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.

Valkyria Chronicles

Lately I’ve returned to Valkyria Chronicles, giving it a second playthrough on my new game+ file.  I feel like writing about it again, because for one thing I don’t like the quality of my original post for it.

Valkyria Chronicles is a unique mix of tactical RPG and third person shooter.  As the prologue so aptly describes, the game tells a story of war, and those affected by it.  The setting is an alternate but similar version of Earth in the mid 1900s.  In 1935 two world powers–the Federation and the Empire–scuffle over an increasingly important mineral resource called ragnite.  Tensions rise, and soon the Empire invades the Federation, beginning the Second Europan War.  The Empire makes good progress in the initial attack, and with the confidence gained from this, proceeds to also set its sights on Gallia.  Gallia is a small country sandwiched by the Federation and Empire, and until now it had managed to maintain a neutral position in their affairs.  However, Gallia is known to be a rich source of ragnite, and thus the Empire invades, opening up the Gallian Front in the war.  In addition to its regular army, the Gallian government enacts an emergency draft, mobilizing a militia.  The game deals with the Gallians’ efforts to push back the Empire’s assault.

We’re soon introduced to our main characters, Welkin Gunther and Alicia Melchiott.  Welkin is a calm-hearted tank commander and nature enthusiast with a wide knowledge of natural science.  Alicia serves on the town watch, and is also a talented baker.  Though kind, she’s no stranger to battle, and is determined to see her goals through.  The war sees both Welkin and Alicia assigned to Squad 7 in the militia, where they meet many different characters, most notably Largo and Rosie, the former of which is a grizzled war veteran, and the latter a sassy lass who used to sing in a bar.

The visual theme of the game is that of a history (or story) book that focuses on Squad 7 and its various members as they live and fight in a world ravaged by war.  The book serves as your menu, with different plot chapters and modes present in their own chapters in the book.  Story progress is made by selecting various illustrations on each page, which represent either cutscenes or battles.

When you’re not watching a cutscene or navigating menus, battles make up all of the gameplay in Valkyria Chronicles, even though it doesn’t feel like it.  When you first enter an engagement, you’re given a briefing that outlines your objectives and recommended strategies.  Then you’re given a chance to deploy your units; up to 9 (later 10) can be present at a time.  Once you’re satisfied with your formation, you can start.  Battles are turn based.  There are two parts to a turn (known as a phase in game).  First, you look at an overhead map that displays your units and captured camps and the known positions of enemy units and their camps.  Here is where you’d do most of your strategic planning, much like in any other SRPG.  Once you decide to make a move, you select a unit.  The game then delves right into the game world, where you control that unit directly, in real time.  Playing as a soldier on the battlefield, you have certain actions that you can take, before you have to go back to the map.  Each unit has a set amount of AP, or Action Points, that dictate how far they can move before they are rendered immobile for that turn.  Furthermore, you can also use something from your equipment loadout once.  This could be firing your rifle, tossing a grenade, healing yourself, etc.  Once you’ve done what you wanted to with that unit, the camera flies upward again, and you’re back at the map screen.  Taking control of a unit uses one Command Point (two, in the case of tanks).  Once you’re out of Command Points, your phase is over, and the enemy gets to move.  Once they finish, you go again, with a new stock of Command Points.  And so it goes.  The typical battle has you working to either eliminate all enemy units or capture all enemy base camps.

Units come in six different classes: Tanks, Scouts, Shocktroopers, Lancers, Engineers, and Snipers.  Aside from the ragnaid first-aid capsule (used to heal yourself or others) that all classes are equipped with, they all come with different equipment and stats.  

Scouts have the most AP of any class, and have a standard rifle and grenade loadout, but aren’t very tough.  Shocktroopers use machine guns (and later flamethrowers) to cut down enemy infantry with brutal efficiency, while trading max AP for higher defense.  As your anti-tank footsoldiers, Lancers are very tough, sturdy units, but are limited to rockets and portable mortars as their weapons of choice, with finite ammo per phase.  Engineers do everything on the battle except fight, having almost as much AP as Scouts (and sharing their equipment loadout), and being able to repair tanks other structures, disarm mines and replenish ammo, in exchange for being the weakest class in terms of defense.  Snipers have very little AP and defense, but come packing powerful sniper rifles, which can have better accuracy, anti-personnel damage, and range than any other weapon in the game.

Finally, we have the Tank class.  For much of the game, Welkin will be piloting your only tank.  Since he’s a central character, the destruction of the Edelweiss is an instant game over.  From most angles, tanks are completely immune to gunfire and grenades, and resistant to any other weapon.  They have about the same amount of AP as perhaps a Shocktrooper.  Tanks have two health bars; one is their primary HP, and the other is their tread HP.  Destroying a tank’s treads won’t destroy the tank itself, but it will leave it with almost no AP, rendering it close to immobile.  All tanks have a heatsink sticking out their back, which serves as their critical weakpoint.  Even bullets will do fair damage if aimed at this glowing weakpoint.  A tank’s primary weapon is its main cannon, which of course fires tank shells.  Tanks also have mortars and machine guns, for dealing with infantry.

The different unit classes form a loose rock-paper-scissors relationship, with certain units being more effective others, and better for certain roles.  There are many other nuances to combat, as well.  Different weapons have different effective ranges.  Attempting to hit enemies that sit beyond a weapon’s range results in dramatically reduced damage (and of course a much less lower chance to hit).  Even as you run for cover and take action in realtime, there are certain “rules” that arbitrate your success.  Enemies whose sight range you walk into are free to open fire on you, but are forced to halt as soon as you press R1 to begin aiming a shot.  When you aim at an enemy, a chart at the top of the screen tells you how many shots you will shoot, compared to how many will be necessary to KO the target.  An orange circle around the targeting reticule represents the extent to which shots can miss.

Strategy in Valkyria Chronicles extends not only to how you use your units, but what state you leave them in at the end of your phase.  You always have to be careful to make sure your tank won’t get hit in the behind before you end control over it, and it’s always advisable to leave your infantry either out of sight or sitting behind cover before you head back to the map.  Sometimes you can predict enemy movement and obstruct it by positioning your units to open fire on them as soon as they move.  In the map screen you can trade Command Points to use Orders, which can have positive effects on your units; anything from stat buffs to covering fire from offsite.

While the enemy AI definitely puts up a fight, it soon became clear to me that they were following a fairly straightforward and inflexible set of rules.  The result of this is a glaring lack of strategic sense on your opponents’ part.  Not unlike the philosophy of the Empire that most commonly represents your enemies on the battlefield, game difficulty will usually come from being outnumbered and outgunned, not outmaneuvered or outsmarted.

Of course, Welkin, Alicia, Rosie and Largo don’t serve as the only troops in Squad 7.  From book mode, you can view the Headquarters menu, which gives you access to the Command Room.  Here you can fill the squad’s ranks, drawing from a pool of around 50 unique individuals, spanning all the different classes (except for Tanks).  Each character is unique and voiced, with their own backgrounds and personalities.  All characters also have a set of traits and/or abilities known as potentials.  Potentials have the chance to activate while you’re controlling a unit in battle, and can have a range of effects.  For example, some scouts, like Alicia, can gain access to the potential “Double Movement”, which gives them a chance to completely refill their AP meter once it’s depleted once, allowing twice as much travel in one turn.    Jann, a Lancer, has a man-crush on Largo, exemplified by his “Largo Lover” potential, that gives bonuses when you bring him near the fellow Lancer.   One of the Shocktroopers, Jane, has the “Sadist” potential, that gives her a boost to damage when gunning down the Empire’s forces.  Characters also like and dislike certain others, with friendly faces being likely to pitch in with shots of their own when you open fire on an enemy while they’re nearby.

Should a character fall in battle, you have three turns to get another unit to their side and call in a medic before they bleed out and die, becoming lost to your ranks for the rest of the game.  The credits will show a list of everyone who lived or died, so you can imagine I felt pretty good when every character in the squad showed up as “Living”.

