Monday, February 28, 2011

Taking E3 Off the Backlog

So KMart is having a contest.

As they lay out here, some lucky bloggers are going to be taken to the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3.  This enormous convention was making fans sweat with anticipation and doing the big reveal before Steve Jobs came along and made it cool.

Look at this poseur.

E3 is the Holy Grail for people who love gaming.  Every publisher and developer is represented, and not only do they show off all the fancy new toys they've got coming down the pipe, but they let you get first hands on them.  It's like if Hollywood held a special advance screening for every film they were going to put out in 2012 so you knew ahead of time what you were going to spend money on in the theater.

If they'd done that in 2009, there wouldn't have been a 2012.

KMart wants to send someone with their finger on the pulse of the gaming industry to walk the floors and see all there is to see, then write about it for them. 

Why is The Backlog perfect for this?

Besides my roguish good looks?

First, we're clearly passionate about our gaming.  While we tend to have a focus on RPG/SRPG games, we've also tackled Action Platformers, Survival games, Simulation, and a spectrum of others that shows we are dedicated to chronicling all this hobby has to offer. 

We also cover the Westminster Dog Show.

Part of the assignment is to tell KMart what it is we're excited about seeing, but to be honest there's nothing we're not excited about.  What kind of crazy niche game is Atlus going to put out next?  Is Bethesda about to knock another one out of the park?  How is Nintendo going to follow up last year's amazing showing?  And what will Sony and Microsoft pull out to bring the Move and the Kinect to the forefront?  Will Natsume announce ANOTHER Harvest Moon game?  Who would see THAT coming?

Simply put, we know what we're talking about.  The world of video gaming is constantly changing, with new technology and paradigm shifts coming out all the time.  In the last few years we've seen genres start to blend together as RPG elements invade games like BioShock and Call of Duty.  The trailers for L.A. Noire show advances in motion-capture that are going to make the experience more cinematic than ever.  The upcoming Dead Island looks poised to take Survival Horror to whole new heights.  Here at The Backlog we can offer a perspective others might not have on how the industry is changing, because we're here every day writing about its roots. 

What others could perceive as new and innovative, we can look at and say "hey, quicktime events - just like in Shenmue!"  When someone talks about how awesomely difficult the Ninja Gaiden 3 is going to be, we know that this is keeping in the proud tradition of Jaquio and the Art of the Fire Wheel.  We've covered everything from the mainstream (Star Ocean, Devil May Cry) to the niche and obscure (Chaos Wars, Riviera).  Whatever E3 has to throw at us, we'll have something informed to say about it.  Possibly with a picture and funny caption included.

Second, The Backlog is good for the gaming industry and good for gamers.

Also the goose, and by proxy the gander.

There have been a few times we've remarked on games not long after their initial release date.  You can see evidence of that with our entries on Hexyz Force, Bayonetta, and Alan Wake.  Other times, we go as far back as Chrono Trigger.  By and large, however, our focus is on games released some time in the last decade.  Why is this good news for both makers and players of video games?

Because the more attention that is given to how much we love our older games, the more likely it is that we'll see them come back again.  Time has proven, again and again, that if developers keep making games we love, we'll pay for them over and over.  If they know which games we love the most, they'll know which projects are worth revisiting to keep the cash flowing in.

Square-Enix figured this out years ago.

If we ever want to see more of the enhanced remakes or handheld ports that bring the long-forgotten classics back into the spotlight, developers have to know that's what we're clamoring for.  The more attention a site like ours gets, the more that word gets out.  This kind of market is already off to a good start with the God of War Collection, Ico/Shadow of the Colossus HD, and the recently-announced Beyond Good & Evil HD.  With enough voices pointing them in the right direction, who knows what other recent gems will get the update treatment?  Imagine an Odin Sphere/Grim Grimoire compilation for the PS3, or Capcom putting out a Devil May Cry Trilogy in HD instead of doing . . . whatever it is they're doing with that franchise.

