Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Play-by-play revisit: Shadow of the Colossus

The recent social justice eruption in nerd culture has left me feeling extremely privileged for being straight, white, male, non-religious, and whatever else isn't popularly segregated. There is, however, one cold matter of prejudice that I face on a regular basis, and it's the chilling truth that the gaming environment presents a harsh climate for those who do not like Shadow of the Colossus.

The Last Guardian was officially re-unveiled this weekend during Sony's E3 press conference, just as I astutely predicted. Now, I don't like to be the curmudgeon. I really don't. I love video games, and to see so much sudden, passionate outpouring for various projects that many of my fellow nerds long dismissed as lost with the Library of Alexandria (we also got Shenmue III, don't forget) is heartwarming to me. But I look at the excitement for a game that we've known virtually nothing about for eight years, and I look at the universal respect that Team Ico commands for a mere pair of games (the most recent of of which released a decade ago), and I develop concern and bafflement over the fact that I, a hardcore gamer and resolute champion of all things artsy-fartsy, didn't enjoy either of those games.

Shadow of the Colossus isn't merely popular among the gaming community. It's sacred. It's untouchable. Speaking ill of it on the internet is like expressing discontent with Kim Jong-Un in Northa Korea; everyone in the room nervously twitches and then the offending individual is erased from the consensus the next day. You can call Ocarina of Time a feature-length fetch quest, or Final Fantasy VII a typo marathon, or Half-Life 2 a dull series of one-way conversations. But not liking Shadow of the Colossus? Whoa, man. Whoa.

Which is why it's always struck me as kinda bizarre that Shadow of the Colossus isn't very good. Oh, sure, the soundtrack is incredible, the creature designs are exquisite, and the title as a whole is an ambitious benchmark for interactive storytelling. By all means, when I first played it years ago, I expected to love it. And then, like a punch in the face: awful controls, hideous framerate problems and a succession of would-be epic moments dismantled by adventure-game-logic puzzles. I admire the hell out of the game, but at the end of the day, I'd rather play something fun. And yes, to turn the footscrew just a little tighter, I think Watch Dogs is a bazillion times better.

This isn't normal thinking. That's what I've been told to believe, and that's what I started believing myself just yesterday when, in rare form, I decided to give Shadow of the Colossus a second chance. And since the game is rather cleanly divided into parts (sixteen battles), I figured I'd try something new and record my thoughts as I play. Except for this intro, of course. I'm writing this after the fact. But never mind.

Colossus #1: Big humanoid guy with a hammer

This one's pretty inoffensive, as it's meant to introduce you to the concept of colossus-murdering. I should mention that since I did play through this game to completion once, I do remember quite a bit of it, and I don't recall having any problems with him the first time. Actually, on this run, I got a bit frustrated when I settled on the idea that I'm supposed to be climbing his hammer after I stun him, but I guess that's my own fault for being dumb. Okay, well, I don't hate this game yet.

Colossus #2: Bull

You know, I can't say it won't grate on me by the time I'm finished, but I'm actually A-okay with the open-world treks in between fights, even though there's very little to do in Shadow of the Colossus. It's atmosphere-building, and despite the dated technology, the art direction for this game will never lose its luster. Just look at that giant bridge towering over you as you travel to this arena. Terrifying and awe-inspiring in equal measure, which sums up a lot of this game well.

I specifically remember a friend of mine instructing me how to beat this colossus the first time through, so I have no idea how obvious it would be to shoot the bottoms of its feet otherwise, but I guess this fight went smoothly enough. I'm beginning to recall that a great deal of Shadow's gameplay is just spent holding the R1 button while the colossi try to shake you off, which makes this battle feel unnecessarily prolonged, and I don't see that changing.

Bigger problem: Oh my god I forgot how bad the horse controls are. It hasn't figured into the combat yet, but I know it's going to and I'm dreading it. Probably doesn't help that I've been playing so much of The Witcher 3 lately, and the horse tends to actually go where I want him to go in that game.

Colossus #3: Big humanoid guy with sword

I mentioned that I had a friend coaching me the first time I played Shadow. This was the battle where he forgot the solution, and I spent (I swear) two hours running around this platform in the sky trying to figure out how to climb this goddamn guy. The ethereal voice keeps pointing out that there's a weakness in the colossus's wrist armor, but neither of us could determine how to use that to our advantage. Eventually, we looked it up on GameFAQs.

