Dead Space 2

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Dead Space was part of an attempt by EA to branch out into new ground.  It was a survival horror game with a science fiction setting; not the most original idea I suppose, but it was a good game nonetheless.
EA and Visceral have seen fit to continue the Dead Space saga (well really, they’ve pretty much turned it into a franchise), and a result we now have Dead Space 2.  In the first game we were introduced to Isaac Clarke, an engineer.  Him and a small team are summoned to the USG Ishimura—a large planet cracker that was apparently mining the surface of the planet Aegis 7.  Though part of the reason they were being sent out was to investigate why the ship had stopped communicating, it was supposed to be a routine maintenance mission.  Isaac himself had been looking forward to visiting his girlfriend Nicole, who was serving as a medical officer on the Ishimura.
But as they found out within 15 minutes of docking, something had gone horribly wrong on the Ishimura.  Disfigured creatures, dubbed Necromorphs—creatures that apparently used to be the crew, attack Isaac and the team.  As they fight for their lives, they gradually unravel a plot far more ambitious than I certainly expected.  Unfortunately, Issac’s adventures on the Ishimura have knocked a couple screws loose in his head.  Now he’s locked up in a psych ward, straitjacket and all; and here is where Dead Space 2’s story begins.  On Titan Station, otherwise known as the Sprawl; a metropolis located on one of Saturn’s moons.
As I played through the game, it became clear that Visceral had aimed to make a more explosive, more exciting game with Dead Space 2.   You’ll learn that they succeeded in this effort less than a minute in, as you watch a fellow trying to help you escape get transformed into a necromorph right in front of your eyes, then are forced to run for dear life—while still in a straitjacket—as more of them crash in from all sides.  And that’s not the half of it.  By the time you get your engineering suit back some 20 minutes later, you’ll have fought off a necromorph in said straitjacket, seen a man slit his own throat and watched the blood pour from it as he gurgled in pain, and watched a soldier get straight up impaled through the torso before being dragged through the air conditioning system and thrown back out as several chunks of meat.  This game means business.
The core gameplay is very similar to the first, though.  You’ll be minding your own business, finger casually on the trigger, before a necromorph pops out—frequently with friends—and makes every attempt to skewer you.  The unique physiology of most necromorphs makes head and torso shots ineffective; they will keep on trucking even if you blow their brains out.  So, instead you have to go for the limbs.
How’s a simple engineer to cope?  By ignoring all those safety and warning labels that come plastered over the tools of their trade!  The result of this is a surprisingly unique and cool arsenal of weapons, comprised primarily of workman’s tools jerry-rigged for combat.  These include Isaac’s trusty mineral cutter, a rivet gun, a hydrazine torch (read: a flamethrower), and a circular saw blade.  Alongside these (which were also in the old game), Dead Space 2 introduces a couple of toys of its own, while also tweaking the functionality of some of the returning weapons.  Among the newly introduced is the Javelin Gun, a pneumatic spear launcher that fires giant titanium spikes that will impale a target and send it soaring across the room until it is pinned to something.
As you play, you’ll find schematics for new weapons tools, as well as ammo supplies for them, which you can then purchase at store kiosks interspersed throughout the city.  Unfortunately, you won’t find nearly enough money to keep yourself decently equipped just lying around, so like any survival horror game, you’ll need to do a lot of looting and scavenging; usually off of corpses.  Furthermore, as an engineer, Isaac can take a moment to perform upgrades on his stuff at any workbench he comes across, using Power Nodes either bought from the store or found lying around.  Most of this won’t sound new to anyone who’s played the first game, though.
That’s not to say there aren’t some notable refinements, however.  Zero G segments are back, but they’ve been revamped.  Now, instead of jumping from wall to wall, Isaac can make use of small air thrusters installed around his suit to float around at will.  This is actually really fun, due in some small part to the fact that enemies are now almost nonexistent during these.  I recall saying that the first Dead Space was not a scary game, but its Zero G segments did keep me on edge, simply because the reduced volume made it impossible to hear and track enemies who would fly towards you from distant walls, attempting a full on collision (often from behind) that would scare the daylights out of me.
Kinesis is also back, allowing you to pick up most loose objects and move them around, as well as throw them as a form of attack.  Though you could do this in the first game, Dead Space 2 heavily emphasizes the use of Kinesis by giving you less ammo drops, and introducing sharp objects like construction poles lying around, that you can use to your advantage in combat.  Hint, hint.  You can even rip the claw off a dead necromorph and use it to attack another.  Another returning feature is stasis, which lets you slow down objects and attacking enemies alike, giving you some breathing room in combat, and a method to solve certain puzzles during exploration.
Dead Space 2’s pacing has also been tweaked a little bit.  Now there are more highs and lows; one moment you’re walking in silence, listening to audio tapes and text logs a la Bioshock and Metroid, the next you’re being held upside down by some giant abomination, about to be impaled through the head, or otherwise being awesome.  Many of the set-pieces are too epic to be described in words.  The “ebb and flow” pace of the original game is still here, but it’s been injected with a shot of badass here and there.
The visuals of Dead Space 2 look great.  I mean, perhaps from a technical standpoint the graphics aren’t awe inspiring per se, but what it lacks there it makes up in its themes and style.  Unlike the first game, which had you exploring mostly the same sorts of places (you were on a giant space ship, after all), Dead Space 2 has more variety.  Sure, the bleak futuristic locales and elements are still here and dominant, but there are some treats here and there; you’ll explore caverns, a church, and even an elementary school; complete with a showdown in the gym.  Some extra attention has been given to the details, like the various nuances of Isaac’s suit (it’s awesome seeing him put it on), and, perhaps most notably the afore-mentioned necromorph transformation scene.  Like in the first game, your HUD is composed mostly of a vitality bar attached to Isaac’s suit (known as your RIG), and an ammo readout projected above each gun.  Even your inventory is a hologram, and the game doesn’t pause as you sort through it.  This lack of any real overlay adds to the tension-inducing ambience.
As a horror game, I would expect animation, lights and shadows to be up to par, and Dead Space 2 delivers here as well.  Necromorphs exhibit some truly unsettling tendencies, like one that twitches constantly, and another that gyrates as it moves. Should you die in battle, most necromorphs have their own special finishing scenes, like one that beheads Isaac and then settles itself where his head used to be, taking control of his body.
Like the last game though, the real winner here is sound.  This is one game that I found truly benefited from a surround sound setup.  The sound design here is nothing short of masterful, to be frank.  All necromorphs have distinct sounds and screams, and the game plays along when they fake death, killing all the chords as they drop to the ground in mock defeat.  Often you’ll enter vacuums, areas with no oxygen.  Appropriately, the sound becomes heavily reduced and muddled, as if you were underwater.  Suddenly even the slightest audio cues have you glancing over your shoulder.  Even in normal areas, I found myself straining to hear: was that sound a necromorph, or perhaps just something minor thing falling over?  I could never tell, but it had me quaking in my boots sometimes.
This isn’t helped by the addition of a few new enemies such as one that is super fast (such to the point that it is literally a blur), and another that moves only with friends, intelligently hiding from and flanking you, then performing a hit and run body slam and running back to hide.  You’ll even find yourself set upon by packs of rabid schoolchildren.
The voice acting is also not too shabby.  Isaac—previously a mute—now has a voice, though I didn’t think it changed things much.   It is amusing to hear him go nuts with the F-bombs when repeatedly bringing the foot of justice down upon the bodies of downed enemies.
One final new, if easily forgotten addition to Dead Space 2 is multiplayer.  At the time of this writing, I’ve only spent a couple hours playing it, but I was surprised by how good my impression was of it.  Players take on the role of two opposing teams: the Humans the Necromorphs.  If you remember games like Unreal Tournament and Time Splitters, overall most multiplayer rounds play like a game of Assault.  The humans have a sequence of objectives to complete (determined by what map is being played) and a set amount of time to complete them, while the necromorphs are tasked with stopping them. 
The two sides play very differently, but both require teamwork; a lone wolf is little more than a dead one.  As the humans, you’re given a plasma rifle, a stasis module, and a secondary weapon (the starter choice is a plasma cutter), as well as one med pack and one stasis pack.  Sticking together is key, especially because healing yourself will also heal others nearby (and you get extra XP for that).  Friendly fire is very possible however, so you have to check your fire, even when trying to shoot off a necromorph that has jumped one of your friends.
As a necromorph, you’re able to choose from a few different types, from the Lurker (a small babylike character that can fire projectiles and run on walls), to the Spitter, who can vomit acid across a room that will not only do damage, but slow the victim down to a crawl temporarily.  While the humans stand a better chance in a straight up confrontation, the necromorphs are not without advantages.  First of all, aside from the actual players, a steady flow of regular bot-controlled necromorphs also spawns.  Just like in the campaign, necromorphs can spawn from any vent on the map, unlike the humans who have set spawn areas.  Furthermore, you can fast-travel between vents to save time, and see humans through walls (as well as get a sense of their health via a color-coded glow emitted from their bodies).  Secondly, again like in the campaign, necromorphs can latch onto humans, immobilizing them, doing damage, and possibly performing an execution on them.  Finally, you can keep in mind that necromorphs are only playing defense.  Though you get points for kills, in the end you’ll probably walk away with more XP at the end of the round if your team won, than if you got a bunch of executions.
Like in every modern multiplayer game, your XP adds to your level, and leveling up unlocks new stuff.  For humans, you’ll unlock things like higher stasis capacity, other secondary weapons, and new suits, while the necromorphs get stat gains such as higher damage dealt as a certain class.  There also appears to be some viral content floating around.
Overall, Dead Space 2 is a wonderful game.  The multiplayer is competent, but the game stands strong without it.  Most of the tweaks made to the formula established in the first game work to positive effect.  Since multiple playthroughs (as well as a run through the aptly named Hardcore mode) are required to unlock everything, you’ve got a pretty reasonable amount of game here.  Furthermore, if you got the Limited Edition version on PS3, you got the acclaimed Wii game Dead Space Extraction for free!  Score!  A 9.0/10.

inFamous 2

inFamous was, as I indicated in my post for it, a great game.  If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have had the patience to grab every single blast shard, listen to every dead drop, do every stunt, and otherwise Platinum the game.  So when Sucker Punch announced inFamous 2, you can bet I was interested.  As I read more and more coverage of the game, though, very little led me to believe that the sequel wouldn’t just be more of the same.  A new location, some new powers, and a couple new characters added to the same core gameplay.  Having finished my first playthrough of inFamous 2, I can say with some confidence that for the most part I was right.  And yet that’s not a bad thing.

