Friday, January 22, 2016

Dead Space

Dead Space
Developer: EA Redwood Shores
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Third Person Shooter - PS3
1 Save Slot
1 player
Dead Space

Surprise review! Actually played through half the game years ago, but life got in the way. I just set up my entertainment center and hooked up the PS3, and decided to start over from scratch.

Dead Space is... was... a new franchise from EA Redwood Shores. The IP may be sleeping/dead now, but it made a real splash during its debut. It was popular enough to spawn numerous sequels and spinoffs, after all. Capitalizing on the survival horror revival from Amnesia, revived Resident Evil games, F.E.A.R., etc., Dead Space went big budget. Like a sci-fi horror movie, there are many cinematic scenes both pre-rendered and in-engine for the player to witness. There are numerous plotlines that unravel and converge. And there are jump scares aplenty. Still, it's remarkable that there's a decent game underneath it all.

The story begins with a stranded space vessel and a SOS signal. You assume the role of an Engineer aboard a small starcraft, as part of the rescue effort. When no one in the stranded USS Ishimura answers any communication efforts, you quickly discover that things are not right with the world. Two of your other crew members are immediately torn to pieces by horrific lifeforms, and you are separated by the ensuing struggle.

One thing that makes Dead Space different is that you seem like less the main character, and more like a member of a team. In other survival horror games, you do all the exploring, and you pick up pieces of the story as you go along. Here, you do a fair amount of that, but it's in the context of assisting your crew members (and commanding officer) with their objectives. As a result, the game isn't one big open-world with massive back-tracking, but instead a number of discrete stages with its own set of maps and enemies. Nothing is lost in this structure, because there's a lot of ground to cover in each stage anyway.

The other thing that makes Dead Space different is that the third person gunplay is interesting. Rather than just generically shooting enemies by pointing in their direction a la Resident Evil/Silent Hill, or even going for headshots like Fatal Frame, Dead Space is about aiming for limbs. Body and headshots generally don't do much damage, but taking off limbs not only cripples enemies in the game, but makes them severely weaker. So when an enemy rushes at you, you may have to shoot off a leg to drop them to the ground, and as they're crawling towards you, you have to aim for an exposed arm or two before they're finished. Different weapons and a limited ability to slow them down using stasis, will assist in that endeavor. This makes the action a lot more interactive than most survival horror, and even most shooters! It's like what Bioshock was aiming for, but didn't quite achieve. Maybe because enemies in DS are much more resilient?

Whatever the case, I just found Dead Space much more fulfilling to play than most mainstream games. It definitely does do the creepy vibe thing right, with lots of attention to gory detail and intentional lighting. Add to that a mix of good puzzles, items to collect, secrets to discover, and precision-based shooting, and you've got plenty of things to entertain. The end result is a horror game that is better than it needed to be. Still, for some reason, I'm not particularly interested enough to play the sequels. I got my fill, and I'm quite satisfied.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Corpse Party

Corpse Party
Developer: Team GrisGris
Publisher: XSeed Games
Adventure - PSP
1 player
Corpse Party

I love Japanese horror. There is a certain quality in them that's distinct from Hollywood. In general, they don't rely on visceral scares, but instead penetrate your psyche with dark imagery and atmosphere, so that you're left with unsettled feelings long after the film is over. They also tend to have a human aspect to it, where even the "bad guy" has some relatable qualities. Enter Corpse Party. It was originally a PC-9801 game, turned PC remake, turned PSP game (and now iOS).

Corpse Party has roots in RPG Maker, with its simple 2/3 overhead RPG perspective and sprite graphics. But it's all adventure game through and through, with plenty of character dialog, cut scenes, item fetching, and branching paths. The game begins at a high school, where a group of students and a teacher gather together and perform a charm. The charm backfires, causing an earthquake that splits the group apart as they fall through the chasm, leaving them at the mercy of the evil spirits within.

