For the longest time, I was a believer in playing games to completion no matter what. A large part of this sentiment was codified back in my semi-official reviewing days in which we were required to beat a given game before we could review it. That always seemed like a reasonable request, and it meshed rather nicely with my general sense of optimism (…stop laughing) regarding the possibility of a game making up for its earlier shortcomings in the 11th hour. Kind of like… err… huh. I can’t think of any examples at the moment, but I’m sure there are some. And maybe this next game will be the one!
In the past few weeks, I have made a concerted effort to abandon such sentiments.
You might have noticed that I am reviewing less games these days. While I still enjoy writing reviews, I’m less convinced that many of the games I play either need or deserve them. I finished Batman: Arkham Asylum a few days ago, for example, but who out there would really benefit from my take on a game which has two sequels and a derivative (Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor) already? It’s an open question if anyone benefits from any review I do, but at least more topical games are easier to justify to myself. Once the “review potential” of a game is reduced to zero, I no longer feel any need to finish it.
Or, in some cases, even start them. My original plan was to start playing the old Tomb Raiders before starting the Square Enix reboot, but I just “Nope’d” out of there after seeing some screenshots. Company of Heroes was played just long enough to start realizing that I liked Dawn of War better. I started playing Thief Gold two days ago and stopped this afternoon. Minutes before writing this post, I was going through the tutorial of Fable: the Lost Chapters; camera was a little too wonky for my tastes though, and now here we are.
I still do feel a little bad when I banish a Steam game into my Finished category, as obviously I spent some amount of money acquiring it at some indeterminate point in ages past. But on the other hand? I can acknowledge that I have likely past the threshold beyond which there are more legitimately fun games that I am actually excited to play than I have time on this mortal coil to do so. Perhaps it is crass to say, but… if I had cancer, would I spent my remaining time playing the original Hitman? Or, really, any of the Hitman games (I’ve heard Blood Money is the best though)? Probably not.
It pains me to know other people will not likely experience the joy that was Xenogears or Tenchu or whatever, but I understand the dilemma now more than ever. No matter how good Game X was for Y reason, sometimes the Z era was what made it so. Can I really appreciate the original Thief in the proper context of its time? Well, I did make it to the third level before shutting it down. I have heard conflicting reports as to whether the Thief reboot lived up to its lineage, but I am now more inclined to spend the $6 (deal is over, alas) to purchase the new one than I am to play through the original(s).
In any case, that is where I am at the moment. I’m not opposed to older games, but they will have to work extraordinarily hard (and quickly) to keep my attention, starting now. Ain’t nobody got time to play games out of some misguided sense of obligation.
Game: Torchlight 2
Recommended price: $5/bundle
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: 35 hours
Buy If You Like: Torchlight 1, Poorly itemized Diablo-clones
Torchlight 2 is the hack-n-slash sequel to the original Torchlight, itself an homage and erstwhile competitor to Blizzard’s Diablo series. Indeed, Torchlight 2 was released around the same time Diablo 3 was making headlines with its controversial always-on requirements and server-dependent gameplay. While it makes a great counter-point to Diablo 3 on the feature listings, Torchlight 2 is essentially more of the same from the original game. Which, in my case, is bad news.
My fundamental gripes with both Torchlight games are their meaningless adherence to archaic game design, and a fundamentally terrible itemization/progression system. Torchlight 2 features four different classes to choose from, each with three separate class trees. While they mainly follow traditional hack-n-slash roles, there does exist room for experimentation: there are more than enough talents to choose from to transform, say, the archer-esque Outlander into a melee-only tank (albeit not likely as powerful as a normal tank class). Where this experimentation immediately breaks down is how there is no respecing in Torchlight 2; at most, you are allowed to get a refund on your last three talent points. While this was how things worked in Diablo 2, it is also true that at one point people thought asbestos as insulation was a good idea.
The more crippling flaw though, and the singular design that undermines everything else the game set out to accomplish is the awful itemization and item progression system. While not as outlandishly terrible as the original Torchlight, it is still entirely possible (and even likely) that you will receive a random drop at level 17 that you will still be using 40 levels later at the end of the game. The core of what made the Diablo series so compelling to play was how items and gold erupted from nearly every enemy you faced, and thus you had a steady supply of dopamine over the course of what otherwise is series of perpetually unengaging clicks. Torchlight 2 has none of that – nearly two-thirds of the game was spent vendoring every ring, helmet, amulet, and pants I came across.
It gets even worse, if you can image that.
Clearing an entire map’s worth of mobs and collecting every single piece of vendorable debris results in what I would like to term one “Gear Unit” (typically 2000g-3000g). Each GU allows you to either purchase one item from a vendor, or upgrade an existing item by either adding gem sockets, enchantments, or purchasing gems themselves. This ridiculous stinginess with gold means you are perpetually strapped for cash, only allowing you to augment the gear you’ve accumulated one map clear at a time. God help you if you’ve finally accepted the fact that you’ll never replace your boots only to have an infinitely rare upgrade drop right after spending 10,000g (or 3 GUs) on your old pair.
Oh, and by the way, the Gold Chests and Boss Chests that you are “rewarded” with for going out of your way to find the keys or defeat said boss end up dropping jack shit 99% of the time. I have found more rares and unique items out of normal, everyday treasure chests than I have ever gotten from boss chests. How do you fuck something like this up?
