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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

God of War: Origins Collection (9.3/10)

We live in a time ripe with sequels. Once an intellectual property "hits," sequels inevitably follow. This can either be a good or a bad thing depending on your point of view. It's difficult for Star Wars fans to mention some sequels while feigning ignorance about the others. But the point is that we all have games/movies/books that we love and follow. No matter how many titles get pumped out under the same banner we will flock to them! God of War is such a series for me. So when God of War: Origins Collection was announced I did a happy dance! Finally, I could play the PSP games I never could simply because I didn't own Sony's handheld. Having both Ghost of Sparta and Chains of Olympus on one disc, remastered in HD no less, was a real treat. Fans of Kratos should, without a doubt, take advantage... especially if you missed them the first time around.

One could call the Origins games the missing chapters of Kratos' saga. Of course, you'll notice that they are reaching far back into the pantheon of Greek gods to give him someone to maim and murder. A few of them I'd never heard of (thank heavens for the interwebs!). Both stories provide interesting motivation for the character of Kratos himself. It's nice to see him become a bit more well rounded; less a sociopathic monster, more a fiercely loyal, yet ultimately flawed, man. I love how it's implied he is the cause of the destruction of Atlantis, but the fact that finding his missing brother (he had a brother? How convenient....) as a primary motivation is a bit groan inducing.

I don't feel like the stories are nearly as good, nor as significant to the overarching narrative, as previous entries. For my money, Chains of Olympus is the worst one so far. Personally, I feel like these games are really add-ons, mere side quests in Kratos' long journey than full fledged releases. However, I'm not surprised by this conclusion in the slightest: these games were designed for the PSP, and the developers knew how many fewer fans owned that handheld.

The action is par for the course, exactly as you'd expect... fast paced and chaotic. For my money, this series has some of the tightest controls and most fun gameplay of any action franchise. Just like the other games of the series, there are few other titles out there that leave you with such an overwhelming sense of being an utter bad-ass! Mixing light and heavy attacks along with grapple moves, magic, and a cool variety of toys at your disposal, keeps things from getting boring as you slice and smash your way through the hordes sent to stop you.

However, at times there seemed to be a slight delay in response to input during combat. Hit detection seemed less accurate overall. I also experienced some cheap deaths from multiple enemies hitting me repeatedly while I was down, their stacked attacks not allowing me up. Overall, combat doesn't feel nearly as smooth as the other console releases. However, it's still a blast of brutal entertainment so it's okay!

I won't lie... you'll know you are playing a PSP port. Even with the HD upgrade, both games look dated. But considering the source, they play fine on a big screen with few issues of texture pop-in or lag. The same goes with the sound work and voice acting. Both games are fine as they are, but it's difficult not to think about the majesty that was God of War III's production values.

Sometimes the camera can still give you headaches. I consider wonky camera issues an ingrained problem with third person action titles. But considering God of War mixes free camera control with fixed angles, getting turned around can be commonplace as some of them aren't the best. It can be hard to move when you're backed up to a wall you can't see while getting pummeled by enemies you also can't see. This has, to a lesser extent, been a problem before for this series. I wouldn't say it's prevalent, but certainly never this bad.

It's difficult in situations like this not to directly compare these games to their bigger brothers. But there are a few minor complaints that I feel are worth mentioning in comparison. First, there are lots of invisible walls, more so than previous titles. Finding the correct path isn't always obvious and the platforming sections are quite literally hit and miss. Sadly, Kratos' magic attacks don't feel nearly as potent as before either. The same complaint goes for alternate weapons (apart from the Spartan spear and shield combo... that was fierce!). Some of them are fun, but I feel like they may have used all the good ideas up in the earlier games. I also think the dodge/roll mechanic (while apparently better than it was on the PSP because of the ability to map it to the right analog stick) doesn't work nearly as well, nor as quickly. Considering how much you rely on it, having a slight delay in response time can be infuriating. But these complaints are minor, and really should only be considered when compared to the rest of the series.

Ultimately, the God of War: Origins Collection rounds out the saga of Kratos for those who never played the PSP variants of the series. Personally, I think that of the five God of War games, these two are easily the worst of the bunch. However, they are still God of War and therefore still awesome! I don't think the plots are terribly well developed, but I do appreciate how they add to the overall canon. The fact that these games feel more like stretched out DLC is immaterial. The truth is, it's frickin' God of War, it's frickin' Kratos, so I'm frickin' happy. If you're like me, this one belongs on your shelf alongside the rest of the series.


