Itchy Thumbs

Completing games then reviewing them

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Posted by D on February 21, 2011

If, three months ago, you had said to me that I’d actually, completely and utterly enjoy playing a Castlevania game, I would have told you to get fucked and go and boil your brain . But when some reviews came rolling in saying “If you like previous Castlevanias then you’ll hate this” my curiosity was piqued. “Perhaps they have released a game that was actually good”, I thought to myself. And lo it came unto pass that yes and verily MercurySteam have managed to create a genuinely awesome and particularly brilliant Castlevania game.

As far as I can tell they accomplished this task by looking at all the other Castlevania games and deciding that they were all just awful grindfests, with sucky rudimentary platforming and work-a-day boring combat. Throwing all that away they went with a Ninja Gaiden Sigma/God of War style brawler with strong, strong Uncharted 2 overtones. The difficulty tends more towards Ninja Gaiden side but manages not to extinguish your will to live. Also Shadow of The Colossus called and it wants it’s boss fights back. It shares other things with SofC but more on that shortly. In addition, because JJ Abrams was allowed to and because all franchises are now legally require to undergo the treatment, this is a complete reboot of the whole Castlevania mythos.

The gameplay is solid and well executed, the combat always seems fair and even handed and if you’re beaten it’s always because you weren’t good enough rather than because the computer cheated or something glitchy. While the combat is pretty complex, and isn’t just button mashing, it does suffer like Bayonetta or God of War before it, from eventually just boiling down to the one or two combos that are effective (Direct Heavy Combo and the Guillotine IIRC). The upshot is that you’ll purchase all the combos with the in game currency and you’ll likely only ever use about three of them. Which makes you wonder why they are even in there. And the blocking, you can block. Time the block right and you get to do some high damage ripostes except it’s really tricky if the camera isn’t in close enough to make out what is going on. The alternative is just to roll out the way of harm, you can just as easily fight with a strike-roll-strike-roll strategy, in fact it’s probably easier and more effective, which in turn might make you question what the block is for (except for that one boss fight where it’s essential).  All that said there is a really satisfying rhythm to the combat once you’ve got it down and it’s really fun to play. Later on though, the final two super, special combos do have slight game breaking qualities. The Ultimate Light Combo, operates pretty much as a ‘Press button to win’ action, spamming mobs for massive damage and healing you. By the time you’ve unlocked the hardest difficulty level, unlocking that combo is not far behind and it makes the hardest difficulty setting easier than the previous one without said combo. Odd.

And that’s not all! There is plenty of platforming fun breaking up the combat sections (or maybe combat breaking up the platforming sections). The platforming takes on the Uncharted 2 model of crawling around hyper-realised bits of scenery with only a single (usually) path available,. Much like Uncharted 2 it’s pretty linear and seldom requires any skill to execute, it sure ain’t Super Mario Galaxy. But what elevates, what could be rather boring, to something engaging is the way in which inching your way up the face of a rotting cathedral is an integral part of the world and the game’s atmosphere, it’s part of lonely air that draws you in to the world. One thing that is a little too hand-holding is that pretty much every object you need to interact with gets highlighted with a sparkly white glow so you can’t miss it. Yet there’s maybe only two or three points in the whole game where you might actually need this help, you can’t work out where the next ledge is or whatever, but in the main it detracts from the graphics by adding a computery layer to an otherwise very real world. And it removes any puzzle-like challenge from the platforming, as you always know which way the next ledge is. That said it is used to great effect for some of the boss fights, which would be simply baffling without it such as the colossus style boss fights.. Roughly half of the main bosses are Shadow of the Colossus style Titans, you have to climb up the them being careful not to be shaken off and then stab them in a series of sensitive magical sweet spots (you know what I’m saying lads). They are framed as boss battles in the game but in reality they are by far the most interesting and engaging of the platforming challenges in the game. If you liked them in SotC then you’ll likely enjoy them here.

