12.19.2008

Persona 3: The Slowest Game of (Last) Year

Once again, The Brainy Gamer has approached a subject far more elegantly than I. In his most recent post, Michael talks a little about Persona 4. In particular, although he really enjoys it (just like last year's version), he really criticizes the game's lack of pacing. I'm still slowly trudging through Persona 3, largely based off Michael's recommendation last year. Well into my 42nd hour with the game, and maybe only halfway through, I had been trying to figure out for days what exactly bothered me about the game.

I love the atmosphere of it. The characters, for the most part, are believable and interesting. You have a great deal of freedom in how you choose to spend your days within the game world. The plot is interesting. I really want to see why this giant tower exists that I occasionally venture into to fight monsters, and why some people want me to stop. Although, it is a bit slow-moving. Wait a minute! That's it. The plot is extremely slow, and the pacing is lethargic. Of course, I was only reminded of this thanks to Michael's well-written post on P4. But I'll throw in my own two cents anyway.

As I've already said, in general, I really like Persona 3. Yes, it has a lot of familiar RPG trappings, but I really enjoy the many twists and additions Atlus made to the formula. The problem is that in a game that is somewhat accurately described on the back of the case as taking 70+ hours to complete, how do you keep the player interested enough to finish the game? I suppose I'm enough of a completionist, and invested in the game enough temporally to force myself through to the end. The slow pace of such a long game is, in my opinion, a detriment to what is turning out to be an interesting plot.

A two hour movie can ramp up or ease down the tension within just a couple of minutes. Even books, which take several hours to read, are more adept at alternately maintaining suspense and providing relief to the reader. The problem is that in an RPG of the length of Persona, there is a lot of downtime. Like Michael, "I accept the idea that P4's (P3's) narrative is punctuated by many hours of dungeon battles that deliver virtually no story at all." While the dungeon crawling occasionally feels a little tedious, the always-difficult battles do keep me engaged.

But when the game returns to more "official" storytelling, as Michael says, the characters often reiterate multiple times things which I already know. They have trouble getting straight to the point. And since the major plot scenes are fully voiced, and I'm often in a hurry, I constantly feel disconnected from the game by constantly pounding on the X button to speed through the dialogue. Thus it sounds like every character has a stutter. I never let them finish a sentence, because I can read much faster than they can talk. Usually, I just want to get on with it.

One technical aspect of the game also frustrates me, as I try to force the game to pick up the pace. As a PS2 game, Persona 3 must do a lot of loading: when you first start the game, every time you open the menu, when you enter a new area, when you open a door. It's never ending, and in a 70+ hour game, the two seconds it takes to open the menu really starts to add up. So while the in-game clock may say I've played for 42 hours, 2-3 hours of that could easily be time spent opening the menu.

Compare this to the other RPG I've been playing, Dragon Quest IV on the DS. As a cartridge-based system, like the SNES which it closely emulates, DS games rarely, if ever, feature excessive amounts of loading. I can access menus and go to new areas in DQIV pretty much instantly. It's a much more seamless process, whereas the constant pauses in Persona 3 constantly take me out of the game and add to my frustration at not being able to pick up the pace a little bit.

The pacing and loading problems of Persona 3 are by no means a deal-breaker. Anyone who enjoys RPGs should by all means give the game a shot. But they really do detract from the game's ability to weave together a solid narrative. And when I have a huge stack of games waiting to be played through, it's really frustrating to be stuck in this turgid world. As much as I like Persona 3, the length and pacing issues really make me question whether I'll be able to muster up the strength to tackle the 4th iteration. Other games will probably prove to be more important.

At any rate, Michael, thanks for another excellent post, and for finally helping me to see the problems I was having accepting Persona 3.

12.11.2008

Do Some Games Benefit From Older Technology?

Recently, on the excellent Verbal Spew, Jeremy Parish of 1UP posted an interesting article delving into the announcement that Dragon Quest X would be released on the Wii. A lot of people were surprised that DQIX was revealed a couple years ago to be destined solely for the DS. But really, in Japan as elsewhere, everyone and their grandmother has a DS. It makes perfect sense for a high-profile game to try to go where the money is. Similarly, the Wii has seen enormous levels of sales and popularity since its launch two years ago, so it should come as no surprise that Square-Enix wants to market DQX to as large of an install base as possible.

But what this really points to, I think, is that not all games derive direct benefits from a huge increase in graphical and technological power, a la the PS3 and 360. Parish writes that "it makes sense that Dragon Quest's sequels are headed to DS and Wii. They don't need PS3-level power to be heartwarming, and in fact too much tech would probably just get in the way. The hardcore gamers have their PS3s and Xbox 360s, but everyone has a DS or a Wii." I agree, not just about Draqon Quest, but about RPGs in general. In particular, turn-based RPGs such as Dragon Quest, some iterations of Final Fantasy, and strategy games such as Advance Wars or Jeanne d'Arc don't necessarily need advanced technology to achieve their goals.

As Parish says, if the goal of a game like DQV is to tell a slight spin of a familiar story, with a well-known turn-based battle system, it hardly needs to be remade for the PS3, right? If nothing else, if an RPG such as this were made for the PS3, the developers would devote extra time to producing top-notch graphics, figuring out the hardware, and maximizing the game's performance for the technological elite. This, in turn, takes them away from expanding and perfecting the story and battle system, which are the main draws of most RPGs anyway. More advanced technology is just a distraction from the most important parts of many RPGs. This is somewhat evidenced by the large number of RPGs on systems with lower specs, particularly the DS, but also the PSP and the continued support of the PS2 (see Persona 4).

At the same time, Parish does a great job of acknowledging that there is also a place (currently a very large place) for big budget, technologically advanced games. And there are definite advantages to having the power of a PS3 or 360 available. One of the biggest, I think, is just being able to clearly see what's going on in the game. Sharp graphics on a decent-sized HD-TV truly are a beauty to behold. Especially in fast-paced games like shooters, the ability to easily delineate everything in your field of vision is a huge asset. The simple ability to see clearly and evaluate your surroundings was often disappointingly difficult in previous generations, particularly during the early days of the PS1 and N64's attempts at 3D. I remember numerous times wondering what I was looking at in games like GoldenEye or Perfect Dark, trying to make out my enemy amongst a bunch of debris. An increase in graphical power is a major benefit for shooters and other action games that rely on the player's ability to constantly know what's happening around them.

But take any RPG, and this type of graphical fidelity is nowhere near required. Would or Persona 3 or 4 have been better on a current-gen system? Perhaps, but I don't think so. Everything they set out to accomplish, creating a believable high school-based world, developing your interactions with NPCs, and crafting an exciting turn-based battle system could all easily be accomplished on the PS2. You're never in doubt as to what you're doing. While a PS3 version would certainly have crisper graphics with more polygons, in this case, I don't think that's necessarily a benefit, and would potentially distract the developers from honing other aspects of the game.

What other games or types of games can benefit from a hardware downgrade? I think an argument could be made that high-profile sequels (e.g. MGS4 or GTAIV) don't always benefit from the newest technology. Are there any other genres or games that benefit from older, easier to use technology? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Let me know in the comments.

12.05.2008

Portal: Simultaneously Enthralling and Disappointing

Sometimes, expectations are everything. A big reason for buying the PS3 version of The Orange Box was Portal. But since being released over a year ago, the game has been talked to death, and I thought I knew everything about it going in. I was both right and wrong.

The first handful of Portal test chambers were magical and enchanting. They were short and simple enough for me to be able to absorb the atmosphere, soak everything in. I knew that there was no shooting involved, just the Portal gun, but I was somewhat surprised that you don't have full access to it until somewhere near the middle of the game. Despite having only one "weapon," this works really well to acclimate you to the handful of features of that tool. At first, the concepts of Portal seemed impossibly hard for brain to process. But as you are introduced to new techniques one by one, you naturally start to see where you can apply them in later levels. The portal gun really does affect the way you see the world and approach the puzzles in the levels.

Despite the slow and meticulous introduction of features, problems, and hazards in this game, I felt somewhat of a disconnect when I suddenly encountered lethal test chambers. Although I suppose that's part of the point. GLaDOS has gone off the rails and can no longer be trusted. No longer am I just going through the tests. I'm trying to escape. But I was completely enveloped in the non-lethal, "safe" encounters of the early levels. Personally, I would have welcomed the entire game resembling the first half, with no sentry turrets or pools of acid.

