Tuesday, October 27, 2009

My Love/Hate Relationship with Demon's Souls

I picked this game up practically on a whim. The only knowledge I had of it was what my best friend told me off and on, and while that seems like a completely insane way to decide the fate of $60, I figured I could trust his judgment. When I found out that Demon's Souls comes from the makers of the Kings Field series, I started to warm up a bit more, as I loved those games on the Playstation.

I bought my copy on launch day (the sales girl at Gamestop had no idea what it was. Typical) and headed home for play. Sixty hours later, I can't put the damn thing down. This is precisely why I got my Playstation 3: to offer me deep and engaging experiences that I can't find on other consoles. Ah, the benefit of owning more than one machine! Here was an action/RPG that had incredible graphics, great gameplay, a long quest, lots of awesome boss battles, and tons of dungeons to explore. It sounds great, doesn't it?

For the most part, it is. Demon's Souls is a great game that is very rewarding for those who decide to stick with it. The problem is that the initial learning curve is larger than any other game I've played this generation, and the way the whole game works takes some getting used to. Those who stumble into this expecting a traditional RPG set up are going to be disappointed, and they're going to be pretty confused for the first few hours.

For example, players obtain souls when they kill enemies, and these are used for everything you can imagine. There is no money in this game, so you're using souls to buy weapons, spells, the works. You also use these souls to level up, and by "level up" I mean " enhance your abilities." There is no general level per se, and the game offers no experience points at all. Want an archer? Better raise that dexterity. Like casting spells? Work on intelligence. This system lets you create a totally unique character, but it can be a major pain in the ass sometimes. For instance, I started with a temple knight, and I chose to work on improving his magic. Late in the game I found an awesome White Bow, but my dexterity was six levels too low. I spent an hour grinding just to be able to use it. Inconvenient? Yes, but damn was it worth it.

The whole game seems designed to test your patience and determination. Should you die in a level, you're sent back to the beginning, and all the enemies are revived. Yep, you have to do the whole thing all over again. Moreover, all the souls you collected are taken from you, and you have to trek all the way back to where you died to reclaim them. Should you be slain along the way, you lose them permanently. Oh, and did I mention that the game has no pause feature? Yeah, all your curing and equipping is done in real time, so if you're not prepared for a particular battle, you're going to get killed really fast. Fortunately, all the items you found and the doors you opened remain, so you don't have to worry about losing that awesome sword you found just before a skeleton skewered you with a single blow.

That's the allure of Demon's Souls. This game kicks your ass, takes your name and address, and then goes to your house and kicks the ass of everyone in your entire family. It's hard, damn hard, but it's not impossible. That being said, I can certainly see some people getting turned off by it. I know I've already seen a fair share of used copies at Gamestop! The sense of accomplishment you get from killing one of the powerful bosses is immense, and that sense of "I need to explore just a bit farther" keeps pushing you onward.

All this goodness doesn't mean that the game is free of flaws, however. In fact, there are a few things that are downright unforgivable. The no pause thing is a pain in the ass, but being able to only equip two weapons on the left and right hands sucks. Why let me carry all these cool things if I can't use them quickly? I'm forced to go with magic and a shield on the left and a sword and bow on the right. But what if I want to use a talisman to cure myself or cast a miracle (there are both miracles and spells)? I'm screwed, that's what. Also, how come I have more rings than Mr.T but can only equip two? What about my other eight fingers?

Another thing that I don't like is the lock-on feature. It's useless for bows (which thankfully have zoom, that makes shooting easier), and it craps out when you don't want it to or sticks around when you want it to turn off. This can be a serious problem if an enemy leaps at you or closes in. The camera can go nuts in these situations, and the lock-on means you can't get away quickly enough to avoid death.

And you will die, young adventurer. You will die, and often. Being in soul form means you have less energy, but it also means that other players can't invade your game. That's right. Since Demon's Souls is online all the time, you can see the phantoms of other players all around you. Should you be revived by defeating a boss or using a special stone, those other players can invade your game as Black Phantoms. I've heard people say that they like this because it keeps you on your toes and makes things more exciting, but personally, I hate it. I've had two instances where I was exploring a stage, and some idiot invaded my game and killed me. That meant I had to go all the way back to the beginning and do it all again. It was neither exciting nor invigorating. Granted, you can unplug your PS3's ethernet cord and play in peace, but then you don't see the messages of other players and their phantoms, which are useful for figuring out how to tackle specific enemies.