Score = 9.3 / 10

Monday, June 18, 2012

Bleach: The 3rd Phantom (7.0/10)

I'm a big fan of the anime Bleach. Some friends of mine got me into the anime series last summer. As one of the longest running series in the genre, getting caught up to the show in Japanese is a major time commitment-never mind the fact that the English dubbed episodes are about one hundred  behind the sub-titled ones. There are several other Bleach titles out there, but apart from the Dynasty Warriors-style Bleach: Soul Resurrection, most were one-on-one fighters that weren't particularly good. But then I stumbled across Bleach: The 3rd Phantom, a bizarre J-RPG that, while rough around the edges, is surprisingly good... provided you fall under the "Die-Hard Bleach Fan" banner. It's weird, but it works

The story tells the tale of two young twins. You choose to play as one of the two, and then proceed to embark on a roller-coaster ride that involves time travel, multiple sets of characters (due to the different time periods in which the story takes place) that covers the majority of the Bleach universe: from the old days in the Soul Society to the introduction of Ichigo and his friends, all the way through the Arrancar saga. You'll have key moments, like learning about your zampaktou and picking your style as well as numerous interactions with key characters from throughout the Bleach canon. Let me put it this way: if you understood any of that then you might really enjoy this fun little DS title. But to truly appreciate it, you really do need to have watched three hundred-plus episodes of the anime.

But regardless of whether you know your shikai from your bankai, what kido incantation to use, or whose zanpakuto belongs to who, the basic structure of the game is more a mix of traditional, turn-based RPG with strategic, grid-based battlefields. What that means is each field of battle is set up on a grid, each character has a limited number of spaces he can move before he can make an action much like classic D&D. After that, it's relatively straightforward tried and true, turn-based combat. In fact, it's almost oversimplified. What's odd is that you can't really move very far, especially early in the game, so you might take multiple turns before you reach an enemy. In the meantime, you can raise your spiritual pressure. When full, you can release the swords of certain characters to their true, vastly more powerful "bankai" forms. It's clever in the sense that you need to plan ahead, much more akin to strategy titles.

Fans know all about the inordinate amount of dialogue that pervades this series. It is, at the same time, one of the greater strengths yet biggest weaknesses of the show. This game takes your knowledge of the canon for-granted. But what really happens is a lot, and I mean a lot, of exposition. You really need to be a fan a working understanding of the Bleach universe not to get confused, or worse yet, bored. However, I will say that the writing is actually pretty decent, increasing the appeal The 3rd Phantom to true dyed-in-the-wool fans.

The cast list is massive, covering a slew of characters both past and present, as well as many who were brought in during the side arcs of the Arrancar saga. Despite so many players, the game actually offers some pretty fun progression as you'll build affinity with characters through the text based mini-game (more on this in a sec) and, as a result, they will perform better alongside you in battle. Like the rest of the game, this sections are heavy on dialogue, and the shine quickly wears off... even if some of the writing is the sort of thing fans of the series might appreciate.

Be forewarned, like the manga or anime series, The 3rd Phantom goes on and on... and on. It's surprisingly long-I put in well over over twenty hours. Unfortunately, with so much written dialogue, it really does become a bit of a slog, especially towards the end. However, for those who endeavor to stick with it, the ending is surprisingly rewarding... just like the show.

There is more than just turn based RPG action. In a weird twist, you are given "free time" in between missions. This mini-game is okay, basically involving simple math as you need to get Kon (the loveable rascal!) to move through to the goal. This is accomplished by moving the right number of spaces involving doing certain tasks with key members of the cast. This is all text based and gets a bit boring, but it does expand the narrative as well as providing motivation and back story. You can't do everything during "free time," but what I find odd is that some selections actually repeat. It's confusing, especially when they throw what appear to be some moral choice conundrums in from time to time. As far as I could tell, these moments didn't have much of an impact on the proceedings, but then there was a lot going on that I didn't really understand (despite my knowledge of the show).

Looking back on The 3rd Phantom after the fact, I realized that I had never really understood a fair amount of the mechanics in the game... or rather some things are never properly explained. Maybe something was lost in translation, I don't know. For example, you can get items from the text based mini-games that are unique and special. But for the life of me I couldn't figure out how to equip them... or if they were already equipped... or you didn't have to equip them at all, the stat buffs happened straight away... or something?! It was very confusing to say the least! There was a poorly included guide, but despite referring to it several times, I never really felt like my questions were adequately answered.

From a gameplay standpoint, the biggest knock against The 3rd Phantom is that it's not terribly well explained either. Standard battles are pretty self explanatory, but there are lots of options that I never really made use of. The menus are a mess, which is a shame considering how much the game relies on them. The layout is confusing; obviously necessary things aren't always in obvious places. I didn't figure out for a long while that you can actually have 'free battles' during your party organization phase. These are basically set battles where you face a number of enemies roughly concordant with the number of people in your party. These pseudo-battles serve purely to practice tactics and level up your characters. It's fun and addictive-an incredible time sink. I love some good old-fashioned level grinding and I can actually see myself playing this game again at some point down the road... not something I'd normally say considering my considerable lack of free time.

