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.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Sometimes I like things: My ten favorite games of 2014

Dark Souls II actually isn't even on my list, but I took that screenshot a few hours ago, decided it was exactly the greatest thing in the world and chose to display it here for all who, for whatever reason, wonder what my favorite games of the last twelve months are. It puts an appropriate cap on 2014, too. After a year like this, surely what we'd all love to be doing right now is waving goodbye as we all hideously die in a fire.

Like many, I was not a fan of 2014. Though it wasn't terrible for me on a personal level (which makes it something of a unique year), it was absolute hell for this industry as a whole, partly due to that one big thing that we are not even going to mention by name, and partly due to the games as a whole just not being particularly great. But here's me putting a positive spin on things: Maybe we needed a year such as this one. It's like when your favorite sports team has a terrible season that results in the firing of the head coach who's been pulling the franchise down – yeah, it hurts, but now we can make some progress. Maybe the reaction to all of 2014's botched launches and overhyped misfires results, at long last, in some actual quality control from AAA publishers. Because surely Ubisoft doesn't need another Assassin's Creed: Unity on their record.

Speaking of that, it's customary (by which I mean that I did it for last year's list) for me to rattle off a handful of honorable mentions in this space before moving on to the formal list, but this time I'm just going to issue my honorable mention to every Nintendo-published game released in 2014. No single title made my top ten, but Nintendo's impressively consistent dedication to the polish, stability and purity of their products is refreshing, even heroic. It's rare for their games to bring anything genuinely new to the table, but this year more than any other year, we needed a publisher who's comfortably reliable. And hell, there are far more reasons to own a Wii U now than there are to invest in the other two consoles, if you ask me.

With that said, here's my top ten for 2014. For whatever wrongs the industry suffered this year, let these ten titles be remembered as instances when, for a period of time, video games were pretty damn great.

10. The Wolf Among Us (PC)

For the longest time, I hated point-and-click adventures. To me, they almost always feel like the products of people who would much rather be telling stories than making games, and it's rare for me to play one that benefits in any way from being limited to this medium, the endless string of insert-square-shaped-rod-into-square-shaped-hole puzzles bogging down narratives that would be better told in movies or books.

Telltale Games' The Walking Dead changed that for me, largely by virtue of simply being the first video game ever to make me cry. Indeed, one of the long-running hurdles for story-centric games is that for ages, storytelling in this medium just wasn't reliably good enough. That's improving, and Telltale Games is leading the charge, but even The Walking Dead's pace was frequently hindered by what I've simply started referring to as "adventure game logic."

They've got such a familiar template now that The Wolf Among Us, based on a comic series called Fables that I'd never heard of until now, is unmistakably their work even when it was only the second release of theirs that I played. But they're continuing to refine their formula, even as their art style carries from one series to their next, even as their engine ages, even as characters continue to remember that. By nature of this series being a murder mystery starring fairy tale caricatures, it probably could never hit the emotional highs of The Walking Dead, but it's a shorter, leaner run that knocks out the fat and focuses on what Telltale does best: slick narrative driven by tough decisions which force players to meditate on the necessity of violence. For a company to spark my interest in adventure games is extraordinary. For them to hold my interest in the genre for more than one game is nothing short of surreal. (Review.)

9. Sunset Overdrive (Xbox One)

Let me get political for a moment and brush upon a subject that I'm sure is near and dear to everyone's hearts: the console wars! There is no bigger dead horse to be beaten than the subject of Xbox One getting off to a lousy start, and even after all of the steps that Microsoft has taken to narrow the gap between its own platform and the PS4 – dropping the Kinect requirement and lowering the price were the two big remaining boxes on their checklist – it wasn't until October that Microsoft finally did the one thing that I've been insisting could make or break this battle: release some great exclusive software.

Of course, this year, two of Xbox One's biggest exclusives – Ryse: Son of Rome and Dead Rising 3 – both made their way to the PC market, so it doesn't seem far fetched that Insomniac's latest will find new audiences at some point in the near future. Still, you have to admire the craftiness on display here: recruit a team commonly associated with the PlayStation brand to develop the best console exclusive of the generation so far, but for the opposing platform. Not only that, but the game's most prominent inspiration is a Sony franchise, and it's being released the same year that the latest installment of said franchise (Infamous: Second Son) failed to deliver.

