Sunday, October 31, 2010

Devil May Cry - Or Just Really Piss You Off

I began playing Devil May Cry almost as soon as I beat Final Fantasy XII.  That was almost three weeks ago.  So what's the deal?  Did it take me 100 hours to beat the game?  No, by the time I hit the final save I was at just under 7 and a half, which means if you count continues I probably put 9, maybe 10 hours into the whole thing.  I can see how people could easily run through the entire game in 3 or 4.

The problem was that I'd play for about 20 minutes at a time, get frustrated, and quit.  A few days later I'd suck it up and come back.

This is known as the Ross Perot method.
Initially, I genuinely hated this game.  It seemed to me it was way too hard, way too cheap, and way too difficult to control.  Coming off of my last action game experience, God of War III, this seemed amateurish by comparison.  When I got stuck on the first fight against Phantom, I was ready to just call this one not worth it and give up.

Then, the game made me angry.

At which point it grew considerably less fond of me.
In some paroxysm of mouth-frothing fury and insane determination, my brain clicked into "ruthless slaughter" mode.  A few minutes later, Phantom was dissolving into a puddle of molten rock and scorpion goo.  And I liked it.  I liked it a lot.  I've played plenty of video games and fought some pretty challenging fights, but the formula Devil May Cry has worked out makes them just hard enough without being impossible to give a rush of achievement after you butcher the big bad guys.  That initial surge kept me going until the next time I got stuck.  The pattern began to repeat itself until the fits of anger were gone, replaced by a cold, steely-eyed calculation.  Sure, I'd still swear and shake my controller, but when I tried again after a loss I'd come back and react faster, anticipate more, aim more precisely. 

It was impossible to deny what was happening.  By relentlessly tormenting me, Devil May Cry was making me a better game player.

This philosophy is not without precedent.
It was after this realization that I sat down to really think about what the pros and cons of this game are. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bayonetta - With Practice, Pure Poetry

Generally speaking I am not a fighting game fan. I can certainly see the appeal, the memorization of button sequences or combos that eventually become reflex, and turn combat from a button mashing affair into something that is almost poetic when played at its full potential. For me, the whole idea of learning move sets is akin to learning a foreign language, as something I'm interested in but find altogether too daunting. One could argue that the "stylish action" games are essentially fighting games in a 3D space, with games like Devil May Cry having just as much complexity as Tekken or Street Fighter.

So it came as no surprise that I let Bayonetta's release pass unmarked. From the previews and articles leading up to the game's release it was clear that this was going to be just another skill-based stylish action game, as the game was marketing towards the DMC set as the next big thing. Sure, the videos looked amazing and the combos were incredible to watch in preview videos, but the thought of what I would have to do to reach that level of expertise loomed too great in my mind, and I moved on to other things.

Sometime this summer Gamefly had a sale on used games, offering a number of titles for less than 20 bucks. I saw Bayonetta for $15 smackeroos (and Bioshock 2 for $17!) and decided to give it a whirl. I knew it was going to be good, but I was apprehensive about whether or not I'd be able to get through it, or it was destined to sit atop my piles of unfinished games as another title that I enjoyed but couldn't bring myself to finish.

Around 7 days later I had around 30 hours in Bayonetta and a newfound appreciation for the genre. Bayonetta is, simply put, an incredible action game that does so many things right that it's easy to overlook its faults. As a general rule I don't like to spend full price on new games but I am sorry that I waited as long as I did to play it, and now that I have I am almost afraid to play other games in the genre in fear that they may not measure up.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Remake of a Remake - Riviera: The Promised Land

Expect a post on Capcom's Devil May Cry from me soon. I want to make it a little further in the game before writing up my thoughts on it, but rest assured I do have plenty to say about Dante's adventures, and not all of it good.

While I'm plodding through that, however, I decided to delve into my handheld collection to help pass the time at work. My PSP library being less than 10 games deep, I figured now was as good a time as any to start whittling away at it, and I began my endeavor with Riviera: The Promised Land. This little jewel was originally a GameBoy Advance title by developer Sting, ported over to the PSP with the help of the good folks at Atlus.

They should probably just change their name to "Niche."

