Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday Musings - 26th Sept, 2011

It is yet another Monday and it is yet another time for the musings. Let us begin.

Persona 4 (PS2)

Before i go into my exploits with this fabulous RPG, i have a question for those who have played the game. Does anybody take actually go through with Arcana Chance? In my experience the chance of the negative card outweighs any benefit that the positive gives.

So since i took a 3 week break from the game to play through New Vegas, i thought about how to return to the world of Inaba and its alternate TV dimension. I had been following a rather strict walkthrough (as the guide was trying to maximise social links throughout a single play), and the idea that i had to complete a dungeon in one day was one of the conditions that i believe led to my dislike of the dungeon crawling aspect of the game.

So i've restarted with a different guide. This one is much looser, just giving you information on what can be done each day and what is needed to answer questions for stat points and how to proceed with the story etc. As of last night, i'm around the 5th of June in the game (i have saved on the final night you have to rescue Kanji), and with this more relaxed attitude towards play, i no longer grimace when entering the TV. I've even been grinding a little to meet the levels of the optional bosses.

It's amazing how one simple thing can make a great game even more tolerable to play. Before i would be stressed when i was running low on SP, as the only ways to deal with that are either rare items, paying the Fox a crazy amount of money, or trying your luck at certain cards of the Arcana Chance (yeah right). Now when i'm nearing the end of my SP reserves, i finish the floor i'm on, then use my Goho-M item to leave and come back the next time a party member suggests to enter the TV. With the Yukiko dungeon, the optional boss in that dungeon, and Kanji's dungeon, this has made progression a breeze, and given me more than enough time to level up those social links.

I'm thinking at this rate, i should be back to where i left off at the end of the week.

Red Remover (indie)

Last week when i decided to spend some time on Sunday looking for some fun indie games to talk about in this column, i had a run of good luck. The first game i tried was Accelerator and i had enough fun with it that i didn't need to try any other games. This week was a bit of a different story.

I spent over an hour playing at least 12 or so indie games before i found one that i felt was worth talking about (not that the others aren't, they just didn't light that spark in me. I'm sure others would find the titles i played quite enjoyable... but i digress). The game that i ended up deciding to talk about is the fun little physics puzzler called Red Remover.

 The premise is simple. Click on all the red shapes to remove them from the level. Simple enough, but then you have to remove red shapes while keeping green shapes on screen. Then the neutral blue shapes come into play... and then when the game starts throwing alternate gravity in your face, things start to get really crazy.

I think what struck me is how simple the concept is, but how it keeps building level to level, adding new little elements of play or new mechanics at a gradual pace that allows the player to not get bored of what the game has to offer. The level that first introduces the alternate gravity threw me for a loop and i had to play the level again just to make sure i understood what was going on (i didn't, but the next level cleared things up for me).

I was talking to my friend Robbie at the time. He was working on a comic as i was telling him that my search for a game to talk about was not going well. Then suddenly after playing a couple levels, i threw him the link, exclaiming, "Haha! I found a game worth discussing!". He cursed me out as he was no longer working on his comic but was not addicted to this title. I played for about 20 mins more before i pulled myself away.

I wonder if next week's search will be a tad shorter.

Final Thoughts

So only two games this week huh, and one of them was an indie title i actively searched for. I've talked about my inability to stick to one game till completion before, but i think i'm at a point where i'd like to give it another try.

It all stemmed out of New Vegas. I bought it on sale, and really wanted to try it out (also considering Fallout 3 kind of fizzled out on me, i thought that NV would do the same... but i wanted to give it a shot anyway if that makes any sense). Well it turns out NV got its deathclaws into me (get it?) and before i knew it not only was i playing the game every chance i got, i actually stopped the main story line before the final mission to reach level cap and further explore the game world. Even after completing it i'm looking forward to that future steam sale when the DLC all goes on sale and i can return to that world a complete and utter levelled out badass and play through these new stories (i'm really looking forward to Honest Hearts. Burning man! Yay!).