Speaking of GLaDOS, the voice of the computer controlling your experiences of the research facility, I think she's every bit as smarmy, humorous, and captivating as I had been led to expect. The problem was that while I caught all of her instructions, advice, and commentary in the first handful of levels, once the action heated up, I wasn't always able to pay attention to her. One play through of this game for a first-person perspective novice like myself is simply not enough time for me to absorb everything. Much of her dry and misleading commentary in the second half flew right by me, as I focused on more pertinent issues like surviving or crossing a huge pool of acid. GLaDOS adds a lot to the game, but I worry that I only appreciated her as much as I did because of the extensive amount of Portal coverage I had already read since its release.

On a final note, I was fully expecting Portal to be a three hour adventure. And I was fine with that. In fact, I was looking forward to a shorter game. But after getting stuck on a couple of the later puzzles, and wandering around lost in the final search for GLaDOS, my time with the game probably stretched out closer to the seven hour mark. Again, still not that long for a game, but much longer than I expected. And to some degree that ruined my experience of the game. I kept thinking it was almost over when I still had a while to go.

The larger issue here is that of learning too much about a game before it comes out. There's a good chance I'll have this problem repeatedly over the coming weeks as I check out numerous PS3 titles I finally have the opportunity to try. After reading dozens of articles about a particular game, it's bound to not fully meet my expectations. In a perfect world, I would go into a game knowing just enough to get an idea of whether it appeals to me or not. I don't want to know everything about a game before I play it. But as someone who constantly reads about games and the games industry, it's hard to avoid encountering too much about those games I most want to play.

I'll have to try to temper my expectations a bit as I begin future games. Portal was a lot of fun, and if I ever have the time, I'd like to play through it again. GLaDOS's commentary was funny and memorable, and the difficulty ramped up nicely. But somehow, it managed to be simultaneously what I expected and what I didn't expect. At the very least, I can be thankful that I'm "still alive."

12.04.2008

Sony's Own Awards Show Highlights Their Struggles in the Marketplace

When you use an RSS reader to keep track of updates on several blogs, you tend to see the same news story posted multiple times. Most recently, I was mildly interested to see all the major gaming sites post about Sony's 2008 PlayStation Awards. Each year in Japan, Sony hands out awards to developers based on how many copies of their game shipped. They generally range from Gold (500,000 to 1 million) to Double Platinum (2 to 3 million).

However, after a little googling for the results of previous years, I found that the number of winners and the platforms they're released on really pinpoint Sony's current place in the market. My full report is over at The Game Reviews. What I found was that over the last four years, the total number of winners has been cut in half, from 12 or 13 to 6. Furthermore, there are much fewer winners of a Platinum award or higher in the last two years. Most of the current winners only receive a Gold award, having shipped less than a million copies.

What this really underscores is how much of a success the PS2 was for Sony, and how difficult they're finding it to replicate that success with the PS3 and/or PSP. As we all know, the PS2 was a huge hit, and still sells thousands of consoles a month to this day. However, Sony's smaller number of awards show that the PS3 and PSP, as we already know, just don't have the install base of the PS2. While there are still a couple of PS2 games in the 2008 awards, there was only a single PS3 game.

I'll be interested to see next year's results. There should be an even smaller number of PS2 titles to be eligible for an award. How many PS3 and PSP titles will ship over half a million copies. I certainly can't imagine it being too much more than this year. I would love to see Sony's PS3 install base grow and expand. And a larger number of well-produced games that deserve our purchase can only be a good thing for the industry. Personally, an award won't really affect my decision on whether to purchase a game. But this multi-year glimpse into Sony sales numbers doesn't exactly paint a flattering picture for this generation.

What do you think? Are these awards significant? They are Japan-only, after all.

12.03.2008

Regarding My PSN ID and Trophies

In my Playstation 3 fervor of the last couple of weeks, I totally forgot that I can now play a plethora of games online, and easily add friends and share my PSN ID. My PSN ID is, simply, koreyjp. I have no idea why the jp is on there. Maybe I originally created it while in Japan? As you can see to the right, I added a cool little image to my blog, my PS3 Trophy Card, courtesy of Playfire. I know that trophies haven't been quite as big of a hit as Microsoft's achievements, partly because they're not implemented as cohesively or exhaustively and partly because of their addition as part of a late copycat syndrome. But all that might change in 2009, when all PS3 games are required to include trophy support.

So far, the only game I have that supports trophies is Pixeljunk Eden. I think trophies can be a good way to extend the life of the game, and a way of comparing your accomplishments with your friends. They're surprisingly addictive. I really want to get as many of the Eden trophies as I can. But it seems a bit ridiculous when Pixeljunk Eden asks you to complete a level without wasting any pollen. Really? I might just skip that one.

I don't have many games at the moment, but if any regular readers of this humble little blog want to add me as a friend, it's koreyjp.

12.01.2008

Half-Life 2: A Great Way to Introduce New Weapons

First-person shooters terrify me. On The Orange Box, I played Portal first to sort of ease myself into that perspective, even though there's no shooting. That only lasted a few hours (although quite a few more than I expected) so I'm now up to my neck in Half-Life 2. I know. It's possible I'm the only gamer left on the planet who hasn't played it.

I'm about one-third of the way in, and Valve created a breathtakingly paced game. It rarely slows down for you, and even when it does, you're just waiting for the next adrenaline-fueled task to pop out of the wall and challenge you. But what Half-Life 2 does exceptionally well is familiarize you with the weapons at your disposal within the game. If you've been running along with only a pistol and start encountering groups of enemies, you acquire their assault rifle. When lightning-fast zombies appear, you get a shotgun, which is perfect for blasting their ranks since they get close to you so quickly.

But the perfect example of acquainting you with new mechanics in the heat of battle is the gravity gun. It's acquired in the chapter titled "We don't go to Ravenholm." Up until this point in the game, you've largely been fighting through waves of Combine police and the occasional robotic seeker. But now, I know that nobody goes to Ravenholm because it's completely overrun by zombies. They're everywhere! The beauty of giving you the gravity gun at this point in the game is simple: it doesn't use ammo.

Up until this point, you can easily blast through soldiers with your assault rifle and gather more ammo than you'll ever dead from their bullet-riddled bodies. But in Ravenholm, there are no Combine soldiers. Only zombies. And as everyone knows, zombies don't use guns. They just unceasingly march towards you, arms outstretched. If you try to plow through Ravenholm with your standard arsenal, as I did, you'll soon find yourself very low on ammo. Logically, since the zombies don't use guns, they don't drop ammo when they die. Sure, there are a few hidden weapon caches, but they're not nearly enough to sustain you through this lengthy chapter.

Your only savior is the mighty gravity gun. And you'd better master it quickly, because the zombies aren't the most patient of teachers. You can then casually pull a barrel towards you, and then fling it at a zombie at neck-snapping speed. Even better, pick up a saw blade and watch it slice through as many zombies as you can line up. With no ammo in sight, the gravity gun is the only way to make it. Save your ammo for the numerous ambushes.

Unfortunately, as I already mentioned, I didn't know ammo would be so scarce in Ravenholm until I was well past the point of no return. But I've now hoarded enough ammo to safely see me through the rest of the level. And since I was forced to use the gravity gun so much, I feel much more confident and comfortable with it. Bravo, Valve. Excellent introduction of a unique, powerful weapon. Of course, I'm not out of the woods yet. In fact, I'm in the mines.

11.21.2008

The Art of the Demo on PS3

So far, one of my favorite things about the PS3 has been the absolutely huge number of demos available for it. This was especially useful since I had the PS3 to myself for three days before The Orange Box arrived and interrupted our honeymoon. I spent my first several hours with the PS3 just downloading and installing every demo that looked moderately interesting. And I still haven't tried all the ones I want to.

Unlike the Wii (which I still love), demo availability allows me to dip my toes into gaming waters I had previously avoided. As part of my new gaming initiative, I'm trying to play games that are "out of my element," to quote the philosophical Walter Sobchak. So I've tried out numerous shooters (loved Bioshock), Motorstorm: Pacific Rift (hated it, as expected), and even Super Rub-a-Dub (ughhh?).

