Category Archives: Review

Bloodborne Review – Worth the Price of a PS4?

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Your coat is soaked in putrid, black blood, with only the light of the moon reflecting off of its slick surface. In one hand you grip your trusty cleaver, the closest thing you have to a friend in this living hell, and in the other, a flintlock pistol, with few bullets left to spare. Every step you take could be your last as you traverse this frenzied city, ignorant to the horrors that linger around each and every corner you turn.  You’re on the edge of your seat. Your palms are sweating. You anticipate death. You expect despair.

And you welcome it.

If someone gave this game a perfect score for atmosphere alone I would have a hard time fighting them on it. From its superbly demented art direction to the unsettling and erratic sound design, Bloodborne reminds us that AAA games still care; that despite all the bullshit, this is still an artistic medium. Bloodborne isn’t a system seller like Halo: Combat Evolved was for the original Xbox. It’s more like Bioshock: it’s a unique experience you simply won’t find anywhere else.

And that’s the kicker, right? Is this game worth the cost of a new console? By the time this review goes up most people will have already made up their minds. However, if you still happen to be on the fence I hope this review helps sway you one way or the other.

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Let’s start with the story. The setting of Yharnam itself is the heart and soul of Bloodborne. Sure, there are a few memorable characters here and there, but this isn’t a character-driven narrative. Rather, it’s a tale about how one city fell victim to its own hubris and lost everything in exchange for knowledge and power. It’s the player’s job to navigate the ruins of this once great city and discover for themselves what eldritch horrors its people awakened. Like From Software’s previous titles, Bloodborne expects the player to make what they will of the deep and disturbing lore, rather than have it spelled out for them in tired exposition. Fans have come to expect this of the Souls series, and in that sense Bloodborne delivers in spades. It’s a subtle narrative told primarily through its atmosphere, something we just don’t see very often in AAA games anymore.

Unlike its predecessors, Bloodborne’s game world is tangible and grounded. Darksouls’ s setting, Lordran, was remarkable in its own right, but it felt very alien and hard to relate to. The stakes were never really clear, even if you understood the cryptic lore. Yharnam, on the other hand, is reminiscent of 19th-century London, and serves as a home for normal human beings. Even if you can’t wrap your head around the story, it’s clear that failure on your part will lead to the doom of the city’s citizens. But then, if you do have an understanding for the lore, you’d know that death may actually be reprieve for these poor souls.

Bloodborne may appear to be your standard Van Helsing affair given the Gothic Victorian design, but underneath all of the beast slaying it’s ultimately a Lovecraftian tale. An outsider comes to a troubled town with a terrifying secret and plunges into darkness to uncover it. It’s a journey of enlightenment and of madness.

For fear of spoiling the experience further, let’s shift gears and talk about mechanics.

Bloodborne is very much a Souls game, but at the same time it’s absolutely not. Sure, the UI looks similar and it shares a myriad of concepts with its predecessors, but when you actually have the controller in your hands it feels like a different game entirely. There is one main reason for this: speed. Bloodborne is a much faster game than any of the Souls titles, requiring quicker reflexes, more offensive strategies and more risk taking. That isn’t to say the game doesn’t reward careful planning or critical thinking, however. Each death at the hands of a supposedly invincible boss will give you more insight into how they work, and if you take those failures to heart you can formulate a plan to exploit the boss’s weaknesses and finally take them down.

Due to its fast pace and emphasis on offensive strategies I think it’s safe to say that Bloodborne is a far more difficult game than Dark Souls. You will die a lot, especially during the first few hours of gameplay. Thankfully, there are various shortcuts found all throughout the interconnected city, so dying isn’t all too inconvenient. That said, dying over and over to the same boss does come with irritating consequences. For some reason From Software decided to do away with the Estus Flask health potion system–in which you regen all of your health potions upon death–in favor of a finite resource system. You can carry up to twenty Blood Vials and Silver bullets on you at any given time, which is fine, but you can only store another 99 in your reserves, so once you blow through those you will need to either buy more with blood echoes (player experience) or farm them. This can be incredibly annoying when you’re trying to beat a particularly difficult boss as you may need to stop every now and then to go farm Blood Vials.

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One new mechanic I find particularly interesting is the gun riposte system. In the Souls titles you could use a shield or dagger to parry incoming attacks and open the enemy up for a riposte. Though it works similarly in Bloodborne it feels so much more satisfying. In order to stagger a foe and riposte them you must shoot them with your sidearm during the “sweet spot” of their attack animation. Once they’re on their knees you can follow up with R1 to land a Visceral Attack on them, dealing significant damage. Visceral Attacks can be performed in other ways as well, including dealing enough damage to a certain part of a boss’s body or by landing a fully charged R2 attack on an enemy whose back is turned (the new backstab mechanic). Sometimes it’s a bit finicky (or the window to stagger the enemy is sadistically brief), but it’s a fascinating system that, once mastered, makes the game that much more fun.

The main game world is brilliantly designed, offering few areas I didn’t enjoy going back to in NG+. Like Dark Souls it is interconnected via shortcuts, making it feel like one big circle. Bloodborne’s version of bonfires, lanterns, are sparse, encouraging you to find and use shortcuts to get around. Of course, you can always teleport directly to lanterns you’ve already discovered, but unfortunately you can only do so from the hub world. I hope you like load screens!

While the main game world is great, I found the hyped-up Chalice dungeons to be a repetitive slog. Seeing the same four rooms copy-pasta’d over and over again gets exhausting and 90% of the loot is just materials to make more Chalice dungeons. It offers the hardest bosses in the game, which is kinda neat I guess, but ultimately not worth it unless you’re trying to platinum the game.

