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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.
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.
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
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..