Behind The Music: review commentary

So one of the reasons why I was so quiet last week was because I was working on a review of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon for the New York Videogame Critics Circle, which can be found here.

This was my first experience writing a review the way the professionals do it:  with a free download code given out a week before the game’s release.   So not only was I flying somewhat blind (in terms of not knowing how the other gaming outlets were going to score it), but I was also flying without a walkthrough.   This turned out to be not that big a deal, because the places where I was getting stuck were less about not knowing how to solve a puzzle and more about not being able to adjust to the rather sudden difficulty spike in the later levels.   That being said, I would’ve hated to have not been able to finish the game because I couldn’t figure out what to do next!

Still, though, I wrote the review (and the epilogue) without having finished the game.   Still haven’t finished the game.  Haven’t even thought about the game since I turned in the epilogue on Thursday.  Don’t want to think about the game.  I’m so close to the end, but there’s no way that the actual end will be worth all the bullshit it takes to get there.  If I am going to think about the game, I’d rather remember the parts that I liked.  I still may go back and try to find all the stuff I didn’t find in the earlier levels, although I’m still pretty obsessed with Etrian Odyssey IV, and also my copy of Fire Emblem: Awakening just arrived, and that seems pretty awesome, too.

This was also the first time that I’ve written something that ultimately got looked over and edited by a much better writer than myself – and very much for the better, I might add, even if we had to cut out the footnotes.  In any event, I did get to use (and keep) the phrase “core gameplay loop”, which is one of my favorite bits of industry jargon.

It was a pretty neat experience, all things considered.  I hope I get to do it again.

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As for the rest of the weekend, I didn’t really get to play all that much.  I ended up spraining my ankle on Saturday (as part of a story that I’ll feel better telling in a few weeks), and so I was mostly just laid up.  As mentioned above, I’m still pushing along in EO4, and I played the first few levels of Fire Emblem.  Fire Emblem seems pretty great, although I was terrible at the previous game on the DS, and I’m not necessarily all that into turn-based tactical RPGs.  It’s a nice companion to EO4, though; when I get tired of one, the other seems to fill the void quite nicely.

Also, my rental copy of MLB 13: The Show arrived, and I started a Road To The Show career – my pitcher, Jervo McNervo, is 2-1 on the SF Giants Double A team, with 2 complete game shutouts and 34 Ks.  As much as I respect this game franchise – it’s clearly the best in the business – I’ve always been terrible at the hitting part of the game, so being a pitcher makes sense – especially since I’m pretty good at the pitching part.  Normally I tend to rage quit when I do terribly in sports games – if I’m not pitching perfect games and going 6-for-6 with 4 grand slams, then I start over – but I’m trying to keep myself honest this time around.  So, yeah – my first two outings were complete game shutouts, but in my third outing I don’t think I made it out of the fifth inning.  Sometimes your pitches don’t go where you want them to go; such is life.  That being said, the fielding controls for the pitcher are backwards – I fielded a few infield choppers and inadvertently threw to third base each time, not realizing that the pitcher’s controls are inverted.  (That would’ve been nice to tell me, Sony.)

In any event, this will all be moot soon enough; Bioshock Infinite is already preloaded on my PC, and as soon as it goes live, that’s where I’ll be for the rest of the week… unless the baby arrives, of course.

the first dozen hours: Etrian Odyssey 4

I’ve had my 3DS for a few weeks now, and I must say I’ve been pretty happy with the experience overall – even if the 3D does weird things to my eyes after a while.  The Streetpass feature is pretty neat.  I think I’ve mentioned that I don’t often see people using 3DSs on the subway, but clearly people are bringing them along in their bags or something, because almost every day I pick up 3 or 4 Tags, which is neat.

The game I’ve spent the most time with thus far comes as a big surprise (to me, at least) is Etrian Odyssey 4, which I’ve been playing rather obsessively for the last week or so.   I’d figured, since I’d had such a disappointing experience with Ni No Kuni, that I’d lost interest in JRPGs; but as it turns out, all I need was a breath of fresh air and a completely different context.