"You know what would make Dante edgier?  Heroin addiction." - Capcom

More than just remakes - if enough attention is brought to the simple idea "hey, we really liked this game and would love to see more of it," we could start seeing more sequels to titles that might have otherwise faded away before their time.  Not only that, but we could also influence localization if we got enough people on board, and finally start to see some of those titles we've always heard about but never been able to play without taking a community college course in Japanese and then buying them off of Ebay as part of a lot also featuring the seller's lifelike anime-girl pillow.  There are way too many examples, in my opinion, of games which have a market in the U.S. and Europe getting passed over because publishers don't think it'll be worth it to pay for a translation.

Not to point fingers, or anything.

So if the Backlog gets a strong community behind it, it means a stronger voice to shout out "hey, we will pay for these games if you make them."  Companies know what games to make, players get to spend their money on things they know will be worthwhile, and everybody comes out happier for the deal.  I don't know about you, but after Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together, I'm dying to let S-E know they can have my money if they publish more Ogre titles with Queen lyrics attached.

Holding out hope for Ogre Battle: Dynamite with a Laser Beam.

Finally, the Backlog knows KMart is the place for video game deals.  GameStop is great, but their business model is that of a very specialized pawn shop.  Toys 'R Us tries hard, but they lack the kind of selection that KMart offers.  As anyone who frequents the CAG forums can tell you, nobody is capable of making the kinds of bargains on new games that KMart can.  I want to see the kind of things discussed in my second point come to be - and I want to be able to buy them at KMart prices.  If that happens, this could be the best partnership KMart has enjoyed since Martha Stewart, only without the messy breakup and jail time*.

And we're not too shabby decorating with festive gourds ourselves.

So therefore I humbly submit myself, and my blog, to be chosen for the honor of going to E3.  I hope you've enjoyed this post, and also take the time to see some more of the fine writing we've got to offer.  Thank you for reading, and I hope that we see each other this summer in Los Angeles!

*Note:  This is not a guarantee.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - Holy Shit

Oh where to begin with this all-encompassing, life devouring wonder of a game? I guess I should start by saying I thought I would never be able to get through Morrowind. I played Oblivion first and even though I knew Morrowind could offer the same 200+ hour complete infatuation like I had with it's successor, Morrowind's subpar graphics and missing upgrades/conveniences made it really difficult to get very far. I tried at least 5 times on the Xbox to go back and force myself to play Morrowind, and never once did I get past the first village following the lengthy character creation process.

Then, shortly after Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim's announcement, I stumbled across this:

and instructions on how to mod the PC version of the game to make it look more modern. I had never really considered myself much of a PC gamer, mostly because I owned a mac growing up and didn't have a decent gaming rig until a few months ago. Needless to say I was intrigued, and I quickly installed the game, it's expansions, and spent a few hours upgrading my game.

About 2 or 3 weeks later I emerged from my man-cave, covered in stubble and smelling of nerdy sweat and determination. I had fulfilled an ancient prophecy, saved the world, explored every nook and cranny, risen to the top of every guild, and amassed massive stores of loot and weaponry. It's a pretty typical "After" picture for an Elder Scrolls game, one that's different for every person who plays because of the inherent freedom in the game. Oblivion left you feeling like you had made a difference in a massive world with almost all of your actions, and Morrowind succeeds just as well at this, if not better.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Closing the Curtain on Disappointment 2011: Chaos Wars

I imagine that by now, some readers look forward to my posts with both a sense of anticipation and dread:  The anticipation of seeing a new post, and the dread of knowing that, given the first theme of the gaming year, the game that I'll be talking about will likely be a pretty awful one.  I'll start by letting you know that this post formally brings an end to disappointment 2011, and that for the foreseeable future, I'm not deliberately going out of my way to play awful games.

Thus the focus of this post is the game Chaos Wars:  A  crossover strategy RPG released in mid-2006 in Japan by Idea Factory, and surprisingly made it to the U.S. in 2008.  While anticipated by many S-RPG fans, the game was met with a host of criticisms:  Dated graphics, a simplistic battle system, obscure characters, but primarily an absolutely atrocious localization, which you can see here.

