Review: Fable Anniversary

As I understand it, Peter Molyneux, the creative lead behind the Fable series, is a man who tends to over promise and under deliver.  Well, I know almost nothing about that, so I’m taking Fable: Anniversary for just what it is: a solid action RPG that has enough unique hooks to keep you playing hours at a time.

The story is not unlike that of a lot of role playing games.  As a kid, on the day of your sister’s birthday, your hometown is ransacked by bandits, and few people make it out of the burning village alive.  Your character, who is just referred to as “Hero”, does make it out alive, and is taken to another town where he undergoes rigorous combat training through to adulthood to get revenge on those that destroyed his town and killed his family.  Ah, the all too common revenge story.  It gets the job done in giving you a reason to attack the game’s bad guys.  To Fable’s credit, once the game really starts, you don’t have to get revenge at all.  You can side with the bandits that destroyed your village and disown those that trained you to fight bandits if you so choose.  I didn’t play that way, but it’s refreshing that that’s an option.

Actually, that’s a big part of what Fable is all about: player choice.  Everything you do has moral weight to it.  Depending on who you attack among the game’s cast of character types, an icon with a halo or devil horns will appear with a number next to it. These points count toward a good or evil alignment, and depending on how you’re aligned, characters will applaud your arrival or stay far away from you.  This sort of system might seem cliche in a post-Mass Effect world, but Fable predates Mass Effect by three years.  There are times where having a moral choice to make at all will surprise you, right up to the end of the game.  Even outside of the morality system, there’s a lot you can do.  You can own land, get married, become mayor of a town, and more.

Fable is an action RPG, and the action is pretty enjoyable.  Your main weapon is the sword, which you can block with until the enemy is vulnerable to an attack.  That said, you’re usually better off just swinging the sword freely.  This is especially true because you’re often faced with multiple enemies, and blocking one enemy’s attack doesn’t block another’s, causing you to still take damage.  Another benefit is that swinging your sword can hit multiple enemies at once.  

You also have a bow, which works great for ranged shots.  Depending on how many enemies you’re up against, you can take out a group of attackers by drawing your bow and running backwards.  There’s a timing aspect to the bow, where the longer you pull it back the more damage you do.  This adds a nice strategy element to bow and arrow use.  Finally, there’s magic.  Perhaps embarrassingly, I didn’t know how to level up my magic until I was about halfway through the game.  Once you do though, it becomes a vital part of your combat strategy.  There’s a certain satisfaction to using lightning to stun four guys, and then using your sword to polish them all off.  The number of magic options available is impressive, and mastering each one will guarantee an easy finish to the game.

Another fun part of the game (really, any RPG) is upgrading your weapons or armor and then trying them out.  Sometimes you find a piece of gear in the field that’s way better than what you currently have and you can equip it on the spot.  That said, most of the time you’ll be purchasing items in the shop.  Something nice about Fable is you actually see the weapons and armor you equip on your character.  At one point, my guy looked like a medieval knight with a sword that emitted flames on occasion, which was pretty badass. If you really want the best gear, you’re going to have to grind for it, so consider yourself warned.

Considering that Fable originated on the original Xbox, the graphics have held up remarkably well.  A criticism is that the color palette can be a bit samey in places, but the polygons have held up nicely.  Playing on PC, the framerate was silky smooth at 1080p resolution, even in intense battles.  I played with the Steam Controller, which is something I’m trying to do with as many PC games as I can.  The developers at Lionhead took the time to support the Steam Controller, and playing with it felt perfectly natural.  That said, it would have been nice to invert the X axis of the camera controls.

At the end of Fable: Anniversary (after a long credit roll), I immediately wanted to learn more about Fable 2 and 3.  For an action RPG, the combat is stellar.  The story is good, and the writing keeps the tone of the game light and cheery.  And most of all, it’s just fun, from start to finish.  It’s an essential RPG for any PC, Xbox 360, or Xbox owner.



Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a cyberpunk game about the ethics of augmenting humans with machine upgrades.  As far as AAA games go, it’s definitely a gamble plotwise.  But where the game really shines is it’s play-how-you-want gameplay.

