Monday, January 31, 2011

Fashionably Late to the Chime Party

I play a lot of video games. Naturally, this is bound to happen if one of your main hobbies is writing about video games. Sometimes the experience is brilliant, engaging the player with great mechanical qualities, such as the fluid movements and controls in Bayonetta or The Forgotten Sands. Or maybe what grabs the player is a compelling story or beautiful graphical elements, such as Assassin’s Creed or Dragon Age. But sometimes I find games that are captivating based merely on their simplicity. I can sit for hours and play mildly strategic puzzle games like Luxor, Hexic or Jewel Quest because doing so creates a sort of mindless zen-like atmosphere where my hands do more work than my brain-the perfect way to end a stressful day at work. These games are more instinctual, reactionary and, tragically, usually come shipped with repetitive, uninspired background music that you can’t help but tune out after a few minutes. When diving into another ball shooting session in Zuma or a gem switching marathon in Bejeweled, my first ritualistic step after turning on the game is to switch on the music in our personal library via a media server and listen to such lovelies as Air, Conjure One, Oceanlab and We Have Band to add a multilayer of enjoyment on top of a single dimensional experience. I am blissful, I am euphoric, I am combining elements to achieve personal satisfaction. But now I have Chime.

Chime was released on XBLA at the beginning of last year by Zoe Mode with the help of OneBigGame, who aids in the development of games for charitable organizations. Until last November, when you purchased Chime a portion of the money went to the Save the Children and the Starlight Children’s Foundation. If you didn’t know this prior to playing (and I didn’t), you will be clued in by the generous 50G Fairy Godmother achievement you receive just for starting the game. Real karma points! Chime plays a bit like Lumines, a Tetris-like puzzle rhythm game that combines the act of building with an ever-heightening musical accompaniment. Chime is more like Tetris than Lumines, however, with a variety of different geometric shapes falling onto a grid and interlocking much the same as the classic Russian game. Your objective is to create squares or rectangles on the grid while an activation line creeps across your screen in time to the music and clears away blocks with a flourish of butterflies and spiral shapes. And as you build, the music grows from a simple melody or voice into a full symphony of sound as you cover the entire grid. The music crescendos and flows perfectly as you reach the end of the level.

Chime’s five different songs all fall under the ambivalent genre of electronica, with a selection by Moby and one by a member of Orbital being my personal favorites. The PC version includes ‘Still Alive’, Jonathan Coulton’s mega-popular credit song from Portal. Instead of the bubble gum chewing, headache-inducing techno pop combinations in Lumines or the uninspired background music in Bejeweled, I now have a puzzle game full of music I would actually listen to. And being an avid Tetris player (I was a master in my youth, touting a Tetris watch and a belt pouch for my GameBoy with the Tetris cartridge tucked away in a side pocket at all times), the combination of puzzle game, score multipliers, competitive ranking and gorgeous ambient electronica carefully built together in what is ultimately a simple experience has captured my undivided attention for an entire week (and counting). Maybe you aren’t the type of person who can listen to the same music over and over again for hours, even if you think it’s brilliant, but when the instinctual, quick reaction puzzle mechanics of Chime drive you to continuously consider your choices from every geometric angle, you will be thrilled that it is happening in a place where such engaging music moves with you, adding layer upon layer to create a sweeping, fully interactive combination of hand movements and aural delight.

Zoe Mode recently announced on their website that a new version of the game, Chime Super Deluxe, will be available on the PSN sometime this spring and feature a multiplayer mode and additional songs. So it looks like I wasn't late to the party after all, I was just in time for more.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

DLC Mania-The Last Time I Write About Origins...Maybe

Last weekend I took advantage of the sale on EA Add-ons on Xbox Live and finally played the last of the seemingly unending Dragon Age DLC, Golems of Amgarrak and Witch Hunt. Both were fun, albeit short, new chapters in the story, including one with Morrigan that resolved...some...of her issues (nothing can erase her complacency about that demon baby situation). I liked Witch Hunt in particular, because it took my heroine and her gang to familiar places-the Circle of Magi, Korcari Wilds & the Deep Roads-and involved intrigue, magical relics and intricate library usage. When I play WRPGs, I normally prefer to be the knight character because melee is my primary combat choice. For Dragon Age I chose to be a human mage, deviating away from my tendency to prefer long swords, battle axes and giant hammers to get the job done (keep your Freudian opinions to yourself). During initial setup, I decided to challenge myself with a different skill set that paid out in the end-I adored my staff wielding heroine and the interactions with the Magi. Plus the outfits were far more stylish.

