Sunday, 5 October 2014

Thoughts on The Last of Us

By now, everyone knows what The Last of Us is. It is a post-apocalyptic third person survival-horror action game. It is the most critically acclaimed game of 2013. It is one of the most notable games of the last console generation. According to some it's even a contender for the best game of all time. All this from the well loved folks at Naughty Dog who also brought us Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter, and Uncharted as well. It is for these reasons that I decided to give the game a whirl, knowing full well that this type of game is not at all my cup of tea. And so here I am today, giving you my impressions of a game that I played primarily because of the hype.

One of the things that gets talked about most is probably the game's narrative, so let's start there. In a lot of ways the tale that The Last of Us weaves is actually very unoriginal. It's hardly the first work of fiction to explore the the lows and highs of a post-apocalyptic society, and what actually happens is rarely unexpected. What the game does do very well however is weave narrative into the gameplay. You learn just as much about Joel from his actions then you do from his words. What's more, these are really your actions. All of his most brutal moments come at your command, and watching Joel beat a man to death with a brick at your behest can feel legitimately disturbing. And that's the point. Joel is a bad person, and unlike a lot of games where the anti-hero is glorified as some badass, there is no pretending that Joel is doing anything more than what he thinks he needs to in order to survive.

Now, one of the things that this narrative helps accomplish, is a very strong atmosphere. Together with some very well built environments and a well written script, it's easy to get sucked into this dreary world. It looks good, but it also feels good, and believable to boot. Said world is, unsurprisingly, mostly empty (which is in itself a form of worldbuilding), and yet it seems like there is always something interesting to look at or for the characters to discuss. The environments feel very organic, and so do the actors' performances. Together between the games' narrative and atmosphere it feels like it is constantly taking you feel a ride, and I found it pretty common to experience genuine shock or relief or terror when it was appropriate. However it's interesting to note, these moments were always as a result of gameplay. There are some moments which essentially become glorified walking simulators, but they still make you feel the weight of the games' situations far more than the cutscenes do.

The game manages to provide a fair variety in these situations, too. As the game goes on it introduces new things to worry about at a fair pace. Not a great one, but a fair one. Some sections drag on longer than I would like, but in general it feels like things are paced such that they never get overly tired. After playing for a while however, things can start to feel pretty formulaic (forage > infected > forage > thugs). Where The Last of Us does this better than say, the Uncharted games, is that things like puzzle solving and platforming feel like they blend into the foraging section of the game much more organically. Or perhaps the other way around. Because you are always looking for resources, and you aren't spending your time climbing up giant statues and solving ancient puzzles, it feels like you are really just navigating the environment rather than playing "the platforming segment". The Last of Us does have much less variance in puzzles and platforming than the Uncharted games however, and so with lass variance in things to do, the formula can get old quicker in my experience.

Foraging in itself however, is actually pretty grand, too. I think I can honestly say that it is my favorite part of the gameplay. It feels like hunting about the environment for materials is a legitimately very important part of the game, which helps sell the survival aspect of this broken world very well. Whereas in other games exploration tends to be a way to get bonuses that give you prestige or extra power, The Last of Us makes exploration feel like a necessity. Exploring isn't a way to become more overpowered than you would otherwise be. If you don't find enough ammo or bits to make the med packs you need, you will die. Or at the least you will make things very hard for yourself in the coming sections. It also helps that the environments are legitimately interesting to explore, for the reasons stated earlier. Unfortunately though, this is more or less where the gameplay and I stop seeing eye to eye.

Now I'm not saying that the gameplay is bad. If anything I've spoken pretty glowingly of it for the past several paragraphs. However I also mentioned how The Last of Us isn't really my type of game. Try as I might, I could never really find much love for the game's stealth-y horror-y elements, and they typically take precedence over the action-y survive-y bits. I do appreciate the narrative value that comes with the stealth-centric gameplay. However, any narrative gains from this is probably offset by how completely oblivious enemies are to your allies running all over the place and making a monolithic din. But honestly, I just felt like I just wanted to shoot things most of the time. This is in part because of my own impatience, but probably also in part because the game can be frustrating at times. It's checkpoints are not very forgiving, and it's not unheard of to die for stupid reasons like say, your partner physically blocking you from going where you need to go. All said I just found the combat to be generally frustrating and not really for me.

So where does all of this leave us? Well, we have a game that is spectacularly put together in just about every conceivable way. The Last of Us doesn't really innovate in any way, but it is a testament to the value of polish and attention to detail. To be honest, I'm still unsure of how much I actually like it, but I do believe that it deserves most of the accolades it has received, and that whatever my feelings are on the game, it's hard to deny that it is a fantastic piece of work. I think it's interesting that for a lot of the game I wished I could just experience it as a movie, and yet at the same time, a movie would not have had as strong a narrative without intermixing with the gameplay. Regardless of how much I might have enjoyed the game, it is a strong case for the strengths video games have over other forms of media, for this reason.

Here are some notes I took on the game.

Friday, 4 July 2014

A Love Song to Papers, Please

Papers, Please is a weird game. The story of how this post came to exist is maybe even weirder. Papers, Please originally came onto my radar about a year ago when a demo of the game was released. It struck me as whimsical and strangely enticing; a game I definitely wanted to buy but was not in a rush to do so. Well Steam's Summer Sale solved that problem, and I've found playing the game to be an even more interesting experience. Having only put a few hours into the game I didn't want to do a proper analysis of it yet, but then I started watching the most recent season of Nickelodeon's The Legend of Korra. A befuddling tangent to be sure. I noticed a surprising number of thematic similarities between the two and was going to write a comparison, because I thought it was very unexpected and interesting. However in trying to conceptualize that post, I couldn't figure out a way to write it without dedicating most the article to gushing about Papers, Please. So, I'm just going to do that for now instead!

Ok, so what exactly is Papers, Please anyways? Well the concept is simple.  You are an immigration officer working at the border of the fictional country of Arstotzka. Day in and day out, people hand you their papers and you must decide who can and cannot enter the country. As the days march by the political landscape gets more complicated, and so does your job. On day 1 you're just checking passports, but soon enough you're cross-checking 3-4 documents, the person's appearance and story, wanted criminal lists, etc. The difficulty in processing each immigrant increases, but your always payed $5 per person you get right. At the end of the day you go home, count your pay, and hope you have enough to pay for rent, food, heat, and whatever other expenses you may have. The next morning you wake up, read the headlines, and do it all over again.

