Full Review: Bioshock Infinite (~15 hours)

Editor’s Note: Bioshock Infinite has been reviewed previously.  This review is more complete and in-depth.

The original BioShock is a favorite of mine. Inspired by Ayn Rand, it delves into the depths of an underwater, should-be utopia for human beings to walk through corridors and large rooms that hints at what a city could be like at the bottom of the sea. Ken Levine (the game’s creative director) and the rest of the team at 2K Boston don’t take long to find flaw in an Ayn Rand inspired utopia however. Every person puts their ego before their sense of compassion, leading to people physically attacking one another for having different ideologies. Having read at least part of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, this is a valid critique of her fiction.

With 2K Boston (later called Irrational Games) at the helm of the series they created again, the studio could have opted for a number of settings for BioShock Infinite, including staying underwater, but instead decided upon a city in the sky called Columbia. Columbia is inspired by American Exceptionalism and the game takes place in 1912. The entire city is suspended by floats. The buildings look quasi-accurate to perhaps what a Philadelphia-New-York-Boston hybrid might have looked like at the time period. It’s very pleasing to look at with red bricks and yellow cobblestone contrasting nicely against the clear blue sky. Bioshock Infinite is very colorful throughout, but you can tell the Xbox 360 and PS3 were pushed to I=their limits at times. I played on PC, and recommend doing the same if possible.

The story is no longer shackled by one particular book author, allowing the creative minds at Irrational to create fiction of their own. As a city in the sky, there are themes of heaven and hell. Before touring the city, your character named Booker Dewitt enters a church which baptizes you, and corruption soon follows. Large statues of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson appear at the cities entrance, as if they were biblical figures themselves. The most worshipped individual is a man named Father Zachery Hale Comstock, who is still alive, and credited for Columbia’s creation.

You soon find and rescue a woman named Elizabeth from imprisonment, which is the sole reason you go to Columbia at all. Booker Dewitt can payback a debt by bringing Elizabeth to New York. Leaving Columbia does not prove simple, as Elizabeth informs you that there’s an insurgent group known as the Vox Populi fighting to take Father Comstock out of power for radical ideologies. Elizabeth can create “tears” in the world that lead to alternate dimensions and a Columbia that might have been different under other circumstances. There are twins who follow both of you around in the game who can count on a chalkboard the number of time history has repeated itself. There are “voxophones” throughout Columbia which are audio logs which tell the story of a sky city gone wrong all the more clearly.

Gunplay wasn’t my favorite, but I have to admit it’s a big improvement over the first BioShock. The original game’s combat could be reduced to striking your opponent with electricity to stun them and hitting him or her with a wrench after that. In Infinite, there is strategy to each gun, and combat is frequently an arena-like area with a sky-hook for moving around more easily. There is no single way to win every battle – each “arena” is different. Guns in BioShock Infinite are a necessary evil. Another reviewer pointed out this could have been an adventure game if there wasn’t combat, but we can’t deny BioShock Infinite was released at a time when Call of Duty ruled the sales charts.

BioShock Infinite leaves you on a very philosophical note. I can’t spoil the ending, but Infinite feels like a good book, where some of the theme’s of the story are so loosely connected that you have to start guessing how they are connected at all. This was occasionally criticized by press, but overall reception of the game was very positive. I consider Infinite better than the original BioShock, but neither should be missed. Infinite’s unique story take us that much closer to games as art. Most of all, it is a beautiful swan song to the development team at Irrational Games, which disbanded after it’s release.

5/5

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Site Update and Book Ambitions

I realized after posting the Majora’s Mask review that it has been a very long time since I updated the site. Actually, updating of my site has been spotty since it’s inception, but the most recent gap was too much, two months shy of a year.

At the same time, something remarkable has happened… I’ve reviewed 78 games. That’s extremely close to 100 games. Realizing how many games it’s been, I started to wonder, how can I attract an audience to my writing? That’s when I thought a book would be appropriate. I don’t know what to call the book. I’m still thinking of a title. Also, there isn’t a lot of consistency to what I review, other than “It’s games I like.” The good news is, there are basically three platforms I work with: Valve’s Steam, Microsoft Xbox (360 and later), and Nintendo’s Virtual Console. I can do something with this.

