Friday, June 14, 2013

What I'm Playing, Majune '13 (Pt.2)

at 4:39 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

Let's finish this, you [expletive deleted] fuckheads. Here lies the rest of what I played in the second half of May and first half of June.

But first, a little investigative journalism. Which song is better: "L Dopa" or "Precious Thing"? Ooh, that's a tough one. No right answer there.

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Wario Land II (Game Boy / 3DS VC)

Basically, this is the twist - you don't see this until the end
Wario has never reached quite the Nintendo stardom he deserves, first and foremost because his main series lived mostly on handhelds. But the same can be said for Pokemon, and Pikachu was famous enough to earn a crossover with Nobunaga's Ambition. Perhaps Wario sequels would be demanded with the same fervor as Star Fox and F-Zero if he hadn't peripherally been kept alive through the virtually unrelated WarioWare micro-game slop. Then again, I'm not sure Nintendo could sustain yet another line of 2D platformers - they're still juggling Mario, Kirby, DKC, Mega Man, Yoshi, Pokemon Snap, Gran Turismo, and Gran Turismo 2.

Wario Land II is where the fat man really hits his wobble, the previous game being more of a Mario Jr. (as suggested by its prefix, Super Mario Land 3). It's not until II that the visuals take on their trademark cartoonery (this unassuming Game Boy title has far more personality than many 16-, 32-, and cu-bit counterparts) and the design starts to rely heavily on puzzles and weird abilities. There are a lot of lessons to be learned just from the use of enemies here.

The game has a Super Mario World-esque wealth of hidden content - I imagine most players, like myself, will first reach the credits and scratch their head to find their completion rate was only 50%. At this point the game pulls back the curtain and reveals its secret stage-map, providing a much needed clue to uncovering all its content. I'll admit I have not yet delved into what is essentially a Second Quest's worth of new material, so it's a bit of a stretch to claim I'm "finished" with the game. However, I was also driven to kick someone's brain off when I witnessed (after wasting 20 minutes and a youtube search) how deviously hidden are the secret stages.

Games Started:

Ys: Oath in Felghana (PC)

This is a remake of Ys III in the style of modern PSP/Steam Yss like VI and Origins. That means it's a top-down isometric hack-and-slash with minimal RPG elements, orchestral musical arrangements, and fleshed-out story. It reminds me of the non-farming portions of the Rune Factory series. I'm working on a Let's Play of this one, so you'll have to tune into the videos for further commentary.
Prepare to be seeing a whole lot more of this.

Saints Row: The Third (Xbox 360)

I've been seeking an open-world destroy-everything game and last month made the mistake of wasting money on the stultifying Just Cause 2. Instead I should've been looking to the further works of former Red Faction developers, Volition - in particular, Saints Row: The Third. I had brushed off Row 3 when I first read about it, understanding it as yet another Grand Theft Auto 3 redux with a comedy gimmick. While Sleeping Dogs has tired me of city driving, Row 3 at least sports a world-class engine that permits and encourages the insane and reckless stunts which would have been out of place in Dogs' gritty cop-story. That's to be expected, as the Red Faction games excelled at physics. Plus it offers tanks, helicopters, jets, and VTOLs if you don't feel like driving. Row 3's shooting has the visceral, impactful, and decidedly violent feel that Volition seems to do well. I can't exactly put my finger on why, but tearing through a mob with a submachine gun is simply far more fun here than it is in Max Payne 3. Maybe it's that it's not really cover shooting, but more a firepower cock-fight.

God forbid I mention it, but the game also wields a decided sex appeal. The female character models in Row 3 look... uh... really nice. And playing dress up (or dress down, as it were) leads to some satisfying results. It's equal opportunity, too. Meaning that if you prefer to play as a shirtless, chiseled dude, there's a meter that lets you crank up the size of his junk.

Games Finished:

DmC: Devil May Cry (Xbox 360)

Hey, Dante gets white hair at the end! Why do I care about this? Spoiler warning I guess? It signifies the transformation of his character from aimless rebel protecting the human race to white-haired aimless rebel protecting the human race.
Let's talk collectibles for a second, since I've already dedicated a post to story and future-dedicated a post to combat. Wait I changed my mind, let's talk platforming. Tangentially related to collectibles, since collectibles don't work in a game without some kind of interesting navigatory mechanic. One of the sleeper hits of DmC - and I think it was a sleeper even to the devs - is the grappling hook(s)-driven platforming. Like the combat, Dante's traversal techniques are so complex and overwrought that they actually wrap back around to be interesting. He's got a double jump, three kinds of air dash, a blue grappling hook that works like the Hookshot, and a red grappling hook that works like "Get over here!". The fun of the platforming is being caught midair saying "shit shit shit which do I use?!". Failure triggers something more like familiarization that memorization - you've got enough time for each input that you just need to be vaguely aware of what is coming to be able to pull it off. The floaty leeway between each move also means there's a difference between just making it and a badass perfect run. Frankly I'd play a game that was made up solely of this stuff, as I found the late-game climactic platforming gauntlet to be more exciting than the succeeding final boss battle.

Wrapping back to collectibles - they're handled quite nicely through the use of an ambient audio cue. "Hidden" items in 3D games are a can of worms because of camera abstraction - what's hidden to the camera may not necessarily be hidden in the environment. This isn't a problem in 2D, because there's no distinction between environment and perspective (or at least it's minimal). I'm not going to get into which games do it right (Super Mario 64) and which do it wrong (ugh) right here and now, but DmC comes up with an elegant little solution to circumvent the problem entirely - overtly tell the player when a collectible is nearby. Now before we dish out too much undue credit, let's note that 3D Marios do the exact same thing (stars make a telltale tinkling sound) and at least Skies of Arcadia did too, but that doesn't make it any less welcome. These cues mean that the player can naturally explore environments without worrying that the camera is missing anything, and it means that the developers can't get away with hiding an item in plain sight - at the very least they have to use alternate paths, and in the best cases they use platforming puzzles.

As if the uniquely pleasant platforming and camera-stress-free collection weren't enough, DmC throws one more bone onto the bonus content fire: challenge rooms. As did Donkey Kong Country before it, DmC  packs each stage with one to three hidden bonus rooms, rewarding diligent exploration with a spot of fresh gameplay.  All of this bonus content is thankfully tracked by a menu screen that lets you know how much you've done and how much is left to be done in each stage. Perhaps it's all in my head, but the whole experience has a really nice, delightfully old-school feel to it. The only downside - and sadly there is a downside - is that these stages are far too long to casually jump into for completionist runs. DKC and SM64 stages took five minutes from beginning to end, so it wasn't much to ask you to play them over and over looking for that one last macguffin. While the saving grace of DmC is that levels are usually free-roam (and enemies don't respawn), said levels can take anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes to complete. If you find yourself at the end of a half-hour-long stage, still missing one of fifteen collectibles, you're likely to give up for the night - and possibly forever. So take it with a grain of salt - the collectibles are there and well-designed for the 100%-seeking player, but you'll need to be committed to catch-'em-all.

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