It's not like the trick to making a good sandbox game is sealed away in some Aztec temple or something. Just make the sandbox matter. That's it. At any point in Sunset Overdrive, you can set a five-foot radius around yourself and find an environmental object that takes you to your next objective quicker than running along the ground would. Grind on something. Bounce from something. Swing across something. The platforming controls are phenomenal, and the game's colorful, manic energy is felt in every second spent navigating. That's energy, sadly, not devoted to the game's awful sense of humor, but I guess we can't have everything. (Review.)

8. Velocibox (PC)

I appreciate the straightforwardness of this game's title. Velocibox. It's about a box that moves at a high velocity.

Straightforwardness, as it happens, is the key strength of Velocibox, probably the first and last runner ever to be featured on a year-end list by me. There are nine stages, and if you're good, you can reach the end in something like a minute and a half. But you are not good. This is a lightning-fast and procedurally-generated arcade game, one in which memorizing the obstacle patterns takes ages and developing the reflexes to actually surpass them takes even longer. I've only ever made it to the fifth stage. Velocibox first came to my attention when I heard two colleagues swapping stories about the game, one reporting that he'd recorded thousands of attempts. Thousands.

That sounds like absolute hell for me, because I'm easily frustrated, a quality tested this year with two of the most difficult games I've ever played: Cloudbuilt and 1001 Spikes. Both games ultimately drove me over the edge for complications relating to an arbitrary lives system; in both cases, the frustration wasn't necessarily in dying, but in what I'd often lose when I died.

I love Velocibox because it's so instantaneous. While basic level patterns are reused, layouts themselves are always randomly generated, and they're thrown at you too quickly for you to patiently recall exactly what's going to happen next. It's a constantly-evolving game of adaptation, but it's immediate. When you do well, a stage is over in moments. When you don't do well, you're thrown back into it in less than a second, no questions asked. It's tight, intuitive and gloriously simple, pulling off the admirable trait of turning frustration into something relaxing, even therapeutic.

7. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (PS4)

To put it crudely, because the subject matter deserves no better, this was the year that Assassin's Creed officially sullied the bed. Ubisoft bought themselves an extra year of goodwill with 2013's surprisingly innovative Black Flag, but then Unity came along twelve months later and unspooled all of that goodwill with the enthusiasm of a toddler who's just come upon a cassette tape. But even if Unity had been technically sound upon release, it still would've been hopelessly outclassed by Monolith's outstanding Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, a popular entry on best-of articles, and not without good reason.

While this game does have one extremely unique feature, which I'll get to in a moment, Shadow of Mordor is notable less for what it does new and more for what it improves. It emblazons the Assassin's Creed formula with the controls of the superior Batman Arkham series and somehow comes out with something smoother than either franchise, and it all boils down to one important trait: flow. Even the Arkham games tended to present combat and stealth as separate entities, the manner in which you take down enemies entirely reliant on the sort of weaponry they're wielding. In Shadow of Mordor, any of your abilities are equally valid at any time, provided you've got the skill to use them.

And you don't always; Monolith isn't afraid to overwhelm you if you overexert yourself. But the skill tree manages to constantly change the way you approach combat. You'll get swarm by literally a couple dozen orcs at a time early on and think the game is being unfair, and then you'll face the same odds after you've gained short-range teleportation, area-of-effect attacks and exploding arrows accompanied by momentary bullet-time, and it's nothing, and the evolution is palpable. That rise to power is only rivaled by the steady progression of the Nemesis system, which has you manipulating Uruk ranks to the point of raising literal armies by the end of the campaign. It's a brilliant bit of emergent personal investment to nullify the sting of the game's somewhat dull central story. Aside from the narrative, this game does pretty much everything right. (Review.)