The game begins not long after the first one–you should skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t finished inFamous.  An introductory cutscene explains what’s occurred in the interlude: Lucy Kuo, a government agent, contacts Cole and Zeke, telling them that her and an informant in New Marais have figured out a way to take out the Beast.  As they’re packing their bags, though, the Beast finally makes its appearance, apparently ahead of time.  Cole stays behind to fight it off (which serves as the game’s basics tutorial), but even though he manages to defeat it momentarily, the Beast drains many of his powers in the process, before reviving itself and resuming its rampage.

The story’s direction is still governed by the Karma system, which remains unchanged.  One of the complaints made against the first game was how black and white the Karma system was, in contrast to games like Mass Effect and Red Dead RedemptioninFamous 2 ignores this complaint, and in fact embraces the rigid polarization.  When you are presented with a choice or opportunity, it is almost always immediately apparent which is good and which is bad.  And like Mass Effect 2, you’re encouraged to pick an alignment and stick with it, because some powers only unlock at higher levels of Good or Evil Karma, and the final plot choice requires you to be either full evil or full good.

Still, inFamous 2 does what it can with the Karma system.  There are more choices like the one regarding Trish in the first game–you know what I mean.  A new addition is random events, which has either good or evil opportunities pop up nearby as you play the game.  Good ones include crimes in progress, like muggings or kidnappings, that you put a stop to, while Evil ones include roaming cops that you can bully, and citizens in possession of blast shards who you can kill.

inFamous 2 is definitely a case of addition and refinement, and gameplay is no exception.  Most of your powers from the first game will carry over (if not immediately than soon enough), like the Lightning Grenade, Static Thrusters, and Thunder Drop.  Combat still consists of you aiming in third person to fire basic shots, and tossing in the odd grenade or rocket when necessary, and fighting hand to hand when you can.  Though your health regenerates, you can speed up the process and refill your energy by draining electricity from anything that would have it; street lamps, cars, generators, fans, etc.  To summarize, inFamous 2 does indeed play very much like its predecessor; at first.

Then you’re steadily introduced to all the new powers and abilities this sequel has to offer, the first being the Amp, which is more or less a giant cattle prod.  The Amp replaces Cole’s punches and kicks as his melee option.  Melee in general feels much more weighted, much more dynamic.  Consecutive hits fill up your “finisher” bar which, when full lets you perform a flashy attack that will instantly incapacitate most enemies.  For the most part the Amp serves as an extremely satisfying addition, and–combined with the finishers–makes close quarters combat a more viable option than it ever was in the first game.  The camera can, on occasion get a little crazy if you get too into it though.

Cole’s parkour abilities work pretty much exactly as they did previously.  You jump towards something; anything really, and he’ll grab onto it.  This was amazing to see in the first game, but with series like Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted having shown us that climbing can be more realistic looking, Cole now looks a lot like a squirrel to me.  But your mileage may vary.  What is helpful is the addition of a couple more traversal abilities.  In addition to the wires you can grind on, now there are vertical electric poles stuck to the side of many buildings that you can grab onto which rocket you upwards.  Later on you’ll get access to abilities like Lightning Tether, which lets you pull yourself to any object or surface, like the “zip-line” technique in a lot of Spiderman games.  However, another complaint from the first game still stands.  Cole’s not always easy to maneuver in tight spaces due to his being magnetically attracted to the nearest grab-able object.  In fact the attraction seems to have been upped a notch or two.

Stunts are back, and play a more central role in gameplay.  Just like in the first game, Cole can unlock new powers using XP gained from missions and defeated enemies.  But most powers remain locked, each one asking you to do a certain number of stunts before you can use it.  However, since Cole already learned the basic versions of most of the abilities in inFamous, a lot of the stuff you unlock are variations or more powerful versions of what you already know, like turning your basic shock into a rapid fire stream of electric bolts.

Many new abilities are mapped to the R2 button, like the Kinetic Pulse, which lets you hurl various objects (including cars), and the afore-mentioned LIghtning Tether.  The boomstick ability Lightning Storm from inFamous has been reworked into a new category of powers called ionic abilities.  The first ionic ability you learn is the Ionic Vortex, which you’ve likely seen if you’ve been paying close attention to coverage of the game.  Ionic abilities are extremely powerful, and as such, require the use of an ionic charge, dropped by enemies.

Overall, inFamous 2 represents an incredible maturing of the gameplay introduced by its predecessor.  Many of the new additions make some of the stuff you learn in inFamous–like the Thunder Drop and cover system–seem basic or even downright archaic.

The final major addition to inFamous 2 gameplay-wise is UGC, or user-generated content.  That’s right, Play.Create.Share has made its way into one more game.  If you’re connected online, custom missions will show up on your map as green icons.  You can apply filters to the missions that show up, and rate a mission after playing it.  The UGC missions are decent, from what I’ve played so far, but you’re not going to get a level of quality similar to what you get in the story and side missions.  To be fair though, much of that has to do with the lack of voice acting.

Visually, inFamous 2 doesn’t fail to improve upon it’s predecessor.  The new locale, New Marais, is based on a Louisiana type setting, complete with a swamp bayou on the outskirts of town.  There’s more variety to be had, including a red light district, industrial district, and an entire island that’s completely flooded, and of course the previously mentioned swamps.  Citizens still look and act mostly the same the as they did in the first game though, following a pretty limited set of actions.

One aspect of the the graphics that deserves special attention is the body animation.  It was yet another sticking point for people that played inFamous, but here it’s been given a massive facelift.  Facial animation in particular is superb, though not quite up there with LA Noire and Uncharted.  All characters–Cole in particular, of course–move with a newfound fluidity.

I noted in my review for inFamous that the game ran very well for an open world sandbox title.  The sequel retains that standard.  Glitches were few and far between, and the game did not crash or drop in framerate once during my playtime.  Loading screens are also uncommon and fairly brief.

inFamous 2 is, in short, a wonderful game.  Not as often as I’d like do we see excellent games come out, only for their successor to completely improve on them, such to the point that the predecessor suddenly looks unappealing.  Yet this is what inFamous 2 does.  It is, in more ways than one, the mature, developed version of inFamous.  Still, it raises exciting possibilities.  A 9/10.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

For the past two months or so, the only game I’ve been playing other than Apollo Justice and LittleBigPlanet 2–the former of which I finished a couple weeks ago and the latter I’ve only been playing on and off–is Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. And at many points I wasn’t entirely sure why.

Lords of Shadow represents a reboot in a series that I’ve never so much as dipped a toe in. As much as they dress it up, the story premise is fairly basic: evil has descended upon the world, and it’s up to you as Gabriel Belmont to squash it, but Gabriel’s real goal is the revival of his love, Marie, who was murdered by creatures of the night. To achieve this, he’ll need the God Mask, which has been broken into three pieces. Each of the pieces, however, is held by a Lord of Shadow. Conveniently, the Lords of Shadow–who each rule over a major race of evil, such as werewolves–are the ones responsible for the current state of things; killing two birds with one stone, I guess.

But really, I’ve come to think that this is all just a front. An excuse, if you will, to not only visit all kinds of locales, but to kill the various fantastical creatures residing in them, and look as awesome as possible while doing it. And do all this you will. Consequently, this is also where Lords of Shadows’ strengths tend to lie.

Combat is not atypical of the likes Dante’s Inferno and Bayonetta, both in style and mechanics. However, LoS definitely places itself in a higher class of difficulty without straying from its fantasy setting. Though the game encourages precision and finesse not unlike what’s required in, say Ninja Gaiden, it possesses enough cinematic flair and outright brutality to make the likes of Kratos proud. The gimmick introduced is that of Light and Shadow magic, each represented by a small bar on the left and right corners of the screen, respectively. Activating Light Magic allows you recover health with each hit you make, while Shadow Magic increases damage output. Furthermore, each also has it’s own share of powerful techniques that can only be used while one or the other is active. For example, with Light Magic you have many moves that are defensive in nature, such as the Holy Cross attack, which projects a wide stream of light so intense it not only dazes opponents, but rapidly damages them the longer they’re caught in it. Shadow augments the strength of many of your normal techniques (like turning normal daggers into flaming, exploding ones) while introducing new ones like a powerful shoulder charge that allows you to dash a short distance near instantly, knocking aside anyone or anything in your way. Both Light and Shadow magic can be enabled and disabled on the fly, in the middle combat. This gave me a nice feeling of control as I could change the flow of battle instantly depending on what I was using at the given moment.

To restore your magic, you have to collect magic orbs. Sometimes these are dropped when you kill enemies, but the quickest way to regain magic in the middle of combat is to simply play well. Consecutive hits dished out without taking damage add to a meter at the bottom of the screen, which, when full, make enemies drop one orb each time they take a hit; naturally there will be a a lot of orbs lying around soon enough, if you keep up the assault. The effect is shattered, however, the very next time you yourself are hit, discouraging simple button mashing.

Finally, you have an assortment of secondary consumable items used to varying effects. Throwing daggers are quick and represent a fast way to do ranged damage. Faeries will distract enemies. Holy Water functions like a grenade, and is especially devastating against vampires and undead. The magic crystal, when broken apart, summons a powerful demon to do major damage to anyone in the vicinity.

Gabriel’s weapon of choice is the Combat Cross, a unique, holy weapon granted to him for his excellent combat performance within the Brotherhood to which he belongs. The Combat Cross is, in it’s basic form, literally a large holy cross (actually kind of like a sword hilt without a blade). However, the tip secretes a long chain which Gabriel can use to..wait for it..whip enemies with. Aha! A whip! Of course.

Enemies come in a quite a variety, and Gabriel often has a unique way of dealing with each and every one of them, regardless of their size, ferocity or stature. The majority of the opponents you’ll encounter offer themselves up for a more brutal finisher after they’ve lost a certain percentage of health. Though our hero will sometimes use his weapon to finish the job (like staking vampires with the sharp tip), I’ve noticed Gabriel has a preference for killing a given creature with its given choice. One boss fight, for example, ends with Gabriel cutting off the arms of his opponent, and then running him through, all with his own blade. What I’m saying here is that the enemies don’t disappoint, and neither do their demises.

Other than combat, you’ll frequently come across platforming and puzzle sections. The platforming is competent, and certainly enjoyable, as it gives you a chance to really take in the gorgeous graphics and environments. At times it’s fairly reminiscent of Uncharted (and, to a lesser extent, Assassin’s Creed). Despite all this, however, the platforming sometimes managed to feel like filler to me, especially compared to the more intense moments in the game presented by the combat. I also found that a minor lack of consistency, with you being able to perform certain movements only at certain times in the game. Think Enslaved and you you’ll have the right idea, though it’s not that bad.

