Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review: Kingdom Hearts

Everybody has a favorite from their childhoods, whether it's Space Invaders, Pitfall, Super Mario Brothers, Sonic The Hedgehog, Earthworm Jim, Ocarina Of Time or Banjo-Kazooie... and Kingdom Hearts was my absolute favorite game as a kid. Even if I didn't know what to do and I had to resort to Gamefaqs to pass a bit or two, it was still a game I loved dearly. All the Disney characters, all the Disney worlds, and the fun combat – it just clicked and really kicked ass at doing so. Eventually, you revisit a childhood memory and find yourself analyzing it with a more adult mind (well, as adult as a near-20 year old can get), like why did you love it so much and was it as good as it was? Honestly, unless your old favorite was something like Metal Gear Solid or Super Mario Brothers 3, fuck no it wasn't! You realize that some screws were actually loose that were too small for your 7 year old eyes to see, but somehow, your 20 year old eyes can see them, and oh boy, Kingdom Hearts is quite an example of this. Still a fun game, no doubt about that, but come on, it's no masterpiece.

The basic idea of the story is that three teenagers from an island are seperated across the universe when the world's about to get destroyed. But amidst the chaos, Riku disappears into the darkness, Sora gets the Keyblade out of it and Kairi just disappears in Sora's arms. Meanwhile, King Mickey suddenly leaves the Disney Castle on a mission, leaving a note for Goofy and Donald, which tells them to look for the wielder of the Keyblade because he/she's important to save the world. Goofy and Donald meet up with Sora and they travel the universe to slay the evil Heartless and the even more evil Disney villains (from big boss Maleficent, to grunts like Captain Hook and Jafar) before they destroy the universe.

There are a few things that really stand out – for one thing, it's not so much about the original story as it is about Disney fanservice. You basically relive parts of a bunch of movies like Tarzan, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, except there are Heartless in them causing trouble. Honestly speaking, this is when the story is at its best – fanservice done right, if you ask me. It's fun going through these worlds, interacting with various Disney characters. In fact, just seeing them is awesome, like “man what are we/they going to do?” However, the game has an original story going on, and while the allies are stuck in their own stories, the villains sure as hell aren't, and... sucks. I seriously spent more time picking on the plotholes, nonsensical bullshit and some questionable dialogue with my mates than actually get absorbed into it, and I'm sure you could make a drinking game out of it. For instance, take a drink anytime a plot element is introduced with barely any build up that should've been given some, and take two drinks if has no resolution... and four if it has a half assed resolution. Trust me, you'll be drunk off your dick by the time this is over, and that's just the very beginning. It's up to you how many you do for awkward dialogue, half assed character development and... just generally being a mess. Sure, it seemed good when you were a kid, especially with the Final Fantasy characters making cameos (but only actually doing something beyond some exposition towards the end), but then you learn about decent storytelling, and about how it has to have some form of coherence, and if it's not going to make sense, then it should at least be pretty damn cool... which this is far from, since a lot of the time, it just screws around, hoping it'll all fall into place, or at its most desperate, let nostalgia take over. It sucks, because there was potential for a good or at least a decent story in there somewhere, but instead, it's just a cut above the narcfest that was Cartoon All Stars To The Rescue... which doesn't say much, I'm afraid. Thankfully, it only really comes into play during the last third of the game.

Until then, it's time to get out your large keys and whack the hell out of whatever pack of enemies come your way! Combat is fairly basic – in fact, most of what it comes down to is hammering the X button, while often moving out of the way to dodge enemy attacks. There are no fancy combos (well, until you learn some at key points throughout the game), no light and heavy attacks and certainly no room for advanced tactics. Sounds bad, I know, but that's where the variety of enemies comes into play. I mean, you have your typical weak Heartless and brands of stronger ones, but you also deal with aerial enemies (some fast, some not so far), spellcasters and frontally defensive (usually blobs with heads, hands and feet) types. That alone has the capcity to keep the game fresh, and add the fact that only a few of them are consistent, I'd say it stays fresh. Just goes to show what enemy variety can really do if your combat engine is a bit “eh”.

But yeah, you can learn abilities, most of which range from adding an extra hit to your basic combo to passive abilities (for instance, you'll either get more HP/MP/Munny balls or rarer treasures when you kill enemies), but the best come in the form of combos. Accessed from the battle menu (the only menu that can be used in real time), you'll unleash a combo that can really fuck shit up and you'll be immune the whole time. They have the potential to be great, but they're usually reserved for when you're in a jam and have a decent amount of MP left. The other abilities can be quite helpful either during battle or just in a pinch, but unlike the sequel where they make Sora overpowered, they actually give you a fighting chance against some of the bosses, particularly the later ones.