It's important to spend a lot of time leveling your character. I like how much choice you have in spending the points you earn each level. It's not only stat increases-you can also learn special moves and level up your sword. Oh, and don't forget to level up your comrades as well! It becomes increasingly necessary late in the game. Sadly, the weird item management system doesn't make things any easier. You earn a lot of these in the 'free-time' minigame. But having said that, the good ones are hard to come by, not to mention difficult to replace because you never know what you're going to get.

The truth is that I found myself enjoying this far more than I thought I would. It's cleverly written just like the series; stringing you along bit by tantalizing bit, "To be continued..." plastered across the screen, until the next thing you know it's Monday morning and you have to go to work. But just like the series, it can take a hell of a long time getting anywhere. I thought I was on the final chapter no less then five times! I'll be honest, The 3rd Phantom reminds me of a lost arc from the show. Just like the show, there are stories within stories here, plot tangents forming and reforming, adding to the absurd and convoluted  database that is the Bleach canon. I love it, but then I've invested a LOT of time into the series.

Terrible menus and a complete lack of tutorials (I'm still not sure what half the stuff even was) really held back The 3rd Phantom for me, and the fact that there are only two save slots make it difficult to know when to take risks. The whole experience, from the overly long dialogue sessions to the confusing 'free time' mini game, to the same animations during battle over and over again, is an exercise in repetition. However (and this should probably be in caps), Bleach fans should absolutely play this hidden gem. I couldn't put it down, despite the fact that I have a stack of much better made games to play. But because I have so much invested in Bleach, the chance to take part in an interactive way beyond just button mashing one on one fighters was a dream come true. Fans of the series should absolutely play this... but no one else will be interested, nor should they be.


Score = 7.0 / 10

Friday, June 15, 2012

Dragon's Dogma (7.7/10)

To read the official, full length review follow the link here: Dragon's Dogma.

In the end, Dragon's Dogma is an average hack-n'-slash RPG with a great gimmick that falls short in execution. It's a real shame too, because the idea behind the "pawns" is brilliant. I can see this sort of mechanic working in all sorts of game scenarios, and not just RPG's. When it gets it right, Dragon's Dogma can be a blast. Climbing up the back of a giant monster as it tries to buck you off all the while lightning and fire rain down around you... well, that can be pretty sweet! But there are too many other issues here to ignore. The structure of the story is too vague early on to grab your attention. Even if you can stick through the rough opening sequence, the sheer amount of backtracking, loot comparing through terrible menus, and camera issues in combat make the actual game play experience more of a chore than anything. RPG enthusiasts are already playing this one to death I'm sure, but average fans should probably revisit Skyrim for their dragon fix.

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online.


Score = 7.7 / 10

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mass Effect 3 (9.7/10)

Video games represent many different things for many different people. Personally, immersion is my favorite form of escapism; I love losing myself in interactive worlds. But nothing I've played has captured my imagination more so than the Mass Effect series. I don't know why I connected with it on such a deep level, but it goes beyond the fact that I'm such a sci fi nerd. Mass Effect 3 may bring Shepherd's saga to a close, but for me it was a much more personal experience. It wasn't just the ending to a fantastic narrative (yes, I have all the books and comics) and a wonderfully engaging video game experience... but I've never felt like I had more invested in a fiction beyond Star Wars. Those who know me well will tell you, that's saying something!

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I'm not going to mention much about the plot. Considering how the whole idea of the series in the first place is player choice and how those choices play out, everyone would have a slightly different experience. Long story short... the Reapers finally arrive as Shepherd warned (and was subsequently ignored), and are systematically destroying all organic life in the universe. In a mildly annoying plot twist, it turns out there is a super weapon that the Protheans were working on when they got pinched (how convenient is that?!). But getting it built will take the combined cooperation of not only the Council, but the aid of each race as well. With the Illusive Man and Cerberus trying to foil Shepherd at every turn, it's up to our hero to unite all the different species throughout the galaxy to fight back and face the Reaper threat once and for all. The wonderfully rich and detailed universe is still there for us to explore, but not without an overwhelming sense of urgency... the clock is ticking.

There are several, admittedly minor, changes to how you go about accomplishing this task. Essentially, there is a 'Galactic Readiness' bar that, depending on how much you want to do, is the gateway to the final confrontation. By completing tasks both optional and mandatory, that gauge will fill. The more resources you have collected, the more likely you are to survive. In other words, galactic readiness effects the ending you see. Like Mass Effect 2, it's all about how things play out at the end game. But this time you'll find that receiving side quests comes down to essentially eavesdropping on conversations. I like the more organic feel, but I found myself constantly wondering what I had missed. Running around the Citadel, hoping to catch a new mission turned out to be more a waste of time than anything, and I'll admit to checking the guidebook to ensure I didn't miss the good bits.