I’ve never really been the type of guy who enjoys puzzles, and I must say I understand even less why developers insist on putting them into action games, of all things. Why, after completing an epic boss battle, would I want to settle down for a brain teaser? The answer is I don’t want to do such a thing. …That said, the puzzles in Lords of Shadow are actually fairly amusing and clever most of the time, even if they are a little to plentiful for my tastes. Fortunately, all of the puzzles are seemingly optional, as you can opt to have the answer revealed to you, at the cost of the reward (which is usually a mild helping of XP).

Lords of Shadow is a surprisingly lengthy adventure. The game is about 11 chapters long, with each chapter spanning as many as nine levels (though more commonly they range from 3-6 levels). And yet, despite this, variety is truly the name of the game here. As you progress, you’ll collect all sorts of upgrades and items (such as the aforementioned Light and Shadow magic abilities, and various upgrades to the Combat Cross), in addition to a hoard of XP from defeated enemies. You can use the XP to buy new combos and also extra artwork. The game throws new experiences at you every chance it gets, to the point that you’ll eventually stop being surprised and just be looking for what new and interesting thing you’ll get to do next. The beginning of the game turns into an epic chase through the woods on a unicorn, fending off invading Wargs. After that, you go on to fight enemies some 50x your size, tame various creatures into mounts, and even engage in a fun variation of chess. All across what seems like a dozen different locales, including an enchanted forest, an abandoned city, Frankenstein’s lab, and the insides of a music box. This is one game that doesn’t try to stick to a single formula.

What finally compelled me to really want to try the full game out after playing the demo wasn’t really the gameplay, however. It was the presentation; the production values. This just reeked of a game that had a lot of time and resources flowing into it. Right off the bat, you see the book format of the pause screen and main menu, complete with narrated chapter prologues and cool little animated sketches exemplifying the various combos you could buy for use ingame (like those flip book sketches that used to be all the rage). You see the village, in the middle of a rain storm, terrorized by a giant Warg. You see a stranger, Gabriel, approaching, drenched in the rain. It’s just all so immersive. But a package like that isn’t complete without a well-composed soundtrack, and Oscar Araujo delivers, with a set of sweeping orchestral scores that give depth to nearly every moment in the game.

I don’t know how it compares to previous games in the series, but to honest, I no longer care. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a quality title that invites you to follow Gabriel on one of the greatest journeys of the year. My only qualms with it are the questionable ending, and the way you are forced to pass many items by, even if they are in plain sight, simply because you don’t yet have the equipment necessary to obtain them. Fortunately, going back through earlier levels isn’t entirely without merit, as each level offers a “trial”, or optional objective you can try for. Overall, however, there’s a lot to like about Lords of Shadow. 9.0/10

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations

I wasn’t planning to write another post about a Phoenix Wright game, because to be honest, very little changes between the games, outside of plot and characters. Trials and Tribulations is the third game in the series, and currently the final one featuring Phoenix as the starring character. You’re still a defense lawyer, with the gameplay segments broken up between court and investigation phases.

Someone accused of murder comes to you for help, to prove them innocent, and during the investigation phase you set out to learn more about the case, and gather clues and evidence that will help you in court. You’ll examine various locales and talk to various characters new and old. One new gameplay element introduced in Justice for All (the previous game) is the addition of Psyche-Locks. Frequently you’ll meet characters who aren’t giving you the full story. Maya’s Magatama will react to lies, and the person in possession of it (usually Phoenix) will see a varying number of locks around the lier in question, indicating they’re hiding something. With the number of locks representing how badly they want to keep the secret, Phoenix will have to blow away each lock by presenting evidence that contradicts their excuses, eventually forcing them to tell the truth. It’s just like finding contradictions in court.

What I came back to talk about was the story, by which I was thoroughly impressed. Even though each case throughout the series thus far has had its own, fully fleshed out story, there’s also been one overarching plot slowly developing since the first game, involving Phoenix and the entire Fey Clan. This plot comes to a finale during the 5th case, which is is epic. All the major characters come back for this case, including Franziska von Karma, Dahlia Hawthorne, Mia Fey, and even Edgeworth, who you even get to play as for a while!

The 5th case, and indeed, the entire game ends the entire trilogy on an amazing note, and left me wanting more, only to be saddened when I realized this was the last Ace Attorney game with Phoenix as a playable character. A 9/10.

Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy. The name of one of the largest and most well-known franchises in the industry. Here’s a fun fact: the first Final Fantasy was actually a desperation move by a near-bankrupt Squaresoft (what Square-Enix was before they merged with Enix), hence the name “Final” Fantasy. Fortunately for them (and arguably for us), it hit all the right cords, and carried the company to prosperity. Fast forward a couple decades, and we have Final Fantasy XIII. SE’s been working on this baby for a few years now (much longer than most games take to make), trying to take the franchise into a new era, and boy does it show.

As per tradition, despite this being an entry in a long-running series, it has its own universe, setting and plot. There are some references and borrowed elements (Chocobos, Cid, summons, etc.), but story-wise it is entirely unrelated to other entires in the series. Speaking of tradition, SE did away with quite a bit of it here.

Final Fantasy XIII follows the stressful life of six different people who are forced together by unfortunate circumstances, and find themselves united against an unfair fate bestowed upon them by higher beings. They come from all walks of life, from main character Lightning, who is a soldier, to Sazh, a civilian pilot.

The setting is Cocoon, a gigantic planetoid of sorts where humanity lives in peace and prosperity, enjoying an age of advanced technology under the guidance of the fal’cie, godlike entities who are heralded as higher beings. Cocoon floats high above the surface of the planet Gran Pulse, known as a wild and untamed place where the strong survive and weak are weeded out. Everyone on Cocooon fears Gran Pulse something fierce. Being associated with anything related to the world below is like a highly contagious disease. If you’re suspected of it, you and everyone else living in the same area as you are rounded up and Purged (banished down to Pulse). With Pulse being the equivalent of hell in the minds of most Cocoon residents, this is worse than capital punishment.

When the fal’cie need a specific task done, they pick out a human and make them l’cie by bestowing special marks upon them. While l’cie, being the only humans capable of magic, are known to be very powerful, they are treated similarly to those associated with Pulse: that is, with fear and extreme prejudice. Becoming a l’cie means the end of life as you know it. Suddenly you are hated and hunted by the government, feared by the people you once called friends, and everyone associated with you is liable to be punished by law. What’s more, the task you are given by the fal’cie is only hinted at in a glimpse of a vision. Still more, you have only a certain amount of time to complete the task before you turn into a c’ieth (a mindless zombie, basically), doomed to walk the earth forever in insanity until you disintegrate. Complete the task, and you turn to crystal, maybe waking up again several hundred years later.

It’s the extremely unfair circumstances that one finds oneself in after being made a l’cie that forms the basis of Final Fantasy XIII’s plot. All of the six characters are made l’cie, either due to misfortune or for trying to protect their loved ones.

The six man band consists of the following:

  • 21-year old Lightning, a taciturn but determined young woman who used to serve the Guardian Core (the branch of the military that guards Cocoon and its populace as palace guards, police, etc.). Lightning’s own sister, Serah, was made a l’cie, and upon learning this, she sneaked onto the first Purge train she saw hoping to find some way to free Serah from her fate. Serah is Lightning’s only remaining family, and thus she harbors a deep need to protect her from harm. Perhaps because of this, Lightning maintains a lone wolf personality, and is often frosty towards other characters, who may distract her from her goal.
  • Snow, a large and tall young man, and Serah’s husband-to-be. They were engaged to be married when Serah was made a l’cie. Lightning is especially hostile towards Snow early on, seeing him as incompetent and incapable of protecting Serah. Leader of the well-meaning but mischievous gang NORA, Snow is determined to become a hero, starting with him rescuing Serah. His extremely positive, carefree and forward-thinking attitude often irritates Lightning, but even she can’t always avoid being warmed by his irrepressible flow of passion.
  • Sazh, who is on the same Purge train as Lightning by coincidence, and seeing her skill, decides to follow her, hoping to find some way out of the mess. As the oldest member of the group, Sazh sometimes has trouble keeping up with the often-crazy plans and exploits of the rest of the members. He’s a very down to earth person and prefers not to stray too far from reality. Sazh has a baby chocobo living in his afro, which he had been hoping to give to his son Dajh.
  • Hope, a young boy who was simply visiting with his mother at the time, and was rounded up to be Purged by sheer misfortune, after being caught in the crossfire of a firefight between rebels and PSICOM (Cocoon’s other military branch, which deals with foreign threats). Hope’s mother joins Snow and his band to help fight PSICOM, but dies in the process. Hope sees this, and as a result harbors a grudge against Snow. Ironic given his name, Hope is thrust into the story entirely through lack of luck, which is a source of depression for him early on, and also makes him unwilling to cooperate sometimes. Lightning understands this, and takes him under her wing eventually. He is the first to break through her icy demeanor as a result.
  • The other two members are Vanille and Fang. Can’t say too much about these two without spilling a lot of plot content, but Vanille is a cheerful young girl who helps Hope before he bonds with Lightning. Fang is a straight-talking and somewhat cynical woman from Gran Pulse, who views Cocoon and its residents with distaste.

Final Fantasy XIII’s plot, while filled with its fair share of secrets and twists, is based more in appeals to the player’s emotions. Serah’s fate is a constant source of concern and stress for Lightning and Snow, and the entire group is repressed by a feeling of hopelessness that could only come with being a victim of circumstance (some may be reminded of FFX). Constantly hounded by the military, and feared by the same people they used to live with, they have no choice but to seek strength from each other, leading to an incredible sense of camaraderie. As they continue to flounder and fight against their fate, you see these people progress from total strangers to brothers in arms over the course of the story. It’s a good feeling.

This element of trust carries over into the battle system. SE cut off a lot of fat for Final Fantasy’s appearance on a new generation of a consoles, and while some would argue they cut away too much, the result is a streamlined system that still holds true to the essence of combat in the franchise. That is, the job system.

Every character has six roles to choose from. Eventually (and I do mean eventually), you’ll be able to assign any role to any character, but for most of the story each character has a preset assortment of three roles that they specialize in. The roles are Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Medic, Saboteur, and Synergist. What role your character is playing determines what they are able to do. Commandos are your bread and butter. They have increased attack, and slow down the recession of enemy chain gauges (more on that in a bit). Ravagers are your attack mages. They are essential for raising enemy chain gauges, but also wield elemental attacks. Sentinels are defensive players. They aren’t able to attack (they can learn a Counter ability though), and instead task themselves with drawing enemy fire, and guarding against it. In addition to heightened defense that comes with the role, Sentinels have an arsenal of moves that let them absorb insane amounts of damage with relative ease. Medics heal, and heal only. They have access to Cure (and numerous variations of it), as well as Esuna and Raise for keeping allies in fighting shape. Saboteurs and Synergists are your de-buffers and buffers, respectively. Saboteurs make enemies vulnerable by casting status ailments like Slow and Poison, while Synergists strengthen your party members with spells like Shell and Haste.

