Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Gaming Shame #2: Metal Gear Solid 3

Metal Gear Solid 3 is a gaming shame for me for two reasons:
  1. I've been meaning to give the Metal Gear series a second chance after dropping it with MGS2.
  2. My wife bought me a copy of this game on 3DS back in 2012, and I still haven't touched it.
With my shiny new Nintendo Switch rapidly making my 3DS and Wii U obsolete, I figured there was no time like now to finally dig into this portable Cold War mission. Here are my thoughts now that I'm about half-way through the game:
  •  I'm kind of amazed that my original 3DS is capable of running a PS2 game so well. While the size and resolution of the 3DS screen do leave something to be desired, I can't help but be impressed with how good this game looks and sounds in spite of hardware limitations.
  • It's immediately apparent that MGS3 was meant to be played with dual analog control, but unfortunately, since I don't have a Circle Pad Pro or a New 3DS, I'm stuck with having to use the ABXY buttons to aim. This set-up is definitely not as fast and accurate as I would like, but I'm managing to make it work.
  • To compensate for the less-than-ideal controls, I decided to power through this game on easy mode. This way Snake can survive taking a few hits while I take a little more time to line up my shots.
  •  I forgot how loaded with dialog and cutscenes Metal Gear games are. The beginning few hours of the game probably contains more cutscene time than actual gameplay time. On the PS2 this was probably fine, but on 3DS I'm keenly aware of how much time I'm spending just staring at these lengthy non-interactive scenes.
  • The juxtaposition of serious political themes and wacky over-the-top characters is really bizarre. In one moment, the game is covering the effects of the Cuban Missle Crisis on US-Russian relations, in the next, I'm in a boss battle with a man that shoots "bullet bees" out of his mouth.
  • The inclusion of the blatantly James Bond-inspired opening theme song "Snake Eater" is incredibly corny, but I kind of like it anyway.
While returning to the 3DS in a post-Switch world hasn't been easy, I've been mostly enjoying my time with MGS3. The convenience of playing this game on a device that I can easily toss into my lunchbox without a case means I can work gameplay sessions into small gaps in my schedule without much pre-planning. The only downside is due to the verbose nature of Kojima games, I've spent many of my lunch breaks just watching 30-minute long cutscenes. At my current rate of progress, I'll probably be finishing up Metal Gear Solid 3 and writing my review within the next 2 weeks.

Never thought I'd be taking a scenic forest stroll on my 3DS

Nothing interferes with the quest for nuclear disarmament quite like bullet bee wounds

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Jackbox Party Pack 3 Review

 A party in a digital box

Over Mother's Day weekend, I was having family over and looking for a game that could entertain everyone regardless of their gaming skill level, thus the release of Jackbox Party Pack 3 on Nintendo Switch couldn't have come at a better time. Each entry in the Jackbox series consists of a set of humorous trivia-based party games in which players use their cellphones or tablets a controller. Here's a brief rundown of the five games included in Park Pack 3:
  • Quiplash: A game of fill-in-the-blank where each player does their best to submit the funniest possible answer.
  • Trivia Murder Pary: A trivia quiz in which the players that answer questions incorrectly face off against each other in mini-games in order to keep from being eliminated.
  •  Guesspionage: Players attempt to guess the results of worldwide polling data for a series of silly survey questions.
  • Tee K.O. : Everyone draws pictures and writes slogans on their phone screens, and then players complete to mix and match these to make the funniest (and usually most offensive) t-shirt designs.
  • Faking It: All but one player (the "faker") are given a piece of information or a task. The other players then attempt to guess who the faker is, while the faker tries to blend in with everyone else.
While in my household, Trivia Murder Party and Tee K.O were the clear favorites, I would still say that Party Pack 3 offers a pretty well-rounded and consistent collection of party games and surpasses its predecessor in overall quality and fun. The fact that Jackbox 3 uses cellphones as controllers is both one of its greatest strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, the fact that I didn't have to go out and spend a fortune on extra Joy-con in order to get the whole family playing was a real blessing. On the other, the inherent inconsistencies associated with everyone using different personal devices did create some disruptions in the fun (system updates, varying device performance, receiving calls mid-game, etc). Overall, these minor issues didn't detract significantly from the experience and the game succeeded in keeping my whole family (ages 28 to 55) entertained for many hours over the course of the weekend. The package also includes a "family friendly" setting in the options menu in the event that there are younger players joining in, but I didn't have an occasion to test this for myself. Overall, I'd highly recommend Jackbox Party Pack 3 to anybody entertaining guests of mixed gaming skill.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Kamiko Review