6. P.T. (PS4)

Let me just present my case for this one right up front. Had P.T. been developed by a no-name studio and released as a short, standalone title at a modest price, with no attachment to any major franchises, it'd still have been one of the most talked-about horror releases of the year. Yes, in the end, P.T. is one of the most innovative marketing stunts the industry has seen in recent times, but it's also an hour of some of the most masterfully crafted interactive horror I've ever experienced. And no, this isn't a demo in the usual sense; it's not intended to be representative of what Silent Hills will actually be. It's simply Hideo Kojima informing a skeptical Earth that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, he can do horror.

I've been scared by video games before – I believe that the horror genre has far more potential in an interactive medium than elsewhere, in fact – but I believe P.T. is the first video game to prompt an audible reaction from me. I screamed. I screamed loudly. Had anyone else at my residence been sleeping, I most assuredly would have woken them up. Kojima sets the stakes early and hard, and then, for the remainder of the experience, he strikes a delicate balance between jump scares and making you think there are going to be jump scares. The setup alone (having to walk through a continuous loop of the same hallway, over and over again, with something changing on every reset) is maddening, and the "game" constantly toys with players' perception of where they're supposed to be going, what they can interact with, and what they should be paying attention to. It does tenfold what most horror games can't even do once. It's outstanding.

But beyond that, yeah, it is an awfully intriguing marketing experiment. Bear in mind that it's not even revealed that this is a Silent Hills teaser until after the player bypasses the game's final, deliberately obtuse puzzle. It took over a week for the collective minds of the internet to nail down a method for successfully triggering the ending, and the solution is mind-bogglingly complicated. But that's what's cool about it. It's the social experience of gaming being used to everyone's benefit. You entice us with a free game, blow us away, and then get us working together. The success of P.T. isn't that we were talking about it; it's that we wanted to talk about it.

5. Dragon Age: Inquisition (PC)

Another popular choice among year-end best-of articles (a fact that EA's marketing team won't be letting us forget anytime soon), Dragon Age: Inquisition is probably the safest entry on here, but no less deserving of its placement for hitting all of the right notes with me. It's an open-air Western RPG with outstanding world-building, exciting combat, great character work and an overwhelming amount of content. See you in 75 hours.

I seem to be one of the few longtime BioWare fans who hadn't already given up on the company, having excused Dragon Age II as a fluke and still generally loving Mass Effect 3 in spite of whatever happens in its last ten minutes. Having said that, I never in a million years expected to come out of Inquisition hailing it as the best of the series, yet it is. It benefits from two prior games' worth of lore establishment, recapturing the epic-scope formula of Origins but fitting it with a vastly superior cast of characters and further exploring the thematic issues that distinguish this particular universe from the billion or so other existing Tolkien riffs.

I'm a sucker for massive time sink WRPGs like this, but you can't truly engross me in a world such as this without getting me involved. I found myself actually walking around my hub between missions and striking conversations with my party members, actively looking for excuses to open new dialog with them. That's a quality that this game shares with the Mass Effect series, and by golly is that ever a favorable comparison. I had tremendous fun with the game, and I think nearly anyone who played it unearthed at least one of their favorite gaming moments of 2014 within (for me, it was the first time I took down a high dragon), but in the end, Inquisition's true triumph is making me care so deeply about this world and the conflicts that drive it. Which means its truer triumph is getting Freddie Prinze, Jr. to throw an emotional punch. (Review.)

4. The Talos Principle (PC)

This is exactly why outlets need to stop handing out their GOTY awards a month before the year is even over: because, out of nowhere, the developer and publisher of the rebooted Serious Sam franchise might get together to release a downplayed, philosophically-minded indie scene puzzler in mid-December that happens to eclipse most of the high-profile titles that have no thirst for further year-end coverage anyway. (I say this as I've just given Shadow of Mordor and Dragon Age two of the top honors, naturally.)

The Talos Principle draws an unsubtle but effective parallel to the Garden of Eden, this time featuring an android being introduced into a new world and guided through maturity, all the way to lost innocence, by an ethereal voice. Much dreaming of electric sheep ensues, and Talos waxes philosophical plenty on the definition of life, emotion, free will, and all that jazz. But it's only ever as thought-provoking as the player wants it to be. You could double your play time investigating the remnants of the fallen civilization that this world seems to be built upon, and you could spend just as much time leading conversations with a mysterious AI who issues Voight-Kampf-esque empathy tests and aids your android in forging its (his? her?) identity. You could also just disregard all of that and simply dive into one of the most satisfying puzzle games in years.

