Category Archives: Review
Game: Ori and the Blind Forest
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~8 hours
Buy If You Like: Journey, Metroidvania, Action Platformers
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.
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
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.
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.
Game: Dragon Age: Inquisition
Recommended price: $25
Metacritic Score: 85
Completion Time: 40-90+ hours
Buy If You Like: Dragon Age, CRPGs, Bioware titles
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I definitely recommend playing Tomb Raider if you get the chance.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
GE – Good Ending
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.
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
Completion Time: ~3 hours
Buy If You Like: Choose Your Own Adventure games, experimental indie titles
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.
Game: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
Recommended price: Debatable ($5)
Metacritic Score: 81
Completion Time: ~45 hours
Buy If You Like: Single-player MMOs, Action RPGs
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (hereafter Reckoning) is a 3rd-person, over-the-shoulder action RPG that comes the closest I have ever seen to any game perfectly emulating an MMO experience. After being resurrected and freed from the constraints of a setting bound by Fate, you set out into the world to stop the various forces that want to make your death stick this time. Along the way, you will kill many enemies, destroy a lot of boxes, explore many caves, and complete quests until you get so utterly sick of them that you swear you will never accept another quest in any game, ever. Then you will complete some more.
As mentioned, Reckoning is for all intents and purposes a single-player MMO. About the only thing missing is the ability to zoom out the camera (an issue that becomes rather annoying after a while) and the ability to jump. Other than those two, you will doing a lot of the same things in exactly the same ways. Each new town will have a half dozen or more NPCs offering quests, there is a quest-tracker of sorts, monsters can randomly drop rare/epic/legendary loot. As you level up, you can put skill points into three different skill trees that correspond with Fighter, Mage, and Thief. Depending on how many points you slot into each tree, you can choose certain Fate cards that are basically “classes” which give you certain passive bonuses. While the bonuses are generally worth specialization, it’s also entirely possible to cherry-pick some of the better abilities in the early trees.
In terms of general gameplay, I would say Reckoning is alright. Your main attacks are bound to left-click and right-click, with some of them requiring aim via the mouse. There is some element of timing to your attacks rather than just spamming the buttons, although it’s possible to do that too. Part of the game schtick is “Reckoning Mode,” which is really a re-skinned Limit Break from FF7 – kill enemies until the Reckoning meter fills up, then unleash a ludicrously powerful attack. And by ludicrously powerful, I mean forcing all enemies into slow-mo, killing normal mobs in two hits, and otherwise cheesing 100% of every boss fight in the entire game. Oh, and did I mention that your final attack against whatever target will trigger a Quick Time Event that lets you spam a button to get increased XP for all the dudes you just murdered? Yeah.
Beyond what I have already talked about, there were two main issues I had with the game. The first is a nitpick of sorts, and an unfortunate one at that. Basically this game came out three months after Skyrim. There is nothing at all this game does better than Skyrim and a whole lot that it does worse. Is it a fair comparison? Nope. But having played Skyrim first, you just can’t help but feel every little thing they have in common – such as picking herbs out in the world, questing, exploring, etc – is simply worse-Skyrim. If you are sensitive to that sort of thing, playing Reckoning will be an issue.
The second thing is that Crafting is broken. Like most of these sort of games, Reckoning allows you to put points into Blacksmithing and whatnot to craft your own gear. And like many games in which you can do this, the designers – either on purpose or accident – allow you to very easily craft gear so far beyond the scope of any possible random drop that loot itself loses all meaning. I understand that there is always a tension of sorts between crafted loot and random drops, in that if random drops are better, then the crafting system becomes a bit useless in comparison. But, seriously, come on:
Just so we have it in text form, my equipped gear was 82 Armor, +12% crit damage, and +3% crit chance. Meanwhile, my crafted gear is 122 Armor, +12% crit damage, +28% Health, +17% Damage Resistance, +10% Physical Resistance, and +15% Damage. I don’t even remember at which level I crafted that piece of armor, but I basically never equipped anything else until the end of the game. Which meant 100% of the armor drops I received from then until the end were vendor trash. Which meant my motivation for actually completing these quests and/or acquiring more gold dropped to zero.
Overall, it is sort of hard to recommend Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The game isn’t terrible, even if it cannot really stand up to its peers. If you enjoy the combat and the questing, there is a ton of content that will keep you busy far beyond the ~47 hours it took me to beat it. In fact, that is sort of what happened with me: I was on a mission to complete ever single quest I came across, up until I got burned out and just did all the storyline quests until the end. Then there is the sort of mystique that comes from playing the game from the imploded studio and getting a feeling for what the Amalur MMO might have looked like.
But if you are strictly interested in compelling games to play, well, I might recommend taking even that $5 somewhere else. Reckoning is probably worth $5 in a vacuum, but that same $5 can buy so much more these days.
Usagi Drop is a straight-forward, endearing, and deeply compelling slice-of-life manga. It follows the travails of a 30-year old man named Daikichi whom notices a 6-year old girl wandering around his grandfather’s funeral. After asking family members, it appears that the girl, Rin, is actually his grandfather’s illegitimate daughter by an unknown mother, whom has all but abandoned Rin. As the relatives discuss putting Rin in foster care, Daikichi decides (almost on a whim) to take care of Rin himself.
As I mentioned above, this manga is slice-of-life and mainly focuses on the sort everyday considerations a 30-year old bachelor has to make in the context of raising a child. However, the scenes and scenarios presented are not being done solely for comedic effect or to evoke sympathy for Daikichi’s lost carefree lifestyle. Rather they are all the sort of mundane miracles of parenthood and self-discovery. And for any person interested in Japanese culture, Usagi Drop becomes an exceedingly intimate glimpse into everyday life over there (or at least an example thereof).
It is actually difficult for me to express exactly how amazing I feel Usagi Drop is. Perhaps it is because I am also a 30-year old bachelor without children that I identify so well with the primary character. But I feel like there is an undercurrent of brilliance to this manga that simply needs to be experienced. There is an inherent progression to the relationships amongst the characters, and as they grow up, you feel yourself grow up with them. I really cannot describe it any better than that.
Simply put, if you ever find yourself in need of an example of a manga to prove to someone that these aren’t all simply childish (or perverted) comic books, Usagi Drop is one that you should immediately feel comfortable offering.