Wait! There’s more! So much more. The game is literally full of new things and variety. Hardly a level goes by where something new isn’t thrown out there, usually never to be seen again. Bored of fighting on foot? How about horse back fighting races? Bored of killing things, here’s a tabletop turn based strategy game to master. Logic puzzles? We got ‘em. The game is constantly throwing out new things for you learn and do, there’s always something new round the corner to hold your attention. And it’s used to great effect to constantly alter the pace of the game and prevent it from becoming one long monotonous stretch of the same-old, same-old. Even after completing a level more is thrown in, you’ll need to revisit some levels with new powers to collect one or two items and each completed levels gets a bonus challenge added. And the challenges themselves are pretty varied from time trials to completing the puzzles in the minimum number of moves to assorted combat challenges. They’ve simply packed a vast amount in. It’s kind of amazing.

By and large the whole game displays and incredibly degree of polish and attention to detail. The music and graphics and playability are superb. The graphics are especially note worthy, very much in the same vein as Uncharted 2; arguably not quite as “real” looking but always beautiful or striking to look at. Both the graphics and the camera work in the game display a real talent for cinematography and they really work to give the game real sense of scale and, in many places, solitude. The mostly static camera is used to smartly frame scenes and while it is occasionally a bit annoying during combat, I can more than forgive that given how well it’s used as a framing device. It’s clear that a lot of thought went into how the game is presented visually.

The only places the polish feels lacking is in the dialogue and the story and they probably only feel lacking in the face of everything else. In a lesser game you’d probably not notice. First up though, the dialogue; by and large it’s completely fine, in the game all the cut scenes are good. However… prefacing each level is a brief speech and/or summary narrated by Patrick Stewart and these are appallingly written; terrible, hacky, melodramatic, over-the-top nonsense so bad that on occasion they are all but unlistenable. They get a bit grating to say the least. And Patrick Stewart’s soliloquy at the end is painfully awful to listen to, I’m pretty glad his character was bumped off so we didn’t have to listen to more of it. Secondly, the story; as computer games go personally I seldom need much more motive other than “Kill the Evil Things, Go! Go! GO!” and the story doesn’t provide much more than that and that’s fine. Until, that is, you get to the ending which is very clumsily handled, you get the big reveal, shock!, “it was him all along”. Golly gosh! I will have to fight them. But No! You never have to fight the game’s big bad guy, which would have made narrative sense. They just kill him off mid cut scene and replace him with a new bad guy. A bad guy more bad than the games bad guy could ever be. And who is badest of them all? None other than Satan. Ok. Fine. If we must. But it might have made a sliver of narrative sense if it had been foreshadowed in any way at all at any point. It’s a pretty big WTF moment and not at all the tension raising reveal I’m sure they were aiming for. I appreciate that it’s a call back and nod to some earlier Castlevanias but really? Afterwards the game does have a pretty intriguing epilogue that sets up one or more sequels and that is well worth sticking around for.

One thing that is definitely worth noting is the atmosphere the game builds. Almost uniquely it has an all pervading sense of melancholy and solitude. Just about everything in the game is marshalled towards this effect. The music has a bitter sweet air. The appearance of the world itself has an epic and lonely feel to it. You are, more often than not, the only person in any given level and, especially during the platforming sections, it’s just you on your own on the side of some vast mountain or castle.  The platforming sections are often used to give you quiet contemplative breathers to counterpoint the hectic monster fights. Contradicting myself a little, even Patrick Stewart’s pre-level filler helps to really build the sense that this is one man’s desperate, lonely struggle and possible descent into madness. It all comes together to give the game a very interesting and almost unique tone to the game. The only other game that readily comes to mind with a similar feel is the superb Shadow of the Colossus.

When it is released I’ll definitely pick up the sequel.

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Darksiders

Posted by D on January 6, 2011

C’est mindless, c’est magnifique.

You are War! Fourth horseman of the apocalypse and you must get revenge for some things that just stop making sense later. Everything about this game is big, brash and brainless. And surprisingly none of that is to it’s detriment.  It’s solidly made, plays well, the level design is good. You wouldn’t write home about any particular component of it. The visual design, plot and dialogue look exactly like that graphic novel you wanted to make when you were 15 but had neither the skill, talent or time to realise it, like someone scrapped up the worst residual bits out of Todd McFarlane’s mind and deposited them in a computer game.  And yet…

And yet it’s completely fun. I’m not entirely sure why but for reasons beyond my comprehension it’s strangely satisfying good. Candy floss for the mind probably.  Can’t imagine I’d play a sequel but this one is a totally enjoyable 8 hours.