The narrative material on display here is the sort of thing we'd commonly see in what some circles refer to as a "walking simulator," something like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (to name a 2014 release that attempted such minimalist storytelling in a manner that didn't work for me). But beyond being thought-provoking, Talos is just clever and fun. Its puzzles are beautifully designed, all revolving around using recurring devices to manipulate and bypass security systems. It trains players well for what winds up being properly mind-straining material, and its flow and narrative involvement make it impossible not to compare to Portal, and, surprisingly, in a good way. The only hitch is that its visual style is a bit cluttered and indistinct, but hey, if it were that easy to make a game as tight and perfectly constructed as Portal, everyone would be doing it.

3. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (Vita)

There are about a thousand reasons that I adore my Vita – seriously, if you love video games, you should own a Vita – but one of the handheld's biggest strengths at the moment is its continuing role as a fount of niche Japanese imports. There was a massive influx of that this year, ranging from great (yay Monster Monpiece) to not-so-great (boo Demon Gaze). All of them seem to be pretty heavy on fan service, too, but never mind.

Leading that charge was the Danganronpa series, a particular critical darling. It's about a group of high school students in a confined environment who are forced to kill one another – and get away with it, via an investigative process and trial – in order to "graduate." It's a visual novel, essentially a manga with only the barest minimum level of interactivity for it to be labeled a "game," and in fact, its occasional attempts to involve the player beyond simply reading text are the few moments when developer Spike Chunsoft comes up short. But it's stylish, heartbreaking, colorful, grim, swift, patient, and everything in between. The murder mysteries themselves are brilliant. while the overarching plot that holds it all together teases new details at just the appropriate rate to keep you personally invested.

We actually got two localized Danganronpa games this year, and I've seen numerous people bundle them both together on year-end lists. Unfortunately, the sequel, Goodbye Despair, was a bit of a disappointment for me – while the murder cases themselves were still top-notch, the central driving story was presented in an excruciatingly slow manner and then trips over itself trying to tie all of its loose ends, all at once, in the final chapter. (The mini-games were more obnoxious, too.) But whereas the second title strained the formula a bit, Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc stands as one of 2014's freshest pleasures, and features the most memorable villain of the year in Monokuma (who may soon be joining my residence in plushie form). It's not much of a game, but it's a thing that I put into my Vita and enjoyed, so what do you want from me? (Review.)

2. The Banner Saga (PC)

And now we come to 2014's token miserable game. I love The Banner Saga to death, but it is absolutely brutal. Not in terms of difficulty, mind – the game actually has no fail state until its final boss, and that's weirdly part of its bleak genius. This is a game about war, and a game about loss. We're conditioned to believe that "loss" in this medium translates to a game over screen, but in The Banner Saga, when you lose a battle, you're expected to pick yourself up and carry on regardless. The campaign is wildly (and deliberately) unpredictable, sometimes going for over an hour with no conflict and then throwing you into two difficult battles back-to-back. No time to recover? Too bad. War doesn't wait for you to be ready.

Developer Stoic is apparently comprised of ex-BioWare employees, and as we've already discussed, BioWare can do world-building like no one's business. That's critical here, because The Banner Saga would have been nowhere near as effective without the oppressive bleakness of its Viking-themed fantasy universe. It's a cold place, the gods are dead, and the sun has literally disappeared. The hordes of invading golems that threaten your land have no immediately apparent motive, and their leader is immortal. I'm not exaggerating – he cannot be killed. When a someone finally formulates a plan for defeating him, she emphasizes the fact that he'll never be gone for good, and that this is only a temporary solution. The Banner Saga is smart, mature and never self-serious, but people don't joke around much in this mythos. There's very little reason to smile here.