I picked this one up right after taking the LSAT in June.  It was a grueling test, and when I got out of the exam room I felt I needed to reward myself somehow.  Fortunately, there was a GameStop on the way home, and I stopped in to find this on the shelves.  It was an impulse buy; the artwork on the cover looked good, I recognized the company that published it, and it was an RPG.  That was enough for me.  Unfortunately, being the impulse buy it was, it was destined to sit on the shelf while I occupied myself with Pokemon: HeartGold  By the time I'd gotten bored with that, Riviera's existence had been all but forgotten.  Until I decided to bring my PSP to work with me one day, and this was the lucky title I popped in.

Let me say right off the bat that I have kind of fallen in love with this game. It's a charming little classic RPG with some distinct characteristics that make it unique. The sprites are colorful and the in-game animation well done, giving it a very vibrant feel which makes the game easy to get into. Stylized animation and voice acting for every line give the impression of playing through an anime.  What really shocked me, however, was the first 90 seconds of the initial tutorial battle of the game.  I was paralyzed with inaction while I tried to figure out how I was supposed to move closer to the monster so I could hit it.  That's right - after Final Fantasy XII, Arc the Lad, Devil May Cry, Monster Hunter, and all the other games I've played recently, I forgot how classic turn-based RPGs work.

Completely beyond me.

In my first attempt to play this game, my PSP died on me about fifteen minutes in.  This was actually my faithful handheld system looking out for me, as I hadn't yet saved my game and thus had to start over from the beginning - giving me the opportunity to switch the language voiceovers from English to Japanese.  Take my advice if you pick this one up and do the same - don't even play around with the English, the voice work on this one shows about as much effort as a fat guy who can't find the remote.  He doesn't want to watch The Home Shopping Network, but dammit, the TV is all the way across the room and he's not walking all the way over there.  

Although getting right down to it, the Japanese voices aren't much better, just more tolerable because (unless you speak Japanese) you can't understand enough to realize how much they're phoning it in.  Anyway.
You play as Ein (or Ecthel, in the original Japanese), a Grim Angel of Asgard.  It's the job of the Grim Angels to get rid of the demons which plague the Golden Realm, because apparently Thor can't be bothered for something so trivial as the coming of Ragnarok.

"Look man, whatever."
Accompanied by fellow Grim Angel Ledah and his talking cat, Rose, Ein sets out to rid Asgard of demons by destroying Riviera, which the demons are reported to have taken over.  Occasionally, a veiled guy in black robes named Hector shows up to remind them their job is to slaughter everything.  It was around this time that I got the impression these Asgardians might not be on the up-and-up.

So before long, Ein and Ledah encounter a mysterious woman with great power who speaks in the Asgardian language.  She tries to stop you from entering Riviera, but you beat the monster she summons only to find that she herself is untouchable.  Ein is struck with some kind of magic whammy, and the next thing he knows he's waking up in the house of two girls he's never seen before, with no recollection of who he is or how he got there.  Whether this all actually happened or the entire first chapter is supposed to be some kind of metaphor for the lead designer's bachelor party is anyone's guess, but this is where the story really begins.

Leading cause of magical adventures.

Ein finds himself in Riviera, brought there by the mysterious woman, who turns out to be a powerful entity named Ursula.  Specifically, he's in the town of Elendria, which is populated almost exclusively by anthropomorphic girls I'd imagine cater to the target audience of the game, including a cat-girl, a mermaid, and a harpy.  

Damn that's hot.

The two girls, Fia and Lina, want to investigate another area they've lost touch with since the demons invaded their land, but the village elder forbids it.  So after a few sequences, you're recruited to help the two clandestinely get where they want to go and help protect Riviera from demons.  Wait a second, wasn't Ein supposed to be destroying Riviera to protect Asgard from demons?  Holy Conflict of Interests, what's gonna happen now?  In the middle of all this, we get some scenes of Ledah moving into Riviera, being reminded that he's by himself now since his worthless companion is gone, and so he's got to butcher enough people for two now.  What follows is Ein going on quests throughout the various regions of Riviera, moving ever closer towards that confrontation with his old life.  The game isn't a tension-builder, but it certainly makes you want to know what happens next.