Obviously this sounds fairly boring, but it's design is surprisingly brilliant and immersive. Let me walk you through the thought process as you are playing this game. It starts off, and you are trying to get a hang for how the game works. You quickly realize that you can just barely make ends meet, and that maybe tomorrow you won't. So the next day comes, and you decide you are going to go at it hard to make sure you earn enough money. In your fervor you miss something, and your pay gets docked. You can't pay for the heat, and next thing you know little Timmy is has a cold. You quickly learn to loathe the clickity-clack sound of the tickets that pop out whenever you make a mistake. Maybe it's worth it to make sure you do your job properly. This is a game anyways right? Clearly the goal is to process everyone correctly and make enough money to provide for your family. Just put your head down, check every bit of information, and you'll surely be fine.

But as the days go by, you begin to question this. You're soon checking so much information that you can't process it all quickly enough, and you start wondering if you shouldn't have more empathy. You start forgetting to check for things like fraudulent seals. Maybe you start putting less effort into checking Arstotzkan citizens, as they have fewer documents to verify and are usually legit. Maybe when a wife doesn't have the documents to enter with her husband, you're willing to give her a pass. But what happens when the next morning you read a headline about criminals entering the country? Is that your fault? Do you care as long as your pay isn't affected? What if you were bribed? What about people with cryptic requests? If some guy asks you to pass along an important document, do you trust him? How do you identify who to give it to? What if you give it to the wrong person and it increases terrorist attacks? After all, bombings shut down the checkpoint for the rest of the day, you certainly can't pay the bills working half days.

These are just some of the questions you have to answer while playing Papers, Please, and this is why it's kind of brilliant. In the world that is Arstotzka's border all you do is drag some papers around and stamp the passport with the red or the green. But you have all the power, and you can do whatever you want with it. The game provides you with a framework, rewards, punishments, incentives, but never hard rules or end goals. Nobody is telling you what to do. Everyone has their own idea of what they want you to do, and they will reward/punish you accordingly, but in the end of the day the decision is always yours. You have to weigh what you value and decide how to best achieve it. Maybe you don't care about politics or emotional immigrants or cryptic cults, you just want to put your head down and provide for your family. Maybe you want to unlock all of the bonus medals, so you look for those weird situations with special circumstances. Maybe you actually don't care about your family, you just want to make sure all the terrorists get in.

Who would ever suspect such a simple game to have such immersive gameplay? How is it that a game about doing paperwork has the best morality system I've seen in any game? You might not even realize it's there because there are no points or meters, you don't even have good vs. bad. You just have a system where your actions have real, direct, discernible consequences. You're choices aren't even that complex, you are essentially answering yes or no a couple hundred times. This is the game's key. It doesn't have deep gameplay, it doesn't have an epic backstory, it's simple. It focuses on narrative and immersion at the cost of everything else. If anything, it's simplicity just accentutes how mundane a job you are working, and how even a thoroughly monotonous existence like immigration officer is one full of meaningful choices.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Jak and Daxter vs Jak II

The age of the Playstation and the Playstation 2 is one that I think a lot of people look upon with much fondness. There are a lot of old Playstation classics that came out of that time which people will talk about to this day. One of the things that stick out in my mind the most was eagerly awaiting my monthly edition of Playstation Magazine, a publication that often had something to say about the newest Ratchet and Clank or Jak and Daxter game. It seemed like the two series had something of a rivalry going on, and the gamers loved it. At the time I was happy enough playing nothing but RPGs every day, but these days I feel a compulsion to go back and see what the fuss was all about. Luckily, this is made pretty easy by the existence of HD collections. I rather enjoyed my time with the Sly Cooper collection, and now the time for Jak and Daxter has arrived. At the time of this writing, I have completed the original, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy and am about half way through Jak II. The purpose of this article is to compare the two, because I feel like there is a lot to say on the matter.

So let's start off by talking about the original game. Jak and Daxter is ultimately, a pretty simple game. It's a game about exploration, collecting pickups, and platforming. It does all of these things quite well, boasting a surprisingly large world that is entirely seamless (unless you are warping) and more to the point, well constructed. The levels are complex, but not to the point that they are difficult to navigate even without any form of map. The areas are colorful and interesting, and the same is true of the game on the whole. It has a lighthearted cheer about it that's quite endearing, and it doesn't bog you down with superfluous things. Story is minimal; the characters are interesting but don't overstay their welcome. Overall the game just compels you to not only play, but to perfect it. It's very easy to open up your menu and see that you've collected 142/150 precursor orbs and 5/7 power cells in an area. Finding what's left may be a little tricky, but the counter both tells you where to look, and encourages you to do so.

That's not to say it's a perfect game by any means. Jak's attack animations have a lot of character, but the game's actual combat feels pretty hamfisted, and I don't know that it really adds anything to the experience. Like many PS2 era games, Jak and Daxter also suffers from some camera woes. It's not especially bad, but the camera movement feels somewhat leaden, and situations where you can't look where you want are pretty frequent as a result. There are also a fair number of vehicle sections, which are pretty decent for the most part, but can be pretty frustrating at times because of difficult platforming which is often coupled with instant death mechanics. I found that most of the time when I died, it felt like I hadn't really done anything particularly wrong. Thankfully the game has pretty plentiful checkpoints and so it's easy to get right back in there and try again. In the end I was entertained enough that I never really wanted to stop playing, and there was never any question that I was going to 100% complete the game.

Now let's look at Jak II... So in the sequel, Jak is turned into an angsty badboy, given a voice, imbued with dark powers, given guns, placed into a dystopian city... You get my point. The game's entire feel is changed. It's not fun and carefree anymore, instead it feels like it's trying really hard to be dark and edgy and I really don't like the change. But that's just my personal opinion. Thematic changes aside, the biggest difference between the games is that while Jak and Daxter was a free roam collectathon, Jak II is a mission based open world. The thing is that this world is just boring, needlessly windy, and only really serves to create busywork. You go from one end to the other, watch some kind of scene that's try too hard to be gritty, then you go back across the city to complete your mission. Along the way you'll probably bump into a guard, the entire city will go into "hunt down Jak" mode (which they may or may not eventually abandon, for some undiscernable reason). When you get to the entrance to another area you won't see a loading screen, but you will sit in an empty room waiting for a giant door to open. Everything about this city just irks me, and you spend the vast majority of your time there.

Playing Jak II immediately after Jak and Daxter, I feel like the game flow has none of the elegance, and the overall theme has none of the character and charm. The areas aren't as well put together, the collectibles are fewer, you don't have the same collectible counter to drive you to find them. The game's focus has shifted significantly towards more combat, which doesn't really feel any better than in the first game. If anything it feels worse because there are very few checkpoints in the game, meaning death usually puts you back at the start of the level with all enemies being respawned. On top of the lack of checkpoints, the game's overall difficulty seems to be higher to boot, and the two combined lead to significantly more frustrating moments. The game's story is much more in your face, and it always feels like it's trying way too hard to be gritty and edgy. The vehicles are a lot more annoying to handle, they blow up easily, and you have to drive them much more frequently to get around the city, complete races etc...