The Golems of Amgarrak warned at time of purchase that it was ‘extremely challenging’, but it wasn’t. Your objective is to uncover what happened to a missing group of dwarven explorers attempting to locate some previously lost secrets about golem construction. The challenging piece, I imagine, was supposed to be during some fight sequences against groups of pretty epic stone protectors, but sheer persistence got me through them without perishing (although everyone else in my party did-total wusses, obviously). In one area several colored lyrium switches scattered throughout changed the overall room/item accesibility based on what shade happened to be enabled at the time. The blueberry hued switch seemed to take everyone into another dimension (of sorts), but none of the other colors did this as they were primarily used to guard doors and chests in force-field like wrappers. The final room forced you to play SIMON with colored switches in order to progress and I thought to myself, ‘Aha, here is the difficult piece!’, but then I recalled that Dragon Age gives you the answers to the puzzling bits if you were diligent about collecting all of the codexes and quickly found the answer in a note. So alas, no challenges to be found. But the story was pleasing, the whole lyrium aspect interesting and different, PLUS you gain a party member that is a giant rhinoceros named Snug wielding a deadly horn, so I would say it was worth buying at the sale price.

I found Witch Hunt to be much more engaging because chasing after a devious character like Morrigan is delightful. I like quests that involve the Circle Tower and the Magi because they hold more mystical appeal than the requests to clear out darkspawn from underground lairs. Beyond finding Morrigan and the Elvin Book she has stolen, there is some delicious library puzzling and tears in the Veil to mend. And if you have been dying to have one more conversation with our Witch of the Wilds, well, she is more than willing to chat with you. Since I generally defaulted to more virtuous choices in the game, Morrigan and I were always butting heads, so when she took off right before the big boss battle with the Archdemon I was surprised, but not overly so. Logically, her reasons for ditching us were sound-I don’t think I ever did her any favors and denied all of her requests during the main quest in order to keep my moral compass on the right side. I intended to use my second playthrough to sneak into her isolated and slightly wicked sleeping bag, but...there is just not enough time in the day for another 60 hour game (I finally counted) if I want to keep writing about anything other than Dragon Age. If you only have a couple of bucks and need to choose between them, I would say that Witch Hunt is the better investment.

Although playing Dragon Age showcased my ongoing ideal to be a better virtual person, I am truly regretful that I didn’t get to know Morrigan better because she seemed like a fascinating character. I stayed almost exclusively on the straight and morally narrow path-my one misstep in the land of virtue was consorting with Zevron when my heart belonged to Alistair, which was a choice that plagued me until long after the game was over because it was so unlike me, as a real person. I have a really hard time being the nasty, vengeance wielding, puppy kicking character. If requested, I am the person who will spend several game hours fetching things in order to win the favor of the villagers for little reward. Because of this I always feel like I am missing out on essential plot devices or relationship possibilities-like getting to know Morrigan in a more intimate and scandalous way, so I faithfully start new characters and give them selfish, steely-eyed personality traits but then abandon them when intent becomes actuality my evil choices make me feel a little queasy. Maybe it’s because I love kittens so much, but it’s just really hard for me to be the bad guy. Maybe one day if I have enough time to devote to another mega-time eating game I will slide into the dark, demon baby riddled, side, but for now I think I will look forward to Dragon Age II hoping that I still get to be the hero of Ferelden.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Happy Birthday!

After a grand total of ninety-five posts full of editorials, reviews, gritty iPhone pictures of my television and general blathering, it all started with Chrono Trigger turns one year old today. I never imagined last January when I started this project that it would turn into one of the more meaningful things in my life. To be completely honest, I started writing as an escape from the hum drum of routine life, believing that adding a reflective element to an otherwise solo interaction would enhance the experience and keep my creative juices flowing. But over the past year it has become so much more. I have met so many great people who have been nothing but supportive and encouraging, received positive feedback from peers and found unbelievable happiness with no aspirations or ambitions simply beyond the act of playing video games and writing about it. And with 2011 already holding great promise, I am extremely excited to continue forward, recognizing that my tentative new hobby from last year has flourished into a place to explore new ideas and challenge myself to see video games from different perspectives, as well as an arena to continue recovering the writing skills that lay dormant for ten years beyond college graduation.