Headquarters (located in the Gallian capital Randgriz) is also home to a host of other options.  You can upgrade your troops’ weapons and equipment as well as individually fine tune each unit’s weapon loadout.  You can also use experience points gained from battle to level up your troops, which, in addition to buffing their stats, unlocks potentials and new orders.  Medals and rewards gained for battle performance are also received at headquarters.  Furthermore, it is home to The Writing on the Wall, a local newspaper that covers national events.  New articles are posted on it from time to time that not only cover story occurrences, but also other things going on, painting a better picture of the world as a whole.  Additionally, you can purchase playable “Reports”, extra chapters that aren’t part of the main plot but flesh out the squad’s various personalities; among these is the compulsory swimsuit/beach special.

The story book theme extends to the game’s visuals, which sit among some of the coolest I’ve yet seen, even today.  The engine was designed from the ground up to have a colorful, art book style of graphics.  The result is a game that looks like a painting or sketchbook in motion.  This is exemplified most effectively by the first few moments in the opening cutscene.  You watch as a picture depicting Welkin and Alicia riding the Edelweiss is first rapidly sketched up then colored, with them immediately springing into motion once the portrait is finished.  A finishing touch is added in the form of various emotes and onomatopoeia.  Even though it’s not eye-poppingly gorgeous from a technical standpoint, the game still looks great because of its art style, even today.  But if someone demanded that I think of a complaint against the visuals, it would be that the facial expressions and body language aren’t as lifelike as the voices and personalities associated with them.

Valkyria Chronicles isn’t just a stunner in the visual department; the audio is great too.  The soundtrack is one of the better ones I’ve heard this generation, and the voice acting is well delivered for nearly every character; a notable triumph, considering the rather large cast of voiced characters there are in this game.  Sticklers for original dubbing will be delighted to discover that the game also offers an option to play with the Japanese voice tracks.

Also of note is the game’s performance.  There is an optional install available, and with it loading times are usually very brief, spanning no more than 10 seconds, if I had to estimate.  Aside from some occasionally questionable rag doll physics, glitches are totally absent.  Framerate does dip noticeably sometimes though; particularly in grassy areas.

Earlier battles stick to having you capture enemy base camps, and are over quickly.  However, you’ll find that the further in you get, the longer and more tactically inclined they become.  I found myself spending more and more time poring over my map, planning effective courses of action, and before I knew it, a skirmish had lasted longer than 45 minutes.  There are about 18 chapters in the main campaign, with 1-2 battles per chapter.  Those that fall head over heels in love with the game may find interest in Skirmish mode, which provides extra, non-story related battles.

Valkyria Chronicles is easily one of the most charming games I’ve ever played.  It intrigues you with its colorful yet modest presentation, then keeps you interested with an engaging story, an incredible cast, and a unique gameplay style that leaves you wondering how it hadn’t been thought of before.  Few other games have touched me like this game did; its wonderful portrayal of human emotion is worth experiencing many times over.  A 9.5/10.

Thoughts on the PSN Debacle.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past two months, you’ve likely heard a thing or two about the PlayStation Network outage.   The PlayStation Network is a group of services used primarily in conjunction with the PlayStation 3.  Services include online play, social networking, and access to the PlayStation Store, an online marketplace for a variety of digital content, such as movies and games.  In other words, it’s very similar to Xbox Live.  In late April (the 19th, I believe), Sony took the network down unexpectedly.  Customers wondered what was going on, until a few days later, Sony informed customers that the network had been hacked, and that the culprit(s) had made off with personal information from all 70+ million PSN accounts.  By personal information, they meant PSN login credentials (email and password), billing information such as address and full name, birthday, and credit card number.
When this was revealed, the incident ballooned into quite a fiasco.  Such a huge case of identity theft (we’re talking dozens of millions of people here) attracted not only the attention of a legion of journalists, both inside and outside of the industry, but also governments; Congress, FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security all got involved, as did the Japanese and UK governments.  To say it was a PR disaster for Sony might be an understatement, and overall it will remain a significant blow to the PlayStation brand in general, like the Xbox 360 will always have that nagging stigma that came with the console’s notoriously low reliability, exemplified by the Red Ring of Death and E74 errors.  To throw salt in the wound, soon after, Sony Online Entertainment (SOE), who handles online games like Everquest and DC Universe Online, announced that they two had been hacked, bringing the total number of pilfered accounts up to over 100 million.
The point of this post is to address a couple things I’ve been hearing people spout.  It’s not about whether I support Sony or not, it’s about keeping certain things in perspective.  First, some background.  I will admit right now that I am probably a little biased for Sony, simply because the incident had minimal negative effect on me.  I also never really made extensive use of PSN.  I don’t play online often or do a lot of messaging or chat, and as neat as I think it is, I almost never use Home.  The only services I use are Trophies and the PlayStation Store, the latter of which I visited regularly to get new content.  Now, there are four things that seem to be a point of contention for people:
1.     Sony allowed themselves to be hacked.
2.     They waited as long as they did to tell people they had been hacked.
3.     Sony being hacked has compromised their information, forcing consumers to take extra steps on their own to protect themselves.
4.     The outage has resulted in people being unable to use services that they are subscribed to and possibly paying for.
I’ll tackle number one first, which will be easy.  Anyone who is truly angry about this does not understand the age we live in.  Sony could have had the most complex, the most sophisticated, and the most cutting edge security on the planet.  If someone with sufficient motivation and skill had wanted to hack them, they could and would have.  Such is the nature of everything man-made in this world.  If human hands can build it, human hands can destroy it.  It’s still their responsibility to make the utmost effort to protect user data—and some would argue they didn’t, but that’s an argument for another day—but things like this are never outside the realm of possibility.  As I’ve said to others: “Shit happens.”
I’ll next discuss the third one, as that’s the one I believe people have really blown out of proportion.  First of all, most of the aforementioned information hackers stole is really not all that private.  Just because you don’t necessarily walk down the street trumpeting it to the world doesn’t mean it’s private.  It would not have taken hacking PSN for someone of the hacker(s) skills to piece together your birthday, address, and name.  And your login credentials can—and must, as mandated by the 3.61 firmware update for PS3—be changed.  The only lingering concern is for those who have a tendency to use the same password for multiple things; it’s foolhardy, but I’m very guilty of it as well.  So then change them, too.  If you’re so concerned about your information, it shouldn’t be a big deal, as periodically changing your password (especially for important accounts) is a good security precaution anyway.
The biggie is of course the credit card information.  But why?  Is it because it’s forcing you to check your charge history more frequently?  People should be doing that anyway.  Of course, the other option is to have your card re-issued.  But for many that would be quite a lot of trouble.  Having a card replaced brings to your attention just how many accounts are set to draw money from it to pay bills, through a flood of mail and email.  So you just keep an eye on your statements, as—like I just said—you should be doing anyway.  And if a charge appears there that you didn’t make, you call the bank, and they fix it.  The banks are aware of the incident, and are presumably more understanding and vigilant because of it.  So in short, stop whining about your information being stolen.  If you know at all how to be responsible with a credit/debit card, it shouldn’t impact you financially in any way.  Of course I recognize that this is a vast generalization, and there are exceptions out there, but this really shouldn’t be as big an issue as people are making it out to be.
Now returning to issue number two.  I don’t have much to say, as it’s actually one of the more valid ones on the list.  Sony says they communicated much faster most companies typically do.  They may or may not be right; I don’t care enough to research into it.  However, what I’m willing to believe is the post made on PlayStation Blog that claims that knowing that there’s been an intrusion, and knowing that someone stole something, are two very different things.  It’s like if you came home to your house and realized the lock had been picked/destroyed/etc. and immediately surmise that the burglar made off with the jewelry hidden in your closet, before you even open the door.  Chances are they did, but shouldn’t you make sure before you cry wolf?  You’re not going to know for sure everything that may or may not have been taken until you take an inventory.  Is the situation so dissimilar in Sony’s case?  Even if they had informed us of the possibility on the 19th, how would they have worded it?  “You’re information may have been stolen”?  In every other message you get from big companies, ‘may’ almost always immediately interpreted as a soft way of saying ‘has’; how many people would have seen it differently.  The way I see it, all Sony did was try to prevent panic.  I can still see how people might have taken issue with this, but personally I didn’t bother me.
Number four is also valid, but only depending on what services people are referring to.  PSN by itself is free.  I don’t pay a dime to use it, and thus I’m not being financially slighted by its outage.  Now, there are premium services available on PSN.  Netflix, Hulu, and PlayStation Plus are all examples of such.  If you use those services, then you have a right to be pissed, because you’re not able to use something that you paid for, regardless of who’s fault it is.  I don’t know about the other stuff, but I pay for PlayStation Plus, and Sony’s compensating me—and every other PS+ subscriber—with an extra 60 days tacked onto my service; more than double the time that the network was down.
All that aside, I think Sony’s done a fair job apologizing.  Their so-called “Welcome Back” package is robust; more so than I expected it to be.  For sitting tight, at the bare minimum, you’ll be getting a month of PS+, two free PS3 games out of a list of five quality offerings (inFamous and LBP among them), two free PSP games, 100 free Home items, and some free movie rentals.  If you’re already a PS+ subscriber, as I mentioned before, that single month turns into two.  And I’ve read that Sony’s also offering a year of identity protection to users. 
If you ask me, most PlayStation gamers are set.  Why don’t you just forgive them?  I understand if people are hesitant or unwilling to trust PSN with their card information again; I myself might be looking into prepaid cards in the future, just to be safe.  But there’s no reason to turn your back on Sony and PlayStation.
Anyway, what truly concerns me is how this has and will continue to affect developers and publishers.  They stand to lose more from this than any of those whiny consumers.  The fall of PlayStation Store in particular will have completely halted revenue for developers like Q-Games, who have put their faith in the PSN and made quality exclusive titles.  Even Housemarque, who has an excellent track record on PSN—they made Super Stardust HD and Dead Nation, both of which will be free options as part of the Customer Appreciation package—and was supposed to release their new game Outland on the PS Store a week or so ago.  They would have been totally out of luck if they hadn’t also decided to go multiplatform with this title.
And digital distribution isn’t the only sector that’s been wounded.  Lack of online play in particular will have hurt retail sales, especially of new games like Brink, Mortal Kombat, and Portal 2, all of which had a host of online features (particularly Brink) for players to look forward to.
Sales will continue to be slow, as consumers remain hesitant to use their credit cards, adjust to alternative payment methods, and/or are simply slow to return to their PS3s.  Speaking long term, if Sony doesn’t do something for compensation or goodwill, this incident could hurt developer and publisher trust, which could mean fewer exclusives, or worse PS3 versions of multiplatform games.  Fortunately, PlayStation is a little more resilient to this than Xbox or Nintendo would be, as Sony has a camp of first party studios and series that will continue to do their part to hold the brand up.
In conclusion, I think it just irks me how little some people have thought about what really matters here.  And I’ll tell them it’s not the week or so they were unable to kill each other online.