The game takes place in the not too distant future, and people can be augmented, becoming part human part machine.  There’s a massive divide in society between those who have been augmented and those who haven’t.  Those who have been augmented are upper class citizens.  The augmentation is done by private corporations.  You are Adam Jensen, an ex-SWAT police officer working for one of these corporations, Serif Industries, in security.  Your girlfriend, Megan, discovers a breakthrough in human augmentation and gets kidnapped by a competing organization that wants the research for their own.  

It’s not that the plot is bad, it’s the delivery of the lines, and the lines themselves.  The writing is just so poor.  This really stands out, as it’s in contrast to the last game I played, Shadowrun Returns, which has some of the best writing I’ve ever read in a game.  In Human Revolution, every line is delivered with the utmost seriousness.  I don’t remember a single joke.  Also, the characters are generally unlikeable.  The writing often resorts to swearing to increase the impact of the lines, which strikes me as lazy.  If I hadn’t just played such a well-written game, maybe I wouldn’t feel so strongly, but I was often eager for the characters to stop talking so I could get to the good parts of the game — the gameplay.

The gameplay is not nearly as bad as the ham-handed story.  You can play the game like a cover based shooter or you can play it like a stealth game.  There are times when an area is flooded with enemies, and your best bet is to take them out one by one, using your hands, and hiding the bodies.  Other times it’s better to just shoot at everyone until the floor is clear.  Ammo is pretty scarce, so that influences how you decide to play.  Choosing how to go about getting through an enemy infested room is one of the most fun things about Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  Enemy AI isn’t that smart, and generally gets into a routine of getting closer to you and farther away when they know you’re in the room.  Because of this, you can sort of line them up like ducks and take them out one at a time.  There is some complexity though.  There are robots, that take a lot of ammo to take down (and as such, are best avoided) and patrol the floors.  There are also heavy guards that don’t go down easy.  You may get the Game Over screen a lot, but you can make it through each level once you get the pattern down.  Later in the game, you can do cool things depending on how you upgrade your character, like knock down walls or walk on an electrified floor.

So… there’s an upgrade system in the game.  Basically, you can enhance your augmentations, so you can, for example, lift heavier objects or carry more items.  These are the (here it is) RPG-elements of the game.  If you do all the side quests, you should be able to upgrade quite a bit, as that gives you the experience points needed to do so.  Sadly, toward the end of the game, I was required to have at least one upgrade I didn’t have to make progress, and had to reload an earlier save to get the XP needed to go down that upgrade path in order to finish the game.  It could have been a lot worse, but that certainly isn’t great game design.  Also, the game heavily favors those who upgrade their hacking ability, as hacking things is a major part of the last third of the game.  Again, I would have liked if this were handled better, like rewarding all upgrade paths more evenly.

Boss fights are generally pretty challenging.  I found it helped to save early and often after making a bit of progress during a battle.  Most of the fights involve hitting the enemy with as much ammo as possible until they fall over.  If nothing else, boss fights break up the monotony of taking out guards.  That said, the boss fights are really nothing special.  I understand the fights were outsourced to another studio, which may explain why they don’t live up to the rest of the gameplay.

I played with a Steam Controller (a trend in my recent gaming history) and it worked out great.  The developers of the game included support for the Steam Controller, and this is the first game I played where that was the case.  Controls feel natural, as a result.  Also, despite the game crashing on me a couple times, this is a most excellent PC port.  My machine is sort of like a high end version of a previous gen console, and I experienced no slowdown or major buggy-ness.

Despite poorly delivered dialog, and also my general distaste for shooters (all those slain bodies!), Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a good game.  It can’t possibly live up to the legacy of the original game (which is still on my backlog, despite hearing wonderful things), but for those itching for an action game with RPG elements and a cool aesthetic, I can recommend Deus Ex: Human Revolution with a thumbs up.


Review: Shadowrun Returns

And now for something completely different.

