Sunday, March 31, 2013

Gaming in 2013 so far ...

Just a fair warning before I begin this post: I'm mainly going to be criticizing about the games I've played this year so far, and my view is going to be pretty bias. And, with that said, let's move on ...

So, I've played a decent handful of games this year, many of which have been quite good, some even amazing; however, I can't help but feel quite disappointed as the first quarter of this year comes to a close.

I'll go through the games I've played so far this year (in no particular order) and say a little of what I thought about them. My overall conclusion will come afterwards ...

Anarchy Reigns - a decent fun time in multiplayer mode, but no substitute for Smash Bros. The single-player mode had a pretty good story with some great graphics, cutscenes, and characters, but the gameplay was repetitive and uncreative, thus it left a lacking impact.

Xenoblade Chronicles - a game that impresses in several ways in how it brings new ideas to some places and high quality to others, but, in the end, the game design got repetitive, especially the combat and side-quest process, and unfortunately, the story wasn't story enough to keep me interested for over 50+ hours. Hopefully, the next Xeno game for WiiU will fare better.

DmC - just bad. Even for Ninja Theory, everything about this game was pretty bad. The combat was OK, but it pales so much in comparison to its rivals, that it's not even worth playing.

Sly Cooper 4 - a charming game that really brought back the playstyle and charm of the PS1 and PS2 era. And while there was some quality to the game, it has some wasted potential and the gameplay doesn't take many risks.

Metal Gear Rising - a great roller-coaster ride, but the game is short and the combat never changes beside the process of parry-and-attack. The lack of gameplay diversity hits this game hard. Perhaps it was trying to have a balance between Platinum style and Kojima Style? Regardless, it didn't hit a sweet spot, despite having some impressive graphics and music. Bayonetta and Vanquish still remain Platinum's best.

Naruto Storm 3 - the impact of the Storm graphic engine is losing its power, as not even the game's great graphics could save it from its faults. A story mode where you watch more than you play, less boss battles than the previous game in the series, and a weaker story just make Storm 3 fall to wayside in comparison to its superb predecessor. Versus mode had an impressive amount of content though.

Tomb Raider - a game that is basically fantastic in all parts of its game design. The main problem lies in that the game really lacks impact. The story and characters are very weak, and it was just hard to care about pressing onward. The gameplay saved this game, but even that got a bit repetitive over the course of the game. The game's beginning presents several interesting gameplay concepts that we only see once, which is a shame. Some more surprises really would've helped.

Bit.Trip Runner 2 - a fun and challenging platformer. There's some great level and sound design in this game, but it never really goes beyond being just a good game. If the developers did more with the visuals and sound, then it could've been a great experience a la Outland or Trine 2, but it just falls short.

Bioshock Infinite - a game that, for all intents and purposes, is perfect. I find it hard to find many faults with this game. There are some gameplay annoyances here and there, and the reuse of character models is noticeable, but those quips don't change the fact that BI attempts and accomplishes more than the majority of videogames made this gen, especially in its story and how it is presented. And yet, I wasn't very satisfied with the game. Just something about the tone, the "comfortable" execution, and simplistic game and level design just made me feel like I'd done all this before. I've interacted with likable NPCs before, I've explored interesting settings before, and I've played with dual-wielding before (mostly in the first Bioshock). And, as a result of this familiarity, the game just didn't hit me.

And I think that brings me to my conclusion: it has been a very long time since a game has hit me with some significant impact. I feel as though I will forget about each game I play mere days after I've finished them because they provide little impact for me. This gen has hit me with several impactful games, such as Bayonetta, Vanquish, Kid Icarus: Uprising, Metroid: Other M, Naruto Storm 2, Skullgirls, and Journey, so I know it can't be that I'm incapable of feeling impact anymore. I think it is more a process of these games I've played recently not really trying new things (AR, Sly 4, Naruto Storm 3), not executing its ideas well enough (Xenoblade, MGR, Runner 2), basing themselves too heavily in the past (TR, BI), or simply not being very good (DmC). It all just lacks impact.

