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Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

After playing ESO, I got in a mood for an open-ish world RPG that was actually fun to play. As it turns out, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisin (DD) is precisely that. Minus the relatively garbage console port job the devs did.

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Another bonus: you can play as a 12-year old girl.

For the most part, DD plays like Dragon Age: Inquisition with a more Action RPG feel. Or maybe it’d be better to just compare it to something like Darksiders. You run around in 3rd-person left/right-clicking your basic weapon combos, or holding Ctrl/Alt and selecting a few more abilities from there.

Which, really, is my number one complaint: the controls and UI getting in the way. Running around with WASD while having to hold Ctrl and then pressing E is not fun. I can move the ability to Left or Right-click rather than E and that makes things a bit better, but why is “Ctrl/Alt Toggle” not an option here? Why does the mouse-wheel not work half the time (and never in menus)? Why does Inventory have its own specific button, but Map not? Why can I press Esc to back out of every conversation piece except the final “Goodbye” comment? Ugh.

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Large enemies are great fun, though.

Typically, fighting with the controls and such would be cause enough to drop a game, but everything else about DD is real fun.

There are nine classes in the game, each with their own Active abilities and passives called Augments. Actives are generally specific to a class and weapon, but some carry over. Meanwhile, Augments are character-wide once you unlock them, leading to a fun little optimization puzzle where you try and snag the best Augments from each class to bring to your “final” one. This also encourages you to try out each of the classes, so you don’t get stuck with an unfun class on the character select screen.

Pawns are really interesting take on traditional party members. Basically, you have one main pawn and two pawns that you borrow from other players. Your pawn stays with you all the time, and you can change their class and Augments just as you change your own. You can also customize the pawns you borrow in a roundabout way via Searching for specific traits you need. Borrowing pawns of your own level costs nothing, but you can spend Rift Points or whatever to get higher level ones.

Since the borrowed pawns don’t level, you end up having to cycle them out along the way, but it’s still kinda fun seeing all the ways other people have customized them (since they are copies of their main pawn). Plus, since you can borrow new ones for free at pretty much any town, you can radically change your team composition at your leisure.

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Graphics are nice too.

The biggest draw though, is combat. Specifically, combat with large creatures. I doubt DD is the first RPG-ish game to feature clamoring up the legs and back of huge-ass monsters on a routine basis, but it’s here in spades. Most mobs are typical goblins or bandits, but Ogres, Golems, and Dragons (thus far) are way more frequent than simple boss fights. And you know? It’s fun pretty much every time. Gimmicky, maybe. But fun too.

Amusingly, DD appears to have been fairly hardcore on release in regards to the open-ish world it developed. The PC version (which I have) gives you an Eternal Ferrystone right off the bat, which allows you unlimited teleporting powers to specific Portstone locations. The console version apparently had Ferrystones with just a single use. Traveling one foot is still a pretty big issue thus far, as I have only discovered two “destinations” at near opposite ends of the map. I think I’ll be getting consumable items that will allow me to create my own endpoints, but they have not appeared in-game yet. This might get more annoying later though.

Overall, I have about 15 hours into Dragon’s Dogma and am eager to play more. Maybe I’ll get tired about scaling Cyclopsi and stabbing them in their stupid eye, maybe not. All I know is that, right now, I’m having fun. A pretty ridiculous amount of fun, to be honest.

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Review: Warhammer 40k: Space Marine

Game: Warhammer 40k: Space Marine
Recommended price: bundle/$0
Metacritic Score: 74
Completion Time: ~5 hours
Buy If You Like: Warhammer 40k, mindless 3rd-person action

Something about the juxtaposition of religious iconography and high technology gets the juices flowing.

Something about the juxtaposition of religious iconography and high technology gets the juices flowing.

Let me start out by saying that I am a huge fan of the Warhammer 40k universe. The setting gets a lot of flak for being grimdark and violent and possibly even juvenile, but whenever I start hearing phrases like “Adeptus Mechanicus” and the “God-Emperor of Man” I put on my game-face and settle down for some fun. Up to this point, I have almost religiously played the Dawn of War games and all the expansions up to Space Marine and generally loved them all (Dark Crusade being my 200+ hour ultimate favorite).

After the ending credits to Space Marine, I came away… well, curiously disappointed.

You take on the role of Captain Titus, one of three Ultramarines sent as vanguard to the fleet coming to the rescue of a besieged Forge World. The basic game structure is 3rd-person mayhem in the styling of Devil May Cry/God of War without the fighting depth, or Darksiders without the exploration/puzzles. Part of the promotional campaign involved making fun of other 3rd-person cover-based shooters (“Cover is for the weak”), but around the 30% mark it becomes quite clear that the health regeneration from executing stunned enemies won’t, ahem, cover the increasing volume and severity of ranged fire. In fact, in the late stages of the game, you will be reduced to peaking your head around crates to take pot-shots at uber-laser troops while actively running away from anyone trying to melee you.

There are a few cool moments for 40k fans, and the levels where you get access to Jetpacks really cements the feeling that I’d love an MMO or more free-ranging game in this universe. In between these moments of fun, however, are about 60+ thinly-veiled elevator loading screens, repetitive battles, large empty spaces devoid of any reason to explore, and a vague sense of hollowness. Darksiders gets away with long stretches of nothing happening because you’re solving a puzzle, but here you’re frequently just stomping around for 5+ minutes inbetween the small pockets of button-mashing. Watching my hero units in Dawn of War felt more exciting than playing as one in Space Marine.

Bottom line, if you were primarily interested in Space Marine because you like the Warhammer 40k setting, you can safely skip this entry into the franchise and have missed nothing of note. If you don’t care about the 40k setting, well, you aren’t missing anything either.

