what I gather, Dead Rising 2 is actually uncharacteristically serious compared to the other titles in the series – a sort of Saint’s Row to, say, Dead Island’s GTA – and that’s certainly interesting trivia. I didn’t play the other games, and based on my experiences with this game, I probably never will. If you can snag the game on the cheap though, I think it’s worth trying out if only for the first ~5 hours or so, as you steep in the goodness that is a freeform zombie apocalypse.

Reviews: Ori and the Blind Forest, The Swapper

Game: Ori and the Blind Forest
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~8 hours
Buy If You Like: Journey, Metroidvania, Action Platformers

Random gameplay screenshot, or million-dollar painting?

Random gameplay screenshot, or million-dollar painting?

The simplest summary of Ori and the Blind Forest would be “Journey Metroidvania.”

After playing through the equivalent of the opening scene from the movie Up, you are thrust into the controls of Ori, a sort of cat creature as she (?) begins a quest to return life to the Spirit Tree. While the gameplay can be described as Metroidvania, I consider it more along the Action Platformer scale – certainly the majority of the challenge of the game comes from the platforming elements rather than defeating enemies. As you explore the map and solve various platforming puzzles, you eventually unlock additional movement abilities such as Wall Jumping, Double Jumps, Floating, etc, which allows you both access to brand new areas, and new corners of old spaces.

One thing that shocked me while playing was the difficulty. For as lush and beautiful as the game looks, Ori spares no punches with insta-kill mechanics. While the player can create save locations practically anywhere (at the cost of a renewable resource), the onus is on the player to remember to do so. Spend 15 minutes backtracking to grab that HP power-up, only to get squished by a falling stone trap? Well… I hope that power-up is now worth 30 minutes of your time. Indeed, later stages of the game become absurdly difficult with 2-3 minute (or longer) “chase” sequences in which any mistake is punished with death, forcing you to redo the entire sequence. Reminded me of Super Meatboy in that respect.

How I felt playing the game.

How I felt playing the game.

All that being said, though? I absolutely loved my time spent in Ori. The game is a visual feast, the soundtrack amazing, the animation fluid, and the gameplay interesting. Indeed, one of the movement unlocks later in the game – called “Bash,” which was a complete misnomer – single-handedly took the game from good to great in my eyes; the move allows you to grab enemies or projectiles, pause time, and then rocket yourself one direction and the grabbed object in the other. You end up needing to use Bash a lot by the endgame, but it was fun enough that I would play an entire game based around just that mechanic in the way Ori used it.

Highly recommend picking the game up next time a Steam sale or Humble Bundle comes along.

___________________________________________

Game: The Swapper
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 87
Completion Time: 5 hours
Buy If You Like: Puzzle Games, Unique Premises, Questioning the Nature of the Soul

Original body, I hardly knew ye.

Gazing upon the crumbled remains of myself… and I feel nothing.

The Swapper is one of the more innovative puzzle games I have ever played. Not so much exactly for its puzzle mechanic – you create clones that mimic your actions, like that level in Braid – but the way in which the mechanic is intertwined with the narrative is unparalleled.

Things are mysterious and surreal and dark from the very start, as you make your way from being stranded on a mining colony to back on a seemingly derelict spaceship. In such a setting, finding a gun that creates clones of yourself doesn’t seem that big a deal. Which then leads you to start being a little cavalier with your clones, as you leap off ledges, slow time down to create a clone already standing on the rapidly approaching floor, then “swapping” your soul between the two as your now-empty original self smashes itself to pieces on the bulkhead below. You can do the same thing in reverse, creating a vertical body of soul bridges, each clone creating one more at the height of its vision, with all but the last falling to his/her death, their last moments spent walking in the void, just as you do, towards a door they shall never reach.

The Swapper is precisely the type of game that inspires sentences like the previous one.

It's sad that you can't appreciate exactly how awesome I am in this moment.

It’s sad that you can’t appreciate exactly how awesome I am in this moment.