The ATB system returns, also trimmed down. All your abilities and actions besides items revolve around the ATB bar, a segmented long blue bar that is constantly filling up. Nearly everything you do costs one or some numbers of segments from the ATB bar. Simple commands like Attack only take one segment, whereas more powerful moves like “-ga” level magic attacks can take 3-5 segments. The tradeoff is that there is no MP. As long as you have energy in your ATB bar, you can cast or attack. Multiple attack commands can be queued up on the bar to unleash combos. It may sound complicated, but it works exactly like any semi-realtime RPG battle system with a wait bar (i.e. FF12), except even simpler.

The strategy in FFXIII, and indeed the meat of the combat system, is found in the Paradigm System, which is how your organize you party members’ roles. You can only have three members in combat, but there are six roles. The Paradigm system is SE’s solution to this. At any time during combat, you can press L1 (or Left bumper on the 360) to bring up your Paradigm deck, which holds up to several different Paradigms, or role configurations. You can switch configurations on the fly, which is called a Paradigm shift. Tougher battles will have you switching Paradigms probably every 30 seconds at least, to accommodate changing circumstances. For example: Relentless Assault is a paradigm consisting of two Ravagers and one Commando. This is an excellent offensive Paradigm, as it allows you to quickly build up enemy chain gauges. However, with no medic, you’d have to resort to items (which become outdated quickly). Instead, if you find yourself in a pinch, you can easily switch to a more defensive Paradigm like Combat Clinic (two Medics and a Sentinel) to nurse your wounds for a bit, then switch back to an offensive paradigm to go back on the offensive. You can only have a handful of paradigms (6-7, i believe) in your deck at a time though, so you won’t be scrolling through a big list of paradigms in the middle of combat. Not only does this keep the action fast, it also forces you to carefully consider how you will structure your Paradigm deck. To fight efficiently, you have to have a wide variety of paradigms at your disposal to cover a wide variety of situations. You can always jump into the main menu to re-arrange your Paradigm deck, but you shouldn’t have to do this every couple battles.

I really dig the Paradigm system, because it encourages players to always and constantly explore new tactics to fight more efficiently. Nearly every time I was defeated, to me it didn’t mean I needed to do some grinding to get stronger stats. It meant I needed to take a hard look at my Paradigm deck, and see just how tight an operation I could run in battle. Combat really comes together when you’re switching Paradigms almost instinctively, meeting each enemy and situation head on.

For an only semi-real time based system, battles can become exceedingly fast paced. In battles against Eidolons (character summons), for example, each second counts because not only are you often working with only two members, but they are boss level enemies, and you are cursed with a dreaded Doom timer (which, when it runs out, will cause an automatic game over).

You only ever control one character in battle. Until you are given free reign to choose your battle team, this will most commonly be Lightning, with the other two being AI controlled, acting according to the role they’ve been given. However, never once did this occur as a problem to me, as the AI is effective and competent at whatever role it is given. Use Libra on an enemy mid-battle to reveal they are weak to water attacks, and your Ravagers will promptly switch to water spells, and your Synergists will enchant your attacks with the water element. The AI will generally focus on the same target you are attacking (to get chain gauges up), but more “all out” paradigms like Cerberus (triple Commando) will often have them pick their own targets. It doesn’t waste time, either. Switch to a Paradigm containing a Sentinel and he/she will immediately grab enemy attention and switch to guarding, taking all the heat off you in a matter of 1-2 seconds. They often get to work before the “Paradigm Shift” sign even fades away. Simply put, the AI is responsive, and with their help, and the use of the Paradigm system, the party moves and attacks as a cohesive unit.

To fight effectively, most of the time you’ll be looking to raise an opponent’s chain gauge. Every enemy has a certain damage threshold, which when surpassed, forces them into a staggered, vulnerable state. This threshold is represented by the chain gauge. Filling the chain gauge is as simple as attacking the given enemy, but only Ravagers and Saboteurs can really fill it up. Commandos stop it from emptying, but don’t make much progress filling it. Once staggered, not only is the damage done to enemies multiplied by several times, you gain access to an arsenal of new moves; namely, the ability to “float” the target. Commandos have the ability to launch most enemies high into the air, leaving them unable to attack, and open to more punishment.

It’s also worth mentioning that your characters are fully healed at the end of each battle, no matter how bad or good you did. I like this decision, and it’s a sensible one given the absence of MP. Not having to constantly worry about the condition of my party members, and flee from enemies due to lack of restorative items is a huge freedom, and lifts a lot of stress from the game. Furthermore, you can always pause during battle and simply restart, which puts you down right in front of the enemy you engaged. Game Overs do the same thing, unless you choose to quit.

This means I often only found myself using save stations if I was actually done playing. Besides saving, save stations grant access to various shops, where you can buy a multitude of items, upgrade components and accessories using Gil. The whole economy in FFXIII is a bit odd, because Gil is only sparingly found on the field, your primary source of it being from special components that sell for a premium. But after your medics gain access to Cure and Raise, you won’t have much use for restorative items. You could use Gil to buy accessories and weapons, I suppose, but you find plenty of those as battle spoils and chest contents during your travels.

Which leaves equipment upgrades, the final service save stations provide. Using various components and materials bought and/or found, you can upgrade your weapons and accessories to buff their stats. It’s a simple system, with weapons leveling up just like characters do in most other RPGs when they gain enough experience from items being applied to them. Each piece of equipment has a max level that, when reached, often provides an opportunity to transform it into a potentially better weapon using a special catalyst stone (another type of component). You can also dismantle weapons and accessories you don’t need for additional materials. Some even contain components that can’t be found anywhere else. I’m still not sure how important this is to the game (maybe for some of the much tougher optional bosses), but I got by just fine not really touching the upgrade system throughout the story.

Level progression in Final Fantasy XIII is handled by the Crystarium, which those familiar with FFX’s Sphere Grid (or even the License Board from FFXII) should have no trouble getting used to. The Crystarium is a gigantic web of small orbs, each of which represents either an ability or stat boost. You gain these benefits simply by landing on an orb. You use Crystogenesis points gained from combat to travel along the web and gain stat boosts and learn new abilities. While it isn’t impossible to grind enemies for CG points, the Crystarium caps out fairly quickly, only being expanded at certain points in the story. Besides that, I think the difficulty pacing and learning curve is done well enough that for about 80% of the game, grinding never feels even slightly necessary.

However, this is due in part to the fact that the game holds your hand for several hours, and takes its sweet time really opening up. The ATB bar and Crystarium are expanded only at certain points in the plot, and you don’t even gain access to the Paradigm system (or Crystarium) until a few hours in, meaning battles are not only almost pointless for the first few hours, but they are incredibly simple and boring.

Which brings me to the Final Fantasy XIII’s biggest problem: its incredible linearity. For the first 25-30 hours, levels consist mostly of you running down a straight or winding path, with little to no side paths or detours. The game does open up a significant amount eventually, but until then you go where the game wants you to go, and use who the game wants you to use (meaning you also can’t switch up your battle team). Since this is more or less one gigantic, extended tutorial, the game is also pretty easy during this time.

If you’re only coming along for the story (which works great, actually), this isn’t really that big of a deal. If you were more interested in a “traditional” RPG experience, complete with lots of exploration and/or grinding, you’re in for a really long haul. The plot itself also takes its time moving along, concerning itself more with familiarizing the player with the characters and setting. The result is a whole lot of exposition, but when things do really get moving (right around chapter 10), at least you’ll know the whole situation, and be able to keep up with all the terms. While one could question the quality of a plot that requires 25 hours of exposition and build up, that’s another debate.

Back to the positives. Final Fantasy XIII’s production values are off the charts. The CG scenes are breathtaking, but the engine-rendered graphics aren’t slouching either. SE claims that the difference between their CG scenes and engine-rendered scenes is almost nonexistent, and that’s only a small exaggeration. The level of detail and animation work that went into each character model is impressive, and the environments, besides being beautiful, are imaginative, fully realized, and very unique. Really, this is a game that could sit along side Uncharted 2, Gears of War 2, and Metal Gear Solid 4 as one of the best-looking console games ever.

For a Japanese game dubbed in English, the voice acting is pretty excellent (though Vanille walks a fine line with me). All of the characters are voiced with skill and enthusiasm, so the game has no trouble conveying its more emotional scenes. I honestly didn’t miss the Japanese voice track one bit.

But when you’re talking about audio, the real star here is the soundtrack. And hoo boy, it is phenomenal. As soon as you start the game up, you’re greeted to a touching piano piece playing during the title screen. The primary combat theme doesn’t get old. Each environment is supported by an appropriate BGM. Each scene is delivered with sweeping music. The soundtrack is a masterpiece.

Despite all it does right, Final Fantasy XIII is not for everyone. Its restrictive linearity peeved me at some points, and I can’t imagine myself going through those first few hours again, after getting used to all the freedom I have at the point I’m now at. Furthermore, I can definitely see the touchy-feely tone turning away some people. But only a blind person would be unable to see the amount of work and effort that went into crafting this product. The story weaves together nicely, the audio and visuals are simply exemplary, and it’s not exactly a difficult game to get into. This is Final Fantasy, evolved to face a new generation of gaming, and personally I like it. A 9.0/10.

Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time

If there’s one series that has tested the “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” saying time and time again, it’s Insomniac’s Ratchet and Clank series.  These guys took one clump of ideas, melded them into a single excellent gameplay formula, and continued to apply it to each game they made, polishing it just a little more with each entry.

Before it entered the 7th generation of gaming, the Ratchet and Clank series didn’t have much of an overarching plot.  There were numerous references, sure, but the games were primarily episodic in nature.  That changed with Tools of Destruction, the duo’s first foray on the PS3.  ToD introduced a single grand plot, which was continued by the downloadable title Quest for Booty, and is now concluded with A Crack in Time.

And just what plot is that?  Well, the origin of our two buddies!  As I discussed in my review for Tools of Destruction, Ratchet is supposedly the only Lombax left in the universe.  His search to understand his past leads to him being separated from Clank.  Soon enough though, he meets General Alister Azimuth, who is another Lombax, surprisingly enough.  Most of the game is split into two parts; playing as Ratchet, who is searching for Clank, with Alister’s help, and playing as Clank, who finds himself in the Great Clock.