Shadowrun Returns is a PC RPG in the traditional sense.  The view is isometric and the game is very reliant on text instead of action.  There is action of course.  The action is in the vein of a turn based strategy game not unlike that found in XCOM or a Final Fantasy Tactics.

The text, however, is quite good.  It’s among the best writing I’ve ever come across in a video game and I mean that with all sincerity.  It’s not unlike writing which you might find in a well written cyberpunk novel.  I understand there actually are Shadowrun novels out there so maybe some of the staff is the same.  Regardless of who wrote it, I’m grateful the writing is just plain excellent.

The story goes like this: A friend of your’s has been murdered and there’s a bounty on the head of the killer.  Your friend actually calls you from the grave (I think from a chip in his head) and asks you to avenge his death.  You set out to collect that bounty.  You spend a lot of time visiting relevant locations, asking people questions, trying to find out anything that you can about the killer.  Story progression is handled very well, with each crime scene getting you a little bit more information without straight up revealing who did it.

The game is a joy to look at.  While the console gamer in me at least partially wishes the graphics were fully 3D, I can totally get into the 2D isometric graphics style.  Enjoyably, there is a lot of hand drawn art, which is obviously something that gets lost the more polygons you throw at a video game.  The Shadowrun aesthetic is cyberpunk, meaning there’s a lot of neon and futuristic computer terminals.  This is one of the most consistent looking games I’ve played.  You don’t enter into a gorgeously drawn room only to enter one that looks terrible.  It’s all quite nice to look at.

The combat is something that grew on me.  Part of the problem is that I didn’t fully understand how the combat worked until later in the game.  I chose a street samurai for the character I rolled, which is the type that enters a fight guns blazing.  What I came to appreciate later in the game are the support characters, who can do things like control robots or give you an extra Action Point (a turn, basically) for a number of rounds.  Balance is the key to a good crew in Shadowrun Returns.

The game doesn’t overstay it’s welcome (I played for 16 hours), but I found myself constantly wanting to play more.  As someone who never played a PC RPG before (except Torchlight, which is really it’s own thing), this makes me want to see more from the genre.  I’m glad we’re in the midst of a revival, and am curious to check Pillars of Eternity.  Harebrained Schemes gets an A+ in my book for Shadowrun Returns though.  Between the writing, the visuals, and the gameplay, this is a game for PC RPG fans and newcomers alike.


Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns

When I played the original Donkey Kong Country, I made it a habit to roll into my enemies.  I’d press the roll button, and defeat them that way.  In this game, in order to roll, you need to shake the Wiimote up and down.  It’s cumbersome and unresponsive.  And it completely changes how I play Donkey Kong Country.

What’s funny is that this is otherwise a spot on Donkey Kong Country game.  It looks like Donkey Kong Country.  Rolling aside, it controls like Donkey Kong Country.  It sounds like Donkey Kong Country, and it plays like Donkey Kong Country.  It just doesn’t have that same roll.

Level design toward the beginning of the game is very good.  Unlike the last 2D platformer I played (Klonoa), levels are less about puzzle solving and more about making it to the next platform safely.  Unfortunately however, later levels are extremely difficult.  Don’t be deceived by the fact that the game can be seen as a kids game… Donkey Kong Country Returns gets hard.

There’s a feature called Super Guide which basically has the game play itself if you’re struggling in a level or boss fight.  I’m embarrassed about the extent to which I needed to use this feature.  I think having the feature in the game gave the developers an excuse to make the game as difficult as they wanted it to be, but relying on it makes you feel like you suck at video games in the end.

There’s a lot of content here.  I kept thinking I was going to come to the last area of the game only to have another area appear.  They manage to get a lot of ideas in.  Each level has a theme, as does each area of the game.  The area dictates the entire theme (e.g. Jurassic world) whereas the level has a twist on the area’s theme.  All in all, there’s a lot of variety level to level (if only they weren’t so difficult).

Aesthetically, they nailed it.  Thematically as well.  Even the music is great.  There are just two major flaws in Donkey Kong Country Returns: it doesn’t have the same roll as Donkey Kong Country, and the game gets crazy hard in the second half.  Even 2D platformer fans beware, this is a tough game to endorse.