Happy Birthday, it all started with Chrono Trigger! I got you a cake! When you blow out the candle, please ensure your wish is that we spend another year avoiding the wrath of SquareEnix and Nintendo by brazenly using the name of one of their games in an individual player review blog without caring about any potential consequences.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Being Enslaved

I firmly believe that I am falling in love with cinematic games. Graphics have never been better, Guillermo del Toro is hard at work on a trilogy, and although Alan Wake wasn’t as successful as it should have been, I believe it was a great example of a game genre that I have started calling Cinematic. If you take out the long strolls through the woods fighting possessed lumberjacks with a flashlight and a revolver, Alan Wake would have made a great, twist-happy film. The narrative was as engaging as any movie, but because it wasn’t a movie, it stumbled under the interactive and varied pacing of a player controlled game. The writing, although a tad abstract, seemed more expansive than the game mechanics allowed it to be, and if you didn’t soar through the entire game in one sitting a lot of the emotional investment tactics were lost. Imagine yourself sitting at a campfire with a group of friends surrounded by towering trees and flickering shadows. You are listening to someone tell a totally gripping and terrifying ghost story. But partway through the story, the narrator gets up to eat dinner, go to the bathroom or hell, even leaves for work for eight hours and then comes back to continue the tale. The tingling, anticipatory feeling is sort of lost at that point and the story starts to look jumbled and confusing. Luckily, Enslaved doesn’t have this problem. Loosely based on an old Chinese allegory and co-written by Alex Garland, the literary genius who wrote 28 Days Later and The Beach, Enslaved’s narrative also has a cinematic quality about it, especially because the story is so much more engaging and fluid than the more interactive, mechanical elements.

Enslaved introduces you to Trip, a technologically inclined teenage girl (who also happens to be a ravishing redhead), and Monkey, a Neanderthal-like giant of a man that she takes prisoner via a headband intended to control slaves. Trip and Monkey live in what appears to be a post-Apocalyptic New York City, and bear marks and scars to support the hardships associated with it, but since a large part of the game looks like it takes place in New Mexico, I am going to assume that the United States split up the middle during the war against the machines and overlapped. After a devastating plane crash they both survived, Trip now needs to be escorted home to her village beyond the Wasteland (New Mexico), and has forced Monkey to protect her along the way via the headband. Normally, escort missions are tedious and dull because following someone around means walking at their slow, NPC pace, but fortunately, as an AI partner, Trip is pretty nimble on her feet and the two work together extremely well. As the story progresses the two characters build a relationship that becomes tenderly dependent on one another, both physically and emotionally, forcing the player to invest the same way in them as you would while watching any great film. Cut scenes are delicious and highly anticipated. I won’t spoil anything, but a few of the intense moments of peril or decision making between the two made my romantic heart jump into my throat. I cared about the culmination of their journey just as much as they did, even though I wasn’t anywhere near the rust-covered landscape they are traversing. The writing is fantastic, and the voice acting even better. After playing the lugging, half-English, half-American, all horrible, monster that was Arcania, it is absolutely refreshing to listen to the banter between this unlikely duo.

Enslaved is set in a world where, absent of most humanity, Mother Nature has begun reclaiming the landscape. Whereas other games along the same theme show desolation, this one blooms with green grass, and red flowers wrap around old lampposts and creep up crumbling cement structures. Tiny blue butterflies flit about all of old New York and trailed alongside Trip and Monkey for awhile in the first few chapters. There is a serene beauty in the stillness of an abandoned concrete jungle that Enslaved captures perfectly. And because of their isolation, it becomes easy to imagine captive becoming captivated and vice versa.