The Great Clock is a gigantic space station sitting in the center of the universe that regulates the flow of time, to prevent the universe being destroyed by the space-time continuum.  It is the home of the Zoni (who you’ll remember from Tools of Destruction), and also Orvus the senior caretaker, who oversees the clock’s functions.  Orvus is Clank’s father, and wants to pass on the job to him.  As Clank, you’ll go through some training for your abilities as senior caretaker, as you make your way to the Orvus Chamber, the central control room for the clock, which holds the power to manipulate time.  Unfortunately, Dr. Nefarious has his eyes on the Chamber too, and won’t stop until he gains access to it.

If you’ve played ANY other Ratchet and Clank game before, there won’t really be anything here that’s new to you.  Ratchet’s sections involve heavy platforming and shooting.  You’ll be jumping across platforms, grinding down rails, turning cranks, and (when he receives his hoverboots) boosting through treacherous passes.  When you’re not doing that you’re dealing with Dr. Nefarious’ henchman, who are determined exterminate you.  As always, however, you have a variety of big weapons at your disposal.  There’s the Rift Inducer 5000, which generates a black hole from which large tentacles snap out and maul your foes before snatching them away.  You have the always-reliable Negotiator, which solves any argument with two rockets.  Fan favorites Mr. Zurkon and the Groovitron Glove return, this time made into full weapons.  Mr. Zurkon taunts your enemies while blasting them to bits, while the Groovitron Glove tosses out a portable disco ball that, when activated generates pretty lights and some fabulous tunes.  What else are your enemies going to do but stop attacking you and dance?  

The bomb glove-esque weapon and your typical blaster and shotgun-types have been re-introduced as modifiable Constructo weapons.  Weapons of the Constructo line have interchangeable parts, allowing you to change their properties (and their color scheme), a little like the weapon customization present in Deadlocked.  Another returning feature is weapon and character experience.  As you fight and defeat enemies, you and your weapons gain XP.  When Ratchet levels up, he gets more health.  When his weapons level up, they get boosts to their stats.  On your first playthrough, your weapons can get up to level 5, and you can further upgrade them to level 10 in Challenge Mode.

Ratchet’s gameplay is split up primarily across several space sectors, each containing a couple primary destinations (planets or space stations), as well as several smaller planetoids (think Super Mario Galaxy) that you can explore for collectibles such as Gold Bolts and mods for your Constructo weapons.  Though you’ll still have to warp between sectors, you can freely roam each one (and they’re quite large) in the Aphelion (Ratchet’s talking ship), getting into battles with Nefarious’s henchmen and visiting planets as you please.  For the most part, Ratchet is still as fun to play as as he was back in the first Ratchet and Clank game.

Though the amount of gameplay content is dipped in Ratchet’s favor, you’ll spend a meaty portion of the game as Clank, too.  While there is a bit of combat and some platforming, it’s more about puzzles.  Fittingly, you’ll encounter a set of time pads that let you record temporal clones of yourself.  You step on a time pad to begin recording one clone and proceed step on a button to open a door, for instance, then you step on a second time pad to playback your first clone stepping on the button, allowing you to travel past the open door.  It’s difficult to explain, but the puzzles are pretty fun.  They’re introduced gently, but get pretty complex later on, with four clones to manage, who have several tasks to do.

Overall, the tried and true gameplay formula is just about as fun as it was back on the PS2.  Clank’s puzzles are difficult, but engaging, and Ratchet’s hoverboots, as well as full space combat and exploration are both extremely welcome additions.

Graphical-wise, the game looks pretty darn good.  The cutscenes are simply beautiful, and the gameplay features impressive animation and detail, without a single hitch.  Most of the environments are well done and fully realized, load times aren’t particularly long or common, despite a modest install size (300-400MB if memory serves), and there are almost no bugs or slowdown to speak of (though the game did freeze once during my playthrough).

The audio doesn’t always stand out, (though the Groovitron churns out some pretty catchy beats) but when it does it makes an impression.  The voice acting is also superb, as always, and while not all of the game’s numerous attempts to humor me hit home, some of them did indeed rip a chuckle or two out (Using the Groovitron on certain bosses, and Mr. Zurkon, for example)

As excellent as the gameplay is, I can’t help but feel that it’s begun to wear thin.  It’s amazing that Insomniac has gotten away with just building on the same formula for eight years now, but I don’t think another console entry in the franchise will do well without major innovation.  If you never liked Ratchet and Clank before, I severely doubt this game’s going to change your mind.  But when you look at the attention to detail, both big and small (space radio, the fan-made weapon, Challenge mode, etc), you’d be blind to not see that this was a labor of love, and designed as a present for the fans.  And for that, this game gets a 9/10.

Heavy Rain

If asked the question “What are games to you?”, how would you respond?  Games can be many things.  To me they’re both a form of stress release and a source of inspiration.  They pass the time.  They entertain.  Games can serve any number of purposes to any number of people.  I found it good to keep this in mind as I played through Heavy Rain, a PS3-exclusive title from Quantic Dream.

So what is Heavy Rain?  Some could argue it’s not even a game.  You could call it one gigantic Quick Time Event and be correct.  Likewise, you could also call it one of the greatest thrill rides in some time, and also be correct.  Most people have chosen to dub it “Interactive Drama”.  I think that works just fine.

You see, in most games, it’s the gameplay that matters.  A game can still pass as “good” with a horrible plot, as long as it’s got some nice gameplay to keep the player hooked.  With Heavy Rain it’s the other way around.  Here it’s the plot that matters.  The gameplay is there solely to give the plot a nudge here and there.  Think of it as one those “choose your own adventure” kinda games, and you’ll likely have the right idea.

A bit of the magic of the game comes from going into it knowing as little about the plot and characters as possible, so I’ll be brief in explaining it.  The prologue begins with Ethan Mars, a successful architect who’s leading a happy life with his wife and two kids.  What begins as a happy, slice of life sort of deal quickly delves into chaos when Ethan and one of his children are hit by a car.  Ethan falls into a coma but eventually awakens, but his son isn’t so lucky.  Fast forward two years, and the guy is a total mess.  His wife has divorced him, his remaining child is unhappy, and his guilt has steadily hurt his psychological condition.  Meanwhile, since the incident, a serial killer hunting boys age 9-13 has arisen in town.  Dubbed the “Origami Killer” for his/her tendency to leave an origami figure at the site of the crime, the killer eventually kidnaps Ethan’s last son, completely devastating him on both a mental and emotional level.

Enter investigative journalist Madison Paige, FBI profiler Norman Jayden, and private investigator Scott Shelby.  Madison wants a scoop on the killer.  Jayden wants him behind bars.  Scott just wants to know the killer’s identity, for the sake of the families who have already been hit by him/her.  Of course, you play all three, in addition to Ethan, as they attempt to track down both Ethan’s son and the killer.

Generally speaking, Heavy Rain is a slow playing game.  You play primarily by performing commands when prompted.  A lot of the time this is “on rails”, but other times you’ll be given the chance to simply wander around a given environment, interacting and exploring.  As Madison you might do a bit of breaking and entering, investigating the residence of a suspect.  As Norman you might use advanced FBI tech to scan for clues on a crime scene, which will hopefully point you in the right direction.

The unique thing about Heavy Rain is that, while there is an overall plot that the game follows, the details can branch off every which way at multiple points in the game.  That house you were sneaking around in as Madison?  It may have suddenly become a death trap, when the suspect comes home, and likely tries to kill you.  Scanning for clues as Jayden, you might come across a bit more than you bargained for.  This is the part where someone might try to off you for knowing too much.

All cutscenes in Heavy Rain are driven by button prompts.  Whether or not Ethan survives navigating a field of live electrical conduits may be entirely dependent on your ability to hold X, L1, R2, Square, and Circle all at once.  Or whether Scott can overpower his attacker may come down to how fast you can mash the X button.

There are a few different prompts besides the standard one button press.  A pulsating button symbol represents actions requiring endurance or strength (like pushing something over), and means you have to tap it repeatedly and as quickly as possible.  An arrow indicates a direction that must be executed with the right stick.  A dotted lines means the action must be executed slowly, for actions that require precision (like treating wounds).  The game also makes use of the motion sensors.  Though awkward at first, I found soon enough that executing motion control commands are just about as easy as button commands, thanks to the use of simple movements, excellent calibration and forgiving recognition.  Often the game will also have you hold multiple buttons at once, to simulate complex body movements (like climbing and navigating small spaces).  Fortunately, the hold button sequences are rarely long or complicated, so you won’t usually feel like you’re playing Twister on your controller.

While normal dialogue decisions are dotted throughout, the game will frequently present you with other, much tougher ones.  Regardless of what you choose, regardless of what happens, the plot will move on, forcing you to deal with the consequences of the decisions you make (unless you play cheap and just replay the chapter).  In Heavy Rain there’s little such thing as a game over.  If a character dies, the plot moves on without him or her, adapting to their absence.  If all the playable characters die, the plot simply concludes early.

Moving on to the technical side of things, Heavy Rain is a mixed bag in terms of visual fidelity.  For the most part, animation is excellent, though it shows its computer-generated weaknesses every now and then.  The commands are integrated extremely well into the game so as to not be overly distracting, but still get your attention.  Environments look swell overall, though I thought the level of detail was not the same among some objects.  Each chapter’s load screen presents the moving face of the character you’ll be playing as for that chapter in a ridiculously lifelike fashion, though the character models aren’t quite so detailed during gameplay.  Simply put, visual quality is impressive most of the time, but somewhat inconsistent.  I do however applaud the camera work, the overall visual themes are topnotch.  Constant heavy rainfall throughout the story runs parallel to Ethan’s sorrow and depression, and plenty of gray, brown and green hues are thrown in to help convey the darker tone of the story. 

The audio is another mixed bag.  Characters are voiced pretty well generally, enough that they can adequately deliver on the game’s more intensely emotional scenes, but it’s not perfect, which wouldn’t be a big deal in most other games, but stands out here because the plot and presentation are the big hooks.  It stands to reason that voice acting should be damn near perfect, as a result.  Fortunately, the soundtrack picks up whatever slack the VOs drop.  Nearly every bit of the BGM is an aural delight, and the sound design helps to pull you further into the game than anything else I’ve experienced in some time.

Unfortunately, the game is one of the buggier ones I’ve played in recent times.  Though framerate issues are few and far between, the game has frozen on me a couple times, and I’ve known the audio to skip or blatantly loop.  Most of these have only minor impacts on the player however, due to the game autosaving pretty much every couple of minutes, and the ability to  jump right back to your last save point from the main menu.

Heavy Rain offers a great experience, one definitely worth having.  But perhaps more importantly, it represents a milestone in digital entertainment.  Quantic Dream took a basic plot and gave you the reigns to push it where you want.  Despite being QTEs, action cutscenes are surprisingly intense, and will no doubt have you on the edge of your seat.  Both the audio and visuals, while not perfect, both serve to pull you into the experience, and do so to remarkable effect.  One playthrough will only take several hours to beat, but most of the 60-some chapters can be replayed in multiple different ways, with different choices and actions, and of course there are many, many endings to this tale.  Seeing all there is to see in this game will take quite some time indeed.  A 9/10.

Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story

It seems Mario games have become a bit of a mixed bag these days. There’s the always widely lauded 3D platformers (Sunshine, Galaxy), and then there’s the various sports and other genre games that Mario stars in, such as the long running Mario Party, Smash Bros, and Mario Kart series. Sometimes these turn out good, sometimes they turn out excellent, sometimes they turn out laughably mediocre. It is because of how not so great Mario’s ventures outside of platforming have been that I chose to ignore his RPGs, such as Superstar Saga and Paper Mario.

Well obviously I made a mistake. Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is surprisingly pleasant from start to finish, with very few blemishes to speak of.
The game begins with a scene involving an average family of toads. The mother calls the family in for dinner, and suddenly the father comes crashing in through the wall, inflated to gargantuan size by a quickly spreading disease known as the Blorbs. Innocent toads everywhere are finding themselves unable to do much than roll around, and are overall having a miserable time. Princess Peach calls for a committee meeting to discuss the problem, and the possibility of a cure, when Bowser storms in, angry that he wasn’t invited. A hilarious battle tutorial ensues as Mario and Luigi send him packing.
Bowser storms off to a nearby forest and encounters a strange merchant claiming the Koopa King has won an obscure contest, earning him a mysterious mushroom. The mushroom causes Bowser to inhale pretty much everything around him, including Peach, the Bros, and a whole lotta toads when he returns to the castle.
The “merchant” reveals himself to be none other than Lord Fawful, who was apparently an assistant to the villain of the last game. He plans to take over not only Peach’s castle, but also Bowser’s! Of course Bowser isn’t going let that happen without a fight.
This sets the premise for the primary gameplay twist; the top screen follows Bowser and his efforts to stop Fawful from taking his castle, and on the bottom screen you’ll find Mario and Luigi, who spend most of their time traversing Bowser’s body. Switching between the two is as easy as pressing A or B for the Bros, and X or Y for Bowser.
While these two elements share a lot of elements, there’s enough differences for the two to feel very distinct from each other. Bowser has a lot beefier stats than Mario and Luigi, but also takes on tougher, larger foes. While there is some light platforming, I felt that combat was the main order of the day with him.
On the other hand, Mario and Luigi spend more of their time hopping on platforms and exploring the various nooks and crannies of their adversary’s body. Though there’s no shortage of combat opportunities for these two either, I think platforming makes up a bigger piece of the pie, with them gradually gaining a small arsenal of moves to help them reach various areas.
Combat works pretty much the same playing as either Bowser or Mario/Luigi, though the two still require different approaches. With Mario and Luigi, you have two characters to attack with, but unlike Bowser, who can actually just kick aside certain foes without needing to go into an actual combat sequence, they have to fight every scrub they touch. With Bowser it’s often more about just whaling on the enemy with punches and fire. Since he has only two evasive moves at his disposal generally, compared to the various things you might have to do counter attacks as Mario and Luigi, I sometimes think there’s less strategy involved.
Combat itself is enjoyable, and very much tuned to include the sort of things you’d expect from a Mario game. The battle menu, for example, is actually a bunch of rotating blocks that you headbutt to select.
Though battles are turn-based, this is an action-RPG. Each attack you make can be either strengthened or completely fall flat, depending on your timing. Every enemy also has their own unique attack, and with it comes a way to dodge that attack and, in many cases, counter it. A person with lightning reflexes and great analytical abilities could walk away from any battle in this game completely unscathed. But for the rest of us, success comes from carefully studying the enemy’s movements (they always do something distinctive that indicates their target and what they will do), and memorizing them. And thus, interestingly enough, this is an RPG where practice can get you way farther than stat buffing or better equipment would, though both of these still help a lot.
As you explore, you’ll also be able to find new special attacks, many of which are surprisingly humorous. My favorite so far involves Luigi pouncing on enemies with a gigantic pink bouncy ball, with you using certain buttons to make sure he keeps bouncing, and to keep him balanced. Special attacks and minigames, however, make up the only portion of the game that involves the stylus. Which isn’t a bad thing. In fact, these parts of the game are at best decent, really.
Overall, can’t say I have much to say against Bowser’s Inside Story. It’s simply a well done game. 9.o/10

BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger

Wow, shame on me. I haven’t updated in a month. But hey, it’s really because I haven’t had much to talk about. Been playing mostly some FF 10 and 12 in the gap; already wrote about X, and I don’t really feel like writing about 12..

Anyway, onwards to the post. A great game, if I do say so myself. Fortunately, I don’t, because this game jumped to near immediate critical acclaim. Not gushing reviews quite up with the likes of Metal Gear Solid 4 or Grand Theft Auto 4, but the game is widely adored, nonetheless. Unfortunately, unlike Street Fighter IV, very little hype was built up for the game, and thus it could almost be classified as a sleeper hit.
I had strong reservations about buying this, especially at full price, especially because, I’m simply no good at fighting games. This is my first “hardcore” fighting game since Soul Calibur 3, and I was pretty horrible at that game (never could understand the meaning behind the button symbols). I ended up buying it, however, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is the spiritual successor to Guilty Gear, a series known for its beginner friendly battle mechanics. Furthermore, I found myself drawn in by the game’s quirky trends (once again akin to Guilty Gear) and terms, beginning with the name itself; “BlazBlue”..? What the heck is that? And then there’s such eccentric names as “Astral Heat” and “Guard Libra”. It was all very fascinating.
The final reason I finally gave in was because of the Limited Edition offer. That is, the first few runs of the game are all automatically upgraded LE, which includes not only the game, but also a two disc soundtrack and an instructional Blu-Ray disc with various tips and strategies (all wrapped in a nice box with special artwork) . I figured, if I was going to buy the game, I might as well get the disc and see if that helps.
I ended up not needing the disc. BlazBlue is so easy to pick up, I was surprised and very satisfied when I got actually managed to beat a couple people online.
Like any fighter, there’s a fair amount to pay attention to during a battle.
At the top of the screen, you can see the character icon and name of your fighter, as well as their health bar (yellow/gold) and barrier bar (red, blue or yellow). In the center is the timer, and directly under it is the Guard Libra (not shown in the pic..for some reason.). The Guard Libra helps keep the battles moving at a brisk pace by punishing those who like to sit around blocking attacks. Each time you block an attack, the GL bar moves closer in your direction (the more powerful the attack, the further it moves). If it fully hits your end of the bar, your guard will crack, leaving you stunned for quite a while (not unlike the guard break system in Super Smash Bros). However, you do have an alternative block that will not budge the Guard Libra. This is your barrier, which is also simply a more effective way to block. Using your barrier consumes energy from your barrier gauge, however, and should you fully deplete your barrier gauge, you will enter “Danger” status for the rest of the round. While in this state, your defense is significantly lowered, and you are unable to use barrier. You also have a last resort defensive move called Barrier Burst, which fully depletes your barrier gauge in one go, and knocks your opponent back. While it’s not a move you want to use often, it’ll force off your opponent if you think [s]he’s getting a bit too close for comfort.
At the bottom of the screen is each character’s Heat Gauge. Once you have certain amounts of energy in this bar, you can perform special Distortion Drive attacks, which are often quite flashy, and do an impressive bit of damage. Each character has their own unique set of Distortion Drives, as well as a secret Astral Heat. By running your character through Arcade mode (not necessary with Ragna, v-13, or Rachel), you can unlock his/her’s Astral Heat, an spectacular show of brutality and awesomeness. During the final round of a match, if you have 100% heat and your foe has less than 20% of his health left, you are able to attempt an Astral Heat. Should it connect, your victory will be assured.
BlazBlue’s controls are also simple to pick up. In clockwise order starting with Square (or X on the 360), each button is labeled A, B, C, and D. A attacks are weak but very quick pokes and jabs essential for breaking combos, catching people off guard, and overall just being one annoying mofo. C attacks are more powerful and have better range, but are of course a little slower. B attacks are the middle ground. D is related to all your character’s Drive abilities. Various moves (and usually the Astral Heat and certain Distortion Drives) are also mapped to the right stick. This feature, known as “Easy Specials” allows you to pull off many of a character’s specials quickly and easily, without having to memorize long button combos. However, use of the right stick is banned in the majority of online matches, so there’s an incentive for more skilled players to learn the actual button string behind each right stick move.
Each character has their own unique Distortion Drive ability that also often complements their personality. For example, Jin is a very cold and unemotional fellow, so it’s only natural he’d be able freeze opponents and manipulate ice with his Drive ability. Taokaka’s Drive ability lets her literally bounce and and tear all over the screen, reminiscent of her spontaneous personality.
Given the Guard Libra, Barrier Bar, and how lithe many of the characters are, battles move at a very fast pace. Generally, blocking would only be done to defend against rushdowns (an enemy’s attempt to pressure you into messing by being extremely aggressive) and specials. In this game, a good offense is also a good defense. The better you are at countering and keeping your opponent off his/her feet, the better you will do in BlazBlue. The way I see it, the key to a great battle is combos. Some characters are better attuned to them than others, but combos are a vital aspect of gameplay in BlazBlue.
BlazBlue is also packed with content. Besides the typical Arcade mode (where you pick a fighter and then go through several rounds with other characters, which often reveals a bit of plot info towards the end), there’s also Score Attack, where you compete against other players to get the best score, Versus, (Just a quick match with you vs another player, or you versus the computer), and Training, where you can hone your skills under a variety of parameters (or even with a friend).

