Monday, January 16, 2012

The End of Year Review III: Video Games 2011, Part I

In 2010 I managed to play about 20 or so games.

Last year, it was 30+.


I also decided unless I really wanted a Collector's Edition or there was a pre-order incentive that was a must have for me, then I'd buy everything on sale. Turns out games go on sale all the time or you can just wait until the end of year. So uh, yeah... that strategy did not really work out for me.

Due to the fact that the amount of games played last year is just staggering (I feel, anyway), I have decided it would be a kind gesture to myself (and to whoever wants to read) to break up the reviews in blocks.

As before and not uncommon, I have a serious backlog. It's a shameful backlog but who does not have one? And so, I played some games released in 2011 and some released prior to that.

So, read on!

It all starts with 30 through 21...

30. Glory of Heracles

Developer: Paon, Studio Saizensen
Publisher: Nintendo
Play Time: Just over 6 hours
Status: Unfinished

I usually try to read a review or something and not go in blind. I learnt a very harsh lesson and that is, even at less than $10, something can be so bad that it is unplayable. That's probably a no-brainer but it's sort of misleading when you see more than halfway decent reviews only to be completely disgusted!

I tried, I really did but Glory of Heracles proved unplayable. It's tough for me to call it quits on a game as I like to at least complete main story lines in any given title. However, slow controls; sparse, ugly settings and graphics (and I'm not even a graphics whore!) and uninspired terrain just made me put it down after 6 hours.

If you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all or something like that, right? Well, it was not a complete loss. I was enjoying the funny dialog between characters - they weren't exactly earth shattering, developed things but it was a light humour and it was not bad. But oh man... never again. I actually wish I could sell that game because it does not deserve to be in my little collection.

But why in good conscience would I inflict it upon anyone else?

29. Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus

Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Play Time: December 28, 2010  through January 9, 2011; In hours ???
Status: Finished

During my PSOne and PS2 days, and of the Platforming series, Jak & Daxter were my games of choice. I never played Spyro, Ratchet & Crank and the next series that made my 29th most liked game of 2011 - Sly Cooper: Thievius Raccoonus.

The HD collection was gifted to me by TD5 (thanks!) (convenient things, those HD collections...especially awesome for me as I missed these games in their prime) and was excited to see what the fuss was about. Sly had some big shoes to fill because Jak & Daxter are two of my most beloved characters and indeed, of my top series, I'd say Jak II and Jak III are some of the best games I have ever played. So perhaps, Sly did not have a fair chance to begin with in my mind but I played, played to the end and had the sense to finish the other 2 games in the series but more on those later.

A World Class Thief obviously had to uh, go around the world to pull of great heists, right? Sly and Co. went glob-trotting and that was pretty cool. They even went to Haiti! Can you believe? And I was so excited to see that level in there until I actually got to it and I could have very well called it the Bayou. Well, I've been to neither Haiti nor New Orleans so I guess who am I to judge stereotypes (heck, I just did some stereotyping of my own) but the idea of it was fantastic. It was not as fun as say running through time and places to capture some monkeys while traveling on the Great Wall of China or doing some Ninja Sneaking in the Bamboo Forest, but the idea is always great especially when the locations are so random and colourful.

I enjoyed some of the mini-games that Sly had to offer. Give me sniping and I am content. What! You're letting me collect chickens? Hells, yeah! (um, not that I toss cuccos or minku...that would be animal cruelty...yep) AND you're letting me run over piranha for fuel?! Good times, I tell you. Uh minus the animal cruelty of course. Yes. Yeeesss.  

I found Sly’s voice to be unconventional and somehow it didn’t fit yet did.  It’s a weird smooth talkin’ voice he’s got there that’s so.. normal.  It’s like you’re talking to your strange friend who is also pretty likeable. That was my first impression of it. I suppose it was off-putting in the game because it was not so dramatic. It certainly worked after a while as I got used to it and it was by no means a bad voice acting job but it struck me as odd initially. Now I could not imagine it any other way.

If I had to name some favourite characters, I'd call Sly and Bentley.  They’re pretty typical and in the first game there was no real character depth but they fit their roles as you would expect. I actually liked them a lot and more so as the games continued because at the heart, I always felt it was the story about a computer nerd and his handsome best friend. As I said, it's very typical but an enjoyable bond all the same.

After playing through four ‘worlds’ of bosses, jumping, sliding and sneaking through similar formula for a long time, the final boss level was quite the welcome change.  It started out breaking through the base with a bunch of shooting mini-games, a serious laser light show rescue mission, Bentley's data snatch mini-game and finally, the final fight itself which was frenzied and easy once you recognized the pattern. It was enough of an interesting final showdown for me to want to play parts 2 and 3, and held me with enough interest to see what next they could do.

