Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Quick Thoughts & Updates

I've been jumping around between a lot of different games over the past few weeks, but no one thing has warranted a full-length post yet. For the time being, here's a quick collection of thoughts and updates on what I've been playing:

  • Lara Croft Go: This is one of the first mobile games I've played all the way through. It's a clever little puzzle game that was a pleasant activity to chip away at on my tablet before bed. Toward the end, a few of the puzzles began to feel a little repetitive, but overall it was a joy from start to finish.
    Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

  • Chrono Trigger: I'm probably about 2/3 of the way through the game and it's still great. However I'm definitely experiencing the third act slog typical of old-school RPGs as the dungeons are getting longer and battles much more frequent. I should also mention that at this point the Android version has become pretty buggy (largely due to the rather obtrusive DRM Square Enix added to this port), and thus I'd very strongly recommend playing one of the other versions of the game instead. I've heard especially good things about the Nintendo DS version.

  • Nintendo Switch: While lately my PC and tablet have been getting a lot of attention, I'll always be a Nintendo fan at heart, so of course I pre-ordered a Nintendo Switch as soon as they became available. Though I'm a little concerned about some of the seemingly over-priced peripherals and muddled marketing messages (especially regarding gimmicky motion controls), I'm still counting down the days until the system and the new Zelda game arrive. A Nintendo handheld that can also be played on a TV is something I've been wanting since the Gameboy days, so the Switch seems like it'll be right up my ally.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Hitman Season 1 Review

Assassination by numbers

I've been a fan of the Hitman franchise since Hitman 2 (i.e. since 2002), and it's a series that I've always enjoyed but has generally seemed to fly under the radar of the gaming community in the US. That all seemed to change with the start of the episodic run of the newest entry in the series, Hitman Season 1, which dominated the conversation of many gaming podcasts, YouTube channels, and gaming awards in 2016. I received the complete first season from my wife as a birthday present after all the episodes had been released, and found myself very curious to find out what had changed with this new game to bring Hitman into the spotlight.

I quickly found that this Hitman game has all the traditional trappings of the series:
  • intricate non-linear level design
  • multiple paths to completing mission objectives
  • the use of disguises, stealth, and rigging accidents to cover your tracks
  • the sort of globe-spanning political conspiracy theory-based plot that every stealth game seems to have
It turns out that what sets Hitman Season 1 apart from its predecessors all boils down to one thing: accessibility. While the on-ramp for the Hitman series has generally gotten less steep with each entry, Hitman Season 1 offers an unprecedented level of guidance to the new player. In addition to a fairly thorough tutorial stage, every mission in Season 1 features a new hint system called "Opportunities". Once discovered within a stage, each opportunity provides step-by-step instructions through one possible route to assassinating a target. These opportunities come complete with explicit on-screen text instructions and map markers. Further hints are provided by the game's challenge list which calls out specific assassination methodologies (e.g. drown the target, kill him with the antique canon, etc).  Also, the level design language of Hitman has never been more codified: places to hide bodies are very obvious and objects that can be sabotaged are clearly marked. As a result of all these new player-friendly features, a completely inexperienced Hitman player will be up to speed and earning Silent Assassin ratings in no time. It should also be said that most of these hint systems can be tweaked or disabled in the options menu, but are fully activated if using the default settings.

As a result of all the accessibility upgrades, it was pretty clear that Season 1 is a great game for new players, but what about for Hitman veterans such as myself? In a nutshell, experienced Hitman players will find that Season 1 plays very much like Hitman Blood Money, but with the control scheme and UI of Hitman Absolution. Before I realized that the hint systems could be toggled, I found that the combination of opportunities and challenges had transformed the gameplay. Traditionally, a Hitman mission was a process of discovery and figuring things out, but this new guided experience started to feel like a matter of simply checking items off a to-do list. Once I disabled these features, however, I was  able to get back into the enjoyable classic Hitman groove. That being said, seasoned hitmen and hitwomen may find that Season 1 doesn't offer much new in terms of gameplay innovation, mission structure, etc, but that every facet of the core gameplay is very smooth and well-executed.

Overall, Hitman Season 1 is a fantastic game for new players, and reliable comfort food for series veterans. I did come to realize that I probably would have enjoyed my time with the game a little more if I would have disabled the hints sooner and played through the episodes as they were released rather than blasting through the whole game in succession, but that's my fault, not the game's. It is my hope that Season 1 is simply laying the foundation for more innovation and varied gameplay to be introduced in Season 2. Only time will tell where this new episodic format will go, but for me, I found enough to like in Season 1 to be more than willing to sign up for Season 2 once it's formally announced.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 46 hours (Silent Assassin rank on all missions, plus completing most challenges)

Monday, January 16, 2017

Gaming Shame #1: Chrono Trigger

This is a game I've been meaning to get around to for the majority of my life, and I decided that I would kick off 2017 by finally diving into this landmark RPG. As someone who's played and loved most of the other other SNES games by Square and Enix, I somehow missed out on their very first collaboration (back when they were still two separate companies).  Part of my dilemma in starting this game is that while there are multiple ways to play Chrono Trigger (Wii virtual console, DS cartridge, mobile port, SNES emulator), each presents some significant trade-offs. When I came to accept that a PC port was unlikely to happen any time soon, I ultimately decided to pick up the Android version while it was on sale for $5.

