Monday, September 26, 2016

Just Cause 2 Impressions

Like GTA, but with a grappling hook

The Square Enix Humble Bundle I purchased last year has really been a gift that keeps on giving. Just Cause 2 was one of the titles in the bundle that had piqued by my interest in the past, but I never got around to trying. I'm about eight hours in, and so far I'm really having a good time with it.

If you've never played Grand Theft Auto (GTA), bear with me, as it's hard to discuss the Just Cause without comparing it to the franchise from which is appears to have drawn a lot of inspiration. Much like GTA, Just Cause 2 is an open-world action game in which the player completes missions that involve stealing cars, flying aircraft, blowing up infrastructure, and assassinating enemy leaders. Where the game separates itself from its inspiration, is that unlike a clunky GTA protagonist, Just Cause's Rico has a wide variety of acrobatic moves such as leaping between moving vehicles, deploying a parachute at any time to suddenly become airborne, and swinging from a grappling hook like Spider-Man.

The GTA games and their various spiritual offspring (Driver, Sleeping Dogs, etc)  are some of my all-time favorite action games, so it makes sense that Just Cause 2 immediately clicked with me. What was surprising, however, was that unlike GTA, the driving and shooting mechanics aren't particularly engaging, but the pure thrill of mastering Rico's other locomotion techniques is the real star of the show. It hasn't taken long for me to get the hang of doing insane stunts such as leaping out of a moving car in order to grappling hook myself to a passing helicopter, throwing the the pilot out of the cockpit, lining up the helicopter to crash into an enemy base, and then parachuting safely out of the helicopter right before the moment of impact. It pretty much feels like being the middle of a Jason Statham movie, and it's awesome.

So far the music, cut scenes, voice acting, and overall plot have all been pretty mediocre, so whether or not this game stays exciting for the entire duration of its 30+ hour play time will entirely rest on how much variety there ends up being to the mission structure. Hopefully, Just Cause 2 will continue to keep things fresh, but there's a chance it could get repetitive before Rico's mission is complete. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Demo Hotness: Picross 3D Round 2

After all the praise that's been heaped on the original Picross 3D over the years, and all the hype leading up to Round 2, I figured I'd take a little time to see what all the fuss is about. While I've never played a 3D Picross game, I do have some experience with traditional 2D Picross puzzles.

Here's a quick primer for those unfamiliar: a basic (2D) Picross puzzle consists of a grid empty squares with numbers marked at the ends of each column and row. These numbers provide clues as to which squares should be filled in and which should be left blank. A correctly solved puzzle will form a pixelated image once all proper squares have been filled in.

The demo of Picross 3D Round 2 largely consists of tutorials that teach puzzle-solving techniques with each of these tutorials followed by a small puzzle that allows the player to try out the recently-learned techniques. This came in handy since the 3D puzzles are much more complex than their 2D counterparts. Each puzzle takes the form of a cluster of small white cubes that can be filled in with one of two different colors. Cubes that are not to be colored in have to be eliminated from the puzzle all-together. Determining what to do with each cube can be challenging as the numerical clues must be considered in the context of three-dimensional space. The game also provides a method to view cross-sectional slices of the puzzle so that the inner cubes of the cluster can be accessed. When the puzzle is complete, the once formless cluster of cubes has been chiseled and colored to form a simplistic blocky 3D model of an animal, household appliance, or Nintendo character. After several tutorial segments, the demo leaves the player alone to solve three new puzzles without any hand-holding. With each of these three, the level of complexity increases.

This demo worked out pretty well for me as the tutorials do a good job teaching the player the type of logical thinking needed to make solving these puzzles in 3D approachable. The music in the game was pretty pleasant and definitely helped put me in the mellow puzzle-solving mood. As this game is almost entirely touch-screen based, I'm kind of surprised Nintendo didn't release this as a mobile game as it would be a great fit for a smartphone or tablet. I'm not sure if I would have the patience for all 300 puzzles included in the full game, but my brain could probably use the exercise so I may end up buying the game if it goes on sale.

I should note that while the tutorials are fairly thorough, I would recommend that those with no Picross experience start with a 2D version in order to learn the basic principles of Picross before graduating to 3D. I'd suggest checking out the free-to-play Pokemon Picross available in the eShop. Players who have already played the original Picross 3D should skip this demo entirely as it doesn't seem like the tutorial segments can be skipped.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Final Fantasy XII Review

An innovative and satisfying journey, but not without its stumbling blocks

Well, it was nearly a decade in the making, but I've finally played all the way through Final Fantasy XII. Since I've covered many of my main talking points about this game in previous blog posts, I'll keep this review somewhat more to the point: I really enjoyed this game, but a couple of grating flaws and shortcomings kept it from taking a place among my all-time favorite RPGs (or Final Fantasies for that matter).

In general I think Final Fantasy XII succeeds in updating the formula of the series to a more modern style of gameplay. As much as I love the classic games, the traditional Final Fantasy system of random encounters with invisible enemies needed a refresh and thus I found the MMO-style enemy encounters and battles to be a welcome change. I also appreciated that the rigid transitions between dungeons, overworld, towns, and battle screens of previous Final Fantasies, were scrapped in favor of a continuous presentation that does much to streamline the experience and create a more cohesive world.