While it’s barely functional in Chalice dungeons, the online co-op works decently well in the main game. It functions pretty much exactly like it does in the Souls games, but thanks to the new password system it is much easier to co-op with your friends. Interestingly, when you attempt to summon the aid of other players it spawns a sinister bell maiden who summons enemy players to invade your world. This maiden may also spawn when you are searching for a world to invade yourself, making it so players interested in PvP are more likely to get matched with other PvPers. Some of the PvP mechanics are neat, but unfortunately the PvP doesn’t seem all that fun or balanced. You’re pretty much guaranteed a lag-fest (which goes for most co-op as well) and there are a whole slew of cheesy tactics players have already adopted that can render PvP too tedious to bother with.

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Speaking of lag, let’s discuss the game’s performance. Capped at 30-fps (’cause “cinematic”), the game runs well enough most of the time. There are, however, occasional dips. Sometimes it’s during co-op, but usually it seems to hit hard when in an area with several light sources a la Blighttown in Darksouls. There were several occasions (usually in Chalice dungeons) where the fps dipped into the single digits, rendering the game momentarily unplayable. The audio seems to be unstable as well, occasionally causing sharp buzzing sounds which I found to be especially frequent in Old Yharnam. The load times are also an issue, and can take anywhere from 20 to 60+ seconds when respawning after death. If I were to give letter grades for individual aspects of a game, Bloodborne’s performance would be just shy of an “F”. In this day and age there is simply no excuse for releasing such an unstable game, and it makes me question how powerful the PS4 really is. It ain’t no GTX-970, that’s for sure!

Its performance is sub-par at best, but there’s enough to love about this title to forgive such failures. Its questionable design choices are overshadowed by its brilliant ones and I haven’t a single complaint about its artistic merit. At the end of the day Bloodborne is an imperfect gem in an ocean of mediocre AAA titles. It’s an experience worth having and one of the only games that justifies the price of a PS4. If I couldn’t convince you to buy a console for this game, that’s fine, but if you do eventually get the hunk of junk be sure to check Bloodborne out.

I’ll probably still be playing it by then.

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Shin Megami Tensei IV Review

Originally published August 1st, 2013 on the Escapist.

Games like Shin Megami Tensei IV are the reason I started playing JRPGs again. From intuitive and strategic turn-based combat to the mind-fucked setting and themes, there isn’t a whole lot to complain about if you’re a fan of the genre. Having only played the Persona series myself, I was a bit hesitant going in considering the franchise’s long history of ruthless difficulty. However, my girlfriend assured me that Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne‘s difficulty puts it to shame. After five hours of dying over-and-over in the introductory dungeon, I was about ready to call bullshit.

Then I started getting good. I started figuring out what did and didn’t work and by the time the game world really opened up I found myself hooked for two weeks straight. As sad as it is, very few games these days offer a real sense of accomplishment after a truly challenging experience. Too often do we find ourselves so frustrated with a section in a game that we’re just happy to finally put it behind us. Not with SMT IV . Considering how much goes into that strategy of every fight it’s less about the luck of the draw and more about simply outsmarting and outmaneuvering the AI. Discovering and exploiting the enemy’s weaknesses while trying to protect your own is the key to victory. The game can be an asshole sometimes, but for the most part it’s all on you.

Beyond its difficult, yet rewarding combat, SMT IV‘s story is pretty damn heavy, following the Shin Megami Tensei tradition of a boy getting caught between the forces of law and chaos. While many other JRPG franchises over the years have chosen to be subtle with their religious allegories, SMT has traditionally been very in-your-face about it and the most recent entry is no different. Case-in-point, God’s a fucking dick in this universe!

In short, this isn’t another adventure with the Scooby gang. Be prepared to have your values questioned, your friends hurt and for your humanity to go to the highest bidder.

“Welcome to the Cathedral of Shadows!”

What SMT IV does best, and what the series is known for, are the demons. Boasting over 400 individual demons that can be recruited and/or fused, there are infinite party compositions one could come up with. At the beginning of the game you start out as a lone samurai with nothing but the sword at your hip. As you progress through the game you can engage in conversations with demons and make deals with them in order to extort money, trade items, get quests or recruit them into your party. Each individual demon has his or her own skills inherent among all members of their race, but the real strategy in building your party comes from the act of mixing and matching their skills during the fusion process. In this process you take two or more demons and fuse them together to create a whole new one.

The never ending cycle of fighting demons, recruiting them and subsequently fusing them together will likely eat up the bulk of your play time if you’re like me and have a hard time letting go of your favorite demons. Recruiting isn’t nearly easy as it sounds, however. Some demons are real jerks and may ask for a large tribute in the form of some pocket change, an item or a smidge of your life force. Unfortunately, demons are never to be trusted and may just take your money and run. It may be frustrating at times, but it never really feels unfair as there’s a pattern to how certain types of demons react to things you do and say. It’s a learning process.

You can spend all the time in the world recruiting and fusing and still get your ass stomped into the ground by a difficult boss, however. SMT IV utilizes a unique turn-based system in which you’re rewarded with extra turns when exploiting an enemy’s weakness as well as a chance to “smirk”, granting additional combat bonuses . Your enemies are also entitled to this mechanic, so watch your ass! If you have a demon weak to lightning and the enemy’s shooting lightning bolts everywhere you either need to swap him out or start spamming Makarakarn (spell reflect)! The flipside to the weakness system is that if you have a special defense to a certain element that nullifies, reflects or drains its damage your demon may smirk as a result and your enemy will lose a few or all of its turns.

The recruitment system is quirky and funny, the fusion system is deep and rewarding and the combat system is strategic and tense. What’s not to love? Well, I suppose some people don’t like the fact that the fights are in first-person. Before playing the game I figured I’d be upset about this as well, but it really didn’t bother me.

“When People Get Backed into a Corner, They Stop Thinkn’ About the Consequences.”