Of course, I'm not saying all of these games are bad, nor that they aren't good experiences to have. I'm simply saying that the best games are ones that really leave a strong impact on the player by providing a strong core experience that combines gameplay, graphics, music, and story. I really wanted such an experience out of many of the games I've mentioned above, and yet they all came up short, despite some being pretty impressive. And, unfortunately, such powerful experiences have become few and far between as of late, with last year only providing a few amazing experiences, as opposed to years like 2009 and 2010 which provided many amazing gaming experiences.

So, what does the rest of this year hold. Well, I'm putting all of my hope on two games at the moment: The Wonderful 101 and Dragon's Crown. Kamiya's team at Platinum, Nintendo, and Vanillaware are my three favorite developers, and I hope they give me their best with these two games. And, at the moment, I'd have to say Dragon's Crown is my most anticipated game.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Criticizing and Defending Vanillaware

There's an inherent guilt I have with being a Vanillaware fanboy. It stems from the fact that I know that I give off the impression that I find everything Vanillaware does to be perfect. It's very understandable why many would think this, as I provide very little criticism towards Vanillaware, even though I provide criticism towards nearly every other developer out there, even my favored PlatinumGames and Nintendo. Well, this blog post is about addressing some criticisms I have of Vanillaware, as well as defending Vanilaware on some of the criticisms is gets from people.

First off, let me say that I do cut Vanillaware some slack when it comes to criticisms, and the reasons for this are simple: Vanillaware is a very small company. Vanillaware is composed, currently (as of early 2013), of around 29 members. That is very small for a game developer who produces non-indie titles, especially in this current game market. In fact, the quality of the games Vanillaware produces despite such a small team size is worth admiration alone, imo. But, I digress, it is because of this small team size that I look the other way on some game design aspects that would be considered poor by others, such as the fact that Odin Sphere only has around a dozen different locations. However, let's keep in mind that Odin Sphere was made only when Vanillaware had only 12 members. Now, with that said, let's move on to some criticisms I have with Vanillaware...

Now, to be honest, my criticisms are going to mainly focus on Vanillaware's current state. This is mainly due to the fact that I find Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire nearly flawless. Sure, both Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire lacked a great amount of content, but the games utilized their content to the fullest and provided much more depth in areas that you couldn't see; but more on that later.

One criticism I have of Vanillaware is how their two latest games, Muramasa and Grand Knights History, lacked a very potent storyline. Now, I have this criticism mainly due to how impactful I found the stories of Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire to be. Muramasa had a storyline that was told in a similar manner to that of Odin Sphere, but it just wasn't very impactful or engaging. Grand Knights History then had story take a backseat to the online mode, resulting in a tale still being told, but one that never truly aimed to have much of an impact to begin with. So, as we see from going from Muramasa to GKH, the strong story element of Vanillaware games seems to be dwindling. I find this to be quite disheartening, as the lack of strong stories hurt the impact both Muramasa and GKH had on me, despite being great in other ways. The reason for this is the double edged sword of Vanillaware's amazing visuals. While Vanillaware's visual style works great for seeing characters, monsters, and landscapes superbly realized and animated, Odin Sphere showed that the visual style can work superbly for telling stories as well. And after seeing such storytelling prowess shown in Odin Sphere, it's disappointing to not see it realized in Vanillaware's newer games, especially since their visual talent has continued to improve. Unfortunately, Dragon's Crown doesn't look to fix this trend, as story looks to be, once again, taking a backseat to the gameplay. This doesn't mean DC will be a bad game, but it doesn't make me feel any better about the path Vanillaware is taking when it comes to the stories they present in their games; after all, the latest two Vanillaware games won't even have main characters with names. I hope that we'll see a named protagonist in a grand story in the next game, as George Kamitani has proven he can create truly amazing stories with Odin Sphere and Grimgrimoire, though he has also proven he can be a little lackluster, as shown by Muramasa.

If you're wondering why I care so much about a strong story in these games, which all have some great gameplay merit; it's because a great story can bring even greater satisfaction to the gameplay of a game. For example, the final boss fights in Odin Sphere are all extremely impactful thanks to all of them being major characters within the story who have either been fought before by other characters or alluded to in many ways. It's that powerful impact of story that I want to feel again.