Review: Klonoa (Wii)

I’m a sucker for character-action platformers. When I was growing up, they were all that was popular in gaming. Crash Bandicoot, Super Mario 64, Spyro the Dragon… on and on. Klonoa I suppose is originally from that same era, but never gained the popularity of the aforementioned titles. I played the Wii remake.

The action is pretty simple. You can jump, as well as hover jump like in Yoshi’s Island. You can also pick up enemies, hurl them at other enemies, hurl them at things in the environment, or use them to get a higher jump. That pretty much sums up the gameplay. The game takes place on a 2D plane, but at times, you switch directions and enter into the third dimension. The game never becomes truly 3D, but it’s a nice change of pace to sometimes go on a branching path. Occasionally you’re given two paths, and forced to ask yourself “Will I miss something important if I choose path A over path B?”

Visually, the game is very colorful, but it’s missing something. A lack of it’s own personality, perhaps. Of course, this is a Wii game, so we should expect graphics to be somewhat dated, but just look at the mileage they got out of Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2! I understand the original game has been praised for it’s aesthetics, so it’s a little disappointing that this version on more powerful hardware looks a bit bland.

The game has gizmos to collect if you’re the type who likes to 100% games. The latter half of the game features more elaborate puzzle solving than the beginning. In fact, the first half of the game is a cakewalk in comparison. Boss fights get progressively more challenging but aren’t overly difficult. Finally, the end of the game gets a little deep, story-wise. For what was probably marketed as a kids game, I wasn’t expecting it to go in that direction.

Klonoa is a solid platformer that really gets it’s wings in the latter half of the game. Unfortunately, the game is a somewhat short. It’s a cult classic on PS1, but it probably doesn’t bear the same status on the Wii. If you’re die-hard about the PlayStation original, give this a look. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be missing much if you skipped Klonoa.

Review: Lost Planet: Extreme Condition

Lost Planet isn’t going to win any awards for storytelling or character development.  It was released early in the 360/PS3 lifecycle and as such, the graphics are somewhat poor.  But what it does offer is a fairly competent third person shooter, with some degree of charm.

Lost Planet takes place on a very cold, wintery planet.  You have a limited amount of thermal energy that will keep you warm throughout the missions.  Run out of thermal energy, and your life meter will drain, and if your life meter hits zero, you need to restart at the last checkpoint.  I found that I seldom ever ran out of thermal energy, but this is how the game was designed.  Even when you take hits from enemies, you don’t lose health so much as you lose thermal energy.

The main enemies are called Akrid, which are giant insect like creatures.  They often emerge from a hole in the ground, and if you shoot the hole enough, you can stop the Akrid from respawning.  There are also snow pirates, who shoot at you and are humans trying to colonize the planet.  Boss fights are typically a giant Akrid, or a person in a mech suit.

Yeah, there are mech suits.  They’re kind of cool, but generally pretty cumbersome to handle.  They offer a lot more firepower, but taking a hit in a mech lowers your life energy, not your thermal energy.  Because of this, you’ll only be using a mech for a limited time until you’re near death, at which point you need to eject.  As cool at the mechs are, I’d like to see them able to be used for more time in the game.

I played the game using the Steam Controller, and found that the aiming was very precise, and there were no major issues with using a non-standard controller.  In fact, I’d go as far as to recommend playing the game with the Steam controller, because the shooting is so much more precise.  At the time I write this, the second community made config is the only one that allows you to change weapons and reload, so I recommend that one.

The game is anywhere from 10 to 15 hours depending on how you play.  Like I said at the beginning, the game has it’s charm, but it’s not going to win a lot of awards.  If you’re looking to bolster your third-person shooter collection, check it out.  It’s fairly affordable on Steam.


Review: New Super Mario Bros. Wii

If you’re a console gamer, it wouldn’t be uncommon for you to say that one or more of the following games is among the greatest games of all time: Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario World. New Super Mario Bros. Wii takes elements from all three of these games and combines them into one new(er) Mario game, with some unique elements of it’s own (namely power-ups).