That said, the straightforwardness of the game and the fact that there was nothing unexpected about it for the most part as your typical platformer, kept this game from being the kind I could rave about. But finding its footing as the first part in a series can be challenging and heck, the same can be said of the Jak series and most games.
: I did not necessarily like the sneaking around sound, in fact that bit of trademark sneaking music irritated me to no end, but certain levels' music at times was damned fun.  It was not all good but often I found the music to be very well suited to the level with the asteriods like mini-game involving Bentley with the Data grab comes to mind.  

28.  Eternal Sonata

Developer: Tri-Crescendo
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Play Time: Intermittently starting May 28th through July Something Something; 40 hours.
Status: Finished

Looking at the technical, I liked the idea of combat system when I first realized what the hell was going on. The additions of gameplay affected by light and dark areas made for an interesting mix.  Some enemies were way stronger depending on what Jekyll and Hyde/Darkness and Light effects they had going and a guaranteed loss came if while running on the world map you managed to not get your pre-emptive strike.  Of course, this made for it to be a little bit dull after a while fully knowing what to expect and battles could become tedious.

However, a boss fight was never dull.  Like all boss fights, bosses have a set skill of moves and you know what’s coming but they were so quick that parrying an attack or blocking one took some serious timing, which I would more often than not fail big time.

The learning curve and increased difficulty as the game progressed as it transitioned from easy to experienced was well-paced, a little bit scary but a welcome design.  It forced you to think and act quickly but built you up to it and didn’t just throw you to the lions.  That’s not a flaw on the part of other games but in this one, it just gave it a tiny edge. It was very explicit in telling you what to expect and I did not find that to be hand-holding at all.

Character wise, I cannot say I LIKED anyone but as fighters, I had the bad-assed team of Chopin, the witch and the boxer.  Some fighters just shine more than others and these were my three.  They’re fast, strong and something told me I should not only rely on them (only to find out later why that was - SPOILERS!).  That team was fairly well-balanced and I liked that everyone shared in level building even when not in use.

Ah ha, I also really love Beat’s camera abilities and photography to sell back at the shop, although I do not agree that some of the pictures I took were fails and ranked poorly.  I call shenanigans.

So, I’m not sure if to like the story or dislike the story.  On the one hand, it’s not that great a story.  Really.  It’s a typical story set in a beautiful setting that seemed to shine more than the writing but it’s not horrendous.  The bit about the powder making people crazy is fine.  There were some glaring “huh”? moments that did not make any type of sense but whatever.  I cannot say that I am anxiously waiting to see what happens at the end, but okay, I already played for 40 hours so I may as well.

On the other hand, I really feel this story built around Chopin’s supposed life or speculation on how he felt during times of war and why he wrote certain pieces is a bit...pretentious and smug.  Really, smug. While I found it commendable that they filtered Chopin's dream world (but was it?) around his final hours on real (again, is it?) earth and that made for an interesting concept, if I wanted a history lesson on Chopin, I would go to Wikipedia or the museum used as a reference in the game.  Sure that’s the entire selling point and I should judge myself for even getting it the game but talk about preachy.

Having gotten to the second to last final boss and being stuck in a dungeon with low level enemies who do not help your leveling up goals when you NEED to level up to beat the second to last boss is damned right evil.  It took me weeks to just sit here, spending 20 to 30 minutes doing a one level up necessity run only to get killed again.  I admit, I almost did not finish due to sheer frustration but I managed.  Five weeks of random spurts of gaming is what it took and I never want to look at this friggin’ game again.

Music Review: Motoi Sakuraba is a friend of mine. No, no, not personally. I enjoy his works and I really loved his piano arrangements in this game. They were calm and charming like most of the scenes, with a furious final boss battle arrangement that was stellar. Also if I had to call the soundtrack bad I'd be calling Chopin an awful musician since some of his work was featured. He is not.

27. God of War

Developer: SCE Studios Santa Monica
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Play Time: February 1, 2011 through February 20, 2011; about 10 hours
Status: Finished

Bought upon the high recommendations of J&D, I really wanted to like God of War. An ultra-violent hack n' slash game with some puzzles thrown in here and there, and admittedly, not the kind of game I usually enjoy (save my bizarre love affair with No More Heroes), made me start GoW with extreme prejudice. Still, it was a short romp and while it was not one I enjoyed for the most part, there were a few key elements that encouraged me to continue the series.