SMT IV‘s story frustrates me. It has this fleshed out and intriguing setting with a new mystery to uncover around every turn. It provides a thought provoking, philosophical conundrum and is thematically consistent throughout. In addition, despite the bizarre nature of the story, very little feels out of place. However, a few things prevent it from being a truly remarkable story. Unfortunately, many of the characters feel like cardboard cutouts while others have little to no remarkable features that come to mind at all. You may know their face, their name and maybe even where they stand on the events of the game, but they don’t really have much of a personality to speak of.

The main character’s friends are the exception to the rule, thankfully, but aren’t without their own issues. The overarching theme of the story is a bit too literal making a lot of what happens to your friends incredibly easy to see coming. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot that are pretty awesome, and hard to call, it’s just unfortunate that very few of them center around individual characters. That aside, the story is pretty fucking cool. There’s a million things I could say about the game’s endings, but I won’t spoil them in this review no matter how much I want to (and I really want to)!

What’s interesting, and new for me considering I have only played the Persona games, is how much of a big role the actual demons themselves play in the story. Talking to any ol’ human would make you think they’re all bad and out to eat you, but there are plenty of tragic stories to witness when interacting with these entities, many of whom fight you against their will. You may even feel bad for putting them down when it’s all said and done.

“Won’t You Revive Me?”

Without spoiling story elements or getting way too deep into the game’s mechanics, there really isn’t much more to say about it. The interface is brilliantly designed, though the world map is cluttered and confusing. You’ll likely lose a few hours getting lost in Tokyo before you’re done with the game. The game looks great and the budgeted sprite work is forgivable considering the vast number of demons present in the game. As always, the music is fantastic. Leave it to Atlus to knock it out of the park every time. The combat tunes are chaotic and tense while many others perfectly reflect the mood of the story at the time they are played.

Shin Megami Tensei IV is an excellent addition to any JRPG fan’s collection, but it’s not for everyone. Its bleak world, dark themes and hardcore mechanics are sure to turn some people off to the experience, but I’m a sucker for these kinds of games. If it sounds like something you’d be willing to try I would highly recommend it. If you’re already a fan of the franchise, well, you probably already own it!

Shin Megami Tensei IV is available exclusively for the 3DS.

Who will you be: a man of the People, a champion of the Lord or an agent of Chaos?

Fire Emblem: Awakening Review

Originally published April 16, 2013 on the Escapist

If there wasn’t a reason to buy a Nintendo 3DS before there certainly is one now. Fire Emblem: Awakening is the most recent entry in the Fire Emblem franchise, you know, the game series Marth and Roy are from? If Awakening is representative of the rest of the series, Nintendo has committed a heinous crime in keeping so many of its entries from the western market. Awakening is a brilliant tactical RPG with an interesting progression system, beautiful aesthetic and quirky characters.

“There Are Better Places to Take a Nap Than On The Ground, You Know…”

Let us begin with the story-side of things. Awakening does not boast the most impressive narrative of all time. Many (not all) of the twists and turns are easy to see coming and it is ripe with cliché. However, the characters and their fun personalities and relationships eclipse the issues provided by the somewhat predictable plot. Almost all of the characters in the game have one defining characteristic that dictates a lot of what they do and how the others receive them, but most of them have a fair amount of depth beyond that. Considering the game’s huge cast this could not have been an easy task.

Marth with shutter sunglasses… seems legit.

Every unit in the game has a collection of other characters that can support them in combat (the benefits of which I will discuss later) which can result in a series of fun scenes between characters that offer interesting insights into their lives. If a male and female character is paired together in combat long enough they can eventually get married and some can even have children.

One thing the narrative nails in particular is its mood. Though the spectacular soundtrack helps in this regard, the mood is always brilliantly communicated to the player and is full of ups-and-downs. There is one scene that sticks out near the halfway point of the story that leads directly into a battle. A beautiful, yet sad song plays throughout the battle as the characters swallow their grief and fight on. Even the enemies show sympathy towards your loss and it pains the player to cut them down as the supposed villains question their own actions.

Good stories start with good characters, and while the plot is rather bland, the characters make you care about it. I mean, that ending. Man… the feels.

“Negotiation’s Not My Strong Suit…”

Awakening has some social sim aspects, but it is a tactical RPG at its core. You control your units on a map, commanding them to attack enemies, heal friendly units and collect loot. When you move a unit within range of an enemy (or an enemy moves to you) you can order them to attack, bringing you to a JRPG-like view of the units engaging in combat. Though you can opt to fast-forward through these scenes or skip over them entirely, it is incredibly satisfying when your unit holds the line against a barrage of enemy attacks and counters with a lucky critical hit or two.

From a strategic standpoint many tactical RPGs are all about unit positioning, managing inventory and unit progression, butAwakening‘s support system adds a whole new level of strategy to the basic formula. As mentioned above, you can pair units together to receive benefits in combat. In its simplest form supporting characters merely buff you, but if you get lucky and/or you have paired two units together a lot the supporting character will help block lethal blows and attack along with the main unit. The strongest pairs are those who’ve been married, so it is wise to get characters paired up early on so that you can have an army of unstoppable couples in the later battles.

Holy shit! Chrom actually noticed Kellam!

The game isn’t very number crunchy, with formulas for damage and attack accuracy somewhat easy to gauge based on that stats screen. There is also a bit of a “rock-paper-scissors” aspect to combat where swords have the advantage over axes and bows deal significantly more damage to air-based units. The tutorials are brief but effective and the learning curve for the game is much smoother than it is in other games in the genre. Simply put, it’s a combat system with considerable depth but is easy to access.

Previous games in the franchise dictated that when your units fell in combat they died permanently. While this definitely adds a whole new level of complexity to the game’s balance and difficulty, many people would just reload the battle anyway to avoid losing their favorite characters. If you’re like me and don’t like having your time wasted Awakening offers a dirty “Casual Mode” where unit deaths are not permanent.