Ultimately the point I'm trying to make here is that Jak II feels nothing like Jak and Daxter. Almost everything I liked about the first game is now gone or altered beyond recognition. It's pretty apparent that Jak II is trying to be a completely different kind of game. That isn't inherently a bad thing; I think there's something to be said about managing your player's expectations, but different doesn't mean bad. That said, the truth of the matter is that I'm just not enjoying my time with Jak II that much. It's not like it's a bad game per se, but I find it to be a pretty annoying experience that is somewhat lacking in actual fun parts. I don't know how the sequel turned into this thing, maybe it's just me, Jak II has a reputation of being a good game. I suppose I'll just have to keep playing, maybe I'll find some fun in it yet.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

E3 2014 Impressions

Another year, another E3. Being as the PS4 and XBox One are now out in the wild, this year was never going to be as exciting as the last, but I for one was pretty interested to see how Sony and Microsoft would follow up the blowout that was E3 2013. For most people, this year was probably about Nintendo. The Wii U has been struggling for almost 2 years now, and is only now beginning to pickup steam. Mario Kart 8 is a big success, Smash Bros 4 is rapidly building excitement, and there were a lot of big Nintendo franchises people were hoping to see this year. Ubisoft and EA were there too, as they always are. For some reason. I saw it all, and even took notes this year, so here are my thoughts on E3 2014.


Unfortunately for Microsoft, it seems like they are still battling the perception that there is nothing to play on the XBox One, and thus no reason to buy one. I think this is expected so early in a consoles life, now that multiplatform releases are so prevalent, but Microsoft seems to be struggling with it a bit more than their competitors thanks in part to their focus on non-games during the consoles reveal. Microsoft put on a pretty good conference though. They focused on the games, showing a good 20 or so titles, including some interesting exclusives. Sunset Overdrive still looks like a wonderful collection of color and smarm, Platinum Games' Scalebound is sure to be a hit (because they are Platinum Games and they cannot fail) and Ori the Blind Forest is intriguing to me. I'm sure the Halo Collection and Halo 5 were very exciting to people, too.

My biggest complaint though, is that I don't think Microsoft really managed to break their image of generic games for college guys. Not a lot of what I saw in this 90 minute presentation deviated from "shoot and race and stab people with up to 4 players!". I'm also becoming rapidly more annoyed by phrases like "available first on system x!" or "exclusive console release on system y!". I don't really want to watch a trailer of a game that is going to be included in another conference, I don't want to watch cinematic trailers, and I don't want to watch fake gameplay footage wherein some shmuck walks on stage and pretends they are actually playing the game. Microsoft definitely isn't the only one doing these things, but somehow it annoys me more when they do it. I suppose perhaps I am just biased against Microsoft, but there you have it.


I seriously doubt that anyone went into EA's conference with very high expectations. They aren't a very well liked company on the whole, and being known as the sports/sims guys who buy other companies doesn't really help. I will say however that their conference started out very strongly. Showing Star Wars Battlefront before saying a word was certainly heartening. I'm not usually a fan of musical presentations at E3, but following Star Wars up with a lady with a Cello playing to the Dragon Age Inquisition footage was pretty awesome, too. In fact all of the Dragon Age footage was pretty awesome to see, and I'm sure a lot of people are very hyped about it. Unfortunately after Dragon Age EA's conference changed from a decent show, to what was in my opinion, the worst this year.

But then EA started saying words, and it was all over. They managed to talk about a lot of games without actually saying much of anything about them, and they said a lot about their annual franchises which, let's be honest, there really isn't much to say. Bioware announced that they are working on a new Mass Effect and an unannounced game, Dawngate was confirmed to exist, and there was a lot of talk about sports, which I've always assumed the demographic for E3 really does not care about. I think my favorite was GOLF WITHOUT LIMITS on the Frostbyte engine, with no loading between holes! Mirror's Edge 2 was officially unveiled but again, we didn't get much out of it except that it is in fact Mirror's Edge 2. That said, it's good to see, as Mirror's Edge is a well loved game with a very unique and refreshing aesthetic and concept. Then we got a good look at Battlefield Hardline, which looks a lot like it did last year when it was Battlefield 4.


Following in EA's footsteps came Ubisoft. Historically their conferences have been about little more than Assassin's Creed + awkward live performance + something, and has hinged on being quirky and French as well as the divisive Aisha Tyler as host. This year had seemingly more games than others, but still delivered on it's MO. Probably the thing that has stood out to me the most about Ubisoft at E3 this year as well as last, was the immaturity of their conference. E3 is the biggest platform video games have, and I think it reflects poorly on us when the face you choose to show to the media and investors is Aisha Tyler saying things like "It's hella fuckin smokey as shit, apparently it's 420 in this bitch". I held the same opinion last year when we opened with a trailer containing nudity. I'm definitely not trying to say these things aren't ok to have in games, but trying way too hard to be edgy isn't exactly the best way to legitimize our favorite pastime.

Anyways, rant aside, Ubisoft's conference was at least a bit better than EA's but not by much. Far Cry 4 had no gameplay, but there was a very engrossing intro cinematic that I liked a lot. Conversely, Assassin's Creed Unity had both cinematic and gameplay, but a worse showing than in the Microsoft conference. Just Dance is yet another annual franchise, The Crew has yet to give me a reason to care about it and Shape Up seems like a mediocre exercise game, despite seeming better than what's already out there. The Division and Valiant Hearts win the award for most depressing trailers ever, which made me lose interest in the game and conference both. Ubisoft closed with Rainbow Six: Siege, which seemed like a decent enough game, but was so staged it's really hard to judge. I find it amusing that Ubisoft is also catching a lot of flak this E3 because of their use of a female hostage in the Rainbow Six demo, and the lack of playable females in Assassin's Creed. Oh Ubisoft. Maybe one day you will learn how to present yourself.


Ahh Sony. The defending champion. They wrecked Microsoft last year with their cheaper, more powerful console and less restrictive feature list. This year the race is much closer, and Sony's conference much more complacent. There were a lot of subtle little jabs at Microsoft that came across as a bit distasteful to me, like throwing a punch after the bell has rung. Sony's conference was also really poorly paced, opening quite strongly, and then transitioning into boring PSN features and weird pieces of hardware. These new things may well be things people care about, but we aren't going to know until they are released, and as cool as YouTube is, it's not a great way to build E3 hype. The show ended with should be some pretty exciting games, but after the boring middle, there was no hype left.