Been Busy.

As the title says…I’ve been incredibly busy this year.  Hence the dramatically lower post frequency.  Even in my free time, I’ve been less inspired to write.  Which really sucks.  I’m gonna continue to post, for sure, but for the foreseeable future I don’t see myself matching the totals made in the previous years.

Anyway, let’s take a look at everything on the list.

  • Yakuza 3- The reason why this game has a maybe tacked on is because I’m actually wondering if it might be beyond my ability to give it a proper review.  This is just such a multifaceted game, I’m still pondering what angle would be best to tackle it from, if I were to write about it.  But the bottom line is, it’s an excellent game.
  • Dead Space 2- I don’t like to make promises of this sort, but this will most likely be the next review I post, unless I hit a breakthrough with Yakuza 3.  It’s a very good game, and overall a complete package.  I’m enjoying every second of it.  Extraction only sweetens the pot.
  • The Sims 3– A review of this is forthcoming, I think..I just don’t know when.  The deal is, my experience with the Sims franchise has always had more to do with the architectural and interior design aspects.  When I first got the Sims 2 oh so many years ago, sure I dabbled in the family business for a good while, but quickly abandoned it in favor of building lots.  But what with the additions in the Sims 3, it’s been the opposite.  While the new building modes look very promising, I’ve actually settled into nurturing a Sim of my own.  But I recently learned that you can seemingly build entirely neighborhoods with the Beta Create-A-World Tool for the Sims 3, so…yeah.  Sorry, my beloved Sim!  I want to explore both aspects of the game thoroughly before I settle down and score the game, but as anyone who’s played these games know, no matter how you play the Sims, it’s a big time investment.  And I just don’t have that kind of time on my hands these the review is delayed indefinitely.
  • Pokemon: An Intermediate Overview– Hoo boy, I don’t know when I’m gonna get around to this.  My HeartGold playthrough has ground to a halt ever since I decided to completely rebuild my team from the ground up and EV train them (as in, from level 1) mid-game.  It’s an ambitious task, but I’m determined to see it through.
  • AC Brotherhood (multiplayer)– The chances of me actually posting this are slim, as I don’t expect to return to Brotherhood’s multiplayer until I decide to platinum the game.  And I don’t even know if I’ll get around to doing that.
  • Sly Collection– I’m still undecided on how to format it, but a review is definitely coming.  How it’s been lately is every few weeks I’ll sit down and spend a few hours to completely blow through an episode of Sly 2.  Seeing as I’d like to wait until I’m at least a good way into Sly 3 before I sit down and write a review, maybe I’ll have this up by fall time, at the rate I’m going!
  • Dead Space Extraction– Not sure if I’m going to write a post on this.  But it’s a great game.  If you have a PS Move, buy it.
  • Genji: Days of the Blade– No, I’m not going to write a post on this..probably.  I’m only playing it because a friend claimed I couldn’t get past the first level, because it is poorly designed.
  • Revenge of the Titans!– This game’s got charm, but man it’s difficult!  I like me some TD though, so I’ll get through it eventually.  I don’t think I’m gonna do a post on it though.
  • Quarttet!– This is my very first visual novel.  Well, sorta.  I got a couple hours into Fate/Stay Night (just a little bit past the prologue), before my progress just kinda dropped off.  At some point my save file disappeared, too.  I’ll get back to it some day, because I think it’s a really cool game.  Quarttet, however, is amazingly charming.  I like it a lot.  I haven’t finished it yet, though.
  • LittleBigPlanet 2– The truth is, the same thing has happened to me on LBP 2 that happened on the first LBP.  I started a level..and being honest with myself, I’m not sure I’m gonna finish it.
  • Split/Second– As I hope I made clear in my review, I like this game, it’s pretty dang fun.  I’m debating whether I’m gonna buy it or not.  At $20-30 it’s a good buy.


  • Amagami SS– Just finished this a couple weeks ago.  Very good show, if it comes here on DVD and/or Blu-ray, I might just pick it up.
  • Karas– A short six-episode stint, Karas is unique, but didn’t resonate with me.
  • Corpse Princess– I don’t know what it is about this series that I enjoy, but I’ve fought doggedly to continue obtaining episodes after the fansubs disappeared.  Now that I’ve gotten the entire series, I plan to watch it all in the coming weeks.
  • Arakawa Under the Bridge– I wasn’t expecting much from the show, and indeed at first it was pretty bland.  But it had its moments, and got better in later episodes.  I’m looking forward to the second season, which I just finished downloading.
  • Naruto Shippuuden– I’m not really actively watching this.  I’m on episode..33, I think, and grab new ones every so often.

Next up!

  • Working!– Hoping this will provide my regular comedy fix.  Not sure what to expect from it, but the title seems promising at least!
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion– I tried watching this many moons ago, and it completely bored me to death, so I dropped it.  I don’t think I gave it a fair shake though, so I’m watching again.  Than I’ll try the movies and see what all the fuss is about.  With Working! and Seiken no Blacksmith as my wingmen, I’m almost prepared to drag myself through this show, if that’s what it comes to.
  • ToraDora– I watched the first episode of this a long time ago, it was actually quite entertaining, but I never got around to continuing.  Now I am.
  • Seiken no Blacksmith– Been hearing decent things about this series, so I’m starting it up.  Mainly as an addition to ToraDora, to offset NGE’s expected dryness.

