Monday, December 31

Crimson Shroud Review (3DS): Roll for directions

The release of Crimson Shroud caught me somewhat off guard. By that I mean, I was reading that Yasumi Matsuno -- the mastermind behind one of my all-time favouites, Vagrant Story -- had a new game in the works and then subsequently read another article to find that it had just been released. Before I knew what was what, the game was downloading to my portable, and I was pontificating about how long I'd be playing this new game given the enduring nature of Ashley Riot's adventure on the original PlayStation.

Expectation, or rather the weight of it, can be a terrible thing. Given the height of the pedestal on which I've placed Vagrant Story, I was expecting Crimson Shroud to sweep me off my feet almost immediately. Despite art direction that looks like a direct lift from his previous effort, this is a completely different animal. 

For starters, while both are RPGs, Crimson Shroud harks back to the genre's origins where you'll find that the success of certain combat actions will be determined by the roll of the dice. Further to that, every scenario is perfectly punctuated by the the lofty prose of the Dungeon Master. This is probably the closest I'll get to playing a tabletop RPG.

There's also the switch from solo, arguably turn-based action to party combat with an explicit turn order to differentiate the old from the new. Battling goblins, minotaurs and other devious creatures here isn't that different to any other party-based affair except for the aforementioned use of dice for specific attacks and abilities. There are certain situations -- like an "Ambush" for example -- that inflict turn or damage penalties that prove an annoyance early on, and just plain deadly for a New Game Plus playthrough. It's also worth noting that characters don't level up, rather any increase in stats is determined by the items you equip. This isn't your mother's (or older brother/sister's) Matsuno dungeon crawl.

Some truly terrible level design mars what was -- at least initially -- a palatable take on tabletop action. There are several times where players are required to backtrack to happen across switches, key items and even battles, to progress the story. This wouldn't be a problem if the Dungeon Master (or anyone, for that matter) would intervene to tell you where it is you needed to go, or what it was would you should be looking for. Instead, three hours of a six hour playthrough were spent farming for a key item. Half of the time (!) that it took me to complete the game was spent repeating the same battle; something I only thought to do after consulting Google in desperation.

To make matters worse, this abominable design choice takes place within what should be your first hour of play. Most will understandably not make it past this ridiculous hurdle. I even consoled veteran writer, Brad Gallaway (of GameCritics) as he encountered this seemingly-futile scenario.

Again, in terms of presentation, Crimson Shroud feels like an extension of Vagrant Story. There is a key difference, however: battles and (most) story sequences are presented using figurines. Charming, cute as all hell, tabletop game pieces that I would pay a boatload of money for. Nothing matches the satisfaction of seeing a large, boss piece toppled. The near-static presentation method was a little off-putting at first, but it ended up being one of the key reasons I persisted with my quest.

It's far from perfect, but Crimson Shroud is well worth the paltry cost of admission. It calls upon the RPG's grandest, though oft-forgotten traditions to deliver a charming tabletop romp. You may need to search (for hours) for direction, but once you get your bearings, it proves a welcome lesson in RPG conventions.

Sunday, December 23

Dys4ia Review (PC): A personal Journey

Last night, Australian games writer, Daniel Golding tweeted that: 
"Jane Austen was great, but she doesn't really write literature, you know" "Dys4ia is good, but it's not really a game."
Upon taking the ten minutes required to actually play through Anna Anthropy's autobiographical Flash game, I replied that I felt it was more a picture book than a game. I didn't mean to sound dismissive or elitist with that observation, I was just trying to make sense of my experience with Dys4ia more than anything else. 

When reviewing thatgamecompany's moving masterpiece, Journey this year, I floated the notion that at times I felt like I wasn't playing a game; at least not in the conventional sense. There was no HUD and very little to worry about in terms of control and mechanics: to me, it was more an interactive story than a game. Dys4ia also drifts into the grey area between game and interactive story. It is, however, affecting and well worth experiencing. 

