Friday, December 19, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 12/7/14: Mighty Final Fight

at 3:12 PM
Everyone needs to let off a little steam sometimes. We here at GNG find that it helps to beat up as many people as possible at a regular interval. Luckily the video game medium has provided us with a safe, harmless environment in which to release our overflowing rage. That's why Golem and I are taking on one classic arcade-style beat-'em-up a week and bringing you this action-packed... questionnaire.

Game: Mighty Final Fight
Year: 1993
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platform: NES, GBA, 3DS VC, Wii U VC

Ah yes. Baby's first Final Fight. Up through the mid-1990s, Capcom was supporting the NES alongside the SNES with original games continuing familiar properties. Hence Mega Men 5 and 6, Disney games like Darkwing Duck, and our own Mighty Final Fight. This one takes the same characters and locations of the arcade hit and instead of pixelating down the artwork, replaces it with a super-deformed style not totally dissimilar to Technos' NES hits, River City Ransom and Double Dragon.

Though a contemporary of Final Fight 2, Mighty suffers the same shocking limitation as the original SNES port: no cooperative play. As such, I'll be "flying solo" for this particular WBEU.

So anyway. Can Mighty Final Fight translate the visceral thrills of second-wave beat-em-upping to the unfamiliar 8-bit world or capture the terse challenge of its NES brethren? Fight on and find out.

How is the game's aesthetic appeal?
Yourself: It's a late NES game, so of course it's pretty technically competent. There's no slowdown or clipping to speak of (uh, unless they were fixed in the VC version), and the sprites are more colorful and detailed than the standard fare. Still, the boring (if colorful) urban/industrial settings of Final Fight are really not very exciting to look at. The chibi look captures a sillier side of familiar characters, but it is honestly a bit hard for me to look at these visuals and not wish I was just seeing the arcade Final Fight.

The music strikes a similar balance: it's well made and chipper, but none of the songs are particularly interesting beyond a beepy hook.

How was the control and move variety?
Yourself: The basic moveset is bog-standard: walk, jump, punch; if you really feel like it jump-kick. Touch to grapple is here but dashing isn't. As with the older, wiser Finals Fight, combos have what I guess you could call a long suspension time. That is to say, in both this and Streets of Rage, if you push attack three times quickly, your character will jab twice then uppercut. In Streets of Rage, if you stutter (or move) for a split second between button presses, your character will repeatedly jab, never moving past the first attack of the combo. In Mighty Final Fight, you can jab twice, hold off for almost a full second, then attack again to get your uppercut. This serves two purposes: 1.) it lets you re-position mid-combo or stun an enemy on one side of you while quickly knocking another down, and 2.) it prevents the player from infinitely chaining their quick jab which stuns the enemy without knocking them down or back.

Sorry, this game is so boring to write about I figured I'd get technical. Also, there is a level up system similar to Double Dragon's - kill enough enemies to gain a level which increases health. I think special moves are unlocked each level, but honestly I only figured out how to do one (with Guy): hold right while comboing to get a less useful two-hit kick combo. I noticed not every enemy gave me the same amount of experience, which seems cool, but I couldn't figure out what was affecting that. Didn't seem to be strings of flawless kills. 

How is the player character variety?
Yourself: Variety is one of Final Fight's strong suits, with the ever-popular town boyar Dan Haggar providing grappling mixups the likes of which Streets of Rage never dreamed. Mighty Final Fight sorta has that. We've got all three fan favorite dudes: the fast-walkin fast-punchin Guy spews out fists of fury that provide a wide cover window, Hagrid walks so slowly I couldn't even play as him, and Cody is your regular middleman. Enemies have so much health (like six to seven knock-downs worth of health) unfortunately that the power trade-off for Cody just isn't worth it when Guy is so much survive-worthier. I really couldn't play as Haggar. I made an honest effort and I lost three lives on the first level and the embarrassment just couldn't continue that way, which is sad, since in Main Final Fight I main final Haggar.

How is the pick-up variety?
Yourself: Oddly enough, the pick-ups are character specific. Once in a very great while (as in maybe 3 times in the course of the game) the player will be bombarded with angry barrels that if punched will yield tasty treats and a weapon or two. Cody gets his famous knife (an obvious Street Fighter IV nod), Haggar gets a sledgehammer (unfortunately giving a cold shoulder to his more famous pipe from Marvel vs. Capcom 3), and Guy gets shuriken because what else can a ninja do.

The sledgehammer is your pretty standard slammer with a fixed durability, while the shuriken provide 8ish projectiles with instant knockdown. Fittingly for Cody T. Balanced, the knife sits in between, useful for a few jabs or a single toss. The problem with the weapons is that there's no dynamism to their placement - each is so overpowered that it's basically a guaranteed kill against the next 3 or 4 enemies, but they only ever spawn in the same place in each level

How is the enemy variety?
Yourself: I think there are four enemies? Maybe five? There's the normal guy who just walks up to you and punches, a speedster who walks up to you quickly and punches, a woman with no distinguishably unique behavior, a knife guy who flips over you and throws knives, and a big dude who has longer reach. There is not a lot of depth to the individual foes and they behave 90% the same as each other. The big guy does a lot more damage, so he's at least a more serious risk. The knife guy is the most unique, as he seems to pace a bit to try to get you in his sights instead of mindless charging. He can also do a flip to cover a lot of ground and get behind you.

Oh, when I looked up screenshots I was reminded there's also a guy who blocks. The trick to him is grab don't punch. Which is already the trick to winning. He's like the enemy that tells you how to beat the game. 

How does combat work one-on-one?
Yourself: It is hard to honestly say. The fact is, enemies in this game are extremely easy to stun-lock, and after that they're extremely easy to wake-camp. Let's explain these semi-made-up terms, since they help elucidate what makes combat games work.

"Hitstun" is the term for the period of inactivity in the recipient of an attack after the attack lands. In Mighty Final Fight, every punch causes a short (~300ms) period of hitstun on an enemy. Though this is not true in every situation in every game, in Mighty Final Fight, a stunned enemy is vulnerable to another attack. "Stun-locking" is the activity of continually attacking the opponent while they are stunned to keep them in a stunned state. There are a lot of ways to counterbalance stun-lock, one of which being the forced third hit knockdowns I discussed above. When the enemy is knocked down, they're invulnerable for a moment and can get back up and get a new chance to attack.

Except not in Mighty Final Fight. That's where wake-camping comes in. "Wake-up" is the act of a character rising from a knockdown (usually invulnerable) state. Wake-up often grants a short period of invulnerability to allow the character to regain equal footing with their opponent. When there is no wake-up invulnerability, as in Mighty Final Fight, it is possible for the player to stand next to a downed opponent and attack just before they wake up, catching them in an attack before they have any chance to react. This can be called "wake-camping".

Because every enemy except bosses can be stun-locked and wake-camped until they die, the only challenges in Mighty Final Fight are landing a first hit and managing two foes at once. I'll get to the latter in a second. Landing a first hit is a simple timing affair. Often it's easiest just to approach an enemy from above or below and walk right into them for a grab - this shortcuts past their attacks. With everyone but the knife and big dude, Guy has a long enough punch to hit them from outside their range.

The problem with avoiding this tactic (as many beat-em-ups have cheese methods, like jump-kicking in Double Dragon) is that taking any damage at all, particularly in the later stages, is immediately damning. Recovery is so rare that if you take just a single punch from each enemy, you will run out of lives before the end of a stage. So the only way to win is flawlessly.

How are enemy groups formed?
Yourself: This is an NES game, so as they say on TV: "Three's a Crowd". And one of those three is you. So it's just two enemies at a time. In fact, unless it's the very last enemy in a round, I think there will always be exactly two opponents on screen. Like types are never paired, so even from the start you're always fighting a Regular with a Speedy. Of course, only 5 enemies means only 10 possible groupings, so, considering there are more than 10 fights in the game, there is a lot of repetition. Knife guys are kind of the only real threat, as they tend to keep their distance while you're trying to bug the other guy.