The game is broken up into 5 chapters, and will often have you controlling different characters and exploring the specific area those characters are in. Every chapter has multiple endings, although generally only one of them will be "good", allowing you to progress further in the game. Your dialog choices, the objects you pick up, the objects you use (or don't use), and order of actions can determine your fate. I do like the fact that even if you choose poorly, the bad endings are worth pursuing. They can be gruesome, tragic, and accompanied by some detailed artwork. But even better is that they often fill in gaps in the story, you might not otherwise know about. So even though you "lose", you "win". That is one of the aspects that gives Corpse Party a reason to replay and explore.

As far as the actual horror aspect, it definitely delivers in the same way that I like J-horror films. Despite the simple visuals, it's able to convey a sense of creepiness through little details in the backdrops, CG cut scenes, and writing style. Retaining the original Japanese voice-work definitely helps a lot in that regard. Corpse Party is exactly what I would hoped a horror adventure game would be, but the addition of multiple endings per chapter elevates it beyond expectation.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


Developer: Phosfiend Systems
Publisher: Phosfiend Systems
Adventure - PC
1 Save Slot
1 player

Perhaps the one hobby I enjoy more than gaming is music. I love listening to music, performing music, and have a deep respect for the creation of music.  (I'd create myself if I were more talented. Maybe one day.) Combine gaming with music and you've got a recipe for hitting all my right notes.

FRACT OSC is a first-person puzzle exploration adventure game. It drops you off in a desolate, other-worldly place with strange architectures and mechanical innards. You don't know why you're there. You're not given much instruction either, other than a single hint that you have an interaction mode. While utilized, movement is a little more constrained, but you will be able to see and manipulate the objects that you need. Once you pick up on the game's language, things start to click.

At its core, FRACT OSC is all about discovery. You'll explore this strange place, hit dead-ends (some temporary), develop a mental mapping of the layout, and learn how to traverse. Similarly, you'll encounter puzzles with no directions. But as soon as you start experimenting with what you can manipulate, how you can manipulate them, and observe what happens to your surroundings both visually and aurally, you'll start to understand the world's language. Nothing is a gimme in FRACT OSC, but if you pay attention, all the clues are there. Plus the puzzles are generally relatively simple until the very end game.

What cements everything together is a brooding synthesizer musical backdrop. Initially the world is a silent place. But as you come across the puzzles, faint synth music plays. As you get closer and closer to a solution, more musical layers are added, crescendoing into an explosion of neon lights and musical resolution upon completion of the puzzle. That's one of the finer details of the game, in which it gives you immediate feedback and reward once you figured out the puzzle. The world becomes permanently brighter, and livelier. Often the world changes a little bit, offering up new passages or opening of doors that were previously closed off. By the end of the game, there is a vibrance - a flourishing in the world. You did not leave it untouched.

It should be mentioned that in addition to a exploration puzzle adventure game, FRACT OSC has an in-game music studio sequencer. Pieces of the music studio are unlocked as you complete puzzles from the game portion, which also produces one additional layer of satisfaction from solving them. The end product is not nearly as thorough or friendly as dedicated sequencing software (professional or even the KORG or KORG-likes for the Nintendo DS), but this could be someone's introduction to the world of electronica-creation, and I'm all for that. FRACT OSC makes it so you can save your settings and songs, as well as import/export. I've already seen a bunch of Youtube user-creations using the studio, so it's a pretty versatile tool.

I would be the first to say that FRACT OSC is not for everyone. Some might find the lack of hand-holding too obtuse, although I think the game provides plenty of feedback to figure things out. And whereas I thought the puzzles were varied just enough to keep me entertained, others may find that the 3 major types of puzzles too limiting. But for those who enjoy the feeling of exploration and discovery, Phosfiend Systems has completely nailed it. This was an unforgettable trip.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Papers, Please

Papers, Please
Developer: Lucas Pope
Publisher: 3309 LLC
Simulation - PC
Multiple Save Slots
1 player
Papers, Please

Gaming has been a mixed bag for me in the last 5 years. I've somehow gotten a reputation that I hate everything. Truth to be told, if a game doesn't push any creative boundaries, it's hard for it to keep my interest. Everything's been done before, Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V'd, and re-skinned. Enter Papers, Please.