On the whole Sony showcased a more colorful selection of games, thanks to the likes of Entwined, Abzu and No Man's Sky. It had it's own share of exclusives too, with the likes of The Order 1866, Bloodborne and Uncharted 4, though none of their presence were very surprising. Unfortunately they were also stricken with PS4 ports of PS3 games (Grand Theft Auto V and the Last of Us), a trend that I find somewhat annoying. I also really enjoyed the tongue in cheek introductions that Magicka 2 and Grim Fandango got. I think a lot of people were hoping for some kind of showstopper from Sony, as well as some Kingdom Hearts of Final Fantasy. Unfortunately we didn't really get any of those. I think the closest we got to a showstopper was No Man's Sky, which is a game we saw at VGX and, despite being really pretty, struck me as kind of ephemeral.


Finally, we have Nintendo. They have always kind of done their own thing both in and out of E3. As I said at the beginning, there were a lot of eyes on Nintendo this year, especially after the previous 4 conferences all ranged from mediocre to straight up awful. I don't think Nintendo knocked it out of the park. I think a lot of people are still waiting for a lot of things from Nintendo. But I think they did well enough. They wasted a lot of time trying to convey just how much love and care goes into creating the games they showed. It is a sentiment that is important, but one that I think they conveyed without the diatribes, and one that doesn't really engage the viewer. What I will say is that this year Nintendo really made great use of the digital medium through which they were presenting, with Robot Chicken sketches and CG Reggie/Iwata.

As expected, games like Hyrule Warriors and what little there was to say about Wii U Zelda generated a lot of hype. Smash Bros was surprisingly excited to see, despite there already being large amounts of information about it out there. I'm a really big fan of what Nintendo is doing to stylize their graphics in games like Yoshi's Wooly World and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse. Even if it's done to mask the Wii U's inferior graphics capabilities, it makes for a really cool aesthetic. Xenoblade Chronicles X is a game that I was really excited for going into this E3 (and still am) but the footage they showed during the presentation I found to be ugly and uninteresting. The clear surprise act here was Splatoon, though. A third person arena shooter wherin you control a squid trying to cover the arena in more ink than your opponent. It's a surprisingly clever and elegant game, I'm a little dubious as to how well it will actually sell though. The whole Nintendo aftershow kind of killed the hype for Splatoon though. In fact the multiple day long after show is pretty lame on the whole to me, but to each their own I suppose.

In Summary

So who won? What are the standouts? After the first day, this was Nintendo's E3 to lose. They definitely pulled it off in my mind. I didn't see as much as I wanted to from them, but their conference got me excited in a way that none of the others did. This E3 made me feel like soon my purchase of a Wii U will be justified, and there are at least 3 games that I definitely want to own ASAP, which is 30% of the games in Nintendo's presentation. Also Nintendo's Smash Bros Invitational is probably the most hyped I've ever been about E3, but that wasn't a conference so it doesn't count, ok? I think Microsoft had the second best presentation, but I find I am more interested in the games that Sony had to show. I didn't see any "must have"s out of either of them, but about 3-5 "would play"s out of each. On the whole I would say this E3 was pretty mediocre. But then every E3 seems to end up more mediocre than I hope. I would say that this year was slightly ahead of the average. I saw some cool games, I saw some cool presentation ideas, and I didn't see too much that actively offended me.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Transistor Review

Back in mid 2011, a little company named Supergiant Games took the gaming world by surprise. As a company nobody had ever heard of, they created a game called Bastion. Bastion quickly garnered large amounts of praise for being a highly polished, artfully crafted and all around profoundly beautiful game, and has since been ported to a plethora of platforms. For a while, people wondered what was next for Supergiant Games, and there was some doubt that they would make a second title. After all, how do you follow Bastion? In March of 2013 this question was finally answered when similarly gorgeous cyberpunk action-RPG Transistor was revealed. A little over a year of intense anticipation later, and the game has finally been released. I played it, and here is what I think:

First out of the gate, I want to state that I played the PC version of the game, and to be honest, I wish that I had a PS4 to play it on instead. The downside to Transistor's stunning art style, is that there are no graphics options to speak of, which is a problem when I was struggling to run the game at 20 FPS. The game is definitely very pretty, but it doesn't look like a game that should be particularly taxing. Perhaps this is simply an issue that will be resolved down the road via patching. I also felt as though the keyboard controls did not work very well at all, which was surprising given that they were fine in Bastion. It felt in general like much of the game's controls were a little sluggish, but it's hard to say how much of that was the low frame rate, and how much was my 360 controller being bad. I will say that, I played the game on a PS4 at Pax, and none of these problems existed.

Platform complaints aside, the game is a joy to play. I mentioned earlier that Transistor is an action-RPG, and I am glad to say that it's combat is incredibly deep. It has two main things going for it: the function system, and the Turn() system. Functions are essentially your abilities, however each one can take one of three forms. You can assign it as an active ability, you can assign it as an upgrade to another function, or you can assign it as a passive. With 4 active abilities (each with 2 possible upgrade slots) and 4 passive slots, there is an astounding amount of flexibility in how you can choose to play. I also really like that, when your health bar depletes, rather than dyeing immediately, one of your functions overloads and temporarily becomes unavailable. It forces the player to replace that ability in the interim, and thus try out abilities and strategies that they maybe wouldn't otherwise use.

To further add to the combat depth, is the turn() system I mentioned, which works something like the VATS system in Fallout 3. Essentially, any time you wish you can pause the combat, and input a certain number of actions, which you will then execute in quick succession. After turn() has concluded, you have to wait for it to recharge before you can use any abilities. This creates an interesting dance wherein you have to decide how much combat you want to do in real time, and when you want to use turn(). It allows you to use many attacks at once, but that isn't always what you want to be doing, and it leaves you vulnerable for a while. turn() is also not infallible. The game will predict how much damage you will do, if an enemy is out of range, if your attack will be blocked by terrain etc. This prediction is not always how it turns out though, and it encourages you to learn how your abilities and your opponents behave. It's actually kind of astounding how good a job Supergiant has done of making sure that spamming turn() every time it is available isn't always the optimal course of action, but still a very deep and strategic system.