The answer's etched into my brain now, of course. You need to get the colossus to strike a big stone plate on the ground, and the impact causes the band on his arm to break, I guess, and then you climb it. This battle is the first (though definitely not the worst) instance of a recurring nuisance I recall through Shadow: getting the colossi to maneuver in such-and-such way. Not only does that make you a slave to the AI, but these big, elegant creatures almost come across as bumblers who more or less bring about their own destruction.

This battle went smoothly enough, I guess, but I'm remembering now why I hated this game's controls. They're awfully sluggish, and the physics surrounding whether or not Wander keeps his balance while standing on a colossus seems unreliable.

Colossus #4: Horse

Okay, this is what I'm talking about when I say "adventure game logic." You have to lure this thing over to a structure that you encounter earlier, draw it close to one of the openings from a certain direction, enter the structure, exit from a different door, and then jump on its back while it's crouched over in a scripted position. Never would have figured this out initially had my one friend not given me the answer years ago. Another battle that's straightforward once you know the solution, but the solution itself is obtuse and unsatisfying. Blegh.

Colossus #5: Bird

First of all, I was stuck while looking for this one because I didn't know you could hold R1 to dive underwater. Did the game ever formally tell you that? If not, shame on Team Ico. If it did, hush my mouth.

Anyway. Yeah, this is a terrific battle. They came to work this day. I think there are only two flying colossi in the game, and my memory is that they're Shadow's highlights. It's just exhilarating to lead a battle at great heights and high speeds like this. Also, it's smart that you need to shoot the bird to officially commence the battle, since that move is vital for "boarding" it. The first genuinely great colossus battle in the game.

Colossus #6: Big bearded guy

Okay, I'm really starting to get sick of this R1 function. Yeah, I know it adds a strategic element to battles, since you have to actually conserve your energy and make gambles regarding how much you're going to charge a stab, but it's a waiting game. I swear, 95% of the time you're actually riding a colossus, you're just sitting there, holding R1 and waiting for the damned thing to stop shaking so you can get on with the game. This is boring.

Colossus #7: Eel

Okay, another good one. I actually remember naming this my favorite battle after my first run, though I did find it a bit tedious having to just sort of sit on the surface of the lake waiting for this colossus to finish his breakfast and come pick a fight with you. There's a very narrow window for actually boarding this one, and if my reflexes had been slower today, I may have grown frustrated with him.

But yeah, another battle that more or less equates to a highway chase as this thing speeds through the water with you climbing along its back. The main threat, its electricity, is easy to read but also difficult to maneuver. Satisfying and thrilling. The second genuinely great colossus battle in the game.

Colossus #8: Lizard

Another one where I enter with the advantage of remembering the solution from my previous play, not that its glowing feet are subtle. The thing at irritates me about this fight is the insanely small window that you have to nail its weak point after knocking it off the wall. Seems like the only efficient thing to do is just leap off from several stories, and I find it hard to do that after so much of The Witcher 3 (a game with some of the most punishing fall damage I've ever seen).

Unremarkable fight, and probably the first one that's not even visually impressive (a reminder that not all of the colossi are indeed colossal). Also marks the first appearance of the lasers, and yes, I remember the lasers.

Colossus #9: Turtle

Forget if I mentioned this, but the first time I played Shadow, I ranked all of the colossi in terms of enjoyability, and this one came in dead last. Yeah, remember how I said I hated the horse controls and was dreading when they'd become necessary? They're necessary now. Remember how I said I didn't like having to wrestle with the AI? That's required for this one. Also oh my god why are the colossi shooting lasers.

So you have to draw this guy over one of the generously-spaced geysers in the area, shoot the bottoms of two of its feet to knock it over, climb its belly, vault over onto its back, and run up and stab it in the head once it stands back up. The thing I hated then and now about this battle is that Shadow's physics engine can't keep up during that transition; I'll get most of the way through the process, and then when the colossus is flipping back over while I'm standing on it, Wander goes haywire and topples off. And not in the bumbling, least-physically-competent-video-game-protagonist-of-all-time way that he usually does, but in an unintentional-physics-malfunction way.