I am spending all this time talking about loot and such because that is the heart and soul of the hack-n-slash genre. To get loot wrong in these sort of games is to create a racing game with poor-handling cars or a FPS where the guns don’t shoot at the crosshairs. Indeed, would anyone play a Diablo-esque game if there was no gear at all? The gameplay, which consists of mowing down tens of thousands of mobs within seconds of their appearing on the screen absolutely is not compelling enough on its own, that’s for goddamn sure.
All of which is certainly a shame, as Torchlight 2 is otherwise an improved sequel in pretty much every other way. The gameplay (such as it is) feels more responsive and impactful; the environments are detailed and fun to look at; the music is about a half dozen artful remixes of the Tristram theme; and I enjoy the visual style. It just feels, you know, completely unrewarding to play.
It is worth mentioning that all of these problems have been solved by better game designers, e.g. the players submitting mods to the game. There are mods that range from introducing new character classes to entirely new dungeons to, you guessed it, fixing the loot issue by guaranteeing Unique or better drops from Gold/Boss chests. I decided early on to stick with the vanilla game because I wanted to get a feel for what the devs learned from the original Torchlight. The answer is “pretty much nothing.” Playing with mods “taints” your character though and otherwise makes you ineligible for achievements. But since the base game feels like such a massive chore to play, I highly recommend anyone deciding to install Torchlight 2 to go ahead and fix what the devs had not the brains and/or balls to do.
The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Author: Steven Erikson
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Books: 1-10 (complete)
I waited until finishing the very last book in this epic fantasy series before writing this review, but going forward, I am not entirely sure whether that is the best way to handle works of this size and scope. Especially series of this size and this scope.
At its base, The Malazan Book of the Fallen mostly follows the tale of the Bridgeburners, a special squad of marines in the Malazan army as they are tasked with acts of sabotage and subterfuge in a world with magic, undead warriors literally hundreds of thousands of years old, actually immortal shapeshifting dragon mages, gods, ascendant gods, elder gods, reality-destroying chaos magic, and good old-fashioned armies of human meat and bone and iron. While the Bridgeburners are an integral story arc, there are actually two more completely different ones that are of similar heft and importance.
The very first book, Gardens of the Moon, was perhaps one of the worst possible opening books in any epic fantasy series that I have ever read – it immediately tosses you into this new world, confuses the hell out of you with a cast of hundreds of individual characters, and doesn’t pause to explain anything. For example, the magic in this world comes from Warrens, which are a sort of pocket dimension aligned with certain traits. Thus, when the books says “they opened a warren,” it can both mean they are casting a spell or actually opening the warren as a means of physical escape. Or both, simultaneously. None of that is explained anywhere in Book 1.
I’m highlighting the failing of the first book because the rest of the series is so mind-boggling good. It does not have the cleverness of Name of the Wind or the timelessness of Lord of the Rings, but it’s close. Each book is designed to sort of stand on its own, following the world’s (suspiciously convenient) tendency towards a convergence of powers, but the weaving of characters and story arcs is tremendously good. While the internal monologs are consistent with the book’s fiction, they often bring up devastatingly good philosophical arguments regarding the realities of war, the existence of god, and the general ugliness of the human condition, all with not being too overt.
This is the sort of writing you can expect:
There is something profoundly cynical, my friends, in the notion of paradise after death. The lure is evasion. The promise is excusative. One need not accept responsibility for the world as it is, and by extension, one need do nothing about it. To strive for change, for true goodness in this mortal world, one must acknowledge and accept, within one’s own soul, that this mortal reality has purpose in itself, that its greatest value is not for us, but for our children and their children. To view life as but a quick passage along a foul, tortured path – made foul and tortured by our own indifference – is to excuse all manner of misery and depravity, and to exact cruel punishment upon the innocent lives to come.
I defy this notion of paradise beyond the gates of bone. If the soul truly survives the passage, then it behooves us – each of us, my friends – to nurture a faith in similitude: what awaits us is a reflection of what we leave behind, and in the squandering of our mortal existence, we surrender the opportunity to learn the ways of goodness, the practice of sympathy, empathy, compassion and healing – all passed by in our rush to arrive at a place of glory and beauty, a place we did not earn, and most certainly do not deserve.
And this (a piece of narration):
He hurried on, grimacing at the ache in his chest, still feeling the parting kiss of his wife on his lips, the careless hugs of his children round his waist.
He was a man who would never ask for sympathy. He was a man who sought only to do what was right. Such people appear in the world, every world, now and then, like a single refrain of some blessed song, a fragment caught on the spur of an otherwise raging cacophony.
Imagine a world without such souls.
Yes, it should have been harder to do.
Still gives me chills. Maybe you have to
have been there read the greater context. In any case, the series can feature both heavy emotion – there were three separate instances across all the books where I contemplated killing the author – but also welcome moments of great levity. Some examples from the latter:
‘Excellent, and your name is?’
‘XXXX. Er, we got references—’
‘No need. I am confident in my ability to judge character, and I have concluded that you two, while not to be considered vast of intellect, are nevertheless inclined to loyalty. This here will mark an advancement in your careers, I am sure, and so you will be diligent as befits your secret suspicion that you have exceeded your competence. All this is well. Also, I am pleased to note that you do not possess any parasites of a debilitating, unsightly sort. So, XXXX, go yonder and find us one, two or three additional guards. In the meantime, I will attend to YYYY.’