But what I've really enjoyed about demos is their ability to both remind me of games I forgot about, and open my eyes to new experiences. I tested out the Ratchet and Clank demo, and was completely blown away by how much fun it is. It felt like the PS2 ones all over again. Pure joy wrapped in a colorful candy shell. And despite (or because of?) being cartoony and colorful, it looks really beautiful too. I also tried out Super Stardust HD, only knowing its reputation, and was again blown away by how fun and addicting that 5 minute demo was. I really wanted to keep playing, try to beat the first planet, and unlock a trophy. But alas, it was much too short. However, I shall buy it someday. It made the list.

Lastly, I just tried Pixeljunk Monsters. I had played Desktop Tower Defense, so I knew what the game was all about. And I feel very empathetic, because I totally get why some people would love this type of game. But it's just not for me. The continuous march of monsters is just too much pressure. I don't want to be responsible for the lives of my villagers against that constant threat of destruction. If I bought the game based on reputation (and my love of Pixeljunk Eden), I would regret it after the first level, and have to glue my hands to the controller to adequately play through it. But, and here's the important point, I understand it as a game.

There are still a dozen or so demos I want to test out, as well as an entire Half-Life 2 campaign to work on. So the PS3 is keeping me plenty busy. I'm just glad I'm able to dip my toes in the water before diving right in.

11.20.2008

Why I Bought a PS3

My second article is up over at TGR, about why I finally bit the bullet and bought a PS3. After arriving last Friday, I've been playing it pretty consistently. Unfortunately, I didn't have a full retail game until just Tuesday of this week, when I received The Orange Box from Amazon. It really is an amazing, great value. I felt portal deserved to be played first, and also that that would ease me into playing a first-person game, which I tend to avoid. It was every bit as amazing as I've heard people say for the past year, although I was a little disappointed/frustrated at points. For the foreseeable future, I'll be focusing on Half-Life 2, which already looks great even though I never played the first one. There are also a number of PSN games I've got my eye on, one of which will probably be swept up soon.

Overall, I really like the PS3. It has a really smooth interface, and there are a number of games out for it that I want. Most importantly though, I'm really enjoying playing games on hardware that sports such a big jump in graphics and technology, compared to PS3 and GameCube games. It feels good.

11.17.2008

History of Console Prices: My First Feature Article at TGR

I received my PS3 on Friday, have been enjoying it immensely, but will post some thoughts about it later. In the meantime, I wanted to advertise a little for my first published feature article over at The Game Reviews. I started by updating console price data first published two years ago at Curmudgeon Gamer. What I found was that while game consoles have indeed been getting more expensive, the relative price (adjusted for inflation) has actually decreased somewhat. Also of note, I talk about the added costs gamers face today, beyond simply buying a system and a few physical games from a store. Check it out. I think it's pretty decent for my first article.

11.12.2008

My PS3 Has Been Delayed

Why, when I find a Dell.com coupon online, do other people find it too? As I talked about last time, I ordered a PS3 at 15 percent off from Dell. It was expected to ship on Monday of this week. However, early Monday morning I got an email saying my shipment had been delayed. While there was no explanation attached, my theory is that other potential PS3 owners found the same coupon. With hundreds or thousands of customers simultaneously trying to get a PS3, I think Dell ran out of stock. My order is now delayed two weeks, I think, because they have to wait for another shipment from Sony. It's a little sad, because I was greatly looking forward to the PS3 arriving. But I think I'll be OK, because I'm still only maybe a third of the way through Persona 3, and am trying to finish up Jeanne d'Arc. So I'm still pretty busy with games.

Maybe I'll get lucky, though, and it's all a big misunderstanding. Dell, get your act together. I need that new PS3.

11.09.2008

The Joys of Choosing

Well, I finally did it. I bought a PS3 today. Of course, the only bad news is that it won't arrive until sometime between Thursday and next Monday. I hadn't planned on buying any game system, preferring instead to catch up on PS2 and GameCube games. Fortunately/unfortunately, last I week I saw blogs all over the Internet reporting that Wal-Mart would be having a super-amazing-deal on PS3s on Saturday. Buy a PS3, get a $100 gift card. Effectively, that almost gives you two new games of your choice for free. It's a great deal, especially since Sony has repeatedly stated that they will not be dropping prices this holiday season. The one-day sale started at 8. Thinking there wouldn't be a rush on systems, I took my time and made it to Wal-Mart at 8:15 or so. They were gone. I think I saw a woman leaving with the last one as I entered electronics. : (

In my frustration at having missed such a good deal, I scoured the Internet when I got home searching for another one. Luckily, Dell.com had a coupon code for 15% off all electronics, including PS3 and 360 systems. While not quite as good as the Wal-Mart sale, it still got me a PS3 for $340, which is basically like getting a free game.

The problem, though, is that I'm completely undecided as to what game to buy. Let me run through a short list of what I'm considering. Please, please give me some input and help me decide. I'll probably mess around with downloading demos, videos, and maybe buying one PSN game first. But I'll want a full retail game soon enough. Here we go, in no particular order.
  1. Fallout 3 - I loved the quirky humor and apocalyptic setting of the first two games, and these turned me on to computer RPGs in general. However, I tend to play a lot of huge, lengthy RPGs/strategy games. Maybe now would be a good time to change pace.
  2. Bioshock - It just made it's way to the PS3 last month after over a year of exclusivity on the 360. I have to eventually play the game that everyone still references. However, everyone has pretty much played and talked this one to death, so maybe I should play something new and fresh.
  3. Call of Duty 4 - Similar to Bioshock, I really want to play the FPS that got so much critical acclaim. But it's older and might drop in price after World at War is released. On that note, maybe World at War (if it looks good).
  4. Metal Gear Solid 4 - This is probably the game I actually want the most for PS3, despite its flaws, but I kind of want to play MGS3 first. So maybe I'll wait on this one.
  5. The Orange Box - I've always wanted to play the Half-Life series and see what all the fuss is about, and I don't think I can call myself a gamer without playing Portal at some point. However, the PS3 version is supposedly the most glitchy of the 3 versions, although I've heard it's not so bad.
  6. Far Cry 2 - I mainly see this as a good way to branch into a different genre of games, FPSs, which I rarely play. The things I've read about Far Cry 2 have been positive, and it's pretty new, but I'm more excited about some of the others.
  7. LittleBigPlanet - Last, Sony's promise of changing gaming and allowing users an unprecedented degree of freedom. I think LBP looks cute and charming and very fun, but I'm worried I would only use 2/3 of the game. I would definitely play all of the developer-created levels, and I would play as many user-created ones as seemed worth my time. But I highly doubt I would invest much time in creating levels. I've pretty much never done that with other games.
So, that's my short list. Leave a comment and let me know what game you think I should purchase first. Ultimately, I'll choose whichever one I think I'll have the most fun with, but I'd like some other input too. And if you think of a game that's not on this list, let me know. I could easily have missed something great. So write me a comment. I need help.

Note: GTAIV is not on this list on purpose. I've never finished a GTA game, so I think I'll probably skip this one.

11.05.2008

Writing For a New Site

To all of you visiting me from GameSetWatch, hello, welcome, and thanks for stopping by. I've been pretty busy lately, and haven't had too much time to post.

The biggest news is I've started writing and contributing content to a small gaming website, TheGameReviews. So far I've just been posting news stories, but I'm nearly finished with my first couple of feature articles. Hopefully they'll be looked over, edited and put on the site in the not-too-distant future. Don't worry, I'll always link to whatever I write over there. It's really a great site. All the writers have a great dedication to integrity, and spend a lot of time working on really great articles.

I've also been slowly working (suffering?) through Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee along with the Vintage Game Club. I'm not quite sure how I feel about it yet, but it is frustrating constantly dying and dealing with occasionally clunky controls.

Anyway, I've been enjoying all the writing I've been doing lately, and hope to keep it up. Stick around!

10.28.2008

Can a 40+ Hour Game Tell an Engaging Story?

I have trouble remembering the details of a movie plot a few days or weeks after I've seen it. However, compared to my retention rate of significant events in video game stories, my movie memory is outstanding. Even the shortest of plot-based games (typically some kind of shooter or action game) are 6-8 hours long at the minimum. When RPGs or strategy games stretch into the dozens of hours, played over many weeks or months, how am I to be expected to recall something that happened in the beginning of the game.