The puzzles themselves straddle closely the “too clever for their own good” side of the scale, and a few require more reflexes than I thought entirely necessary. The primary impediments are the different colored lights, which impede clone creation, soul swapping, or both. Beyond that, the majority of the time you are creating, killing, and scratching your head over how to arrange clones on the correct floor switches. While it might sound monotonous, again, the overall mood and narrative absolutely sells the entirety of the five-hour game.

Given the above, I must both recommend that The Swapper gets played, but at a discount. It’s worth a spot on your wishlist in time for the next sale.

Review: The Banner Saga

Game: The Banner Saga
Recommended price: < $5
Metacritic Score: 80
Completion Time: 10-12 hours
Buy If You Like: PC ports of mobile tactical games, Kickstarter games

Oh, you. Wait, was he serious?

Oh, you. Wait, was he serious?

The Banner Saga is one of those darling Kickstarter stories in which a scrappy development team (or professional game designers) achieves high accolades for a beautifully drawn, epic soundtrack-having mobile-to-PC tactical RPG port. When judged against its Kickstarted peers, it stands rather tall amongst them, especially for having actually made it to release. When judged on its own merits however, The Banner Saga falls somewhat short despite it’s high Metacritic rating.

The basic thrust of The Banner Saga is one of Norse-style apocalypse. The gods are dead, the historical baddies (Dredge) are flooding the North, and everything is going to hell. The plot follows two separate caravans as they rapidly become refugee trains fleeing the destruction. Along the way you are presented with a series of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure blind choices and are rewarded or punished (mainly punished) with abrupt character deaths, loss of supplies, and similarly depressing news. Oh, and occasionally battles.

The tactical combat system in The Banner Saga is not one I have seen before, and I’m tempted to say that was for a reason. Every unit has both an Armor meter and a Strength meter, the latter of which is also your HP. Damage is calculated as “Your Strength – Their Armor = They Lose X Strength.” I already consider such systems a Red Flag simply for how many times it leads to snowball situations: wounded characters immediately lose most of their combat value. “Luckily” enough, damaging Armor isn’t tied to Strength at all (Armor Break is a separate stat you can increase), so even a character with 1 HP (i.e. 1 Strength) can do something useful. Also, some character classes have special abilities that do a set amount of damage no matter that’s character’s Strength.

Another day, another grid with the same enemies.

Another day, another grid with the same enemies.

My issue with things comes from the Turn Order system. Simply put: it alternates. Before you get into combat, you can decide which of your party members goes in which order. Once combat begins, it starts with your 1st member and then goes to one unit on the enemy’s side. If you manage to kill an enemy before their turn, the next enemy in the turn order will take their spot and everyone else moves down. This continues until there is only one enemy left, which starts “Pillage Mode” and your whole team gets one turn for every one that the last enemy receives.

The entire system leads to bizarre scenarios wherein an enemy unit can suddenly get 3-4 free turns of attacks off on a character before you can react, as you uselessly move around other out-of-range characters. In other words, the enemy gets more dangerous the more enemy units you kill; conversely, this never seems to improve your own odds of success when put in similar situations.

The other major problem I had with the game design was… well, the rest of it. You receive Renown points after battles, and Renown pulls double duty as both currency to purchase items/Supplies for your caravan and as an upgrade currency. If you want to level a character up from 2 to 3, that costs 10 Renown, for example. The problem here is that there is never enough. Which, okay, it’s Ragnarok, what are you going to do? But The Banner Saga is not at all gun-shy about killing your playable characters without warning in one of the frequent dialog choices, taking the 30+ Renown you’ve invested along with them. I couldn’t help but feel like the developers were trying to make the game be a roguelike but only going halfway. Am I supposed to reload my last auto-save when I find out that X died? Or will there be enough Renown later to off-set the loss?

Spoiler alert: no.

Know what's fun about these sort of choices? Nothing.

Know what’s fun about these sort of choices? Nothing.

In the end, I find it somewhat hard to recommend The Banner Saga, at least with even a fraction of the fervor it was recommended to me. If you are looking for a solid tactical RPG ala Final Fantasy Tactics, you will be disappointed. If you are looking for an engaging roguelike, you will be disappointed. If you are looking for a regular RPG with a great story, you will be disappointed – the game ends abruptly with a cliffhanger, as it was designed as a trilogy from the start. If you are looking for an iPad game to play for more than 10 hours, you will be disappointed.