So now i finish up on NV and decide to return to Persona 4, and of course because of the way i play games, i decide to restart it. I also want to get back to where i left the game off asap, so i've been playing practically every day. Now most gamers there's nothing odd about that statement, but funnily enough, even with how much i love games, i don't set aside time each and every day to play them. Sometimes i feel like watching movies or TV. Sometimes i feel like playing my bass or wasting all evening on the Internet. I rarely play games during the day because that time i like to use for my comic strip, my reviewing job, and other work related things. So yeah, for me to start to play one game exclusively every day is kind of a big thing.

And i feel i should be doing this anyway. Gaming isn't just a hobby i've grown up with all my life. It's not just part of what pays my bills. Gaming is important to me, and i do feel a sense of guilt of not giving it the time it deserves. That's part of the reason i have been writing this column every Monday come rain, hail, or shine... and shall continue to keep writing it till circumstances beyond my control restrict my ability to do so.

I guess it also helps that both New Vegas and Persona 4 are games that have clicked with me. Games i actually like, i need to make sure i spend the time with till i finish them, and not let them meander off into a forgotten save file on a hard drive or memory card. Earthbound, Vanquish, and Metro 2033 are three games that i have neglected after enjoying my initial experiences with them, so i shall endeavour to give them their time once i am done with Persona 4.

Mind you, there could be instances where even a good game runs out of steam before the finish and i decide its time to put it down.. but if that's the case, i need to address that in this column and then put the game aside for good (not just keep looking at it and saying to myself, "Eh, i'll get back to it soon enough").

I guess i'm just trying to restore some order in my game playing habits to positively affect my hobby and this column. I raise a virtual glass to try and make this new outlook on gaming last for myself.

Till next week, happy gaming all!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Monday Musings - 19th Sept, 2011

An interesting week for musing all up. Let's muse to it!

Fallout: New Vegas (Steam)

Level 30 was reached. While there were some companions left to acquire (mainly for an achievement), the nature of companions, that they have to open up to you over time, travelling the wastes seemed to prolong gameplay past its interesting point. The final mission was triggered and off to Hoover Dam the party went.

What a spectacular finale. The boomers and remnants made a splash, the legion was dealt with, the NCR was made to listen to reason, and Mr. House triumphed. Then through a series of stills and voiceover, the fates of all the factions and significant characters that the Courier had come into contact with were explained. Most endings were satisfactory. A couple were not but when the DLC goes on sale, some of these problematic endings may be rectified.

Persona 4 (PS2)

Now that New Vegas is over, back to Persona 4. Only a couple hours have been played as it took a little time to reaccustomise to the game. Not all RPGs are created equal after all. Every now and then there's a thought that handing over control of the other party members to the AI is a fine thing to do. They might play out strategies not thought of by a human player. Then after a few battles, control is always changed back to direct commands. The option is nice, and of course it might work for some players, but the ability to fully control all of one's party is just as important.

Accelerator (Kongregate)

The link to the game is above. This column will try to play an indie game each week from now on as they're usually quick to play, and usually interesting. This section will probably be in between a review and the usual analysis.

Accelerator is a game where you see how far you can travel. Using your mouse (complete with sensitivity options in the options screen), you avoid hitting things as each second you travel faster, and faster, and faster, and faster. You start out at 100 and then every hundred after that you unlock that speed to start at, complete with its own leaderboard (a tip: always start a couple hundred back from your maximum).

What sells the game is its oppressive atmosphere. Escher like corridors with a hint of Tron, which branch off similar to an optical illusion, all the meanwhile an ambient soundtrack of dread induced whooshing keeps you tense and unsure how much longer it can last.

It's a nightmarish roller coaster of death, but carries the same exhilaration as you'd expect from such a ride. Will the sequel be named Decelerator? How will that one work?

Final Thoughts

Long time readers will have noticed that there was a bit of a tonal shift in the writing this week. I was trying an experiment where i try not to refer to myself in discussing my gameplay experiences over the last week. Having come this far, i have the impression that aside from forcing me to creatively frame my thoughts better, it serves little purpose and may actually be a detriment. Here's my thinking.