Being a D&D guy myself, the one thing that bugged me about the combat mechanics was the ease of unit movement. Sure, only certain units had an easy time moving through certain environments, but I was frequently frustrated that a knight could just march right through my defensive line and smack my healer in the back of the army. This is really just a personal complaint though, as it is designed so that squares units occupy block enemy movement. I just thought it was silly that if you have one small hole in your line an enemy can waltz right through it without any kind of penalty. If it were D&D I’d be screaming, “ATTACK OF OPPORTUNITY”!

“You Deserved Better From Me Than That One Sword…”

The final big piece of business to discuss is the progression system. Awakening has hard level caps for classes, but not for characters. Theoretically you could max out every stat and weapon proficiency for a character. This is both a fun and dangerous concept to employ. The good thing is that you can essentially make a character whatever you want within reason (99% of the characters have class restrictions), but the way in which it is implemented is a tad confusing and not adequately explained. It also throws a wrench in the game’s balance later on.

“How well will you die?”

Where this progression system really shines is in the concept of inheritance. For a reason I won’t spoil here, the player has access to adult versions of the paired characters’ children. These children inherit skills and attributes from their parents usually making them potentially far more powerful than those from which they were spawned. I kind of felt like I was making my own perfect master race of super children in my Hard Mode playthrough as I meticulously planned out who would marry who so that their children could inherit the right abilities and class options. That was, of course, completely unnecessary as the system of inheritance can be as complex as you want it to be. Unless you really fuck something up the children will usually turn out pretty damn powerful. I actually regretted planning so well as the children I created steamrolled the last 30% of my playthrough with ease.

Mixing and matching classes/skills can be a lot of fun and offers just enough depth to keep hardcore RPGers satisfied as well as being simple enough for the rest of the playerbase to enjoy.

Ahhhh… there’s nothing quite like making a super child that can damn-near solo the entire game. I feel like Miranda Lawson’s dad.

“I’ve Never Seen One Fall So Gracefully…”

Fire Emblem: Awakening is a complex game with a lot of people to meet and things to see. Through SpotPass, free new content has been regularly added and there is even a co-op battle mode (which I haven’t tried). The pre-rendered cutscenes are beautiful and the music is way too catchy. In fact, one of the coolest aspects of the music in Awakening is that most the combat songs have two versions that work seamlessly together. In the map screen it plays a lower-key version of the song and the more badass version jumps in where the other left off when it transitions into battle scenes. The anime-style character designs are great, but the tiny feet the in-engine character models had bugged the shit out of me! They were just… so goofy looking.

For me, though the whole package was an awesome experience, the game was really about the little moments. From the time my psychotic daughter force fed her husband bear meat to the battle in which Lon’qu, King of Clutch Moments (nearly dead from relentless attacks), held the line against enemy forces alone through a series of super RNG crits; there are simply too many awesome moments to remember. After a second playthrough I’m still not quite tired of this game and likely won’t ever put it down for good. Well, I suppose that is until the release the next game.

If you have a 3DS you should get this game. If you don’t… get a 3DS and get this game!

Fire Emblem: Awakening is a 3DS exclusive currently selling for $40.

THE ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM – DRAGONBORN DLC REVIEW

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Dragonborn DLC

Skyrim’s new DLC, Dragonborn, is one of the most nostalgic experiences I’ve ever had playing a video game. If you’re a Morrowind fan and still happen to be playing Skyrim one year after launch (or looking for an excuse to come back to the game) buy this add-on ASAP. No seriously, don’t even think about it. Just do it. Oh, well… I suppose I should elaborate.

Dragonborn takes place on the island of Solstheim, a setting previously used for The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind’s second expansion Bloodmoon. Those who’ve played Bloodmoon should expect to see many familiar locations, but with the eruption of Red Mountain 200 years prior, the entire southern half of the island has been covered in a thick blanket of ash. This adds some new things for Bloodmoon vets to see as well as showcasing non-Bloodmoon-specific throwbacks. You have netches roaming the coastline, Telvanni-style mushrooms sprouting in the southeast, and the Imperial-abandoned settlement of Raven Rock now controlled by the Great House Redoran.  You’re greeted with the familiar label “outlander” and the first thing you’re told is that you’re no longer in Skyrim. You’re now in mother fuckin’ Morrowind, you dirty n’wah.

The Oghma Infinium was only the beginning.

For those of you plebs who haven’t played Morrowind there’s still a huge amount of content here to appreciate. While Skyrim’s previous DLC, Dawnguard, only added some extra dungeons and outdoor areas, the island of Solstheim is an entirely new landmass to explore comparable to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’s Shivering Isles expansion. On top of this you also have the forbidden knowledge of the daedric realm of Apocrypha at your fingertips. Apocrypha is host to a plethora of cool new powers (both passive and active) that you can unlock as you collect Hermaeus Mora’s black books, some of which really change up the game. The Lovecraft-inspired landscape of Apocrypha is riddled with enemies that severely lack variety and would be an extremely boring endeavor if not for its labyrinthine design and awesome visuals.

Despite being a cool nod to Morrowind’s ascended sleepers, seekers are not all that fun to fight, though they’re the exception to the rule. Dragonborn adds a much needed collection of new and interesting enemies, many of which pose a far greater threat than those native to the mainland. Yes, you still have draugr to kill every now and then (they were featured in Bloodmoon after all), but you’ll likely spend most of your time fighting the new ash spawn and the goblin-like rieklings. There are some other cool enemies I won’t spoil here as well as the addition of a “secret” boss that actually managed to one-shot my level 54, armor-capped dunmer. Those looking for more of a challenge won’t be disappointed venturing into Solstheim.

Bethesda also upped the ante on its dungeon puzzles. Many of them are actually a bit more complex and inspired than turning some stones with pictures of little animals on them (i.e. actual puzzles). You’ll have to think outside the box and use your environment in order to solve many of these. I actually got stumped on one of them for a bit.

Speak quickly, outlander.