It's painful, and it's wonderful. This is a turn-based strategy game at heart, and while that particular element is fine, it's the Oregon Trail-esque convoy mechanic tying it all together than gives Banner its uniquely grim edge. Random events are a constant menace and deaths are as many as they are unavoidable. "Beating" the game barely even feels like a victory, even disregarding the knowledge that this is only part one of an ongoing series. I doubt that the recently-announced Banner Saga 2 will be any less miserable and I can't wait. (Review.)

1. Divinity: Original Sin (PC)

Despite it being far and away the best game that I played in 2014 (it's seriously not even a contest), I somehow managed to get through the year without publishing a review for Divinity: Original Sin. I will assume that its lack of an official blessing from me is the sole reason that this magnificent title has been absent from so many year-end lists.

That's not it, of course. The issue is that Original Sin is unwelcoming. I applaud it for the lack of hand-holding, of course, but anyone who's not a CRPG enthusiast will stumble through the first few hours lost, confused, and overwhelmed. How do I recruit more party members? How do I repair weapons? How do I even know where to go? Original Sin doesn't even have quest markers. Players are simply expected to listen to what they're told and surmise on their own where they're supposed to be going. They're expected to poke hot surfaces to figure out what they can handle and what they still can't. And if they're stuck, players are expected to put their current objective on hold and engage in one of the countless other activities available in what must be one of 2014's largest games.

If you put in the effort, what do you get out of it? Well, for one thing, you get, bar none, the best turn-based combat I've ever experienced in a game. It's acutely balanced, unique (get a load of what this game does with environmental effects) and, most critically, never breaks its own rules. But on top of that, you get an imaginative high fantasy universe that is funny and charming without sacrificing depth. I did not expect this game to have the sense of humor that it does, and I was doubly surprised that I still found myself engaged in the particular workings of this universe and the struggles of the two protagonists, despite them both essentially being player-made blank slates. (You can get them to argue with each other. You can get them to play rock-paper-scissors with each other.)

This is an incredible game. Huge, colorful, deep, and never anything less than the most outright fun I've ever had with a CRPG. It sets the bar high for upcoming releases like Pillars of Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera, but even if this is the best we've got, I couldn't be happier to have it. (Update: I finally got around to writing that review.)

And now the obligatory miscellaneous awards.

Best DLC: The Last of Us: Left Behind
Most overrated: Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Most underrated: The Evil Within
Most overlooked: Monster Monpiece
Most visually striking: Metrico
All-out best-looking game: Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
Best original soundtrack: Transistor
Best licensed soundtrack: Forza Horizon 2
Biggest surprise: Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA f
Biggest disappointment: Destiny
Most enjoyable bad game: Entwined
Least enjoyable good game: Cloudbuilt
Game that I spent the most time with: Dark Souls II
Game that I spent the least time with before judging: Worms Battlegrounds
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn't: This War of Mine
Game in my Steam library that I most want to play, but still haven't: Circuits
Best game that I still haven't finished: Bayonetta 2
Best game that I received a review key/copy for: Velocity 2X
Worst game that I received a review key/copy for: Natural Doctrine
All-out worst game that I played: Z-Run
Best non-2014 release that I first played in 2014: Silent Hill 2
Best remake/re-release: The Last of Us Remastered

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My ten favorite concerts of 2014

I did a blog entry like this last year, and I suspect this'll be my last time writing one. The simple explanation is that I just don't think I'll be going to enough concerts in 2015 to justify another list like this. At this point, I've seen the vast majority of my favorite bands live and have recently either cancelled or entirely skipped many shows that I would've attended without hesitation. Comes with adulthood; I'm just busier and less energetic these days. So let's take a look back at what will probably be the last notable year of a very important and very memorable phase of my life.