So there it is.  I realize it’s also getting to be time for that editorial of mine.  It’s coming.  When, I don’t know.  For now, look forward to my post on Dead Space 2.


Ah, racing games.  How I enjoy them.  Nothing like the thrill of being behind the wheel of an exotic vehicle, tearing down tracks at crazy speeds with a pack of rivals, and fighting tooth and nail for first place, barely edging out a photo finish.  It’s been a couple years since a game like that came my way (has it really been that long since I delved into Burnout Paradise?).  Now Split/Second has walked up to the plate; color me interested.

Let’s start from the beginning.  Split/Second is a racing game, named after the titular fictional show that you play as a contestant on.  Split/Second pits racers driving fast, expensive-looking cars against each other in a host of events, including races and lap runs.  The show’s (and, by extension, the game’s) name comes from the inclusion of Power Plays, scripted events that participants can trigger mid-race.  Dozens of explosives have been planted in various places on each track; Power Plays set them off.  The effect can vary wildly, from merely exploding a nearby tanker, to downing an entire building.  The idea is that you use Power Plays as an offensive tactic; instead of throwing a blue shell at someone, or a missile, or something, you can cause the warehouse they’re in to implode, or the bridge they’re racing under to collapse.  I’ve slipped under closing doors, made ludicrous detours in the blink of an eye, and just barely evaded swinging wrecking balls more times than I can count.  Hence, Split/Second.  The entire game is like if you took that scene in a generic action movie where the hero and his girlfriend are trying to escape the enemy HQ, right after the hero set off that cleverly planted set of bombs, and the whole place is coming down…and you stretched it into a TV series.  There’s jumps, improvised detours, and hazards galore.

The presentation and overall design of the game is very consistent; every aspect of the game does its part to convey a general theme.  The menus are slick and edgy, and the HUD–a small overlay that trails directly behind your car, telling you the lap number and your current place, among other things–is a creative touch, being sufficiently informative without being at all distracting.

Progression in the game’s career mode is split up into episodes.  Each episode has about five events.  Each event you complete adds to your total credits, with higher placement netting you more credits.  Credits unlock cars, and also unlock the Elite Races.  To progress to a new episode, you have to place 3rd or better in the current episode’s Elite Race.  While other events are purely for credits, each Elite Race, also counts towards a single ongoing tournament, with higher placements being assigned higher point values.  Since Elite Races are exclusively done with a set of named racers, considered to be the best contenders in the series, the points ladder is sort of a way to see your current standing in the series, regardless of episode.

While Split/Second is hardly a complicated game, there are some things you’ll definitely be wanting to pay attention to as you race.  Power Plays are activated using energy from a bar on your HUD, segmented into three pieces.  There’s a few ways to gain energy, but your primary methods will be drifting and drafting.  Drifting is something anyone who knows anything about racing will be familiar with.  Drafting is in a similar boat, but I’ll explain it anyway.  Drafting is the act of taking advantage of an opponent’s slipstream to pass them.  Getting into a bit of aerodynamics, when you’re going fast, air resistance becomes a more significant factor in your speed output.  If you imagined a car boring through a mound of earth, and another car following closely behind it, you’d have an idea of what drafting is except it’s air, not earth you’re “tunneling” through.  Long story short, following about 1-2 seconds behind a car, at fast speeds gives you a speed boost, allowing you to catch up and pass them.  It will also charge your Power Play meter.

Other things to pay attention to are the types of Power Plays.  Like I said before, they come in many flavors, some being more effective most.  For example, a common basic Power Play is to cause a parked car to explode, causing it to roll across the road in a veritable ball of fire.  Another is to cause a piece of machinery to activate, like a wrecking ball swinging across the track, or a set of buzz saws flying out of their encasing.  Even if the actual explosion or effect doesn’t directly hit you, in many cases the mere activation of a Power Play sends out a shockwave that turns your wheels to jelly (metaphorically, of course), and sends you skidding, making it all too easy to crash into something, or worse yet, spin out.  Some Power Plays will activate shortcuts, such as opening a gate, allowing you to bypass a sharp turn altogether.  Others will cause shortcuts to come crashing down on those inside of them.  Power Plays are context sensitive, appearing over other racers’ cars when they’re in range of being affected by one.  Still, some opportunities to use Power Plays are better than others, and even with the shockwave it’s very possible to miss entirely, or for a Power Play to have essentially no effect.  Frequently I’ve activated a Power Play, only for those near it to shake it off.  And yet one time I managed to eliminate six racers simultaneously by detonating a tanker, causing it to slide across the track, sweeping the whole rest of the pack into oblivion.

The most destructive Level 2 Power Plays require a full bar of energy, but the results are beautiful to behold.  Usually Level 2 Power Plays alter the course of the track, forcing a detour and wrecking anyone and everyone who are too late to switch routes.  For example, driving across a warf, I activated a Lv2 Power Play, which detonated a large ship, causing it to tip sideways, completely wrecking the stretch of track in front of us.  We instead had to drive onto the deck of the ship to bypass the wall of fire that had sprung up.  Another one derailed a train, causing it to crash in the area up ahead, and forcing us onto the freeway overhead.

Unfortunately, it’s not all positives.  Just like in many other games of the genre, there is some definite rubber-banding present, and it can get really bad at times.  When it takes you the better part of a lap to catch up to a computer cruising in 1st place, but only a minute or so for the computer to do the same to you, you know something’s not right.  The computer’s cars also don’t always seem to observe the same stats as yours do.  Trucks and SUVs are fully capable of passing sports cars (they weren’t drafting me, I checked), and a couple times I even saw a car literally spawn a couple hundred feet behind me.  It’s to the point that it actually kind of squanders your sense of progression in regards to the cars you earn.  Even though there’s a definite increase in performance as you unlock more cars, going back to older races with your newly unlocked cars doesn’t help much, as the computer will always use cars similar in class to the one you’re using.  

I also have a personal problem with the fact that the trucks and SUVs seem to be the computer’s car class of choice, just like you’ll find AI opponents more often than not touting rocket launchers and shock rifles in Unreal Tournament, and always dropping everything to go for health recovery items and the Smash Ball in Super Smash Bros games.  There’s just few things in life more irritating than driving an exotic super car and having an SUV just zoom right past you.  The competitors that aren’t driving in humongous trucks instead tend to choose whatever car you’re driving.  It’s kind of underwhelming, but at least the copying is only at its worst in the beginning episodes, when you don’t have that many cars.

Some of the crashes suffered by both you and the computer will feel arbitrary.  You’ll see it far more often in the AI, who will get pushed by a Power Play and either blow up right then and there, or essentially stop trying to steer, and go careening into a wall.  But it happens to you as well occasionally;  sometimes it feels like the game has frozen your steering wheel as a side effect of a Power Play shockwave, forcing you to crash.  Other times, the game won’t even give you a chance to actually hit something; your car will simply explode, and that’ll be that.  This hasn’t happened enough to cause frustration more than a couple times in my playtime thus far, though.

Other than races, there’s a fair number of other event types.  Detonator is very similar to your generic time attack sort of deal, except nearly every Power Play in the stage (including Level 2’s) is being activated as you draw near them, making this possibly the most action-y mode in the game.  Normally I dislike time trials, but Detonator is actually really fun.  There’s also Eliminator, which is kind of like Race except there’s a timer, and when that timer depletes, the guy in last place explodes, and is eliminated from the race.  This goes on at 20-30 second intervals, until there’s only one competitor left.  Clearly, to be a competitor in Split/Second you’d have to have a bit of crazy in you, evidenced by the other modes, Air Attack, Air Revenge, and Survival (the latter of which has you skirting in between a spill of explosive barrels dropped out of a series of giant big rigs).

Split/Second’s car selection isn’t bad.  There’s mainly three varieties of cars: 1)trucks and SUVs, which have good handling, and handle shockwaves better than the other guys, 2)sports cars and tuners, which are fast and nimble, but get knocked around easily, and 3)muscle cars, all-around vehicles that tend to have decent stats in every area.