Also, my god, these horse controls. What I hate is that they seem to change depending on which way the camera is facing. If you're just riding forward, fine, I guess. But if you're riding with the camera facing backwards or to the side, there's no science to it. Sometimes tilting the analog stick left means the horse runs in that direction on-screen; sometimes it means the horse turns to its left regardless of which way it's facing.

I've been told that the unwieldy horse controls are deliberate, "realistic" and part of the experience, which is ridiculous because (a) controls always need to be consistent regardless of the intent behind them, (b) realism has no place in a game like this, and (c) they're not realistic controls, anyway, because no actual horse would just crash dumbly into walls like this.

I don't like this game right now.

Colossus #10: Sand snake


I have no memory of this, which is surprising, because when you consider how much I hate the way your horse controls in this game, you'd think a horseback battle would be branded onto my brain. I remember that the horse dies at the end and I can't wait.

So it turns out the horse actually can be steered in a consistent manner, but for some reason, it's only when you're using L1 to look at the colossus. That's required for this fight because you need to actually lead a chase and then fire an arrow backward when it reveals its eyes, which it only does after it's seen your horse's rear end for a while. Aiming's a bit too springy when you're using L1, and you can't actually see where you're going, so this one took a lot of trial-and-error and I did not enjoy it at all no sir not one bit.

Colossus #11: Bull pig

I was wrong. The turtle was not the worst boss in Shadow. This is the worst boss in Shadow. Unless something comes along that's even more tedious, and I shudder at the thought.

So first of all, this colossi is tiny. Like, this could be a boss in any game. Secondly, it's the only time in Shadow (to my memory) in which you need to actually pick up and use an environmental object; there's no indication that you're supposed to be doing this, or even suggestion as to how. And it's silly adventure game logic again: climb pillar, get bull to ram pillar, pillar drops torch, pick up torch with R1, climb pillar again, light torch that for some reason wasn't lit even though it just fell out of a fire, wave the torch around until the bull backs off of a ledge and breaks its armor. A contrived, linear sequence of point-and-click misadventures that probably made sense in the designers' minds.

Also, if you miss leaping directly onto the bull's weak point after it falls, it's basically impossible to jump back on from where you are thanks entirely to wonky physics. And when you do board it, again, it shakes like mad and thus begins the R1 waiting game again.

Colossus #12: Water buffalo

First of all, I don't know what else to call this thing.

Second of all, more adventure game logic! This time, board a nearby platform with a roof (the ones without roofs won't work!), shoot the colossus in the horns until it lowers its head while it's firing goddamned lasers at you, climb the head, then guide it around by striking the teeth sticking out of its scalp (?!), jump onto one of said roofs, get it to pull itself up onto the roof by shooting its horns again, strike exposed belly.

I want to go into more detail about how much I hate this game's controls but I'm really tired.

Colossus #13: Flying snake.

Yes. Finally the good one.

Drawing the snake down to ground level is a concise process, since the sacs on its underside make for very clear targets. Once it dips its fins down to your level, that's when you need to race up beside it on your horse and grab on. Yes, this battle does require some horseback maneuvering, but you have plenty of room, and thankfully, most of the danger comes when you're actually riding the colossus.

Again, Shadow's two flying colossi are amazing, and this battle in particular combines the two previous highlights on the game, #5 and #7. It's fast-paced, large-scale and visually magnificent. You can see why it's the favorite. The third genuinely great colossus battle in the game. [Edit: Also the last.]

Colossus #14: Bull pig returns



You know something I forgot to mention about the bull-pig the first time around? It has this one ram attack that knocks Wander out for at least five seconds, and it's actually quite easy to get locked into a loop of such attacks. Thankfully, this time you actually have to spend most of the fight off the ground, avoiding the thing, so it's not quite as painful now.

This may, however, be the game's most contrived and drawn-out battle. You have to get the colossus to knock down, what, a dozen of these pillars? All of which fall down in precisely such a position that they allow you to continue maneuvering along a series of linear platforms? And then it's the same bucking-bull nonsense where you spend an eternity holding R1 while waiting for Wander to decide to maybe attack the thing that's trying to kill him?

I hate this game.

Colossus #15: Big humanoid guy with cleaver

It's more of that thing I love where I have to get a colossus to do a specific thing. This one's dopey, too; I had to absolutely pop him full of arrows throughout the fight to keep him from just wandering off. I actually thought that destroying the bridges would actually break his sword (since I remember that he loses it at some point), but no: that's just a way for Shadow to reset your progress and pull you back to ground level.