And another (context: the female sergeant is an alcoholic):
‘That snake! I knew it, a conspiracy! Well, I’ll deal with him later. One mass-murderer at a time, I always say.’
‘This is madness, Sergeant! Let go of me – I can explain—’
‘Save your explanations. I got some questions for you first and you’d better answer them!’
‘With what?’ he sneered. ‘Explanations?’
‘No. Answers. There’s a difference—’
‘Really? How? What difference?’
‘Explanations are what people use when they need to lie. Y’can always tell those, ’cause those explanations don’t explain nothing and then they look at you like they just cleared things up when really they did the opposite and they know it and you know it and they know you know and you know they know that you know and they know you and you know them and maybe you go out for a pitcher later but who picks up the tab? That’s what I want to know.’
‘Right, and answers?’
‘Answers is what I get when I ask questions. Answers is when you got no choice. I ask, you tell. I ask again, you tell some more. Then I break your fingers, ’cause I don’t like what you’re telling me, because those answers don’t explain nothing!’
‘Ah! So you really want explanations!’
‘Not till you give me the answers!’
The bottom line is: if you enjoy fantasy novels at all, I highly highly recommend picking up the entire series. However tempting it might be to skip the first book based on my experiences, it would be a costly error – the characters introduced in the first book are integral in how the rest of the books play out. The first five books can technically stand on their own, but everything will be more meaningful if you know what the characters had to go through to get to that point.
Which, believe me, is a lot. I mean, Jesus, wait till you get to the Chain of Dogs. Or the Pannion Domin. Or what happens to your favorite characters in Darujhistan even though you can cynically see it coming from a mile away and yet you squirm and sweat and try to close your eyes but you can’t because you’re reading a goddamn book and the words were already written anyway and oh no, this can’t be happening… why do you do this to me Steven Erikson?! Why does your fiction both inspire and destroy my faith in all that is good and right in the world?
Ahem. Read these books.
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: ~2 hours
Buy If You Like: Indie puzzlers, Hilarious but too short games
Gunpoint is a short, 2D indie puzzler with some of the most hilarious writing I have ever seen in a videogame. You take control of Richard Conway, a freelance spy whose latest customer was murdered before he could get the details. From that classic film noir story hook, you get a classic film noir plot broken up by bouts of mildly interesting puzzles.
At their simplest level, the puzzles in Gunpoint revolve around interacting with a computer and then exiting the map via subway station. The central conceit is Conway’s ability to rewire a building’s electronic systems, such that getting caught on a surveillance camera actually opens the locked door instead of triggering the alarm. Some of a building’s circuitry is “hardened” (it has a different color), which means you have to reach a certain (color) breaker box before being able to reroute that circuit’s wires. Completing maps will give you currency to purchase more gizmos, including the ability to electrify certain devices or even the ability to (temporarily) reroute a guard’s gun – causing them to either open a door when they pull the trigger, or forcing them fire the weapon at a buddy when you flip a light switch.
The puzzles are fun, but… well, they end up being only mildly interesting. Rewiring electronics turns out to be fairly powerful as a sort of default ability, which is reflected by the fact that the latter half of the game basically features only 2-3 things you can actually interact with (one light switch, maybe a camera). There are some mechanics that prevent you from simply pouncing/shooting your way through all the guards (the subway gets locked down after any gunshots), and as a result the game becomes incredibly abstract by the end. Normally, that might not matter for, you know, a puzzle game, but I actually enjoyed the early gameplay over what it ends up “evolving” into.
Like I mentioned at the beginning, Gunpoint is extremely short, clocking in around ~2 hours of gameplay. Given that, and given my ambivalence towards the later gameplay, I would suggest waiting until Gunpoint hits $5 or a bundle. It is a game definitely worth your time to play at some point – trust me, the dialog alone is almost worth it – but that time doesn’t have to be now.
Game: Rogue Legacy
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: ~13 hours
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes, Harsh action platformers, RPG-esque indie games
Rogue Legacy is a sort of indie hybrid RPG roguelike action platformer. The developers describe the game as “Rogue-Lite,” as the central premise is that while the game features permadeath, your children will take up the family mantle and invade the procedurally-generated castle to avenge you. This design is actually pretty compelling, especially considering that while purchased equipment/abilities cary over from one character to the next, the gold used to purchase these things do not. So what ends up happening is failed runs (usually!) end up leaving you with enough gold to be stronger for the next one, while not encouraging you to hoard gold in the meantime.
The castle itself is divided into four main areas, each with a boss at the end. While the general location of the areas are stable, all of the individual rooms and transitions are randomly determined. I say “random,” but the vast majority of rooms have a high level of coherence, as opposed to the truly random nonsense of games like A Valley Without Wind. You do not technically need to clear a room of enemies to move on, but it is generally a good idea considering getting better equipment and stats requires gold. That being said, there is an entire class (Miner) that encourages you to avoid combat as much as possible while quickly snagging as many treasure chests as you can.
The gameplay itself is pretty unforgiving. While you can equip a bunch of Vampiric gear later on, and occasionally find a piece of health-restoring food when destroying furniture, for the most part damage you take is permanent. This can lead to frustrating scenarios in which an otherwise solid-looking boss attempt is stymied on the way to the door because you landed on some spikes in the prior room. Or misjudged a screen full of projectiles. Or faced one of those goddamn wolves that seem to charge half a second earlier than you’re prepared for.