How does combat work against crowds?
Yourself: Continuing from above, what you're trying to do is get both of them into the same stun-lock wake-camp loop. As with most beat-em-ups, the player can attack two enemies at a time if they're both in range, so the strategy tends to be to get the two together. The best way to do this? Throw one at the other. This will knock both down and they'll land almost right next to each other. All you have to do from there is wake-camp both at once.

How is the stage variety?
Yourself: Very dry. All of the enemies have been introduced by Stage 2. Stage 4 doesn't even get its own boss. The only mixup in the mix is Stage 3, which has something so shocking I had to do a double take: pits. Yes, the gimmick feature from every single beat-em-up ever made, the one that was even in Renegade, is back for another round. The large pits that take up most of the walkway are admittedly probably the hardest part of the game, leaving very little room to maneuver. Knife guys in particular have an easy time knocking you in with one toss. Since it's possible to punch - but not grab - an enemy when they're partially off-screen, it is difficult to utilize the small space to throw enemies into the deep.

There are also occasional barrel parts (<1 per level) where steel drums roll in from the edges of the screen and you can punch them for a health item or weapon. There are even two bonus stages based around this minigame, where a high hit rate can grant an extra life or even a continue. 

How is the boss variety and how do boss fights generally work?
Yourself: There are four bosses here, all borrowed from Final Fight proper. I don't remember if Abigail was a muscley punk dude in the arcade game, but that felt weird. The first and last guys like to stay to the sides of the screen - the first bounces his way back and forth across and the final boss (as must, legally, every beat-em-up final boss) shoots a gun. Both can be defeated by the same trick: keep out of their horizontal plane to avoid their attacks and move in for a couple punches and a grab when they are recoiling.

Mass Effect fans can try their hand at talking their way out of fights!
The middle of this boss sandwich is composed of guys that pressure you and occasionally charge. Again, there's a simple trick for both: run away until they do their bull rush, then dodge and quickly get behind for a punch and a grab. Abigail in stage 3 is a bit harder than Samurai Dave in 2 just because s/he pressures more and I think charges faster. Stage 4 repeats both of these bosses, separately.

How is the learning curve and difficulty?
Yourself: Pretty much what you'd expect from such a low enemy game (see Burning Fight or Cadillacs and Dinosaurs for the closest comparison). Since you'll get plenty of one-on-one time with each new enemy, by the third or fourth conflict you'll have a pretty good sense of each's timing and range and exactly how to handle them. That is to say, by Stage 2 the enemy learning curve has ended. Perhaps knowingly, Stage 3 is your big "gimmick stage", so the challenge lasts one level longer, but 4 and 5 are a real drag.

Play again or recommend?
Yourself: This is about as solid a "pass" as you're going to get. I've never found myself a fan of the Capcom school and Mighty Final Fight does not improve on the formula - sparse enemy variety, redundant conflicts, and a bare-bones move set. Even a Capcom fanatic will find little to love, as the game is absent the iconic giant sprites, meaty stuttering combat, and 2-player shenanigans that make their games favorites. I guess for an NES Final Fight, Mighty is all you could expect - I just don't see why anyone (in 2014) needs an NES Final Fight. Try one of the dozens of SNES or arcade Capcom games if you really need a fix; even the lackluster Cadillacs and Dinosaurs is significantly more enjoyable than Mighty Final Fight.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What I'm Playing, November '14

at 5:38 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

Looks like Christmas has come early this year.

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Gargoyle's Quest II (NES / 3DS VC)

This is your pretty predictable midpoint for the Firebrand series, though as the name implies, it sits closer to Gargoyle's Quest than the more exploration-heavy Demon's Crest. Emphasis on boss fights is cranked up, as is skill selection, but the game is still a matter of linear platforming levels laid out on a linear RPG over-world.
The only way to beat a gargoyle is to be a gargoyle.
Sadly, that wraps up this series for me. I highly recommend the latter two games, and to anyone wanting more, the original works too. In fact I'm not sure it is all that sad - the games pretty cleanly ran the gamut of what you can do with Firebrand mechanics in a Metroid-meets-JRPG setting. It's not like many franchises get too great after the third entry without raising the question "what does this have to do with the series?" (e.g. Resident Evil 4). I'm not exactly grateful for the existence of Mega Mans X4-X8.

Mighty Gunvolt (3DS freeShop)

This half-game came for free with Azure Striker Gunvolt so I can't complain too seriously, but man does this feel like a half-game that came as a free pack-in bonus. The mechanics are Mega Man-lite (no weapon selection or power-ups), the gimmicks are directly imitated from ASG, and the level layouts are boring verging on trite. Every jump is painless, every enemy isolated to the point where there is only one supremely obvious solution to every conflict: wait til they shoot, jump, then shoot back. The boss fights are the best part, but only two are original (the rest are repeats from ASG). It's fun to see the Gunvolt characters rendered in NES style, but this is a demo reel, not a game.

Games Finished:

Wave Race 64 (N64 / Wii VC)

Still like the physics, still don't know what to do with the game. Perfecting time trials is a bit of fun and eliminates the arbitrary nature of the main competition. But it's so short on content. The racers aren't different enough or the courses dynamic enough that it feels worth playing through with everyone. I kinda feel like I'm already a pro.

Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360)

Can you say decompression? This game runs for about 15 hours past the climax, introducing a late game new-final-boss and then a huge denouement that returns to the basic herding and delivery tasks of the early chapters. The closest thing Redemption finds to a gameplay identity is the horse-riding, so it's a shame that so many horseback missions take the identical form of riding on a road while packs of enemies give chase. Herding cattle, rustling horses, and racing made the most use of varied and technical (but still very basic) skills, allowing the game to at least feel like something. Unfortunately those were not supremely fun activities, offering little payoff for challenge, so the game mostly gets by on the occasionally open-ended cover shooting.

Dueling is a great idea for building variety around shooting skills. Some greater depth built around weapon selection or enemy AI could've really sold this as more than a shallow minigame... alas.
There was one neat thing about cover shooters that occurred to me while playing Red Dead. Generally I hate any type of AI companions in a shooting game, as they add an element of unpredictability and don't let me turtle like I like to. Many such games (Gears of War, Spec Ops, Halo) use a regenerating health system that means if I take some hits I end up taking cover to recover and then my allies get all the kills. But that actually makes sense in providing a risk/reward challenge for the player: instead of pressure coming from depleting health or ammo reserves, the game creates pressure by gradually eliminating targets. Since getting to shoot guys is more important to me than survival, the impulse to push on and play aggressively is established through "helpful" allies.

This systems rewards skill without punishing lack of skill, adapting the gameplay to all levels of players. At the same time, because both the skilled and unskilled player will survive and complete the game, there is no direct feedback on how they're doing. Thus "helpful" allies would be best supplemented with a ranking/scoring system to fill in that missing info. Of course, Redemption is woefully lacking in any feedback on performance, being a forerunning member of the "games as cinema" rather than "games as games" school.

Spider-Man: Web of Shadows (Xbox 360)

This one had some good ideas not deserving of general comic book game skepticism. Entirely airborne (but still gravity-bound) combat is very cool, making maintaining air a key factor in combos. In a way, instead of jumping to platform, you're punching to platform.

Throughout the open world, hundreds of collectibles are placed in obvious but hard to reach locations to create swingforming challenges. The city evolves as the game progresses, incorporating new enemies and random events in each chapter, but the architecture remains static.