Now let's get into gameplay.  While I wouldn't go so far as to call it unique, Riviera combines several aspects I've seen in other games to create an experience for playing all its own.  Each screen constitutes a different section of a map, and several sections add up to create an area.  You can move through sections as much as you want, but once you move to a new area you can not revisit the old one unless the storyline takes you back through it.  New sections are often marked with either dialogue between the characters, an enemy encounter, or both.

In combat, you square off against the monsters by pre-selecting four items before the battle starts.  Here's where it gets interesting.  Each character has potential to gain skill in an item, at a rate of one point for each use.  If they reach the maximum amount of points possible, they gain access to a new OverSkill attack.  OverSkills range from level 1 to 3, and are executed by using a charge in a meter which rises every time you get attacked or attack someone else.  The entire party shares one meter, so you have to put forethought into whose skill you're going to use.

Tentacle Rod is exactly as terrifying as it sounds.
Now, after learning these skills, the character gets a stat boost, so it's to your advantage to let them learn as many as possible.  Fortunately, Riviera includes Practice Mode.  Items all come with a set number of times you can use them, and all the battles in the game are pre-planned, meaning there will never be a random encounter.  With Practice Mode, you're allowed to revisit earlier fights and use your items with impunity without fear of them running out.  You can also get rewards based on your performance and obtain new items to learn skills from.  You can enter Practice as many times as you like, giving you ample opportunity to whip the characters into shape.  

Preferable to other options.
Furthermore, in the regular storyline fights, you get ranked for your performance on a scale of D through S.  S-rankings net you better items, including ones you can gain skills off of, so it's in your best interests to fight hard.  Items aren't the only reason, either - almost every section of a map lets you investigate objects on the screen, but it will cost one Turn Point, or TP, to do so.  The only way to gain more TP?  Get high ranks in battle.  Performing well throughout an entire chapter of the story will also gain you bonus TP to carry over into the next one.  If you run out, no investigating for you, and you miss out on potential hidden scenes, items, or battles.

I like the system, though this has presented some frustrating moments where I know I can get a good item if I S-Rank a battle, and can't get beyond A or B.  Since you can only save in-between areas, getting caught up in grabbing the best loot can lead to some anger-filled resetting.  However, that case is the exception rather than the rule this time, since it's made clear early in the game that there's no way to get everything the first time through, and more items will become available on subsequent playthroughs.  This has led to me actually being able to enjoy the game a lot more, knowing that if I can't get something now, I can always come back around again.

At present I've reached the halfway point in the game, playing it mostly during the slow hours at work. Thus far Riviera has given me no reason to stop, and I can easily see taking this one off the backlog in the next week or so.  Also, since it's played primarily at work, it doesn't interfere with my uphill march against my PS2 backlog at home.  It was a nice exercise in time management for me, and I think in the future you'll be able to look forward to more handheld games being written on.  

Anyway, I'm at work now, so I better get back to the game.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sim Tower

Oh, I remember this game's origins in my life like it was yesterday. I was with my dad at an Office Depot. I was about 8 or 9 and had never played a "big boy" PC game. All I knew was Math Blaster and Solitaire. Then, I saw it. The game that would herald in a new day in my gaming life. I would finally be kicking it grown-up style on my dad's state-of-the-art Gateway 2000 (with 1 GB of disk space!). The soon-to-be crown jewel of my young gaming collection: SimTower.

...alright, maybe it wasn't quite that epic.

But all things aside, SimTower was a pretty fun game that I only got to play occasonally. I had seen my older brother's friends play SimCity and tell me that it was "too complex" for me. Well, they hadn't played the new hotness in the Sim world of gaming. The concept for the game was to build an "veritcal empire" of offices, hotel rooms, public entertainment facilities, and ultimately, a 100th floor Chapel for weddings as a crowning achievement. Needless to say, I decided at that time so long ago that I was going to play that game until I was sitting on the top floor, watching Brad and Janet having a shotgun wedding after meeting earlier in the 75th floor movie theatre, spending a few hours in Brad's Hotel Suite on Floor 47, and crazily purchasing a condo on the 4th floor. This would be the building equivalent of the Galactic Empire, with my iron left fist controlling the every movement of my tenants while I counted money with the other hand!

"Once I build the P.F. Chang's on the B3 floor, the circle will be complete!"

Obviously, since this game is being blogged about on the Backlog, I met with unfortunate failure in accomplishing this. I have come back to this game from time to time, but it has always returned to the back of the gaming queue without being fully conquested.