As much as some game designers strive to create cinematic experiences, the nature of many games as a temporally-longer medium inherently works against that desire. Movies routinely place a small character or seemingly insignificant event near the beginning of the film. This bit often comes into play as a significant factor in the conclusion. And in a roughly two hour movie, it's usually not too difficult to recall this tiny bit of information (usually with some help from cues in the movie itself. But in a game that is many times longer, this technique is not only impractical, but also would require a great deal of explanation to catch the player up to speed.

The demands (by some) for longer games as a return on a financial investment in them can actually be a detriment to the ability of game designers to tell a cohesive, satisfying story. Due to the high cost of games, many people commonly think that more game play time equals a better value, simply due to the resulting price per hour. True, a $10 movie ticket might be a $5 per hour value, while a $60 game is a $1-3 per hour value. But this often can lead to repetitive game play, and the developers tacking things on to the core package just to extend the length of the game for its own sake.

Just like with anything, longer isn't necessarily better. Even in movies, one of my biggest criticisms is that the editors should have cut it down a little bit, tightening up the narrative. Similarly, as games like Portal have shown, games can contain compelling narrative elements without taking weeks to complete.

In the PSP strategy game Jeanne d'Arc, battles between story scenes can easily drag on for over an hour. Since this game typically requires a generous time commitment per play session, I don't pick it up that often. Thus I have trouble remembering what happened last time, what I'm supposed to be doing, and how the characters are connected. On the other hand, Shadow of the Colossus is much shorter, only eight hours or so, and also has a somewhat simpler story that is paradoxically thematically complex and nuanced. Through my sixteen battles with the colossi, I always know that I'm trying to bring a girl back to life. The story is never lost in the game play.

Particularly as I get older, I find I don't have the time to sit for hours and be engrossed in a game. The longer a game, the more likely I am to put it down for a lengthy time and forget major details about it. This is a major detriment, I think, to games' ability to tell a story, which is of course but one of their many functions. How can developers get around this problem? One common way now is to try to integrate the story into the game play itself. More importantly, I think the community and developer mindset of "bigger and longer is better" is a huge detriment. I would much rather play a tight, compact game like Portal or Shadow of the Colossus over a 40 hour epic. Of course, I wouldn't want this trend to reverse too much, or I might end up an old man rushing through ten minute games before I fall asleep in my underwear.

10.26.2008

A Great Recommender of Games

Despite my regular prowling of gaming news sites and blogs, most of my actual recent purchases have been recommendations made over on The Brainy Gamer blog. In particular, PS2 and portable games, since I currently have a grand total of 0 current-gen systems. I gave up my Japanese Wii upon returning to the states in favor of buying an American one so I could play games in English.

Anyway, based on Michael's recommendations, I have purchased Persona 3: FES, Parappa the Rapper, Patapon, No More Heroes, the greatest hits version of Odin Sphere, and played the demo of World of Goo. As far as I can tell, anything Michael recommends is pure gaming gold. He even made me want Yakuza 3 for what he assures is a brilliant story, despite my apathy towards open-world GTA-style games. There are quite a few other games he's mentioned that I'm interested in too, including Pixeljunk Eden, Zack and Wiki, and Gitaroo Man.

I'm not trying to be too much of a Brainy Gamer cheerleader, but Michael consistently has solid game recommendations, particularly for ones that are in danger of being forgotten. So check it out. I always look forward to his next update.

10.22.2008

What do you do for fun?

What do you do for fun?

Well, sometimes I go horseback riding, or hunting, or go out to the bars. What about you? What do you do for fun?

Last night, I fought a mighty colossus. It must have been over 50 feet tall! First, I had to figure out how to climb up on the massive creature, by climbing the nearby colosseum and jumping on his head. Then I had to hold on tight, and hope he took a break from flailing wildly around and trying to throw me off, so I would have a chance to stab him right in his weak spot! Phew. It was one of the toughest yet.

Huh?

Ugh, I mean, I like to play video games. Sometimes.


Although it did not occur, the possibility of the above conversation presented itself too me. Much of my free time had been occupied by Shadow of the Colossus recently, and upon being asked by someone I hadn't seen in years what I do for fun, I wondered what their reaction would be if I described my most recent virtual battle.

Granted, I don't know this person's familiarity with video games, but it's probably unlikely they're as involved with them as I am. This strongly reminded me of The Brainy Gamer's recent series of posts on not being afraid of "game shame," and trying to defend the value of "play." I really think Michael Abbott nailed at least part of the issue, when he identified that it's not just games that are seen as childish by the mainstream, but the idea of adults having fun and playing, whether it be a physical game, a video game, or just running around in the yard.

There is an embarrassing amount of game shame, in general, despite the proliferation of things like the Wii, and a variety of games aimed at a more mainstream audience. I've often thought twice about playing a portable game in public, or when many other people are around. To be fair, I think some of the poorly written encounters in video games are embarrassing in their own right. Thinking carefully about sitting through a cut-scene where a poorly-voiced scantily-clad elf throws awkward sexual innuendo at you while your girlfriend's sitting next to you on the couch.

Perhaps more importantly, why is it so rare for people to describe their game experiences, especially to non-gamers? On one level, I think it's because people without a background in video games will have no idea what you're talking about, so it can possibly be a dead-end conversation. At the same time, not all games are easily describable to others unless they have a vested interest in that game/genre.

Maybe the best approach is, when asked what I do for fun, to not just say I play video games, but explain why a particular game is unique or important. Explain how the art style, music, and grace of the colossi in SotC contribute to an overall melancholy mood, and a fear for the safety of your main character. This is something that's rarely achieved in any game. Or I could always turn on some personality mimicry and appeal to the other person's sensibilities.

10.20.2008

Shadow of the Colossus is Both Beautiful and Haunting

Regardless of how anyone might feel about the game, Shadow of the Colossus is definitely a unique game. Personally, I loved it, despite the somewhat tragic emotional themes. And if SotC had achievements or trophies, I would have earned one for "Refusing to seek help." This was one of those rare games for me where I didn't get frustrated and seek out the answers, although I came mighty close on two of the colossi to giving up.

Despite occasionally clunky controls, it's an amazing sensation to climb to great heights and try to puzzle out the secret to overcoming each of your huge adversaries. This is almost an action/puzzle game more than anything else, and there's always a good chance something unexpected will happen. One moment, you're making steady progress up a colossus' back/leg/wing. The next, a sudden gust of wind or wild shake of their head sends you tumbling, scrabbling for a ledge to save your rapid descent. It's exhilarating.

Of course, these game play moments that cause your body to tingle are in direct contrast to the sense of impending doom you feel after the defeat of each colossus. I know the main character is trying to bring a girl back to life, but something's not quite right in this empty, desolate world. A mysterious voice warns in the beginning that this quest may be more damaging to the main character than he can possibly realize, but we plunge ahead anyway.

I really like that he's not your typical hero, either. Yes, he defeats all 16 colossi, but he's just a young kid, maybe a teenager. And this teen is every bit as awkward and gangly as you and I were at one time. He runs and constantly stumbles, can only climb for a certain amount of time, and must concentrate and build up his strength before plunging his sword into a colossus. He's neither all-powerful not perfect. It's quite refreshing, and all this comes across through game play and visual cues, with a minimal amount of video 'lectures' from the director.

But after beating all the colossi with few interruptions, it's then a little jarring to have to sit through a 20 minute ending/closing credit sequence. But on the other hand, I thought it was both perfect and poignant.

SotC is by no means perfect, but it's extremely fun and entertaining, and should leave with you something to actually think about when you're finished. Plus, it's quite short, which is great for someone like me who has increasingly less time for games these days. If you've never played it, it definitely deserves your attention. Just because the colossus has a weak point, does that mean you should exploit it?

----On a side note, and with small spoilers, part of the ending reminded me of the end of FFVII: Crisis Core. And here I thought Crisis Core was the first game to have that type of ending...

10.16.2008

Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus has completely swallowed what little time I've devoted to playing games lately. Since numerous others have mentioned many of its merits extensively, I'll try to highlight what I have found to be most significant.

SotC feels like few other games to me, not necessarily because of the massive colossi per se, but more because the designers focused on a handful of mechanics (and colossi) and polished them to a glossy sheen. Nothing is superfluous, and both the world and your means of interaction with that world are ever-present from start to...well, probably finish, but I still have two more colossi to go. What this means, and what I think so few developers fail to understand, is that a smaller number of mechanics in a game which can be more carefully nurtured allow me, the player, to feel more immersed and get that world.