My second, and final, criticism ties into my first criticism and lies in Vanillaware's current trend in game design: a focus on multiplayer. I have to say that I was very surprised when GKH was announced and it was shown that multiplayer would be the main focus of the game. And we see this trend continue with Dragon's Crown. When a game is focused on multiplayer, very rarely does it have an equal focus on single-player. Thus we come back around to my first criticism: the lack of an impactful story. I'm not too sure why Vanillaware has decided to put such a focus on mutliplayer lately, but my guess would be to help their games be more popular and get more sales. And result don't lie, GKH was Vanillaware's best-selling game in Japan, and Dragon's Crown has a ton of buzz around it, much of the reason being its multiplayer aspect. So, I can't say I'm disappointed about Vanillaware's recent trend of multiplayer focus, but part of me is disheartened due to the fact that a big part of why I fell in love with Vanillaware's games in the first place, a strong single-player experience, is barely present. If this trend continues with Vanillaware's next couple games, I may become disheartened enough to not even be a fanboy anymore, or at least dial back my enthusiasm for new projects; after all, Vanillaware game releases are few and far between.

And, those are my main criticisms with Vanillaware. I know their both basically the same, and to complain about story feel like a weak criticism, but it's more of a personal criticism than an actual one. Also, while I can feel disheartened at times, Vanillaware games just "click" with me so much, that its hard for me to not be excited whenever something new comes along, so I doubt I'll ever stop being a fan; though I could see myself becoming less enthusiastic over the company if their next game doesn't have a strong story element.

Now, as far as what many would call "real" criticisms, I'm going to defend Vanillaware on a few common complaints:

1) Odin Sphere only had a handful of locations and lacked content. While it's true that Odin Sphere only had around a dozen locations, a few of which don't even appear until the end of the game; the locations were imperative to the story and thus had a lot more impact and purpose than the many locations Muramasa had (not to undermine Muramasa). Odin Sphere's focus was on story, and it was Shakespearean in tone, thus, as in the plays of yore, the locations were kept few in number so that the player could build attachment to the areas. As far as the technical aspect of this complaint, as I said before, Vanillaware was just a small team of 12 at this point, as such, it's incredible we got the amount of locations and characters that we did.

2) Vanillaware games are just button-mashers without depth. I figure that this complaint mainly comes from people who have only played Odin Sphere, and probably only Gwendolyn's story at that. I say this because it is possible to get through Gwendolyn's story by playing the game like a side-scrolling action game and just hitting everything, and since many people stop playing Odin Sphere after realizing its actually a 40 hour affair, it's understandable that they never got into the game's more intricate systems. Well, despite what many think, Odin Sphere is much more of an RPG than an action game. The player is supposed to craft potions using the alchemy system, plant seeds and harvest fruits and meat to cook food at the Pooka Village, and regulate psyphers to level up in a balanced way. I won't dive much further into the game, but, in truth, Odin Sphere is quite a deep game, many just never bother trying to see what it has to offer. Muramasa is much less deep than Odin Sphere, however, it still has much more depth than the average 2D hack-n-slash, thanks in large part to the 108 different blades, their special abilities, and the fact that one can hold 3 at a time. If one actually tries, there are some really fun combos to be made in Muramasa. Then there's Grigmrimoire, which has an insanely deep RTS system, but almost nobody played it, so I doubt many consider GG when making this criticism. In the end, Vanillaware games may not be as deep as other Action-RPGs like Mass Effect or Skyrim, but it isn't trying to be. One of the best things about Vanillaware games is how accessable they are. I find that Vanillaware games offer just the right amount of depth; though I do think Muramasa could have used a secondary weapon system a la Castlevania.

3) The character design. You know, I don't even have much to say here. You either like it or you don't. If you don't like it, that's fine, but don't begin arguing that its offensive or wrong. The reason that hand-drawn art is such an interesting medium is because it gives the artist the freedom to do what they want. George Kamitani draws with a design that sometime exaggerates the human body, but it always provides an impacftul look and truly distinct feel to his art. His art is also very detailed and picturesque, evoking back to art seen during the Dark Ages. But, enough of my rant, there are hundreds of different art styles in this world, and not one is going to be liked by everyone. That's just how it is.