As major as they might sound, none of these problems is game-breaking, and Demon's Souls is just too good to pass up because of them. This is an RPG worthy of both your cash and time, and if you like castles, dragons, and dungeons, this simply must be in your game library.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum = Game of the Year

Unlike some of his other Justice League friends (Aquaman, LOL), Batman actually has a history of decent games under his utility belt. The classic NES title and SNES Batman Returns immediately come to mind, as does Batman: The Video Game for the Genesis. From there on, it's been largely hit-and-miss, with a few nuggets of quality standing out. Overall, the quality of the games in the relatively large library, larger than that of most super heroes, is perhaps the main reason why I'm more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt each time a new title is released. I've played and enjoyed most of them - I even enjoyed Rise of Shin Tsu - so Arkham Asylum had to be a decent game, right?

Wrong. Arkham Asylum is not only a great game, it's perhaps the best one released in 2009 so far. Little-known developer Rocksteady Studios has created far and above the best action game of the year; it's made the semanal Batman title and set the bar for super hero games. How it did this is probably a lesson in simplicity itself, a lesson perhaps so simple that it has manage to elude developers for so long. Hidden in plain sight, as they say.

Last year, I wrote a Double Take article on the excellent Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin for the Sega Genesis. To me, the biggest attraction that game had, as well as what made it such a good super hero game in the first place, was the fact that it was developed from the ground up specifically around its star. Most hero games are simply action or beat-'em-up titles with a license slapped on to boost sales. With SvtK, Sega went the route all these games should take from the start: it developed the game around the star, making it unplayable with anyone else.

Arkham Asylum does this in spades. Sure, Batman is seemingly nothing more than a muscular dude in tights who kicks major ass. Gaming is not lacking in this department, but that's not all that makes Batman who he is. Anyone can beat up thugs, but not everyone has the combination of talents and gadgets that make the Dark Knight essential to this narrative. In other words, the game simply wouldn't be the same - or as fun - had the hero been Superman or anyone else.

Rocksteady combed through everything that makes Batman such an icon. His ability to instill fear in criminals, his incredible athletic ability, and most of all, his unmatched detective skills. The Caped Crusader's keen intellect and problem-solving ability is pivotal to the game's progression, and there are dozens of side riddles (guess who from!) that need them as well. What makes it all so incredible is that you the player are the one using those (i.e. your) skills, which brings the level of connection to character to a level never before seen.

This connection goes beyond just the plot and is actually central to the gameplay itself. A tap of the left bumper brings up Detective Mode, which turns everything a light shade of blue and allows otherwise overlooked things to come to light by turning them bronze. Moreover, certain clues, such as DNA trails, are only visible this way. A down side is that you'll spend most of the game seeing everything in blue, but that's because you're scouring every corner of the ancient and decrepit Asylum to find a trophy or riddle you missed. And air ducts. Lots and lots of air ducts.

Add to it all the jaw-dropping visuals, butter-smooth gameplay, upgradeable abilities and gadgets, and some awesome voice work (Mark Hamill as Joker, Kevin Conroy as Batman, and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn!), and you have what is simply the best comic game ever made. It all comes together so well that you're even able to forgive the weak plot. Suffice it to say that the Joker takes over Arkham in order to release an army of mutant monsters. Bane, Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, and a few others are on the loose and need taking down before Batman can tackle the Clown Prince of Crime himself. It's not very deep, but the acting is superb, and Arkham is just so massive that you'll forget the storyline completely.

Arkham's huge size is a major plus, as the several buildings that sprawl across the compound will need to be revisited several times to access new areas and find new data on the inhabitants. The whole game itself is quite long for an action title, and there are even unlockable challenge areas to finish off after you're done with the main quest. They even have online leaderboards!

Simply put, Batman: Arkham Asylum is the game to own this year. I bought the Xbox 360 version, though I've heard conflicting reports that the Playstation 3 version looks better. That one also has exclusive Joker challenge levels that can be downloaded for free from the Playstation Store. I got mine at Gamestop, so I at least have the Scarecrow's challenges to play. Whichver version you choose, you simply cannot go wrong. This is the game you show to anyone who knocks this generation of consoles. It doesn't get any better than this...

... unless we get a sequel!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Houston: We Have Policenauts!

My god, this was so much easier than I had thought. After a good friend of mine hooked me up with a pre-patched file, it was a simple task of extracting the file and burning both ISOs to two CDs. I popped the first disc into my modded PSone (for imports; I don't pirate), and it booted just fine. I can now play Policenauts in English.