From the beginning of the game, with little in the way of fanfare or introduction, I know exactly what I'm capable of, as well as my limitations. I can run, jump, ride a horse, swing a sword, shoot a bow, and perhaps most importantly, climb. What the designers have done so well is take these handful of ideas, and create 16 variations with which I can use them to fell a mighty creature. Even the 1 or 2 colossus I found cheap and frustrating proved somewhat more unique and interesting in hindsight.

On an initial play through, there are no distracting side quests a la Zelda. The world is stark, barren, only containing your character, the colossi, your dead girlfriend laid out on a marble slab, and a mysterious voice from above. Barring a short cut scene at the start of the game, and minimal plot progression after every 4 or 5 colossi, you are truly on your own in this game. And you feel totally isolated. There's not even much in the way of a tutorial, with the first couple of colossi serving as learning stages on their own.

The stark landscapes and isolation are vitally important to the overall mood of the game, and (I hope) it's ultimate theme. It feels much more purposeful and meaningful as a desolate space than, say, No More Heroes. While Santa Destroy is empty, and can be read in certain ways as a commentary on the meaninglessness of many tasks in open-world games, the world in SotC are, I think, much more interesting emotionally. Killing a colossus means there's one less creature in an already empty world. How much more destruction am I expected to do?

I'm almost finished, and am extremely interested to see what happens after my final battle. I have a few more comments saved up, but I'll add those to my final thoughts on the game. I've read of at least one other writer that was unable to finish the game due to the emotional impact it had on him. I do question why I'm killing these colossi, these guardians, and what point it all serves. But I'm willing to press on regardless. I'll see if any of the mysteries are resolved soon enough.

10.15.2008

Back in the Swing of Things

After more than 3 months, I'm finally ready to start writing again. Through a combination of being extremely busy with lifestyle changes and being more than a little bit lazy, I've neglected my blog for far too long. In July, I was busy preparing for an international move, from Japan back to my parent's house in Kentucky. August saw me settling in, wishing I had my own place to live, and getting ready for a massive month-long European vacation with my girlfriend. September was my 7 country rush through Europe, and then recently I've been busy moving and getting settled into a house with my girlfriend. So I've been legitimately busy, and now I've got the unenviable task of searching for a job (career?) and thinking about what to do with my life.

But writing about games shall resume post haste! Probably later today or tomorrow. I've most recently been playing Shadow of the Colossus, and before that Jeanne d'Arc and Daxter. I've got quite a few thoughts on those games, and I'm also going to try to think more carefully about what I'm doing with this blog. See you soon.

6.30.2008

Blizzard: A Case Study in Avoiding Sequel-itis

With the entire Internet still posting and speculating on Blizzard's recent official unveiling of Diablo III, I think it would be a good time to mention a characteristic of Blizzard that few other developers can claim. Blizzard is one of only a handful of companies that doesn't pump out sequels year after year. There is usually a significant gap between their major releases. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that Blizzard is juggling several popular, well-respected franchises. But I'd also like to think this extended wait between sequels is due to the quality and care Blizzard takes in crafting their games. Let's briefly look at a few of their franchises.

Warcraft: Orcs and Humans - Jan. 15, 1994
Warcraft II - Nov. 30, 1995
Warcraft III - July 3, 2002

Diablo - Nov. 30, 1996
Diablo II - June 29, 2000
Diablo III - Just announced (2009 at the earliest)

Starcraft - April 1, 1998
Starcraft II - TBA (probably early 2009)

With the exception of Warcraft II, Blizzard tends to have lengthy waits between their major sequels. They range from as little as 4 to as much as (potentially) 10 or 11 years. As much as I love many of Blizzard's games, despite not having played them too extensively, I think it's healthy for the game industry to not be glutted by repetitive sequels. Not only do Blizzard's releases tend to be quite spread out, but they also necessarily make many significant improvements and changes to the games to provide a largely new experience.

Of course, the biggest example of types of games that flood the market are the yearly releases of major sports franchises. I get that they're meant to coincide with the start of a new *actual* sports season. But most of those sequels aren't substantively different from previous versions. And even if they are, did you waste your time perfecting your skills in one Madden game, only have to relearn some things a year later?

Also, I know that Blizzard is not the only company to spend more time on their games and have lengthy waits between sequels. Obviously Rockstar (GTA), Kojima Productions (MGS4), and even Square-Enix (Final Fantasy and Draqon Quest series) have similar release patterns.

A healthy wait is good for us. And it can only help when a developer spends some extra time polishing off a game. What other developers avoid the "release a sequel every year or two" syndrome? As much as it pains me to wait for a highly anticipated game, isn't the wait usually worth it?

Note: The Blizzard release dates were taken from a combination of Gamefaqs.com and Wikipedia.

6.27.2008

Could a Native American Enjoy Playing Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization?

In a previous post, I wrote about the integration of culture into Civ III. A post by Ben Fritz on the Variety Cut Scene video game blog has got me thinking about the Civ series again. In short, Ben is quite upset that the recently announced Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization is a morally disturbing premise for a game.

In part, I'm inclined to agree. While I've been enjoying the Civ games, it's hard for me not to picture the many terrible things that happened either during or as a result of the actual colonization period. I don't think making a historically based game in itself is a bad thing. In fact, it's great. And hopefully causes people to be more attuned to the importance of history. Really, I think the greatest detriment of this new Colonization game is that it you can only play as one of four colonizing nations.

I think it would be more interesting, and provide for a different game play experience, if you could (only?) play as the Native Americans. While the core Civ games allow you to play as many different cultures, even some that no longer exist, you ultimately play the game in a similar manner. If you choose the Aztecs as your civilization, they can still come to conquer the world just like anyone else. Not to knock Civ too much, because I love it's core game play and attempt at incorporating as many historical 'milestones' as possible. But after reading Ben's article, it seems to me like the Civ games are really more about playing a "What if?" scenario than about accurately recreating history.

True, Colonization covers a much more specific period of history. But imagine if you could only play as the Aztecs, Iroquois, Shawnee, and Mayans, and were doomed from the start. It would be a much more powerful experience than performing the same old conquest again and again. This reminds of my last post, about how MGS4 is much more somber, and even sad, than previous versions.

I agree with Ben that there are deep, serious issues about power and colonization buried within all of the Civ games. However, unlike the RE5 race controversy, I think these issues are more difficult for the average gamer to recognize. Plus, it's easy to shrug and say, "What are you talking about? Colonization is ancient history. That doesn't happen anymore." Right or wrong, I'm glad Ben Fritz reminded me of the underlying themes of the Civ games. They are definitely worth exploring.

6.26.2008

Sadness in MGS4

A few days ago, as a guest blogger at Kotaku, Stephen Totilo of the MTV Multiplayer Blog described some of the thoughts about MGS4 he tried to get across in the New York Times article on the same game. He said, "Metal Gear Solid 4 is so unusual in that it's the rare game that asks them to be interested in something else: a march toward defeat, an interactive tragedy."

Granted I haven't played the game yet. Nor do I even have a PS3. But I've mentioned at least once on this blog that I feel like I too often play games that lead to inevitable success. There are so few games where something evil occurs at the end, or the narrative is focused on sadness rather than triumph, or the hero is ultimately unsuccessful. Small spoilers upcoming for Crisis Core: FFVII. I really loved the narrative in Crisis Core, and how the ending is bittersweet. Even though I already knew the general story arc, the actual presentation of it was more powerful than I expected. Despite the uncommon ending, it felt quite refreshing to experience something so different.

For the same reasons, I really want to play MGS4, and see just how much it really touches on sadder themes of loss. Totilo made a really great point. Games really need to move away from the "advance through the world, destroy final boss, everyone rejoices" pattern. I can only hope that more games follow suit.

6.25.2008

Pata- Pata- Pata- Pon!

I'm a mere 2 missions away from ending my divine link with the Patapon tribe. Short of a brain-stopping revelation in the final chunk of the game, I have a few final thoughts. I love my divine association with the Patapons. The game could easily have had no narrative link between me and them, with the drums being just a random rhythm-based game mechanic. But from the second I loaded up the game, I knew that the drums were divine instruments, the Patapons worshipped me, and I was a god with the power of life and death in my hands. To some degree, I really wanted to feel responsible for my Patapons, and my heartstrings were tugged in multiple directions as I struggled to find my way through the opening stages. But as I found my groove and helped my Patapons triumph over those dastardly Zigatons, I couldn't help but feel proud to have led my tribe away from the brink of extinction.