And that's it. I've begun to notice that Vanillaware has become quite popular through the years and really made a name for themselves. And with increased popularity comes increased criticism; so it's all part of the game. I, myself, don't find much to criticize, but others do. I just hope that even with their criticisms, they can still enjoy at least one of the great aspects of Vanillaware's games, whether it be the graphics, music, gameplay, or story.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tomb Raider Review

NOTE: I'm going back to my old way of reviews, because I just wasn't able to say everything I wanted to say with the Pro/Con system.

Gameplay (7.5/10) - The gameplay of TR is bascially a combination of Uncharted and Metroid. What TR does well, is bring gameplay elements of classic action-adventure games like Metroid and Zelda, such as gaining new items throughout the journey, back-tracking, and item stacking, into the Uncharted formula of 3rd-person shooting, platforming, and searching for treasures. The end result works very well. Crystal Dynamics managed to implement such foreign elements into the formula without any of it feeling tacked on. TR also provides some interesting gameplay scenarios that force the player into to use their wits as well as reaction time. Unfortunately, what TR does very well begins to wear thin after the game's halfway point. Unique gameplay elements such as using a rope arrow to bring a balcony down or using a shotgun to open new paths are only used around the times when they are introduced and then forgotten an hour later. It's a shame that the unique elements were forgotten so quickly; as eventually the game just gets into a groove of gameplay once all of the weapons are obtained and just sticks there for the rest of the game.  Some more layered gameplay and diversity there-of would've pushed TR further. Overall, TR starts off much stronger than it finished in the gameplay department.

Graphics (6.5/10) - TR's art direction does a lot for this score, because on a technical level, TR is not very impressive at all. The regular frame-rate of the game is pretty bad, and only seems to remain steady when Lara is still. The character models are also pretty unimpressive outside of Lara's, which even has a fair amount of jaggies itself. Lip-sync isn't very impressive either. What does impress visually in TR is the art direction and the amount of visual "stuff" Crystal Dynamics managed to get into the environments. TR lacks any open spaces and each area feels organic and rich with rubble and foilage, thus making for a very convincing setting. One complaint I have is that most of the games environments are filled with wreckage or mangled nature; so, basically, it's not very pretty. Impressively detailed, but not pretty.

Sound (6.5/10) - TR's soundtrack is intense and does a great job of creating the survival-horror vibe the game has. The voice acting ranged from good to great. Nothing really impressive here, but nothing bad either.

Story (5/10) - TR has a story and characters, but I really couldn't feel for any of them. Many fall under stereotypes or typical tropes that you see in adventure movies. There is a story though, and the game does a decent job of keeping interest, but it's just not a very interesting story. I have two main gripes with the story in TR: 1) despite the fact that there is a spiritual element to the game's plot, the developers to very little with it. Putting in some type of dragon, ghosts, or something fantastical would have helped keep the story interesting, as well as keep the ending from feeling so out of place. 2) Lara's character arc falls flat. This game was supposed to be about how Lara came to grow as a survivor and warrior, but she feels no different at the end of the game than she did at the beginning, which was a big letdown.

Replay Value (8/10) - There is a lot to explore on the island, which is really huge in size. There are treasures and documents to find, as well as some secret tombs. The length of the story mode was surprisingly long too.

Satisfaction (6/10) - Overall, I'll probably forget about my experience with TR in a few weeks. The game is fun while it lasts, and it brought some nice additions to the Uncharted formula, which had been becoming the staple in the genre. But, regardless, nothing TR does is particularly impressive. A few years ago it would've been. But with so-so graphics and a poor story backing up the decent gameplay, the end result just wasn't very satisfying.


The score I should give it - (8/10): At the end of the day, TR is better than Uncharted. It's graphics may not be as good, and it's story may pale in comparison, but TR brings some much need content to the gameplay of the Uncharted series, which had really begun to show it's age. The long campaign and great replay value in addition to a multiplayer mode also help TR as a good complete product.