Upon closer inspection, there’s a problem with some reviews: they’re too short. Some reviews are as little as one paragraph. Twenty-three of the reviews are full length (at least five paragraphs), the rest are not as long. I am taking steps to resolve this problem by expanding old reviews. I’ve expanded five one paragraph reviews so far.  Adding the five to the twenty three makes 28, about ~36% of existing reviews.  Obviously 28% of the total.

Here is the process for updating an old review:

  1. Compare review on WordPress with my Microsoft Word/Google Drive review. There are discrepancies with my reviews on file and those posted to WordPress. I go into editing mode, no matter the platform.
  2. Look for a longplay of the game online. A longplay is just a video of someone playing a game start to finish. Perhaps this is controversial, but I really did beat the game first. The video is just reminding me of the game’s contents. World of Longplays is the best source around, but there’s more than one.
  3. Work on review after previous two steps. Five paragraphs is the minimum.
  4. After finishing updating the reviews, read at least one competing review to see where my opinions differ.

That’s basically it. Again, I’ve updated five reviews to go into further depth. I am still making new reviews, and plans to review a fighting game are in the works. Book publishing is a hazy and unclear business to me, but I’m still interested in making it happen. A friendly aside is that I keep a list of every game I’ve finished, and it’s up to 150 games even. It’s a friendly reminder that I can still review games that aren’t on the site, and I’ve got… oh, a couple in mind.

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo 64, 60 hours+)

Upon the release of the game The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, my all time favorite video game magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly gave it three perfect tens from three different reviewers. This is the exact same score that EGM gave one of my all time favorite games, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Ocarina is the predecessor in the series to Majora, released roughly two years prior. While not quite as iconic as Ocarina, Majora’s Mask is a fun, albeit difficult adventure from a different part of the Zelda Universe.

The story involves our hero Link wandering through the Lost Woods to find the Skull Kid wearing a strange mask. You soon discover it’s “Majora’s Mask”, and it’s causing the moon to come crashing into the earth. Parting ways with the Skull Kid, who ends up a nemesis, the woods lead you to the entrance of a town, where the so-called Happy Mask Salesman tells Link he must collect a number of missing masks to prevent the moon from causing the apocalypse.

People who played Ocarina of Time beware: there are a lot of reused art and music assets from Ocarina to Majora. In an interview, Shigeru Miyamoto said the game took about a year to make because they borrowed so much from Ocarina of Time. The short production cycle shows, seeing that there are only four dungeons, and one central town. Perhaps to make up for less content, the game is way harder than Ocarina. The game takes place on a 72 hour clock, and dungeons have to be completed on a time limit.

The clock, however, is the game’s hook. One hour of game time is less than an actual hour. Also, you can play games with game time playing songs on your ocarina. In addition to slowing time to half speed (which is of little consequence to the player), you can fast forward time in twelve hour intervals, or simply reset time to the “Dawn of the First Day”, with all 72 hours left to go. The way to play a dungeon is reset time and then slow it to half speed, giving you maximum time to complete the dungeon in one sitting, as intended.

It’s strange that I can’t think of other games that have tried something like this. I’d be all in favor of Majora’s Mask-clones, but most games that allow time manipulation don’t work on a three day schedule. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (released three years later) plays with time manipulation in the short term, as does Braid (released eight years later). There’s one fatal-flaw with time in Majora: occasionally you’re running in circles waiting for 6am to turn into 10am, so a scripted sequence will start. A similar game could easily remedy this, however.

There’s actually a lot of side content in Majora’s Mask, and Clock Town (the only town) has a lot of it. Meeting new people occasionally adds them to a notebook, and from there, you can follow a character’s story. Aside from the moon crashing into the earth, each non-playable character is walking around with problems of their own. Solving these problems results in a reward of some sort. My biggest regret is not doing more side content, although it’s reason to play the game a second time.

On that note, I mostly just B-lined the four dungeons and non-dungeon required quests to see the game to the end. I also kept procrastinating finishing Majora’s Mask. In addition to being older and having more adult responsibilities, the game really is hard. Even so, it’s still Zelda, my favorite game series. The fourth dungeon in particular is a real joy, the game’s ending is creative, and I applaud Nintendo for it’s fresh take on time manipulation. Not the first Zelda I would recommend, though I still recommend it.

4/5

 Review: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (~25 hours)

We live in a changing world.  Games of today are played more on tablets than home consoles, and Facebook more than Game Boy.  So it feels fitting that this game is called “A Link to the Past”.  There are numerous efforts to catalog and preserve retro games, including the Video Game History Foundation’s attempt to get classic games stored digitally at the Library of Congress, but only time will tell if future generations will actually play the classics.