I have even had a vision that the Patapons actually reside inside the PSP. Despite being a mortal human for as long as I can remember, to the minuscule Patapons, I am someone to worship. And that unabashedly makes me stand a bit taller. If the 4 drums in the game are literally the face buttons on the PSP, then is it such a stretch to imagine that by inserting the game disc I activated their latent power? ; )

Much like the best portable games, Patapon has that addicting pick-up-and-play, just one more mission feeling that makes you completely lose track of time. Each battle is short, just a few minutes, and loading times are minuscule. In the beginning, I found it very helpful that the loading screens were covered with truly helpful game hints. These were often either things I didn't know at all, or things I had forgotten from the manual.

I'm rarely impressed by the attempted photo-realism of many current console games, so Patapon's art style feels perfect for me. But even beyond that, the minimalist style also warranted some unique graphical flourishes. The background has subtle wisps of wind that indicate whether your arrows will fly far and true or come up short. Even though I lack direct control of my troops, enemies are easily marked as "in range" by a change to the squinting, focused glare of my soldiers.

Sure, I wish some of the battles against the Zigaton army were replayable, instead of just the boss battles. And it's initially confusing to know which level of upgrade is the best for a given unit. But these small criticisms are greatly outclassed by the joy that is to be had in guiding my Patapon army across a desert, through swamps, and through the carcasses of numerous and diverse foes. If you have a PSP and haven't played Patapon, and are bemoaning the lack of announced PSP games for the future, you're doing a great disservice to both yourself and the game industry. Go get it. Now.

6.22.2008

Back in Action

My folks have not only left town, but have left the entire country and returned to good old Kentucky. It was great having them here, but it left little time for either playing games or blogging about them. So it's good to finally be back. (Also, the 'B' key on my keyboard is acting up. So if you see any words missing a B, it's because B is for some reason furious at me and refuses to go on the screen every time I tell it to.)

Meeting my parents in Tokyo for their first few days in Japan did allow me to bring my new PSP into public for the first time. Thus far, my PSP time had been spent in the (non) comfort of my apartment's floor chair. Since the original Game Boy, I've never been the type of person to take my portable gaming devices into public, I think for a combination of 2 reasons. The first was an embarrassment (which is largely absent now) of gaming in public, and the second being that I never had an opportunity to play games while on the go.

Living in Japan without a car, and relying on public transportation, has really showed me the benefits and joys of commuter gaming. It's a great way to pass the time on a train or bus, and take your mind off the minutes or hours until your destination. It's also made me realize that not all games are great (or even playable) in moving vehicles. DS touch screen games (such as Puzzle Quest) are virtually impossible on a train. Similarly, games where sound is an integral and necessary part of the game play are difficult to play on trains because, obviously trains are very loud.

And that brings me to Patapon, the $20 game that is the only thing I had time to play last week. I'm really enjoying not only the rhythm mechanics of Patapon, but the art style and character designs are incredibly unique and cute. If you can consider a militaristic army cute. has captivated me so much that I can't help but enjoy even those aspects of the game which I really want to dislike. For example, as was widely reported when the game was released earlier this year, it is a common occurrence in Patapon to have to stop every few missions to do some grinding in order to create stronger and better-equipped units. The game play is so interesting and fun, that I even am enjoying grinding for gear. Unlike many RPGs, I'm not bored at all by this.

I'm near the end of the main game now, and am currently doing some grinding to get the best army I can before doing the final missions. Hopefully, I'll finish the game later this week, and post some more thoughts then. In the meantime, I've got a small boat load of games (and other stuff) to ship home before I move back to the U.S. next month.

6.11.2008

Random Game Playing

I know I haven't been posting that often recently. I've actually been finding it hard to balance playing games with writing about games. Often, I've felt more like playing something than thinking of something to say about a game. Nonetheless, here are some random thoughts on what I've been doing recently.

After an extremely long hiatus, I finished Grim Fandango. It was a sometimes frustrating, but ultimately rewarding experience. Despite the dated graphics, the production-qualities are top-notch. The decision by LucasArts to basically remove death from their adventure games of the 1990s was extremely wise. It works especially well for this genre too. And most importantly, it encourages experimentation. When I regularly found myself unsure of how to proceed in the game, I would try to use promising items on every object and character in the game, sometimes to their annoyance. But other than being stuck as a player, I was never discouraged from trying unorthodox methods.

On some blog, I'm not sure which, maybe the 1Up Yours podcast, they were talking about Lego Indiana Jones. Much like Lego Star Wars, your characters have a 4 heart health bar. And they were wondering why even bother with a health bar when you respawn at the exact location you died in. For all practical purposes, there is no death in those games. In Grim Fandango, the no-death concept works because you're not really fighting anything. You're trying to solve environmental puzzles. Nobody is shooting at you or attacking you in real time. It seems like the only solution with the Lego games would be either invincibility with little fighting, or 1 hit kills, both of which sound like painful, inferior solutions.

Finally, I got the Widescreen Mod to work for Baldur's Gate, which I have returned to after a period of many years. It wouldn't work before because the Bioware website told me I didn't need to download a patch with my version of the game. Somehow they were wrong, I did need the patch, and now the mod works fine. And beautifully too, I might add. I'm just barely into the game, since I haven't had much time to play recently, but I'm excited to delve further into it. I've also enjoyed listening to and reading about the release of D&D 4th edition, despite having never played a pen and paper RPG in my life. It's still fascinating.

And that's it. I'll be on another break from the blog, as my parents are arriving in Japan tomorrow to visit me. But, I still have a 3 hour train ride to and from Tokyo, to get in some serious time with my still-fledgling Patapon army. Until next time.

6.05.2008

Itagaki Leaving and Suing Tecmo

JC Barnett at Japanmanship posted a take on Team Ninja's Itagaki quitting Tecmo and suing for unpaid bonuses. As someone else who lives and works in Japan, albeit in a school rather than a game development company, I couldn't agree more with JC's take on the situation. This quote from JC sums it up nicely.
"It certainly sounds like he was promised a bonus, but the excuse is that previous management had dropped the ball here. Again, I’ve seen this sort of stuff happen before, where management changes, or not, even, bring about contractual changes which are pretty much dumped on the employees who have no say in the matter. Or rather, they do, but they won’t. Unless they sue."
In a general sense, it's common practice for employees to be expected to not take advantage of any perks or benefits of their jobs. The official end of the working day for most teachers is, I think, 5:30. However, through a combination of truly being busy and being expected to stay as long as everyone else, very few teachers actually leave when the official work day is over. It is common for teachers to stay as late as 8, 9, 10 o'clock at night, every day. To be fair, it's a shame that many teachers are over-worked, especially those who are in charge of clubs and sports teams. However, with the exception of mothers with young children, I've found that very few teachers leave at a reasonable time.

So I can totally understand and appreciate JC's perspective. Personally, if Itagaki really did have a bonus that he wasn't paid for, I'm glad he's trying to get it. But also like JC, I don't particularly care for him as either a game designer or a persona. Regardless of the outcome of his lawsuit, it's likely that business in Japan will carry on as usual.

6.04.2008

Crisis Core Complete...For Now

I just finished Crisis Core. Literally, like 5 minutes ago. From my previous posts, I stand by my assertion that Crisis Core is an average enough game on its own, but as a prequel to FFVII, it's really incredible. The story is much more involving, and, to use a common English phrase used by Japanese people, it's very moving.

I'd like to briefly attempt the impossible, and touch on why I liked the ending without giving anything away to those handful of you have never played any game in the FFVII universe. Those of us familiar with FFVII know the outcome of Zack and Cloud before Crisis Core even starts. Their fates are preordained. Despite this, and the fact that Square knows that most of the people playing this game already know how the story ends, it still manages to do some interesting things. Essentially, Crisis Core explores the concepts of honor, loyalty, and even death to a great degree than many other games. The ending really manages to put you in Zack's shoes, and even attempts to explain some of the game play systems and how they are connected with Zack. The ending is sad, moving, and hopeful all in one, and surprisingly mature, especially in the super-emo world of Final Fantasy.