Retro hack 'n' slash goodness

After the grand undertaking that was Breath of the Wild, I found myself craving a focused bite-sized experience and Kamiko fit the bill nicely. This cute pixelated indie title offers four stages that play like a series of simple 2D Zelda dungeons. Each stage has the same objective: Find and activate 4 spirit gates in order to gain access to the boss room; accomplishing this task involves navigating branching corridors, clearing enemy kill rooms and solving light puzzles (i.e. finding keys and flipping switches). I finished my first play-through in an hour and sixteen minutes, which for the asking price of $5 (US), is perfectly fine by me. You may have noticed I specified first play-through; this is because a major emphasis of the game is replayability.  There are three different characters to choose from at the beginning of the game (a swordswoman, an archer, and a boomerang-user), and because the gameplay is so light and snappy, I ended up replaying the game with all three. Each character played differently enough to change the way I approached combat, even though the level layout and enemy distribution are the same regardless of the character being used. That being said, it would have been nice to see each character's move set expand or weapons upgrade during the quest, but in this case, you finish the game with the same gear and abilities that you start with. There are, however, expansions to the HP and MP meters that can be obtained, but these aren't as fun as some new moves would be.

There are two gameplay mechanics in Kamiko that could be sticking points for some players: enemy respawn rates and carrying keys. In true NES-era fashion, enemies in Kamiko repopulate a room as soon as you leave it. Thus, you can clear a kill room, advance to the next room and immediately re-enter the kill room to find that the enemies have already respawned. Part of why this occurs is that opening treasure chests, activating spirit gates, and using charge attacks all consume MP and the only way replenish it is to kill more enemies. Thus the respawning is necessary to prevent you from getting stuck, but the respawn rate does seem to be a bit excessive. The respawn rate closely ties into the key carrying mechanic. When the protagonist is carrying a key to a door, she is incapable of using her weapon and if she gets hit, the key returns to the chest that it came from. In most cases, the distance that the key needs to be transported is relatively short, but some enemies will inevitably respawn in your path, thus if you're not good at planning your route and dodging enemies, you may have to go back for the key several times. In the last stage, this does get somewhat tricky as there may be several obstacles and rooms between the key and its associated door. For me, I quickly developed a knack for mowing down waves of enemies when armed and sneaking around them when carrying a key, so I found these mechanics to be more challenging than frustrating, but I could see how some players could get discouraged.

From an aesthetic perspective, I found the colorful 8-bit graphics to be very charming and the music to be very catchy in a classic retro game sort of way. Kamiko has an extremely limited story, but for a game like this, I have little interest in watching long cutscenes or reading lengthy dialog anyway.

Overall, I think those looking for a quick action/adventure game will be very satisfied with their $5 purchase. The extra characters and speed-running potential provide nice incentives to come back to Kamiko after blasting through it the first time. However, those that get frustrated easily with old-school mechanics or are looking for something with significant depth may end up not seeing the appeal of this game. After playing though Kamiko, I'd definitely like to see a longer, more robust adventure from this developer in the future.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 1 hour, 16 minutes (for first play-through, subsequent runs were about 45 minutes)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild - Closing Thoughts Part 2