Also, his final weak point is on his palm, and you can only get to that after he does a very specific ground pound move that it took me forever to trigger.

I'm tired.

Colossus #16: A mountain wearing a dress, basically

I'm tired.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Bloodborne review postscript: Chalice Dungeons, replays and final thoughts (no spoilers)

So I finished Bloodborne in about four or five days, partly because I enjoy being something of a pathfinder when it comes to Souls games, and partly because I had a review to write. And write it I did. You can read it here, if you care enough and didn't catch me linking it a billion times on Twitter.

It was never going to stop there, though. I still had to investigate the Chalice Dungeons (purported by the developers to be a major component of this new IP) and play through the game at least once more to take a closer look at the story and pick up on any details that I naturally missed on my first run. Just the other day, Bloodborne earned the distinct honor of being my first platinum trophy, meaning that I have essentially done everything that there is to do in this game. I've seen all three endings (which involved completing NG+ and then doing NG++ with the skip trick), seen basically all NPC subplots unfold and spent an ungodly amount of time in the Chalice Dungeon. So, I'm now writing up this blog entry to summarize my final thoughts on the game.

Well, firstly, the opinion expressed in that review hasn't changed. It's a fabulous game, and if anything, replaying it (and subsequently reading numerous fan theories) has only boosted my appreciation for Yharnam as a fount of rich but ambiguous history, recapturing what I loved so very much about the first Dark Souls. The load times were literally the only thing preventing from awarding the game a perfect score, which underlines just how bad they were and how magnificent the rest of the game is. While it's not quite my favorite Souls title, I'd say it's the best by measurable standards, meaning it's the Souls game that I have the fewest complaints about.

My overview of the series is as follows. From Software were still getting into their groove with the first two Souls games. Demon's Souls suffers from a lot of design issues that continuously make me surprised that I seem to be the only one not fond of that game; Dark Souls perfected Miyazaki's design formula and minimalist storytelling style but still contained an awful lot of technical issues. Dark Souls II cleaned it up and was the most stable of the bunch, but it's also got the least interesting, most nonsensical world (not surprising, since it's the only time Miyazaki didn't direct). With Bloodborne, we finally get nuance and polish on top of fresh, fascinating lore. It's exactly the game that I wanted it to be.

Good thing I consider the Chalice Dungeons to be a separate entity, then, because they're pretty lame, sadly. The very idea of having procedurally-generated Souls dungeons is a bit odd, since the series' articulate and very deliberate design, in conjunction with lore that's shrouded in mystery, is what makes it work so well. Reducing that formula to formless dungeon crawling, mainly in nondescript underground tunnels, is kinda the opposite of that. I suppose we can thank the gaming industry's current obsession with roguelikes for this addition, but it doesn't mesh well with Souls intrigue at all.

The only reason I stuck with it was a thirst to see everything that Bloodborne has to offer, and the Chalice Dungeons do indeed have some bosses unique to this mode. Unlocking them, however, is beyond a chore. There are four different "worlds," several types of dungeon per world, and three or four levels to a dungeon. The ritual involved in opening a new dungeon requires materials found in previous stages, and thus the process of opening new content becomes an insufferable grind. The dungeons themselves have virtually no variety, either in aesthetic or design. After a few trips, you'll have seen all of the variants.

As for the bosses themselves... eh. Most of them are rather straightforward in that they return to Dark Souls II's "big guy in armor" trend that the story bosses do a solid job of steering away from. They're repeated often, too, and feel a bit cheaply accelerated as you progress deeper into the labyrinth. One of the required dungeons, the "Defiled" variant, halves your health, which results in probably the most frustrating boss encounter of the entire series thus far (against a big fiery dog with an outrageous amount of health).

Weirdly, while the Chalice Dungeons can easily be ignored, they contain a couple of details somewhat important to Bloodborne lore. Specifically, the "final boss" is actually a big piece of the Yharnam puzzle, in ways I won't spoil. I guess it's in keeping with Miyazaki's principles that an important story nugget would be buried in a place where most players will never see it, and it does make me feel somewhat proud to have seen this particular aspect of the game through to the end, but the journey there was easily the least fun I've had with the game. I'd only recommend the Chalice Dungeons to absolute diehards, and even then, be warned that you're in for a rough trip.