While Chaos Wars indeed deserves many of the criticisms levied against it, strategy gamers who keep an open-mind will find a game that, while simplistic in many areas, offers a wide selection of characters, numerous customization options in equipment and skills, and enough grinding options to keep even the most focused perfectionist occupied for awhile.  Read on for more details on the game that closes the curtain on Disappointment 2011.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Stella Deus: The Gate of Mediocrity

After a solid string of five action platformers in a row, it was time to settle in with a good old-fashioned tactics game.  Looking through my library of unplayed strategy offerings, I singled out Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity for a few reasons.  First, I know that historically I've always loved Atlus games.  Second, this advertised a run of about 50+ hours, and that seemed like a reasonable amount of time to spend on a game.  50 hours of gameplay amounts to being able to play it start to finish in just a few hours a day, so this would be something I could beat in a week or two and then have a fresh report up for all of you.

What it neglects to say on the back is that 50 hour estimate is only if you play the first game included on this disc.

I'd had my eye on this game for awhile before someone on the BlueGartr forums advertised that they had it for sale.  The Order of the BlueGartr started out as a message board for Final Fantasy XI, but has since grown into a much larger community site, complete with a Buy-Sell-Trade section.  After seeing this pop up on the list of some PS2 games another member was selling for a very reasonable price, I leaped at it.  It came quickly and in great condition, so it looked really nice on my shelf where it sat for the next five months after purchase.  Yeah, I ordered this right around the same time as when I started The Backlog itself, so it got lost in the sea of games I already had lined up to play.

Although, I'm glad it did sit there for awhile, because I really needed something to get back into more RPG-type games after all my action-based outings, and this is a really solid transitional title.  I think of it as like training wheels.  I've learned all I can from it, now I'm ready to cast it aside and get that ten-speed.

I'm gonna be really embarrassed if I fall and skin my knee.

Stella Deus is a typical tactics-style game.  You are given a squad of characters with different classes, with a couple mages, some healers, and a glut of melee.  Assemble a team at the start of each stage and then fight it out in grid-based combat.  The game takes place in the world of Solum, and you control the party by walking them from town to town, where inevitably a battle waits for you as you fight against the evil empire of Overlord Dignus.  That's the first game.  The second is an area called The Catacombs.

Pink is the final boss.

So in that 50 advertised hours, you can easily get through the story mode.  In fact, the last "Chapter" of the game is essentially one long final battle.  The Catacombs are another story.  They have no connection to the plot at all, and serve no purpose other than expedient leveling up or collecting treasure.  However, there are 100 levels to the Catacombs, each representing a unique fight, with enemies in each one the same level as the current floor.  This means you can go through the whole game without ever even touching this increasingly difficult nest of enemies, or you can take the entire time it would take you to get through the game by itself over again - and probably more - fighting your way down to the bottom.

Overall, this isn't a bad game, but it's not exceptional by any means.  It's time-consuming, and has lots of distractions to keep you invested, but there are a number of problems with it that end up making it just "meh."  However, there is fun to be had, and if I can focus on that, I can tell you about a pretty good experience with a game that just needed a little more polish to be great.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Milking the Cash Cow for all her worth: Final Fantasy 7: Dirge of Cerberus

Wherever you as far as your opinion of Final Fantasy 7, there's no denying the popularity of the series, as well as what it did for JRPGs in the west. I'll go on record for saying that I am a huge fan of the game, and fondly remember the first time I rushed home with it as a rental, simply letting it sit at the title screen for awhile to hear the lovely, next-gen rendition of the traditional Final Fantasy theme. Indeed, I have many, many fond memories of the game.

I'm certain that Square (prior to their merger with Enix) has fond memories of all the cash the game brought in as well, which undoubtedly caused them to release a host of spin offs, both in game and media form. Some of these were quite a bit of fun: Crisis Core, for example, while a straightforward game, remains one of my favorite PSP titles. The Before Crisis OVA was a nice homage to the series, and Advent Children Complete made a lot more sense than its original version.

Then of course, there is the spinoff that threatens to prey on the fond memories of your youth by attaching itself to your favorite series with promises of a unique, yet fun experiences. It then, however, proceeds to violate them in the worst imaginable way.

Enter Dirge of Cerberus.

..Alright, I'm being really dramatic here, I know.