And by “solid-looking boss attempt” I mean that at least one of the three children you can select for your next castle run had a good class/characteristic/ability combination. For you see, sometimes your favorite class might be Farsighted (makes the center screen fuzzy), or the screen is upside down, or they have an enormous character model (increased weapon reach, but increased hitbox too), or maybe everything is good except they have a weak magic ability.
I am not attempting to dissuade you from purchasing Rogue Legacy, but I do want to point out that while the devs say “Rogue-Lite,” the game is still pretty roguelike. I had a pretty solid 9 hours of fun, and a less fun 4 hours of being stuck grinding gold and new abilities to give me the hope of downing some of the bosses. Admittedly, being better at the game might have reduced that time, but then again, being worse would have increased it exponentially. So in your game purchase decision, be sure to take into consideration how good you are at semi-twitch platformers.
Game: Don’t Starve
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: 20-60 hours (variable)
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes that don’t kid around, amazing indie games
Don’t Starve is a harsh, survival indie roguelike with dark humor, a fairly unique visual style, and a pointed lack of hand-holding. You control a man named Wilson who suddenly wakes up in the wilderness, is told that finding some food before dark would be a good idea, and then… you are on your own. From there, the basic idea is to scrounge for some carrots/berries while using available materials to craft torches, tools, traps, and other basic gear as you do your best to survive in a world that wants you dead.
Moving around and interacting with the world is surprisingly easy and intuitive. You can move around via left-clicking the ground/objects or by using WASD. Interacting with objects is done either with left-click or right-click. Pressing the Spacebar will cause your character to perform some context-sensitive activity, like start chopping a tree if equiped with an axe, pick up something if it is nearby, or attack an enemy. Combat is not particularly deep, but the “shallowness” combined with the roguelike nature of the game lends a tremendous amount of gravitas to battles. It reminds me of survival horror games that have clunky combat on purpose, to ratchet up the implicit difficulty.
The default game starts you in Survival Mode, which is really more of a Sandbox mode. While there is not really an “endgame” in this mode, the game’s structure naturally (and ingeniously) lends itself to a sense of progression and escalating danger. Establishing a base camp is pretty typical and allows you to stockpile materials and research structures, making the maintenance of your Hunger, Health, and Sanity easier. On the other hand, resources generally do not regenerate very quickly, which forces you to forage farther and farther from your base camp with each passing day. And ultimately, the arrival of Winter will stretch your capacity to survive to the very limit, given how traditionally easy sources of food dry up (plants don’t grow, ponds freeze over). This is on top of an escalation of random hostile encounters by the Hounds, or other boss-level mobs.
Those in search of a more structured endgame can seek out Maxwell’s Door, a set piece randomly located somewhere on the map. Once entered, you are in Adventure Mode, tasked with surviving five randomly-determined theme worlds while collecting four Things in order to open the gate to the next world. Even if Don’t Starve consisted entirely of Adventure Mode, it would be enough to cover at least 20+ hours of gameplay. Especially given how the brutality of Survival Mode holds nothing to Adventure Mode worlds in which you are trapped in an endless Winter, or constant rain, or even a world with zero sunlight.
While I have been infatuated with Don’t Starve for quite some time, the game isn’t for everyone. Don’t Starve is extremely unforgiving, even in roguelike terms, where death is both easy to stumble into and results in a deletion of your save file. That said, while death is easy, it is almost always going to be due to mistakes you have made, rather than randomized deathtraps. Even if you get one-shot by a particular mob, that is only because you chose not to wear armor at the time, or because you were being reckless in not running away. Compare that to a game like The Binding of Isaac, where a white pill might randomly give a buff in one game and permanently reduce health in another.
If you are someone willing to play and lose dozens of hours of progress in a roguelike though (or cheese the system via console commands or making backup save copies), I cannot recommend Don’t Starve enough. It has style, it has substance, and it is receiving developer updates every 3 weeks (at the moment). It is simple to get into, impressively complex when you start planning ahead, and always engaging while you struggle to survive.
Game: Dungeons of Dredmor
Recommended price: $10 (with DLC)
Metacritic Score: 79
Completion Time: 28 hours
Buy If You Like: Roguelikes, Turn-ish-Based RPGs, Indie Humor
Dungeons of Dredmor (DoD) is an indie roguelike RPG wrapped in a fluffy layer of humor and genre in-jokes. The goal is simple: navigate your way to the bottom floor of the dungeon and kill Dredmor. Along the way, you will explore rooms, evade traps (a LOT of traps), kill monsters, loot treasure, and level up.
The core of DoD is its extremely interesting combat/exploration system. Essentially, everything is turn-based: for every step or action you take, all enemies make one too. These “turns” occur instantaneously, so you are never waiting on some action on the part of the AI, which makes the action go as fast or slow as you want. This ends up feeling rather amazing, as it avoids the “spacebar fatigue” that accompanies other tactical games. This system ends up putting a premium on actions though, and it’s quite easy to get surrounded and murdered if you’re not careful.
The statistics part of DoD is intentionally obtuse – your six base stats affect 18+ other stats – but the “joke” belies a pretty robust equipment and talent system. When you first roll your character, you can choose seven different categories of talents, which either grant new abilities or a direct increase in stats as you spend skill points. For example, taking the Swords talent will let you get new abilities (not all of which require a sword), and perhaps some bonuses for using swords. There is a pretty huge number of talents though, and it’s entirely possible to pick a combination that simply won’t work. On the other hand, you could pick 6 warrior-ish talents and then grab the one that let’s you shoot fireballs. Armor generally decreases your magic ability, but it’s possible to either craft or come across armor that hurts it less.