In this current age of terrorism and government paranoia, Papers, Please could not be any more relevant.  Presented as a border officer simulation, gameplay revolves around you checking passerby's documents to make sure everything is in order for entry into your country. Since it is your job, you get paid for how many people you process, and get docked money for mistakes you make. Balance that with the expenses you have (food, rent, etc), and hopefully you'll earn a living. Sounds simple enough. But attempting to cultivate a life under a backdrop of political strife and a totalitarian government is hardly simple.

What makes Papers, Please shine is that there are stories going on that you know little about. You are NOT the focus of these stories, and are often the bystander. Nevertheless, in your position as border officer, you are affected by and can affect these plotlines. Travelers will try to make conversation with you, even requesting an occasional favor. Sometimes the requests are innocuous. Sometimes they're not. However you decide, there could be consequences.

In addition, the hostile political climate makes each day uncertain. There will be times when your day is interrupted, causing the checkpoint station to close early, affecting your earnings. Conflict between nations may mean that your orders change, and you are commanded to treat one people group differently than another. Since every day brings different visitors, differing political conditions, and different orders, the gameplay ends up mirroring the volatility of the game world.

All of this adds up to an incredible emotional connection with the role that you play. When you let someone in the country that you shouldn't, or turn away those that you should let in, there is an impact. You are making judgment calls every moment. Do you follow orders? Do you do what is "right"? Are those two motivations compatible or mutually exclusive? And how do your decisions impact your family whom you support? These questions are impossible to avoid. It's all part of what makes Papers, Please more than a sum of its parts.

Even with the oppressive political overtones and multiple subplots coursing through, some have called the actual gameplay mechanics of Papers, Please uninteresting. I am not one of them. Each day in the game has its own character, events, and mechanics, so it's impossible to ever get completely comfortable. As soon as your inspector workday begins, I found it a frantic race to get people processed as quickly as possible, absorb the dialog and random events occurring, and doing it while avoiding errors. It's kind of like a Phoenix Wright-like contradiction-finding adventure game, an inspections sim and a score attack game all-in-one.

There are 20 endings in all, and an Endless Mode, if you can unlock it.  (I haven't.)

This is my 2013 game of the year.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Persona 2: Innocent Sin

Persona 2: Innocent Sin
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
RPG - Playstation Portable
1 player
Persona 2 Innocent Sin

This is the most irritating game I've played in a long time.

It's disappointing because I was really looking forward to the game. Persona 2: Innocent Sin is the first of a two-part Shin Megami Tensei spinoff RPG. Moreover, this upgraded PSP port of a Playstation game is the first time this title has been available in English.

I think part of my issue is that P2:IS is not Soul Hackers. As my first exposure to the SMT universe, Soul Hackers was a very different kind of game, with a larger emphasis on combat decisions, demon summoning, and exploration. SH was so interesting to me that even playing SMT3 Nocturne was somewhat of a letdown too. But Persona 2: Innocent Sin comes up shortest because other than some very loose SMT characteristics, it primarily plays like any other RPG, and a bad one at that.

P2:IS is based in a futuristic Japan-esque place named Sumaru. There is a mysterious presence named Joker, who is causing a ruckus, stealing souls and leaving victims in a vegetable state. As people who have had friends or surroundings targeted by Joker, a group of students and adults band together to stop him in his tracks.

The story and game unfold in a traditional turn-based RPG style. From what I understand, there were some tactical positioning elements in the first Persona game, but Persona 2 has only the typical menu commands with two additional options.

A "Persona" can be summoned for your each of your characters. Personas are spiritual beings with their own strengths, weaknesses and skills. What this means in practice here is that your party members can equip a Persona, and thus gains access to those Personas spells. If that persona is immune to fire and is weak to water, then your character takes on those attributes too. The good thing is, you can swap personas each turn without penalty. They level up and gain access to additional skills. Luckily, their skills are capped and known, so you can choose whether or not to spend the time leveling them up. In the end, Personas are more or less treated like equipment.