When Ocarina of Time came out in 1998, it blew people away with its revolutionary design, but it also became the mold from which each of the successive 3D Zelda games would be cast. While Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece that I believe meets or exceeds the standard set by Ocarina of Time, I don't think it lends itself to being the new formula for future games; how many times can aimlessly wandering a massive sparsely populated fantasy world remain novel? Here are some of my thoughts new directions Zelda can take:
  • Expand the cast. We've seen countless variations on the Link-Zelda-Ganon trinity, but I think Breath of the Wild, and even Skyward Sword and Hyrule Warriors, have shown that there could be other characters outside of the core 3 that could be deserving of the spotlight. I know in BotW, I was definitely hoping to see more of the Champions than the brief glimpses in flashbacks.
  • Experiment with the setting. For the most part, every Zelda has been set in a medieval European fantasy world. Why not change this up? Miyamoto's original concept for The Legend of Zelda featured futuristic sci-fi elements in addition to fantasy. Some of these sci-fi elements are referenced in Breath of the Wild, but I'd love to see the series lean into them more heavily. I could also see Zelda gameplay fitting well in a feudal Japan or steampunk setting as well.
  • Meaningful side quests or branching paths. While Breath of the Wild introduced structured side quests, most of these were fairly inconsequential fetch-quests. If Zelda is going to stick with a non-linear structure going forward, why not give these side quests a little more weight by offering unique items or a compelling NPC character arc? Another option would be to give the main quest some decision points, thus encouraging replay value to explore each of the branching paths.
  • More voice acting. Nintendo dipped their toe in water with Breath of the Wild's limited voice acting, but the overwhelming majority of the game's dialog was still strictly text. After playing games like The Witcher, where even the most minor NPC has a voice, it would be nice to see Nintendo make Hyrule a little less silent.
  • Breath of the Wild as a service. The game already has some DLC planned, but what if Nintendo decided to really capitalize on this massive world they've built? With such a large and sparsely populated Hyrule, why not have future DLC packs show the world rebuilding after the defeat of Ganon? Ruined towns could be rebuilt and each could introduce new characters and quest lines. Considering how successful BotW was, I think this could easily be feasible (and lucrative) for Nintendo.
These are just few of the ideas that swam through my head as I was gathering my thoughts to write my Breath of the Wild review. I'd love to hear what other people's ideas are regarding where the series could go next, so feel free to leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - Closing Thoughts Part 1

After completing a game as massive as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, there's naturally a lot to unpack. However, as this is already the game that launched a thousand think pieces, I'm going to try to avoid retreading too much of the same ground covered by major gaming outlets. Thus my closing thoughts on the game will come in two parts: a light-weight review of my personal experience, and my thoughts on where I'd like to see the Zelda series go next.


As expansive as it is addicting

The best word to describe the experience of playing Breath of the Wild is "flow". Or put another way, doing things in the game just feels good. Each of the game's mechanics naturally leads into the next: You climb a tower, mark points of interest on the map, and then fly, horseback ride, or run to each, perhaps with little combat interspersed along the way. While Breath of the Wild is by no means the first game to use this formula, it executes it exceptionally well. Every discovery in the Hyrule overworld reveals just enough of something more to nudge the player into thinking, "Well, let me see what's over that next hill before I stop playing for the night," ...and the next thing you know, it's 3 in the morning. The combat takes some getting used to, but once I got the hang of it, I found that it allowed for more variety in tactics than any other Zelda game. Coupling this with the plethora of weapon and armor options, there's a strong possibility that no two people with approach a given encounter the same way. Weapon durability and crafting also further feed into the BotW's addictive cycle by always pressing you on to find new ways to upgrade Link.

While the dungeons and shrines are somewhat aesthetically bland, I really enjoyed the Zelda-meets-Portal style of physics-based puzzles. For a seasoned Zelda player like me, these new types of puzzles were a welcome change from the predictable and blatantly signposted puzzles that had been the norm for the previous few games. I will say that of the four main dungeons, I felt that the camel and elephant dungeons were much more interesting than the salamander and bird, but this may be a function of the order that I tackled them. While the puzzle and platforming challenges of the shrines and dungeons are top-notch, one area where they fall flat is enemy variety. There are only two types of enemies indoors: Guardian Scouts and Ganon Blights, with minor variations on each. It would have been nice to enter a combat shrine or a dungeon boss room and be surprised, but that unfortunately never happened.

All of this excellently crafted, free-flowing, non-linear gameplay does come at a cost, however: storytelling. While the narrative has never been as central to Zelda as it has to other big name RPG series (like Final Fantasy), most of the modern entries provide an enjoyable journey with ups and downs along the way, colorful cast of characters, and come to a satisfying conclusion at the end. Breath of the Wild's amorphous structure makes having a cohesive narrative through-line much more complicated. The resulting Nolanesque collection of out-of-sequence flashbacks offers an interesting and nuanced glimpse into the relationship between Link and Zelda, unlike anything I've ever seen Nintendo attempt before with these classic characters. While the voice acting varied considerably in quality, it was generally effective at giving additional emotional weight to these scenes, I just wish there was more of it (most cut scenes are still text-only dialog). However, what makes a disjointed Nolan-style narrative work, is an ending that provides a twist or big reveal that ties all the other scenes together and gives them new meaning. Disappointingly, Breath of the Wild just doesn't have that. For me, this game that is otherwise fantastic kind of ended with a whimper.