This game could've legitimized Spider-Man the same way Arkham Asylum did Batman. Unfortunately, loose controls, an asinine voice cast, and lazy writing nip that aspiration in the bud. The game's targeting and camera does not work nearly as well as it should, so pulling off a seamless combo generally requires luck or reliance on a small handful of long-range attacks. Even the swinging controls get hairy, with too many state-specific functions mapped to the right trigger. The controls can seem to lag or misread at times when the game doesn't yet register Spider-Man in the correct state to do a particular move.

Also, in the final two chapters the framerate gets awful (like 10fps swinging through the city). Kinda hard to excuse. 

Games Started:

Harvest Moon 2 (Game Boy Color / 3DS VC)

Never played a Harvest Moon proper - as a young lad I was never interested in games about farming and by the time I was an older lad Natsume had picked up on my young lad action needs and compensated with Rune Factory. But the Rune Factory series got real bad real fast when opaque story triggers (plant X flower on X square and water it at XPM on X day of the week) and awkward side systems (Runeys) became fundamental to the series. So, being more amenable to boring stuff these days, I decided it was time to turn back.
There was not a single Harvest Moon 2 screenshot on Google that depicted an actual field of crops
Harvest Moon 2 uses a very simple farming system with just a few crops and animals, but it also makes just harvesting a much bigger hassle than in Rune Factory. There's a lot of repetitive action picking every single crop individually and running back and forth from the field to the sale box. It's that laborious cycle moreso than profit margins that pushes me to optimize my field layout/harvest cycle. Maybe if it was too fun to water every square there wouldn't be any motivation to plant strategically.

One and Done:

Super Time Force (Xbox 360)

I played a demo for this game. The rewind-time mechanic that allows you to duplicate your character actually feels like a turn based orders system, like the alternating action of Valkyria Chronicles, Eternal Sonata, or Quest 64. On the "to buy" list.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Surviving The Evil Within, Chapter "Resident Evil" 4

at 6:00 PM
In the words of Shakespeare's MacBeth himself: Exeunt stealth. Here in Chapter 4 of The Evil Within we complete the transition from pure stealth to pure action, confronted with arena combat scenarios conquerable only by chopping down all foes and seeing that "GO-->" arrow appear. The particular combat scenarios on hand are almost impossibly reminiscent of Resident Evil 4 and my skills have made the transition surprisingly well.

So we pick up on our way out of Death Village, Population: 0. Dr. Nonsequitur keeps up his run by pointing to the building ahead and assuring me it's his long-lost brother's clinic, so we pop inside for a chat and hopefully a couple dogs grilled up real nice. I'd barely tied the strings on my Paul Stanley "KISS: The Cook" apron when the doc started insisting we find his brother. I said okay we save the dogs for later let's go. The brother, it turns out, is the kind of nerd that pulls out a dweeby Zombie Teddy Roosevelt every Halloween. He was also elbow-deep in some kinda hellish surgery even The Great Compromiser couldn't have approved. Something about itching. The guy had a nasty skin condition, to tell the truth. 

Upon discovering a Junior Mint in the surgical cavity, the bad doctor came at me with arms outstretched, sure I was the culprit. Fat Mama Joes like him take a lot of ammo to put down, so that little scripted encounter fully drained my handgun reserves (moral of the story - I need to be quicker to draw my shotgun when appropriate, otherwise I'm gonna end up relying on shells for easy encounters after wasting handgun rounds on tough ones). What really gets my goat is that after absorbing all those bullets, Teddy didn't even have the courtesy to stay down! Like a bad VCR, he glitched out and skipped back 30 seconds to his peaceful evil surgery observance. You know, this isn't the first time Evil Within's used video tracking as a scary effect. I'm starting to wonder if the whole game doesn't take place inside a VHS - a Video Haunted System. 

After TDR vanished into blue smoke, I noticed an x-ray on the table next to the surgery showing that his cadaver, perhaps a former star of the Saw film series, had partially digested a set of keys. So I let my puppet Sebastian plunge his hands into the corpse (which of course did a scary thing) to find them. I'll talk about keys next chapter.

Moving on through the poor man's halfway house I bumped into another creeper and took 'im out, but it was quickly time to move on. That's when I came to the clearing outside, where a zombie was carrying what looked like a kicking screaming woman toward a bonfire. In my ammo conservation panic, I didn't manage to get off a shot until the woman had been torched - to be honest, I do feel kinda bad. But I'm not gonna waste two bullets to save a stranger's life, come on. That'd be insane!

Anyway, I escorted the regular doctor, still in search of Leslie Nielsen, into another old-fashioned home. As soon as we found lil' baby Les (whose annoying ass needs to die already), things got surreal. Stuck at a dead end, the lights went out and were replaced by a red glow. That's when cordyceps-face phased in two inches from my face and grabbed hold. As soon as I struggled free, my attacker inviso'd out again, and a shotgun blast at the air where he should've been hit nothing. I stumbled around the room for a bit, fending off grabs and trying to counter-shoot, but to no avail. I grabbed a bottle and threw it across the room, hoping to draw him out with a decoy, but that didn't work either. 

That's when I glimpsed a porcelain bowl unnaturally spin across the floor and keyed in on the trick - he's invisible, not immaterial. Keeping tabs on environmental clues, I finished my unsightly pursuer with a couple shells and an explosive bolt. As far as I can tell, these guys warp as soon as they vanish, so they're only vulnerable on the approach. I'm not sure how I could've won this fight without shooting - the door didn't unlock until my attacker was down.

After looking it up, I guess these guys don't look that much like Last of Us zomgis, but they did call it to mind
Now's as good a time as any to talk about the crossbow. The crossbow feels almost like it was meant to be the sole weapon of the game, with at least four types of ammo, its own upgrade menu, and bolts craftable on the fly. If I haven't mentioned yet, disarming traps nets Sebastian the creatively named "trap parts". Trap parts can be converted into crossbow bolts from the regular inventory menu. A spear-like harpoon bolt or a blinding flash bolt will require 2 parts a piece, explosive "proximity mine" bolts cost 3, and wide-radius electric trap bolts demand a whopping 4. The only way to have a new bolt type added to the selection is to encounter it in the wild. Sebastian can only carry a couple of each - only 2 to start - so it isn't realistic to stockpile on a single favorite type (crafting on the fly is prohibited by a non-pause inventory). The main catch to the crossbow in the fray is that it has a very short (5m?) arcing range - it's more like aiming a grenade than a gun*.

*Sure it's a valid gameplay mechanic, but boy is this a face-palming portrayal of crossbows. If my history / Age of Empires education serves me, even medieval crossbows could shoot hundreds of feet away. In fact I just looked it up: modern hunting crossbows are accurate up to about 60m. That means it should be equally, if not more effective at range than Sebastian's revolver (which could rate 25-200m depending on many factors).

Moving on with Lessy in tow, Sebastian tripped down a hallway across space and time and fell face-first into another Bloodpool. Maybe this game's about wormholes, just like Event Horizon. I hope Sam Neill bursts out of someone's chest. Until then, I was left exploring a big garbage-disposal-y room with catwalks, ladders, a pool of blood, a sub-room, some tripwire traps, a couple switches that seemed to do nothing, a puddle of oil, and some explosive canisters. Maybe it's just me and RE4 (that's what I call my subconscious), but the obvious placement of the traps around a complex but empty room told me "enemies are on the way". When I made my way to the one and only exit, I could only pretend to be surprised that the villain materialized to summon a swarm of blood-nanites to summon more zombie men from the bloody depths. Blood, zombies, blood, zombies. Yeah. Oh, and he locked the door. With blood.