Like I said, though, the opinion expressed in the review needs no real updating. While Bloodborne is smaller and more linear than previous Souls games, it's no less full of intriguing little world-building elements that you'll have missed the first time, and gaining a fuller understanding of Miyazaki's fascinating universes is one of the big reasons his games are so rewarding. And now that I'm finally finished with it, it's time to finally dive deep into Pillars of Eternity and see if March brought any other GOTY hopefuls.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Order: 1886, Mass Effect and launching a new fictional universe

The Order: 1886 is a pretty lousy game, and here's my review if you'd like to know why I think so. But for as much as I tore into the game's story, I never really addressed its ending, if it can be called that. The Order, like so many new franchise hopefuls in the AAA market, is so confident in the eventual existence of a "part two" that it neglects to resolve virtually any of its many dangling plot threads, all under the assumption that they can be addressed in later entries. This didn't initially stick with me because I lost interest in the plot by that point anyway, but there's something I want to discuss here in regards to launching new franchises.

I'm about to delve into spoilers for The Order, so be warned. Though, honestly, if your expectations for the game's plot are high enough that you care that any of it's being spoiled, you'll probably be disappointed.

Here's the short version. The game's protagonist, Galahad, uncovers a conspiracy within his own organization to shuttle half-breeds (vampires and werewolves and such) across the world. One of their clients, who we'd assumed was a good guy, has been leading the charge, and the plot extends to trusted members of the order, including a buddy of Galahad's who turns out to be a werewolf himself. Galahad hunts the guy down and kills him, and... that's it. The screen literally cuts to black when the killing shot is fired.

Now, obviously, the writers were trying to end The Order's story on an emotional high point, with Galahad being tearfully forced to gun down one of his best friends. That doesn't work, of course, for the simple reason that the game's writing is dull, trite and undercooked. Galahad isn't a likable guy, and he makes countless questionable decisions for the extremely limited amount of time that the game fills. I didn't sympathize with him and I wasn't moved by this decision; the final scene fell completely flat for me.

But even putting that aside, The Order offers essentially no closure, with the consolation prize being that we took down one glorified henchman. The main villain is still out there and the conspiracy, as far as we know, is still in full bloom. We're not really given any indication of how much progress we've made in shutting down the sinister vampire-smuggling plot. Last we heard, Galahad's former colleagues thought he was a traitor for arbitrary reasons, and he never spoke up, because... I don't know, actually. By the end, most of the supporting characters have just unceremoniously disappeared from the story. They could be dead, for all we know. When the credits roll, we have no idea what state the world of The Order is even in.

Now, I'm a realist. I know that having a reliable audience can be necessary in funding AAA game development, and I know that building franchises is the best way to do that. I'm not opposed to franchises. Some of my favorite games of the last several generations are sequels (because it often takes more than one try to get the formula down). I know that most new IPs in this market are created with the expectation of jumpstarting an ongoing series, and as such, you need some narrative insurance, a guarantee that you'll be able to continue the story with subsequent entries. A narrative that leaves no doors open for sequels doesn't look attractive to AAA publishers. Fine. I get it.

But that doesn't excuse a new IP (particularly a $60 game that's only six hours long and marketed as the next bold step in theatricality) of having to provide a satisfying narrative that works as a whole. Holdover endings are never the right approach to take, even when the next chapter is a guarantee. Look at Halo 2. It's got one of the most maligned cliffhanger endings in the history of the medium. By that point, there was no question in anyone's minds that there would be a Halo 3, but it didn't matter, because sloppy storytelling is sloppy storytelling. Cut the plot short right in the thick of the action, and it feels more like an episode than a standalone product. A narrative arc needs to have a downward motion in order to be an arc.

Any writers in the video game medium (or anywhere else, for that matter) hoping to jumpstart the next big franchise could learn a valuable lesson from the original Mass Effect. The game established an enormous, unfathomably detailed universe that served as the basis for books, comics, and full-fledged sequels. Yet it also works perfectly as a standalone story.