Just like the joystick was replaced by the D-Pad, the D-Pad has been replaced by the touchscreen.  A Link to the Past was designed for the D-Pad, and boy is it hard to go back to joystick games.  Touchscreen games support virtual D-Pads, but the most popular form of input for touchscreen games is the direct kind.  Touching a button, an icon, a plot of land, or a destination for a character using your pointer finger instead of your thumb, a screen instead of a plastic cross.

Perhaps A Link to the Past will be the last classic D-Pad style game I play this year.  But it IS a classic, at least, in the “games as art” sense.  The graphics push Super Nintendo to it’s limit.  There is rain, fog, darkness, and fire.  The color palette is rich, but not over-the-top.  Link’s sword swing and run animation are very smooth. The music includes classics such as the theme to Kakariko Village and the Hyrule Field Main Theme.  And the controls, especially after receiving the Pegasus Boots, feel light and breezy for a 2D game.

The worst I can say is that A Link to the Past is occasionally an intricate slog.  There are fourteen dungeons total, and that seems like too many.  The dungeons can be confusing to navigate, and the reward — a new item — overcomplicates gameplay outside of dungeons, requiring certain items in certain parts of the overworld.  There is a light and dark world, doubling the initial size of the map.  Compare this to a more simple game, like Mario Kart in which sixteen races completes the game.  Or Walden, a game in which the only real mechanic is walking.  My least favorite thing, however, is that the story is… brief.  Though the first Zelda had hardly any text, more recent ones are brimming with dialog.  I like that.

Perhaps we will get a Zelda for tablets or Facebook.  But this is Zelda from 1991.  It’s long.  It doesn’t provide instant gratification like other games of the era, such as Mortal Kombat or DOOM.  But it did provide a formula for future Zelda games, like Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess.  And the series as a whole is considered among the best for consoles.  Time will tell if future generations will play the Zelda series, or where games are headed after mobile devices.  But it feels like a game made with heart.  I hope it isn’t lost to time.

4/5

Review: Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut

People on NeoGAF said that Shadowrun Returns was more of a prototype for the supposedly better games that followed: Shadowrun: Dragonfall, and Shadowrun: Hong Kong.  Well, I can’t speak about Shadowrun: Hong Kong (though hopefully I will soon), but Dragonfall I actually found to be at times less enjoyable than Shadowrun Returns.  What I like so much about Returns is it’s Philip K. Dick-esque story.  In Dragonfall, the story takes a backseat for more of an action focus.  The action is great, and it’s a solid package for it’s $15 asking price on Steam, but the game could have been perfect if the story was as good as the rest of the game.

To sum up Dragonfall’s story, you are basically a team of Shadowrunners collecting bounties on anything that will net them money.  You’re accumulating money to gain information from a supercomputer to help you avenge your friend’s death.  That’s about it for three quarters of the game.  Your team needs a lot of money, and you’re taking on any mission that will help you earn it.  Though the story gets more focused later,  It pales in comparison to Returns’ story.

To make matters worse, the writing is often lazy, resorting to using the F-word on multiple occasions.  I know I’m being very hard on this part of the game, but I want to be clear: the story and occasionally the writing are the only bad parts of the game.  It’s disappointing, but I guess the previous game’s writing and story are difficult to top.

The combat once again is a high point in this Shadowrun.  You develop strategies as you go.  Having a decker on the team is always good for hacking computer terminals or entering “the matrix”.  Having your team dispersed across a room makes it less likely for a grenade to damage multiple allies.  Winning battles results in karma points, which can improve your skill with a weapon, in ranged combat, or boost your intelligence, to name a few examples.  Even battles you lose a couple times are still fun, because you develop new strategies for when you restart the match.

Something nice is that your teammates never actually die.  They go back to headquarters and get treated for their wounds.  This is in contrast to Returns, where once someone dies, they’re gone for good.  There are also a lot of opportunities to pick up items, keeping a full stash of useful goods for battles.