Though the very ending of the game left me feeling a little cold, after some reflection, I still can't help but love a game that is otherwise so expertly crafted and provided me with over 100 hours of fun and adventure. Even after playing Breath of Wild consistently for 2 months, I still find myself tempted to return to mop up the last few shrines and I will almost certainly be picking up the DLC. Anyone who is a fan of action RPGs or open-world games owes it to themselves to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: About 115 hours (Main quest, plus 106 out of 120 shrines completed)

In a few days, I'll be posting some thoughts on the future of the Zelda series now that Breath of Wild has shaken up the formula.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Super Bomberman R Review

Bomberman lands on Switch... and immediately twists his ankle

I've been a fan of the Bomberman series since I first played Bomberman 2 on the NES, so you'll be hard-pressed to find somebody who wanted this series to make a triumphant return on Switch more than me. Unfortunately, my experience with Super Bomberman R made it abundantly clear that Konami did the bare minimum when attempting to revive this lapsed franchise.

While many players get into Bomberman purely for the multiplayer mode, I've always had a fondness for the single-player campaigns, especially in the N64 and Gamecube era. Much to my disappointment, the campaign was an extremely barebones collection of five worlds with nine levels that seemed to be an attempt at recreating the gameplay of Super NES Bomberman but with 3D graphics. Super Bomberman R does not succeed at all in this unambitious goal. While the 3D graphics provide a somewhat interesting extra layer of depth and verticality to the traditionally flat grid-based level designs, these features often obstruct the view of Bomberman and enemies since there's no way to move the camera. The biggest issue with the campaign, however, is the continue system. To use a continue costs in-game currency (gems) with the cost of a continue being based on the difficulty level you're playing. Using a continue provides nine additional lives and allows you to continue playing from the exact moment at which you lost your last life as if nothing happened. If you lack the gems to use a continue, you get sent back to the beginning of the world you're currently playing, which could mean having to replay up to nine levels. Thus in the first case, a game over has almost no consequences at all, and in the second case, the game can be especially punitive. The difficulty options don't help matters much since on easy the continues are meaninglessly cheap, and on medium or hard they're so expensive that a few too many mistakes at the beginning of the campaign could leave you stuck and unable to earn enough gems to buy continues for the entire rest of the game. I found this issue to be so glaring that it killed much of my motivation to proceed with the campaign.

There was one feature of the campaign that offered a momentary glimpse of Bomberman's former glory: the boss battles. The bosses take the form of giant robots with weak points to exploit and patterns to learn which was a welcome change from the more ho-hum standard stages. These dynamic battles reminded me of what it was I liked about Bomberman to begin with. I should also mention that the campaign's cutscenes, while obviously cheaply animated, have a very Saturday-morning-cartoon vibe that wasn't my thing, but I could easily see appealing to children, who are presumably the target market for this game. I also kind of dug the corny electro-pop music that crops up at various times throughout the game.

The multiplayer options come in two flavors: co-op campaign and battle mode. Playing the campaign as a co-op experience comes with all the same problems of the single-player mode but with the added frustration of friendly fire deaths. This only exacerbated the issues with the continue system and quickly proved to be a non-starter for my wife and me; we played through the first world in co-op and then I powered through the remaining four worlds on my own. The battle mode is fairly competent but adds nothing new to the multiplayer Bomberman formula. I bet it would still be a lot of fun to play with four players locally, but I lacked the necessary extra Joy-con (and people) to try it out. The online battle mode initially ran so poorly it was practically unplayable but was patched over a month after release, upgrading it to a choppy but manageable state. Even with the patch, it didn't hold my interest for long.

It really pains me to give a Bomberman game a negative review and I tried hard to find some positives in the package, but as a full-priced release, I just can't forgive Super Bomberman R's numerous flaws. My only hope is that after dipping their toe in the Switch development water with this game, Konami will come back later with better installments of Bomberman and their other classic franchises.

Score: ⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: About 5 hours (campaign on easy mode and a handful of multiplayer matches)

P.S. This is the first time in years I've traded a game back to a retailer so soon after its release. I put the cash towards a Switch carrying case and some eShop titles that I'll be covering in a future post.