There’s only a handful of environments, with a couple tracks running through each one, stretched across all 12 episodes.  Though this issue is diminished greatly by the ability to switch routes (sometimes multiple times on track) using Lv2 Power Plays, as of this writing I’m a little over halfway through the game and I am starting to feel the effects of recycled content.  What environments there are though, are nicely varied.

Overall, Split/Second is a well-performing, good looking game.  There’s a load screen when you first start the game up, and before starting each event, but thankfully you don’t have to sit through one if you decide to restart an event.  The game makes pretty great use of effects, with plenty of lens flare present.  For a game filled with explosions though, I think the explosions could actually look much better, as could the objects that go flying as a result of them.  There’s some clear crudeness in a lot of the environment models, and the textures aren’t too convincing.  I’ve also spotted the occasional visual glitch, such as the ground disappearing into a black abyss, but they usually come and go so quickly that it’s hard to pay much attention to them.  

The car models look great.  When the race begins, they look like they just rolled out of the dealership.  Crossing the finish line, there’s scratches galore on the sides, and streaks of dirt and dust on the paint.  At really fast speeds you get a bit of camera shake to let you know you’re being totally reckless, and dirt and debris tends to fly onscreen when something goes off near you.

Whoever was in charge of sound design in this game probably deserves a pat on the back, because Split/Second’s audio is incredibly engaging.  The BGM seems to consist of only one song, but it never feels like it because that song is remixed wildly to fit different situations.  For example, when you first arrive at the title screen, only a barebones version of it is playing.  As you go from menu to menu, more instruments chime in.  Mid-race is where you’ll really see the rewards of excellent sound design.  For example, you’re driving across an airport, and you see something in the sky way, way far up ahead.  Just as you realize that’s a mother-effin’ cargo plane on a crash course for you, the music just completely stops momentarily, as if you’re stuck in a vacuum.  Then it hits, and everything strikes back up again.  This game’s audio sucks you in.  Other sounds of note include a definite presence of the doppler effect (especially when you head into tunnels), and convincing engine sounds.

Split/Second is a very good game.  I didn’t get a chance to try its multiplayer (it also has two player split-screen, quick play and online modes), but the single player stands firm by itself as a fun and engaging experience.  The AI rubber-banding is irritating at times, to be sure, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to hamper what is otherwise a very solid racing title.  Especially for someone who enjoys Mario Kart, arguably the king of AI hax.  An 8.5/10.

Amagami SS

Been a while since I talked about an anime.  Possibly because I don’t watch quite as much as I used to a couple years ago.   Anyway, this time I’m here to talk about Amagami SS.  It’s a romance anime that’s doesn’t stray from the typical in its content, but still manages to feel fresh through its presentation.
Our protagonist is Tachibana Junichi, a high school junior.  After being stood up for a date on Christmas Eve, Junichi’s been hesitant to try again with another girl, for fear of being hurt.  It’s gotten to the point where Christmas time has become a source of depression for him, and he often ducks out of the annual Founder’s Festival, a big event hosted by his school.

Junichi’s a pretty ordinary guy.

Two years later, Junichi has finally decided to give the dating game another shot.  With the self-imposed challenge of getting a date for Christmas Eve, Junichi sets out to get with one of six girls.  However, instead of a single overarching story, the anime remarkably takes the visual novel route, dividing the twenty five episodes up into six arcs (plus one bonus arc at the end), one to represent a “route” for each girl.  After Junichi manages to land a date with a girl on the 4th episode of her arc, the story begins anew, and progresses from a different angle, with a different girl.  This brings me to the first reason why I enjoyed this series quite a bit.  It’s very easy to take in.  Even though, in total it’s a mid-range series in terms of length, each arc is self-contained, meaning you can watch four episodes and then stop.  

Though developing a typical high school romance over the course of a mere four episodes is no small task, the show makes a solid effort, and most of the arcs come to a satisfying conclusion.
The series has two openings, and seven endings; one for each girl, sung by the voice actress for the heroine of the current arc.  The six available heroines are as follows (in the order their arcs go)..

Haruka Morishima

 Possibly one of, if not my favorite characters in the series.  Haruka is a senior, probably viewed as the prettiest girl in the school.  She’s won the Miss Santa contest for a couple years in a row now, and is overall a very popular girl.  Stereotypical on paper, right?  But you don’t need to know Haruka for long to know that she’s an oddball.  Her interests, antics, and general behavior can’t be described as anything but random and amusing.

Haruka’s no slouch in the pretty department

She lords over dogs with surprising skill, and can often be caught peeking in on the girls swim club, not unlike your typical male pervert.  She also whips out gratuitous English with phrases with “WOW”, and “Okie Dokie” regularly.  Haruka is also extremely aggressive with her screentime, even when it’s not her arc; often randomly popping in to say something incredibly silly, or prey on Junichi’s younger sister for being too cute.  The only one able to keep her actions in check is her friend Hibiki, who is usually the one to foil Haruka’s peeking sessions, being the captain of the swim team.

Do want.

 Junichi actually has to confess to her twice (she rejects him the first time) before she starts to see him as more than an acquaintance to do weird things with.  Haruka’s arc is probably one that suffers the most from being limited to only four episodes.  After all, she goes from being “that unreachable popular girl” to being hopelessly in love with him, in a little less than the span of the average feature film.  Haruka’s ED is my 4th favorite.  It’s kind of all over the place, in more ways than one, but it’s very upbeat.  Overall, however, her arc is my second favorite in the series.

Kaoru Tanimachi

 Next we have Kaoru Tanimachi.  Kaoru, Junichi, and Umehara (Junichi’s friend and “partner in crime”, if you will) have been buds for a few years now.  Their friendship is actually pretty infectious, filled with teasing, headlocks, and, in the case of Junichi and Umehara, porn magazines.  Kaoru herself is an independent, fairly strong young woman.  A lot of her actions would even suggest she might even be a tomboy, but I don’t think I’d go quite that far.  After all, you’re not allowed to be a tomboy with hair as stylish as Kaoru’s.

Kaoru’s a big tease.

For the most part, Kaoru’s arc is a “friend turned lover” sort of deal.  Her arc is hurt a little by how typical it is on paper, but I thought it was delivered well enough for this to be overlooked.  And it helps that Kaoru is one foxy lady.  Kaoru’s ED is my 2nd favorite among all the heroines.  Its melancholy tone is instantly touching, and the theme fits in perfectly with her arc’s theme of evaluation; both of herself and her relationship with Junichi.  Her arc ranks as my 4th  favorite overall.

 Sae Nakata

Sae Nakata fills in the role of both the adorable moeblob and the shy underclassman.  She’s a freshman at Junichi’s highschool, and a friend of Miya, his sister.  As Miya puts it, Sae is “big where it counts”.  Despite being a head shorter, she’s got a bust to rival Haruka.  She develops a crush on Junichi when he helps her get lunch.  

I think you can guess what’s going on..

Being the shy girl that she is, Sae normally finds it near impossible to navigate the lunch crowds to get decent pickings.  She has a soft spot for childish things like tokusatsu shows (things like Power Rangers and their Japanese equivalent, Kamen Rider), and cute things in general; she takes a liking to Junichi’s squishy pink coin purse, for example. 

The resident cutie

Sae manages to get into Junichi’s life when, mesmerized by the cute uniforms worn by waitresses in Kaoru’s restaurant, she resolves to try and get a job there.  She’s far too scared to attempt on her own though, so Junichi volunteers to “train” her, to help prepare for the nuances of waitressing.  It’s during this time that her simple crush turns into full on love.  Sae’s arc is easily my least favorite.  Her shyness makes for a lot of awkward moments and unnecessary blushing, something that feels out of place in a story of such short length.  Still, she manages to mature past these typical shortcomings eventually, and the arc comes to a truly cute (if a bit random) conclusion.  Her ED is also my least favorite.  It’s okay, I guess…but the other girls’ ones are much better in comparison.

Ai Nanasaki

 Ai is a freshman like Sae (and in fact, the two acquaintances).  Showing some hostility to Junichi initially for his perverse tendencies, she exhibits some characteristics of a Type A tsundere.  Though quick to perceive his less desirable traits, Ai warms up to Junichi soon enough as she learns more about his various nuances and quirks.  