A refresher on Mass Effect's plot, then. About two-thirds of the way through the game, we learn that a group of massive machines called the Reapers are coming to exterminate all intelligent life in the galaxy. We believe it because the civilizations of the galaxy are built upon the remains of the Protheans, an ancient race that was already wiped out in such a manner some 50,000 years ago. The Reapers chill in dark space and return to wipe the slate clean whenever intelligent life has advanced enough. They can only get here using an enormous mass relay called the Citadel (which we'd assumed was just a repurposed Prothean space station), and they've left behind one of their own, called Sovereign, to open the door. Sovereign has coerced a particularly power-hungry government agent named Saren into doing the legwork, gathering a synthetic army and invading the Citadel.

Shepard uncovers this plot and chases Saren into the Citadel while the fleet deals with Sovereign in the skies above. Shepard either kills Saren or convinces him to put a bullet through his own skull, and Sovereign is shot down after an exhaustive number of casualties. Crisis averted. The Reapers are still out there, of course, but considering that it took the combined forces of the galaxy just to bring one of them down, it's presumed that keeping them out of Citadel space is as good a deal as we're going to get. It's established that using the Citadel to beam in from dark space is pretty much their only way in; only at the end of Mass Effect 2 are we informed that the Reapers basically wind up saying, "Screw it, we're walking."

Now, obviously, Mass Effect inspired two sequels, and new threads were added. The Reapers had other agents in the galaxy and they were still intent on carrying out their plan and blah blah blah. But here's the thing: If there hadn't been two sequels, if the original Mass Effect was forever burdened with being a standalone story, it still would have felt complete. It ends satisfyingly. The villains are all dead - not just dealt with, but dead - and the threat has been suppressed for what we'd presumed to be an indefinite amount of time. While there were other aspects of the lore to be explored (like the genophage and the quarian/geth conflict), we'd have no trouble accepting this as a definitive conclusion.

And that's the question that the opening installment of a new franchise hopeful needs to ask itself: If, for whatever reason, a sequel is never greenlit, will this game nevertheless feel complete? Or will its driving threads just hang there, in permanent stasis, forever? Maybe an eventual The Order: 1887 will give this story some closure. Maybe it won't. Either way, the game we have doesn't stand on its own.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Let's talk about the changes made to Majora's Mask 3D

I have too much respect for the artistry of writing. As a flailing fanboy of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, I would love to have spent a hundred more paragraphs discussing the 3DS remake in my review. But no, I've got to make it tidy and presentable. Bother.

So, I've returned to my blog to... assemble some bullet points. See, I'm not even putting any effort into how I word this because that would defeat the purpose of a blog entry specifically devoted to self-satisfaction. I want more opportunities to talk about Majora's Mask, so here's a series of changes made to the 3DS version and what I think of them. (I'm not listing literally every single one because that would take forever and most of the tweaks are incredibly minor.)

There's more explanatory dialog. Majora's Mask is a famously impenetrable game; its mechanics are unusual and its objectives are often murky. A lot of text has been added to point players in the right direction; it's often simply a matter of Tatl chiming in and saying, "Hey, we really should go here next." There's also an optional hint system in the form of a Gossip Stone in the Clock Tower where you begin the game. Nothing wrong with these changes. Accessibility without sacrificing challenge and reward.

The bosses have been overhauled. This is the biggest, most notable change. All four of the game's major bosses have been expanded upon in some way and tend to include multiple stages. They were fine in the original, but slightly one-note. They're more complex now and now revolve around exposing and attacking giant Majora eyes poking out of the woodwork. That consistent visual quirk also reinforces the fact that these bosses represent a persistent menace; they're not just the monsters that happen to be standing there. The Gyorg and Twinmold fights have changed the most radically.

You can now jump ahead to any hour. Another massive improvement, this time done to make the real-time component of Majora's Mask a bit less tedious. There was a lot of waiting around in the original, particularly if you were engaging in certain side quests, because you could only skip ahead to 12-hour increments. Now, you can use the Song of Double Time to jump to any hour. Good for veterans and newcomers alike.

Saving works differently. The original game's save system was deliberately restrictive to prevent players from wasting opportunities. It works differently now. There are far more owl statues (though you can still only teleport between the same ten), and it's now possible to save and reboot without limit. However, the game no longer auto-saves whenever you play the Song of Time. You need to save manually. This might catch longtime fans off-guard, and I very nearly lost progress on a couple of occasions when I nearly turned my system off assuming the game had saved for me.