When writing about games, try as we might, we cannot remove our own experiences from our words as our experience is all we have to go on. In this way reviews and critiques are kind of pointless. Every player is going to have a unique experience wholly to themselves no matter how good or bad a game is (and of course this quantifier of quality suffers the same problem). That's why the best a consumer can do if they enjoy reviews, is to scour the net and published material, trying to find a reviewer that seems to share their perceptions of what constitutes a good or bad experience.

Because of this, a lot of conflict is born. People who love or hate a certain title get angry at others who have had a different experience. To try and deflect this before it starts, i write with heavy use of the personal pronoun 'I'. In this way i signal to people that this is my opinion, the way i see and think about things. Without this, i'm still expressing the same opinions, but these opinions seem to carry an extra weight. They seem to try and pass themselves off as factual statements. I mean at this time and place of writing, they are true to me, but they may be false to others, and they may be false to me the next time i think about that game or hear someone else's opinion on the matter.

There's also the thought that heavy use of first person in writing is unprofessional. I'm thinking that's because professional writing tries to pass itself off as the truth on its perspective of a subject. Next week i'll write as i always have. This was an interesting experiment, and hey, it gave me a nice subject for the Final Thoughts segment (some weeks thinking of a good topic is like pulling teeth).

Till next time, happy gaming all!

NB. Typing on a laptop with a touchpad capable of all matters of chicanery is a maddening experience.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Monday Musings - 12th Sept, 2011

I write to take my mind off things this week, so let us muse... and muse hard!

Kirby's Epic Yarn (Wii)

We're up to the ice world (cause you know, every platformer has to have an ice world). The previous water world had some brutal stuff in and i'm happy to skate on thin ice rather than swim around (even though Dolphin Kirby is kickass).

One thing i find amusing is the similarity to New Super Mario Bros Wii when it comes to less experienced players. You ask them to enter safe mode, or they do so of their own volition. In Mario, it was telling them "to bubble", in Kirby it's telling them "to angel". Perhaps it was a more imperative design choice in Mario because you can actually die in that game, and in many ways, having extra players makes the game more difficult. In Kirby, it's relegated to not wanting to deal with a jump that your partner has made, or if an enemy's been hitting you too many times.

Fallout: New Vegas (Steam)

I'm level 28 now. Home stretch! I think i might be running out of quests to do, so i've started trying to find all the other companions. I told Cass and Rex to go wait in the Lucky 38 (i want to keep all my old companions handy after all) and i recruited E-DE and Arcade Cannon. I completed Arcade's quest chain and was pleasantly surprised. After playing Fallout 2, the Enclave are not a group of people a player looks on favourably, and to be finding old members in New Vegas, well it was interesting to say the least. I do have them on my side now when i finally hit the dam (along with the Great Khans and Boomers). I also left their power armour alone. While the stats are great, my character looked too silly in 3rd person mode. Yes, in this game it's been all about image and i will keep my desperado cowboy hat and reinforced leather armour thank you very much.

I've since recruited Boone and with his help took out Caesar. That was satisfying. The problem though is that to acquire his quest, i have to do more damage to the legion, and looking at the Fallout wiki (which is a fantastic resource by the way), i've sadly done everything i can do before i picked him up. I might quest with him a little more to see if slaughtering a few more of the Legion assassin squads that hunt me down will do the trick.

That's the same issue i'm having with E-DE. To acquire the message logs, i have to waste days of in game time and then talk to the right person who will trigger message playback with a keyword. Seeing that E-DE is in Primm and Boone is in Novac, i guess the game wanted me to pick these two up early so coming to them so late may be part of the reason i'm having difficulties with their quest chains.

Oh yeah, earlier in the week there was a mission where i had to help a prostitute from Gomorrah and this guy running from the Omertas get together and leave. I couldn't find either in the game. It turns out (again thanks to the Fallout wiki) that they can glitch out and not show up, but entering some code into the console, i was able to get both to appear in front of me, and i completed the quest without incident. Still, that was a new experience for me...