This game will be a nostalgic throwback to your youth. Running and jumping through the game feels like Mario, and clearing levels is as fun as it’s always been. It’s not without it’s flaws though. I thought the level design was somewhat uninspired. It kind of felt like “Let’s just throw some blocks here and enemies there and call it a level”.  Poor level design actually leads to a number of cheap deaths.  Having played the original New Super Mario Bros. for DS, this is not nearly so easy.

Boss fights were often very fun. They’re extremely similar to the one’s found in Super Mario World.  There are two boss fights per world, and the second one adds a twist to the first one making it more challenging.  Getting a key at the end of the second boss fight is a great feeling.

Graphically, it looks great, and is very colorful. Personally, I would have preferred if the graphics were truly 2D, as opposed to 2.5D.  But we live in the 21st century, and it’s well known it’s cheaper to make 3D games than pixel art.  The levels were graphically consistent on the plus side.

If you want a great 2D platformer and have never played one of the first three games I mentioned, go play one of them now. But if it’s more Mario you want, it’s more Mario New Super Mario Bros. Wii provides.  Just don’t expect it to rank as one of the greatest games ever.  It’s iterating on an established formula, not reinventing the series.

Review: Super Mario Galaxy 2

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a delight. Having played the first game, I must say the first game is probably better. However, this sequel is extremely good as well. It seems as though all the good ideas that got cut from the original made it into the sequel.  Actually, there are so many good ideas in Galaxy 2 that you might think there are still good ideas that could go into a third game.

Jumping is a little floaty (not as precise as 64), but level design is top notch. Secret stars are rewarding to find, though really, each star is it’s own reward.  Compared to the first Super Mario Galaxy, it’s a bit harder to try to collect all 120 stars in the game.  I ended up with about 71.

In the complaint department, the levels are short lived.  Some levels (or “Galaxies”, as they’re called) only have one or two stars before it’s on to the next level.  It would have been nice to see each galaxy have a bigger collection of stars, similar to Super Mario 64.  Another complaint is that there are some segments that you’re going to be playing over and over, likely getting a Game Over screen.  But those segments are fairly infrequent.

Despite these minor quibbles, it’s one of those games that you can’t put down until it’s over. Five stars, easily.


Brief Game Reviews: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

This game has great graphics. It’s been a long time since I’ve played an Assassin’s Creed game (maybe AC2 was the last one). The game is a good mix of stealth, parkour, and open world adventuring. The stealth isn’t half as good as Metal Gear Solid, but that’s a high bar to compare against. The parkour is what makes Assassin’s Creed unique. You can scale walls and ledges just by running up to them. The open worldiness is a little overwhelming. There is a lot of optional content that you can easily skip.

The missions are pretty cut and dry. Go to a point on the map, assassinate person, stalk people, etc. Some are really fun… one in which you use sleep darts on guards and free prisoners comes to mind. Unfortunately, you have to replay missions a lot to get it right, and you can’t adjust the difficulty level. That’s actually my biggest gripe… how frequently you have to replay missions. Again, the game looks great visually, but easier missions would have made for a better experience.

Brief Game Reviews: The Walking Dead

This is a cool game. It’s hard to really talk about without going into spoiler territory. I’ll just describe what the game is like to play. I played it on Xbox 360 and it’s an adventure game, but not in the traditional sense. You often look around the world with the right analog stick, and you can select things with the face buttons. During dialog, you can choose what to say with all four face buttons. On occasion, you can walk around with the left analog stick. But generally speaking, this is a story (dialog) driven game with some action sequences. The game forces you to make tough decisions that affect how the rest of the game plays out. The action sequences weren’t all that fun. The graphics aren’t the best cel-shaded graphics for it’s generation of consoles, but the art style does make The Walking Dead nice to look at. Music I thought was especially bad. You keep hearing the same audio clips being looped throughout the section you’re in. Not fun. Also, there’s a fair amount of “stuttering” going on on the Xbox 360 360 where a scene keeps pausing as it loads. All in all the game is flawed, but characters and dialog keep it going, and both are well done.