The question I ask is why. That's what I'm finding out in this revisit.

At the start up of the game, you have what you have in all Sim games: a blank slate. This time, rather than an overhead view of your canvas, you are give a 2D sideview. As well, you only have certain build options at the beginning, such as offices, lobbies, fast food restaurants, and condos. As your tower grows, you make more money through rent (or sales in the case of condos), your population grows, and you rinse and repeat. As your population increases, your tower's Star Rating (essentially the same concept as the different city categories in Sim City) improves, which results in the ability to build more lucrative and impressive structures, such as a Metro Station or Movie Theatre. Simple enough premise: make money, build more, people move in. Rinse and repeat.

"Look honey! The blue skies. Crisp air. Time to build a polluting monstrosity to block those sightlines!"Font size

However, before you can get to the nitty-gritty construction of your edition of the Sears Tower, you have to build a foundation: your lobby. Essentially, this is where your Sims enter the building to pick up some mode of transportation (elevators, stairs, escalators). I would say there is nothing fancy to this, but that would be to overlook one of the cool easter eggs in the game. If you hold down the CTRL button and build your lobby, you end up with a two-story lobby. If you are really looking for the fancy-schmancy, you can hold CTRL and SHIFT and build the lobby, which will produce a state-of-the-art, Waldorf Astoria-quality, three-story lobby!

It doesn't do jack crap, but it looks kinda cool in a 2D, 1990's sort of way.

Alright, foundation laid. Now the fun begins with building your offices, hotels, Starbucks, brothels, and whatever else you decide to throw in there. Well, not entirely true. While you cannot build actual brothels, you can rename businesses and people however you like. You can in fact track the people you name with the "Find" dropdown menu option. This makes for a chuckle every now and then when you see your blue sim name Engelbert Humperdink walking around.

Of course, to be able to name businesses, you need people. To get people, you have to have transit through your building. Which brings us to what is the biggest challenge (and pain in the ass) in the entire game:


Now, you are probably asking yourself, "Aren't elevators supposed to make things easier?" To this, my friends, Sim Tower answers with a resounding "No, bitch!" followed by a firm slap to the face.

Prime example of elevators making things worse.

This is do largely to the game mechanics by which Sims move through your tower. Creator Yoot Saito, perhaps attempting to simulate people's want for simplicity in travel, established that Sims moving in the tower can only use 2 different transportation units to get where they are going. That means they can only use 2 flights of stairs OR a flight of stairs and an elevator OR 2 elevators and so on and so forth. This wouldn't be a big deal if it wasn't for the limitations for building elevators and stairs. That's right. You can only build a set number of each in your building. This means that double coverage is possible for only so much of your tower, then you up a creek without a paddle. Also, these shaft can only go up 30 floors (and are effective for only 15). Add to this the fact that you can only have 8 cars to an elevator shaft, and you have an epic, organizational mess to untangle.

Furthermore, due to these limitations, you become more and more reliant on the Express Elevator shafts that you have to build as your tower grows (an option that becomes available with a 3 star rating). These solve the issues of getting people to the highest floors without straining your 15 floor elevators. However, you get to a point where the Express shaft is strained, which in turn ruins the rest of your elevator system. Overall, elevators in this game instill the same kind of frustration in you that a Rubik's cube does for those of us who still don't get the trick.

F*$% this thing.

I could continue on, describing each and every little facet on irritation that attempts to derail you from ultimate success in the game, but I can explain why this game constantly returns to the Backlog: it gets repetative. For as much fun as it is starting out in this game, you reach a point where you are installing your 34th elevator, adjusting all the options for said shaft just to make it work, and thinking about building your next 50 office suites, at which you ask yourself "What's the point?" Whereas in Sim City or other Sim titles, you can find a rebuttle to this question, Sim Tower doesn't offer enough satisfaction in complete victory to outweight the annoyance you must endure to achieve it. At the end of the day, Sim Tower is worthy of a good college try now and again for the fun you can have with it. God knows I keep coming back to it and enjoy it each time. Just don't go in expecting Risk-like World Domination as you try to take it off your Backlog. You might end up with one of those neverending games where all the players start muttering "Make it stop."