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.

Monday, July 30, 2012


Developer: Runic Games
Publisher: Perfect World
HDD, 1 Save File
1 player

Torchlight is an ARPG made by a bunch of the former Diablo development team. As you'd expect, Torchlight is in the same mold as the original click-fest RPG, but sports a bunch of modern additions to keep it fresh. What does that add up to? Quite possibly the most boring game of all time.

I can't exactly say what went wrong. Granted, I never thought Diablo was particularly fun either, but Torchlight seems devoid of any soul. Just like Diablo, you've got your home hub and a dungeon to traverse. There's a barebones main quest where you survive to the bottom floor and fight a big boss. Along the way, you get sub-quests from other citizens in town which are either a) kill a certain goon or b) find a certain item. Fulfilling those grants you experience and/or fame points and an item.

As far as customization goes, you can choose one of three classes - a melee warrior, a ranged weapon specialist, and a wizard who relies on spells and summons. Each class not only has their own playing style, but unique skills and special attacks that you can invest in. Leveling up through experience points gives you 5 points to distribute to your stats as well as a skill point. Leveling up through fame points simply gives you a skill point. So there's two progression systems happening concurrently, which will give you access to more skills in the long run.

But it doesn't stop there. There are gem stones that you can fuse with your weapons and armor to give you stat bonuses, or fuse with an identical gem to create an upgraded version of it. You can enchant weapons and armor for a chance of gaining additional random bonuses, such as the addition of +12 electric damage or +10 knockback or +5% experience point bonus.  The systems are not deep, but they are plentiful and have a notable impact on your character abilities.

Still, for all the trouble in creating all these systems, Torchlight never becomes enjoyable. There are fundamental problems with this kind of game. First, the action isn't interesting. Although most games boil down to "just clicking", the Diablo subgenre is particularly offensive in this regard. Torchlight doesn't make an attempt to move the genre forward, so it's no wonder it has the same trappings as its predecessors. The only tension that occurs in this type of game is when you get flanked by mobs of enemies. But as the player, it's the difference of clicking vs. clicking faster. Even though you need to balance out your clicks with keyboard presses for healing, the sum experience is one slightly detached. I never feel like I'm really controlling my character, only guiding it.

Even worse than the poor gameplay is that it lacks charm. I never liked Diablo, but it has some personality with the gothic tone and the enemy death animations. On the surface,Torchlight seems like it's a better, more competent Diablo. But I'm convinced Runic Games made this game because "that's what people like", not out of any personal conviction. There's no passion in it, and it shows.

Torchlight is less than the sum of its parts.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Developer: Playdead
Publisher: Playdead
Platform - PC
HDD, 1 Save File
1 player
LIMBO is an indie 2D puzzle-platformer available in a lot of formats - PS3, XBox 360, PC, iOS, you name it. It sports a unique visual style, which mimics old black & white films, right down to the grainy textures and flickering. The aesthetic mirrors the ominous circumstances the game presents. The minimalistic audio enhances this mood.

You assume the role of an unnamed boy. There are no explanations, nor any cut-scenes. You simply wake up in a field, isolated and bewildered. As you begin to move, you encounter grisly scenes of danger and death. Your only goal: make it out alive.

The core of LIMBO is its minimalism. The audio/visual style creates an atmosphere that is that much more chilling. But it doesn't stop there. Your character only has a few possible actions. He can move left and right, jump, and has a single interaction button. My initial reaction was that it felt like a step backwards, given that most modern games utilize face buttons, multiple shoulder buttons and even dual analog sticks. But the limited abilities means that every challenge in the game is particularly designed. If you're stuck, it means you have to observe your environment more, interact with objects, and think about what you're trying to accomplish.  LIMBO makes things extremely handy by autosaving after each puzzle is solved, so the game encourages you to retry again and again if you need to.

I personally found the puzzles to be the right difficulty level. Some are obvious, while others had me stuck to the point where I had to come back to it weeks later. But after a fresh mind, I was able to figure it out. I don't think I had to resort to a walkthrough during my playtime.

LIMBO is artistically beautiful, environmentally eerie, but most of all, captivating to play. It's not a game that innovates or pushes the genre's boundaries forward.  What you have then is a well made puzzle game. Sometimes, that's enough.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Assassin's Creed 2

Assassin's Creed II
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Action/Adventure - PS3
1 Save Slot
1 player
Assassin's Creed II

My only previous experience with this stealth parkour series came in the form of Assassin's Creed Bloodlines, a PSP title. The original Assassin's Creed might have established the framework, but public opinion is decidedly mixed. Even its fans won't hesitate to call it a flawed experience. Luckily, Assassin's Creed II suffers no such criticism. It received accolades for figuring out how to make the formula work. How does it play? Exactly how I thought it'd be like.