There is some good things going on in The Banner Saga – the music, artwork, and animations are fantastic – but it’s not a complete project. The less you treat it as a serious game and more as an interactive picturebook, the better off you will be.

Review: Dragon Age: Inquisition

Game: Dragon Age: Inquisition
Recommended price: $25
Metacritic Score: 85
Completion Time: 40-90+ hours
Buy If You Like: Dragon Age, CRPGs, Bioware titles

1080p, Medium settings, ~50 fps.

1080p, Medium settings, ~50 fps.

Dragon Age: Origins felt like a seminal moment in computer gaming when it came out back in 2009. Here was an epic RPG written by Bioware that followed in the Baldur’s Gate style with all the conveniences of modern gaming. The lore was deep for a brand new IP, and turned many of the traditional fantasy tropes on their head (elves are actually slaves in the ghettos instead of immortal elites, etc). While certainly not the first title to do so, Origins also featured quite a few deliciously vexing moral decisions with no good answers. Although it stumbled here and there, the game nevertheless took me on a 100+ hour journey with characters I sorely missed after the ending credits.

Then there was Dragon Age 2. It went okay.

The first dozen or so hours in Dragon Age: Inquisition felt distressingly similar to Dragon Age 2. For example, combat remains more Action than Tactics. In fact, Bioware removed the pseudo-AI programming you could do in the prior two games and replaced it with… not much. The plot begins with a limp handshake via two factions warring that I care nothing about and no inklings that things will get better. In short, I was very, very worried.

Once I finally had a base of operations though… you know that feeling in the Mass Effect series once Shepard reaches the Normandy? Inquisition had that moment for me, and suddenly it felt as if my peripheral vision widened. The fun switch was flipped and stayed on for pretty much the entire ride.

You can get sorta tactical with CC.

You can get sorta tactical with CC.

The game feels massive. In fact, one of the big criticisms of Inquisition is that people end up staying in the first map (Hinterlands) doing quests for 15+ hours, long past the point when they could be exploring new lands. And I totally fell into that same trap myself. Honestly, Inquisition could easily have been the first draft of Dragon Age Online. It would not at all have felt out of place to see other Inquisitors running around, killing bears and closing Fade portals. Hell, the game already features a rather needlessly complicated and fiddly crafting system complete with dozens of resources nodes spread across the map.

Combat is much more like Dragon Age 2, as mentioned before, but gone are the magically spawning waves of enemies. As a result, most of the enemies you encounter feel as though they are actually part of the world you inhabit, and thus fighting them feels “real.” It also helps that there aren’t necessarily any prescribed “combat zones” – you could be fighting in the woods with trees blocking projectiles, or attacking up the side of a mountain, or using a boulder for elevation to trigger your Archery talent for bonus damage. Indeed, the sheer amount of verticality in the game is a huge triumph in making the world feel more organic.

Serious competition with Varric for best party member banter.

Serious competition with Varric for best party member banter.

In terms of plot, character development, and companion dialog, it is difficult to nail down my feelings on the matter in terms of whether it surpassed prior titles. I ended up playing Inquisition for over 90 hours, largely because I wanted to squeeze every ounce of party banter blood I could from even the stones of irrelevant sidequests. At the same time, most of the excellently written characters were from the first or second games (notable exception: Iron Bull), which feels like… cheating, somehow. Were they particular good in this game, or was I carrying over emotions from prior ones? Tough to say.

What is not at all tough to say is that I very much enjoyed my Inquisition experience overall, and am sad to see it go. I would not rank it amongst my favorites of all time, but Inquisition is the Dragon Age game we deserved after Origins. In short, it has renewed my faith and interest in the series as a whole, and was a joy to play besides. I am ready to follow Bioware into whatever form Dragon Age 4 takes.