Unfortunately, once we move beyond the realm of combat, things start to look a little bit less sunshine and lollipops for Transistor. I think the word I would use for it is "whimsical", though I saw someone describe it as "impenetrable", and I think that works well too. The problem Transistor has is that it makes no significant effort to explain itself to you. Certainly there is something to be said for leaving things up to the player's imagination. Supergiant chose this option at every possible juncture though, and you are left with a game that feels pretentious at best. The player is just dropped into this deserted city and has no recourse but to make their way from point to point. Nothing is explained explicitly or otherwise. None of the characters or locales are properly introduced or fleshed out, and you aren't given any good indication of what their motivations are. Everything just kind of exists. The Transistor itself talks constantly, much like Basion's narrator, and yet it feels like he never says anything worth hearing. There are tons of little interactive bits in the area, and yet they don't flesh out the world so much as say "hey, there's this thing here, isn't that cool?".

On one hand the player is left to interpret things as they wish. On the other hand, I personally end up just feeling really confused by this empty void of a world and what seems like multitudinous plot holes. By the end of the game I had just kind of accepted that I wasn't going to get a cast of characters or a world I cared about. I accepted that nothing was going to make sense, nothing was going to be explained, and that I should just put my head down and enjoy the combat. Perhaps the game's narrative just isn't for me and someone else will be able to understand it just fine. I can certainly see it being something that some people do enjoy, but it most assuredly left a sour taste in my mouth. However that being said, I still enjoyed the game quite a bit purely on the strength of it's combat. Luckily the minimalist approach the game takes to everything else means that it's pretty easy to pretend fighting the process is all that Transistor is about.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Thomas Was Alone and Narrative in Gameplay

We live in a very interesting age for video games. 20 years ago the market was still growing; AAAs weren't quite so monolithic and the the market didn't have the accessibility or the infrastructure for indies to thrive. Yet in a world where game budgets are getting outrageously out of hand, the indie market is flourishing. In a world where Activision and Ubisoft and Gamefreak are pushing yearly releases of big franchises, we have a plethora of indie games. Games which can be successful thanks to digital distribution, word of mouth. Games which, without hundreds of millions of dollars riding on them, can get away with taking creative risks. It is in this world that a game like Thomas Was Alone, a game about colored rectangles, can sell over a million copies. Myself being among them, I thought I would talk about what makes such a simple game so great.

So aside from rectangles, what exactly is Thomas Was Alone about? Well the idea is to reduce a puzzle platformer to it's most basic elements. Image a game like Trine or The Lost Vikings, wherein you control a group of characters one at a time. Each character has a personality and a backstory and a set of abilities, and you must combine these abilities in order to get the entire crew to the end of a level. All of these things are also true of Thomas Was Alone, except instead of Eric the Red and Baelog the Brave, you have Thomas the red rectangle and Claire the blue square. While they don't have fancy graphics or flashy abilities, I would argue that the characters in Thomas Was Alone are much better defined than most games without ever saying a word, and the game's narrative is shaped significantly better than most, too.

When you first start the game, Thomas is quite literally alone. You are given several levels to get the hang of what Thomas can do by letting the play figure it out (as is the case with every new character you are introduced to). While you are learning, the fantastic British narrator introduces you to the story of Thomas, who is lost, confused and lonely. Over the course of the journey you are introduced to other rectangles, such as Chris the pessimistic orange rectangle and John the narcissistic yellow rectangle. Each level the narrator tells you a little about the characters, sometimes a little about the story, which in truth, is barely there and really kind of irrelevant. The story is about the characters and their journey more so than the game's actual plot. Sure there are puzzles. They are well made, they are well paced, they make you think without being too hard, everything a puzzle game should be really. Yet to me, what really sets Thomas Was Alone apart is the unspoken narrative.

I think Chris really tells the tale of Thomas Was Alone. When you meet him, he is down, antisocial, and not much use to be frank. He's small, he can't jump very well, and he constantly needs the other characters' help to get around. But sometimes there's a spot that only Chris can reach, you need his help to progress. The same is true of every character. Some characters are more capable on their own, but at some point they all need help, and no matter how pathetic a character may be solo, there always comes a time when you need their help. Nobody can make it on their own, and when they work together not only can you make it to the next level, but your little rectangles grow as people(polygons?), too. Their personalities perfectly match their abilities, and each character has real and measurable character growth. I often found myself identifying with the little shapes, sharing in their woes, and celebrating their accomplishments. It's truly astounding how such a minimalist game can send such a powerful message, and it's all because the narrative and the gameplay are as one. Sure, the narrator is great and lines are well written, but the strongest messages are the ones that are inferred rather than stated.

Of course, you can have all of these things and have a game that isn't actually much fun. Often this is the case with the most "artsy" games. I don't believe this to be the case with Thomas Was Alone, however. None of what I mentioned is thrown in your face if you aren't looking for it. If you are just looking for a puzzle platformer, Thomas Was Alone does that, too. You don't have any grappling hooks or rocket boots or arcane magics, but figuring out how to use each character's size and abilities does make for quite an interesting game. It's not very hard nor exceptionally long, but it will make you think in a way that no other game will. It's also very good for short sessions, with most levels being easily beaten within 15 minutes. All in all, I would say that if you are looking for a good puzzle platformer, an interesting game, a strong narrative or any combination therein, Thomas Was Alone is definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII Review

It's no secret that the Final Fantasy franchise has been a bit of a mess for quite a while now. Final Fantasy XIII was pretty heavily panned, and XIII-2 was a very divisive sequel. By now a large portion of the audience is just done with the XIII trilogy; they either hate that Lightning Returns exists, or just can't find it in them to care any more. Personally, I rather like Final Fantasy XIII and always hoped that sequels would be able to live up to the potential that I saw. However this time around, Lightning Returns is a very different game from it's predecessors. In this final installment Lightning is going it alone, and she is faced with a fairly open world to explore and interact with. What's more, the game features a 13-day "doomsday clock", which much like Majora's Mask, counts down to the impending... well, doomsday. All these things had me pretty excited for the possibility of Final Fantasy returning to greatness. Having now played the game for 70 hours and completing everything it has to offer, let's break it down.

I think that the doomsday clock is the most apparent feature to this game, as it features pretty heavily in both the gameplay and the narrative. The fact that the events of Lightning Returns occur over 13 days is both a blessing and a curse. When the game first starts, I really enjoyed the sense of urgency the doomsday clock gives. It feels like every decision matters, and so does your performance. You don't have the time to grind (in fact, you don't even level up in any way from battles), you just have to manage the resources you have. The problem is that this model falls apart more and more as time goes on. The problem is, you have 13 whole day. We aren't talking some short cycle that you have to do repeatedly like Majora's Mask (or Ephemeral Fantasia for all 2 of you who know what that is), and unlike the aforementioned games, quest progress is the only thing that does not persist if you have to start the clock over. It's quite possible that you will finish all of your main quests by day 5 and have 8 whole days to just chill, which completely removes all urgency from the game. Or maybe you don't manage to complete the main quests and you fail to save the world. You get to keep your stats and gear, but now you have to start over from day 1 and re-do all of the quests. Obviously neither of these scenarios are very good.