BlazBlue also features a full featured online mode. Here you can view the leaderboards for each character, and overall. You can play a quick ranked match, or join a room with up to 5 other people, and chat with each other, fight, and watch others in the room fight. You can also host your own room, finely tuned to your own rules. For example, you can choose whether to ban or allow such things as Easy Specials and Astral Heats, and also choose whether or not to enable voice chat. You can also send invites to people on your friend list (or anyone, if you know their PSN ID or XBL tag) to join your room. If you’re the type of guy who likes to study both your own and others’ techniques, BlazBlue provides for that as well via the Replay Theatre. With this nifty feature you can record your own battles, as well as watch others’. By bringing up a person’s D-card (an ID card that shows their favorite two characters, and their win/loss ratio, among other things), you can download a replay of their last battle. I like to skip all the way to the top of the leaderboards for my favorite characters and watch replays of those players’ recent battles.
But that’s not all. BlazBlue also has a story, and a surprisingly in-depth one at that. So deep, in fact, that even after completing some of each characters’ story paths AND seeing the True Ending, I still didn’t fully understand what was going on. The Prologue is quite enigmatic, showing a conversation between two scientists at a facility right before they are seemingly sent to oblivion by a huge satellite beam attack from above. It takes place in a world recovering from the onslaught of a powerful being known only as the Black Beast. The Black Beast appeared seemingly out of nowhere, it’s only intent being to destroy anything in its path. None of mankind’s weapons seemed to do anything against it, and it seemed humans would end up on the brink of destruction. All hope appeared lost, until six powerful warriors gathered together, and, with their combined power, defeated and sealed away the Black Beast. Those six are known as the Six Heroes. One of the Heroes, a powerful mage, taught mankind how to use magic. Thus the war against the Black Beast became known as the First War of Magic.
Fast forward a few years. Three siblings; Ragna, Saya, and Jin leave a peaceful life in the countryside, until their home is burned down. Saya is killed, and, with Jin’s help, a strange man kills Ragna too, after slicing off his arm.
It wasn’t long until disagreements over how this new power should be used, and who should have control over it arose, leading a Second War of Magic. The two sides? The Novis Orbus Librarium, a budding corporation that functioned somewhat as an international police force, and held control over much of the magic, versus the Ikaruga Corporation, a group of rebels who instead saw the NOL as a future dicatorship. It was during this war that an older Jin, now known for his lack of emotion and enthusiasm, rose as a hero and very talented combat officer.
Fast forward once again to the 13th Hierarchical City of Kagatsuchi, where about 95% of the story takes place. This is a city of many colors, layers, and people. All of the characters converge here because they’ve heard that the infamous Ragna the Bloodedge was spotted there.
BlazBlue‘s story plays out not unlike a visual novel. If you already know what a visual novel is, you can skip this paragraph. For the uninitiated, it is quite literally a novel supported by a near-static image in the background. Characters are fully voiced and have a variety of facial expressions, but you might find yourself spending a lot of time just reading the text box (especially in the case of Arakune, who is near-impossible to understand vocally). Occasionally you might be given a choice of how to proceed. Each character has multiple story paths to take (often with multiple endings), and these choices dictate which path you will end up on. Whether or not you lose a battle or win with a Distortion Drive also makes a difference.
The thing with the character stories in BlazBlue, is that they’re not entirely canon. It’s best to think of them more as an excellent way to introduce you to the characters (and their histories), background, and setting of the actual overall plot, before the game actually lets you see what really happened. The problem with the character stories is that, while it’s impossible for them all to be fully canon (that is to say, relevant to the core plot), it’s important that you keep them in mind anyway, because like I said before, they still offer up vital clues and help you piece together much of the story even without seeing the true ending. This means you’ll find yourself picking and choosing what to believe and what not to believe. The multiple endings and branching story paths don’t help either.
Even after seeing the True Ending, you’ll still likely find yourself scrambling for more, only to be disappointed when you find that there is none.
As expected of a game supposed to succeed the Guilty Gear series, BlazBlue has a very distinguished and interesting cast of characters. While they are few in number (I think there’s only 10 playable characters), they all play differently, act differently, and are simply all very unique.
Ragna is arguably the main character of the plot, and he is directly referenced and mentioned in nearly every other character’s story path. Why he is alive once again is a bit of a spoiler, but he’s been traveling to each Hierarchical City and completely wiping out the NOL branch stationed there. His power and combat ability is legendary, and in an attempt to stop him, the NOL has placed the largest bounty in human history on his head. He is a SS-Class criminal, and also known as “Death” or “Grim Reaper”. Rumor has it that Ragna also carries a powerful artifact known as the Azure Grimoire around with him. Ragna is a very angry person, and extremely easy to piss off, but he’s not a bad person at heart. Furthermore, he seems almost oblivious to the fact that he is the most wanted criminal in the world. Ragna’s Drive ability is Soul Eater, which allows him to steal health from his opponent.
Jin Kisaragi is Ragna’s brother. He rose to fame as the “Hero of Ikaruga” for his display of combat skill. When he heard Ragna had been spotted in Kagatsuchi, he immediately left to go find him. In doing so he disobeyed direct orders, and the NOL is now focused on retrieving him. Jin is at least partially insane (I think so anyway), which could be due to his sword (a katana, by the way), Yukianesa, which allows the wielder to manipulate ice, but is rumored to drive them off the deep end. He displays little emotion or enthusiasm (besides ice cold killing intent) unless he is talking to Ragna. I’m honestly still not sure whether Jin wants to save or kill Ragna. For all I know, he could be bipolar. Jin’s Drive ability is Frost Bite, which allows him to use ice to freeze his opponents, opening them up to further combos.
Noel Vermillion is a Lieutenant in the NOL. She rose in rank quickly for her surprising amount of talent for combat. Noel is somewhat shy, and is also having a bit of an identity crisis. She knows her parents are foster parents (and loves them dearly all the same), but doesn’t remember any part of her life before they took her in. Other characters have a striking tendency to look down on her for her clumsiness, cute appearance and soft personality, but she is a capable combatant, and was consequently placed under Jin’s direct command. Jin hates her, however, for her resemblance to V-13. Likely to her disdain, however, she is the one sent to retrieve Jin when he goes AWOL. And thus she arrives in Kagatsuchi. Noel also has a slight inferiority complex, especially for her breasts, which are so near nonexistent that she has been mistaken for a boy on occasion. Noel wields Bolverk, a pair of twin pistols. Her Drive ability, Chain revolver, is a great gateway to setting up long strings of combos.
Rachel Alucard is a powerful vampire, and head of the noble Alucard family. Though in actual gameplay battle, she of course plays on an equal footing as other characters, she is arguably the most powerful playable character in the game, if the story is any evidence. Rachel is also the only one who seems to know the entire story. She looks down on EVERYONE but her butler and Kokonoe (Tager’s creator), seeing them as little more than pieces to a puzzle she claims she cannot interact with. Though she left her castle claiming to be bored, she is a little more connected to the story than she lets on. She travels with a large shapeshifting cat named Nago, and a squishy red bat named Gii. Despite how badly she treats them, they remain loyal to her.
Rachel herself doesn’t do much physical fighting. Instead, Gii and Nago do most of her bidding. Rachel’s Drive ability Silpheed, allows her limited control over the wind, allowing her get around quicker and also initiate good rushdown attacks.
Hakumen is a mysterious and somewhat enigmatic individual who was also one of the Six Heroes. Canonically speaking, him and Rachel are likely the most powerful playable characters in the game. However, unlike Rachel, who fights only when she feels like it, Hakumen is quick to slaughter almost anyone who stumbles onto his path. Like (and yet unlike) Bang, he is a devout follower of his own brand of justice, which involves slicing up evildoers with a blade long enough to make Sephiroth proud. I’m still not sure what in the world Hakumen has to do with anything. His Drive ability, Zanshiin, allows him to counter attacks (like Ike or Marth from Super Smash Bros). He is also the only character in the game who doesn’t actually have a heat gauge. Instead, he uses a different kind of energy, though it works in a similar way.
Next up is Taokaka, a member of the Kaka clan, a group of cat-people genetically engineered from Jubei, one of the Six Heroes. Taokaka is extremely upbeat, spontaneous, informal, forgetful, and, simply stupid. Though she is a capable fighter, Tao is lazy and only likes to eat meat buns and sleep. She wears a large coat and hood that shrouds her real face, revealing only red eyes and a mischievous grin. Her unpredictability carries into her combat style and Drive ability, which allows her to literally jump all around the screen at lightning speed, giving her a good mixup/rushdown game. She is good friends with Litchi (who she calls Boobie Lady), and overall friendly to everyone she meets (except Arakune, who she despises for attacking the Kaka Village).
Next is Iron Tager, known simply as Tager. A hulking cyborg who is very uncomfortable for me to play as, Tager, despite being a complete beast in combat, is actually a very mellow and reasonable person who hates wanton violence. At least half of the battles he gets into are either caused by unfortunate coincidences, or he tries to reason with his opponent instead. Tager participated in the Ikaruga War (aka the Second War of Magic), but was killed. He was rebuilt with mechanical parts by the scientist Kokonoe, and now works for Sector 7, a group rebelling against the NOL. Overall a simple person, Tager just does his job. No more, no less. He is acquainted with Litchi and Arakune, and makes passive attempts to persuade Litchi to return to Sector 7, but to little effect. His primary mission throughout the story is simply to retrieve Hakumen, who Kokonoe pulled from the supernatural Edge dimension.
Another character is Litchi Faye Ling, who I’ve found I am absolutely horrible with. Litchi is a well-endowed woman who is liked for her kindness and maturity. She is fairly level headed, and has a motherly personality, especially towards Taokaka. Despite this, she can be flirty at times, especially during battle. Litchi used to be an assistant for Kokonoe at Sector 7, but left to find and aid Arakune. Like Tager, she doesn’t like resorting to fighting, but is a capable fighter nonetheless. When she’s not hunting down Arakune, she runs a clinic in Orient Town. Litchi uses a staff in battle, and her Drive ability involves the various things she can do with it (and make it do independently). She plays a little like Karl in that use of her staff in combination with her own moves is a crucial part of her battle strategy
Arakune, the thing Litchi has been looking for, is exactly little more than an abomination. I’m not sure how personal his connection with Litchi was when he was human, but he used to work at Sector 7. But his insatiable thirst for knowledge led him beyond the boundary, and he ended warped into the disgusting specimen he is now. Arakune essentially looks like a sentient blob of black tar with a white mask glued on. He is unable to speak properly (parts of his audio dialog are muted, making it near impossible to fully understand what he is talking about), and is insane. His only motive, besides attaining more power and knowledge, is simply to stay alive, by constantly absorbing others. This is what led him to attack the Kaka village. He eventually decides to attack Ragna as well, hoping to take the Azure Grimoire from him. Arakune plays a little like V-13, and tends to stay away from his opponent, and use his insect Drive ability to do damage from afar instead.
Last in the line of characters at all relevant to the core plot is Nu, otherwise known as V-13. She bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Noel, (albeit in a younger body) and is even more emotionless than Jin when it comes to character interaction. When talking to anyone besides Ragna, she talks in a flat computer cyborg voice, and prefers to obliterate anyone who stands in her way. When around Ragna, however, she gains the cheerful and bubbly personality of a young girl infatuated with an older guy. Despite how nice she sounds, however, she is bent on killing Ragna, so she can fuse with him (and possibly re-summon the Black Beast). Like Ragna, she possesses an Azure Grimoire, but the authenticity of hers is questionable. If you’ve seen Noctis from FFV13, or Sora’s Final Form from Kingdom Hearts 2, you’ll have an idea how V-13 fights. She summons multiple swords to attack her opponent from various directions in battle, making her excellent for pushing them into a corner, or keeping them off balance. It also makes her a natural at air combos. Her ability to control and wield multiple swords at once is also her Drive ability.
Yet another character in this already quirky bunch is Bang Shishigami, a self-proclaimed ninja, vigilante, and [self-proclaimed] Hero of Justice and Love. Bang is a very amusing person to watch, as he’s somewhat clumsy, and manages to stumble into many misunderstandings. He has an intense crush on Litchi, and is quick to attack anyone who even appears to be threatening her. He has a large tendency to jump the shark on many matters, and is pretty big on exaggerating, as well. His devotion to justice is not so unlike that of a Power Ranger (or Kamen Rider, for that matter), which makes him all the more humorous to play as and watch. However, he can be serious when the situation calls for it, and his intentions are always pure. Bang was a resident of Ikaruga during the Second War, and it was during this time that Jin arrived in his city. Jin and his men slaughtered many of the civilians, and personally killed Bang’s sensei, Master Tenjo, in cold blood. Bang attempted to stop him, and recieved the cross-shaped scar he now has from Jin’s Yukianesa, before being frozen. He has pledged to get revenge on Jin, and carries a large nail on his back as a memento of his master. Bang utilizes ninjutsu during battle, and is particularly skilled at fire attacks. Landing enough attacks with his drive button fills up his 4 gates bar, which, once filled, allows him to power up, increasing speed and attack strength.
Last, and easily least (in my opinion), is Karl, who is almost entirely irrelevant to the plot, from I can so far tell. Karl is a young boy, who walks around with a large mechanical doll he refers to as his sister. His only relations are to Noel and Jin, who spent some with while the three of them were in school. I’m not sure whether he’s insane (as is suggested to Noel), or if the doll really is talking to him, or maybe a reincarnation of his real older sister, who apparently died. Karl is a dedicated vigilante, and arrives with the sole purpose of eliminating Ragna the Bloodedge, and taking his Azure Grimoire. In battle, his Drive ability, Automaton, involves controlling his puppet. Karl’s fairly weak by himself, but getting caught between him and his doll (or just trying to take on the doll) is asking for trouble, as it opens up all sorts of mixups, and overall bad pwnage.
The graphics in this game are rather top notch. Who knew hi-res sprites could look so good? The game runs fluidly and simply performs great. There’s no mandatory install, but there is a 14mb patch you’ll need to download. The soundtrack is also an interesting mix of metal and j-pop. It’s surprisingly refreshing. I personally love the opening song, Ao-Iconoclast, and was disappointed to find that it is not included in the two disc soundtrack. The game also features a fairly extensive Gallery feature that let’s you view various illustrations encountered in the story, as well as special art that includes a small comment from one of the staff members that worked on the game. You can also view movie clips, such as the opening for both the console and arcade versions. Furthermore, the gallery features the full library of music you’ll hear in BlazBlue, as well as the ability to listen to each and every soundbyte (except for the voice tracks from the story mode) from each and every character, in either English or Japanese. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, the game is in dual-audio, so you can choose to keep the English language (which was done well, by the way), or listen to the characters in their original Japanese voices. Unfortunately, there’s no custom soundtrack feature (meaning you can’t listen to your own music), but with audio options as expansive as this, it’s a minor complaint.
Overall, I think BlazBlue was done quite well. There’s a lot of stuff to do, see, and hear, and the story is out of this world. It’s a game that’s easy to pick up, and tough to master, and yet very balanced, which are all great assets of a fighting game, I’d say. This game is worth the full $60 price tag, even without the bonus discs. A 9/10.