There were a LOT of creatures emerging from the blood lagoon, so I hop-skip-jumped my way through the traps I'd picked out, incinerating swaths of them with the oil patch (ignitable with matches) and the fuel cans (ignitable with bullets). After pulling a few of the standard RE4 tricks (funnel 'em with ladders, corral and grenade 'em), I was through the swarm and the door re-opened. Important new trick in The Evil Within that draws from the same well but balances things out quite nicely: any downed enemy can be torched and will alight nearby foes. It's possible to convert a knee-shot and matches into a lot of kills this way, essentially taking the place of RE4's headshot-then-roundhouse group-clearing combo. It's also more dangerous to pull off (no invincibility frames and the context-sensitive match toss is super-short range) and is doubly resource-intensive (matches are equally as rare as bullets), so it feels appropriate to the increased tension of Within.

After the door unbloodlocks we head down another hallway and hey there's a locked door on my right so let's keep going to that brightly lit room oh neat some handgun ammo what's that in the corner BALAGAGHAGFEHRERHG BLOOD MONSTER! Yes, with no cutscene to relieve the tension, a horrible six-armed girl-hair thing spewed forth from a puddle of blood and started phasing toward me. Zig-zag phasing. But she's still shootable and hey, this is a Resident Evil game, so as long as I run by quickly, it doesn't matter how close I am - she won't grab me! So I dragged her for a few loops around the room until I eventually fouled up and got my head smashed down to a one-hit KO.

While mentally prepping for round 2, the loading screen told me the kind of thing that a loading screen should never, ever tell. I am pretty dumbfounded that the loading screen had the audacity to say what it did. More on that in a second.

I died again, but I took away an important observation: the door out of blood girl's surgical boudoir was still open even after the fight started. So for round three I set up a string of traps in the corridor before allowing her to spawn. I kited her straight through two explosive bolts (which didn't even phase her) and into a shock trap, whereupon I let the grenades fly. This is where I made another shocking observation: the door that had initially led me into the hallway (from the blood pool) was gone and the previously locked side door was swinging open. I ducked through and, just about completely out of ammo, I speared her with a harpoon bolt for the big kill. Back down to a paltry 8 handgun rounds, I picked up the 8000 upgrade goos and headed on toward the end of the stage.

As I made my way through the remaining corridors, I couldn't help but notice the ready-made traps on hand. A door to slam here, an explosive tank there, and at the very end, an elevator to take me away. That's when it occurred to me that I was meant to discover the open door sooner, conserve ammo, and play this one like a Verdugo - draw the boss into delaying traps and make a run for the elevator.

Or, that's when it would've occurred to me, had the loading screen after losing to the boss not explicitly told me: "It's unwise to fight blood girl head to head. You can kill her, but maybe you should just run for it." DON'T TELL ME THAT ON A LOADING SCREEN! You've ruined the entire tension of the fight, spoiling both the risk of spending ammo on a perhaps-invincible foe and the urge to find a secondary means to victory. I ignored the tip and played how I would've anyway because 1.) I was being honorable and 2.) I always fought Verdugo to the death anyway. In fact, I think I didn't know he could be waited out until a friend pointed it out to me. That's just too scary for me. I'd rather fight.

The monetary (here goo) reward for defeating the boss makes it worth it anyway - I may have spent 3x as many bullets as I needed, but I was able to upgrade my guns til they were 3x (or something) more effective, thus conserving ammo in the long run. That's another RE4 trick for ya. Even ignoring that, it gives me a payoff for being smart with ammo earlier and resets my position so I'll need to be again, so it's good game design all around. That loading screen is just ass though. I can only hope that was put in by some dumbass publisher/localization goons.

So before things came to a close I bumped into Ruvik on a staircase. When I tried to run by he insta-killed me (this game likes insta-kills - it's encouraging the player to play safe with the unknown), so the second time I turned and ran as soon as he appeared. Cutscene, end chap.

I gotta be honest, I think Ruvik is the dumbest looking element in a game with otherwise great art design. Even if they didn't mean for him to look like Assassin's Creed, the resemblance is too hard to ignore. At a certain point you just have to be honest with yourself and admit your design is too close to an existent (and extremely popular) one and give it up.
Here's a plot theory. Leslie is an albino. The main villain, Ruvik, is hard to make out under his Assassin's Creed hood, but I'm pretty sure he's an albino too. Leslie is only around in the forest stages and Ruvy seems to be more a mental hospital guy. Are the hospital and the forest parallel worlds cohabitated by parallel versions of Ruvik (which, unsurprisingly, is an anagram of "Leslie")? Or is Lessy some kind of gate? Because as soon as he showed up we were back in the hospital. This merely reinforces my gut feeling that Sebastian needs to kill this annoying babbling weirdo. I mean, if the world was falling down would you really waste your time dragging around an mindless loon? Unless the world was his mind!!!!

Monday, November 10, 2014

What I'm Playing, October '14

at 6:00 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

Well my initial push to finish games is looking pretty good.

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (Xbox 360)

That took all of five days. It's not the 8-hour playtime that makes Revengeance feel short, it's the swift pull-up halfway through where the earlier multi-tiered levels give way to reused environments, redundant stealth encounters, and sorta insulting stage numbering (one short stage doesn't have a boss, then the next is just a boss, etc.). You basically get 3 full and 4 quarter-stages. Still, I love the action here - it's a Japanese assimilation of the stealth alternating counter-driven style of popular Western games like Arkham Asylum and Assassin's Creed. The weird pacing just makes higher difficulty replays awkward, with the shockingly early climax leaving little to challenge your skills on the back end.

This is the peak of the game's difficulty. It is the Stage 3 boss. In a 7-stage game.

Kid Klown in Crazy Chase (SNES)

This one was done for the already-published Platformer of the Month Club, enjoy.

Games Finished:

Bayonetta (Xbox 360)

Speaking of weird endgame pacing. Bayonetta becomes wildly indulgent in the final act, giving too much time to variety stages (both Space Harrier and Motorcycle Madness), redundant boss reduxes, and fake-out endings. The main thing I like about this game is the bread and butter combat, but for the last two to three hours there basically isn't any. It doesn't help that (at least in Normal mode) bosses are excruciatingly easy, but still tediously long. Recently I've been starting action games on hard mode because why fuck around, but Bayonetta sadly does not permit that and is far, far too easy for any but the most novice players (professional reviewers) on Normal.

In also hurts that the game is a bit churlish with rewarding performance, as the only thing holding me back from platinum level rankings was that I didn't seek out the hidden sub-stages and thus had a bunch of zeroes in my overall score. Here's a bit of personal philosophy: action games should not have hidden sub-stages. Ever. That is explicitly, shamefully bad design.

Bayonetta had some uniquely paced combat, getting almost turn-based with its reliance on time-slowing dodges, so I could see myself playing it again. Still, it's very sandboxy and I think you'd have to be an idiot to rank it with the good stuff like Ninja Gaiden Black and Double Dragon 2.

Crashmo (Nintendo 3DS eShop)

I kinda can't believe I beat this. Technically there are still 20 or so bonus stages to go, but I got the all-important credit roll so I'm happy to call it done. The thing that kept Crashmo alive late-game was the introduction of gigantic puzzles with dozens of pieces that allowed free-form solutions. They probably rank as much easier than the more rigid challenges (at least for me they were), but they were a lot more rewarding to play, allowing me to prove I had learned and could reapply the many specific techniques developed through the game's course.

Street Fighter 2010 (NES / 3DS VC)

Okay, the last level here was insane. Most stages in this game give you 120 seconds to kill one boss. With the same time limit, this level featured three reused (but now harder) bosses and two totally new ones. That's 20 seconds a boss, and these guys have strict patterns that only leave them vulnerable in certain windows. I really had no choice but to cheese it with save states. Oh well. Lotta good bosses here, you can see the Capcom house-style that permeates Mega Man X and Gargoyle's Quest as well.