As for player-oriented features, Morrowind’s chitin and bonemold armors return as well as Bloodmoon’s stalhrim weapons and armor. Each set is a fantastic reimagining that serves to please both the fanboys looking for their Morrowind fix and the Skyrim vets simply looking for more variety. Also, Nordic Carved Armor, mmmm yummy… you’ll know what I am talking about when you see it. There are also plenty of new magic items including armor sets with unique enchantments you won’t find anywhere else. Aside from fat lute, Dragonborn adds new spells, dragon shouts, alchemical ingredients, exploding spider bombs, player housing, new followers/“pets”, new spouses, powers, and more.

Am I forgetting something? Oh yeah, dragon riding. It sucks. I didn’t have high hopes for it to begin with, but once you finally mount up on your first dragon get ready to be underwhelmed. You can’t actually control the dragon other than telling it what to attack. If there are no hostiles in the area it’ll just fly in circles until you land or fast travel somewhere. You can cast spells while flying on it, but it doesn’t work very well. Unless you’re doing it for the achievement I’d pass on this entirely.

Having gotten this far discussing Dragonborn it’s a bit surprising I haven’t mentioned the quests or story yet. Well, that’s likely because unlike Dawnguard—in which most of its content was tied into the main narrative—Dragonborn is very much like the game that spawned it. Dragonborn is more about exploring Solstheim and continuing your character’s grand adventure in an alien land than it is about the central conflict. The story is there however, and while the main questline is brief there are plenty of other questlines available for players to discover for themselves.

The main plotline was interesting enough but it did suffer from the same issues many of Skyrim’s other storylines suffer from, albeit with some more interesting characters. The main villain is just some douche with no clear motivation that the player needs to kill, and the explanation for some of the plot points felt very convenient and uninspired. As always, Bethesda’s great at lore but sketchy when it comes to actual narratives.

The shamanistic Skaal haven’t really changed all that much in the last 200 years.

As I mentioned above some of the characters do in fact leave a bit of an impression (surprising, I know). Raven Rock and the Skaal village have NPCs that are a bit more fleshed out than you’ll see on the mainland, but most of this expansion’s personality comes from the Telvanni questline. A familiar Telvanni wizard from Morrowind (whose name I will not spoil here) steals the show with his obscene levels of snobbery and total disregard for the wellbeing of others. His questline is also very reminiscent of the absurdity present in the House Telvanni questline in Morrowind. Hermaeus Mora also plays an interesting role in the story of Solstheim, though he may have acted a bit… too direct at times. He’s always struck me as the kind of daedric prince that’d stick to the shadows and influence the mortal world by manipulating his followers, but in Dragonborn he doesn’t practice the same level of discretion he has in previous TES games.

The final point to touch on here is that of Dragonborn’s soundtrack. Nostalgia overload! A few Morrowind tracks return that feel so… right while playing this add-on. Considering Jeremy Soule’s been composing music for the franchise since Morrowind it fits right in with the original soundtrack. I just wish those tracks played while playing the vanilla content. There also seem to be a few new tracks as well that sounded spectacular. As always, Soule’s outdone himself.

Dragonborn is very much the expansion people have been waiting for since Skyrim’soriginal release. Many were disappointed in Dawnguard’s apparent lack of content, but I can say without a shadow of a doubt that Dragonborn is the Shivering Isles of Skyrim. You don’t have to be a Morrowind or Bloodmoon fan to appreciate the work Bethesda’s put into this add-on. Simply put, this is the expansion we’ve been waiting for.

The Dragonborn add-on is now available on Xbox 360 for $20 and is said to be released for PC and PS3 early 2013.

Like or hate the review? Share your insight here or on the Escapist!

Marvel vs. Capcom Origins Review

Marvel vs. Capcom Origins Review

It seems every old arcade hit these days is getting the XBLA/PSN treatment and it’s nice to see Capcom’s classic fighters are no exception. Marvel vs. Capcom Origins is a 2-in-1 piece of fighting game history that any fan of the franchise would be privy to try their hand at. Neither of the included games may have the roster of MvC 2 or the flash of MvC 3, but both have their own unique charms that make them memorable fighters in their own right.

“I Now Hold Omnipotence”

The older of the two games, Marvel Super Heroes, was released in 1995 with a roster of 6 playable heroes and 4 villains (excluding secret characters). Based loosely off of the story of Marvel’s famed The Infinity Gauntlet storyline, MSH pits a somewhat reasonable assortment of heroes and a strange collection of villains against each other in a gambit to wrest the all-powerful Infinity Gauntlet from the clutches of Thanos. Unlike many of the other titles in the Marvel vs. Capcom franchise MSH only allows you to play one fighter at a time. This may be a turn-off for some fans of the franchise as it is known for 3-on-3 clusterfucks of action, but I felt the standard 1-on-1 setup was a refreshing change of pace for this brand of fighter.

Lightning + Adamantium Skeleton = Ouch

While it may not have the enormous amount of team combinations featured in other MvC games, MSH suffers no loss in depth due to its dynamic Infinity Gem system that adds an extra layer of complexity to combat outside of health bars and super gauges. At the beginning of a match (usually) each player will have a small assortment of gems on them that they can activate in the midst of combat to give them temporary boosts. The gems: power, mind, soul, time, reality and space each grant their own buffs to characters and many of them affect the characters in different ways. When activating the “power” gem for example, Spider-Man attacks his foes with a mirror-self that flanks the opponent while Psylocke makes two clones of herself for some air-combo insanity.

Though the roster is small, each of the characters and their respective stages/themes work well together and ultimately make the game feel like a true Marvel video game (albeit from the 90’s). It’s not without the obvious pitfalls of an older fighting game however. I played it with both a 360 controller D-pad and an arcade stick and found that the commands lack in accuracy compared to most modern fighters. Trying to do simple inputs for supers seems to fail more often than not and the infinity gems occasionally refuse to activate. The AI is a mother fucker to say the least in this game. In true fighting game fashion the AI is garbage with some characters and godlike with others. Just hope you don’t fight Spider-Man late into the arcade mode. Seriously, fuck Spider-Man. Also, don’t go into this game thinking it’s a legitimately balanced and competitive game. It’s a fighter from the 90’s. Take what you can get and have fun with it.