Demon negotiation is a little convoluted. Basically, demons can react to things you say or do in four different emotions. If you trigger one emotion 3x in the course of the dialog, then that's what the end of the negotiation. Make a demon angry 3x in that discussion, and the demon will attack you. Make a demon fearful 3x, and they'll run away.  Make a demon interested 3x, and they'll give you cards of their arcana type. Make a demon joyful 3x, and they'll ask if you want to form a pact. A pact does not mean they join you, just that if you negotiate with them in the future and make them joyful, you'll get some additional options from them. If you have a pact, and make the demon interested 3x in the future, they'll give you more cards of their arcana than you would normally get, and they'll give you bonus wild cards.

Since you can't get demons to join you, the way that you get personas in this game is to have them created using those tarot cards you collect through "interested" demons. For example, it takes 56 Hermit cards to create a Nekomata persona. You can fuse those 56 hermit cards with skill cards like "Dia" or bonus strength to give your new Nekomata those bonuses. By creating different personas, you can stock up to 10 of them for swapping in and out during battles.

So far so good. The systems themselves aren't particularly innovative or interesting, but they're competent. What went wrong? Execution.

At every level, the game mangles the details. The most cringe-worthy issue is the slowness of the game. You'll be fighting random battles a LOT. This is par for the course, given that SMT ties demon/persona creation with encounters. That's not the issue. In other SMT games, battles can occur pretty briskly, particularly after turning off battle animations. The difference in Soul Hackers of animations on vs. off was like night and day. Here? Not so much. Persona 2 has the uncanny ability to make each of the thousands of battles as painfully sluggish as possible. Even with animation skip, there are pauses before and after each action. Group damage is dealt not simultaneously, but sequentially. Demon negotiation is also frustrating, because some of your choices have animations that cannot be skipped.

This is partly aggravated by the UMD load times. P2:IS allows you to do an install to circumvent those issues. From where I'm sitting, it doesn't seem to actually do anything. Whenever you enter a battle, exit a battle, or do demon negotiation, you can hear the UMD drive whirring along. In practice, towards the end, I began running from almost every encounter, because it was such a big waste of time. When a game is so bad that you avoid playing the bulk of it, something is majorly wrong.  It's not like running mattered, because the game challenge is pretty easy. Affinities don't seem to matter as much as other SMT games, so that it hardly mattered that I was under-leveled or didn't have the right exploits from running so much.

The systems themselves don't really differentiate themselves from non-SMT RPGs out there. One of the biggest aspects of SMT is demon fusion and knowing when to summon demons. Here in P2, Personas don't seem to matter that much other than giving you a set of spells. Their affinities don't have as large of an effect as they do in other SMT games. Moreover, it takes so much more to create a Persona in this game, since they are "bought" rather than fused, that there really is just a limited selection of them.

Persona mangles what you spend the most time doing (fighting) and screws up what people play SMT games for (demon/persona creation).  Deeply disappointing.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Hotline Miami

Hotline Miami
Developer: Dennaton
Publisher: Dennaton
Action - PC
1 Save Slot
1 player
Hotline Miami

This is my kind of game. But let's not get ahead of ourselves here.

Hotline Miami is an indie action game that debuted last month. It's a little unfortunate that it came out a couple weeks after Retro City Ransom, as many gamers believed HM to be a gorier, more immature take on RCR. That's really a shame, because Hotline Miami has so much to offer other than its silly gory visuals.

At its core, Hotline Miami is a frenetic and strategic action game.  It’s displayed in a top-down 2D perspective with 8-bit graphics, where your goal is to pretty much annihilate the many enemies scattered throughout a location.  You’ll use fists, pick up metal pipes, wield shotguns, and push doors to disable and gut each and every one of them.   It gives me the same feelings of suspense and exhilaration as Ninja Gaiden Black.  Enemies have pretty decent AI, where if you’re spotted, they will rush at you.  If you fire gunshots, you alert everyone in the vicinity to your presence.  Hence, the game has a stealth-like twist to it, but it never slows the action down.  Enemies here will one-hit kill you, so the difference between life and death is dependent on planning and pinpoint execution.  Your abilities are generally pretty limited, so the focus is on scoping out your environment and figure out the best tactics for survival. 