Review: Tomb Raider

Game: Tomb Raider
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 86
Completion Time: ~14 hours
Buy If You Like: 3D puzzle platformers, slick Deus Ex-like visuals

When it finally came time to play Tomb Raider, the reboot of a 1997 game, it had been sitting in my Steam library untouched for over a year. I delayed playing this version because I felt as though I might get more out of the experience if I played through some of the original games; I think I got as far as the underwater portion of the very first one, back in the day. Once it became clear that that was not likely to ever happen, I sat down and booted up Tomb Raider.

Holy shit, you guys. This game is slick.

See how even the tutorial message box is inside the screen? Awesome.

See how even the tutorial message box is inside the screen? Awesome.

Although the Eidos Montreal team seems to have only worked on the multiplayer portion, the very first thing I thought of while playing Tomb Raider was “this feels like Deus Ex: Human Revolution.” My gaming rig is starting to get long in the tooth (GTX 560ti), but this is easily the best-looking computer game to ever grace my screen. The whole thing may as well have been an extended cutscene for how good it looks. And not just visually, but conceptually as well – even the UI when camping seems downright cinematic.

After some early exposition, you take control of an inexperienced Lara Croft who very quickly faces some life-and-death situations. While there were some early news articles alleging the game is torture-porn, I felt it did a rather brilliant job at portraying a more “realistic” sense of action. Lara is not the invincible action hero she eventually becomes in the older games – she gets smacked around, thrown by explosions, impaled by rebar, covered in cuts, dirt, and blood. “I hate tombs,” she quips in an early section of the game. While some later scenes clearly get pretty fantastical, I nevertheless remained fully immersed by the utterly reasonable way Lara walked around, hid behind waist-high obstructions, and later became the hardered tomb raider of destiny.

I will say though, that the brutality of failing the numerous quick-time events almost makes you want to fail them on purpose just to see how awful a death the designers scripted in. Spoiler: they’re harsh.

Yeah... ouch.

Yeah… ouch.

In terms of what you actually do while playing, the game is essentially a 3D puzzle platformer with some extended shooting sequences. The game is divided into discrete areas to explore and solve, but the edges are pretty seamlessly integrated into the whole. Indeed, it wasn’t until about the 5th or so cave before I realized that Lara squeezing through a narrow gap and slowing walking with a torch outstretched was basically a playable loading screen. Sure beats all those elevators in Mass Effect. In any case, the puzzles themselves aren’t particularly difficult and Lara will generally talk her way through them the longer you stay stumped in the same area.

It is sort of difficult to coming up with more words to describe what the experience of playing this game is like. I suppose it is exactly that: an experience. Tomb Raider is a 15-hour movie that could have easily been a satisfying 7 or 10 hour one, but goes that little extra mile and I am glad for it. You will not likely be blown away by the dialog or particularly innovative gameplay experience, but you will be having too much fun looking around and doing things to care.

Seriously, guys, it's like this all the time.

Seriously, guys, it’s like this all the time.

I definitely recommend playing Tomb Raider if you get the chance.

Tablet Review: Asus Memo Pad 7

This past summer I was in the market for a tablet. Given how wide and deep the tablet market has gotten over the years, I figured I would go ahead and talk a little about what I was looking for and how I feel about my Asus Memo Pad 7 purchase, four months later.

Few complaints.

Few complaints.

Everyone will tell you that before you look at tablets, you should take a few minutes to outline what exactly you want to use it for. Do not skip this step. If you are looking for an eReader, getting an iPad is overkill. Chances are you will eventually start using the tablet for other things once you have it, but by that point you will have a better understanding of how one might fit your life, just in time for an upgrade.

My own goals were more temporary: I wanted a laptop replacement (mostly writing) for a series of vacations I was going on. But not an actual replacement laptop, mind you; I did not anticipate using it very much once I returned. My experience with the Nexus 4 phone also primed me to limit my choices to those that had microSD card slots. I had bought the smartphone to replace an old cell phone and iPod Touch with one device, but a 16gb limit basically meant I listened to the same music at work for nearly a year. I did not want to make a similar mistake again.

In the end, I went with the Asus Memo Pad 7, the latest version of which was released mere weeks before my July vacation. It was a ~$150 Android tablet with 16gb of space that nevertheless allows you to slot in a 64gb microSD card. It runs the latest Android software, has front and back cameras, and overall seems fast enough. My version is WiFi only.