So, cinematically Enslaved is wonderful. It has a protagonist, mechanical villains, a quirky damsel in distress, a captivating plot and an ending I didn’t see coming for miles. I actually teared up in Chapter Thirteen. But, just like Alan Wake, it’s beautiful qualities get bogged down in its mechanical and game play aspects. Monkey moves like a dream, but can’t jump off of a four foot platform unless you are standing in a particular spot. The camera lets you control it completely half of the time and gives you tunnel vision the other half, which is infuriating. The game requires you collect ‘tech orbs’ which are glowing red balls spread throughout the landscape that function as currency to upgrade your combat skills, health, shield and weapon, but every time you go off the path to wander around collecting them all, Trip is constantly calling out “Let’s get going, Monkey”, or “Come on, Monkey.” Um, I would, but the game wants me to incessantly collect these things, so I’ll be there in a minute. The combat switches between melee bashing and tactical area clearing and is consistently simple; Monkey uses an electrified staff that stuns and bashes mechs from here to next Tuesday. His staff also has two ranged settings, electricity to stun and plasma to fire, which is actually fun and handy. Most of the central movement is platforming, which is ridiculously easy unless you are standing on something that is crumbling underneath you (remember, post-Apocalyptic). I found the most interesting trick up Monkey’s sleeve was his Cloud, a quick little hover board that could glide over toxic water and pebbled ground with ease. I am not ashamed to admit that I whooped a couple of times while sliding across the water under the bridge in Chapter Five.

With only fourteen chapters, Enslaved isn’t terribly long-each one takes about an hour or so. Despite my problems with the camera and some of the controls, I was quite satisfied with the experience and would highly recommend anyone with a love for quality story-telling and character development in video games to spend a day with Trip and Monkey on their journey to the west.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Confession: I feel fairly apathetic about handheld systems. I have tried numerous times to turn my DS Lite into something other than a larger way for me to play puzzle games on plane rides, but after a few valiant attempts at playing more substantial RPG-like games, it always ends up back on the shelf next to a little black pouch containing my original GameBoy. Last summer we were going on a fairly sizeable road trip and I asked Matt if we could stop by GameStop so I could pick out a couple of DS games because I was determined to spend some time with my lonely handheld device. I bought a Prince of Persia: the Fallen King and Meteos. I played a few levels of PoP, never opened Meteos and before long my newly charged DS was back on the aforementioned shelf, slowly leaking its ability to turn on without having to be plugged in again. I always pack it in my PAX-bag to laugh at dirty Pictochat pics (32 going on teenage boy), but ultimately, I am just not a tiny screen kind of girl. I prefer the feel of a controller in my hand while my eyes stay focused dead ahead on our 60” television and my surround sound serenades me with in game symphonies. My iPhone gets way too much attention, but most of it focused on various social networking sites, my Google Reader app and figuring out ideal movie times. I recently purchased Drop7 during a Child’s Play draw and have been lazily playing it while listening to the television or sitting on the bus, but the really epic iPhone games that 60% of the Western world are staring at devoutly RIGHT NOW, WHILE I TYPE THIS have passed me by. Wait, hang on-I did play three levels of Angry Birds before realizing just how idiotic it is and deleting it. And I do have an ongoing Scrabble game with my mom via facebook at all times using the mobile app. But that really is the extent of my tiny screen gaming. All of the other games in the photo below get little to no face time and haven't been removed largely because I paid actual pennies for them.

So it’s baffling to even me that I suddenly have an interest in the rumors and speculations regarding the PSP2. I am going to have a bit of extra funds to put towards something pretty for myself in the near future, and instead of shoes or earrings or whatever the girls are buying themselves these days, I want something video game related. I rarely buy anything superfluous for myself over $50 unless there is a dire need for it (like the new Xbox slim we bought when our old one bit the dust-that was clearly an emergency), so wanting a small piece of machinery that will cost hundreds of dollars is a pretty big deal, especially if you factor in my history of ignoring handhelds shortly after acquiring them. But something about the rumors floating about in regards to the prototype models and specs has my attention. I think the idea of multi-functionality interests me most, even though I know Sony has yet to release any real information about it. But to compete in the world of the iPad, I am sure they have some tricks up their sleeve to make it fancy enough and the screen big enough (hearsay!) to warm my anti-tiny screen heart. I also feel as though if I invest the money myself (my DS Lite was a gift) I will baby the hell out of it and try to play it as much as possible, considering how I normally feel about buying unnecessary items for myself (Stay out of debt, kids!). Beyond functionality and the various ways you can use the PSP2 (movie player, rumored e-book reader, obvious zombie apocalypse communications device, etc), however, my choice also depends on what titles are in the backlog and which ones are announced at launch. I know that Matt would love to play Valkyria Chronicles 2 and I am curious about Ghost of Sparta, so at least we are a couple of games in to justifying the potential investment (assuming it's backwards compatible, of course, which would be ludicrous if it turns out not to be). I am going to start doing some research and listening to the information pulse as it gets closer to the fall season, when this little gadget is rumored to be revealed to the public.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Good Omens & Puzzle Games