EO4 is a radically different experience from pretty much every other RPG I’ve ever played, even if it feels bewitchingly familiar.  It’s a first-person grid-based dungeon crawler (similar to something like Legend of Grimrock), with a turn-based random encounter battle system (much like, well, most old-school JRPGs) – but the key difference is that it also features a map-making system that encourages you to be as detailed as possible.  This comes in handy, as you might imagine, since you’ll frequently go through each maze more than once, and things that you might’ve noticed as odd or significant may end up being important on a 2nd visit.

The game also does a terrific job of making grinding as hassle-free as possible, which is something that I very much appreciate.  For one thing, you can create auto-pilot routes through each maze, which speeds things along quite nicely; for another, you can choose to auto-pilot your way through each random encounter, which makes going through easy enemies much quicker and doesn’t deplete your TP reserves (TP being what you use to activate special skills in battle).

The battles that you do choose to pay attention to, though, are a lot of fun to engage in.  It’s not just mindless button presses – that’s what the auto-pilot mode is for, after all.  Tougher enemies require strategic planning, and the variety of skills you can use mean there’s lots of different tactics you can employ.

The graphics are a little weird, I suppose.  The 3D screen makes battles look like active dioramas, with detailed monsters bobbing and weaving against rather dreary backgrounds.  Indeed, the actual 3D mazes you explore are surprisingly drab and ugly as compared to the rather crisp 2D character drawings; I’m not sure if the art style is meant to be consistent with earlier titles in the franchise (as I’ve never played them) but as an EO neophyte I’m not particularly impressed.  Still, I’m not staying with this game for the graphics.

Nor am I sticking with it for the story, although that may very well be because the story is just now – after a dozen hours of playtime – coming into focus.   In the early going, I was simply assembling my crew to go out on little missions for the local town – and that was enough, frankly.  Now – in the dungeon I literally just discovered about an hour ago – there seem to be larger, world-shaking forces at work, and I suppose I’ll need to save the world somewhere down the line.

One word of caution, in case you read this and decide to check it out – the game doesn’t explain itself particularly well in the beginning.  The very first thing you do is assemble a crew as part of a guild, and the types of crewmember are not necessarily self-explanatory.  (For example, the main melee fighter in your party is called a Landsknecht.  This is, in fact, a real thing, but I had to look it up on Wikipedia.)  Once you finish building your guild, you’ll find yourself in another set of menus – which is actually how you interact with the town.  The menus are a bit obtuse at first, but you get used to them with time.

I’d heard that one of the trademarks of this franchise is its punishing difficulty, which is why I’m grateful that there’s a “Casual” mode – which is still plenty difficult, mind you.  You can’t save mid-labyrinth without going back to town and then re-tracing your steps, which is a drag – especially as you have a limited inventory and it gets full very quickly.  (As a matter of fact, I’m about to go up against a boss, and I’m probably not going to make it – I never had a chance to go back to town, and my party has almost no TP left, and I could very much use some refreshment.)

In any event, I’m really enjoying my experience, and I’d highly recommend it if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing.

weekend recap: all tombs raided

Finished Tomb Raider.  Currently at around 93% completion, and I’m not sure I give a shit about finding the last few things there are to find.  Lara is fully leveled up, as are her weapons (not that there are that many people to fight), and the stuff that’s left (mostly GPS caches) doesn’t have much of a payoff.  Usually when I finish one of these kinds of action/adventure games, I feel compelled to go back and replay one of my favorite levels, if only to really take in the scenery and find all the hidden stuff without the pressure of combat.  But you can’t really do that in this edition of Tomb Raider, as there aren’t really any levels to speak of.  There are certainly different geographic locations on the island, but it’s not quite the same thing.

I think, overall, that it’s a very good game; that the developer’s intentions were clear, and that they were largely successful in achieving what they set out to achieve.  But it’s not perfect; there’s still too much killing (and, let me tell you – for a girl who starts out hesitant and apologetic to kill a deer in order to survive, she ends up kneecapping dudes with pickaxes and spearing dudes in the throat with arrows), and the whole 2nd act is basically one long chase sequence where everything is on fire.