Let's have a look at a definition of "game" to better qualify my observation (source:
"A competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators."
This is most definitely Anna's take on her experiences with gender dysphoria and Hormone Replacement Therapy being imparted to me, the player; so there's your two persons. As for competition, skill, chance, endurance, or rules, Dys4ia is lacking there. Even if you don't clear certain obstacles -- including a stealth sequence in a women's restroom, and a side-scrolling flight section -- the game will most often carry on regardless. Most situations do require a specific input and don't have any apparent conditions for failure: the narrative progresses when you're ready to "turn the page," to serve the purpose of my metaphor. 

Game or not though, there's no denying that this is a powerful ten minute ride. Given the wealth of experiences that Anthropy presents throughout the narrative, it's hard not to feel something; particularly with Liz Ryerson's oppressive soundtrack accompanying proceedings. As a cis white male, I've never really had to deal with any real crisis of gender identity. Dys4ia very effectively illustrates that trans people can expect a wealth of obstacles in their quest to feel comfortable with themselves and their gender. 

When the #1ReasonWhy hashtag took Twitter by storm a few weeks ago, one of the messages that stuck with me was from Mattie Brice who shared the following:
“I had to make my own game in order to see someone like me as a main character.”
I think the probability of seeing a trans protagonist in a AAA blockbuster release is near non-existent, however, stories like Dys4ia can go a way to illustrating issues with gender identity; and I hope to see more games like it emerge in future.

You can play Dys4ia on Newgrounds using the following link

Tuesday, December 11

Anniversary 2: The Sequel

Can you believe that this is only our second Wedding Anniversary, Carly?

I can't. I feel like -- in the best possible way -- we've been together for the longest time (cue Billy Joel). I can't imagine doing most anything (except maybe going to work, even then it's a stretch) if it's without you.  

Yes, we're diving head-first into an ocean of cliches now. You've been warned. You can stop here with the takeaway being that "I love you and I'm happy growing old with you," if you wish. Things get sickly sweet below this photo.

It's hard trying to describe how our relationship works, but it does and effortlessly so. There's no drama, no clashing, no stress. You're my respite. You protect me from the craziness of the outside world with your adorable range of mannerisms and always-open arms. I don't just feel comfortable in your presence though:
I feel accomplished, I feel challenged. Hey, I did it!

This year has gone so fast, and you've been the only constant I could hope to depend on. Loved ones have gone to live their own lives, and more and more I find myself looking to you as my sole support. I'm not going to say something like "You're my rock," because rocks don't giggle, aren't scared (to the point of hysteria) of spiders, and can't actively listen to me while I'm pouring my heart out. What I will say is that I trust you and love you more than any person or rock mass on this planet: be it igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic.

2012 has been interesting. We've both enjoyed continued success and, while the amount of time we get to spend with each other has tightened, we're getting what we want from life. We've even expanded our ranks, recruiting a comic foil for our golden boy, Boss. Loki's been a little slow to pick up the basics -- the front room has developed its own unique musk -- but it's hard to imagine life around the house without his contagious smile. We may not have been able to follow through with all of our dreams, but we'll save up and try again soon. We'll migrate south one of these days... I know it!

I'll leave you with a request: Can we please not watch the Wedding video this year? I've been through job interviews, experienced various other triumphs and tragedies this year, and nothing has managed to make me feel as anxious as watching our nuptials for the first time.

It's amazing how sharp those memories still are, and the sensations that came with watching that footage. Whether it was the awkward jokes I made when greeting guests, remembering (and re-experiencing) the tightness in my chest as I awaited your arrival, or the tears I held back during my speech at the reception: it's all still so clear in my mind. I can even remember breaking my toenail the night before when playing Mega Chess with Sam Phillips. It's not that I want my recollection to fade, it's just that I still look back at the day as the most important day in my life. All the expectation, nervous energy and emotion that I felt on that day is still very much alive in me. I can't expect that it would dissipate for any great passage of time either.

Thank you for your continued love and support, and I can't adequately express how much you mean to me. Happy Anniversary, Carls.