This is mostly what made her arc enjoyable.  Ai doesn’t even particularly like Junichi at first (as a person, and certainly not as a potential romantic option), but she becomes interested him slowly but surely as she gets to know him better.  It’s not like many other fictional romance stories, where the girl is either already in love with the guy whether she knows it or not, or just magically falls in love with him through one or two significant occurrences.

Don’t make that face, Ai.
There’s actual, genuine development to the story between Ai and Junichi, from start to finish, with both sides.  I guess what I’m saying is that Ai’s arc feels the most realistic.  It’s a close decision whether I like Kaoru or Ai better, both in terms of their stories and end songs.  But Ai just barely edges out victory in both areas, singing the best ED in the series in my opinion, and having the 3rd best arc.
 Rihoko Sakurai
“Wait!  It’s not as bad as it looks.”
Rihoko’s character design (and indeed, that of much of the rest of the cast) already gets kudos for not being unbelievably sexy, like how so many female anime characters are displayed.  However, Rihoko is just plain adorable; sometimes more so than Nakata.  Rihoko loves food, and as a result, is a bit on the chubby side (but not fat, mind you).  She’s also a huge ditz, prone to tripping, oversleeping, and forgetfulness.  She’s a sophomore; one year younger than Junichi.  But she’s known him longer than any of the other girls, fulfilling the role of the childhood friend.  The premise of Rihoko’s story is similar to Kaoru’s: the friend who becomes the lover.  But it’s of a distinctly different flavor.  The most concrete reason behind this is kind of a spoiler, but to say that Rihoko and Kaoru are very different people requiring very different romantic routes should suffice.  Also, while Kaoru and Junichi are purely friends initially, Rihoko has a faint but definite crush on Junichi, and has for some time.
[Insert witty caption here]
Rihoko is a part of the Tea Club, which is currently only composed of herself, and two seniors.  She’s not especially good at making tea, so it’s pretty obvious that she likely only joined for the snacks.  But at the same time she does genuinely care about the club, which will be disbanded if she remains as the only member next year, after the seniors graduate.  To this end, much of her arc is spent with her trying to get Junichi to join the club, which will serve the dual purpose of being able to spend more time with him and saving the club.  The ending to Rihoko’s arc is tragically bittersweet when you think about it; in retrospect hers feels almost more like a story of friendship than romance.  Her ending theme is my 3rd favorite of the bunch, being pretty dang catchy.
Tsukasa Ayatsuji
 I’m gonna go ahead and say it:  Tsukasa’s arc is easily my favorite of the entire bunch, and it’s incredibly fitting that they would save it for last.  You see her plenty often throughout the series, as she’s both the Class Rep and the volunteer organizer for the Founder’s Festival (which is a significant element of the plot).  She portrays the stereotype of that uber-smart, really pro-active student that’s the first to raise their hand in class, and stays after school to do all sorts of extracurricular stuff.  Ayatsuji is respected, and is rarely seen without a smile on her face.
It’s important to note, however, that she’s not without issues.  Being essentially in a league of her own, other students seem to distance themselves from her.  She’s also seen as a stick in the mud by some.  Those are all trivial, however, compared to what we see of her doing her arc, which is easily the most plot-heavy in the series.  What you’ll have seen of Ayatsuji up until the end of the first episode of her story is entirely her “nice” side.  But she has another side, too; one that she suppresses with the utmost care.  And one that completely blindsided me.  
I admit that I wasn’t actually expecting much from her arc, because I couldn’t help but wonder how it could possibly be interesting to watch Junichi somehow wrangle a do-gooder like her.  Well apparently the writers agreed, so in went this curveball.  I probably shouldn’t have even said this much, but then I wouldn’t have much to talk about.  Tsukasa’s is one of three arcs that gets a “true” epilogue, the other two being Haruka and Sae (though the latter’s is questionable).  Really, hers has the most fleshed out story and ending of them all, quite a feat once again considering the four episode limit.
Merry Christmas!
Tsukusa’s arc is followed by one final single episode arc, labeled the “truth” arc.  This will feel familiar to anyone who’s played their share of VNs, or just stories with multiple endings.  Often, the creators put in one ending among them all that is actually the canon one; what really happened.  Same deal here.  Until the final episode, I was content to treat each route as an individual plot taking place in a parallel universe.  The Truth arc, however, strings all the previous arcs together as mere “what-if” scenarios.  I’m not sure how I felt about this, but the nice thing about Amagami SS is that I can simply pretend the Truth arc does not exist. 
Though the content kept me watching, what actually drew me to Amagami SS was the visual style.  Presented in HD, the show looks absolutely terrific.  Through countless battles with my internet connection, I was able to procure both a few episodes in 720p, and one in 1080p.  It was a feast for the eyes.  More eye-catching, however, is the character design.  All of the characters in Amagami SS manage to look very unique from each other, without straying from the realistic.  Bodies are drawn proportionally, and the wide variety of hair styles is actually a little inspiring.  Nothing about the visual design in Amagami SS says “colorful” or “extravagant”, something that can’t be said of so many other anime series.  In short, the show strikes a perfect balance between the reserved and the flashy, resulting in a subtle yet tasteful art style that is nothing short of refreshing. 
It’s ticklin’ time.

Once more, the reason why I truly enjoyed Amagami SS lied in its presentation.  The unique plot format and polished visuals both helped a lot to boost the overall quality of an otherwise conventional romance title.  Amagami SS is a Grade A example of an ordinary design made extraordinary through the sheer power of good execution.

PS:  Now I remember why I don’t do as many anime posts!  Because Blogger’s image formatting options are broken at worst, and restrictive at best.  Really, the formatting in general is busted, but it’s a lot easier to deal with when the article is just text.

LittleBigPlanet 2

Though it wasn’t an immediate commercial success like some other blockbuster titles have been, LittleBigPlanet remains one of the most important games this generation, at least to the Playstation community. Why? Because for one thing, it was one of the games that served to truly round out Sony’s 1st party title lineup, giving them a positive image of variety. It also served as the spearhead for their “Play.Create.Share” movement, that encouraged the development of games where players could create much of the content for themselves, and share it with others across a broad, self-sustained community.

Now Media Molecule is back with LittleBigPlanet 2. This game is kind of interesting because it doesn’t initially come off as being justifiable as a full-on sequel. The graphics have been slightly but noticeably tweaked, but I don’t think the game really looks or runs significantly better, per se. Which isn’t a bad thing, because the first game looked and ran perfectly fine, and even two years later, LittleBigPlanet 2 actually looks pretty good. When you first jump into the game, everything is very familiar. The controls haven’t changed, and Sackboy still handles virtually identical to how he did in his first outing. Upon first starting the game, you’ll run through an introductory level that serves as the opening credits, narrated once more by that charming Stephen Fry. You drop into your pod, and the replica PS3 controller is sitting there awaiting your input.

Even your good ol’ Popit is back, which gives you access to a multitude of things (more so in Create Mode) with the press of the button, including stickers, costumes, and the “reset” button, all returning from the first game, and all working in precisely the same way as before. Stickers can be used pretty much anytime and anywhere to decorate areas, but can also be used to activate switches. The reset button allows you to self-destruct, respawning at the last activated checkpoint. Costumes let you dress your Sackboy up however you please. Any costume pieces you unlocked in LittleBigPlanet will carry over to this sequel, and you’ll be able to collect even more pieces throughout LBP2’s campaign. Costumes still don’t affect gameplay in the slightest; as much as I sometimes wish they did.