At this point I've sunk about 10 hours into the game, and have been having a great time chipping away at it in bed each night on my tablet. It took me a little while to get used to playing a game like this with a touch screen, but now it almost feels like second nature. One concession I did have to make was switching the battle mode from "Active" to "Wait" before boss battles to keep me from getting lit up by the enemy while scrolling through the spell and item menus; I'm just not as fast on a touch screen and I would be with a proper controller. Other than that one minor gripe, I've been pleasantly surprised with how nicely the game plays on Android.

As for the game itself, it's immediately apparent to me why Chrono Trigger is such a classic:
  • The battle mechanics have some pretty unique little twists when compared to other 16-bit RPGs.
  • The difficulty curve thus far has been very smooth, no need for grinding yet.
  • The character animations do a great job of giving the sprites personality. You can tell an animator like Akira Toriyama was involved.
  • The music and graphics are really beautiful. Square had clearly mastered the SNES hardware by the time this game came out.

I'm going to continue working through this one bit by bit and am excited to see how it progresses. It seems like an almost absurd prospect to write a review for such a lauded classic, but I'll attempt to neatly wrap up my thoughts once I finish Chrono Trigger at some point in the next few weeks.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Gaming Shames

 So far my blog posts have come in the forms of impressions, reviews, and my special series "Demo Hotness". Today I'd like to roll out another special post series, "Gaming Shames". In a couple of posts in the past, I've made mention of the term "gaming shames", but never really gotten into much detail about what this term means for my purposes with this blog. A gaming shame is a major game or franchise that, as a seasoned life-long gamer, I'm embarrassed to say I have zero experience with. Throughout 2016 I've managed to play through the majority of my backlog, so as a new year's resolution of sorts, I've decided to finally fill in some of these gaps in my gaming background. Here's a quick list of a couple of my gaming shames with a little blurb about why each is on the list:
  • Chrono Trigger
    • I love the SNES, I love RPGs, but somehow missed the game that is supposed to be the pinnacle of 16-bit role-playing.
  • Phoenix Wright
    •  It popularized visual novels in the West and is referenced in the gaming media all the time.
  • Dragon Quest 4 or 8
    • My social media avatar is a Dragon Quest sprite, yet I've only ever played the first 3 games in the series... kinda makes feel like a phony
  • Castlevania Symphony of the Night
    •  I've played almost every single Castlevania game, except for the one that many claim is the best.
  • Persona
    •  I hadn't even heard of this series until about a year ago, and now I feel like I hear people singing its praises all the time. I'll probably start with P4.
  •  Secret of Mana or Ys
    • I'm still trying to figure out where the line is drawn between "action adventure" and "action RPG", maybe some of these classic examples will help me sort it out.
Since I still have a lot of other games to tackle this year, I'm not committing to playing all of these in 2017. Over time this list will likely expand as I find out about more must-play classics that I missed back in the day. Next week I'll cover some of my impressions of the first of these gaming shames I'll be taking on, Chrono Trigger!  I'd love to hear if some of my fellow gamers have similar lists like this, so feel free to give some of examples of your own gaming shames in the comments below or tweet them using the hashtag "#GamingShames"!

Acknowledgement: The word cloud image used in this post was created with Tagul. Check them out at https://tagul.com!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Titan Souls Review

Rage-quitters need not apply

Titan Souls is an incredibly simple game: a series of boss fights separated by a vacant overworld. The protagonist is only armed with a bow and a single arrow that must be retrieved after a missed shot. All battles are a matter of one-hit kills, for both the player character and the enemy.

Since boss fights are really all there is to the game, there's a decent number of them (19 in total) and most of them involve figuring out a specific trick to exposing the enemy's weakness and delivering the kill-shot. The game is unforgiving, probably the hardest game I've played in the past year, but when I managed to pull off the perfect shot, killing the titan and surviving the battle by the skin of my teeth there was definitely a smile on my face. However, there were some battles where I somehow killed the boss by accident; I'd fire off my arrow in the general direction of the boss and apparently hit the enemy's weak point before I had even determined where that vulnerable spot was. In other cases, I would die dozens upon dozens of time trying to land a shot in the narrowest of openings, often being pushed to the very limit of my patience. While I never quite reached the point of dropping the game altogether, on the second-to-last boss I did finally cave in and consult a guide rather than continue to bang my head against the wall.