DoD is definitely a roguelike (although you can turn off permadeath at character creation) and thus contains certain abilities/scenarios in which you are likely to die pretty quickly, if not arbitrarily. This is… dangerous, for lack of a better word, in a game where you can spend 22 hours on a single character exploring every room of each level (which you may want to do to stay ahead of the curve). Indeed, in the titular Dredmor encounter, I about died within three moves before I “cheesed” the rest of the encounter via judicious use of invisible mushrooms and the all-powerful ability to close doors.
At the end of the day, I spent 28 hours in Dungeons of Dredmor and could see myself replaying it again with another character setup, or perhaps after picking up the two DLC. It’s a fun game, perhaps a more cerebral version of Binding of Isaac, but where Binding of Isaac and FTL come out ahead is giving more focused gameplay with their permadeath. Had I lost my 20+ hour character, I probably would have quit altogether right there. Luckily for me, I didn’t, but I’d be lying if I said I did not make three backup copies of my savegame. So if this game sounds fun to you, I recommend turning off permadeath until you wrap your mind around the game’s many idiosyncrasies.
Game: A Valley Without Wind
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score: 54
Completion Time: ~13 hours
Buy If You Like: Metroidvania action platformers, infinitely long games
A Valley Without Wind (hereafter AVWW) is a procedurally-generated action-platformer in the Metroidvania style. The premise is that some unknown cataclysm has rent time and space, placing enemies like robotic mechs into Ice Age biomes. As a “glyph bearer,” your job is to scavenge materials from bombed out buildings, complete missions, and then take out the continent’s Overlord after killing off his/her/it’s lieutenants.
If all this sounds… strangely disjointed, that is because it is. The entire game comes across as more complicated (or simply arcane) than it has any reason to be. Basically, you jump around and kill enemies with ranged spells. The spells you have access to come from “spellgems” that you can either craft from materials you scavenge or earn via Missions. You also have several slots for enhancements, which are items you equip that have randomly-determined stats and abilities. For example, you might have a Foot enhancement that let’s you double-jump and have +20 mana, or Pants that eliminates all falling damage and gives +20 Haste.
Missions are one of the few things that give direction and meaning to AVWW, but after a while they too seem irrelevant. Essentially, Missions are a guaranteed way to acquire some particular thing, like a Spellgem. Missions themselves come in different types, such as Falling (character floats down long shaft avoiding enemies/spikes), Boss towers, Perfection (must restart if hit by any enemy), Rescue missions for additional survivors, and so on.
The problem is that not only is everything procedurally-generated, e.g. infinite in scale, there is not any real sense of progression. The “world” levels up after you kill an enemy lieutenant, but all that really means is that you need to re-craft all your Spellgems to the higher level to match the increase in monster HP. Finding stash rooms in buildings feels fun at first, but then you start to realize that the actual number of materials you need for any one thing is tiny. Alternatively, maybe you are missing just a single resource type and are forced to delve into dozens of buildings in order to find one inside.
But the biggest buzzkill for me was how absurdly limited the spell selection was. Once I found the most useful spell (and one backup of a different element type), every other spell was practically useless, which meant getting mats for them was useless, which meant pushing back the wind from new terrain squares (e.g. unlocking them) was useless, which meant farming the building to push back the wind from the lieutenants to access the Overlord and end the pain was useless tedious.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some interesting things going on in AVWW. The hybrid roguelike feature that is permadeath-but-you-keep-all-items made enemies feel threatening without punishing exploration, for example. Of course, the designers then made the decision that your avatar is a faceless nobody you have no attachment to, and the survivors are essentially reduced to extra lives with slightly (very slightly) different base stats. The granularity of the difficulty is extremely nuanced, allowing you to increase mob strength, platforming difficulty, or “citybuilding” complexity all independently.
At the end of the day though, I just did not feel particularly compelled by A Valley Without Wind. There is a vague sense of progression – defeating the lieutenants and then face the Overlord – but that never really trickled-down to the individual levels you were navigating. When the game comes right out and tells you to not bother exploring every nook and cranny for items (since the world is infinite), it makes you start wondering why you are looking for anything in the first place.
Game: A Valley Without Wind 2
Recommended price: none
Metacritic Score: 68
Completion Time: n/a
Buy If You Like: Throwing money away, poorly implemented games
There are very few games which I simply give up on. Of those games that I abandon, it is usually due to either frustrating game design or simple boredom. When it comes to A Valley Without Wind 2, it joins that sorry company with the distinction of having both qualities.
If you have played the original A Valley Without Wind, the first thing you should know is that the “sequel” has really nothing to do with its (much better) predecessor. The formula has changed. Radically. The premise is that after infiltrating the inner circle of the Overlord Demonaica and being gifted with an Oblivion Stone (aka the Glyphs of the first game), you reveal your true intentions to fight the Overlord’s power. You do so by… running away.
Basically, you order members of the resistance to move around the overland map in a turn-based manner, constructing farms and scavenging scrap to build other structures while you unlock more of the map by destroying rain machines (evil versions of the Windmills). Each resistance member can move once a turn, and they will not actually perform any actions until the end of the following turn. The turns themselves are advanced only when you enter into one of the rain machine maps and destroy it. Before doing so, you are free to explore any of the maps to look for Perks or… no, that’s it.