So beyond enemy variety, what keeps this game interesting if there isn't much to the combat? Why, looking forward to the next boss, of course, and the bosses are mostly well designed. Yeah, a couple of them suck balls, but the rest make up for it. Theoretically, they require you to smack them senseless, but there's always a method to their madness, like how some of them have two targets (the infamous Stealth Sneak + Clayton combo – by the way, how the fuck does a shotgun suddenly fire like a sniper rifle? TELL ME), or spam certain attacks, but as you'd expect, the idea is to hit them when the times are right. The thing with these bosses is that it's so much fun just figuring out their motives and countering them. Even if the combat engine itself isn't the greatest and the difficulty pacing is a little all over the place (the aforementioned Stealth Sneak is only the fourth boss, and it'll be a fair few more bosses down the line before you fight one that's harder), they really manage to make something work out quite well.

But this game has some huge gameplay problems. For one thing, the camera fucking sucks. The only way to move it is by using the shoulder buttons... no right stick is involved; just the shoulder buttons. Now, when you target enemies (which in and of itself is a bit on the schizophrenic side of the fence), you use the shoulder buttons to change targets. Putting two and two together basically says “yeah this fucking sucks”. Plus when you're dealing with enemies that constantly move, it goes all over the place, which can make fighting them much harder than it ought to be. Oh, and only controlling the x-axis is not only really outdated, but also very limiting when against flying enemies.

Another thing is that some levels are designed pretty badly. Most of them are fairly linear and merely require finding where the next cutscene lies, but some are ridiculous. To be fair, it's all in the first half, but the last of them is a doozy and a half, requiring you to fuck about in the depths of some ruins. While the rest simply required trial and error, this one required Gamefaqs because holy shit, what the fuck am I supposed to do!? How did I know I was meant to fall into a pit and swim around... shit, since when could you SWIM UP WATERFALLS!? They're not really big, but still, that's something not even Bear Grylls's cameraman could do, let alone some kid with a big key and three timeless cartoon characters.

Might I also add that the only way to travel between worlds at first is to go through a shoot em up segment, flying through space while shooting up Heartless ships – and man, these segments are dull! Even in the second half of the game when there's more ships to shoot and obstacles to dodge, eh, the only time you feel something positive is when you get to the next world and be thankful for the warp drive being installed into your ship after a while, especially for the Donkey Kong 64-ish sidequests (in which you collect shit like the iconic 101 Dalmations and the Trinity Marks) and optional bosses (including fan favorite Sephiroth... I wish there were more Final Fantasy bosses, but whatever). It's mainly because the enemy ships don't exactly pose a threat as long as you move around and hold X (the shoot button). There aren't any bosses here, so all you fight are grunts. Thankfully, it never takes too long... at least if you go by your stopwatch, but it sure feels like forever since your ship moves fairly slowly, even at its supposed “fastest”. As for actually building your ship, eh, I just fuck about with various parts and see what fits, and I'm sure you would too. Nothing really good. Maybe adequate, but it's a decent cure for insomnia.

Finally, whenever you're forced to platform, you'll be subject to some rather crap controls. Jumping from platform to platform is made hard with how stiff it feels. It's not quite as stiff as, say, Castlevania on the NES, but suffice it to say, the few platforming segments that are (thankfully only) in the first half of the game will be a bit of a pain in the dick.

There were certainly no punches pulled in the graphics department. Some lip syncing issues aside (didn't know some two syllable words suddenly had six but okay), the visuals are bloody stunning! The locations are appropriately colorful, with green jungles and blue seas, while the character models definitely look the part – whether that means like their 2D animated selves in 3D or possible post-Nintendo Final Fantasy characters, whatever the case may be, they look great. Maybe the character designer had a zipper fetish if you look at Sora's outfit (and it gets worse in the next game), but it's overlookable, especially considering that the environments have a good amount of detail and stand out enough to make small details seem smaller. Oh, and the opening and closing cutscenes... back in 2002, they looked fucken real, I swear! I mean nowadays, they look like something out of a Pixar animation, but the amount of detail put into each of the models in these scenes was pretty unreal for that time and even now, it still looks pretty impressive.