Super Mario 64 (N64 / Wii VC)

I have a bit of an OCD problem with Super Mario 64. I am really uncomfortable with leaving stars behind, so I end up 100%ing every world before moving on, which leads to a lot of time wasted on levels I don't really like. Still, this game is goddamn genius no matter which way you slice. Level greats include Whomp's Fortress, Lava Lava Lake, Hazy Hazy Maze Cave, Dire Dire Docks, Pirate Bay's Cavern, and Tock Tock Clock. Anti-favorites include: Shifting Shifting Sand Land, Snowman Blowman Land, Tiny Tiny Big World, and Boo House.

The improved resolution Virtual Console port proves that SM64 still looks fantastic

God of War (PS2)

Even back when it was the second or third modern melee action game I'd ever played, I really did not care for God of War. It has these insanely unwelcome "adventure" parts that usually involve mandatory backtracking or puzzles, the camera angles are very annoying (namely because the movement controls are camera-relative), and the combat is soooo repetitive. Sure, it feels nice and squishy, but that only gets you so far after battle #1000 with the same three enemy types and the same two combos that always defeat them. The game sorta tries to find some identity by spreading battles across different arena types (moving floors, small platforms, tiers) but it makes annoying choices that tend to backfire.

Games Started:

The Evil Within (Xbox 360)

Check up on my chapterly coverage for which I am being paid by Capcom to make as many Resident Evil 4 comparisons as humanly possible. In my defense, I see every game through the lens of Resident Evil 4. Or Mega Man X or Ogre Battle 64, as genre applies.

Wave Race 64 (N64 / Wii VC)

The international Commune Podcast game du jour for November, Wave Race is heavy on the waves and light on the races. I enjoy the wave-handling mechanics a lot, it's just that the sparse course selection and 1v1 limitation pretty heavily restrict this as a multiplayer alternative. Compared to this, it's no surprise that the de facto party racer for the eternally ripe N64 has become Star Wars Episode I Racer.

One and Done:

Hyrule Warriors (Wii U)

Just got this for the sake of it, it feels insanely well-polished - at least compared to the "budget" feel common to Dynasty Warrior games. I'll come back and play it for real sometime in the future.

The Firemen (SNES)

Another podcaster, this is a pretty easy top-down shooter that mixes in a little exploration and a timer. It's fun but it is hard to count it as a game-in-progress when the only thing holding me back from beating it is I just haven't played it a second time.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Platformer of the Month Nov. '14, Kid Klown in Crazy Chase

at 6:00 PM
The platformer is the seminal genre of video game history. Always adapting to trends and technologies, never out of style, it provides an underpinning for action games of era after era. Platformers are responsible for our sense of space and navigation; they form the bridge that transports reality into digital worlds. Without platformers, we'd all may as well be playing shuffleboard. Each month we dive into the deep well of platforming history, hoping to find forgotten treasure or even an extra life. We'll be bringing you everything we uncover here at the Platformer of the Month Club.

Game: Kid Klown in Crazy Chase
Year: 1994
Developer: Kemco
Publisher: Kemco
Platform: SNES, GBA

Oh we are starting this off on one hell of a foot. A size 23 foot. I've got two words for you. Up. Down. Clown. Town. Kid Klown. Crazy Chase. Okay, back to using full sentences. Actually my first note looking at that boxart is that our mascot here (indisputably one of the most acclaimed of the 2D era) is more your classically-styled harlequin (or Christmas elf) than what I first picture as a clown. I guess it's only in 21st century America that clowns have developed that firm image of "orange afro rainbow pants and party hat". Kid Klown looks almost... respectable.

Speaking of classically-stylization, that's one thing this game doesn't! Kid Klown himself might remind you of a Sonic the Hedgehog or a Bonk, but the tightly timed uni-directional gameplay is hedged in future memories of now-popular "endless runners" like Canabalt, Flappy Bird, or Bit Trip Runner. But hey, the game uses traditional running and jumping controls and challenges the player to navigate a course, so it's only reasonable to approach it as a platformer.

So is Kid Klown a Lost City of Atlantis, defining trends a decade yet to come, or is it shallow tripe meant to capture the lowest common denominator? Don't make a joke about "what if it's both?". I did that in my head and it got sighs all around.

How is the game's aesthetic appeal?
Yourself: It's impossible to play Kid Klown without visions of Road Runner dancing through my head. The developers definitely made the most of their trial-and-error gameplay as a setup for varied physical comedy bits. While the individual traps aren't much to look at, Kid K's pratfalls are drawn out to downright whacky levels. He jerks his body three or four times before tearing his head out of a block of ice, floats gently to the ground after being flattened to a pancake, and shakes off water like a dog. A lot of old platformers show cartoon influence, but Kid Klown takes it an extra one half to three quarters of a mile.

The soundtrack has an appropriately jaunty tempo but I can't say I found much to like in the composition.
Golem: By 1994, the Super Nintendo was churning out high quality graphics, and Kid Klown benefits from an attention to detail. In the city level, Kid passes by mundane skyscrapers and through standard construction sites, only to be flattened by a swarm of comically undersized sedans. The contrast between realistic settings and jokey elements goes a long way to sell the humor here.

As for music, Kid Klown sets the right pace and tone for a nutzo chase, but  fails to provide any memorable melodies.

How does the player character control?
Golem: Hold down to make Kid Klown run diagonally down-right along a straight path, and use left or right to strafe either direction. Up will let you slow and eventually halt Kid, but he can never move backwards. Aside from running, the only other function is a jump with a fixed height.

Holding down to move diagonally allows Kid's path to take more screen space, but it also makes judging his trajectory more difficult. Additionally, having to hold down can be troublesome when you need to be precise with moving left and right (it's just easy to fumble on the control pad).

Interestingly, the options menu offers an upside-down control scheme for left-handed players.

Yourself: 4-way isometric control tends to bother me, but here it works mostly fine since you're only moving in one general direction. Using d-pad down for what amounts to an accelerator is unpleasant though. Kid has momentum and controls essentially like a car, which leaves me wondering how smoothly the game might have felt had it used A for accelerate and B for brake. Hell, I actually might get out my emulator and try it.

What kind of non-aggressive elements guide the player's path?
Golem: Balloons. Each stage in the game is littered with balloons Kid can grab by jumping. They can either have a coin, health recovery, some damaging element (like a bomb), or an all-important card suit (heart, spade, club, or diamond). However, what's inside remains a mystery even on repeat playthroughs.

While most balloons will contain the same thing time and again, on each play of a stage, the four suits will be randomly distributed to different balloons. The catch is that you need all four suits to clear the stage. Luckily, if you reach the end of a stage without all four suits, the game loops you with no penalty and keeps all balloons the same.

Aside from balloons, stages feature the occasional platforming element. A springboard here, a moving platform there, and a balloon to ride down a cliffside.
Yourself: There are also coins strewn about the path which unlock bonus stages.

What kind of enemies impede the player's path?
Yourself: Most of what you'll battle in this game aren't so much enemies as they are traps. Banana peels, lava arcs, crab claws and fire hydrants all stand in between Kid and his rival, a bomb with a spade on it. There are typically three means of avoidance: run around, jump over, or stop. The game is pretty reasonable in introducing new and more complex enemies, as stage 1 is comprised largely of things to be jumped over (bushes, cannon balls, spike pits), stage 2 features a lot more that need to be run around (cars, caution barriers, falling pots), and stage 3 is the first time you'll really need to stop (for fire walls, falling boulders, and lava).

Though there are essentially only three responses they'll inspire, the challenge is in learning the traps' timing. How long is it between a shadow appearing and a boulder falling? When is the next car going to speed across the road? You'll generally need to pick up the rhythm of the level and get a good sense of the distance Kid can jump.

Many traps can be dealt with by any of the available means - when Kid is stopped he can walk left or right without moving down at all - but they may not be equally cost-effective. Likewise, being in the right position on the cross-axis is crucial for grabbing balloons, so you may be forced into jumping over a preceding trap that you would've just run around were you ignoring them. Taking the safe route is something that comes into play on repeated loops when you know which balloons you're aiming for.