10. Jack White @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/7)

Anyone who's still despairing over the breakup of the White Stripes probably hasn't seen Jack's solo act and doesn't realize how much better off he is with full creative control. Over the last few years, he's been touring with top-shelf musicians who gel so smoothly with the guy that he plays every show without a setlist, picking songs on the fly and simply expecting his band to follow his lead. I'm torn on both his new music and his off-stage shenanigans, but he's reliably one of the best guitarists on the planet, and his shows still lean heavily on enough on classic input from both White Stripes and the Raconteurs that even if his live act wasn't an emergent thrill to watch, it'd still be a delight to listen to. The only disappointment of the set was the lack of a Dead Weather team-up, since his bandmate, Alison Mosshart, was also on the festival's roster under her primary project, the Kills. (Standout: a riveting end-of-set rendition of "Icky Thump," which he didn't play the first time I saw him.)

9. Neutral Milk Hotel @ Union Transfer (1/30)

A few years ago, the idea of seeing Neutral Milk Hotel's music performed live in any sort of authentic capacity was absurd. Two miraculous things happened. First, lead singer Jeff Mangum returned to the concert scene for an extensive solo tour, performing his music for the many fans who either weren't old enough to experience it in the late '90s or were simply happy to see the guy back. Then, out of nowhere, the full band got back together. I was lucky enough to attend their very first reunion show in Baltimore last year, but sadly, the sound at the venue was awful. This year, they played at Union Transfer, my favorite venue. As much as I loved Mangum's solo shows (two of which I went to), nothing compares to hearing this material performed with a full band. Like a good indie fan, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea ranks among my favorite albums of all time, and being around for a reunion like this is a privilege I never thought I'd have.

8. TV on the Radio @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/6)

The first day of GovBall had the one-two punch of Phoenix and Outkast playing back-to-back on the main stage, which meant that the crowds elsewhere were pretty thin. That probably sucked for the artists themselves, but it was great for me, as I had no trouble securing a spot front and center for my first majorly anticipated set of the festival, TV on the Radio. I'd already seen them once at FreeFest a few years ago, and they still hold their spot as one of the tightest, most confident bands performing today. My only real gripe with their show is that they generally seem to stick to the same set of songs, and a few of my favorite tracks from Dear Science and Return to Cookie Mountain seeming destined never to be performed on stage again. Nevertheless, they're exhilarating. I missed the chance to see them in a proper club later in the year, so their dominating GovBall performance will have to do.

7. The Knife @ Terminal 5 (4/30)

The weirdest show of 2014 for me and probably anyone else who attended it. The Knife's music has always been political, but my image of them had been dark and moody, and not, as my concertgoing buddy described them, "like a gay West Side Story." She wasn't being facetious: Band co-founder Olof Dreijer has basically admitted that their Shaking the Habitual tour was essentially a pride celebration, albeit performed in front of groups of people who had never attended anything like this and probably just came to hear music. The often sexually-charged dance choreography took such center stage that some of the music was even blatantly prerecorded, which defied expectations for better or worse... but one way or another, this was a performance, and one unlike any other I saw this year. MVP: Light Asylum's Shannon Funchess, whom I'd previously seen sing backup for LCD Soundsystem's final show, and who joined The Knife for their first proper North American tour after only three prior concerts on the continent.

6. The Strokes @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/7)

To be honest, the Strokes are one of those live bands, the kind that sound excellent but don't diverge from their studio work in any way. From a performance standout, a live setting adds nothing. This set makes my list for pure event status, however. It had been years since their last show, they'd never toured for their most recent album (Comedown Machine), and they were headlining a festival in their hometown. The turnout was unreal and the energy level was through the roof, to the point that GovBall's medical staff wheeled dozens of people away throughout the course of the show and security spent the whole thing frantically spraying surviving fans with crates and crate of water bottles. It was full-on Beatlemania, and while it was one of the most exhausting concerts of my life (not helped by the fact that I'd been camping the stage since the festival gates opened and was unable to sit for essentially the entire day), it was also one of the craziest.

5. Death from Above 1979 @ Union Transfer (11/29)

I was actually supposed to see Death from Above 1979 twice last year: once at GovBall, and again at an afterparty the same weekend. For reasons still unclear, the band cancelled both appearances, and my dreams of seeing the long-defunct two-piece were shattered until they finally releases their follow-up album and announced a proper tour. That the crowd was off the chain goes without saying (this was the first time I've ever seen a blow-up sex doll being flung around at a show), but the band itself sounded fantastic, bolstering both classics and new material with extended and often tantalizing intros. The only letdown of the night was the omission of "Black History Month," but that makes me all the more hopeful that there's a next time. Just crossing my fingers that it doesn't take another decade.