The voice overs are still in Japanese, but who cares when you have beautiful English subtitles? I can't comment yet on the overall quality of the translation, as I've been busy with other games and haven't sat down with it completely, but this week that will change. I've been staring at my Japanese copy of the game for years, and now I can finally enjoy it!

Those who don't have a modded console can play the game just fine via emulator, and while it's not on actual hardware, it's better than never being able to enjoy Policenauts at all. You can find the patch at The Policenauts Translation Project, so grab it and enjoy all the hard work these good folks put into this translation.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Policenauts! In English!

It only took a bit more than a decade, but Konami's spiritual successor to the classic Snatcher is finally available in English via a fan-made patch courtesy of the good folks over at Policenauts.net. Since Konami itself obviously couldn't be bothered to give the game the props it deserves and make it available to English-speaking audiences, some diehard fans thankfully took it upon themselves to translate Hideo Kojima's overlooked two-disc classic.

The only problem I find with the whole scenario is the actual patching process. I've never been very good at such things, and this kind of endeavor intimidates me quite a bit. My quest to finally play Ys IV on my Turbo Duo took me an entire night to complete, and the first time I soft modded my Xbox took almost as long. Hacking, modding, and patching are things best left to others with more skills.

Thankfully, a good friend of mine already patched his and set me up with a pre-patched copy that is currently being downloaded. Hopefully, this should set me on the right path, and I will soon be enjoying this great game in English!

More news when the downloadand install is complete!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Look at Sega.com from 1997

Web Archive is an incredible site and virtually the only one trying to preserve the websites of yesteryear for posterity. Recently, someone over at the Digital Press forums looked up Sega's site from 1997. It's there almost in its entirety, and it has some really cool images! Check it out here.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Laziness Wins Again, It Would Seem...

Whoah, three months since my last post! I guess no matter how hard one tries to maintain a blog, time is always the winner. I really want to keep this thing going, and I won't go into the lame "real life messed me up" spiel. Suffice it to say that Sega-16 is really keeping me busy, but that's a good thing, right? I've been meaning to write for it more - or at least as much as a job and two children will let me, so my distraction there isn't entirely without merit.

And what writing I have been doing! My latest article will be up in two weeks, and it sheds some interesting relevations on the whole Sonic The Hedgehog 3/Michael Jackson urban legend. It's a lengthy piece, and it features new quotes from former Sega alumni that were given specifically for this article, including a new one from former SOA head Tom Kalinske.

I guess that no matter how much time I try to devote to other hobbies (like blogging), Sega-16 will always be the thing that takes the lion's share of my online time. I'll just try to share it here with the two of you that actually read - or used to read - this thing!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Getting Your Money's Worth

Recently, I purchased The Maw for Xbox Live Arcade. The demo was quite charming, and I was eager to have a new game to play on the platformer-starved Xbox 360. From first glance, one could tell that The Maw had some exceptional production values, and the characters were endearing and attractive. Eagerly, I paid my 800 MS points ($10) and got to playing. Three hours later, I had beaten the game with 100% completion and all but one of the achievements.

Needless to say, I felt cheated.

I know the whole "games are expensive to make!" argument. I hear it every time someone complains of a game being too short, easy, etc. I could probably stomach such talk when it involves some forty-hour epic that enthralls you for hours each time you play. The Maw, sadly, is the exact opposite. Its paltry eight levels can be beaten with 100% completion in under three hours, and once you finish the game, there's no reason at all to go back. None of the stages are particularly clever in design, and there are no secrets, extra items, or anything of the sort to find. You literally see EVERYTHING on your first playthrough. Even the achievements (save one that requires you to play at four separate times in a day) can all be done in one sitting. Hardly worth the purchase price.

Even worse, developer Twisted Pixel has now announced that it will be selling three additional levels via Xbox Live for a hundred points each. This gives the impression that almost a third of the game was left behind to inflate the replay value of what would otherwise be a "play once and toss" affair. Such nickel-and-dime tactics really annoy me, and I won't b buying the levels, achievements included or not.

So what excuse is there now? The game is short, not particularly deep or involving, and a third of it was withheld to be sold separately. Should I just throw up my arms and say "what do you expect for $10?" No, I should be annoyed that the demo, which was so enticing and enjoyable, failed to show a game that was all flash and no substance. The latter, it would seem, comes for an extra price.