How are player character mechanics varied?
Yourself: While Kid Klown is absent any power-ups or character selection, some level-specific elements affect the way the character moves. Steep hills show up in a couple places (I think only in Stages 1, 3, and 5) to introduce a speed boost, linearly increasing difficulty via reflex time. Stage 4 is entirely an ice level, as usual decreasing friction so the character takes longer to get going and stays in motion longer after the control is released. I didn't have much trouble with the ice stage, and in fact I think the game let up a bit on the trap difficulty to account for it.

Not really a mechanic, but Stage 5 decreases visibility to a small circle around Kid K. Like the speed-up, this basically just increases necessary reflex time.

How are individual levels built from these elements? Does this facilitate exploration?
Golem: Towards the start of the game, in the first two stages,  elements pop in for brief moments soon to be followed by a different challenge. In stage one, Kid scampers away from rolling logs, weaves between hurled axes, and leaps over shrubbery all in the same breath. In the later stages, ideas pick up a little more consistency, such as the ice stage that places two rising/falling block segments right after one another.

There's always a great variety to the hazards, but their placement picks up a more consistent verse/chorus structure later in the game. This keeps the early game fresh and frantic while lending the later game more of a get-down-to-business-and-study feel.

Yourself: The game uses mild randomization to create some variety on replays. As mentioned above, the suits hidden in balloons are shuffled around every time you die or restart. Occasionally individual traps will also be position-shifted (a bush that was on the right is now on the left, etc.). There is theoretically an optimal path to each level established by the consistent placement of coins in balloons; however, the unpredictability of suit location means on a first run the player will need to check every balloon anyway. So the randomization defeats the purpose of the collectibles altogether.

On continued loops, a player can refine their approach to account for balloons they've already checked. Since looping is a punishment for not succeeding on a first try, it feels weird for it to add complexity to the gameplay - the structure suggests a good player is one who can grab all the balloons on the first try, not one who can learn their contents.

How is the boss variety and how do boss fights generally work?
Yourself: No bosses to be found here. Our main villain, the Ace of Spades, is just a constant nuisance.
Golem: There were bonus games after stages (sometimes). They weren't bosses, and we didn't figure out how to win them.
Yourself: I kid klown you not, there was an air hockey game where scoring in either goal costs you a chance. How do you win this? Sigh. I looked it up and it's that you have to score three goals to get a one-up. Meaning if you don't have three chances to start out with (chances are determined by coins divided by 10) then there's no point in even trying.

What is the overarching structure of the game?
Golem: Five stages, all in a row. If you run out of health or time, you spend a continue and restart the current stage. If you reach the end of the stage without every suit, the stage loops while preserving balloon layout. If you grab all suits on each stage on your first run, the game can move at a quick clip; miss just one suit, and you replay a stage, slowing the pace considerably.
Yourself: At the end of each stage, Kid grabs a key. If the stage is completed on the first loop, he also gets a heart. At the finale, the player is presented with ten keyholes, 60 seconds, and a princess locked in a cell with a time-bomb. You can select the placement of your keys, but each can only be used once and there is no indication which might be the one and only correct keyhole. So it's pure luck whether you screw up and witness the princess explode right before your eyes. The internet tells me that getting it right leads to a better ending (depending on opinion) and getting it right AND getting all the hearts is necessary for the best. The hearts challenge makes sense for replay value. The keys not so much.

Word on the street is that getting the best ending opens up hard mode *<:O]

How is the learning curve and difficulty?
Yourself: For a game that allows only 3 retries, Kid Klown is pretty forgiving. Allowing the player to loop through the stage if they missed any items is a good call and alleviates the frustration of close misses and screw-ups. The levels mix things up enough that they require individual learning, so that's solid too. Unfortunately, the core gameplay - timing jumps within fixed windows - does nothing to differentiate style or skill of play, so each challenge is extremely binary - either you get hit or you don't. A minute to learn, no additional time to master.
Golem: Kid Klown features tweaks to make it more forgiving, such as loops and a generous health bar, but the core concept--collect four randomly placed balloons without passing them (on a diagonal course, no less)--is harsh. On the other hand, building a mastery of the courses led us to collect balloons more consistently, so the learning process itself had a nice incline to it. We'd start out a course entirely confused, gradually warm up to its challenges, and eventually zip to balloons as needed. It's just that, as Yourself says, there's not much past that. Perhaps the suits could've been an optional challenge rather than a necessary one.

Play again or recommend?
Golem: While Kid Klown finds excellent execution, its core concept is so ornery and shallow that it's hard to recommend. I had fun yelling at it.
Yourself: Check it out on Youtube or something. It's a "cool, I didn't know this game existed". The wacky face-plants are where the game finds most of its identity and they don't have much lasting value.

This was a really inappropriate game to flex this survey. Look forward to a better entry next month, when we'll be playing Maximo: Ghosts to Glory!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

October Spook-tacular Playoffs: Event Horizon

at 6:00 PM
The List:
The Conjuring (2013)
The Mist (2007)
Event Horizon (1997)
Parents (1989)
Halloween (1978)
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
The Quartermass Xperiment (1955)
Cat People (1942)
The Mummy (1932)
The  Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Infinite criticism.
Title: Event Horizon
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Writer: Philip Eisner
Actors I recognize: Sam Neill, Laurence Fishbarn

What I know going in: One mans goes to space, but what happens when he can't come back... from space? Actually I know that Sam Neill is going to turn evil and that an event horizon is the point of no return from a black hole. Little science bomb to drop on your head there.

I had a morbid curiosity about this one, as it has a positive reputation among bad scifi apologists the net over. Moreover, I'll watch Sam Neill in anything because I have yet to see him star in a bad picture. Until today. Let me drop a metaphor bomb on your head here: Event Horizon is on the wrong side of the event horizon of movie awfulness. Nothing good escapes from this black hole of creativity and entertainment, not even the great Sam Neill. It's not often I find a movie beyond forgiveness, but for me the fatal flaw is something to do with a lack of concept. Not since Jacob's Ladder have I seen a movie so confused and confusing about what it is or is trying to say. Event Horizon isn't so much a wild flurry of ideas; like a bad X-Files episode, it's a viewing experience where nothing happens and a wide array of flat, uninteresting, and far too specific self-commentary is strewn on the floor like as many dead bodies.

The basic idea is that a ship is lost in space and comes back seven years later, whereupon a bunch of Aliens-wannabes go check it out and find it had been in another dimension and came back as an apparently living haunted house? but people there can never die? and it still has a portal to the other dimension? Which it turns out is either basically or literally Hell; the movie is never particularly honest on whether people are capitalizing that word. So we have dimension-shifting, religious suggestions, inanimate things coming to life, possibly demonic possession, isolation, and a whole. lot. of. hallucinations. About half the movie is unrelated hallucinations.

The plot is so weirdly strung together that it feels like the filmmakers had a series of images in mind but no clue how to rope them into the same story. It reminds me of the music-video-esque Hellraiser 2, but at least Hellraiser 2 was relatively focused and genuinely out there. Really there isn't much story; what we get is mostly back-story - in the words of the illumined Ebert, "the screenplay creates a sense of foreboding and afterboding, but no actual boding". The gang gets stranded on the evil Event Horizon, we hear a lot of Sam Neill explaining/worshiping the ship, some side characters try to repair their escape shuttle entirely off-screen, and everyone else wanders about, either experiencing hallucinations or whining. No one does anything. Nothing about their scenario changes from beginning to end, and once we reach the end we actually learn they couldn't have done anything even if they wanted (they were past the event horizon! except two people still escape...).