4. Damon Albarn @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/6)

Poor Damon wound up being scheduled against Outkast, which meant that there was absolutely nobody there; I approached the stage while he was beginning his second song (having just seen TV on the Radio across the field) and I wound up maybe eight rows back. He didn't seem phased. In fact, he rewarded his most devoted fans with a rare treat when he brought De La Soul on-stage to play an authentic rendition of "Feel Good Inc.," which may just have been my single favorite concert moment of the year. Beyond that, his backing band aptly clarified why his ticket prices have been so high and the show was heavy on Gorillaz hits both expected and unexpected. Would have been nice to hear more Blur material (this was around the time he retired "This Is a Low," one of my favorite songs of his), but what a cheerful, energetic and unforgettable performance this guy turned out. The highlight of an altogether great festival for me.

3. Kishi Bashi @ Mauch Chunk Opera House (8/16)

It was essentially happenstance that I saw Kishi Bashi live. He was playing in the middle of nowhere, one town over from someone I was dating (whom I've since become official with!), and I suggested it essentially as a convenient activity, even though I was already a fan of the guy. His live show was great in every way that a show can be great. He's both a wonderful singer and a spectacular violinist, and his band was equally capable. Notable for a relatively unknown artist, he played for nearly two hours, thanks to both a lengthy setlist and heaping dose of enthusiastic stage banter, much of it unique to this specific show: comments about the town, jokes about the various quirks of the venue (like a weird smoke machine that fired up at rude moments), and numerous interactions with audience members, including a couple that got engaged at the show. I can't imagine anyone seeing Kishi Bashi and not becoming a lifelong fan. He's incredible.

2. Slowdive @ Union Transfer (10/23)

This is a great time to be a shoegaze fan, with so many notable reunions happening seemingly out of the blue lately. Last year, I was fortunate enough to catch My Bloody Valentine, and I've already got a ticket for Ride's first tour in two decades. This year, the star player was Slowdive. I'm a bit embarrassed to say that my fandom of theirs is a somewhat recent occurrence, but it isn't going anywhere, thanks in part to this absolutely spellbinding show. Of course the music is fantastic (seriously, if you're into shoegaze and swelling guitar work altogether, don't wait on this band like I did), but the visual element of the show left my eyes feeling the same way that my ears did: overwhelmed in the best possible way. They hit every end of the spectrum: sometimes unbelievably heavy, sometimes catchy, sometimes tranquil, and always beautiful. They were away for two decades and it's amazing how little was lost. 

1. Arcade Fire @ Barclays Center (8/22)

This was overdue. I saw Arcade Fire on their tour for The Suburbs, but I was a mile from the stage. I sought to rectify that earlier this year when I got a pit ticket for their Reflektor run, but I had to drop out, no thanks to my unwillingness to take my newly-purchased car through snow (which I still believe was the smart decision). So when I made a final attempt to see Arcade Fire properly, I went through hell to ensure that the experience was as good as it could possibly be. I worked until 3am the night before, and only a couple of hours after my shift ended, I jumped on a train to New York, reached Brooklyn by late morning, and spent the rest of the day with a friend of mine crazy enough to accompany as the first two people in line for the show. I slept when I could (on the ride up and in the streets), drank a power shot right before entry, and snagged a front-row spot.

It was 100% worth it. Even putting aside the fact that Arcade Fire are absolutely one of the best bands in the business, it was a night of unforgettable moments. I bumped into, and shook hands with, Spike Jonze. I saw Buster Poindexter lead a rendition of "Hot Hot Hot." I got to hear Win Butler sing the opening few lyrics of LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends," my favorite song. I shook hands with Win when he walked down the barricade and thanked fans at the end of the show. I got to see some of the greatest songs ever written performed with the enthusiasm and production values fully justifying a near-hundred-dollar ticket, and it was worth every penny. There's really no other show that could top this list. It's an all-timer.