A couple of the Bombers are hiding in new locations. This drove me up a goddamn wall.

The Happy Mask Salesman gives you the Bomber's Notebook automatically. Majora's Mask has a heavy leaning on side quests, what with the world being more interactive than your standard Zelda game and the characters inhabiting it have, uh, a lot of problems to be fixed. The Bomber's Notebook is a handy way of keeping track of who you need to assist, but it was originally easy to miss - you had to either replay the hide-and-seek mini-game (which no one wants to do) or you had to memorize the code to their hideout and use it in a subsequent cycle (when there's no other reason to return there). Now, the Happy Mask Salesman gives it to you automatically when he teaches you the Song of Healing. An improvement.

The banker is in a more prominent location. This is kind of a huge aspect of the game, since it's the only way to "transport" money from one cycle to the next - you deposit money, he stamps you, and you can then withdraw that amount whenever you like. He was easy to miss or ignore, though, whereas he's now in a more prominent spot right at the base of the Clock Tower.

The Song of Soaring is taught to you a bit earlier. Kaepora Gaebora now teaches you the song, which allows you to teleport between select owl statues, right when you enter the Southern Swamp, whereas previously, you'd first encounter him just outside of Woodfall, right as you were about to hit the game's first dungeon. That's fine, though Kaepora Gaebora is also a bit more polite to Link now, which I don't like. He was originally rather dismissive until Link persisted a bit.

The Great Fairy rewards for the first two dungeons have been swapped. This kinda makes sense. There are 15 Stray Fairies hidden in each of the game's four primary dungeons, and tracking them all down results in some neat little bonuses. Far and away the most useful is the extended magic meter, which is now granted at the end of the first dungeon, which will likely be the only time most people will bother to hunt all of the Stray Fairies (because they get really tough to find after Woodfall). The not-terribly-useful spin attack power-up is now given to you in Snowhead.

You no longer have to hold the action button to do a Goron roll. I assume this is because the game now has secondary analog camera control, which requires a free right thumb. This makes prolonged rolling sequences, like the Goron race or the Goht battle, less painful on the hands.

Swimming as a Zora is much slower now. This is the one change that I genuinely dislike. The default swimming speed for the Zora form is much lower than it previously was. It's still possible to swim at top speed, but only when using the magic barrier. Zipping freely around the Great Bay was one of the original game's basest pleasures, so limiting the ability doesn't make much sense, in my book. This also makes players less prepared on the one or two instances when the Zora dolphin jump is actually required.

There's a new bottle and a new quest accompanying it. There are now seven bottles to obtain. The new one involves talking to Gorman in his hotel room while he's hungover (on milk, of course, as this is a family game), fetching an item from his brothers out by the racetrack, and bringing it back to him in under two minutes. Not much as far as new content goes, but it's something.

The Garo Mask is now modeled after the Garo Master. It didn't make a whole lot of sense for the Garos to mistake you for their master when this mask made you just look like a regular old scrub, so the mask now matches the pink-and-gold decor of the Garo Master, the mini-boss that yields Light Arrows in the Stone Tower Temple. On the other hand, the Gorman brothers are now wearing these when they ambush Cremia's milk cart, which just looks goofy.

The Stone Mask is now hidden in the Pirates' Fortress. This is famously one of the most useful masks in the game, as it makes you invisible to enemies, including the guards in the game's token stealth section. But whereas the (invisible) guard who gives it to you was previously found on the road to Ikana Valley, he's now in the center of the main plaza of the Pirates' Fortress. So you'll at least need to do a bit of manual stealthing in this version of the game.

Ice Arrows can now only be used to freeze water in designated, twinkling spots. This makes the Great Bay Temple considerably easier to figure out since it's always crystal clear where you're supposed to be creating platforms. I think the change makes the dungeon too easy, but that's just me.

The Giant Mask is now given to you midway through the Twinmold battle. Worth noting because anyone who fought Twinmold in the original knows that the Giant Mask is more or less essential for the fight, which means veterans will likely tear their hair out when it's not given to you at the normal time and place and they're forced to enter the battle without it. Don't panic. You'll get it.

Now there are two fishing holes. My opinion regarding fishing mini-games is that they always suck, so I don't know why this is the thing that Nintendo figured would improve Majora's Mask, but here it is. One of them is located next to the shooting gallery on the way to the Southern Swamp, while another is found near the Great Fairy Shrine in Zora Cape. Fishing tickets are now regularly given out as rewards for mini-games, as well.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Here are my Oscar predictions, then

I'm always dreadful at these.