Thankfully, exploring the world itself is pretty interesting. There are lots of places to go, lots of things to do, and the environments are fairly captivating. Each of the games 4 areas also offers slightly different kinds of quests. For example, Luxerian has Lightning playing detective a lot of the time, whereas the Wildlands involves a lot of monster hunting and plant gathering. I legitimately enjoyed running around completing random quests, and just seeing what the world had to offer... Most of the time anyways. The issue here comes back to the fact that, once the game's main quests are done, things really slow down. Side quests give you much less direction, or else just require grinding for monster bits. Sometimes the result of this is that you end up just wandering around an area without really knowing where to look, hoping to find something you need or perhaps a new quest. Wandering around with a clear objective is one thing, but it feels pretty atrocious to be wandering around desperately looking for something to do or waiting for a certain time of day. Unfortunately the longer into the 13 day cycle you go, the less new quests start appearing, and the more your wandering becomes aimless.

Aside from the doomsday open world madness, the other thing Lightning Returns does to change things up is having Lightning go it alone. In place of having 2 allies, she instead has the ability to rapidly switch between a set of 3 customizable "schemata", each wielding it's own equipment and abilities. The level of customization you have is actually quite fun to play with, but in reality I didn't find myself changing my setup too much over the course of the game, save for direct upgrades. As nice as the customization is, I still feel like Lightning being alone really messes with the dichotomy of battle. Aside from the schemata system and a fancy new UI, Lightning Returns' battle system actually hasn't changed that much from the last 2 games. Except now Lightning has to worry about doing everything on her own while also being the sole focus of every enemy. Being so restricted can be very frustrating at times, although it does also add weight to your decisions, which is nice. While I think I prefer having a party, there are definitely strengths to Lightning Returns' combat as well. Primary among those is the fact that it feels more skillful. There are a lot of special cases that exist now that reward you for good timing or attacking an enemy in the right place. Combine these with rapidly switching between schemata to use the right ability in the right situation, and it can feel really awesome when you tear an enemy apart. It can feel kind of gross if you don't have the right ability setup for a fight or you are waiting on the ATB for schemata #3 to refill, but I think the annoyances and the badass moments more or less cancel each other out.

And with all that said, I think all that's left to speak on is the story. Normally I try not to talk much about a game's story, but this time I thought I would make an exception. Final Fantasy has been known to have pretty ridiculous plots in the past, but the previous two XIII games were considered by many to be particularly bad. The plots were just weird, the characters were weak, and XIII-2 in particular had an ending that I personally consider to be a slap in the face to the player. Lightning Returns was supposed to be a proper ending to the trilogy, and I suppose it is. Kind of? If you are paying attention, it does give some closure to the absurdity that is XIII-2. The fact of the matter is Lightning Returns turns the weird up to 11, and despite being predictable, just kind of stops trying to explain what's going on. The game's plot felt kind of superfluous to me, really. What I did find interesting was the world though. Every person living in Nova Chrystallis has lived for 500+ years without aging at this point. That creates some pretty interesting scenarios, which I think the game did a pretty good job of exploring. Lightning is still a flat and uninteresting vessel, and the game is definitely too expository for my taste, but I still found the world interesting. I couldn't tell you what happened in the ending cinematic, though.

Lightning Returns is just a really weird game, honestly. It has a lot of really strong points, it has a lot of really weak points. There were points where I was really enjoying myself, and there were points where I just wanted it to be over. It's not the game I was hoping it would be; I think it would have been a lot better if the doomsday cycle was a lot shorter or didn't exist at all. The combat was different, and interesting in it's own way, despite creating some new annoyances. The world was really well built, and even though the plot is absolutely ridiculous, what JRPG isn't? It's definitely not a game that everyone will enjoy and it's a bit of a mess, but in the end of the day I still enjoyed my time with Lightning Returns.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

This one is a long time coming. Enslaved is just one of those games that everyone who's played it says is good, and yet very few people end up playing it. It just has this quality that says "you don't have to play me right now, go ahead, wait until I'm cheaper". At least, this was the case for me until I finally picked it up for a measly $5 on PSN. Having now played the game to completion, I thought I would talk a bit about it, if for no other reason than to try and get straight my own opinion of it. You see, Enslaved is a really weird case to me... Allow me to explain.

Enslaved starts out really strong. From the get go you are thrown into the action with no expository introductions. The game opens with a tutorial section that is perhaps a little over done, but considering you are at the time escaping from a crashing airship, I feel as though the action excuses the tutorial a bit. Beyond the first chapter, the game does a good job of never really taking you out of the action too long. The game's story doesn't try to be over complicated, and is told largely through or in parallel to gameplay. What's more, the characters are all quite genuine, and listening to them talk is never annoying or disinteresting. In particular, Andy Serkis does a stellar job as the main character Monkey.

Monkey isn't really your average protagonist. He's a big brute, he's very angry, and everything from his voice acting to his fighting style to the dramatic kill cam the occasionally pops up really hammers home this point. He has pretty good reason to be, to. Early on in the game a girl named Trip fits a slave headband on Monkey, tying his life to hers and forcing him to do her bidding. She is terrified of Monkey, but she also realizes that he is her only hope to get home. What I found really interesting about this though, is that it very quickly becomes unclear who is the real master here. Monkey may have to do what Trip commands, but at the same time Monkey has no qualms telling Trip what to do. In fact, giving Trip orders is a somewhat big part of the gameplay. It's not even annoying, like most escorting tends to be. Seeing how the two characters interact in such a strange, stressful situation is pretty cool, even if where it all leads is fairly predictable.

Unfortunately, that's kind of the story of Enslaved I feel. On the surface everything looks and feels pretty stellar. The game actually reminds me a lot of Uncharted, which is pretty high praise. The graphics are superb and colorful, the gameplay does a good job of mixing combat, climbing and puzzles. Even the way Monkey runs around feels similar to controlling Drake. Everything is really well polished and the presentation is excellent. And yet... The game feels lacking somehow. Like they were trying to paint this beautiful picture, and they did, except instead of painting it on canvas they were painting on printer paper. Sure what's there is a work of art, but what's underneath isn't so great, and it drags down the quality as a whole.