What I enjoyed most about Bloodlines on PSP was the exploration and the combat. The exploration came in the form of traversing through cities, hopping on roofs, and slipping through alleys. By becoming familiar with the layout, you'll find treasures, discover secret entrances to new areas, and can start participating in some race "quests" that test your mastery of the land.  There were some cool interior sections where you do some Tomb Raider observation and platforming, which were really the highlight of exploration. I also thought that the combat of the PSP game was deeper than it needed to be. It utilized timing-based combos and counters, which made fights more interesting than simply button mashing.

Playing Assassin's Creed II offers the same positives, but with some caveats. Assassin's Creed II is bigger, deeper, and grander than anything the PSP could muster. Cities are now massive, without the need to segment each neighborhood through load screens. The enemies are more varied this time, and the game can handle upwards of 8-10 enemies on-screen simultaneously. But the problem is what makes it better also makes the game worse. Yes, the cities are now 5-10x as large as the PSP areas, but all that means is you don't really get to "know" the cities. Yes, there are now many more things to collect, but with 66 viewpoints, 30 codex pages, 100 feathers, 400 treasures, etc, it's just too much. The game throws so many things at you, most of which are inconsequential, that it's really difficult to care.

Plus Assassin's Creed II has some new irritations AC:Bloodlines never had. For instance, your armor requires upkeep. As you get hit by enemies or fall off buildings, your armor loses its potency requiring you to go to a Blacksmith to repair. My only question is... why? This game mechanic isn't additive - it doesn't make the game harder or more interesting. I just ended up repairing it every couple hours when I remembered, but it seemed to have little bearing on the game. I'm not even sure why it's implemented at all. The other irritation is load time. During the game, it's generally OK. But every time you boot up the game, there's loading. There's even a loading screen to boot up the Title. Then once you get to the Title Screen, you hit start only to have load time again!

None of these irritations are deal-breakers. They're somewhat nitpicky, and won't ruin the experience for anyone. It MIGHT be the pinnacle of the series, with more story-oriented quests, larger areas, more weapon variety, and multiple ways of preserving your stealth. But at the end of the day, these refinements amount mostly to fluff. Perhaps the only thing AC2 offered that Bloodlines didn't was boredom. Don't misunderstand me. I may prefer the pacing of Bloodlines more, but AC2 is better in other ways. Those improvements just couldn't make up for the fact that the game felt completely unnecessary.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Developer: Amanita Design
Publisher: Amanita Design
Adventure - PC
HDD, 6 Save Files
1 player

Yes, yes, another PC point-and-click adventure game. This may be the last one I review for a while (although, I'm working on the original Myst so I could be lying) . But what an amazing point-and-click adventure this is.

What sucks you in immediately are the hand-drawn visuals and a soundtrack that feels choreographed to each situation. machinarium oozes atmosphere. You feel like you're in a post-apocalyptic alternate world populated only by mechanical entities. Characters squeak as they move.  Most of the overworld has a cold, rusty and abandoned feel to it.

One charming detail I enjoyed is the way the story unfolds. The story is told not in cutscenes or text, but through simple pictures and animations in character word bubbles. This gives the game more of a universal appeal, not having to deal with language and complements the game world that much more.

But the heart of machinarium is its puzzles. Every step of the way, you're in the midst of trying to solve one or multiple puzzles. Sometimes you're stuck in a room, and need to find items and manipulate objects to figure a way out. Other times, you come across a locked boxes which require deciphering logic puzzles to open. There are a lot of creative puzzles scattered throughout the game, and no two are the same. Many will challenge even the best puzzlers out there. I admit I had to resort to a FAQ on a couple occasions, but when I struggled through and finally overcame many of the puzzles on my own, the sense of accomplishment was incredible. Best of all, I love how machinarium offers the player an single hint for each room. It's completely optional, but will prove vital when you have no idea what to do.

machinarium is utterly brilliant. As far as puzzle-adventure games go, this is my favorite. It offers mental challenge after mental challenge, but you never feel like the game is unfair. Sure, it doesn't offer quirky humor or make you fall in love with the characters like other adventure games do. But in its focus to create a logic-based puzzle adventure game, machinarium is unrivaled. Kudos to Amanita Design for bringing it. Their next project, Botanicula, is just around the corner.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Adam's Venture Ep1

Adam's Venture Episode 1: The Search for the Lost Garden
Developer: Vertigo Digital Entertainment
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
Puzzle Adventure - PC
1 player
 Adam's Venture Episode 1: The Search for the Lost Garden

The original Tomb Raider is one of my favorite games. It completely nailed the 3D puzzle-adventure and set the standard of what came next. Recently, a new title popped up on the Steam Store at $3.99 (launch discount price). The trailer looked incredible for a $4 game, and gave me the whole Tomb Raider vibe. Was it warranted?