Outside of these battles, there really isn't much to Titan Souls. The overworld that joins the various battle areas together is a decent-looking pixelated environment, but is completely devoid of any interesting features; there are no towns, NPCs, minor enemies, or puzzles, just fairly generic forests, ruins, caves, and tundras. However, the overworld does provide the player an opportunity to enjoy this game's absolutely beautiful music. The various battle themes are fittingly dramatic, and the music in the overworld is somber yet mysterious. What's all this somberness and mystery about, though? I have no idea since the game has absolutely no plot. For some reason the hero must find and kill all the titans, and that's all there is to it.

I found Titan Souls to be extremely challenging, but felt satisfied upon completing it. The game's brevity (about 4 hours) is definitely a positive as it keeps its single gameplay mechanic and extreme difficulty from getting old. For Titan Souls I really must reiterate: This game is incredibly hard. To put it in perspective, I died 278 times before reaching the end of the game. If you're someone who can find enjoyment in finally persevering after countless failures, Titan Souls will be a gratifying play-through. However, to anyone who's ever found themselves at the brink of throwing a controller in frustration, spare yourself the agony and skip this one.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 3 hours, 58 minutes (100% completion)

Monday, January 2, 2017

Witcher 2 Review

 A worthy successor to the original and an engrossing RPG experience

In almost all respects, The Witcher 2 takes the solid foundation of The Witcher 1 and expands it into a faster-paced and more polished game. I was having such a good time playing this game I actually ended up staying up all night to finish the final act before my relatives started arriving for Christmas. I did have a few small quibbles, so I'll get those out of the way before getting into what made this game great.

As I had mentioned in my impressions post, the menus and interfaces in this game felt like a step backward, at least for those playing with mouse and keyboard, when compared to Witcher 1. While I eventually got used to them, the layout of multi-layer menus and sub-menus was less than intuitive and made getting the info I needed more of hassle than it needed to be. Especially glaring was the fact that when buying weapons and armor, there is no way to directly compare the currently equipped gear with what you're about to buy. Thus, I found myself having to perform the following procedure many times: open the equipment screen, note the specs of all my equipped gear, close the equipment screen, talk to a merchant, and then compare the specs of his/her wares to those I noted down from the equipped gear. Why is this so cumbersome? Most Super Nintendo RPGs I've played handled this better. On a related note, for some reason the game's auto-map doesn't label landmarks and some of the side quest text can be fairly cryptic, so I had to consult a guide several times in order to be able to do everything. Another confounding change is that unlike Witcher 1, Geralt can no longer drink potions (The Witcher's version of buffs) during combat, meaning that the player must predict when a big boss battle is about to happen and drink the potions in advance. This seems counter-intuitive to me. Lastly, the dice poker and fist-fighting mini games return from the first game, but at this point have gotten pretty stale.

For the positives, I'll start out with the most obvious upgrade: combat. The battles in the Witcher 2 are much faster and more dynamic than they were in Witcher 1. Geralt has a much larger variety of weapons and moves at his disposal allowing for the player to pick a combat style that suits their tastes. For me, playing on Normal, I found that rolling around like a crazy person, doing back attacks, and using the Aard (stun) spell to break an enemy's guard, got me through pretty much every enemy encounter. However, it's nice that other options such as ranged weapons and parrying are there, even if I personally didn't find much use for them. There were also several epic boss fights that were a real treat, though I  could do without the mid-battle QTEs. Plot was another strong suite of The Witcher 2; after having done a good job establishing the characters in its predecessor, this game further fleshes out the world of warring kingdoms and political intrigue in grand Game of Thrones-esque style. Furthermore, this tale of alliances and betrayal forces the player to make some very difficult decisions that seem to have real impact on events going forward. I probably won't replay the whole game to explore the alternate paths I could've taken, but just knowing that opening one door in The Witcher 2 closes several others definitely gave the decision-making some real weight. On top of these positive features, the thing that kept me hooked the most was how well the overall flow of the game is handled. Gaining access to new areas, meeting new characters, and completing a variety of quests is a formula that never gets old to me, especially when it's pulled off as well as it is in this game.

Overall, in spite of a few technical/design hang-ups, I found that The Witcher 2 was a hard game to put down and a really satisfying experience from start to finish. I'd highly recommend it to any fantasy or RPG fan as long as they can handle some of the graphic imagery. After playing parts 1 & 2 this year, I'm really looking forward to playing The Witcher 3 at some point in 2017!

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 48 hours, 25 minutes (Main story and nearly all side-quests on normal difficulty)