The score I want to give it - (6/10): I didn't notice it until the end of the game, but it was TR's poor story that hurt it the most. There was little drive to keep playing except for seeing where the gameplay would go, and when the story wrapped up, it was very unsatisfying. Uncharted's gameplay may not be as complex as TR's, but it has a lot more heart and soul put into its story and gameplay scenarios than TR does. And, in the end, it's that heart and soul that sticks with a player after all is said and done. As a result, I'll remember my time with Uncharted 2 much longer than my time with TR.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 Review

- Though they don't impress as much now that we're at the third game, the graphics are still incredible and among the best in the business.
- Revised combat mechanics work very well and add some great balance and tension to battles.
- Though not as great as Storm 2's boss battles overall, Storm 3 has some boss battles that really impress and satisfy.
- Chiyako Fukuda, once again, provides an incredible soundtrack.
- Story mode is extensive, of high quality, and covers much of the anime.
- A huge amount of voice work.
- While seldom, there are incredible moments where story and gameplay fuse and are truly satisfying.
- With 80 characters, 40 stages, a long story mode, and many side-quests to partake in after initially finishing the story mode, there is a lot of content to this game.

- some minor elements of slow-down occur; though its rare.

- while the story mode is much longer than Storm 2, the amount of boss battles is about the same (or less depending on what you count as a boss battle); as a result, about 75% of the story mode is spent watching cutscenes.
- the amount of QTEs and interactive segments within the story mode have been cut down drastically from previous games; as a result, boss battles feel much less satisfying than in Storm 2.
- No way to adjust the difficulty of the CPU opponents in Versus mode.

Overall - With a huge amount of content, Storm 3 is a great game overall; it's story mode (arguably its most important aspect) simply doesn't satisfy. What ultimately hurts Storm 3's level of satisfaction is that Storm 2 was such an incredible experience, and Storm 3 had to live up to that. If Storm 3 had taken Storm 2's foundation of incredible boss battles and interactive story elements, and improved upon it, the resulting game could have been better than Storm 2. Instead, CC2 decided to focus on the story cutscenes and roster of Storm 3, rather than the boss battles and QTE segments. The end result is a Naruto game that's more for the fans rather than those looking for a visual feast of gameplay and interactive story elements. Or, to put it more politely, Storm 3 is more about the Versus and Online modes rather than the story mode. Overall, a great game, though it may disappoint you in some ways, especially if you enjoyed Storm 2 as much as I did.

Score - 7/10 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance Review

- Satisfying combat is familiar yet different thanks to great core combos and the parry system.
- Superb graphics.
- A unique and fantastic soundtrack that is superbly executed in boss fights.
- Many VR missions to challenge.
- Great voice acting.
- Blends the styles of Platinum and Kojima Productions very well.

- Story is ridiculously enjoyable, but isn't very satisfying.
- Despite being fun, combat isn't as deep as it could have been.

- A mediocre camera system that becomes quite problematic during tough fights.
- Almost all fights, including boss fights, play out in a very similar fashion: parrying and counter-attacking.
- A short main game length.

Overall - MGR: R is a great roller coaster ride worth playing at least twice, but due to the short length and lack of a lot of gameplay diversity and depth, there isn't a ton of life in this game. It's a clean and enjoyable action experience, but Platinum has done better in the past with Bayonetta and Vanquish.

Score - 8/10

Sly Cooper: Thieves of Time Review

I'm gonna try a new, more concise method for writing reviews. I will simply separate my praises and criticisms into "Pros", "Meh", and "Cons" sections. The Pro and Con sections are obvious, but the "Meh" section is for criticisms that may not be terrible aspects of the game, but something that could still be improved. Also, the Pros and Cons section will be organized, from best/worst factor to least best/least worst factor.


- Great gameplay diversity spread throughout a lengthy adventure.
- Well-written and well-acted script.
- A diverse musical score.
- Diverse and well-constructed stage areas made with a decent graphic engine.

- Some more ancestors to play as would have been nice.
- More missions with the ancestors would have helped the gameplay diversity even more.
- The dance mini-games go on for a bit too long.

- Playing as Murray is shallow and unsatisfying.

Overall: Sly 4 is a game that doesn't go all-out in many respects, but is a very enjoyable experience thanks to a fun story and well-written script alongside some great gameplay diversity. Sly 4 reminds me of the days of PS1 platformers when a game's fun factor was its most crucial element.

Score: 7/10