These days I primarily use it as a musical device at work and as an eReader (including manga via Manga Rock) at home. During my vacation, I used a (wired!) rollable keyboard to write and it was technically powerful enough to run SNES/etc emulators if I hadn’t also purchased a PSP for that purpose. I absolutely feel that I got my money’s worth already from its performance on the two 14-hour flights I took, so it’s current extended use is pure bonus.

Are there some minor issues? Sure. As some reviews might have mentioned, the back is sloped weird, which sometimes makes reaching for the power/volume buttons a bit more awkward than strictly necessary. I also find it annoying that swiping down from the top brings up either the Settings menu or the Notification tray at random (when I always want the Notification tray). I have not investigated whether there is a setting I can change to fix this.

But, yeah, Asus Memo Pad 7. It is currently on Amazon for $135 $124 and will likely drop further in time for Black Friday. It probably won’t replace your Apple Air or whatever, but I feel it’s an excellent, safe entry into the tablet market for neophytes like myself.

Review: Dragon Age 2

Game: Dragon Age 2
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 82
Completion Time: 45 hours
Buy If You Like: More action-ish RPGs, Humorous party dialog, waves of trash mobs

Another day, another 30-dude ambush.

Another day, another 30-dude ambush.

In light of the impending release of Dragon Age 3, I decided to go ahead and play through the much-maligned Dragon Age 2. Would it be really as bad as everyone says? Well… maybe.

When Dragon Age: Origins came out, it was a love-letter to the Baldur’s Gate generation, featuring tactical and brutal combat, an epic and lore-rich storyline, and plenty of morally questionable scenarios. Dragon Age 2 follows mostly along similar lines, but there are enough breaks from the formula that you start wondering if the devs wanted to make a different game altogether.

Combat in Dragon Age 2 has a much more action game feel, even though it shares many things with the original. The Tactics system is still in place for configuring the AI, for example, and you can still pause the action at any time to issue orders or directly control different party members. Indeed, in the beginning, it felt largely the same as Origins, albeit “quicker.”

The major problem though is that the game throws waves and waves of weak enemies at you, even when it doesn’t make any sense. You could be walking around the slums when BAM! Thirty dudes try to take you out, ten at a time. While superficially more exciting, the challenge in these sort of fights is extremely low; the only times in which my party died were when an enemy spellcaster dropped an AoE spell, which typically will one-shot everyone nearby before you realize what’s going on.

There's self-deprecating and then there's sad truths.

There’s self-deprecating and then there’s sad truths.

Bioware went a different direction with the plot and overall story structure as well. Instead of fighting another Blight or dealing much with Darkspawn at all, the story follows your character as he/she… well, lives in a city. On one level, it felt pretty novel to experience a former refugee’s rise to prominence, especially given how reasonable the path ends up feeling. I especially liked how each game Act fasts forward time by 3 years – all too often it feels like the average RPG sort of assumes all this character development and world-saving occurs within a week.

On the other hand, the lack of any discernible threat puts a lot of pressure on the incidental stories being interesting… which they are largely not. The underlying plot of Dragon Age 2 is an exploration of the Circle and Templar tension within the Dragon Age setting. While I always thought that bit lore was cool, it isn’t enough to carry a 40+ hour campaign. At one point, the only quest left I could complete was the plot quest to find some Blood Mages who ran away, and all I could ask is: who cares? Those Blood Mages have nothing to do with anything, even in context.

At least the dialog was refreshing.

At least the dialog was refreshing.

Another major issue I had with the game was the rather outrageously blatant copy & paste job with the environments. Going into a cave? Guess what, it’ll be the same cave you always go into, except maybe certain passages will be blocked off this time. Given how the game takes place in one main location, I can understand reusing assets to an extent. But when every warehouse, every cave, every secret base all have the exact same map even when they have no rational reason to be shaped similarly? Call it what it is: developer laziness and cutting corners.