All my love, words and feels,


Monday, December 10

Far Cry 3 and its absurd economy have links to Dark Tourism

Note: This post contains spoilers for Far Cry 3.

A good wallet is hard to come by these days.

In my early twenties, I used a Transformers-branded wallet made of synthetic material, complete with Velcro straps, for around three years. It had everything I needed: separate zip-able sections for both notes and coins, a respectable amount of card pouches, and a transparent sleeve for my photo ID. Oh, did I mention it had the Autobot logo on it? That was probably its greatest feature.

It served me well, until one day when the zipper on the note section jammed. It was hard to let go of this humble money-carrying device, but its primary function had been compromised. After much searching, my In-Laws ended my tireless quest upon returning home from their trip to Italy, when they gifted me with a genuine leather wallet.

It did all the things I needed it to do, but it was lacking some important features: zips for the note sections, the Autobot logo, and a coin section. For just over two years now, most everytime I wash my clothes is Treasure Time.

So about that wallet
Given that most weapons can be unlocked without purchase and that crafting items can't be purchased, money in Far Cry 3 should only really be used on ammo and weapon attachments. It's absurd really: pick up a fallen enemy's gun and it'll be issued to you by any vendor without charge, fix enough radio towers and there's not even need for the dead body scavenger hunt. It's almost like you're borrowing guns from a tourist resort. Cash is ostensibly useless.

You can't even use money to buy pedestrian items, like a new wallet to carry greater amounts of money. No. A pig, a shark and some cassowarys will need to be skinned for that purpose. Even if, say the game forced an encounter with a crocodile, you couldn't use their leathery hide (a material that was, once upon a time, used in the crafting of such accessories) to fashion a larger billfold. The player is forced to hunt a range of otherwise endangered animals to make the items required to carry more gear and loot. 

Poaching rare creatures to afford poorly composed adventure wear strikes me as problematic. Seriously, if an organization such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have thought it right to take issue with Pokémon, why has Far Cry 3 -- a game that literally allows you to dispatch Sumatran Tigers with C4 explosives -- failed to register a ping on their ethical radar? There are only four hundred of these magnificent beasts alive in the wild, yet here I would've encountered (and in most cases, subsequently killed) a tally greater than that of goats and pigs. The wildlife of the Rook Islands are walking raw materials to be slaughtered, harvested and fashioned. 

Without even considering the "Path of the Hunter" quest line, Far Cry 3 can be difficult to stomach for anyone with a love of animals. Especially when you consider that their value is reduced to that of a component for a haggard-looking rucksack. 

Death was here
There were several times throughout my adventure with Jason Brody where I felt I was treading on sacred ground. There were the more obvious encounters with Citra and the Rakyat, but the Buck missions -- which have you fighting amongst and through Ancient Chinese ruins -- had me feeling a little uncomfortable. How much money would you have to pay to see a sight as rare as Lin Cong's tomb? How much more to tear it apart? This portion of the story also includes a mission set in an abandoned Japanese base, and a firefight on a boat amidst a collection of Old World treasures. There's the obvious colonial reading of this sequence -- which, as Rowan Kaiser shows, can also be applied to the entire game -- and then there's the realisation that narrative starts with our hero and his friends on tropical holiday. 

Before long, Far Cry 3 is an apparent and living exercise in dark tourism. 

Whether you're photographing dead bodies to rally the locals, mass-grave spelunking, or getting some more ink done, the game tries to steer the player and thus the protagonist towards morality by experiencing -- or at the very least, witnessing -- immorality. The ultimate test of the game's lesson is rendered in the final minutes, but I've no doubt it'll be lost in a stockpile of bear skins and poorly-crafted pouches. 

Have you been enjoying Far Cry 3? Do you have any issue with dispatching video game animals?

Saturday, December 8

Street Fighter X Tekken Review (PSV): I touch myself

You may remember that I've previously reviewed Street Fighter X Tekken for both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. I even got myself a spot on Metacritic for my trouble.
With that in mind, I'll try not to cover too much old ground. The idea here will be to give you an idea of what Capcom was able to achieve, and what it had to sacrifice with this portable port on the PlayStation Vita.