Marvel Super Heroes is not the best MvC game Capcom’s ever produced, but the gem system puts an interesting twist on a traditional formula. I don’t know, I just really love the gem system for some reason. I guess it helps that I am a huge fan of the source material…

“The Crossover Battle Returns!”

The first true “Marvel vs. Capcom” game and the game that earned the franchise its namesake, Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes, is a great fighter with a weird roster and some really nutty mechanics. Similar to its more widely-played successors, MvC allows you to play two characters in tag-team combat and randomly assigns you a third assist character that you can summon to attack your foe. Strangely, on the Marvel-side these assist characters are almost exclusively X-Men characters. MvC’s story is virtually non-existent and doesn’t really play to any established stories in Marvel or Capcom canon. Onslaught’s shown up to fuck some dudes up and the Capcom characters are there for some reason… whatever, let’s just fucking fight! Crossover! Yeah!

It’s hard to block two enemies at once!

While MvC pioneered a lot of the ideas its successors are known for it does have one gameplay mechanic that separates it from other entries in the franchise. “Duo Team Attacks” allow you to tag-in your second character for some multi-fighter action reminiscent of professional wrestling where they just go off and say, “fuck the rules”! If your opponent triggers a duo team attack in response you suddenly have four fighters cramped into a small area beating the ever-loving shit out of each other. I guess you could say this game was the precursor to Super Smash Bros. and Power Stone.

The roster is full of odd choices, though I’d say Capcom’s side is guiltier of this than Marvel’s. Hey, at least this game actually has Mega Man! Capcom be troll’n. Aside from that there really isn’t all that much to complain about in this game. The AI isn’t overtly cheap (although Onslaught is obnoxious) and the commands feel much tighter and more reliable than in Marvel Super Heroes. In fact I’d say MvC is a much more solid fighter experience than its successors Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes. MvC 2 may have a much larger cast and 3-on-3 action going for it, but MvC just seems far more balanced and thoughtfully put together. MvC 2‘s huge cast is kind of a detriment as it almost feels like a MUGEN game if you go back and play it.

At the end of the day Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes is a solid fighter with some really fun mechanics. So long as you can get over the limited and somewhat questionable roster choices you’re in for a treat.

The Whole Package

As a whole package there really isn’t much to talk about. It’s got online play of course, though I wouldn’t go in expecting it to be very balanced by any means. The pan-title unlock system has much to be desired, but there’s only so much you can ask of a $15 re-release. The achievement tracking system is really neat though and I find it actively affecting my play style. Anything that subtly forces you out of your comfort zone in a fighting game is a good thing in my mind. Both games also look great remastered and can be set to widescreen, so that’s a plus.

So yeah, at a $15 price point Marvel vs. Capcom Origins is a great addition to any fan’s collection and a quirky title for those unfamiliar with the franchise to check out. Having played both games when they came out in the 90’s I would say they stand up to the test of time as being fun fighters, but they are by no means in the same league as their modern counterparts in regards to balance and competitiveness.

Marvel vs. Capcom: Origins is available on XBLA and PSN. Go get it!

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Torchlight II Review

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Persona 4 Review: I Will Find the Truth!

Persona 4 Review: I Will Find the Truth!

 Persona 4 has got to be the most pleasant enigma of a game I have ever had the privilege of playing. This quirky game is very much its own thing, splicing several different gameplay elements together—some of which tie directly into the narrative—in a way that not only creates a varied and unique experience, but also makes every little decision (or indecision) matter. Persona 4’s strange hodgepodge of gameplay styles work well, though the meta-game does have a bit of a learning curve that may leave you regretting mistakes you made early in your playthrough.  Did I mention the game is roughly 100 hours long? Some longtime JRPG connoisseurs may be used to this kind of trek, but my love/hate relationship with the JRPG genre has prevented me from experiencing such a lengthy narrative up to this point. Honestly though… I wish it had lasted longer!

Persona 4 was one of the final big titles released exclusively on the Playstation 2 back in 2008, but despite outdated graphics (which the superb art direction compensates for) the game seems brand new. Many of the gameplay systems it utilizes will feel familiar to anyone who has played those genres before, but each has its own spin that make it feel uniquely… Atlus. Person 4 is part of a long heritage of similar titles under the “Shin Megami Tensei” family of games. The basic premise of these games generally involves people with the special ability to summon monsters, heroes and deities of various mythos and folk lore to battle whatever foe may be ruining the protagonist’s day. At its core these games are JRPGs and Persona 4 is no different.

Where Persona 4 stands out, and the main reason I fell in love with this game, is that it flawlessly interweaves the narrative with the mechanics of its various gameplay systems. Things that happen in the story impact the gameplay in a direct way and vice versa. The best example of this, and arguably the most important system within the game (apart from leveling yourself and your Personas), is the Social Link system. Basically there are several characters, both party members and NPCs, that you can form special bonds with. As you grow closer to those characters you (or in some cases they) become more powerful in various ways. But hold on now, all this talk of story meshing with gameplay means nothing if you don’t have a clue what the story’s about!

“I Reach Out to the Truth”

I would argue that the single most important element of any story-oriented RPG is the story itself. Story is what they focus on and what they generally do well, after all. In this sense Persona 4delivers in fucking spades. The plot is that of a mystery that has the entire town of Inaba quite literally glued to their TV screens. Gossip is the name of the game and rumors of a mysterious “Midnight Channel” begin to circulate around town. When a mysterious fog sets in on this innocent rural town, bodies start appearing and the police don’t have any answers… that is, until the biggest badass in JRPG protagonist history takes the case!