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Android Gaming Round Up!!!!

Posted by D on November 23, 2010

So. Android games.

Buka : Fun avoid/destroy the asteroids asteroids clone. Could do with multitouch enabling

Gem Miner: Dig Deeper : This is a bad, bad boring game

Dynamo Kid Touch : Nice procedurally generated platformer, lacks depth and longevity

Flight Frenzy Deluxe : Pretty good Flight Control rip off.

Sky Force Reloaded : Strong, well presented 16bit style, top-down scrolling shmup.

Zenonia : Solid JRPG, good dialogue although a little tedious and grindy later on

Flight Director : Really excellent Flight Control rip off. Might even be better than Flight Control

SpeedX 3D : Really great avoid-the-obstacles tunnel racer.

Hyper Jump : Adequate rip off of iOS’s Mega Jump

MiniSquadron : Truly brilliant take on the 2D biplane combat game. Like the old Amiga BIP/Biplanes Duel or Altitude games.

Drop7 : Mind bendingly addictive puzzle game with an awesome soundtrack

Alchemy : Another entry in that odd combining things genre. Kind of like the taking the bit in old point-and-click adventures where you were stuck for what to do and were reduced to just trying to combine things and turning it into a game. Except they all fail to be puzzle games because they never actually tell you what the goal items are.

Angry Birds : Ridiculously popular smash up shit game. Excellent fun but comes apart a bit when you’re trying to 3 star the levels. The process is just a little too stochastic so the same action doesn’t always lead to the same out come.

Steambirds : Nicely turned out and addictive turn based strategy puzzler.

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Final Fantasy XIII

Posted by D on November 23, 2010

I have just completed this after spending months picking at it. I did the story and completed all the missions. I have learnt some things, some things about myself, some things about the game.

Things I have learnt:

1) I will put up with a surprisingly amount of bullshit.

2) The dialogue writing in Final Fantasy games is still as crappy as it always has been

3) The narrative was utterly, utterly awful. Roughly you are compelled by the evil bad guy to destroy a thing/it/he-she/whatever which will DESTROY EVERYONE FOR THE GOOD OF EVERYONE but instead you decide to kill the evil bad guy. But then you have to destroy the thing/it/he-she/whatever anyway even though it’s done nothing to you or anyone else and you’ve never seen it before. But once it’s destroyed no one actually dies for completely magical bullshit reasons. God fucking damn it.

4) The pacing of the story is beyond bizarre. You’re more than halfway through before you learn who the bad guy is and have any grasp of what’s going on, that’s 25hours of game time with no discernible plot beyond “run down this corridor and kill those monster”. It’s probably only in the closing handful of hours that you find out that you have to destroy the thing/it/he-she/whatever and that makes little sense then and little sense when you get there.

5) The combat though weirdly disconnected and disembodied  is actually really good

6) The game never ever explains much about the combat mechanics, if you ever want to understand what is actually going on and get good at it you’ll have to go elsewhere. Although now that I think about it I suspect you’re supposed to also shell out for the official guide.

7) There was surprisingly little level grinding for a JRPG, I probably did about 4 hours across the 75 hours I spent with it. Although this also begs the question: did those 4 hours actually bring anything to the game? It’s not like I’d have found the game too short if they weren’t there. Why can’t RPGs be laid out so that grinding isn’t necessary?

8) I’m never playing a FF game again in fact I’m never playing a game that is 20+ hours ever again. I’ve never yet played a story driven game whose story can hold up much beyond 12 hours so I’m checking out of that nonsense (note also: this will go out the window when Kingdom Hearts 3D is released).

9) The best bit of the game is after the plot, tooling around clearing up the missions, that was actually fun. Is it worth playing the game for 50hrs to get there?