In short, you will have no trouble picking up the controller again. Everything works pretty much exactly the same as it did previously, in terms of core gameplay mechanics. I really can’t stress this enough. What has changed, instead, is the sheer scope of the game. No longer are levels limited to run and jump platforming. The new tools and gadgets introduced allow for an infinitely wider range of gameplay. The Grappling Hook, for example, does exactly what you’d think it does, allowing Sackboy to grab materials from afar and swing from them. The Grabinator gives Sackboy the Herculean strength necessary to lift the various objects you might encounter in a level, and throw them. Bounce Pads are like futuristic trampolines, shooting you upward when you step on them. Four player multiplayer is back, as is the ability to play with any combination of local and online players. Add to this the fact that all of the gadgets have “friendly fire” enabled (i.e. being able to grab and toss each other with the Grabinator), and you have a recipe for mayhem. Before, I thought it was great fun to slap a fellow comrade off a cliff (which you can still do, mind you). Now we’re tossing each other into death traps with the Grabinator, forming multi-person trapezes with the Grappling Hook, and shooting giant cupcakes at each other with the Creatinator, among so many other things. In short, LBP2’s multiplayer is still composed of the same absolute hilarity that made its predecessor so much fun to play with others. In many ways, the addition of these new gimmicks have made the game even funner, whether you’re playing by yourself or with others.

What really earns LittleBigPlanet 2’s sequel certificate however, is the vastly expanded Create mode. You’ll get a taste of its potential as you play through the story. A bunch of new tools have been introduced, both major and minor. Some of biggest additions include the Controlinator, Sackbots, and the Creatinator. The Controlinator is essentially a cockpit for Sackboy. It can be used to map various functions to buttons on the PS3 controller. Before, when you got into a car, for example you might have to put in a grabbable material like a sponge, with a grab sensor plugged into the wheels. You would make the car move by grabbing the sponge. Now, you can assign those functions to buttons the controller, with (for example) the left stick accelerating the car in either direction, and the X button activating the nitro boost you almost certainly installed in the back. Basically, the Controlinator completely streamlines the use of vehicles, and allows the creation of more complex ones. For those of you who know a bit about Create mode, the Creatinator is basically an Emitter strapped to a player’s head; think about that for a moment. It’s acquired in the same way other powerups are, such as the Jetpack and Grappling Hook, and can function similarly to the Paintinator. Except instead of shooting paint, it can shoot anything. Fire, Plasma, Velociraptors, Kitchen Sinks, you name it.

Now, Sackbots are a whole different ballgame. They’re NPCs that can be programmed and customized to a pretty impressive extent. You can give them skins to make them look just like Sackboy, for example, and then proceed to dress them up in costumes just like you would for yourself. This means you can essentially have a variety of actual organic characters in levels, not just material creations with patched on eyeballs and mouths, and swiveling limbs. Sackbots can be programmed to do a number of things, including follow players and/or tags, use Controlinators and other powerups, and activate switches. If the basic options aren’t enough, you can also take control yourself to record an action. This can be done as many times as you please, with each action being recorded as a “Behavior” on the Sackbot’s logic board.

I could go on and on and on about the Create mode. I could excitedly explain the significance of Logic Boards and Microchips. I could mention the added ability to create cutscenes (complete with new cameras and effects), and link levels together to essentially create games. I could talk about the new music sequencer which lets you create songs from scratch, or the multitude of new world tweakers, like water and the anti-gravity tool. I could list the various other new tools added, like the various mover and rotator badges, or the destroyer tool. I could even touch on some new Share features, most notably, which is a website devoted entirely to discovering new community levels. But then this review would never end.

So, instead I’m going to close off this review by highly recommending that you buy LittleBigPlanet 2, and tinker with this veritable horde of new toys for yourself. Or with some friends. Because I can confidently say that this game is meant to be experienced, not read about. On the back of LittleBigPlanet’s box there’s a motto: “Fun Shall Overcome”. LittleBigPlanet 2 lives up to that motto so well it’s a little ridiculous. Because that’s what the game offers in spades. Pure, unadulterated fun. And for that, a 10/10.

Dead Nation

I quite enjoy twin stick shooters. It’s a genre that’s never failed to entertain me. I picked up Super Stardust HD as soon as a heard about it, and have enjoyed it ever since. It makes sense, then, that I would be interested to know what Housemarque, the creators of SSHD would be up to in their next endeavor. It turned out to be a nice little game called Dead Nation.

Dead Nation is a twin stick shooter as well. Except you’re not shooting rocks in this game; you’re shooting zombies. Lots and lots of zombies. You have the option of playing either a male or female survivor, in yet another world plagued by the zombie apocalypse. Instead of simply being dropped into an area and being basically trying to survive for a set amount of time before being whisked away to another level (like in SSHD or Zombie Apocalypse, a conceptually similar game), Dead Nation features a full campaign and plot. Housemarque doesn’t try to put any spin on the classic zombie formula, though; the story and setting aren’t anything you haven’t seen a few times before.

As in any game of this nature, you have a lot of weapons at your disposal. At the beginning of the game you start with a basic assault rifle. Though you still have to reload, you have unlimited ammo with this weapon, and you can charge it up for a power shot that will score automatic headshots on zombies and also scythe through and hit any ones directly behind them. As you progress through each level, you’ll encounter a number of rest stops along the way, which each hold shops where you can buy additional weapons and ammo. Such additonal weapons include standard fare like the SMG, shotgun and flamethrower, and less-than-standard fare like the blade gun, which shoots saw blades that rip through zombies (think the Ripper from Unreal Tournament). Shops are also where you’ll go to buy upgrades for your weapons. Each weapon can be upgraded in a number of categories, such as clip size, damage, and fire rate.

Scattered around the various levels are various chests. Some are easier to find than others, but all of them hold either ammo, money, or points for your score multiplier. Most importantly however, some of them hold armor pieces. Different armor pieces can give different stat boosts; endurance is for HP, strength for melee damage, agility for running speed, etc. You can choose your armor loadout in shops.

Like I said before, Dead Nation will throw a veritable horde of zombies at you, on a fairly regular basis. And sometimes they don’t always just come from the front. Sometimes they come from the back simultaneously; sometimes they drop down on you from above. There will be times when you fumble switching weapons or reloading, and that’s all it takes for them to bear down on you. For those times, you have the Rush technique and melee. Rushing is a technique carried over from Super Stardust HD. Basically, it’s a brief, headlong charge where you quickly sprint in one direction. You’re invincible during a Rush, so it’s a great way to evade attacks and escape being cornered. It takes several seconds to recharge a Rush though, so it’s not something to be used lightly. Melee is for those times when you can’t Rush, and you don’t have time to reload or switch weapons. It does enough damage to incapacitate most zombies in a single hit, so meleeing is often an effective way to take care of any strays that manage to get past your hail of gunfire.

You’re also able to carry a number of consumable weapons and items. Flares emit a pillar of light and smoke, attracting nearly every zombie in the vicinity, and in turn taking a lot of heat off of you. Grenades work similar to pipe bombs in Left 4 Dead, beeping to attract attention before exploding. You also have access to mines and molotov cocktails.

The levels in Dead Nation are pretty giant. It usually takes me 30-45 minutes to complete each one, and they’re filled with side paths and various nooks and crannies. A couple times each level you’ll come across a set piece, usually in the form of something that needs to be activated, and of course, will attract a lot of zombies in the process. One instance had me fending off a legion of the undead as I activated a switch to extend a bridge across an otherwise uncrossable gap. Another showdown occurred in a construction area as I warmed up an exterior elevator to get to the top of a sky scraper. Conveniently, it was filled with volatile gas tanks. The game was released with no loading checkpoints between levels, which meant that if you quit before finishing, you’d have to start that entire level over. That has been changed, recently with a patch, however.

While Dead Nation’s gameplay is definitely fun, what I found to be its greatest aspect is its visuals. For a top down game, it features some surprising production values. Explosions send debris flying every which way (including upward; I’ve had a chunk of zombie flesh fly directly into the camera from a grenade explosion), and the game really plays well with light and shadows. You’re constantly equipped with a flashlight, which is beamed in the direction that you aim. That flashlight is a lot more important to your survival than you might think. Most areas are very darkly lit, requiring you to constantly shine your light in every corner to check for danger. One area, for example, was flooded with a thick fog, making any lurking enemies appear as little more than shadows. Another area, which served as a set piece, gloomily lit and had zombies flooding out of buildings from nearly every angle. The orange glow provided by flares and frequent explosions served as my primary source of light as I frantically checked each direction. The result of all this is a remarkably immersive game, despite being a top down shooter.