...and you know how last week i was complaining about deathclaws? Anti-material rifle. In the legs. Not a problem no more.

Rock of Ages (Steam)

I had not heard of this game before Friday. I saw the review at Game Trailers and decided to take a look. The review sold me on a tower defence / marble madness style game with humorous monty python-esque animated cut-scenes.

I am sad to say that the gameplay wore thin for me after 3 levels and i didn't find the cut-scenes as entertaining as the review made them out to be. Ah well, it was only $10 so you never feel bad about taking a risk on what might be a fun gaming experience when the price barrier is so low (see: the iphone market). I still would recommend people to checkout a review or watch a video of the gameplay. It might be up your alley.

Final Thoughts

Is death in video games an outdated concept?

Playing Kirby has got me thinking about this. Well not just Kirby but a few games i've enjoyed over the past few years. In Braid, one could always rewind the clock so technically there was no death in that game, and Flower had no lose conditions at all. Recently playing Super Mario Galaxy 2, the idea of lives kind of frustrated me. Especially since they were so easy to acquire, why not just do any with them altogether? I'm muddling my thoughts here though since Mario is a game you can die, and my reasons for being frustrated at the lives system is that so many games with death these days make use of a generous checkpoint system.

Limbo is the first game that comes to mind there. To be honest, i can't be down on death in Limbo because the trial and error of that game is part of its core. Also, it has a very generous checkpoint system. It most likely is to do with the rise in popularity of the console market over the last decade but i notice a lot of FPS games have taken on a rather generous checkpoint system as well (playing Battlefield Bad Company 2 earlier in the year, i don't think i ever quick saved. Back in the 90s my finger was always heading up to F5).

I am constantly quick-saving in Fallout: New Vegas though. Part of me says that's not necessary because of the auto saves upon loading each new area (which are a god-send with the frequent game crashes), but perhaps it's just my attachment to my character and the world. In Flower the avatar i'm controlling is quite abstract. In games like Braid and Super Mario Galaxy 2, i don't really care about Tim or Mario and am there for the excellent gameplay. I guess you could argue that we don't care about Tim because we can't lose him, and with Mario there's another life around the corner... but there's something more here. I think a death in a Mario game is affecting the same spot of frustration and anger that is present when i lose gems in Kirby. It's not an attachment to the character or a feeling of shame of having that character die, but that the failure was on my lack of skill as a player.

But where does reloading a death in New Vegas come into the equation? What about a death in World of Warcraft? Perhaps my initial question was the wrong one. The more i type and work out this issue, it seems that death in games is yet another mechanic. I think my problem with it (especially after playing games with it removed) is that psychological idea of rewarding success but not punishing failure... as no reward for failure can have the same effect. In this way you're not making a player feel bad for failing, but frustrated for not succeeding, and it might drive them to want to succeed more.

Still it feels like i'm still clawing at the edges of an answer, so close and yet so far to resolution. If anyone has any thoughts on the issue of death in gaming, please leave comments. I'd love to hear some alternate viewpoints.

Till next week, happy gaming all!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Monday Musings - 5th Sept, 2011

It's September and all the big releases are starting to drop. For a poor gamer like myself though, i keep going with old games in my backlog, steam sales, and cheap imports. Every now and then i'll splurge on something, but that hasn't happened for a while. Anyhow, let us begin to muse.

Kirby's Epic Yarn (Wii)

This was a split purchase with my sister mainly cause it had co-op and you can't die in the game (this was a great bonus for her). This was also the #1 game i had wish i played last year, and boy has it not disappointed. I think i need to begin with the music. This is the big stand out feature for me so far (we're on world 4 at the moment). Each level has such amazing music. It's orchestral, it's catchy, it's astonishing... and the developers know this. Each level has 3 treasures and the final treasure is always a disc of the music for that level so you can play it at your leisure.