10) Unlike other FF games where the story really feels like it plays out on a grand/global scale this one never feels like it’s about anyone other than the 6 main characters, in spite of the dialogue and narrative repeatedly trying to tell us about all the people in peril. I think this is because there is no dinky overworld map that you can cruise around in a hyper-fast airship.

Meh

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Super Mario Galaxy 2

Posted by D on November 23, 2010

Yo, what is up with this game? I’ll tell you what’s up with this game – it is stone cold awesome although largely identical to it’s predcessor. I broadly like both games in this series, this second one iterates on the first in a pleasing although not very adventurous manner. We’ve got Yoshi (yay!) and a steeper and higher difficultly curve the latter of which makes this a more solid and worthwhile purchase. Flipside is that you’ve seen it all before and even at it’s hardest it’s not really that hard. I’ve heard it said that it’s some manner of object lesson in games design and I’m not sure I’m on board with that. From that point of view both  Super Mario Bros Wii and Yoshi’s Island DS are stronger games in my opinion. But SMG2 simply never makes any missteps. Gone is “play the whole game again as Luigi for a single bonus star” and instead they’ve added hidden green stars that you can go back and collect. It is a nicer way to encourage people to revisit levels without making them just replay the level. But at the end of the game when the green stars are unlocked you end up having to grind each level 3 times to collect each star. And it gets a bit boring seeing the level over and over. Were it me I’d have had 1 or 2 of the hidden green stars available during the initial run through of the game so you could have broken up the green star collection throughout the play time rather than doing it all at the end. Also Gone is the hub world, replaced with a Mario Bros 3 style level select. It streamlines the level selection process but I kind of liked the hub world.

One thing that does baffle me is that in the Boss Blitz Galaxy, which is effectively a SMG1 boss rush, I really don’t understand how it is that I defeated the Bouldergeist so easily without being hit. I swear to god I near destroy thing, people and pets in frustration trying to complete the SMG1 Bouldergeist Perfect Run challenge. Go figure, maybe I am getting better at this stuff. I remain eternally grateful that there was no revisit of the Luigi’s Purple Coins challenge. Because that was eye stabbingly horrific in SMG1. So saying the Granmaster Galaxy Perfect Run challenge in this game was so much bullshit. God damn it that was hard and so, so, so, very much harder than anything else the game had to offer. And as I’ve said before I hate it when games have weird huge steps in their difficulty curve. Also, what was with the paper play guide and How To Play DVD that came with the game? It’s not like all the information wasn’t in the game. Like I care to and have the time to watch a DVD about playing a game I’m just about to play. Odd.

So if you’ve not played it already or got bored of it by now this is a game worth having.

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New Super Mario Bros. Wii

Posted by D on November 23, 2010

I don’t really have a great deal to say about this. It is a tour de force of 2D platform design. End-to-end -spectacularly put together and brilliant. I’m not entirely sure what the multiplayer brings to the table, it’s kind of diverting but really frustrating and none of the platforming elements require more than one person to execute. But it was fun watching the unlockable multiplayer play throughs of levels, that is some awesome expert shizzle but so far beyond what I’m ever going to sit down and coordinate with friends. So yeah. And I can’t say I liked the shake-to-spin control, would rather that had been mapped to a button instead and I simply do not understand why I couldn’t use my classic controller, what was that money spent for? All that aside it is my favourite Mario Bros game since either Super Mario World or Mario 64DS or Yoshi’s Island or Yoshi’s Island DS. You know what, fuck it. All Mario platformers are good. Just go out,  buy them and shut up.

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Fairway Solitaire

Posted by D on April 13, 2010

Thanks to Mass Effect I finally completed Fairway Solitaire. I installed Fairway Solitaire when it came out and after running through the first third I’ve ignored it; perhaps running through the odd level once every couple of months. But since buying Mass Effect never before have I felt that I’d rather be playing something else. This might very well be the world’s greatest golf themed solitaire game. It’s certainly in the running for being the world’s most addictive solitaire game. I advise you check it out it’s only about £4. Having completed it I now have no excuse not to play Mass Effect, except for that fact that I immediately bought Torchlight; yes that’s right not only would I rather play solitaire than Mass Effect I’d willing spend money not to play Mass Effect.