So, I think that's all that needs to be said about the ending. I'm sure it was vague and mysterious to those of you who haven't played the game, and hopefully interesting to those of you who have. I would recommend Crisis Core to about any PSP owner. The story is mostly intelligible, even to newcomers to the series. The exception is the lengthy ending, which I know would probably be a little baffling to a newcomer.

I went ahead and finished the main storyline of the game. But sometime in the future, I plan on loading up my save before the final boss and playing through the rest of the optional missions, just for completions' sake.

But for now, I have some other games on my plate. After reading about the Widescreen Mod for the original Baldur's Gate on PC, which lets you play the game in higher resolutions, I found I had acquired a very strong itch to play it. I played a couple hours of it once, but that was long ago. But I don't have enough space on my computer, so I have to beat Grim Fandango first to make room. And of course, I can't wait to delve further into Patapon now that Crisis Core is finished. So, I have plenty to do. And I'm sure you do too.

6.01.2008

Crisis Core: The (Potential) Journey to 100%

Well, I've reached a point in Crisis Core where I must make a decision. That decision is whether to go ahead and finish the main storyline of the game, so I can move on to something else (aka Patapon), or whether I should try to finish as many of the 300 side missions as I can (I've currently done about 50%). This afternoon while I was playing, I had decided to just go ahead and finish the main game. I was tired of the tedious side missions, which offered little reward, and were slowly beginning to hand it to me. But then I finally got a very powerful materia (spell) that should allow me to breeze through a number of the missions.

However, to get to the point of this post, in order to find and create that materia, I needed the help of a FAQ on the Internet. My question to you, the readers, is how much or how often do you seek help with games? Do you only seek a walkthrough when you get utterly stuck and frustrated beyond hope? Do you buy a strategy guide with every new game and play through the entirety of the game with the guide in your lap? Or are you, like me, somewhere in between?

I consider myself a moderate game completionist. Within reason, I like to see and do all there is within a given game. I want to collect as many items and do as many side missions as possible. But sometimes, it just doesn't seem worth it. And I nearly reached that point with Crisis Core. I tend to only seek assistance in the course of trying to not miss things. What I often find is that I can't help reading about a section of a game right after I complete it. And then I inevitably sneak a peak at the next section to see what's coming up. The thought of irrevocably missing out on some aspect of a game gives me chills. Not really. But I do try my best not to miss any missables.

This stands in stark contrast to film, which movies so often aspire to emulate. While I have no qualms about reading details of areas in games before I've played them (when necessary), I would never, under any circumstances, read too much about a movie I've never seen. It often ruins the experience. The same can not be said of many sections of games, particularly the tedious, repetitious bits.

So where do you stand? How much help are you willing to seek for games? And how do you think that affects your experience of them?

EDIT: After reading Diego/Kimari's comment, I realized that I forgot to mention another, important reason that I often check the Internet regularly while playing a game. The reason is that my gaming time is very valuable. Not only do I have a plethora of games yet to be completed, but I also have numerous other commitments and activities to do in my spare time. So my gaming time is limited, and simultaneously important. I don't want to waste it by running around blindly in a game, or repeatedly losing a fight. In short, I prefer to make constant progress.

5.26.2008

Crisis Core: The Pros and Cons

The biggest strength and weakness of Crisis Core on the PSP is that your enjoyment might depend to a large degree on your relationship with the original Final Fantasy VII. That being said, I'm really having a great time with Crisis Core, largely because I like seeing some events that happened prior to FFVII. It is my firm belief that without the FFVII brand and mythos, Crisis Core would have been a mediocre, repetitive game.

Just so I don't sound like I'm knocking it too much, Crisis Core is a very fun game, and does a lot of things right. First, it feels very much like a Final Fantasy game, from the spells, to the images, to the music, it's all there. Even underneath the action exterior lies the heart of a turn-based RPG. Even though you run around battles at will and attack when you have an opening, every button press does not equate to an action on screen. If you make Zack (the protagonist) attack, there is a slight but noticeable pause before you can input another command. Similarly, magic spells take a proportionately longer time to charge before casting. These pauses lend a bit more strategy to the game, since you must balance when you can attack, and when you need to dodge, guard, or heal.

Another thing Crisis Core does an incredible job of is the story. Granted, I haven't finished the game yet, I'm maybe 70-75% done. But your primary mission, and the central mystery of the game, is extremely compelling. Sure, Zack starts out as something of a typical whiny, annoying, young male emo with spiky hair. But as this tale of friendship, honor, and most importantly trust begins to unfold, Zack undergoes a distinctive and powerful change. He matures. I know, that's rare in a game. There's even a simple scene where Zack mourns the loss of a friend, simply crying on the floor. It's surprisingly touching to see such a genuine feeling of loss and sadness in a game character. I'm eagerly pushing ahead with the story missions, anxious to find out what happens, but also dreading the end of the ride.

However, as I said before, the FFVII brand recognition causes me to overlook some of the game's flaws. First of all, battles get very repetitive. At least in the early stages, and even up to where I am now, probably 90% of battles can be finished by simply attacking with the X button. But that's not so bad, considering that the ease of battle gives you an opportunity to mess around with the numerous spells you have at your disposal, with little worry about losing a fight. Still, it would have been nice to fight enemies that were more resistant to physical attacks and took different strategies to conquer.

A more glaring weakness, in my opinion, is the pace of the game if you are A) a completionist or B) just want to find some upgrades and powerful spells. While the main story line is, I think, comparatively short, there are 300 optional missions you can complete. As a nice move, these can be accessed from any save point in the entire game. They make perfect sense from a narrative perspective. Since you are a member of an elite military unit, you can undertake these assignments from your government, or other organizations.

But I found they really disrupt the flow of the game. You might do the first few chapters of the story, then when checking out the mission screen, find that you have several dozen missions ranked as "Easy" or "Normal" for you to complete. If you do all the missions you are able to, hours will pass by, and it really draws you out of the story. Plus, the majority of the missions provide you with items or spells that you don't really need. The payoff for most of them is minuscule.

Most of the 300 missions are in the 5-10 minute range, so they're perfect for pick-up-and-play on a portable system like the PSP. Personally, I would rather have had a smaller number of missions that were more integrated into the storyline, so I didn't feel as if I was being dragged out of the game every time I attempted one.

Crisis Core, while not perfect, is definitely an excellent action-RPG for the PSP, with one of the best stories I've encountered in a while. FFVII novices will miss out on some subtle nuances in the story, given that the rest of us know what will inevitably happen in a few years in the game world. However, I think the story would still be engrossing and intriguing regardless of your familiarity (or lack thereof) with the source material. Crisis Core is a worthy addition to any PSP owner's library.

Well, I've still got a lot of missions to work through.

5.21.2008

Violence In No More Heroes - Blood-Free Japan

I finished No More Heroes a couple weeks ago, only a few months later than the rest of the world. It was really fun, enjoyable, albeit flawed experience. It was by no means perfect, but I really loved most of the time I spent in that world. Plenty has been written about No More Heroes already. What I think I can add to the rich dialogue is a look at the differences between the Japanese and U.S. version. See that screen shot at the top. I never could see anything like that while playing my version of the game. Since I live in Japan, I purchased the Japanese version, largely because the cut scenes still have English dialogue, just subtitled in Japanese.

More specifically, I wanted to briefly examine the differences in the portrayal of violence in these 2 versions. They are extremely different. The Japanese version of NMH is completely bloodless. Instead of defeated enemies exploding in a shower of coins and blood, in Japan enemies explode in a shower of coins and...some kind of weird black goo. I didn't think it looked that strange until I was reminded that the U.S. version was different. Then after watching a few YouTube videos, I believe that these 2 versions provide vastly different play experiences.

That being said, I think the key difference is in the boss battles, and the differences are apparent on 2 levels. On the first, most superficial level, your successful assassination of a boss in the Japanese version lacks the gravity of the U.S. version. And I know the presentation in this game is way over the top, but the deaths of most of the bosses carry a certain weight to them nonetheless. Take a look at this comparison of the first boss in the game, Death Metal.


In my version, I could barely even tell that Travis had cut off both his hands. The altered visuals made it difficult to tell what exactly had happened. Death Metal's death also loses some of its impact in that all that's left of him is an unidentifiable black pile of...something.