The sound design is a touch hit and miss. For instance, a lot of characters have good voice acting like Riku and Ansem, but some of the Disney cast and a lot of the Final Fantasy cast... nah, they just don't really sound too good, like they couldn't care less about the game and just want their cheque. Ah well, can't let a few small rotten apples spoil a lot of big juicy ones. The soundtrack is especially on the hit and miss side of the fence – not that any of the songs are bad or anything, but the level tracks (both battle and non-battle tunes) can get a bit grating when you're spending a lot of time navigating through a level, plus the songs themselves, while good, aren't much to shake a stick at. But it's all worth it, just to hear the glorious boss themes (depending on the boss). Good fucking god, these songs are epic and can make a boss battle really come to life with some intense symphonic tracks! It's tracks like those that can really strenghten a game...

Kingdom Hearts is quite a mess if you look at it from a logical designing point of view. So many instances that could've been redone, so many that could've used some rewriting and so many plot points that could've used better foreshadowing and resolution. But if you're looking at it from an emotional point of view, you really can't hate this game too much. It's just so much fun interacting and fighting alongside/against Disney characters, and the combat itself when you weren't wresting the camera was very fun. Add the awesome soundtrack and mostly excellent graphics, and you've got yourself a game that's technically mediocre, but emotionally pretty good.

7/10 (Good)

Trying to understand certain games

What I mean by the title is that at times, it's very easy to look at certain games in the wrong light. I mean, there are obvious ones like treating Zelda as an RPG, The Elder Scrolls as a pure sandbox/adventure game (instead of an RPG) or any JRPG as an actual RPG (which is why I think anybody who hates Final Fantasy XIII for being too linear is mentally deficient and needs to actually play some JRPGs before shooting the shit). If you look at them as they are and not what they aren't, then it's very easy to get a decent review out of you, unless you don't have much of a vocabulary or standards.

Then you have some not-so obvious ones, like reviewing LA Noire... I mean, how the fuck do you review it? Do you review it as a movie or as a game? Well, trying to review it as a game will result in nothing but bitching about how half assed it all feels - a few shooter segments are alright, but everything else seems to be slapped on there because we need to attract the 13 year old GTA fans. Not to mention, IT HOLDS YOUR FUCKING HAND! It never, ever, ever penalizes you for fucking up. Get a question wrong? Oh well, story goes on. Die a few times? Choose to skip it and the story goes on. Looking for items? Well, you can turn off the chime and visual hints, but then it becomes a pixel hunter, and seriously, who the fuck actually wants this in 2011? So yeah, you can't exactly review it as a game, no matter how hard it tries to be one.

So you look at it as a movie, and why not - the story is what keeps you playing despite the mediocre gameplay. So let's think about it... the setting itself is neat. Imagine it, a late 40s LA full of crime. Our character is a war vet with quite the potentially interesting past and a personality that should be the foil to more casual officers. What do we actually get, though? The first half of the game (which is about 7 1/2 hours, longer than many games out on the market nowadays) focuses on setting up the second half while focusing on individual murder stories, only linking them up a bit later on and resolving it before the end of the first half. The second half really gets the story moving... about fucking time! Unfortunately, it makes the mistake of just throwing a twist right in your face with very, very little build up. It's extremely contrived and would've actually done the story a lot of good if there was more build up. Another twist kind of suffers from this, though at least you get some clarification... at the end of the game, plus I guess there's some implied build up... lazy writing, but whatever. As a story driven game, it at least keeps you interested, but mostly through dick moves like taking forever to get going and leaving out details that really, really ought to be there. No, I don't expect it to be blatant, but throw me a fucking bone! Don't give out the vaguest detail and then throw the entire kitchen at me!

At the risk of making everything in this post irrelevant, I look at games not only as a whole, but piece by piece. Are the sum of its parts any good? Do they help make the game good or fun? Is the game supposed to be fun as a whole, or is it supposed to be an experience? Is it a niche game or is it meant for the whole family? Does nostalgia force me to hold my criticisms back or does it make me want to be a lot harder on it? So many factors can go into a review and it starts to become more and more obvious as you review - when I first started reviewing, all I thought about was whether it was fun and good or not and couldn't give a fuck about much else, even replay value (of the review). Now? I keep audience, the sum of its parts and how they impact the game itself, and what kind of game it is, all while trying to keep it interesting, because people are so far up their own asses about reviews (derr i dont wanna read reviews because i should decide for myself) that it's not worth doing up a buyer's guide. No, I try to be more interesting with them, and I'll leave the buyer's guide to the paid reviewers because that's their job and most of them lost their passion for giving a fuck years ago (especially the suits over at IGN and Gametrailers).