If this sounds nothing like the Metroidvania of the first game, that is because it isn’t. At all. In fact, the platforming aspects of AVWW2 has taken a thousand steps backwards. You cannot aim with the mouse any more, meaning that you are firing spells in just (usually) the cardinal directions. Instead of your own custom spells, you have to choose one of five “classes,” which have a total of four spells that do not necessarily even cover a wide range of situations. On top of that, spells have a sort of “priority” system where your projectiles are almost always destroyed by enemy projectiles, unless you have some specific spell with a high priority in your repertoire. This might sound tactical, but it’s really not. All it means is that you jerk clumsily around the screen, spamming your spells in a few directions while plowing into a screen full of enemy projectiles.
This is not even getting into the fact that the random loot and equipment strategy of the first game has been cut off at the knees neck. You have exactly one “equipment” slot, with no inventory; if you pick something else up, it replaces whatever you had equipped. The equipment also degrades as you take damage, so it will eventually break on its own. While the equipment you find is still random, there is no strategy or even thought required. “Is this better than what I have/an empty slot?” If yes, equip. If no, skip. The only customization you have is choosing which Perks to use, which basically amounts to 1 of 4 different Perks per level. Do you want +10% jumping height or +1 Heart (even the HP has been dumbed down)? Then again, considering that the platforming aspect is practically nonexistent, the Perks don’t really matter.
The funny thing (in a sad way) about all this was that the turn-based part of the game seemed sorta passably fun. Monsters would periodically come out of the Overlord’s tower, and you have to position your resistance members intelligently to intercept them without getting overwhelmed (each deals damage equal to their HP to one another), while also not leaving valuable structures open to destruction. Plus, around Turn 14, the Overlord himself was going to come out and destroy everything in his path. From there, you had a few things you could do while on the run, and the race against time angle was kinda compelling too. The problem was that the platforming aspects necessary to advance the turns and beat the overall game were so comically bad.
Ultimately, I am not even sure who A Valley Without Wind 2 was even made for. Metroidvania fans of the original will encounter perhaps the worst, most boring platformer ever made. Strategy gamers might have some fun, up until they are forced to play the worst, most boring platformer ever made to advance the turns. And… that’s it, the entire audience. The game simply fails at everything it was trying to do, when all they had to do was do what they did the first time around. I am not sure what the designers were thinking when they made this game, but whatever it was, it didn’t work.
Game: Journey [PS3]
Recommended price: $20
Metacritic Score: 92
Completion Time: 2-3 hours
Buy If You Like: World peace, Justice, Art, Sand simulators
I do not even know where to begin with describing Journey. Perhaps the beginning? That always seems to work for most people.
Journey starts out as (and continues to be) the most impressive sand-simulator I have ever seen. Sliding down the first sand dune instantly transported me back into childhood, or at least as far as Super Mario 64. But Journey is not a platformer; it is an emotion, an experience. One that only gets more and more compelling as the minutes pass.
Describing your mechanical actions as you play the game almost feels like missing the point, but to not mention them would miss the point. Nearly every single thing about Journey is perfectly crafted. You move around with the left analog stick, and can pan the camera by either tilting the PS3 controller or using the right analog stick. In the opening desert-scape, you get some extra fabric added to your avatar’s scarf, which allows you to jump and glide for a few seconds. The only other button used is “O,” which lets out a little “energy chirp” or longer blast if held down.
That is it. There is no UI, no hearts, no power meter (aside from the scarf), nothing to distract you beyond the immensity and immediacy of the moment.
After the tutorial “level,” gamers connected to the internet will encounter perhaps the most sublimely executed feature in videogames: another human being. That sounds facetious, until you realize how often games treat other players as competitors, enemies, or judgmental peers desperately trying to foster virtual respect. Your fellow traveler in Journey is exactly that, no more, no less. Except… it is much, much more than that.
Remember when I mentioned the player’s scarf controlling the ability to jump? While there are items scattered around the landscape that add length to said scarf to further increase one’s hang-time, the ability to jump is always limited to how much of a “charge” the scarf has. One can only replenish this charge at certain locations along the map.
Unless, that is, there is another player around. Merely being in close proximity to a player with charge remaining on their scarf, will cause your scarf to recharge to full as they entwine. This is not a draining of power, but rather a creation, a resonance. Similarly, the sort of “energy chirp” players can do will also charge your partner’s scarf if they are in range.
I am spending so much time talking about this because the way Journey fits together as a whole led me to one of the most intimate experiences I have had in videogaming – all without voice, text, or even names. I felt connected to this stranger, as we slid down sand highways and soared above the dunes while alternating our energy chirps. I had a suspicion that my anonymous partner had played this game before, but he or she seemed tolerant of my exploratory inclinations. If they wanted to direct my attention towards something or indicate that we should give up on trying to get that tricky scarf-extension orb, a series of chirps was enough. Of course, as we traveled, I would occasionally chirp to keep up his/her power level, and after a while I think he/she realized what my seemingly random chirping accomplished (and then returned the favor).