The second level of differences in the death scenes is on a more thematic level. During the final cut scene of that level in my version, Death Metal is gone. He's basically evaporated just like any other enemy in the game, except for a tiny black patch on the ground. But in the U.S. version, Death Metal's hand-less, head-less corpse is left in full view during the cut scene, as Sylvia's men clean up the mess. While Travis cares little for what he's doing in the beginning of the game, the effects of the carnage do change his attitude later in the game. The bodies of the departed are a reminder, to the player first and Travis later, that the assassin game is a messy business.

But the Japanese version completely loses these important ideas. As the bosses and their deaths grow more outlandish and complex, the Japanese version remains uncertain and, well, a little awkward. If the deaths of the bosses in NMH carry emotional weight and importance, what is their significance if they are altered nearly to the point of being unrecognizable? I'd say it makes for a vastly different, and inferior, game.

But it was still a blast to play through. I know just making the blood black and eliminating some of the more elaborate death animations was the quickest, cheapest way to alter the game for the Japanese market. But it would have been pretty cool, in my humble opinion, if Suda51 had kept with the retro themes in the game, and made the enemy deaths harken back to the games of yesterday. Enemies could explode into balls of light like Mega-Man, get squashed like goombas, or just explode into pixels and be reabsorbed into the game world from whence they came.

Even though No More Heroes is a somewhat different experience in Japan, there are still plenty of strange sexually-themed games here that would cause the U.S. to have a national heart attack. After all, I doubt U.S. gamers will ever get, or want, to massage metrosexualized high school boys a la Duel Love. Japan is a strange place sometimes. But then again, so is everywhere else.

5.18.2008

The PSP - My Thoughts

After extensive testing, I find the PSP to be quite a good gaming machine. Although it is, of course, not without its faults, too. So I'd like to present some of my thoughts on my newest acquisition, especially in comparison to the DS.

The Good

  • Downloadable Content - So far, this is perhaps my favorite feature of the PSP. Logging on to the PSN Store and downloading demos, trailers, backgrounds, and themes to my PSP is something I haven't really experienced yet with gaming. I don't have a PS3 or XBox 360, and while the Wii has numerous Virtual Console games available, Nintendo's still exploring. And the DS, well, without any memory, demos are only as good as long as the system stays on.

  • Sexy Design - The PSP is a really beautiful piece of hardware, although the DS caught up a little with the DS Lite redesign. The bright, wide screen in particular is really nice, for both games and videos. And overall, the PSP feels really comfortable in my hands.

  • Great Games, Especially RPGs - Finally, after a few years, I feel like the PSP has enough games that I'm interested. I'm currently deep into Crisis Core, have Patapon waiting, and want to get many more games. The PSP seems to have an especially large number of great RPGs. I can't wait to get a few more.
The Bad

  • Load Times - My DS made me forget how nice it is not to have to wait for games to load. Since they're cartridge-based, load times are practically non-existent. But the PSP, as basically somewhere between a PS1 and a Dreamcast, is disc-based, and therefore features load times of various lengths, depending on the game. Crisis Core features constant loading, although each one is relatively quick. I forgot how annoying that can be.

  • Fingerprints - Man, the PSP is a magnet for fingerprints, both on the case and on the screen itself. Annoying, but not a big deal.

  • Shortest Battery Ever - Depending on the game, I've found I can only get around 5 hours of game time in before the battery needs to be recharged. After the beauty of the DS Lite's 10 hour battery, it seems like I'm constantly having to stop playing a game to charge the PSP. 5 hours is theoretically plenty of time, but it does make me want to get the bigger battery. Although at $50, I'd wait and keep my eye out for a sale.
The Untested

  • Online Play - I've noticed that the PSP allows both ad-hoc and online multiplayer, but I have yet to test these features. This is largely because I have no games that have an online mode.

  • Ease of Traveling - The DS is especially convenient for traveling. It's easy to carry in either my pocket or a bag, and it's been no problem to whip it out on a train ride or when I'm waiting for something. The PSP has thus far been under house arrest. But soon I will probably let it venture outside and make its way in the world.

  • Future Games - Although I bought the PSP because there were at least 5 or 6 "must-buy" games for me, the future looks a little less certain. There are a few RPGs of which I would be interested in a U.S. release (Star Ocean), and the demo of Secret Agent Clank was pretty fun, but there's not a whole lot on the horizon that I'm interested in. Maybe some more games will be announced at E3

So in conclusion, I love the PSP, but it's certainly not without it's flaws. It's certainly amazing that the technology is available to allow me to play games with near-PS2 graphics on a portable system. But that comes at the price of ever-present loading screens, and a battery with an insatiable hunger for loads of electricity. But overall, the system is very much worth a purchase, especially at the current price $170 in the U.S., I think. If you don't have a PSP, now's a great time to get one.

5.13.2008

My PSP Game Library Has Finally Tripled

As you can tell from the title, the PSP games I ordered from Play-Asia finally arrived, thus increasing my PSP game collection from 1 to 3. I would definitely use Play-Asia again, as shipping to Japan was free, and the games arrived only 9 days after I ordered them. Not too shabby.

I have only had a couple of hours to check out Patapon and Crisis Core, but they are both already amazing and fun, albeit in very different ways. In Patapon, I haven't even made it past the endpoint of the demo yet, and I can already see how addicting the mission-based structure can become. Crisis Core, I think, could eventually become equally addicting as the mission-based structure of the game opens up, but I'm still on the first story mission. The polish on that game is already incredible. If nothing else, Square-Enix pays a lot of attention to the visual polish and style of their games. Crisis Core is really quite beautiful.

After much deliberation, I think I'm going to focus most of my gaming efforts for the foreseeable future on Crisis Core. This isn't a knock against Patapon, because I wish I didn't have to choose. But during my wait for these games to arrive, I read an online summary of the story of Final Fantasy VII (which Crisis Core is a prequel to), and am very interested to delve back into that world.

Luckily, I finished No More Heroes yesterday, just in time for my new arrivals. So my next few posts should be a couple about NMH interspersed with some about the PSP and Crisis Core. Well, those Crisis Core missions aren't going to finish themselves...

5.06.2008

I'm No Longer Exclusively Loyal to Nintendo


As foretold last time, I purchased a PSP. Yesterday, as a matter of fact. Although Japan has several exclusive colors, I just couldn't see myself sporting an Easter green, pink, or blue PSP. So I ended up choosing the classic 'Piano Black' version. Long story short, I love it. It's a really beautiful piece of gaming hardware, and I'm glad the games are finally there to support my purchase.

Speaking of games, at this point I have only one. I bought Locoroco here in Japan, and am very happy with it. I try to limit Japanese game purchases to those that don't rely on a high level of Japanese ability, and in that regard, Locoroco fits the bill perfectly. It's a very cute and charming game, and there's not much out there like it. Plus, after my time in Japan, I totally understand how very 'Japanese' this game is. It's very kawaii, as they say. You control this cute little gelatinous blob, the Locoroco, and use the L and R triggers to rotate the playing field, which then slides your Locoroco in the appropriate direction. And...that's it. Very simple, but fun in small doses.

Now, just because I only have 1 game, doesn't mean I don't have plans to get several more. After all, I've only had the PSP for 1 day. I just received an email that my order with Play-Asia has shipped. I ordered the U.S. versions of Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core and Patapon, and to be honest, I can't decide which I'm more excited about. I downloaded and tested a Patapon demo immediately after opening my PSP, and it's a wonderfully charming and addicting rhythm game. I'm really looking forward to investing some time in that game.

Other than playing Locoroco and ordering PSP games, I've also been exploring the PlayStation store, and have downloaded several game demos and trailers. Of the demos, God of War: Chains of Olympus and Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow were both incredibly fun and intense for the short amount of time I was allowed to spend with them. They're both on my must-buy list. I also enjoyed the puzzle-styled atmosphere of the Echochrome demo, and will probably purchase it from the store at some point.

I'm very pleased with my decision to purchase a PSP. It's very different from the DS Lite in many ways, some good and some bad. I'll post more about those two handhelds next time. In the meanwhile, does anyone have any experience with the PSP version of flOw. It seems like most of the pieces I've read have covered the PS3 version. I really like the look of it, and at just $8, will probably buy it. Any impressions?