By the time part 1 ended, I liked Kratos just a little bit more. I cannot say I feel overly sad for Kratos and I'm not sure I am supposed to. In that sense, his family history feels as if it was a total tacked on bit of story for most of the game and I am supposed to believe that he's so hurt and angry that it drives him to take revenge on the gods. 

He’s a bastard, what can I say?  So he killed his family due to his hubris, his blood lust and the gods using that to their advantage.  So what? He’s not likeable to say the least but I do enjoy his mouthing off the gods, Zeus included.  Of course, Kratos is the kinda guy who has to feel to learn.  Did I feel some sense of emotion from him other than anger? Sure. When he hugged his family that was a little bit of a redeeming quality for him.  But did he care a lot? I think he cared more about his nightmares when he perched himself on that cliff and threw himself off.  But, I did like the little twist on why his skin is white like ash.  How...fitting.  Double pun there.  Did you see that?

I also liked finishing moves giving me life.  I hated gorgons, let us get that clear and their finishing moves were the pits but in a stressful bind of having that little sliver of life left and then
coming upon a minotaur? I knew once I stayed alive, I could take his life and make it my own to fight another day.  Cool.

Then there were mah blades.  I loved my blades.  I may not have enjoyed my two rather technical useless powers (zeus fireball and medusa’s gaze) but the Army of Hades and Posieden’s Rage were the best. Powering up weapons is always a fulfilling sort of thing.

Unfortunately, what I really disliked about the game was plentiful and it started with the cameras. I can’t control the camera and being used to exploring everything really made this hard on me during initial play.  I wanted to branch out and I couldn't look around me because there’s no camera to control. An example of this that really had me cursing was that first fight with the Hydra. The Hydra would not come around and the camera or lack thereof made things worst.  All of a sudden I’d be pulled by one unseen force only to be slammed by the freakin’ Hydra.  It was unfair and poor mechanics.

As I came to appreciate Kratos just a smidgen more by game's end, the forced voice-acting on Kratos’ part was off-putting, except when he was super angry and screaming. I do not think I am supposed to take this game very seriously but it could have used some polish in normal conversation, I guess. I know he's supposed to be angry all the time and a tough guy but more often than not, listening to Kratos speak made the conversations seem broken with unnecessary inflections.

Finally, I found the game controls to be overly sensitive.  More specifically, the game suffered from a first game syndrome - and an ‘older’ game syndrome.  “Cheap”, is that what we’re calling it? Yes.  Example, scaling the bloody wall took too much precision when I know damn well I could ace that wall with my timing.  It was frustrating to say the least to get five inches away from a blade and constantly being slammed to the ground even though technically it never even touched you.

Music Review: Everything about this game is extreme. The blood was extreme and plentiful, the waves of enemies were always huge and the same can be said of the music. I cannot say I found the soundtrack to be very memorable other than it just being very loud. 

26. Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves

Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Play Time: January 22, 2011 through January 30, 2011
Status: Finished

By the time I got around to playing the third part in the Sly Cooper series, I was feeling a bit burnt out having decided to play all parts consecutively. I remember thinking to myself that I probably should have taken a break and played a different title but knowing me, I more than likely would not have gone back. But, I am glad I finished the series and part 3 had its moments. At the end of part 2, the group was in shambles and the game was spent the time to recruit new allies even from old enemies. I liked the construction of how the game was played in this with the ending scene at the beginning with Sly in a death grip and you play the game as his flashback.

The tension between Sly and Bentley was center stage and Sly's guilt into leading his friends into danger due to his lifestyle to indulge in his family legacy was a nice bit of character depth. Game mechanics wise, I found it much easier to control Bentley and Murray which was a good thing because their previous movements I found to be often really stilted and frustrating.  

The hacking mini-game was also more challenging but a welcome one.

While I may not have loved all the cast of characters gathered and found at least Penelope to be completely pointless as a usable character (yeah, I know she was there to move a story with Bentley and Sly), it was a decent game and being able to utilize a lot more skills per character was a bit of fun.

25. Golden Sun: Dark Dawn

Developer: Camelot Software Planning Publisher: Nintendo
Play Time: January 26, 2011 through February 25, 2011; 41 hours
Status: Finished

I never played a Golden Sun game before this, so I missed out on some nostalgia that others felt when this was released. I think I may have benefited from that and maybe appreciated this game more but as it stands, I was not that impressed.

As RPGs go, there were cute elements to it. Sprites are always fun and sprites with sprite Djinns?! Well, now you're just killing me with cuteness.