I am not going to talk any more about the rest of the game and the environments explored, both to avoid “spoilers” and because the game itself is only 2-3 hours long. But suffice it to say, it’s brilliant. Absolutely, devastatingly, goddamn brilliant. And I haven’t even talked about the music, which is universally praised and adored. And have I mentioned the visuals? I believe I have, but they too are striking and sublime – there were a few moments during Journey at which I seriously considered buying a $150 video capture device solely to take screenshots of this one game.
Sometimes I struggle with these shorter, more artistic games insofar as how much they are really worth. A game like LIMBO can be amazing (and it is), but spending $15 on something you finish in a single sitting? Perhaps I should have waited for a sale there. But with Journey I do feel it is enough of a novel experience to be worth skipping one night out at the movies to play. Not to mention it comes with two other games, although I have not yet played them. Possibly all combined they could make a full MSRP ($30) worth it. Even if it is just Journey though, anything more than a 25% sale means this bundle will be worth it on the strength of Journey alone.
…”Journey alone.” Whatever you do, don’t Journey alone. Christ, I want to play again.
Game: Fallout: New Vegas
Recommended price: Full Price ($20)
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: 70+ hours
Buy If You Like: Fallout 3, Oblivion
When I played Fallout 3, it completely revolutionized the series to me. A storied veteran of the original Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout Tactics, the idea of a first-person non-grid-based combat game filled me with dread. Would it feel like Fallout? Why turn this series into a FPS?
By the end of the first hour, my fears (and free time) melted away in the vast furnace of Fallout 3’s immersive, brilliant post-apocalyptic world. I had already played games like Oblivion, but it was not until Fallout 3 that I truly appreciated the depths in Bethesda games; the ability to just strike out and roam. While it lacked the brilliant storytelling of the prior games, I felt it made up for it in all the unspoken narratives of the world around you. Suffice it to say, Fallout 3 remains in my top 5 games of all time.
This is not, of course, a Fallout 3 review.
Fallout: New Vegas is a noble attempt at having it both ways: the exploration and the narrative. You start not as a fresh-faced Vault Dweller, but as a middling Courier, shot in the head in media res ala Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. And in typical narrative-driven fashion, your quest for revenge starts at Point A and leads inexorably to Point B.
This is roaming on rails, at least for the first few dozen hours, with the slightest deviation leading to certain death. Strike North from the starting city and you will face level 20 Giant Radscorpions. Stray too far West outside the plot-directed Southerly route and Super Ghouls will eat your face off. Cut through the mountains to the East and you will inexplicably face the Blind Deathclaw guarding the path, conveniently immune to the effects of even your Stealth Boy invisibility cloak.
Between the visible fences of high-level monsters and being able to see New Vegas’s Lucky 38 tower from any vantage point in the game, F:NV starts off by feeling microscopic in comparison to Fallout 3. But a curious thing happens as you finally reach the Southern reaches of I-15 and turn East. “Tutorial Mode” over, the game suddenly opens up, blooming with hidden depth and density like some desert flower. There is still the highlighted yellow-brick plot road to follow, but you can actually strike out on your own at this point with less risk of instant death. I decided to plow my way to New Vegas proper at this point, stopping only at the various locations within sight along the way.
It ended up taking me over 40 hours just to reach the gates.
Combat in F:NV is more or less identical to Fallout 3: you can still treat the entire game as a normal FPS or you can pause the action in VATS mode to specifically target enemy extremities. Weapons skew a lot more towards traditional Spaghetti Western fare as befits the motif, but classic laser/plasma guns are not too far behind.
F:NV does feature some interesting innovations compared with its predecessor, including the use of Factions with mostly independent reputations. Don’t like the New California Republic? Join Caesar’s Legion. Or vice versa. Or screw them both and embrace Mr. House’s vision of the future. Or screw him too and embrace your own brand of justice. While the burgeoning complexities of the midgame collapses into an endgame constant, fundamentally the ending is one you can choose. Classic Fallout.
Well… mostly. While all of the set pieces are in place, including many of the same (recycled) posters last seen around the D.C. area, I could not help but feel that F:NV was… missing something. Something ephemeral, something intangible. F:NV is set in the same Fallout universe with the same people and the same post-apocalyptic problems. And perhaps that is what felt off. If this were the 1990s, F:NV would have been an expansion pack to Fallout 3, not a spiritual sequel.
Don’t get me wrong, there is more than enough to do in F:NV to justify its own existence. But it felt more like Fallout 3.5 than its own game. And yet, at the same time, F:NV feels like it didn’t have to be a Fallout game at all. Sure, there are Vaults and Nuka-Cola and Super Mutants aplenty. But the overarching narrative of revenge never felt personally compelling, and the coming clash between NCR and Caesar’s Legion seemed a digression. This game was Fallout when I was just wandering around, eager to scavenge what I can out of crumbling ruins I see just on the horizon. When I was the Courier just trying to make a final delivery for no particular reason? Not so much. The Platinum Chip is not too different from the Water Chip when it comes to plot McGuffins, but it felt different just the same. I wasn’t protecting my home, my family, nor was I my own person. I was… the Courier, a stranger in familiar skin, following a past everyone knows about but me.
Ultimately, Fallout: New Vegas is not Fallout 3. For some people, that will be a relief; for others, a deficiency. But it is important to keep in mind the scale of this particular comparison. I am pulling out the microscope and judging the relative merits of Mt. Everest versus the Grand Canyon. I am quantifying and comparing the love felt for a firstborn son with that for a granddaughter. Fallout: New Vegas cannot be fairly judged by a jury of its peers because it has no peers other than Fallout 3… and possibly Skyrim/Oblivion. So while I still feel that Fallout 3 is better than Fallout: New Vegas, the latter is better than damn near every other videogame I have played. I am being so critical not because Fallout: New Vegas is a bad game, but precisely because it is so good.