Igor is a creepy mother fucker.

The protagonist, in my case affectionately named “Rufio Alfonzo” (Rufio-kun just sounds hilarious to me), is not your typical JRPG protagonist. He is a quiet and incredibly stable high schooler sent from the big city to live with his uncle and cousin in the small town of Inaba while his parents are overseas on business. While Inaba is painted as your average, run-of-the-mill Japanese boonies, it becomes apparent from the get-go that there is more going on than anyone would care to admit. This is evident from the fact that the protagonist is bombarded by strange visions and dreams as soon as he shows up. Invited to the “Velvet Room,” an inter-dimensional limousine complete with a tarot card enthusiast and a hot blonde, the protagonist learns that he is of the “Fool” arcana and has the power of the “Wild Card,” allowing him to do all sorts of neat stuff that you other normos aren’t cool enough to do. Oh, and he can also jump inside the “TV World” and kick the shit out of baddies… though as to why he can do that—well, that’s a part of the mystery!

A great set-up, really. Empowered badass fish out-of-water comes to a small town with a dark secret and uncovers a nefarious mystery that has the fate of the town’s residents in its hands.  But there is a whole lot more to the plot than a super-cool protagonist and a grand mystery. While the broader themes are critiques on Japanese society and human nature as a whole, Persona 4 manages to pull off a very personal story among all of the big ideas. You make a lot of friends in this game. No, I mean it. Persona 4 has some of the most relatable and memorable characters I have ever encountered in any game. The game manages to pull off the clichéd message of “unconditional love/friendship is the most powerful force in the universe” trope we’ve become all too familiar with in anime and JRPGs without it being cheesy or forced. I really did grow attached to these characters both in-and-out of game and when the chips were down the game had legitimately convinced me that we could pull through as comrades… and as friends.

The mystery itself was very well done, and while it holds your hand early on making it somewhat easy to call some of the twists, you reallyneed to pay attention to the story in this game. Not in the sense that it is hard to understand, but you need to analyze the mystery as if you were one of characters, lest you fuck up and get the bad ending!  And when shit hits the fan in this game it hits hard! If you want to uncover the truth you need to think outside the box. You need to consider every detail, every event, every relationship you have formed, the mechanics of the game itself and even its presentation style. The way this game can fuck with your head is a tribute to the spectacular writers of this game.

Teddie, the troll.

And it’s not without its humor. True, some of the humor in this game may come off as distinctively “Japanese,” but it is in large part a very funny game. From Teddie’s terrible puns, to the joke-glasses gag, to all of the social gatherings that end up as awkward teenage fiascos, I was red in the face quite a few times. With that said this game also has emotionally draining low points. I grew incredibly attached to some of the characters and seeing them suffer came with some painful moments. But the game manages to bounce back from these moments, which is ultimately what this story does best: bittersweet, powerful moments of loss, acceptance and triumph. There is a formula to how the plot flows that will leave you with déjà vu quite a few times as the story progresses, and while these scenes play out in a rather predictable fashion they are powerful nonetheless.

Ultimately the story is that of friendship and discovery. The “truth” is something the protagonist and his friends are striving for from beginning to end and when the pieces fall into place and the mystery unfolds… you will feel damn good about yourself. Persona 4 preaches that you can’t go it alone and you won’t want to once you get to know these characters. You’ll want them with you when you figure out who the bad guy is and punch them in their no-good face!

“Pursuing My True Self”

 That’s enough about the story. If I go on any longer I will spoil it! Well, we’ll get back to that when I detail how the story and gameplay complement each other, and for that I suppose I have to explain how this game plays. As I stated before, Persona 4 melds several gameplay systems into one cohesive experience. Basically the game is broken up into individual days which, depending on what is going on in the story, may be completely taken up by story bits. More often than not, however, you will be able to choose what you do with your day. This can range from spending time with friends to increase your Social Links (more about that later), grinding your mental skills, fishing, going to work, doing side quests, or jumping into the TV to save people from the evil shadows that inhabit the TV world.

Travel around town to talk to people and prove how much of a baller you are.

This is the overarching system that dictates pretty much everything you do in the game. You can try your best to plan your days ahead, but as with real life you will have to deal with bad weather and other people’s schedules. Balancing all of these things is essential to succeed in this game and it can be frustrating at times, but rewarding when you accomplish certain goals. Unless you’re following a guide (you dirty cheaters) you will not be able to complete everything there is to do, but you can still experience a vast majority of the game’s content if you don’t optimize your day-to-day. Living the protagonist’s life day-after-day can get monotonous, but is strangely addictive.

The meat of the gameplay is, of course, in the combat. While the party members you acquire over the course of the game have their own unique Personas (super-powered extensions of their ego basically, or super-cool dudes that inhabit your soul) the protagonist can summon a whole host of Personas ranging from the pathetic little Pixie to the mother fucking God of Thunder himself and, oh hey, fucking Lucifer.

474647-persona_4_mara_01

Mara is slang for ‘penis’ in Japanese. I wonder what the ‘Amulet of Mara’ would look like in this setting…

Collecting Personas is similar to Pokemon in a sense… if Pokemon had giant penises riding chariots. I am sure that’s one play on words that had American players scratching their heads. Occasionally you can play a little mini game after fights that, if you win, you get a new Persona! These Personas are automatically registered (assuming you didn’t already have one of that type) and can be re-summoned for a price if you ever replace them. The Persona system is very complex, so I won’t go into great detail, but giving some info on how they develop over the course of the game is vital. Like any JRPG you and your party members level after gaining enough experience. The difference between your party and you in this case is that while their Personas are static and represent their level, you level separately from your various Personas. In this sense and many others, it is vital to cycle through Personas by acquiring more powerful summons as the game progresses. The best way to do this is by fusing them together to form more powerful Personas.