The actual game is great fun too. The yarn aesthetic gives everything an amusing and playful feel, and the sheer amount of crazy contraptions Kirby and Prince Fluff can turn into is astonishing. The not being able to die would make the game boring, or so one would think, but not so. See, through the level you're collecting gems (the game calls them beads, but they're gems). Every time you're hit you lose a bunch of gems, although like Sonic and his rings, they can be collected up again if you're quick. The amount of gems you have warrants you a bronze, silver, or gold medal on completing the level, and for boss levels, if you get passed gold, you earn an extra patch.

After every level, you are given a patch that Kirby throws to affect the world in some way and open up the next level. This adds excitement to the end of each level as you're curious as to how the world will change with every new patch, and many of the changes are quite humorous and entertaining. So now you see why the addition of a patch for completing a boss fight with a full gem bar adds a sense of tension to a fight that should have none because you can't die. A really clever solution.

And of course arguing over gems and throwing each other around during the level is both hilarious and maddening. Nintendo games really do bring out the worst in people. :)

Metro 2033 (Steam)

This was cheap on the weekend and was gifted to me by my friend James, which i really appreciate as i've been hearing good things about this for a while. I've only played about two hours, but so far it's very atmospheric and the way the game utilizes lighting is incredible. I was also quite pleased at the difficulty select screen.

There was a couple of choices with ranger in front of them. A quick google search told me that this was added in a later patch, and the ranger mode uses more realistic damage, so a couple shots can kill both you and your enemies. I picked this option immediately. I've always been a fan of the more realistic FPS (realistic in terms of damage). The original Operation Flashpoint, and Rainbow Six games where a single bullet to a vital region could take both you and your enemies out. It adds a level of gravity to the gunplay that i find missing in most FPS' i play.

Despite the game playing with monsters and mutants, i haven't really felt a tense horror vibe. There's more a bleakness and element of survival. You find yourself scrounging for ammo off every corpse you find just so you have enough bullets to make it to the next area... and when you exit the metro system to go up top? Breath-taking.

The game also utilizes taking control away from the player for short cut-scenes incredibly well. I'm looking forward to more of this as play progresses.

Fallout: New Vegas (Steam)

It turns out i just needed a short break from the game as i'm back in and having fun again. How about those Deathclaws huh? I went to the quarry to grab some eggs and man, even at level 22 with some awesome guns and companions, those things are dangerous. I managed to kill off about five of them, and then an alpha came up and swiped my head off with one blow. I think i shall return to the quarry when i level up some more.

Escape (PC)

I followed the link on Destructoid over the weekend to this. It's an infinite wall climbing game that uses the esc button to jump. What's amazing about this is how the pressure with which you press and hold esc affects your jumping and sliding. Very fine tuned and this is pretty addictive because of it. It can be played here.

Final Thoughts

Originally playing Escape i felt a little depressed. You see, i often have a few neat ideas for video games running through my head, and if i ever stick with learning how to program long enough to make any of them a reality, i just might turn a few heads. Sadly the idea of an endless wall jump was one that's been rattling around in my brain the last couple of months, and so even though when it comes to game ideas, "you snooze, you lose" is all too truthful, and while escape is amazingly made, i felt that twinge of annoyance and regret.

The same thing happened with VVVVV. A game where you press a button to switch gravity in order to get through levels was one that myself and a few fellow game students at Bond had in 2008. We started planning the game but our plans fell through, and again when VVVVV was released, while i thought it was pretty awesome (even though i get stuck on one of the early game screens every time i try to play it), there was that jealousy that someone had actually followed through on creating a game similar to an idea i had toyed with.

Now of course this is just sour grapes. Hell i could still make my two games based on these mechanics and i think my spin on them would differentiate enough from Escape or VVVVV to be worthwhile, but that would require following through and completing a game (or how to program). It's the same with novels and screenplays too. You got to hand it to any work that is finished no matter how bad it is, as that person actually finished something. There are heaps of people with talent and potential for talent that will never have their work known because they can't finish a project.

Ah well, i'll continue to dream of games and plan when i'm going to start programming... and take solace in the fact that the big daddy of my game ideas, that's been in my head for years hasn't had anything like it released that i know about... for now :)

Til next week, happy gaming all!