None of the issues behind Enslaved are massive, thankfully. Most of it comes down to minor annoyances. The camera is wonky here, jumping from this pipe to that pipe is weirdly picky, there are a few too many platforming sections, the few puzzles in the game, are tedious and not very rewarding, the game feels like it wasn't designed with regenerating health in mind (granted, it's an optional upgrade) etc. Probably the biggest complaint is the combat. There isn't as much of it as you might think, but what's there is pretty simplistic. You just kind of beat on things until they die, and it's way too easy up until about 2/3 of the way through the game. At that point you have to start using your abilities a little more wisely, but combat transitions straight from mindless to irritating. Enemies can decide they want to be blocking or start attacking you at seemingly any time and there isn't really anything you can do about it. Combat just felt tedious, and considering how well Monkey's rage is conveyed, you would think smashing mechs would be more fun. There are a couple hours in the middle where the game really drags, too.

I suppose what I'm trying to say here is that, Enslaved is definitely an impressive game, I enjoyed playing it. It's a much better experience than a game, though. It's really weird to me, to see a game with so much polish have so many little design issues. One would think that part of polishing the game would be also tweaking the design, but the issues are there none the less. Most of them are pretty easily overlooked, but they come up often enough that it feels like there's always something to be annoyed at. It's pretty common to see a game with lots of potential end up being mediocre, but Enslaved is perhaps the first game I've seen that is mediocre at it's core, but polished so heavily that it ended up being pretty darn good. If you are more willing to overlook gameplay flaws (and I'm almost positive that you are) Enslaved is definitely worth checking out.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Awesome Games Done Quick 2014

As I type this, Awesome Games Done Quick 2014 is just wrapping up. What is Awesome Games Done Quick you ask? Well it's a week-long speedrunning marathon for charity. Games Done Quick events have been been going on for a few years now, and they have been growing pretty rapidly each time. Three years ago a handful of guys in a basement raised $10 000. This time around a crew of 500+ people rented out a hotel for a week and raised $1 000 000 for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. The scale of these events are amazing, they are practically a mini-convention at this point, and obviously $1 000 000 for charity is incredible.

So perhaps you are also wondering what exactly speedrunning is. It's pretty self explanatory, but it essentially entails playing a video game from start to finish as quickly as possible. It sounds simple, but in practice it means extremely skilled players with a lot of knowledge about their chosen game, and a plethora of tricks and glitches that make the game do things you never thought it could do. It's really entertaining to see such high level play, and the way some of the glitches work is fascinating, especially if you are familiar with how games are made or know something about programming.

I make this post for two reasons, but essentially it's just because Games Done Quick events are amazing. Generating so many donations for charity is hugely worthwhile, and it's super entertaining to see such a wide variety of games get ripped apart. Marathons tend to be especially entertaining, because the focus is a little more on showmanship and commentary. So keep an eye out for more of them in the future, Summer Games Done Quick should be happening in about 5-6 months, and there are several smaller events popping up all the time. Keep an eye on and

So if you aren't convinced that Games Done Quick is worth watching, watch these clips. In fact watch them anyways, because they are freaking amazing. And all 3 of them happened within about 6 hours.

Super Punch-Out Blindfolded
Super Metroid 4-man race
Goldeneye co-op

If I've piqued your interest, you can find a list of links to every run in the marayhon here, here and here. I haven't seen every run, but here are some highlights beyond the top 3 above, in chronological order:

Jak and Daxter any% by Bonesaw577
I don't really know the game, but it's a good run and Bonesaw is an entertaining guy. Good way to start the marathon.

Viewtiful Joe any% by tminator64
If you know the game, you can probably imagine how entertaining it is played super well and super fast. Unfortunately not many people run it, but it's a really great watch and tminator64 is a charismatic fellow.

Mario 64 0-Stars and Super Mario World by TASBot
Both very short, but demonstrates what's called a Tool Assisted Speedrun. As the name implies, it uses emulators to record a set of inputs which will play the game more perfectly than is possible for a human being. It's pretty impressive, and what they were able to do with Super Mario World is especially impressive.

Yoshi's Island 100% by Tri-hex
This is a fairly long run, but Yoshi's Island is one of the most technically impressive speedruns I have ever seen, and Tri-hex is a great showman with a very fast and chaotic play style. It's worth seeing at least some of it.

Mega Man X 100% race by Caleb Hart and Zewing
This race can't not be bad. These 2 are the top 2 in the world in a very optimized run of a really good game. Just to make things more interesting, they even have a slightly different route through the game.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Richter all bosses race by Mecha Richter and Zex
This race was great. SotN is a great game, Richter is really hard and requires an insane amount of skill and practice to play this well, and it was a very close race, too.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Alucard any%
This is here mostly just because I love this game and I love this run. romscout is insanely good at it, and this run ended up being really really good.

F-Zero GX Very Hard mode by CGN
This game is really hard, and this guy is really good. To add to the hype they upped the difficulty a bit more by donating to add a couple challenges, and it's just pretty exciting all around. Lots of people consider this one of their favorite runs of the marathon.

Borderlands any% co-op by ProfessorBroman, Teawrex, UberGoose and iMysty
Longish run, but very entertaining I think. Lots of pretty crazy glitches, a couple developers on Skype, the 4 guys have a good repor etc. It's kind of hard to appreciate how crazy it is, but it's a fun time. I find it really interesting how well planned out the run is, considering that it has to be optimized for all 4 players, who often go off and do 4 completely different things.

Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! Blindfolded by Sinister1
Enough said, really. Playing any game blindfolded is clearly very impressive. This one was a really strong contender for top-3, but there were so many other amazing runs that it barely got edged out.

Super Punch-Out Blindfolded by Zallard1
Obviously similar to Punch-Out, but the whole thing was just a little bit more hype. The game itself has a bit more punch to it, the runner is a bit more animated, it was a little more touch and go, and Mike Tyson isn't around to ruin all the fun. Easily one of the most fun runs I've ever seen.

The Legend of Zelda: Major's Mask any% by ZFG
Majora's Mask is a pretty cool run, and this one went pretty well. I will say however that MM has this problem where you have a ton of setup and not enough payoff - there are long periods of the run where not a lot happens.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time all dungeons race by ZFG and Moltov
This race was really really good. It was quite close, and it does a really good job of demonstrating the absurd level to which tricks and glitches open up this game. I recommend this one pretty strongly, though it might be hard to follow both guys if you don't already know a bit about OoT speedruns.

Metroid Prime any% by Miles
Metroid Prime runs are always pretty popular, they've been around for a long time and are just pretty cool on the whole. I'm not a big fan of the runner, but they also had one of the game's developers on Skype which was pretty awesome.

Super Metroid any% 4-man race by Garrison, Krauser, Zoast and Ivan
This is easily one of the top 3 runs of the marathon. Super Metroid is a great speedrun to begin with. Add in a stupid close 4-man race and a couple hundred people in the room, some of the best commentary of the marathon, and the hype is insane. Seriously, if you didn't watch it, go do it.