The fusion process is the core of progression in this game and doing it correctly will yield some truly powerful Personas. It’s an incredibly fun system that makes much of the progression in the game a surprise. There are literally thousands of fusion combinations. This will likely be where the bulk of your cash will be spent by the end of the game. When fusing two or more personas together to make a new one, they can inherit abilities that the former personas had. This creates an enormous time sink for those of us who want to make the best Personas possible. Why is that, you ask? Well, you can’t simply pick which abilities you want them to inherit; it randomly picks which abilities they will inherit based on some sadistic algorithm. Oh yeah, you can re-roll, but good luck getting the three or so abilities you want on a Persona that is pulling 3-8 abilities from up to 6 different Personas. I’m getting a headache just thinking about it. If you aren’t a perfectionist like me (or my girlfriend) this should not be a big deal for you, however. I suppose it is kind of worth it once you get some God-mode Personas though.

But enough about meta-gaming nonsense; how does the actual combat work? Well, it’s pretty basic JRPG turn-based combat with a few twists. Your success in combat depends on your understanding and use of ally/enemy strengths and weaknesses, how you form your party and how you play the protagonist. While your allies mostly fill niche roles, you being the “Wild Card” can fill any role the party requires. This leads to a whole plethora of play styles that are fun to try out. I ended up using totally different party set-ups and protagonist roles pretty much every boss fight, which in good ol’ JRPG fashion, don’t fuck around. This game has some truly brutal boss fights that keep you on your toes the entire time. Do not go into a boss fight without full HP and SP dammit! It is suicide!

‘All-Out Attacks’ are extremely powerful attacks that can only be used under certain conditions.

As for normal enemy combat, well there is a whole lot of it, but it doesn’t feel as grindy when you are constantly introduced to new foes. Every time you encounter a new enemy it is wise to figure out their strengths and weaknesses, which adds life to what would otherwise be a mindless grind to the top floor of the dungeon. The “Rush” function helps here as well. It is a mode you can toggle that makes you and your party members auto-attack continuously in fast-forward. It goes a long way to alleviate some of the grind inherent in JRPGs like this one. Speaking of grinding, the dungeons themselves are pretty static, boring endeavors with occasional puzzles thrown in. Running down identical corridors for several hours isn’t exactly inspired, but thankfully you spend more time in actual combat than running around with your dick in your hand.

When you’re not dungeon diving there is plenty to do in the real world. The fishing mini game is fun, but only really necessary a select few times in the game. You’ll spend most of your time in the normal world improving your Social Links and you mental skills. Your mental skills are broken down into 5 categories: Courage, Knowledge, Expression, Understanding and Diligence. These skills dictate many aspects of the game, most notably Social Links. There are various ways to improve these skills and learning how to maximize your gain and minimize the time spent on them will go a long way in making you a well-rounded BAMF. During the daytime you may occasionally have questions asked from teachers or friends which will improve certain skills (usually Knowledge) if you answer correctly. You have my permission to Google these answers… it is very apparent that many of them are intended for a Japanese audience. Make sure you do well on your exams so everyone knows how much of a badass you are!

 “Trapped in a Maze of Relationships”

I felt the Social Links aspect of the game required its own section for explanation, because honestly, it is a whole lot more than a social simulator and is what’s ultimately responsible for melding the gameplay and story together. The way the protagonist’s power works as it is described in the story is that, through the social links you form with others, your ego grows and your ability to command certain Personas is enhanced. It is important in this regard to consider how you spend your time during each day so you can maximize the effectiveness of the Personas you want to use.

Getting downed is a serious disadvantage. Thankfully conditions can be cured in a number of ways, including having a party member of a certain S. Link rank.

All of your party members are Social Links and gain additional benefits on top of those you would normally get from increasing their S. Link. It is wise to prioritize party members so that you can get the full benefit of having them in your party. Some of the benefits they get are… pretty fucking awesome, I’ll just leave it at that. The Social Links are at the center of the meta-game and play off of every other system in the game. Mental skills determine how far you can progress in S. Links, while increased S. Links improve your Personas and potentially unlock better Personas, etc. etc. You get the idea.

Trying to max them out is an interesting combination of wanting to get the character’s entire story and racing to increase your effectiveness in battle before the timer runs out. Though what I find truly great about the Social Links is that they all tell a unique tale separate from the main plot. Each story explores different themes and displays some amazing characterization. However, some are definitely more interesting than others and a few of the characters are easy to hate. I kind of think of it like the loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2, some are incredible while others are… meh.

Social Links may be where gameplay and story most obviously intercept, but it is not the only place the game does this. However, breaking down how everything plays off each other would spoil the fun for those who haven’t played the game for themselves. Vaguely put, many aspects of the game play off of one another in both straightforward and mysterious ways. Some important moments teeter atop the fourth wall and require that you not only pay attention to the plot, but also to the game’s mechanics and systems. When you get too familiar with how the game works it might try to pull a fast one on you. Here’s some advice: pay attention to the details, treat every bit of information the game feeds you with scrutiny, and don’t let any question go unanswered.

Persona 4 is a damn good mystery story and has a fun RPG system to complement it. It has some hiccups here and there, but doesn’t fall into many of the same pitfalls others in the genre do. If you have around 100 hours to waste on one game I highly recommend you waste them on this one. Persona 4 is currently available on the Playstation 2 and an enhanced version of the original game is coming to the PS Vita November 20th in the US.

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Oh yeah one more thing! As if I haven’t given this game enough praise… the soundtrack is fucking awesome. While watching my girlfriend play this game I asked, “How the hell do they get away with lyrics in their normal combat music? Wouldn’t that get super annoying after awhile?” After playing it myself I can honestly say no, not really. I have no idea how that’s possible, but there it is.

(Disclaimer: Some of the screenshots used are from the Persona 4 anime as they offered better picture quality than I could find anywhere else online. Same cut-scene quality more or less.)

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