In short, no.  I can't really say the trailer was deceptive, but they showed the most exciting parts and the rest of the game didn't quite live up.

The hero of the game is Adam, a cocky adventurer. The story starts out with him decrypting a message which shows the location of the original Garden of Eden, hence the game's subtitle.  As a result, biblical references show up all throughout the game.

I THOUGHT the game would play out like an Indie Tomb Raider with some platforming, exploration and puzzles.  But any platforming/climbing is really there to break monotony of walking.  The designers put up blockades all around you to funnel you to the next destination, for the most part, so there was little exploration to be had.  The puzzles themselves started off amusing, but devolved into repeating the same few basic types. Most of them were entirely straight-forward, and required little thinking to solve. 

Visually, the game is based off the Unreal 3 Engine. It actually looks really good for an independent game, with plenty of interior detail and lighting effects. The backdrops are fantastic, and probably helped to sell me on the purchase. But there's enough jankiness to the character animations and some odd glitches that remind you that it is not as polished as a full-fledged commercial title.

Overall, Adam's Venture Episode 1 feels like a low budget title, which should be expected given its low price.  So far there are three episodes out, but only the first is available on Steam. I should mention that the Steam version has at least one puzzle that the original indie version lacked, so there may be other differences other than the addition of achievements.  It's possible the more recent episodes have more interesting things being done.  But having completed this first episode, I ultimately found the experience unsatisfying, even at its bargain bin purchase price.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


Developer: thatgamecompany
Publisher: thatgamecompany
Adventure - PS3
1 Save Slot
1 player / Online Multiplayer

Art Game

That's what someone said to me, when I mentioned I picked up Journey. I wasn't sure what I was in for, but it seemed like this game was getting a lot of acclaim. Although I haven't played them all that much, I have had exposure to thatgamecompany's previous games, fl0w and Flower. Even though Journey is a much different beast, it has a familiarity to it that is very much in line with the other two games. But what IS Journey?  What do you DO?  Well, that's a lot harder to describe. And that's also part of the point.

You begin the game as a nameless face dropped off in a sprawling desert. There's no hand-holding, no automap, and no explanatory cutscene that puts the game into context. All you know is that you are there, and your field of view immediately centers upon a mountaintop in the distance. Everything in between is the journey.

As a game, you don't have much at your disposal. You can walk. You can interact with just a few things in the game. But there's little else. Early in the game, you acquire a red scarf. You'll see ribbons with a similar design scattered throughout. Interacting with those ribbons charges your scarf. And your "charged" scarf allows you to jump and float for a small duration of time. You're able to increase the length of your scarf, and hence float time, by finding these specific markers throughout the game. With just the ability to float and interact with a select few objects, your goal in each stage is to find the path to the next. But Shadow of the Colossus this isn't. The puzzles and platforming are quite lite.

Journey is about the experience. It's about the feeling of pursuing a single-focused goal, and not quite knowing what to expect as you explore the process. And although you could say that about any game, Journey is perfectly choreographed. Although the visuals are somewhat minimalistic in design, how they're used can be utterly breathtaking. You get the sense that every angle and every frame was intentional, even though the world is fully 3D. The moody orchestrated music only accentuates the intentionality.  Everything works together in tandem, and succeeds.

Make no mistake. This is an art game. On gameplay merits alone, Journey is a bit on the shallow side. There's little in the way of hand-eye coordination and puzzle logic.  And what's there refuses to put up much of a challenge.  Even the ability to find extensions to your scarf to increase float time is convoluted, because you don't even need any of them to finish the game. Still, you've got to admire the pretentiousness of it all. What thatgamecompany set out to do, they accomplished. They blended gaming and art in a way no other medium could have. Best game ever? Hardly. I enjoyed the Journey for what it was. At $14.99, I can't help but feel it's overpriced, beauty and all. The $10 threshold would make it much more appealing. It's ultimately not all that fulfilling, even with its artsy shell. Nevertheless, it's unique in what it does and that makes it worth a playthrough for me.

As a side note... since this doesn't really fit the flow of the review, I'll just mention that the online multiplayer is automatic. Other "Journey"ers will show up in your game in real time, and their presence helps enhance the feeling of the journey. You can't really interact with them, aside from being able to charge your scarf through contact. But their presence makes the journey feel like you have a partner walking alongside you (or apart from you, depending on the players).