Dirge of Cerberus is the first (and as many fans hope, last) foray into the shooter genre.  While a graphical masterpiece like any other Final Fantasy game, it sadly relies more heavily on nostalgia to draw in and maintain the player's attention, rather than the smooth, intuitive controls that make other games in this genre successful.  While some fans may find this game a nice stroll down memory lane and a welcome expansion to the FF7 mythos, those hoping for a solid action-gaming experience with the Final Fantasy stamp on it will likely walk away frustrated.

Unless you've been living under a rock in the gaming community, then you've undoubtedly heard the unfavorable responses Dirge of Cerberus received.  Similarly, you're also probably wondering why in the world would I subject myself -willingly- to playing through this game.

Well, that's sort of a funny story. . .

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Shadow Hearts 3: Going out with a whimper, rather than a bang

I have fond memories of my experience with the Shadow Heart games. It is a series that went from humble beginnings, but eventually spawned two of my favorite RPGs of all times. What some people may not realize is that "Shadow Hearts" formally began with the game Koudelka on the PSX.

I'll level with you: Koudelka was a pretty awful game overall. It was an attempt at combining survival horror with RPG and strategy elements, yet it did none of these effectively. Combat was slow, clunky, and generally frustrating. The load times were absolutely horrendous. For a late-gen PSX game (spanning 4 discs, no less), the graphics were rather subpar. Despite the number of discs, the game was painfully short, as well. For all intents and purposes, the game should have cast away and its continuity ended. Yet beneath all of this, many had to admit one thing: Koudelka did have an interesting story and premise. The dialogue which did occur wasn't that bad.

Someone in Japan saw this, apparently, and the series was revived. . well, indirectly. Some years later, Shadow Hearts was developed for the PS2, which takes place in the same continuity as Koudelka, but with a new protagonist and a loose, yet still significant link to the first game that becomes increasingly clear the further you play. The game maintained the bleak, eerie atmosphere for the most part, yet does away completely with the horrendous battle system of its predecessor, instead spawning an entirely new innovation with the judgment ring system. While the game received somewhat mixed reviews, it still maintains a special place in my heart, but more importantly, it's a marked improvement over the disaster that is Koudelka.

Fast forward a few years later to the next entry in the series, Shadow Hearts 2 (AKA Shadow Hearts: Covenant). While the story is lighter in some respects due to some more comedic elements (I also attribute it to better fleshed out dialogue), it still retains some pretty dark moments. While this is a turn off for some, it's hard to deny that Covenant is a step up from the previous game in every respect: The characters are even more interesting, the story is even deeper, there's much more in the way of additional content and sidequests, customization options have improved, and the combat retains the elements that made the first unique while expanding greatly on it. Hands down, this is an RPG worth owning.

I'm sure you notice a pattern here: Each game represents a marked improvement over the previous. Shadow Hearts 2 was a great game and a tough act to follow, but it would still be possible to make a great follow up. Certainly enough, when Shadow Hearts 3 was announced, I was excited.

Yet when details of the game emerged, I became less and less excited. The game would be featuring a new protagonist, rather than following up on the story of Yuri Hyuga, the protagonist from the previous games, and probably one of the cooler main characters out there. The plot details that I gleaned made it seem thoroughly uninteresting: So much that when the game was finally released and I saw it at Fry's, I shrugged my shoulders and walked past.

I eventually grabbed the game from EBay some months later, as it was impossible to find it in stores after a short time. I had caved in because while the game did feature an entirely new cast, the reviews I read asserted that it still contained the elements that made Covenant great -- certainly this game wouldn't disappoint, right?

Unfortunately, my friends, I introduce yet another game contained in Disappointment Week 2011: Shadow Hearts: From the New World.

Let me state my disclaimer here: As a stand alone game, Shadow Hearts 3 gives you a game with an innovative combat system, decent playlength, a mildly entertaining story, and plenty to keep you busy. It is not by any means, a bad game.

As the final entry into the series, however, one must hold it to a different standard.

While Shadow Hearts 3 features a refined version of the combat system that made its predecessor an engaging game, its uninspiring cast of protagonists, poorly developed villains, and overall weaker story than its predecessors make it a lackluster follow up to one of the best RPGs in the PS2's library. As a result, a series which had shown steady improvement closes the curtain on its life with subdued applause, rather than a standing ovation.