Valve sending out a press release including the cover art for Portal 2 is a pretty good sign that it will actually be in stores in April. I am really, really excited for this one. Interactive co-op modes that are playable in the same room, on the same television, are few and far between unless you count all of the puzzle and 2-D shooters available on XBLA, so this is a game that Matt and I are looking forward to playing as a team. When we were at PAX, the gentleman presenting the demo said that they were excited to learn that people were playing the original Portal together. While progressing through a puzzle, if it became too complicated for the person in control they would often ask the advice of another or pass the controller over to a friend or partner eager to take a stab at it. From that feedback they created a full cooperative two-player experience alongside the new single player story. I know that I will play both, even if during the single player experience I still end up passing the controller to Matt to figure out some of the timed puzzles. My main problem is quickness of movement. I can usually parse together the structure of how I am supposed to solve a room, but often have problems when it involves pushing a switch, running to platform and leaping across an abyss to slide through a doorway before the switch disengages. I would blame my old age, but since my fiancee is a few years older than me and has no such problems...

And speaking of puzzle games, we also downloaded Halfbrick's Raskulls last week and both caught what I like to call 'Video Game Tourette's (VGT) from playing it. (No offense intended to people who actually suffer from this debilitating disorder.) Raskulls has a variety of puzzle formats in it using adorable little costumed skull-faced characters and cutesy humor usually involving hitting someone with a half brick. I really like a few of the puzzle formats, such as racing and one that requires you keep a certain number of 'zaps' in order to successively break a top to bottom room full of multi-colored blocks in the correct order. But the crazy difference in pacing between the puzzles can be calming or rage inducing, depending on whether you are moving from one where speed is a determinant to one where deliberate choices are the objective. And the VGT enters in full force when you continue to play the same puzzle a hundred different times without success. My favorite little Raskull is the pirate, shown in PAX pin-form above, who is available in the multiplayer format and dances to a little sea shanty when you choose him. I didn't get a chance to test it out during the convention and have only made it to Chapter Two in the game because I hate migraines and continue to love my couch and living room windows, but I am sure it will be a great party game. Raskulls is now available on XBLA.

Playing SouthEnd's ilomilo is as peaceful as Raskulls is excitable. The graphics are gorgeous and the puzzles fairly simple. The two lead characters, ilo and milo, meet together in the park every day for tea, but often forget the way to their favorite meet up spots and need some help reuniting. The picture book story compliments the visuals, the controls are tidy and the environment welcoming. The puzzles themselves consist of connected blocks, floating in the air, with ilo stuck on one side and milo on another. The player must reunite them using the blocks in a particular way according to the nature of the dilemma, switching back and forth between the two in order to accomplish the task. For example, there is a special block that the player must pick up to fill a gap in the pathway, allowing either ilo or milo to complete the trail and greet each other once again. Gravity can be manipulated using a block with a little red carpet draped across one side, and another contains a trap door to carry you to the underside of the block formation to explore every angle of the structure. I am so in love with ilomilo. The colorful graphics and 3-D environment flow together extremely well and there is even a collectible element to engage the player more firmly into the story arch. ilomilo is now available for download via XBLA.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Comfort Gaming

I spent a great deal of time over the holidays completely gameless. I had nothing new in the hopper and we had a fairly full calendar of activities, so it wasn't a huge deal that Gamefly also decided to abandon me for a week and not send anything new my way. But I also knew that whatever they eventually sent would probably be the dregs. And, well, finally I got an email informing me that they were sending Arcania: Gothic 4, something I added to my queue awhile ago as filler. I've had some luck with the unheard of before, filler-like games, such as Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper and Deathsmiles, so I'm not averse to adding them for variety amongst the bigger, less risky titles. With Arcania, I assumed I would pop it into the 360, play the first chapter, hate it and send it back. But I didn't. I played the first few quests in the action RPG and...didn't stop. Five days and seventeen game hours later, I finished it. Not because it was a good game by any means-because it wasn't, but because sometimes the quest-filled, hack and slash environments are like pulling weeds in a garden. You know just what you are going to get when you step inside and accept it for what it is, warts and all. And there is some lazy comfort in this kind of experience.