These much-appreciated updates to the Final Fantasy format are unfortunately coupled with my two biggest gripes with this game: repetitive level design and a severe lack of difficulty balancing. Several of the areas to explore in Ivalice felt barren and/or repetitive in their designs. Areas such as the Yensa Sandsea, Giruvegan, and Pharos Tower are all guilty of recycling the same few landscape features over and over in a pattern that repeated entirely too many times, making each of these areas feel like a real slog to play through. This problem is further compounded by this game's lack of difficulty balance. I generally found myself having a good time traveling along the primary story path, taking on enemies and upgrading characters at what I believed to be a respectable clip, only to hit very abrupt spikes in difficulty. I imagine the game's designers intended for these spikes to serve as incentives for the player to depart from the critical path and spend time on side quests and hunts. However, I found that the rewards and XP for completing these challenges were rarely significant enough to make investing time in them worthwhile. Since grinding appeared to be the most effective means to advance, I ultimately took the cheap way out and set up my party's gambits such that my characters would grind all by themselves and left them to auto-level overnight. While this method was successful in allowing me to continue my play-through without any further frustration, the fact that I felt the need to exploit the game's systems in this way really speaks to the severity of this difficulty curve problem.

Setting these mechanics issues aside, from a creative standpoint this game is a much more well-balanced package. Playing Final Fantasy XII gives the player a distinct impression that the world of Ivalice existed far before the game takes place and will persist long after the credits roll. The game's story of warring nations is far more grand than the exploits of the playable characters themselves, which I found further enhanced the sense of the place. While the plot is fairly one-note in terms of its tone, I have to give it credit for touching on some ambitious subject matter including coping with loss, redemption, religion, and nuclear nonproliferation. It would have been nice if the coverage of all these weighty topics had been broken up with some moments of levity, but for the most part the story stayed bleak and serious the whole way through. The six members of the party each have pretty distinct personalities and have a few amusing interactions with each other over the course of the adventure. However, while each character was generally likable and unique, they were also all incredibly one-dimensional. I would have appreciated some character moments in which we would see Balthier momentarily lose his cool and show some real concern, or perhaps have Ashe briefly take a break from being crushed by the weight of her responsibilities to crack a smile, but unfortunately that kind of character development isn't something that takes place. I should also note that the musical score was very pleasant and always fitting to the game scenario, but it didn't stick with me the way some of the previous Final Fantasy soundtracks have. I will say that the game's one vocal piece, "Kiss Me Goodbye" is one of the better songs with English lyrics that I've heard in the Final Fantasy series.

It's hard to neatly wrap-up my feelings on Final Fantasy XII, as I absolutely loved the game for the first 60-75% of its playtime, only for some jarring flaws to come to the surface in the third act. I found the game's conclusion pretty satisfying and ultimately walked away feeling positive, but with the distinct impression that there were some tweaks that would need to be made for this to be a 5-star experience. I hope that the upcoming Zodiac Age remaster of Final Fantasy XII corrects enough of its issues to transform it into the fantastic RPG that it has the potential to be.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 89 hours, 57 minutes (Main story and a handful of side quests. Playtime somewhat inflated due to running an auto-leveling routine.)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Demo Hotness: Style Savvy Fashion Forward

Lately I've found that playing demos is a great way to stay abreast of new releases even while buried deep in lengthy backlog titles like Final Fantasy XII. To kick-off my "Demo Hotness" series of posts, I decided to go a bit outside of my element with Style Savvy Fashion Forward.

Style Savvy is a series of simulation/role-playing games about the world of fashion. The gameplay combines some light business management and puzzle-solving with a virtual dollhouse of sorts. In this demo, the player character is a new arrival in town and immediately tasked with the bizarre first job of being a fashion consultant to a stalker. Yes, you read that right, your first client is a woman who spends her time obsessing over and spying on a local celebrity and has become fixated on transforming herself to look exactly like her idol. The player's job is to accompany this client to clothing stores, make-up boutiques, and hair salons helping her make the best fashion choices (within her budget) in order to achieve her somewhat creepy dream. This scenario functions very well as a demo/tutorial since the player always has a clear template (a photo of the celebrity) to reference when making clothing, hair, and make-up selections. It's also inferred that at some point in the full game's plot there will probably be a moral of the story about the importance of individuality and self-expression, which is a nice little message for the younger players that this game is most-likely targeting. After the first chapter of this stalker scenario, the demo wraps up by giving the player a sampling of new clients whose style and budgetary requirements need to be met.

While I'm not sure that the full game would hold my interest the whole way through, playing this demo was certainly an enlightening experience. As someone who doesn't know very much about women's fashion, there were a lot of concepts and terminology that I had to figure out as I went along. I also appreciated that while the clients' requirements were generally pretty strict, there was always a wide variety of possible solutions (i.e. outfit suggestions) that would satisfy them, thus allowing the player a considerable range of creative freedom. This demo also provided me with some new perspective regarding gender in videogames: While the player can design their own character, there is no gender selection option; the protagonist of Style Savvy must be female. Also, all NPCs, at least in the demo, are women. I've never encountered this situation before, but maybe now, I've had just the smallest taste of what female gamers saw when playing many of the male-centric games of years past.