Category Archives: Review
Genre: Sci-Fi, Near Future, Drama
Steins;Gate is a gripping, emotional drama that also reminds me of why I hate time travel as a narrative mechanic so much. The anime follows the eccentric teenage “mad scientist” Rintaro Okabe and his two friends/Lab Members as they spend their days fighting the “Organization” and otherwise goofing around with gadgets. After going to a conference on Time Travel, Okabe encounters a woman stabbed and lying in a pool of blood. Shaken, he texts his friend about the incident while the Phone Microwave gadget was running… and his text arrives 5 days in the past, changing the future.
What is brilliant about this anime is exactly what I dislike about the conceptual narrative. The first half of the anime explores the nature and limitations of the “D-Mail” system – the ability to send a phone text to someone in the past – and each successful D-Mail permanently changes the world and resets everyone’s memories to match it… other than Okabe, who remembers everything. Later on, the anime darkens considerably once Okabe realizes the butterfly effects of all these changes and the seemingly inevitable future it portends. And that is the rub. Each time the world is changed, everything that happened previously ceases to be. Okabe (and you) remember that other world, but it’s irrelevant in a practical sense, erasing huge swaths of continuity and character development.
Make no mistake, Steins;Gate is a superb, shocking, draining anime and by far the best version of Time Travel I have encountered in fiction. I still hate Time Travel as a narrative mechanic though, and my attachment to the characters of Steins;Gate and their sacrifices (which are erased) only deepens my antipathy for it.
But if you have no issue with Time Travel? You should see this anime yesterday.
Genre: High school romantic comedy
In a nutshell, Toradora is a high school romantic comedy with enough dramatic elements and interesting characters to set it apart from what otherwise amounts to another entry in the busiest anime genre of all time. The show follows Ryuji, a high schooler who looks like a delinquent but is actually fairly sensitive and domestic, and his new neighbor Taiga, the short “palm-top tiger” with an even shorter temper. Once the two of them realize that they have crushes on the other’s best friend, they set differences aside while trying to set the other up with their crush. As you might expect, misadventures and misunderstandings abound.
Overall, I really enjoyed Toradora to the tune of crushing all 25 episodes across two days. As mentioned, there is enough drama and emotional scenes to set the anime apart from its peers, if the quirky characters did not do so already. And most importantly? There is actually catharsis by the end; this is no harem comedy in which nothing is resolved by the final credits.
[Blaugust Day 23]
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: ~13 hours
Buy If You Like: GTA Supervillain, Collateral damage simulators
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.
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.
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.
[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
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.
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.
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.
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.