Firstly, I was blown away with how well the game manages to scrub up on Sony's handheld. Some characters may look a little washed out at first blush, but given some time to readjust, this ranks as one of the best looking games on the system. Animated backgrounds, a broad and bright colour palette, and peerless animation characterise what awaits you and your AMOLED screen.

There are some new features in the portable version which won't revolutionise how you play, but are appreciated regardless. First is the addition of quick select slots to the character select screen, that allows for you to pick from your most-recently used teams if you wish. Burst Kumite mode is your run-of-the-mill survival mode with an unlockable Pandora variant. I had a lot of fun with this mode, which is an ideal fit for gaming on the go. The Pandora variant gifts you with a rechargeable Cross Gauge and feels a little simple as a result; worse still, the off-putting sound that accompanies every fight in which you're in this state meant that I shelved it pretty quickly. There's also some pointless Augmented Reality and Near antics available to those with time to burn.

Whatchu talkin' bout Juri?

I should probably mention that the Vita version comes with twelve extra characters including Blanka, whose omission from the home console versions was the cause of some distress. The Street Fighter characters (save for maybe Elena) are all well-suited to the crossover's brand of combo and juggle-heavy action but, as is the case for the roster at large, the Tekken fighters have a hard time competing. All things considered, my extra time with the game has come with two glaring observations:

  • The Namco side of the roster tends to get pinned down due to a wholesale lack of projectile attacks
  • The general mechanics, which focus on common combos and quick hits, don't prove to be as enduring as recent entries from either franchise (or either publisher for that matter).  
Concerns over longevity aside, my copy also came with redeemable codes for the additional fighters for my PS3 version, as well as alternate costumes for most of the starting cast. Considering these goodies would set you back more than twenty bucks, the Vita versions represents an undeniable value. 

Controls are responsive, and the front and rear touch screen offer some more ways to bust out Quick Combos as well as your favourite moves when in a pinch. The rear touch inputs are placed a little too close to the shoulders for my liking, so I found myself performing throws with gay abandon. After a while, I decided to disable the rear touchpad as the unintentional grappling attempts often put me at great peril. The analogue sticks, d-pad, face buttons and front pad all work well though, and save for some trouble performing Super Arts and Cross Rushes, the game handles on par with its console brethren.

Touch controls are shoehorned into a lot of the menus, and this causes frustration given the small size of most tiles and items. Customising gem sets is still a laborious task, as the Vita version also lacks the ability to customise blanket configurations for all characters; it's one at a time, or nothing.

I should mention that I couldn't find a single match online. Now this may have something to do with the Vita not liking my home network setup or a paltry player community. Either way, fighting games usually live and die by their competitive scene, so this is a pretty big mark against the game. Poor (and I mean worse than woeful) sales figures in Japan lead me to believe that this is more an issue of numbers than logistics, truth be told. Regardless, I haven't been able to trial any of the network features, save for the aforementioned Near functionality.

The lack of live opponents wouldn't be such a big issue if the AI could hold its own. Unfortunately, even on its hardest difficulty level, Street Fighter X Tekken can be mastered with almost any combination of Capcom fighters. Hell, even some of the Tekken cast can bruise the best the AI can throw at you.

With a huge cast, system leading visuals and solid controls, the PlayStation Vita version of Street Fighter X Tekken is a worthy addition to any fighting game lover's library. It may lack the depth and balance of the tag team efforts from each respective franchise and/or publisher, but it packs a lot of value: especially for those who also own the PlayStation 3 version. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 1

Spec Ops: The Line Review (PC - Single player): We don't have a choice

Note: This post contains vague plot spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line. 