There’s also something else that troubles me a little bit, though it’s a bit more subtle; they go through great lengths to make Lara Croft a real, relatable human being this time around, someone grounded in reality (even if she has an incredibly high tolerance for pain).  But without getting too spoilery, the mystery of the island is, in fact, something supernatural.  I was actually hoping for some scientific, grounded-in-reality explanation to what was going on, being that everything else was meant to evoke a real-world feeling.  The ending isn’t necessarily disappointing, but it did feel a bit… hokey.

I’d also add that some of the systems they introduce in the beginning feel unnecessary and undeveloped – like the whole survivalist thing, about needing to hunt game in order to stay alive.  Actually, once you kill that first deer mentioned above, you don’t need to kill any animals (besides the wolves that attack you) ever again; and if you do, the XP you gain is modest, at best.  I’m not saying I wanted them to introduce a hunger system, but it’s just weird that in the beginning of the game it’s presented as something important, and within 30 minutes it’s an afterthought.

Still, problems aside, I had a really good time with it; I’d give it a solid B+.  I’m just not sure if I’ll ever find myself going back to play it again, the way I have with other, similar titles.

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My 3DS experience continues to be hit-or-miss.  I’ve got 2 games on rental right now – Etrian Odyssey 4 and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, which, if nothing else, wins the “Most Ridiculous Title of 2013” award.  I gave Castlevania about 30 minutes before sending it back; the screens are too dark to really see what’s going on, and the 3D gives me a splitting headache – even with it turned off.  And the first real boss was a bit of a dick.  I generally like Castlevania games – not necessarily for the fiction, but for the action and the map-filling and such.  But this one kinda felt like it was going nowhere, fast.

Etrian Odyssey, on the other hand, is a bit more interesting, and I’m tempted to stick with it – even if a lot of the mechanics seem needlessly convoluted.  It’s a fairly standard dungeon-crawling turn-based RPG, but there’s also this map-making feature that’s kinda fascinating, where you actually chart your progress through each dungeon’s maze.  Some of your quests actually depend on your cartography skills – you need to be able to point to something on the map in order to show your quest-giver where a given object might be.   The party management system is not very intuitive, and so I’m never sure if I’ve arranged my party correctly or if they’re as well-equipped as they need to be.  It’s tempting to think that a lot of this stuff would be familiar to people who’ve played the earlier 3 games, but I haven’t, and I don’t plan to, and so I’m stuck with a level of obtuseness that is a little intimidating.  But the actual exploring and fighting is fun enough, and the map-making aspect is certainly novel and engaging, and so I’m probably going to hang on to it for a little while longer.

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I was going to write a thing here about being conflicted about what to do about Bioshock Infinite, but it’s a very silly problem to have and I’m not sure it’s all that interesting, either.  But I’ll write it anyway.

The gist of it is that I was always planning on playing it on my 360, but there’s a few snags in that plan.  Firstly,  the release date (March 25) is right at the edge of the baby arrival window, and so if I were to pre-order a copy and the baby arrived before the 25th, then my game would be stuck at my office for 2 weeks (as I can’t really get packages delivered to my apartment).  Not that I’d be playing a game instead of taking care of my newborn child, but you understand what I mean, right?  The baby’s gotta sleep at some point, and when I’m in that weird exhausted half-sleep daze that will be as close as I can get to experiencing actual drug use, I’m going to want to unwind with some Bioshock.    Secondly, when the baby is sleeping, I’m sure my wife will want to unwind as well, and if I’m playing Bioshock on the big TV in the living room, she’s relegated to the bedroom with the smaller TV, and I always feel bad about that.

The reason why this is stupid is that the logical answer is for me to simply download the game on Steam, which is how I’ve been playing most of my games lately anyway  including Tomb Raider, actually.  I have kick-ass PC headphones which will prevent the baby from hearing all the strange noises, and the PC is in the office, which means my wife can relax in the living room.  My only concern, really, is that while my PC can run Bioshock, it can’t necessarily run it as well as it could, and so it may not look as fantastic as I’d hope.  Still, Tomb Raider looked more than OK on my PC, and so I’m sure Bioshock’s performance will suffice.