But..this is a top down shooter, with arcade elements to prove it. Dead Nation provides for you score junkies out there with leaderboards and plenty of ways to multiply your score at the end of each level. Chief among this is the score multiplier. As you kill zombies and loot cars and chests, you’ll find two things: money and score points. Score points add to your multiplier, which, if you can sustain it until the end of the level, can accumulate a handsome bonus at the results screen. Every time you get hit though, your multiplier decreases, so the challenge is on! You can also tackle the game with a friend in local and online coop (voice chat has recently been patched in). The only quirk with this is that the co-op isn’t drop in/drop out. Co-op play has it’s own campaign, meaning you can’t have a friend join you in a level in your singleplayer campaign, and you can’t take a solo stab at levels unlocked in in co-op campaign. But the campaigns are exactly the same, in terms of plot and content.

Dead Nation’s name comes from its metagame. Each nation is plagued by a virus cycle, and to defeat it will require the death of many, many zombies. More than one person (or even a few dozen of people) could typically slay in a reasonable amount of time. So every time you finish a level, your performance is uploaded to the game’s servers, joining your efforts with that of everyone else in the country who’s playing the game. You can view each nation’s ranking and progress in realtime; right now the US is in the lead, followed by Japan.

Dead Nation is not a unique game. The setting has been done over and over again, sometimes better. The weapons, the items, the score system–aside from the metagame, there’s almost nothing about this game that is innovative. Instead, Housemarque took a tried and true concept and polished it to a sheen. They gave it a full campaign and story, graphical fidelity suitable for a full retail game, and an engine that runs smooth as butter. It’s an old, almost tired concept, polished to a bright sheen. What does this mean? It means Dead Nation is fun, that’s what it means. And really, that’s all that matters, isn’t it? 8.5/10

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

I think text adventure games might be starting to grow on me. It’s nice to be able to settle back during down times and enjoy some good, humorous writing accompanied by an entertaining cast of characters and some light gameplay. After finishing Trials and Tribulations, I heard about Ghost Trick. And my interest was piqued. Ghost Trick is a DS game, from the same mind that created the Ace Attorney series, Takumi Shu. And it shows, in many ways.

Like any Ace Attorney game, the game features a convoluted story filled with twists, turns and secrets. The immediate plot–which stretches over the course of a single fateful night–begins with Sissel, who has come to realize that he is in a bit of a predicament. He’s dead, you see. Not only that, he can’t remember why or how he perished. Or even why his consciousness still exists. Really Sissel can’t remember anything at all. To make matters worse, the only person who might have some insight as to how he kicked the bucket–a young woman we later learn is named Lynne–is currently being held at gunpoint herself by a hitman. See? He’s in a bit of a pickle.

But all is not lost, as is soon pointed out to Sissel; he’s been given special powers. These abilities, known as Ghost Tricks, let Sissel possess various nearby objects and manipulate them to varying effects. For example, Sissel can possess a nearby guitar and strum it to spook Lynne’s hitman, distracting him just long enough for her to attempt to make a break for it. In this case, it changes her fate only slightly, however, as the hitman soon catches her once more, and this time he manages to kill her. And this is when we’re introduced to another of Sissel’s abilities. Though he can’t manipulate corpses, by interacting with one he has the option of rewinding time to exactly four minutes before that person’s death, with the aim of altering their fate.

This is where the heart of Ghost Trick’s gameplay is. Many times throughout the game, you’ll witness the death of important individuals, only to rewind time. You’ll then have a limited amount of time to use your Ghost Tricks to somehow prevent the person’s death from happening, before the tragic event simply repeats itself. In Lynne’s case, after distracting the hitman a couple more times, I was able to goad the hitman into standing in just the right place to get squashed by a wrecking ball dropped when I possessed the overhead crane (the game’s prologue takes place in a junkyard). And thus Lynne’s fate is changed for the better. For the people he saves, Sissel’s Ghost Tricks are not without side effects, though. After dying once and having access to the Ghost World (where time stands still), characters gain the ability to mentally communicate with ghosts–namely, Sissel. Furthermore, even though they’re alive, they still remember the experience of their death.

With Lynne saved, after establishing that she is clearly connected in some way to Sissel’s death, the two decide to work together. Thus Sissel embarks on a long, bumpy road to figure out who killed him, and why. The story will take you to something like a dozen a different locations, and you’ll have run into over thirty characters by the time Sissel’s journey has reached its end. Some of them are more integral to the story than others, but rest assured you’ll end up changing the fates of each and every one of them. And because this is a game from the same mind that spawned the Ace Attorney series, you can expect each character to have their quirks. For example, Lynne dies so many times in the story that it becomes a bit of a running gag, with her more or less waiving away each death without batting an eyelash. Her mentor figure of sorts, Inspector Cabanela always arrives on the scene with a hop and a skip, finishing with a pirouette and a flashy dance step. The Justice Minister is a squirrelly, distressed man prone to heart attacks, while his wife, who has temporarily left him due him not succumbing to her demands makes her livelihood writing trashy romance novels. Always seen with a full wine glass in hand, she will toast to anything she deems fit. Sissel himself sports a gel’ed up hairdo, and his lack of any memory of his life in the human is sometimes used to comical effect.

As a ghost, Sissel has only two forms of movement. He can move through areas by moving from one object to the next, but can also travel greater distances by moving between the phone lines. By possessing a phone while somebody is using it, Sissel can also not only listen in on their conversation, but also trace the number of the person on the other line, thereby opening up a new area to explore. There are limitations, however. Sissel can only possess objects that are within his fairly short reach. He can only use the phone lines to travel when the lines are active, and only to phones whose numbers he has traced.

Despite the apparent freedom that being able to visit most places you have unlocked anytime you have access to a phone grants, Ghost Trick is actually quite linear; almost restrictively so. There are only certain items you can possess, and even fewer that you can manipulate. There is definitely a very arbitrary limit to what can and can’t be done with Sissel’s Ghost Tricks. Despite what the concept of being able to manipulate many things in an area to change a given situation might imply, there’s only one solution for virtually every predicament presented to you. The challenge then, is not figuring out what to use, but when to use them. Timing is a key aspect of Ghost Trick. Certain objects must be activated in a specific order, and at specific times, forming a carefully orchestrated Rube Goldberg-esque sequence of events. Understandably, this will sometimes require a lot of trial and error; luckily, Sissel can rewind time and return to the four minute mark as many times as necessary until you get it right, with no penalty.

Ghost Trick’s writing, characters and story are all very intriguing and very entertaining, but what really caught my eye as I got acquainted with the game were its visuals. During dialogue, characters are represented by portraits, just like in most other text adventures (such as the Ace Attorney games); and visual novels, for that matter. The art style distinguishes itself from the crowd, however, by being extremely sharply drawn, and well defined. Better still is the animation. I can’t quite place my finger on what makes the simple fluidity of the characters’ movements so visually appealing, but it’s not something you see often in a 2D game.

As a text adventure, Ghost Trick’s audio is understandably the smallest part of the package. The character’s aren’t voiced, and there it feels like the soundtrack is composed of a mere handful of BGMs. It’s a good thing, then, that each of the tracks are pretty good listens, and manage to complement whatever situation they play under nicely.

Ghost Trick is, overall, a very good game. The premise–a protagonist who is already dead–is fascinating enough to drawn you in, but it’s the sustained variety that will keep you going. New recurring characters are introduced on a frequent basis, and it’s never long before the game is sending you to a new location. Sure, you revisit places as well, but you never feel like your backtracking or seeing recycled content. The plot quickly snowballs into quite a tangle of events, but I’ve gotten used to that. All things considered–there are some tropes introduced into the plot later in the game that have historically been very difficult to pull off without leaving the reader behind–the story actually ties together pretty well. The one true flaw to the is its overall lack of replay value. The story is pretty meaty, featuring about 18 chapters, but the single solution approach to each puzzle means that once you’ve figured them out the first time, you’ll at least have a pretty good idea of how to progress during subsequent playthroughs. 8.0/10

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