There are four main pieces of DLC for Fallout: New Vegas, although at this point they will all likely be bundled with any Game of the Year copy you will buy. Briefly though, I will describe them for posterity.
Honest Hearts: Technically speaking, this was my least favorite of the DLCs. Heading into the outskirts of New Caanan, the Courier gets to interact with Burning Man, the hitherto presumed-dead former leader of Caesar’s armies. While there is a main plot concerning the story of revenge/redemption, it simply does not flow too well, in my opinion. I never really cared about the plights of the tribes or the lands they occupied.
Conversely, the sort of understated plot line of “The Father in the Cave” revealed via in-game computer archives was one of the more poignant mini-narratives I have seen in Fallout, if not in games period. If you’ve chosen to never play F:NV (and are still reading this review for some reason), go read the transcript here; it is presented in the Wiki exactly as you see it in-game, aside from actually exploring some of the locations (and seeing the traps) mentioned in the text.
Outside of that, the Hearts DLC does feature a lot more plant materials for use in homemade stimpacks, and an abundance of clean drinking water for those doing a Hardcore run.
Old World Blues: Modeled on 1950s-era space dramas, I found this DLC to be exceptionally fun and funny both. The premises push the boundaries of believability even in the Fallout universe (your brain is scooped out right at the start), but after a while it ceases to be particularly relevant as you blast giant mechanical radscorpions and other ridiculous enemies. As a sort of bonus, by the end of the DLC you essentially receive a remote mountain base with all sorts of crafting stations and other amenities that you can teleport to at any time.
Dead Money: While this DLC opens up with my least favorite gaming trope – the sort of Metroid-esque “remove all your gear” mechanic – it does sort of ratchet up the tension and make the rest of the storyline work. Collared with explosives, you are forced to try and open up a vault underneath one of the few surviving casinos outside of the New Vegas area. The limited weapon selection and deadly dust clouds skews the DLC more towards survival-horror than Fallout sidequest, but I was pleased with the plot, imagery, and ultimate payoff.
Lonesome Road: Out of the four, this DLC most fits the narrative of the game proper. I felt it a smidge too linear for my liking (although not as linear as Dead Money) and a bit too ridiculous in other places (trigger nuclear bombs to move wooden debris out of your way, what?), but out of the four this most fit the tone of Fallout games.
Game: Spec Ops: The Line
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 76
Completion Time: 6 hours
Buy If You Like: Kane & Lynch-esque cover-based military shooters
Spec Ops: The Line is an over-the-shoulder cover-based military shooter that seeks to subvert the tropes of its genre. You control Captain Adams, tasked with commanding your two Delta Force squad mates in search for what happened to Colonel Konrad and the rest of the 33rd Battalion. The search leads them into the ruined city of Dubai, which appears to have devolved into anarchy after a series of epic sandstorms cut it off from the rest of the world.
After killing some insurgents whom had taken members of the 33rd hostage, the mission starts to go pear-shaped when the very soldiers you are trying to save confuse your team for CIA operatives who have been riling up the insurgents. From there, things just keep getting darker and darker as you continue taking completely rational steps towards a line you did not realize you already crossed hours ago.
I was interested to play Spec Ops precisely because I heard about its subversive themes. What I discovered though, is that I have seen this all before in Far Cry 2 and Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. In fact, Kane & Lynch is the perfect analog here despite approaching from the opposite side of the legal spectrum: both games are over-the-shoulder cover-based shooters whose scenarios start off as reasonable before relentlessly veering into the absurd. What seems like a natural progression or escalation of violence suddenly sickens you once you realize what exactly you are doing. How did I go from killing insurgents to killing Americans? Why am I looking forward to the next cover-strewn environment so I can use my grenade launcher to kill even more soldiers?
The eponymous “Line” referred in the game title probably refers to one specific incident (that I won’t spoil), given how long it was dwelt upon, but I personally found it curiously ineffectual. At first, I didn’t even realize that my actions caused the incident in question, and even after I wasn’t particularly convinced player agency was involved. In spite of that, the game does a great job in fostering a sense of nihilistic fatalism. The situation becomes so FUBAR that it almost doesn’t matter what else you do at that point. And then you, the human player behind the screen, start to realize what that means for soldiers in real situations out in the world.
I am sympathetic to the argument that perhaps some reviewers give Spec Ops: the Line too much credit. While the gameplay doesn’t noticeably change, I absolutely felt fatigued by the end of the six hour story campaign. Construing that fatigue and feeling of pointlessness as being intentional artistic designs, might be a little too clever an excuse to take seriously; it sort of hand-waves away any possibility of bad game design, and feels a bit too convenient besides. If you are willing to give the designers the benefit of the doubt though, it is certainly an effective plot mechanism… just as it was in Far Cry 2 and Kane & Lynch.
Ultimately, I feel Spec Ops: the Line as an experience is worth a bit more than my usual limit for these shorter games. The visuals are amazing, the interaction with your squad is superb, and the setting is both unique and artistic. You might feel drained and depressed by the end, but at least you felt something – a feeling that might actually persist beyond turning the system off. Which is more than I can say for a lot of the games I have played.