If a developer can't afford to release a game, perhaps it's best that nothing should be released at all. I don't want to be sold part of a game now and then have to buy the rest little by little. Why not just sell the whole thing for $15, like Castle Crashers (a much better value and game overall)? I really liked The Maw, and my anger mostly stems from being denied more of it for the price. Platformers are traditionally not as deep as most other genres, and a lack of length can outright kill one after the initial novelty has worn off.

Interviewed during the game's development, Mike Henry of Twisted Pixels commented on what distinguishes The Maw from other games. "The big thing we wanted to push with it was personality. So, I would say that even over and above the actual mechanics of the game and all that, we wanted to make sure it was a memorable experience for the players because they got attached to the characters, and they wanted to know more about the characters, and would be sad when the game was over because they don’t get to continue the adventure with the characters anymore."

He was right, in a sense. I did get attached to the characters and was sad when the game ended. Unfortunately, that was because the game was over by the time I really got to like them.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: Japan Sucks

This past holiday season was spent playing - and beating - Infinite Undiscovery, a cookie-cutter JRPG that was fun, if you still like that sort of game. Since I've been playing them so long, I can still enjoy the clich├ęd and boring characters, random battles, tedious grinding, and stale plot. The Xbox 360 has received some choice selections over the past year or so, but lately I've found myself wondering just how much longer I can stand the genre.

Dragon Quest VIII
was a great game, filled with awesome visuals and a huge and interesting world. With that in mind, I dove head-first into Blue Dragon, and I still haven't been able to wash the taste from my mouth. The game itself wasn't that bad, but the achievement distribution was simply horrible. Now, I'm something of an achievement whore (check my gamercard on the right!), and I find them to be neat little ways to entice me to get as much out of a game as possible. That is, when they're done right. Some games, like the recently-beaten Assassin's Creed, had them well distributed, in ways that didn't force players too hard to find them but that weren't obtuse either. Blue Dragon threw all that completely out the window and offered achievements that were downright stupid. For example, you beat the game with your characters at around level 62, but the game has achievements for leveling up each character to level 99. Why? Why on Earth would I spend hours grinding over 30 more levels for a 15 point achievement, especially when it has no bearing on the game itself?

Eternal Sonata, another JRPG and one with perhaps the most obnoxious character designs I've ever seen (I hate you Beat, HATE YOU!), is just as guilty. There are music sheets to be collected, and some don't appear until your second playthrough. WTF? I have to play the whole game from scratch a second time just to get some dumb papers? Why?

Most recently, Infinite Undiscovery hit the stupid ball out of the park. An awesomee game with some bland character designs, it too has a multiple playthrough achievement, but even Eternal Sonata has to stand back and say "DAMN!" at just how stupid it is. Check this out: you have to play through the whole game THREE times to get a special boss in a dungeon that's half a dozen levels long with no save. And the achievement for beating her?

Worth a single point. Yep, 1 measly point.

There are other moronic grinding achievements as well, but this one just takes the cake. I beat the game and did maybe one or two more before quitting, and I'll never go back to finish up the achievements in any of these games. With Lost Odyssey sitting on my shelf, waiting for some playtime, I'm loathe to check its achievement list for fear of being assaulted with yet more stupidity.

It's now well known that Japan is about a decade behind the West in game design. Must it lag in achievement distribution too?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Kickin' ASSassin's Creed

I bought this one a while ago pretty cheap, and it's been sitting on my shelf, mired in my Pile of Shame (more like Heap 'O Humiliation) for months. After finally beating Infinite Undiscovery, I decided to tackle it, and I must admit, this game is awesome. The combat is a little hit-or-miss (ha!), but the ambiance is spot-on, and the cities are simply gorgeous and alive. Seriously, I think Grand Theft Auto IV is the only other game I've seen that has been able to bring a major metropolis to life so truly realized. Everything is just stunning, and each of the three cities have a life of their own. There's also no end to the fun of tossing guards off of rooftops!

I'm almost done (just some flag achievements left to mop up), and I can say that I eagerly await the sequel. Ubi Soft has a habit of releasing some great-but-glitchy games, and Assassin's Creed is par for the course, but rest assured that I will definitely wet my blade with the blood of the guilty once more when the sequel finally comes out.

In other news, I recently started freelancing for The Next Level, an enthusiast site much like GotNext was, but much older and larger in size. Chris "bahn" Scantleberry enticed me to write again by dangling under my nose the sweet carrot that is Saints Row 2, as well as the latest Spyro game for the kiddies. Check out the review to see why you should definitely pick up Volition Inc.'s latest and greatest game.