In short, the basics of assessing a game (like playstyle, focus and genre) varies from game to game, but the intricacies (like what you look for in playstyle, focus and genre) depend on you. Also love how this practically turned into a short review of LA Noire. Speaking of cinematic games, I can't fucken wait until I get Asura's Wrath in the mail!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Get Into: Devil May Cry 3

This will be an easy thing to do since the HD Collection is well on its way and I'm sure you've already got this on your PS2, but in the event that you don't feel like buying the HD Collection for whatever reason (already got the PS2 games [like me], don't want to support them, got other games to play) or you didn't get it on PS2 (or a PS2 period), well, that's why I'm writing up this blog post. Unfortunately, should you get the HD Collection, that means you're also getting the antichrist that is Devil May Cry 2, but honestly, Devil May Cry 3 is one of the best games ever made, so I'd say it's worth it just for that alone, and the first game ain't too shabby either.

Devil May Cry 3 takes place well before Devil May Cry 1, like how Castlevania 3 takes place well before Castlevania 1, though you still play as Dante instead of playing as his ancestor. You basically have to stop his half brother, Vergil, from trying to connect the demon and human worlds, which would destroy the human race. Even though that sounds interesting, the plot is far from the reason to care for the cutscenes - it's Dante who makes them work. His cocky personality and one liners are enough to make any gamer either like or hate him, and.. I think he's awesome. I found him to be a potentially cool character in the first game, then he lost his personality in the second game, so to fix it up, well, that's why this game is a prequel.

But yeah, the reason Devil May Cry works so well is the combat engine. It feels so smooth and yet so insane that you can't help but keep playing it, even when you're getting your ass handed to you and have to start at the beginning of the level... ooh yeah, it's a hard motherfucker, especially the original edition of Devil May Cry 3 in America and Europe, whose normal mode is actually the Japanese hard mode... whoops Capcom, but we forgive you for balancing it out in the special edition, plus being able to play as Vergil? Shit yeah! But yeah, despite the fact that enemies hit hard, healing items are few and far between, levels can be long and bosses can be a real test of skill, the way the combat engine is done is just fantastic. It will keep you coming back because you know it's your fault for dying, and you want to beat the game so you can feel like a real man! That's the kind of difficulty I like - one that encourages you to get better, and is unforgiving, but is still well designed. Devil May Cry 3 is still a great game to play, which is not quite what I would say about a lot of hack and slash games during the sixth generation (in fact, the only others worth a damn would be Prince Of Persia and Ninja Gaiden - the rest just don't have that oomph if you ask me).

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Get Into: Rogue Trooper

Based off of a comic book of the same name, Rogue Trooper is a third person shooter that does everything in its power to be an excellent piece of science fiction. It's basically what would happen if the Civil War took place in the future, used chemical and biological weapons and the South had access to genetically enhanced soldiers. Sadly for the South, the North caught wind of their plan via a traitor, and the North destroy all but one of the super soldiers - the one having gone AWOL to look for the traitor.

It's certainly one of the more flexible shooters - you could go in John Rambo style, go in Solid Snake style while placing turrets, or use holograms as distractions. You can use the environment to your advantage by hiding behint crates and shit. This was released after Kill.Switch and Winback, which first utilized these features, but before Gears Of War overused the fuck out of them. No matter what route you choose, it's a blast to just fuck shit up. The action is intense and every moment will feel like a fun roller coaster ride, only without you puking. It's so fun that it ends before you know it - although it's only like 5 hours long, which is bullshit, but those will be some of the best 5 hours you'll ever have, gaming-wise.

Looking back on: Final Fantasy Mystic Quest

This is not a post where I get you guys into a game (old or new); this is a post where I look back on a game and really talk about it. This is usually done for games we've played in our childhoods that either really stood the test of time or just suck ass nowadays, but sometimes, we cover historically significant games. Amazingly, today's post is going to cover something from the latter category, as I've only played this game recently (well, about 3 years ago was the first time I played it, but that's close enough) and thus there's no nostalgia to wade through. Instead, there's significance to take on board with our judgement.