Metroid Zero Mission hard mode low% by Dragondarch
This run is interesting in a bit different way, being low%. In other words Dragondarch purposefully avoids as many upgrades as possible while also playing on hard mode. This category is more for insane challenge than a fast run, but he pulls it off. A really tense hour+ of really skilled play.

Goldeneye 007 Agent Mode co-op by BassBoost and RWhiteGoose
This run is nuts. First off - these two are both playing the game. Essentially one guy moves and the other shoots. Goldeneye speedrunning is insanely optimized and pretty intense to begin with, and it happens that their time still manages to be really really good. Also Goose is the living embodiment of hype. I suppose it also helps that 7/8 of the games before this one were all really awesome (hint - the last 7 games on this list).

Super Mario 64 one-handed by PEACHES_
Mario 64 is a really impressive run just in general. Peaches isn't as amazing as some other players, and obviously playing one-handed is going to reduce the quality of his play. But like, he's playing one-handed. That's fricking insane.

Chrono Trigger 100% by obdajr
I'm going to be totally honest- don't watch this whole run. It's almost 6 hours long and it's a turn based RPG, so it's kind of hard to really appreciate a lot of the little things going on. Outside of nostalgia it's not the best watch. However this was the last game of the marathon. The last 40-60 minutes or so were pretty cool just in terms of gameplay. Combine that with the fact that there was a mad dash at the end to see if donations could actually hit the 1 million before the end of the run. Both things combined make for a pretty insane end to the marathon, all set to World Revolution. You can watch from about here if you want to see what I mean.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Combat Analysis

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a game that was well received critically, but received a somewhat more mixed reception from gamers. This isn't that surprising, considering the game did a lot of things that were bound to upset fans of the series, including retconning the story, being 3D, being level based, etc. That said, the game was still excellent in a lot of ways. The game's environments were all very well crafted, and showed a lot of imagination. The soundtrack was quite epic, but never got in the way. The story was a pretty interesting re-imagining of the origins of Dracula and the Belmont clan. It's a game with a lot of meat to it, and unsurprisingly, a lot of evil creatures to kill. That's where this post comes in. Today I will be taking a look at what the game's combat did right, and where it could be improved.

So to kick things off, what exactly is the combat like? Well on the surface it looks and feels a lot like God of War. Gabriel Belmont uses his trusty Combat Cross to whip at things from a distance, make combos, send enemies skyward, grab enemies for dramatic finishers, etc. On it's own it's a decent imitation of God of War, but things start getting interesting as you progress in the game and obtain the light and shadow magic. These powers each come with their own magic bar, and can be toggled on at any time to add special effects to your normal attacks, and enable the use of some special abilities. Light magic causes your attacks to heal you, while shadow magic does extra damage to your enemies. These attacks drain your magic, and the main way to restore it is using the game's focus system. As you attack enemies focus is gained, with bigger combos generating it faster. Inactivity will slowly drain focus, while getting hit will reset it entirely. While in a fully focused state, any time an enemy is attacked they will generate magic orbs which can later be absorbed to fill your magic.

This system creates a really interesting dance between keeping yourself alive, keeping your magic reserves high, and actually using your magic. A lot of thought can be put into how best to manage the resources available to you to best make it through a fight. Should you use shadow magic to finish the fight quickly? What if you get hit, then you need to heal yourself and you won't have any focus to refill that magic. When do you build your focus? You can't do that and heal at the same time. When do you switch your magic back on when your focus fills? Do you just fill up your magic, or do you generate extra magic orbs in case you need them later? The issue here is that as interesting as this system is in theory, it has some problems in practice. For one, it just doesn't really fit well with the way the game's combat actually works, and for another it rewards perfect play too well while over-punishing imperfect play. Allow me to explain:

The issues with Castlevania's combat can basically all be boiled down to, it's too easy to get hit. Enemies in Lords of Shadow tend to either appear in large numbers, or have very unpredictable / poorly telegraphed attacks, or some combination therein. Most fights consist of enemies dashing and slashing all over the place, and it gets very hard to react to everything going on. When a particularly nasty attack is incoming they are always telegraphed, but the window to react to it without getting hit is small. In fact the reaction window feels very similar in length to how long you are locked into an animation while attacking or rolling. It seems to me that the intention was that the player should block a lot of these attacks, but this is made needlessly hard by the game's controls. For some reason it was decided that the block button should be the same as the roll button. Holding the button blocks, pressing the button while holding the L-stick causes you to roll in that direction. The issue is that in combat you are constantly using the L-stick to move Gabriel, to direct where he should be attacking, whatever. So attempted blocks frequently instead cause you to roll into the attack you are trying to block. I honestly believe that if rolling had been assigned to the R-stick instead (which is not used for anything ever) a lot of the combat's issues would have been alleviated.

But back to the issue at hand, getting hit is especially bad in Lords of Shadow. Sure, you lose some life, but the implications are much more than that. You basically have three resources in combat: health, focus, and magic. As I described earlier, you use focus to generate magic and you use magic to heal health. The issue is that getting hit drains all three resources simultaneously. Damage reduces health and resets your focus, while also necessitating that you expend magic to heal. In other words, even the smallest of hits can mess up your rhythm entirely. It's incredibly frustrating to constantly be low on magic because the odd stupid attack hits you. On the flip side of things, if you do manage to fill your focus you are typically given an absolutely absurd amount of magic orbs in a short period of time - quite possibly more than you know what to do with. In other words the punishment for being hit is too big, and so is the reward for not being hit. 100% of the rewards are at the top of the scale, and anything but perfect play results in starvation.

With all that said however, I will say that there are merits to both extremes of this system. Low magic situations tend to feel very intense and scrappy - you are literally fighting for your life. If you can't keep your combo going, you won't be able to keep healing yourself. On the flip side, when you fill your focus the reward is pretty big and you feel unbeatable. However that said, I personally would have still preferred if the system had a bit more even of a gradient. For example, perhaps every attack should have a small chance to generate orbs once your focus is greater than 50%, with the chance and volume of orbs increasing as your focus approaches 100%. You still have low magic situations, but you at least get something if you're playing decently. You don't feel like you have to play perfectly to survive, but if you are playing really well the reward is still big. That's my thought anyways. It's fun trying to manage your resources, but you can't exactly manage resources if the game is starving you.

In the end of the day, I think Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is still a very competent title. If it's combat was a little better, the game probably could have been great, though. It will be very interesting to see what changes Lords of Shadow 2 makes when the game comes out in the end of February. If the demo is any indication it seems like the focus system has been forsaken entirely in favor of automatically regenerating magic. I wait with bated breath.