The pacing here is a puked-in dumpster. The intro is dramatic nonsense, act 1 is pure exposition until someone finally finds a corpse, act 2 is people having inconsequential hallucinations and a bunch of undeveloped hanging threads (like fixing the ship and finding the Event Horizon's crew logs), and in act 3 finally someone fucking dies. The action becomes relentless but so scattered that everything remains an unsatisfying headache.

The handling of the burdensome hallucinations is utterly piss-poor. Dream sequences are a very difficult beast to slay, requiring a careful balance of deceit, implication, and consequence. Once I know events aren't for keeps, I tend to disengage. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons Twin Peaks is so good - it betrays that expectation and makes dreams/visions matter more than waking reality. But Event Horizon does not understand this balancing act. Hallucinations take form as things whose if-this-is-real implications are just really stupid. A crew member sees her son with wounds on his legs. Oh my god, what if he's really on the ship? Not only do I not see how that could be true, I don't care. So what if her son is on the ship? Or in hell? Is there anything she can or might have done about it? No. Does it tell us something about her character? She doesn't want bad things to happen to her son. Delightful. What a visionary trait. Is it an incarnation of a past sin? If it is, I certainly can't figure it out, nor does this character get enough screen-time for me to know what that means to her. I hate this part of the movie so much

The function of the dream sequences in the overall plot is perplexingly nonsensical. The crew is eventually clued in to the root of the terror: the ship is alive! Wait, the ship is alive? What does that have to do with people going insane? Ohhhhh, the hallucinations are a "defense mechanism", like "some kind of immune system" (hi terrible screenwriting cliche!). Those are two completely different ideas. Crew members tripping balls. Ship is alive. Since when do we automatically assume hallucinations have an external origin? This is like when Mulder throws off a perfectly reasonable hypothesis about hypnotic suggestion by declaring "it's a form of psychokinesis!" The fact that we're given a single setup line about the scanners detecting life signs from all over the ship is essentially an insult, like one of the characters picking up a page from the script and reading "holy cow, the ship is alive?!".

And, unsurprisingly, the ship being alive creates exactly zero original conflict. The crew is fighting to escape the Event Horizon because they're running out of oxygen. That is the main boss of this movie. Was that supposed to create a sense of realism or something? With all the other shit going on, you'd think they'd want to leave anyway, but the fact that it's a failing oxygen supply that kicks them into gear makes it seem like it doesn't matter at all what happens, because they're going to be dead in four hours anyway. This redundant timer saps all the tension out of the would-be conflict with the ship or Evil Sam Neill.

The tone is also bad. Mostly I would call this dumpy perfunctory self-seriousness; the kind of scifi that acts realistic (people feel contemporary) but never earns it (they are still extremely movie-like). Yet occasionally we get an insane jolt of yakety-saxical comedy thanks to Eddie Murphy stand-in Cooper. Coop isn't in most of the movie, but when he shows up occasionally it's with whoopy-cushion one-liners and huge exaggerated expressions. Whoever wrote that character is an idiot. Whoever directed those scenes is an idiot. Whoever chose not to leave them on the cutting room floor is an idiot. Better yet, in the middle of a couple dramatic scenes with Mr. Justin (such as when he tries to commit suicide by explosive decompression) characters refer to him as "Baby Bear". This is never explained and extremely (unintentionally) hilarious. [watching guy bleeding out of his eyes] "Hang in there Baby Bear!"

Here is another scene that has a very very dumb tone
At the heart of all the movie's problems is the noncommittal approach to characters - I can't tell who the hell (Hell) this movie is about. It seems like maybe originally it was supposed to be the tale of Sam Neill's battles with guilt over his dead wife, but then it was decided that they wanted a third act where he's evil and that another character would need to take over. So Laurence Fishburne gets some haphazard exposition and, yay, a hallucination, revealing that he once let a man die because it was necessary in order to save others, and he never wants to do that again. Again, this is the yawniest of motivations ever conceived. Oh my god, the captain doesn't want anyone to die! It's not even like it's his fault that they're in this deadly situation; the whole crew was basically tricked into the mission and he didn't know their destination, let alone what had happened to it. There are enough periphery characters that get expository but not active development that I'm sure someone considers the novelization an ensemble tale. It doesn't work that way in movies. Remember how everyone has really strong personalities at the beginning of Aliens, and then they all immediately die anyway? Man I wish that had happened in Event Horizon.

Though it never makes a philosophical statement on any coherent level, Event Horizon has a bit of a Jurassic Park problem. See, Jurassic Park is a movie about the power of nature and mankind's attempts to control it. Giant dinosaurs are brought back to life and it is amazing and the scientific discovery of a lifetime, but terrible coincidences and one self-serving asshole cause a handful of deaths at their hands. But still, man has brought life to extinct species! Think of what we can learn! Except the moral of the story, as our Jeff Goldbums so clearly elucidate, is that that was a fucking mistake and should never have been done and it was playing god which is evil. That's a science-phobic crock of shit and a pretty damn ironic conclusion for a movie that revitalized pop-interest in paleontology and evolutionary biology. Come on, dinosaurs were not going to get out and destroy civilization. Event Horizon gets caught up in the same stew of equating technology to hubris; here it's theoretical physics. There's an attempt, presumably to make the movie seem like "real" science fiction, to explain some astronomical phenomena at a third-grade level. Why a trained space crew needs wormholes explained to them is a pretty reasonable question, but whatever. It's setup so that when shit hits the fan, the angry dumb guy can say, "you can't break the laws of physics without paying the consequences!". Hacky dialogue or not, the idea that experimentation is a gateway to hell is pure sourness. Should we shut down the space program every time a shuttle crashes? (perhaps appropriately, a NASA Antares rocket just exploded this week)

But maybe Event Horizon is just reaching for our instinctual fear of the unknown, forget about science. A tale Lovecraftian in purpose. But the essence of Lovecraft is that mankind is irrelevant - we aren't the ones ignoring the rest of the universe, the rest of the universe is ignoring us. A happy ending and a sense of containment undercuts any such thematics. The universe of Event Horizon is still anthropocentric. I mean, apparently the ship cares enough to give people personalized visions of their loved ones and past mistakes. There is no awe here, no cosmic loneliness. This is the kind of story that makes the invocation of Lovecraft a punchline rather than an honor.

It feels almost disingenuous to show you cool pictures as if they are in any way representative of the movie's quality
In other poorly executed concepts, I hate movies that conflate insanity with evil. This is not a legitimate criticism so much as an example of the the movie setting its sights really low, but it is boring when someone going "insane" just means they become a jerk like Sam Neill does here. Watch Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness or the fantastic French art-horror Possession if you want Sam Neill to show you how to lose a mind. God I wish I had just re-watched Possession instead of this.

I have a single compliment for Event Horizon. Some of the sets, with their intricate techno-gothic architecture, are very cool-looking. If you are the set designer for Event Horizon, congratulations for providing quality work amidst what I'm sure was a waterfall of shitheaded retardation. Though I do have to say your output feels a bit derivative of Warhammer 40K. Since that's not a movie, that's cool though.

Actually, hang on a second. Future humans create a warp portal that accidentally encroaches upon a chaos dimension from which spout possessing spirits and torture demons? And techno-gothic whatever? That's the plot of Warhammer 40K. This movie is WH40K: The Prequel. It's also a really huge ripoff of Hellraiser, but I gotta bring this bitchfest to an end sometime.

What I know going out: This movie is an insult to my intelligence.

Oh man, I forgot to mention Space Latin. Well, maybe next time.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Surviving The Evil Within, Chapter 3: What was that noise?

at 6:00 PM
So, if it hasn't occurred to you yet, things might get kinda spoily from here. Probably not plot-wise, but it's impossible for me to narrate the gameplay without revealing monsters and their locations. It's been a pain just finding screenshots without seeing every last twisted boss. At least it's made me confident that chainsaw guys and zombies are just the tip of the iceberg.