Resident Evil 5

I wasn’t excited about this game until I actually played it. To me, it was just another Resident Evil game. Besides, horror’s never been my thing. And then I played the demo. Wow. That was one of the most adrenaline pumping, exciting gaming experiences I have had in recent memory.

Resident Evil 5 stars major character Chris Redfield (he was in the first RE wasn’t he?), fighting alongside new partner Sheva Alomar. In this game, Chris has joined the BSAA, an organization committed to combating bioterrorism. He’s feeling been feeling kind of down since the supposed death of his partner Jill, so he is a little skeptical when he meets his new partner. These worries are pushed to the back of his mind soon, however, when the two are ambushed by a horde of zombies soon after being given their equipment. They even witness the execution of the very same man who first greeted them at the hands of a gruesome foe known as the Executioner. As they continue their travels, unraveling the situation at hand, things become increasingly more dire, as more and more of their comrades fall to an enemy they know little about.

RE5’s story is sort of a mixed bag. It’s not a masterpiece, to be sure, and the largest plot hook and spoiler is extremely obvious. Abandoning its horror roots for a decidedly more action packed style, RE5 is full of explosions, impossible maneuvers, and of course there’s a car chase present. The story wants to be the focus, but recognizing it as such only detracts from the overall experience, so let’s throw it to the side for now.

RE5 is a game you will either like or hate. So I’ll discuss it in a different format then usual.

The game’s graphics are beautiful. The environments are incredibly detailed, there’s a multitude of effects in use, such as dust kick up, light reflection, and motion blur. After playing this game, its tough not take these things for granted. Explosions are satisfying and look awesome, and while your typical grunt zombies do get old after awhile, other forms are rather creative, and most certainly gruesome. If there’s one thing to be said about this game, its gruesome at times. People die in a large variety of ways.

The co-op delivers. You’re not doing this game justice playing it solo. Grab a friend, either online or offline, and play it in co-op. You’ll have a blast, I promise. Everything about this game promotes teamwork. The inventory system, most of the bosses, the HUD, and there frequent times when you can vault a partner up to check out another area. One of my favorite team oriented parts is right before you first face the chainsaw wielder, where you vault Sheva across to another roof. You could let your buddy try to fend for herself in the next building, but I always have a sniper rifle handy, so I descended one floor and covered her from the balcony. It was a blast. Before each level you’re able to buy new weapons and items, and re-arrange your inventory, as well as upgrade your weapons. Its important to strategize with your friend and make sure each person’s weapon arsenal complements the other’s.

This game can be seriously adrenaline pumping and exciting at times, which goes hand in hand with the co-op. Like during the public assembly level, when we had to hold out for a few minutes against a seemingly never ending hoard of zombies, accompanied by the Executioner. When you or your partner takes too hits, they’ll go into DYING status, where they can do nothing but slowly stumble around, and have only seconds until they die. You have to get over there and quickly either slap an adrenaline booster into them or, if you have one, use an herb. This is sorta like the revival system in Gears of War 2. There is almost no let up in action. The few moments of downtime always feel like they are building up towards another burst of excitement. The suspense can make the fainthearted nervous. Even the cutscenes can and likely will kill you.

The game is filled to bursting with replay value. Trophies/Achievements and the cooperative multiplayer aside, there’s a lot of weapons in the game, each of which can be individually upgraded. When you fully upgrade a weapon, you can choose to buy the option to have infinite ammo for that weapon. There’s also costumes, figurines, and other stuff to unlock with special points that are earned basically by playing the game, and also by seeking out and destroying BSAA emblems, of which there are 30, scattered all around the campaign. Chris and Sheva also have their own secret special weapons to be unlocked and bought, and once you beat the game for the first time, you unlock the Mercenaries mode, which challenges you to off as many enemies as you can. There are also leaderboards, and I’m pretty sure versus multiplayer is on its way too.

For most of these, whether or not these are negatives depend on what kind of games you like. For example, if you are expecting a game akin to Gears 2 or some other 3rd person shooter, the fact that you cannot run and gun at the same time will likely be a sticking point. Cover is context sensitive (its nonexistent for the first half of the game, then becomes more common, and everytime you want to take a shot, you need to stop. Ammo, while not as scarce as in RE4, is still a valued commodity, as it cannot be bought. So each weapon is equipped with a laser sight for more accurate aiming (You’ve gotta make each shot count). You’ll find yourself cursing under your breath when you miss more than twice in a row, and waiting for just the right time to reload.

Again, I personally did not find this to be much of a big deal, but some will. A LOT of actions are context sensitve. Cover is, melee attacks are, a lot of the finishing moves for bosses and special enemies are as well. For one enemy (I’m looking at you, Lickers), you better hope you better have some real twitchy reflexes, or you’ll find yourself pinned to the floor, death looking you in the eyes. There are also a lot of Quick Time Events. Unless you are coming from RE4, you will likely fail every single one of them on your first try. Don’t ever take your hands off the controller during a cutscene.

This is purely a matter of taste. Being a Resident Evil game, one would expect this game to be, well, scary. Or at least creepy. Well, it’s not. The creatures are nasty looking, but I never actually felt scared of them. Nervous, sure (death is always just around the corner if you’re not careful), but never scary. This has pissed off some Resident Evil veterans, but it didn’t bother me.

Personally I don’t think this deserves all the criticism it gets, but the AI is worth mentioning. A word of warning. Don’t expect any amount of flexibility from the partner AI. Give it a weapon and it will fend for itself to a realistic extent (Sheva does get grabbed, but her aim is generally dead on). To put it bluntly, the AI is very straightforward, I suppose. It will always stick by you, and its main intent is always to provide cover fire. Don’t expect it to do much on its own, it will usually just follow up on what you’re doing. HOWEVER, be careful what you trust Sheva with, as the AI burns through herbs like Kirby through a stack of food. The AI will come running with a full health spray if you so much as get a paper cut, and is not intelligent enough to combine herbs, so it will constantly waste lone green herbs. The AI is helpful, as long as you don’t grant it too many liberties. It will burn through ammo very quickly, but I tended to as well so I generally let that complaint slide. Another problem is that the AI will almost never switch weapons. It lacks the ability to adapt to varying situations. Whatever weapon Sheva chooses to equip in the beginning, she will stick to for the entirety of the level, regardless of how much peril it may get her into. Keep this in mind as you set up her inventory. To her credit, as I said before, Sheva’s aim is topnotch, and at times better than mine. The car chase (and even the final boss battles) is arguably easier with the AI than with a human. She’s quick to save you if you’re grabbed, and usually intelligent enough to run in for a melee hit if I can get an enemy to stumble. She also gives excellent cover fire.

I refuse to recognize this as a negative, but I’ve seen a lot of people who have a bone to pick with the inventory system. Due to multitude of items you’ll likely be collecting throughout the level, and the limited space you have to carry them (each character has nine slots), it can be puzzle in itself figuring out how to make space for everything. Fortunately you have a stash you can deposit all your items into at the end of each level. Personally I think the limited space adds a level of strategy to the game, but maybe I’m just being optimistic.

I can see Resident Evil 5 being a tough game to rate, because this is a shining example of gaming likes and dislikes being purely a matter of taste. 9.0/10