Since I am not a PC gamer I have never played anything in Gothic series before this one, so I had little to no expectations from it other than it be something playable, and because the game is a port to the 360, the chances that the controls will be unbearable is fairly high. But luckily, everything in that department seemed to work adequately from the start. Double lucky that I prefer to be a melee/hand to hand kind of girl as opposed to an archer or a mage, because the controls for those commands were cumbersome during combat. You start off in a village in Anywhere, Medieval Time, where the unnamed protagonist is trying to win the blessing of his intended's father by performing a series of errands. Let me stop here. In third person environments there is nothing worse than leaving the main character nameless. I can understand it in first person, because the intention is to leave the lines blurry enough to make the player feel as though he/she is the hero of the realm, but I know I am not a scruffy bearded 30-something white male with a giant chip on his shoulder, so leaving him as 'character you are guiding' left little to invest in and created a dissonance between he and I. I mean, this guy is a top notch jerk-whoever did the voice acting for him forgot that tone conveys more than words and when asking NPC's gentle leading questions such as "Why are you here?" he sounded more disgusted than conversational. Already the disconnect is clear, even from the beginning. And as the story goes on, sending our hero to avenge his burning village through a series of quest and repeat missions to a final battle, it never improved beyond mediocre. It just...was. Okay, so why would I keep going then? What would prompt me to continue?

Just like the example I used earlier, sometimes gaming can serve the same kind of purpose as pulling weeds in a garden. There are those that hate the repetitious and often arduous task of gardening, and those people would stop before the first hour of this one, but there are also those that see a place where the motions of clearing out each square of land can have its rewards, and can be a sort of blissful experience overall. Playing Arcania was kind of like that-nothing surprised me, nothing challenged me. There were some areas where the game was difficult, like pulling a particularly ornery plant out of the ground would be-slightly annoying and disruptive in the pacing of the task at hand. But once the area was clear, the quest and repeat tick-tick-tick of the metronome-like narrative would continue and a new place to clear would become visible. I think we all have games like this in our collection. Ones we play not because they are fantastic representations of the media itself, but because there a sort of comfort about them. I always know I am knee deep in one of these experiences when I am asked what I like about the game and I can't quite pinpoint any reason but keep playing anyway. Or, more often, I have a whole lot negative things to say about the game (re: paragraph two), but continue without being too concerned about them. Maybe this is because I am guilty of being the proverbial list maker, loving the strikethrough after each task is complete. In those situations where nothing bars my way from continuing this figurative list, I feel compelled to move forward almost mindlessly. And this doesn't sound terribly healthy-compulsive gaming sounds a little scary conceptually, but I don't think I am in any danger of addiction when it comes to these quest and repeat games since I just vowed never to play a Sims game again, recognizing just how ridiculous performing tasks without much reward can be. To keep with the metaphor of gardening, playing the Sims is like being the Sisyphus of weeds-no matter how many you pull they keep coming back to maddening degree. After playing a comfort game like Arcania, you can take the gloves off and turn around to see your accomplishments in a cleared out space of land, even if the act of pulling weeds wasn't terribly captivating or memorable.

Back to Arcania. I would never recommend this game unless you find yourself like me, sick on a couch with no other discs/cartridges on hand for an entire weekend. If I wanted to have the same kind of experience, but one that is challenging and rich with emotional and cognitive rewards, I would replay Dragon Age. At least then I could be admiring the richness of the story, the depth of the character interaction and the lovely tonality of the voice actors while still carrying out a quest and repeat process. The fourth installment in the Gothic series had none of these attractive elements, leaving it shambling in the dust chasing after trolls and undead skeletons while its unnamed hero growls to keep going.