Don't get me wrong - if you don't consider what it was meant to do, then yeah, it is a piece of shit. It's a retardedly simple JRPG with zero plot or character development and very little difficulty. That's a red light right there, but did you know that it was Square's intention to do it like that because they thought western audiences were dumbells? No? Damn, son, you better get some Happy Video Game Nerd in your life! But yeah, this is certainly one of those games where its significance outweighs the game itself - in fact, if you compare them, the historical significance is an obese man and the game is a bulimic girl. Not kidding. The game itself is a mess, but what it did for JRPGs was astounding... in spite of the game.

What I mean is that this game got the shit smashed out of it by critics back when it was first released and in general, it was pretty poorly received. Nobody wanted to be talked down to by a video game. Nobody expected a dumbed down JRPG to be extremely dumb. Nobody took too kindly to Square making what was essentially shit in a paper bag. Let's not forget that Final Fantasy 4 (which was known as 2 before we knew of the real 2 and 3) achieved, at best, moderate sales, which lead Square to make... well, this, but yet, I think more people bought Final Fantasy 4 because they were like "fuck it I want a complicated game".

The backlash made Square think "hmm maybe there is a market for JRPGs that aren't meant for the mentally retarded" (well maybe not their exact words, but you get the picture). Various JRPG developers put more work into translating them quicker and better so that we can play the next big JRPG months, not years, after the Japs. Various western developers felt like trying it out for themselves, or at least publishing them themselves. Hell, some companies tried their hands at simple JRPGs, and as a result, we got Secret Of Mana and the enormously popular Pokemon series (which, in my eyes, was what made JRPGs the monolith it was between the late 90s and mid 2000s - Final Fantasy 7 just had pretty graphics and a beautiful soundtrack to bring to the table).

So while it's a piece of shit, we should at least give it some respect. Otherwise, I don't think JRPGs would've had any place in western society, except... as it is now, which is a mere niche appeal at best. Although there's no denying that the soundtrack is awesome.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Get Into: Outcast

Games like this are the reason for this blog's existence - it'd old, the graphics have aged terribly and nobody remembers it.. nor do they even know it exists. It's such a crime, because it's a fantastic game and I really, really think everyone should give it a shot!

It basically combines first person shooting with puzzle solving ala Tomb Raider... now, if that's set you off, I don't blame you... I don't particularly care for the Tomb Raider series myself. However, Outcast presents these puzzles in a way that makes even the most mundane escort puzzle feel exciting... or as exciting as it's going to get, but yeah, rather than dread every puzzle, you end up excited for the next puzzle, just to see where they go with it. As for the shooting, it's simple enough - just go ZAP on the enemies and they'll go down.

The thing is, their AI can give you some grief. Back when this game was made, it used some then-new, innovative technology to program the AI to be more sophisticated, and it works. Packs of enemies will either bum rush you or use tactics to pick you off, while individual enemies... are cowards, pretty much. Animals react in the way that you'd expect them to if you were to encounter them in real life, and... erm, just don't shoot civilians. Surprisingly, this is actually rather effective, because it really does feel like you're fighting enemies, not a bunch of headless chickens. The only games with superior AI are Half Life and Thief.

The story has a simple idea, but with the way that they go about it, it fucking works. You're a guy who has to escort three scientists to a parallel world to retrieve a probe. You get seperated and run into the natives... who claim that you're their messiah. Perhaps it's because your technology is more advanced than theirs, but you take note of their energy weapons and portals and think "who do I have to screw to get those!?". Anyway, what you have to do is collect sacred objects and stop the tyranny of the evil Fae Rahn. The thing is though, I don't want to spoil anything more - just know that it does get very, very interesting as you progress through the game.

I have to say though, the graphics have aged badly. It used a Voxel-based engine, which, and I quote, "is a volume element, representing a value on a regular grid in three dimensional space. This is analogous to a pixel, which represents 2D image data in a bitmap (which is sometimes referred to as a pixmap)". Sounds neat, right? Well, try playing it now, and try not to be too appalled by the graphics. They - well, the environments - almost look like an early Dreamcast game, and the character models aren't too far off from looking like they were in an early PS2 game.

It's a shame, because everything else is still very well done and has aged like fine, fine wine. Games like this remind me of why I stuck with gaming throughout the years - it's very entertaining and very enthralling. I'd almost call this a masterpiece, but if I did, it'd be low on the spectrum compared to the likes of Half Life 1 and 2, System Shock 2, Deus Ex, Thief 2 and Silent Hill 2... consider this a very good game. I recommend this game to anybody with a functioning PC.. so everybody, pretty much.