I could enter people's houses and within game history, enjoy milling around their stoves to see what different foods were being cooked native to their region. Stuff like that adds personality to your game but also loosely ties in to the culture of real countries. Along with building designs and music while I traveled this fictional world, you could get a sense of real life places these lands were based off. It was cute to 'discover' these things.

Coming in as a new player to an already established series that continued the journey from previous games, I thought how the game handled the re-telling the previous history was very well done. There was built in encyclopedia and histroy books you could collect which animated the story like a fairy tale. It was adorable. The game had an incredibly extensive history and there were a lot of names to familiarize myself with but it was never presented in a dull manner.

Though I have to say, by the end of 41 hours, I did not even know why the hell I did all the things I did to begin. I really enjoyed the blatant death and destruction that befell the world (at my hands of course, unwittingly and guided by evil forces) but what started out so simple ended up - SPOILER ALERT- with my killing a beast I was supposed to just get a feather from. How did things end up so bad so fast?

I know why I was inadvertently a tool but it was still utmost chaos and when half the world was drenched in shadow, it was damned creepy.  

The final boss fight was very sad and while I did not get attached with all my heart to anyone character, that one character got done dirty.

Speaking of characters, did I mention I loved the Djinn? They played a huge role to the story and I loved the little jerks. I loved collecting them by smacking them around and solving puzzles just to get to them was great fun. I liked that they got angry or reacted according to personality.  

I also really liked using them to create a unique battle system of magic strengths. It was an interesting class system approach and setting up your summons to use from the get go or waiting to use them during battle like I did was a nice choice. The combinations were plentiful and interesting. It made my life a little more difficult when fighting the end bosses but a good challenge all the same.

I did not like a lot of things in this game though starting with the characters. There was no one to swoon over except Amiti. Even as the hero, I was just a happy fool and the use of emoticons did nothing to enhance the game other than characters reacting to you just a little differently. Sometimes I would say something I thought to be completely appropriate and I'd get the evil eye from certain characters. What was the point of these emoticons? If there was one, I did not find it. Maybe it was hilarious that I smiled for almost everything in the gravest of situations but overall, they were pointless.

For the majority of the game, it felt almost too easy. There was a lot of back and forth running around. There were a lot of puzzles to solve but they were not that interesting and mostly a pain. It was tedious for 80% of the game, I'd say until near the end at the Apollo Lens Ascent. Those were actually intriguing bits of level design that the thought put into those were used throughout.

Though I guess with so much story to get through and so much to remember, I suppose the game did not want me to be stuck and frustrated on a puzzle either.

Music Review: Motoi Sakuraba was at it again. He did some good work here but unfortunately I can't remember much of it at the moment. I do know he matched sounds to their relative area for instance if I were in a Japan like setting the music was made to suite.

24. Limbo

Developer: Playdead
Publisher: Playdead
Play Time: Still going
Status: Unfinished (almost done though with about 4 more levels to the end)

Ever since I saw shots of this creepy little black and white game with the ghost eyed boy, I wanted to play this seemingly charming puzzler. It surely is creepy and not charming. I suppose things cannot be creepy and charming at the same time? I felt actual stress playing this sometimes. Being chased is never fun and all the ways the little boy can die is just horrible. When his body hits the ground the sound of silence is just deafening. As I have not finished this one yet, I have no idea why he's in limbo. The game did not do much to explain anything but he just woke up and is journey through a wonderful black and white landscape that went from forest to city seamlessly.  

It's a beautiful game with some challenging little puzzles. While executing some of your daring escapes or jumps can be frustrating, the game itself flows quite well and it's easy to just keep on playing.

23. God of War II

Developer: SCE Santa Monica Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Play Time: February 21, 2011 through May 14, 2011
Status: Finished

By the time part 1 ended, I was a tad more interested in continuing the rest of the series. Kratos' anger saw him kill the God of War and claim the title. There he sat, simmering in boredom at the beginning of part 2 and being treated the outcast by all the other gods, he goes off to battle alongside some Spartans. And then crap happens like a betrayal.

It was great starting the game as a god completely with bad-assed powers only to be killed and stripped of such might. Of course that meant crawling up the ranks again but this time, everything in the second installment was done on a grander scale and the scenes alone were rather impressive.

The cinematography was breathtaking. There are great overhead shots, shots that panned out and luscious landscapes that were built to impress. The scene with Kratos jumping from column to broken down column with the misty backdrop made for some actual excitement and was fairly epic.

In other instances, not only did I see a huge beast in front of me but there's Kratos getting up close and personal by crawling on massive creatures and gutting it from the inside out. Before, getting into a creature's face was only reserved for finishing moves.