Deaths are frequent, but restarts are instantaneous.  That's what makes everything come together. Because there's no load time and the game doesn’t bombard  you with cutscenes, that means that each death and restart just propels you to plan better and try harder. The game is hard, but the challenge is reasonable. If you do something stupid, you will die.

Hotline Miami encourages perfect runs through stages, by grading you on how fast you clear stages, combos racked up by killing enemies in succession, accuracy in your kills, etc.  Even if you don’t care about scoring, Hotline Miami gives you the flexibility to take your time through levels or go for speedruns.  You can take out enemies one by one or set up mass slaughters.  You can go for perfection or you can go for survival.  And that’s what makes Hotline Miami so rewarding. It has infinite replay value.

Did I mention the fantastic bumping synth soundtrack? They not only add to the fun, but they’re great tunes to listen to away from the game. As a bonus, they’re available as .ogg files in the game directory for consumption.

Forget all those combo games called “visceral” and “flowing”.   Hotline Miami offers a true flowing experience that is brutal, smart, and engaging on all levels.  Love it.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Developer: Housemarque
Publisher: Ubisoft
Action - PS3
3 Save Slots
1 player / Online Multiplayer

Some people recommended Outland to me before, but I only got around to playing it just now. Part action-platformer, and part Ikaruga color-switching, I was intrigued by the concept. I'd have to say I was a little skeptical, because the developer, Housemarque, is an indie studio in Finland. I never really found Western games to be able to compare to the Japanese in classic 2D genres. Thankfully, Outland blew all my expectations away.

The game sets your character up as a hero that must defeat these twin sisters of darkness and light. The story is a bit hokey, but that's fine. The real star of the show is the gameplay. For the most part, you will be jumping and slashing your way through the game. Like Metroid, you will sometimes find your path impeded until you have an ability acquired later on. The melee combat is quite satisfying, where you can get into a groove by doing limited combos on enemies. The emphasis is not on stringing together moves as much as it is timing and pattern recognition, but it's nice to know the hero has some flexibility when needed.

What Outland does right with this formula is that it's like Metroid and not Metroidvania, which I think is one of the worst atrocities in the gaming world. By NOT employing a leveling-up system, Outland always feels like the challenges laid out were carefully crafted. There is still a progression system where you can add to your life and spirit meters, but they're limited to if/when you find them.

But while that's the core gameplay, I haven't even mentioned the phase-switching aspects yet.  How it's handled here is definitely influenced by Ikaruga with its myriad of bullet hells, the ability to absorb them if you're the same phase, and the simplicity of swapping phases on-the-fly. Where it's different from Ikaruga, is that it's an action-platformer, so there are new ways to use phasing. In Outland, you generally can only damage enemies if you're the opposite phase. Sometimes the game will even penalize you for hitting an enemy of the same phase, by having it explode. Another mechanic that Outland uses is to have platforms be a particular phase, so if you're the wrong phase, you just fall through them. All of these elements definitely keep you on your toes, so you end up learning to be ever-vigilant in changing phases in mid-jump or mid-combo.

What pulls everything together is the tight controls. I was expecting that to be the Achilles heel of this game, but I think Housemarque created Outland out of a love for Japanese-game design and wanted to pay it homage. There's precision in the game controls, care in the level layouts, very few blind-jumps (those that exist seem intentional), and clever boss fights. I just got the sense that every enemy, every bullet, and every item was designed to be exactly where it is. That's exactly what I appreciate about older Japanese games, and I love it here.

Downsides? Not many, but if I were to be nitpicky, some of your earned character abilities seem more like an afterthought. The "Charge Attack" in particular seems really silly, because there's only 2-3 places in the entire game that require its usage. It almost seems like they were running out of ability ideas, so just stuck it in  the last second. Still, that's hardly a deal-breaker.

Outland is some of the most fun I've had in a game in recent times. Definitely one of the PS3's finest.