Mass Effect 3 showcases refined controls, improving on the benchmark set with Mass Effect 2. Moving in and out of cover is a bit smoother this time around. It's still not on the level with Gears of War, but it's not far off. The gunplay is still fantastic, and using the alternate weapon wheels for choosing both your arsenal and powers is fluid. In an interesting twist, you can use the Kinect to issue voice commands to your squad. Being able to shout "Liara, singularity!" is a nice alternative... when it works. Sadly, it's not terribly consistent, but it does set an interesting precedent.

Combat is a much more tactical affair with enemy AI being far more advanced than we have seen thus far. The bad guys will make good use of healing and buff techniques. You'll be introduced to a whole slew of new enemy types, and some of the advanced Reaper types are suitably tough. There are a few set piece boss battles that are mildly annoying, but for the most part the game is both well paced and reasonably challenging.

Visually, Mass Effect 3 is stunning. It's the best in the series so far, and considering how good they are that's right at the top of the heap. Seriously, take a moment to look around at the astonishing level of detail in the backgrounds. Early on there is a great moment on one of the moons of Palaven (the Turian homeworld) where Reapers are slowly traipsing around, destroying everything in the background while the burning planet fills your periphery on the horizon. It looks amazing, and what's more, those moments are the standard rather than few and far between. Space battles are on a scale akin to the Star Wars prequels. It's awe-inspiring. And that's just in-game-the cutscenes are even more impressive. The cinematic touches are more integrated and better presented than any other Mass Effect game to date. Put simply, the whole game is beautiful.

On a similar note, the cast once again delivers as the voice acting is exceptional. Working with such a well written script makes things easier I'm sure, but every cast member nailed their respective roles. There are a lot of poignant interludes with characters both past and present. Considering the obviously darker tone, this shouldn't come as a surprise. However, those moments are made all the more believable by excellent performances. The score sets the mood brilliantly, and even simple things like background chatter and sound effects are top notch. It's difficult to think of too many other games that can compete in these areas. Bioware really does the production part right.

I also appreciate how Bioware listens to their constituency. Gone are the annoying mini-games from the first two games all together. No more frustrating, time-wasting hacking challenges, no more button mashing locks. No longer do you have to mindlessly scan planets for resources (easily the worst part of Mass Effect 2). But in their efforts to streamline the experience, the argument can be made that they have effectively removed a lot of the RPG elements from this action/RPG, which is both a blessing and a curse. It's nice to focus solely on the narrative and the action, but at the same time, a little more freedom wouldn't be remiss. Hey, at least you have more choice in armaments and armor than you did in Mass Effect 2! 

Mass Effect 3 also introduces a multiplayer component to the mix, a first for the series. Regular readers know I'm not a huge online multiplayer fan, but I put my time in on this one. Why, you ask? Well, it's because to get the best ending, you really do need to play online as it effects your galactic readiness. I'm not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, I really hate how you pretty much have to do it. I don't like being dictated to. However, since it's actually fun, it's less of a chore! It's basically a variation of the increasingly popular 'Horde' mode where groups of enemies come in increasingly difficult waves. You gain experience that can be spent on buying packs of items that include weapons and temporary stat boosts. It's reasonably well balanced, a blast to play with friends, and ultimately adds more to the Mass Effect experience.

For all the emphasis this series has put on player choice, I really felt far more shepherded (HA!) in the third installment than I did in the previous two. It really seemed like I was being guided on a much more predetermined path. This feeds into the discontent a great many people felt about the ending. Don't worry, I'm not giving anything away, but you'd have to be living under a rock to not know there was a severe backlash from fans regarding the final moments. All I'll say is this: I understand why people are upset, but ultimately I felt validated for spending so much of my time in Commander Shepherd's shoes.

For me, the Mass Effect franchise epitomizes what video games can be. I've laughed and even cried (I'm man enough to admit it) at moments in this series. But because I'm ultimately at the helm, I feel a personal connection greater than any movie. I felt the weight of the decisions I was asked to make, constantly wondering what I would do if ever faced with such responsibility. As I built relationships with my squad I found myself coming to genuinely care about their fate. It evoked real emotions in me, and for a medium to illicit a natural response is an impressive feat. Having imported my Shepherd through all three games, the sense of continuance and accomplishment is second to none. As far as I'm concerned, Mass Effect (as a series) is what gaming is all about. Many thanks to Bioware for this ride: we've been given the future in the present. And although I'm sorry to see Shepherd's story come to a close, his name and lore will live on as a legend, as it should.


Score = 9.7 / 10