Again, the game is no more than a blood fest. There were some harder puzzles to sort through which was cool but overall it is what it is. I'm still not sold on the genre or this particular series but the end did have an exciting cliffhanger and really good boss fight actually that required a lot of patience, skill and thought.

I have not turned my attention to GOW III but hope to do so this year to see what transpires story wise. I'm expecting much of the same fight wise but who knows? It might just surprise me. Part 2 certainly built on its predecessor and was a tighter game.

But the truth is, I feel more of an obligation to finish the game since I got so far and not really a willingness of genuine, overwhelming interest on my part to do so.

22. Cave Story

Developer: Nicalis
Publisher: Nicalis
Play Time: Still Ongoing
Status: Unfinished

This game should probably be higher on my list. Again, you start off...awake. Just awake in some weird little cave and you have no idea what to do other than to move forward. In what sounds (and mind you, the music in this game is amazing) like the most charming, frenzied, crazy little journey you are about to embark on; I quickly was jolted out of that pipe dream. Oh yeah, no. There's so much bloody history and a really deep story disguised in sprite form telling a tale of enslaved bunny like creatures and a mad scientist that the game had me reeling.

Oh yeah, and it's hard as all hell.

I've upgraded my weapons and done all this stuff and yet I am near the end at one of the second to last bosses and I'm just at a loss on how to proceed. I love the game because of it's great soundtrack and fast paced game play but arrrgggh, death is so frequent. I hope to magically gain some skill one day to finish this especially since I'm just at the end.

Music Review: Didn't I say amazing and great, already? Sad, upbeat, urgent and all mechanical sounding makes it quite personal.

21. Okamiden

Developer: Mobile and Game Studio, Inc.
Publisher: Capcom
Play Time: April 1, 2011 through April 19, 2011; 25 hours, 51 minutes
Status: Finished

I went in playing this game with lots of reservations and maybe played it a bit too soon after I just finished the original.  I really liked the original but felt that game suffered from being too long.  It was a true marathon that left me slightly jaded at the end.  Then there was the fact that the original studio Clover closed and would not have a hand in this sequel.  Would anyone else be able to do it justice? Yes and no.

This was not a true sequel but this was said at the end of the game - it was a glimpse into a story just between the main campaign of the original game and what’s to come in the future.  It could be tied in nicely to comprise a wonderful lore of a beautiful series.

The scenery was the same as Okami.  It was beautiful, and had the same Japanese wood block print look.  It was breathtaking but sadly the overworld was the same I had seen in the previous game.  The journey carried me through the same world I got to know for 60 hours but not without its exciting new areas to explore for instance the Demon Market (and I really loved the Demon Market actually).  

Some scenes familiar to Okami were there and presented in a different way. The mini chasing games were exciting.  The cultural old Japanese feel was exciting there and in the Playhouse.  The re-visit to the Moon Cave to confront that blasted 8 headed dragon was great because working behind the scenes was even more fun in conjunction to what we got to see in Okami - example being in the kitchen, with the staff as chefs for the dragon.

I found that while the boss fights were a tad repetitive, they were overall very fun.  The use of the stylus was easy and more accurate than the wii version I had played and worked well.

But what of the characters? The new cast built on some of the children in the original game and they acted as companions to Chibiterasu in Okamiden.

Kurow.  Oh Kurow.  Arguably (is that the word I want to use?) one of the most loved and interesting characters in the original was Waka.  A space man with charm, arrogance and a fantastic sense of style and humour, Waka was the pretty boy you loved to be annoyed with.

Then Kurow comes along and immediately you are reminded of your fun times with Waka.  But what’s the tie? A relative? Waka? What is going on? And even if you did not play the original, Kurow was a charming mess of a boy.  Easily he was the best companion Chibiterasu had of the 5.

Not every companion was overly great or diverse.  It was not as though everyone could do something incredibly unique which was something I would have liked to see combined with Chibi's powers and dungeons were conveniently outfitted for their ‘powers’ (too convenient, really).  Sometimes I already owned a power and did not need this lump riding on my back.  Personality-wise, I cared for some more than others but they weren’t so bad.  I like the mika, and the tubby fire boy.

The story was cute, with a good mix of heartbreak, seriousness and light humour.  It was dark and engaging and like I said, a good point of introduction for support for further games.  I hope people buy this one so that more are made in the series. 

Music Review: Much in the same vein as Okami, the soundtrack comprised traditional Japanese music.  Fitting and beautiful for its medium, everything worked brilliantly together and was very emotional in sound.

Next time, I'll review games 20 through 11. Isn't that exciting?

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