Monday, May 13, 2013

What I'm Playing, Mid-May '13

at 5:29 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

I intended to do this in the last week of April as a month-summary, but I'm now half a month behind, have finished some of the games I started then, and don't exactly remember the difference between April 31st and May 1st. So, as ever, this is really just "what I've started/finished since the last time I did this feature". Oh shit! It's Monday the 13th! What is this, bizarro world?

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Retro Game Challenge (DS)

I've already talked quite a bit about this one, so there shouldn't be much need for introductions. As per usual, this wasn't a 100% completion - I made it through the challenges, but that didn't entail visiting every last nook and cranny of Challenge. This is a fantastic game, especially considering how completely off-guard I was caught. Challenge set out to make games that feel classic, not old, like homages, not knock-offs. This is a path laden with pitfalls, as many wannabe-retro games overstep their bounds in trying to "upgrade" classics, in the process destroying what originally made the games worthwhile. RGC doesn't do anything that would feel out of place in the '80s, and while that leaves its games vulnerable to the same flaws that ran rampant back in the day, it allows us to evaluate them from that baseline. They don't demand comparison to every other game in 2013.

Crimson Shroud (3DS eShop)

Shroud is an awesome little mini-RPG from Yasumi Matsuno that throws back to pen-and-paper, dice-and-figurine tabletop role-playing. This nostalgia angle was meaningless to me, but I got a lot of mileage out of the superbly balanced turn-based combat. As a matter of fact, this is one of very few turn-based game of which I could say that I would return for the combat alone. Every character has a huge variety of abilities, every ability has a unique function, there's a combo mechanic to reward macro-strategy, and battles are lengthy standalone affairs. The entire seven-hour game probably only had about 20 enemy encounters. Maybe less. And there's no stupid experience points, thank god!
The rigid character-figurines have a certain charm in the way they hop, spin, and topple, providing a coherence to the art-style similar to Paper Mario. In a lesser game, I'd be perfectly content with this faithfully executed vision, but Shroud sits so close to greatness that this presentation comes across more like a lack of ambition and (obviously) budget-cutting strategy. With character concepts this solid (pardon me for loving the look of Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII) and battles so expertly crafted, a few flashy attack and spell animations to keep my eyes dazzled would threaten to elevate Crimson Shroud to the sublime. In some sense it's neat to see what my brain comes up with in the absence of visual stimuli, but more often than not I simply zone out and the game becomes nothing but number-crunching. It'd be a neat experiment elsewhere, but come on - we only get a Yasumi Matsuno game every seven years, and the least they could do is take it to the maxxx.

Games Started:

Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360)

This is a Rockstar Game through and through, chocked full of pointless subplots, cynical worldviews, tedious gameplays, nonexistent difficulty, garbage interfaces, and terrible never-played-a-game-before controls. It's also drop-[red]-dead gorgeous, perhaps the most stunning realistic-graphics game I've ever seen. It's sad to see such a crappy game overlaid on what had the potential to be the best realization of the Wild West this side of ever, but I've yet to count it out completely. The gunplay is fun and there are some promising hints of adventure elements - hunting wildlife to collect pelts, side quests (versus typical open-world side missions, which lock you into an objective and don't let you don anything else til it's been completed), an economy - so I can't discard it out of hand. Let's remember that I somehow made it through Max Payne 3, and this is the same third-person-shooting in a far superior architecture. And heck, I'm a sucker for poker minigames.

Mark of the Ninja (XBLA)

This is the last one I'm writing and boy are my arms tired. Mark is off to a good start by emphasizing platforming over stealth - realizing that stealth is a modifier to existing gameplay, not an interesting driving challenge in and of itself. Mark is all about navigation, requiring ninja-like dexterity to pull off stealth tactics.

Just Cause 2 (Xbox 360)

I dunno I bought this because it was on sale for $10 and I've only heard good things and it's supposed to be about open world exploding and so were Red Faction: Guerilla and Prototype, which I really liked, but so far it blows. Why are the controls so bad. Why is the jump so sluggish and awkward. I dunno. It could turn around. My hopes have at this point jumped off a cliff.

Games Finished:

Zeno Clash (XBLA)

I started Zeno Clash what seems like an age ago, back when I was writing about FPBs (first-person brawlers) on my personal website. The brawling is mechanically solid and diverse, offering fair competition to top FPBs like Red Steel 2, but it's the art and story that stick around in your head once the credits roll. The setting is bizarrely gorgeous, conjuring a sort of prehistory-gone-wrong: what if mammals weren't the only ones to evolve into humanoids? The atmosphere is overwhelming, supported by freaky instrumental music and grotesque visual details like a beached whale with teeth on the outside of its mouth. The only gripe I have about the audio-visual presentation is that it could use a few more musical tracks. While the main 'creepy' background piano piece is beautifully unsettling, repeating it for 2/3 of the game detracts from its effect.

Something that should be a complaint but somehow isn't is the HORRENDOUS voice acting. It's so weird and bad, like none of the readers can speak English or understand their lines (this is possible - the game was developed by a Chilean indie team). A great deal of the voices are also supplemented by a handful of electronic effects. My sole complaint here is the same as for the music - for such a short game with only a dozen or so characters, should I really be hearing the same voice actor playing so many parts (in the same voice, no less)?

More on Zeno Clash later though. Very clever game. Grab it now if you haven't already - it's on Steam too.

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