Overall, the online criticisms of Dragon Age 2 largely hit the mark. It is very clear that DA2 was an experiment, and it is equally clear that even Bioware acknowledged that things did not pan out quite as they had hoped. Although some characters from Dragon Age: Origins make cameo appearances, there isn’t a real reason to encourage that fans of the original game to play this one. It isn’t awful, in isolation, but it’s not compelling enough to deserve the Dragon Age title.

Micro-Reviews: Suzuka, Orange Marmalade, GE – Good Ending

Suzuka

Suzuka

Suzuka starts off as a fairly cliche high school romance manga, right down to the main male character transferring to Tokyo and living in an all-girl dorm/spa. In fact, you might recognize pretty much that exact premise right out of Love Hina. The curious thing about the manga though is that I was never really able to get a sense of whether it started this way intentionally, or if the gradual evolution of the story into something more meaningful was a happy accident. In either case, the character progression becomes much more interesting as time goes on, the harem and fanservice drops away, and many satisfying (and occasionally frustrating) developments are had by the end.

Basically, if you are looking for a more “realistic” romance manga along the same vein as A Town Where You Live, Suzuka is a good front-runner.

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Orange Marmalade

Marmalade

This is a Korean-style romance manga centering around high school girl Ma Ri, the “ice queen,” who actually happens to be a vampire in hiding. It has been 300 years since the last vampire has actually killed a human, but the discrimination and threat of exile is constant. In fact, her family has had to move around repeatedly any time people start to get suspicious, which has led to Ma Ri to make peace being alone forever. Despite her best efforts though, she is befriended by a group of girls and Jae Min, a boy who seemingly refuses to leave her alone once she accidentally nips his neck.

The pacing, art style, and overall quality of Orange Marmalade is extremely good. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I basically plowed through the entire series in a single day. It has angst, drama, and moments of extreme pathos, all without necessarily devolving into standard tropes. There are some vampiric shenanigans, but the story isn’t necessarily about vampires. In fact, beyond a few initial plot points, the vampire angle is more allegory than anything – and in that regard, it is extremely effective. I recommend it.

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GE – Good Ending

GE

GE – Good Ending is, as you might expect from the title, a high school romance manga. The story centers around Seiji Utsumi, a boy who has a crush on the tennis club president. Too scared to make a move and too unathletic to join the tennis club himself, he remains content with admiring her from afar. That is, until another tennis club member, Yuki Kurokawa, catches him peeking in the bushes, and seemingly makes it her duty to put them together.

While this manga starts out with the stereotypical dumbass protagonist who is incapable of doing anything, the beauty of GE is the character progression and, indeed, evolution. Characters grow up, pasts are revealed, feelings change, misunderstandings are had, and basically real shit occurs. In other words, the beginning of the manga bears little resemblance to what it eventually becomes, which is a rather compelling narrative. If romance manga is your genre, GE will definitely earn a spot on your list.

Review: The Stanley Parable

Given the extremely recent news that it sold 1 million copies in the last year, I figured I’d go ahead and throw out my brief review of The Stanley Parable.

Game: The Stanley Parable
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score:
Completion Time: ~3 hours
Buy If You Like: Choose Your Own Adventure games, experimental indie titles

I see what you're doing here.

I see what you’re doing here.

The Stanley Parable is a visual Choose Your Own Adventure tech demo that extremely briefly examines the nature of narrative choice in video games. The “game” consists of moving around in the first-person and exploring an office building while a narrator details all the things you are doing, Bastion-style. The meat of the gameplay consists of getting to one of the endings (sometimes taking as little as 5-7 minutes) and then doing something different on the next play-through.

And… that’s about it. While the concept itself is novel, and some of the meta-humor actually relevant/damning, there isn’t really anything resembling a game here at all. The entirety of the “parable” could have just as well been summed up in a single blog post, but I suppose that would have meant forgoing the opportunity to charge $15 for the privilege of hearing it.

Nevertheless, I do recommend keeping an eye out for when The Stanley Parable appears in one of the many gaming bundles. I might not be willing to put a dollar price on this experience, but it does add value to whatever the overall bundle you might be looking at. So… take that for what you will.

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