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.

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