I might say something about Torchlight shortly but in the end of the day it’s just Diablo 2 but better.

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Bayonetta

Posted by D on March 11, 2010

And now, a song:

Bayonetta,
I would let ‘er,
Fondle my special magical place

I know, don’t all call at once but I can be available to write the libretto for your next musical work.

she's coming to get ya.Bayonetta is the latest batshit lunacy crushingly hard 3D brawler to emerge from Japan for teh 360 and teh PS3. It features the same over the top nonsense and inscrutable plot that it’s Devil May Cry predecessors sport and it’s really not a great departure from it’s lineage. The main difference is that you’re a witch, a sexy, sexy witch, who kills angels and can’t remember who she is and from there the plot goes on to make no sense.  And maybe you like that sort of thing and maybe you’re some kind of Wapanese motherfucker. Nevertheless here are some questions to ponder: Who is the fat guy with the New York accent, who appears at the start and isn’t seen again until the closing animation? Who exactly is the weapon vendor? Why does Bayonetta even know these people? And those are just the reasonable questions you might ask about the plot. By and large it’s best to leave your brain at the door and ignore the plot and the dialogue as best you can.

So, it’s thankful that the game is a flawlessly executed triumph of game design, fluid control mechanics and level design. And that would be great if any of those things were actually true. Ok, that’s a little harsh, it’s well executed, it is fun to play but what’s there almost exactly three times longer than it needs be. After you’ve killed the same monsters over and over, in more or less the same way each time, it really starts to drag and by the time you get to that point the game is showing no real signs of letting up. None of which is helped by the fact that the plot makes no sense so you never have any idea where you might be in the story.

I ran through a whole arc of emotion with this game. It starts strong, it’s weird, it’s fun, the combat is fairly tight, the camera requires a little more micro-management than you might like. It’s hard but it’s not trying to extinguish your will to live (I’m looking at you Ninja Gaiden). And Bayonetta with her infeasibly long legs and bikini style nudity is kind of arousing. I mean, playing computer games while being sexually stimulated; what more could you want? I haven’t been that aroused since the invention of vibrating controllers, if you know what I’m sayin’.

Following on from the exciting beginning is a really strong early to middle phase, combat mechanics and new monsters are introduced fairly regularly, the level of challenge has a steep learning curve. All-in-all it’s rather engaging while you learn to master the underlying mechanics. But the sad thing about it is that after such a strong opening, once you broach the half way point the game sails straight on through to the cool still waters of the flat repetitively tedious sea. The latter half of the game devolves down to a series of unduly frustrating boss fights, which make no sense, punctuated with wave upon wave of the same MOBs you’ve been killing over and over and over. It just becomes boring. I grinded out the final levels all the time wishing I were somewhere else more fun and more amusing.

The boss design is simply bad. Later on it’s close to impossible to work out when or what can be hit. They do so much damage that one or two miss steps and you’re dead, which necessitates a time consuming game reload event. By the end I stopped trying to figure them out and just reached for gamefaqs and if that’s the deal then it’s a big Boss design fail.

Give me a western style brawler any day. Hasten to me God of War III

P.S. Final Fantasy XIII when will it end?

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Trine

Posted by D on January 14, 2010

Trine (n): The noise a rhinoceros makes during its vinegar strokes. True fact. I read it on the internet somewhere so it must be true. And as I get all my true facts from the internet these days I was glad that the internet additionally told me that Trine is also an excellent 2D-in-a-faux-3D-world platformer with physics based puzzles. WHAT IS NOT TO LOVE? It’s like they took a grab bag of my favourite things and made a game out of them. Could I resist? I could not. You can pick it up on all respectable downloadable content platforms PSN, XBLA, Steam.

Trine is great for a large number of reasons. just go out and buy it, it’s only £7 or something. Do I need to say any more?

Yes? I do? You people are like slave drivers.