Reviews: Darksiders, Greed Corp, Nimbus

Game: Darksiders
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: ~19 hours
Buy If You Like: Devil May Cry/God of War meets Zelda meets comic book

There are zero complaints in the visual department.

Darksiders is a 3rd-person action game with puzzle elements that tries to straddle the line between Devil May Cry/God of War demon-killing and the sort of casual world exploration and puzzles of Zelda games. You control War, one of the four horsemen, who gets framed for starting the apocalypse party early, which results in the death of the entire human race. As you struggle to clear your name and/or figure out who was responsible, you kill a lot of demons and four-story bosses while uncovering new items and re-unlocking your prior abilities.

While it seems the most popular comparison is with Zelda games instead of Devil May Cry, I just felt the puzzle elements in Darksiders were curiously out of place. The visually stunning post-apocalyptic landscape is rife with ready-made puzzle elements, but I never got over the fact that War couldn’t just scale that wall with his big-ass metal hand. Are you telling me I can wield a car like a baseball bat, but I can’t just stack some debris in the corner and use that to reach the 2nd floor? Why aren’t I just punching down every door I encounter, especially when I unlock the Power Glove Gauntlet that lets me punch icebergs? While the puzzles do keep combat from growing too stale, after a while you realize that more than half of your game time is spent in empty rooms moving boxes around (etc). That might be fine thematically for a 14-year old elf-boy, but it never felt right for a horseman of the goddamn apocalypse.

That said, I did end up enjoying my time in Darksiders. The game is incredibly stylistic, the visuals are fantastic, and the action is pretty serviceable in a button-mashing way. Although I just pooh-poohed the puzzles, that is mainly because of the tone of the game, rather than the puzzles themselves being annoying. Indeed, while demon locks do appear on some doors arbitrarily, the majority of the puzzles are based on more “realistic” scenarios. You know, assuming that it’s realistic to punch subway cars into place but not use that same power to knock some tree limbs out of the way.

On a final note, if you play on the PC as I did, the port job is not especially keyboard-friendly; in terms of lazy port, it ranks up there with the original Borderlands for PC. I still WASD’d my way through the game anyway, but it was seriously annoying how anyone thought “Tab + number” was a good button combo to select abilities while running around.

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Game: Greed Corp
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score: 76
Completion Time: ~8 hours
Buy If You Like: Symmetrical puzzle/strategy games

Definitely more Checkers than Chess.

Greed Corp is a strategy game that is a lesson in efficient and frugal design. Whereas in an RTS-style game you can have three factions with totally unique units and hundreds of different forms of interaction, Greed Corp is pretty simple; there is one walker unit, one factory that builds walkers, one cannon, one consumable unit that flies walkers to a different hex, one harvesting building, and the resources being harvested is the terrain itself. The goal is to use all of those things to remove your opposition from the map, sometimes quite literally.

Regardless, there is can be a surprising bit of depth to the shenanigans. For example, the harvesters knock its own hex and all surrounding hexes down one level at the beginning of your turn (hexes brought below level 1 crumble apart). There is no way to remove a harvesters other than self-destructing it, which knocks another level off each surrounding hex, along with sinking the main hex down into the abyss. What this can lead to is sending a single unit flying into your enemy’s island territory, plopping down a harvester, and laughing maniacally (or sobbing in frustration, depending) as that whole island eventually breaks apart.

Eventually though, my enjoyment evaporated once the late-game Expert-level AI opponents started demonstrating the weaknesses of perfectly symmetrical maps. Namely that it didn’t matter how clever your own strategy was when all it takes is one of the three random opponents to opportunistically ruin your day. When the outcome of your best-laid plans devolve into “whoever moves last wins,” it is time to move on.

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Game: Nimbus
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score: 80
Completion Time: ~6 hours
Buy If You Like: Twitch-based puzzle “platformers”

Kinda like a flying Super Meat Boy.

In essence, Nimbus is a pretty simple twitch-based puzzle-platformer… sorta. You control a ship that has no means of self-propulsion, and thus must rely entirely on environmental objects and inertia to ensure you do not become stranded on the ground (which kills you). Some of those objects are bumpers that always gives you a set amount of boost when collided with, some are speed squares that can accelerate you to dizzying velocity if you loop into them multiple times, and still others are little cannons which give you some respite along with directional control over your exit. The end goal is to touch the exit checkerboard squares as fast as possible, while also grabbing the secret coins hidden (sometimes diabolically) around the level if you are so inclined – doing so can sometimes unlock bonus levels.

It did not take me long to confirm that the old adage of “quick to learn, difficult to master” is fully applicable to Nimbus. While successful execution is the most important aspect of the game, Nimbus does a phenomenal job at keeping each level feeling fresh and unique like a brand new puzzle. Just when you start feeling comfortable with all the deadly spikes on the walls, you encounter a map that requires you to ram into spheres to trigger gate openings like a physics-based platformer. And just as you are getting used to some of the spheres having spikes on them, you are faced with a level where all the walls are made of deadly lasers. And then there are the ridiculous reverse-gravity levels. In short, Nimbus deftly avoids new puzzle elements feeling like gimmicks and more like natural progression.

I did not end up completing Nimbus though, as the later levels quickly outstripped my twitch abilities, even after ditching the keyboard for an Xbox controller. If you are not a fan of twitch platformers like Super Meat Boy, unfortunately you aren’t likely to enjoy Nimbus at all; there are few things more frustrating than knowing what you have to do, but running into that same goddamn spike wall for the 13th time in a row and redoing the entire level from scratch (there are checkpoint cannons, but sometimes only past certain points).

If you do happen to enjoy those sort of games though, Nimbus will certainly give you a run for your money. Not only are there secret coins to collect, but each level has a Steam leaderboard to compare best times as well.