There are very few games I've played this year -- let alone in my lifetime -- that have forced me to reflect on what it is that I'm actually doing when I'm playing games. Most often, I'm killing something: shooting someone, aiming for the head, bringing death. Most games frame their violence in such a way that its implication for and impact on a protagonist are swept under the rug in favour of the big picture story. Be it winning a futuristic war, repelling an alien invasion, or avenging the loss of a loved one: the ends often justify the means.

Worse still, most of the games I've played have allowed me to trust my hero. To believe the path they've taken -- that's often linear -- is righteous. There's no time or reason for me to question cleaving a Locust Drone in twain, or dispatching some zombie, vampire or other nightmare-fuelled creature because they are so effectively "othered" that my actions warrant no further consideration. Everything fits the usually bulky, macho man's vision. They kill so that the Nazi advance is stopped, so the North Koreans fail to take the American Mid West, and so that evil is vanquished from many a land. There's no grey area. I'm good, we're good, the baddies die. Game over.

What if I don't know my enemy? But what if I am the bad guy? What I do then?

Those are the questions that Spec Ops: The Line asks, but in so cheap a fashion that the impact is potentially lost.

Before I get to the heavier aspects of this title, know that Yager's effort plays like just about every other third person cover shooter on the market. You hunker down, you scrounge for ammo, you pop from cover when the time is right. There's the odd turret section and on-rails level to break up the monotony, and you gain access to a respectable arsenal over the course of the adventure. It all seems very familiar, and that's part of what makes The Line so effective. You've done this a thousand times before, as a thousand different "cold, hard, handsome killers."

The game lulls you into this false sense of security and then confronts you with some of the most harrowing imagery and themes that you'll find while cast in the role of an American soldier. The game's protagonist, Captain Martin Walker is voiced by the almost literal video game everyman, Nolan North. With such a familiar lead, Spec Ops tries to show players the real impact that killing around a thousand men would have on the average person's psyche. It's really affecting to see someone that looks and sounds mighty similar to Drake (of the Uncharted series) fall apart under the weight of their own actions and body count. For someone who's always had a bit of a problem with how someone like Drake is thought to be so utterly endearing, in spite of the fact that he's murdered more than the population of Australia and New Zealand combined -- for TREASURE, no less -- it's refreshing... and horrifying to see the consequence of all those spent clips and grenades.

There are some truly gruesome and haunting scenes to behold across your (approximately) six hours in Dubai, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that the overall experience has left me hesitant to play any game that involves death on any scale after reaching two of several possible conclusions. I finished Spec Ops on Monday, and I haven't had the heart to return to Black Ops II for the purpose of reviewing the multiplayer component, or thought of playing anything else that involved firearms. This may not be the thinking man's shooter -- squad tactics play no great part; be patient, choose your shots, and you should get through without much fuss -- but it'll keep you up at night.

This all sounds great right? So how does the Shooter Parable lose sight of its message?

Spec Ops: The Line telegraphs the two biggest punches in its repertoire, and the experience suffers as a result. Forcing players into a particular telling of events means that the illusion of choice built up earlier in the game goes up in smoke.

Still, there were sequences where I was audibly saying "No, no, FUCK NO!!!" because I was unnerved and genuinely appalled at what I was capable of (even given that there was no real alternative). It's cheap storytelling when you clobber your audience with unavoidable consequence and horror, but there's no arguing that it's not effective in this case.

Sandstorm-ravaged Dubai is literally dripping with symbolism -- as evidenced by Brendan Keogh's fifty thousand word anecdote, Killing is Harmless -- and it doesn't hurt to stop and take in your surroundings. Even on what is now a low-mid range laptop, the visuals impressed in terms of both art direction and technical proficiency. Some of the set pieces are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Spec Ops may be a sleeper hit, but it'll wow you if given half a chance.

For mine, Spec Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami are two of the year's most important games, as they've forced me to reflect on the how, the who and the why of video game violence. While Hotline Miami's message is somewhat more abstract (and most likely imagined on my part), Spec Ops bludgeons you with its commentary. It's ugly, it's horrifying, it's an ordeal, and it's absolutely worth experiencing. Something else packaged in something utterly familiar.