At the onset of "Clause of the Horde" Sebastian and I pulled ourselves out of the muck and started working our way into the village on the other side of Chapter 2's stone bridge. Approaching through the mist, the town square seemed quiet. Nothing was amiss - nothing except the bodies hung upside down below a wooden walkway. I busted through the window of the nearest house and was startled by a loud beeping - that's when Sebastian exploded into a dozen pieces.

Restarting from the checkpoint I returned to the same window and this time ran into a corner as soon as I'd hopped through. The beeping died out as I moved away from the entry point, and turning around I got a look at a new type of exploding trap: the exploding trap. A quick tutorial window told me I could sneak up to exploding traps to disarm them, so I gave it a try and was snapped into a QTE minigame. Not ready for what was happening (other traps are automatically disarmed when you press A), I failed Sebastian and he exploded again. Returning a third time, I timed a button-press for when the rotating dial crossed a safe zone and the trap was safely disarmed. I moved past another one, dropped by a safe house, and made my way through the upstairs until a cut-scene was triggered.

Here Sebastian joins up with Dr. Dave and some very confusing dialogue. The doc points out a heavily guarded gate as the only escape from the village and suggests one of us should create a distraction so the other can make a run for it. Then he says "you're the one with the gun..." and gameplay restarts. Now, maybe I'm stupid, but I could not figure out from that line who he was suggesting should be the diversion. I kinda assumed he meant me, since gunshots would grab the zombies' attention. Before I had a second to think it over, I heard zombies breathing down my neck and he streaked off across the square yelling "HEY, LOOK OVER HERE!!!".

So he meant he would be the one getting their attention. Whatever. I made a run for the gate and got immediately swarmed and killed by zombies. So... did the diversion not work? Did I not understand what was happening? When I retried I went with a different route, this time going behind the houses, but there were still zombies everywhere and I couldn't open the gate - not to mention my diversion had locked himself in one of the houses. Still confused, I decided to ignore the "make a run for it" plan and just hid in a closet while Dr. Retardo did his thing.

From the closet I could hear loud rasping zombie mouth-sounds, so I knew I wasn't alone. After a minute or two it looked like no one was going to waltz by and invite a stealth kill, so I wandered out and headed down the hallway. That's when I heard footsteps on the roof or a ladder thudding against the wall and two baddies splashed through the window right on top of me (RE4). With exactly two bullets to my name I dished out a couple swats and made a run for the basement. On the way I took out one of my pursuers by ducking below a trip-wire that he blindly triggered. The other went down with an ax to the head (the occasional expendable ax provides a one-hit kill identical to the torch). There was one more zombie waiting in the basement, so I carefully lined up a headshot and splattered an unreasonable amount of blood across the room.

It definitely felt nice (heart-pounding, but nice) to get some fast-paced spontaneous gameplay going. There were enough bullets in the basement (four) to take out my attackers, but the pressure was so high that I was taking the immediate reflex solutions which let me continue to conserve ammo. That said, I took a lot of hits and used up all my healing items in all that fumbling around. Maybe the smartest thing would've been to run and re-hide after I had been spotted, but I was alive and armed, so I kept going.

Though there were no other monsters in sight, I was still surrounded by wheezing, gurgling sounds that reminded me they could be anywhere. Let me tell you, the moans these things make are so much creepier than your run-of-the-mill "braiiiiiiiiiiiiins"ing. They sounds like demonic cats trying to hock up barbed wire hairballs. I'm desperate to kill enemies just to clear the air of that awful fucking noise.

After sneaking out of the first house I shot my way through two more zombies into a barn that looked mostly empty. Again, it didn't sound particularly empty, stirred by metallic scraping sounds, more groaning, and even some pig squeals. I collected some supplies in the rafters and moved on.

On my way to the next house I got a good view of a zombie's back and tiptoed up for a stealth kill... except a goddamn bear trap latched onto my leg and ruined that plan, causing me to waste another two bullets. When I got inside and took out another three foes head-to-head (with the help of a torch and some matches), I had two exciting discoveries back to back: an attache case (RE4) holding a shotgun, and a crossbow leaning against a barrel. The crossbow is a little unusual, but I'll talk about how that works in a later chapter. As a veritable walking arsenal (I had also picked up some grenades by this point), I was feeling pretty confident and plowed through another two houses, mostly relying on stealth kills and crossbow bolts.

In the attic of the final house (which didn't have to be the final house, it just happened to be thanks to my approach), I bumped into The Doctor. This triggered some more confusing dialogue, starting with "How did you open the door so quickly?" I assume he meant the gate out of town, but I hadn't even opened it yet, and even Sebastian's line (something like "Gimme some time, doc") acknowledged that. It just... is this bad translation or what? The dialogue doesn't connect. It's not like it's mysterious, it's just non sequitur after non sequitur. Like someone cut-and-paste rearranged the script.

Once I had the town cleared I checked out the gate, which of course was locked tight. Sebastian suggested we find a chainsaw to cut through the chain holding it in place, but I had pretty thoroughly cleaned out the place already, so I was a bit perplexed. Combing through a second time, I noticed the barn was still ringing with that metal noise and moaning. I took a closer look around the ground floor... and that's when the Chapter 1 chainsaw guy Kool-aid Man'd his way through a wall and sawed off Sebastian's head.

Something unusual about this chapter, which was set in a single free-range area, is that after every four or five kills I would see the game saving a checkpoint. Whenever I died, I was reset to the center of the area and I guess all the kills/pick-ups up to the checkpoint were remembered. It was hard to tell since the zombies would never be found where I remembered killing them, and my location got reset pretty far from where the checkpoint was recorded or where I died. In this case, when the chainsaw guy killed me, I didn't remember when the last save had been so I had to retrace my steps for a while, making sure I still had all my supplies, and even found a few zombies in new locations. I guess in theory it revives the tension that threatens to disappear on a replay, but realistically it was disorienting in a tedious way. Hopefully other areas don't suffer from this problem.

Since I now knew where Mr. C. Saw was hiding, I was ready for round two. I used my crossbow to place a couple proximity mines and got my grenades at the ready before triggering his appearance. It wasn't hard to drag him into the traps, but he was too fast to easily peg with grenades. My shotgun didn't seem to slow his pursuit, but thankfully two mines, a grenade, and ~3 shells were enough to put him in the dirt. Chainsaw in hand (sadly as a key item rather than a weapon), I cut open the gate and completed the chapter.

The thing that worries me about Chapter 3 is I have no clue how I would've beaten the chainsaw guy had I missed the crossbow or the shotgun, or even if there had been zombies still wandering around. If there's no other way to kill this guy than to clear out everyone leading up to him, that's action, not survival. It worked with my current approach, but I'm not sure what I would've done - except die a lot - had I stumbled across him when I was in the barn that first time.

Actually, I just looked it up, and there are a bunch of other ways to kill him. Still seems like it'd be hard if you haven't mopped up the zombies, but there is an alternate crossbow way and a complete no-weapon way (similar to Verdugo, U3 and most of the RE4 bosses). I also learned I missed a whole bunch of items :-(

Overall, the pacing of this area felt a little off. Going through houses became methodical and that whole intro with the doctor was just bizarre and confusing (I still don't know what the plan was and feel like the game was telling me to do something I extremely was not supposed to do). Also, three new weapons at once is a lot, as I suddenly went from completely outgunned to teeming with firepower. As a stage of RE5 this would be great, but Chapter 2 had such a perfect balance that by comparison this hits as overblown. I think realistically I don't have a problem with Chapter 3 so much as I just don't want the remainder of The Evil Within to be this. The game could definitely work if it continues to oscillate between the super-stealth of Chapter 1, the Goldilocks balance of 2, and the heavy action of 3.