Best Picture: Boyhood
Best Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman)
Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
Best Actress: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Best Supporting Actor: J. K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Imitation Game
Best Original Screenplay: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Animated Feature: How to Train Your Dragon 2
Best Documentary Feature: Citizenfour
Best Foreign Language Film: Ida
Best Cinematography: Birdman
Best Costume Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Documentary Short Subject: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Best Film Editing: Boyhood
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Guardians of the Galaxy
Best Original Score: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Original Song: "Glory" (Selma)
Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Animated Short Film: The Dam Keeper
Best Live Action Short Film: The Phone Call
Best Sound Editing: American Sniper
Best Sound Mixing: Whiplash
Best Visual Effects: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Indie mini-reviews: Splice, Cubot and The Old Tree

Good day to you, internet. While I've largely spent the last couple of weeks playing either AAA releases that I've already reviewed (Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, Dying Light) or lower-profile fare that I'll review eventually (Grow Home, Castle in the Darkness), I've recently invested a bit of time in a handful of indie puzzlers on Steam. I wouldn't say that any of them quite warrant a full, official write-up, so I suppose now's a good time to defrost the old blog. Let's talk indies.

First is Splice, recommended enthusiastically by GameCritics homie Brad Gallaway. Though I hadn't heard of the game, ten seconds of research taught me that it's by Cipher Prime, the same Philly-based (!) studio behind Auditorium. Like that game, Splice uses a minimalist interface to present players with an alien scenario; half of the game's battle is just initially figuring out what exactly you're looking at, how you interact with it, and what the game wants you to do to proceed. The answer is better explained by playing it for yourself, but the best answer that I can give is that you're connecting what appear to be cells in a Petri dish in such a way that matches an outlined patterned, moving, extending, and duplicating them as needed, and where the game allows you to.

I like that there are clearly multiple solutions to many of the puzzles, and I really dig the audiovisual presentation, which looks like someone took the Fringe opening credits as inspiration for a full game. (Having said that, there are no graphical options for the PC version, and I'd have liked to see a sharper image and a higher framerate, though it's not as essential for a low-key puzzler like this). This game came to my attention because it's just recently been ported to PS4, but apparently it's been kicking around on Steam and mobile devices for a few years now. It's creative and provides several solid hours of "frustrating one moment, rewarding the next" entertainment. Recommended.

Second is Cubot, which I came across while browsing the recent releases list on Steam. This one costs two bucks and comes with very positive reviews, and while it's certainly a low-maintenance affair (the options menu even has a glaring typo), it's a perfectly serviceable puzzler about rolling blocks of various properties around small grids. All cubes in a level move simultaneously, and each abides by a different set of rules. Some roll two spaces in a turn, some roll backwards, and so forth. The idea is to get each block onto a space of a matching color at the same time.

It's straightforward and doesn't make me ask, "How on Earth did they come up with this?!" like Splice did, but it's reasonably well-designed, unintimidating and even somewhat relaxing. It's the sort of thing that's easy to play with one eye while you've got the other eye on a movie or TV show; I spent an hour or two with it last night while watching The Theory of Everything. It's only $2 on Steam, so that's a rather easy sell if you ask me.

An even easier sell, because it's free, is The Old Tree. This one is available on Steam for no charge and will take no more than 10-15 minutes to complete. It's a point-and-click puzzler with bizarre, slightly whimsical 2D imagery in the style of something like Machinarium. I didn't like that game; while I initially found it charming, its puzzles grew too obtuse too quickly. That isn't a problem with The Old Tree, which is about a strange, tentacled alien hatching and gradually ascending through a series of bizarre scenes (none of which I'll relate, because it's such a short game and thus describing even one of the scenes would spoil a huge portion of it).

The puzzles are perfectly digestible (some might even argue that they're too easy), and it does that usual indie game thing of portraying the player character as a small, timid being in a big, scary world; note the use of oversized bugs. It's all lovely to look at, though, and while it doesn't have much of a plot, it may serve as a sort of test run for the developer's more advanced ideas. The Old Tree is free and won't take much of your time, so while it's not amazing, there's no harm in checking it out.