So it’s a platform game, where you control three characters with different abilities (gasp! who knew) in order to solve the puzzles. It has a fantasy setting so those three characters are the usual fantasy archetypes: warrior, wizard, rogue. The warrior can pick stuff up, hit things with his sword and shield it up. The wizard can conjure objects (boxes, floating platforms). And the Rogue can shoot things with arrows and swing around on a grappling hook. But you can only have one of them (and hence one set of abilities) on screen at a time so it’s less Lost Vikings and more Megaman ZX Advent. You pick your way through the levels using whichever character and abilities you like the look of at the time, it’s not especially puzzle-tastic but it is nice being able to choose how you go about solving a given bit of the game and it is quite satisfying when you come up with an ingenious way to traverse something.

Interspersed among the platform-jumpy-puzzle bits there are monster encounters where you have to clear out packs of ravenous skeletons. They break up the game nicely but they do restrict you to using either the warrior or rogue to dispatch them. Now, perhaps it’s because I played the game through on Hard (because I’m not a limp dicked excuse for a man) but the sword fighting with the warrior seemed next to useless. A recipe for getting the warrior killed. Every . Time. Perhaps I’m missing something about the sword combat and you can become brilliantly skilled at it but that seemed too fiddly/risky so I tended to run as far away from the enemy as feasible (like a real man) and snit them to death with the rogue’s arrows.

As you play each of the characters has their own health bar, if you get them killed then you aren’t allowed to select that character until you get to the next restart point/orb where they all get a bit of a health boost. As a rule not a huge problem but there are odd occasions where you hit a bit of level that you can’t traverse because you don’t have any wizard and rogue left and you have to kill yourself. But more commonly you’ll end up in combat with just the wizard left and the wizard is right next to buttfuck useless in that scenario. At best you can drop some of his conjured objects on the skeletons for an instant kill but to do that you have to draw the shape of the object you want on the screen over the skeleton (and keep doing it with each new skeleton). Which wouldn’t be so bad… But as you’re the wizard you’re probably trying to run away from the skeletons at the same time, so as well as negotiating running away with one thumb, you’re trying to draw a square with the other and trying to do so while compensating for screen scrolling. Not Easy. So then you die and restart at the last restart point with all three characters. I suspect this may be a PC to console translation problem. Doing some super quick square/box drawing with the mouse is undoubtedly easier than trying to do it with a console’s thumb stick. I lost count of the number of times I got killed off in combat with the wizard but it really didn’t seem like the greatest bind. On the flipside firing the rogue’s arrows was immensely satisfying every time you did it right, whereas with a mouse I can see how it would be totally too accurate and just become a bit boring.

The game as a whole isn’t all that long, some 15 levels. It doesn’t over stay it’s welcome or become arduous. I think it’s just the right length, it gets as hard as is reasonable given some of the game engine’s limitations and for the price that’s a good game size. The main limitation is the physics engine that underlies the movement and puzzles. Now and again, you’ll notice some odd behaviour here and there, objects behaving unlike they have in the ENTIRE REST OF THE GAME, moments where an object gets pinged at super speed off the edge of the screen. Not generally an issue but the problem is that you can get killed by the physics engine wigging-out. It’s rare but if it happened with any regularity you’d soon give up. Largely this is only an issue with the more frenetic portions of the game such as the end game (which did get a little frustrating). But while the physics engine has these odd, weird behaviours I don’t see that the game could be made much harder without it also become a heap load of frustrating. Thankfully it never goes down that route.

As it stands it is a beautiful, fun, pleasing game that never lingers too much to get old or sad. So ends this review, please don’t be sad either.

WOOH GAH, WOOH GAH! Bonus extra review.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

Take this review, make the following substitutions: swap “Islands” for “towns”, “sailing” for “travelling on tracks”, “boat” for “train” and “pirates” for err… “pirates on the land” because it is: The. Same. Fucking. Game. Talk about phoning it in. I remain eager to see a sequel with a larger more developed story and maybe, this time, some new ideas too.

P.S. Happy now Wilf?

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Dress well in 2010

Posted by D on January 14, 2010

For those in need of sartorial advice, I give you this and this. Perhaps not together though.

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