The most disappointing thing about Shadowrun Returns was a lack of side missions.  Well, they corrected this mistake in Dragonfall.  There are quite a few side missions, earning you currency and easing the difficulty level by granting you more karma points.  It also adds an extra ten or so hours to the game which certainly adds to the value.  I didn’t do all the side missions, but I really liked the game, so I might do them on a second playthrough.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall is the most fun when you’re in combat.  Sadly, the story is highly uninteresting, but that’s my only real complaint about it.  Harebrained Schemes created a fantastic RPG again that’s worthy of mention when talking about the CRPG revival that’s currently ongoing.  I really hope HBS keeps making Shadowrun games, but it seems they’re moving away from it with their newer titles.  Regardless, they created two great games in the series, and more than likely it’s three great games.  I just haven’t started Shadowrun: Hong Kong yet.

4/5

Brief Game Reviews: Sonic & Knuckles

This is a good Sonic, but not as good as Sonic 3.  If I had to order the Genesis era games (now that I’ve played them all), it would go Sonic CD, Sonic 3, Sonic 2, Sonic & Knuckles, and last, Sonic 1.  I’m going to keep the review short because again, if you’ve played Sonic, you know what to expect.  Something neat about this one is there’s a boss at the end of each act.  Playing through Lava Reef Zone is fun if you have the fire power-up, cause the lava can’t hurt you.  Also, Sky Sanctuary Zone brings back some classic Sonic boss fights.  The Knuckles adventure is very similar to the Sonic one, so don’t feel obligated to play it.

4/5

Brief Game Reviews: Sonic the Hedgehog 3

This is probably the best Sonic the Hedgehog game from the Genesis era that isn’t Sonic CD (apologies to Sonic 2 fans).  This will be a short review, as if you’ve played Sonic before, you know what to expect.  Graphically, the game looks great with really bright colors.  Music is top notch too.  Now Sonic can pick up items that put a circular barrier around him, and have the power of water, fire, or electricity.  Water lets you breathe underwater, fire gives you a homing attack, and electricity attracts rings to you.  Get hit, and you lose the barrier, instead of all of your rings.  The second to last level is great and the final boss isn’t too hard.  Again, as good as you’re going to get on Genesis outside of Sonic CD.

5/5

Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back from the Sewers (Game Boy)

I’m on a role beating games from my childhood, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back from the Sewers included.  Though truth be told, there needs to be an asterisk next to the previous sentence.  I used a Game Genie code for Infinite Health to get to the end of the game.  Back from the Sewers is a thoroughly challenging game that I’m not sure it’s possible to beat without cheating.  It’s fun until the end of the second level, after which, it becomes too difficult to even fathom.

The first level is great.  You’re being attacked by foot soldiers in the sewers from the front and the back, and the level has sort of a rhythm game quality to it.  The level takes place on a strictly 2D plane, and you need to hit the enemies with split second timing or else you take damage.  Making it to the end without taking any damage is rewarding.  The second level follows suit above ground, with a second platform you can jump on and manhole covers you can fall in.  It ceases to be fun by the second level’s boss, who’s supremely unfair, shooting bullets and jumping at you, while a foot soldier in the window above drops pots on your head.  The game falls apart from here on.

There are any number of things that can damage you from this point on, including robots, robot dogs, rolling barrels, rolling boulders, and fire rising from the ground.  To get it exactly right where you hit / avoid all of these things and more through the remaining four levels is nearly impossible, not to mention the bosses remain unfair.  To the game’s credit, if you die as one turtle — or get captured, as the game says — you can start back as another turtle who hasn’t been captured, but it’s still not enough.  The game is still too hard.

The game actually has really great music though, of all things.  It’s sticks with you after you’re done playing.  On top of that, there are voice samples, which must have been quite a feat to get out of the Game Boy’s limited hardware.  You might want to check out a GBS file of the game’s soundtrack.  It’s quality chiptune.

Back from the Sewers can probably only be completed with Game Genie / Game Shark, but I’m glad I saw the ending, and can consider another game from my youth beaten.  It’s not very long, and the soundtrack keeps you going more than anything else, but don’t expect much from this title.  Surprisingly enough, it came out the same year as Turtles in Time, and was also released by Konami.  Try that instead.

2/5

Joint Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (Arcade), and The Simpsons (Arcade)

I can say with 60% certainty that my local roller skating rink (now demolished) had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time arcade cabinet.  I can say with 100% certainty that my local bowling alley (still open) had a Simpsons arcade cabinet (and possibly still does).  And I can say with 100% certainty that my friend had TMNT: Turtles in Time for Super Nintendo.  Either way, these are two classic arcade brawlers that are sort of boring to play without quarters.

These games deserve to be reviewed together, as they are both arcade games released in 1991 from Konami.  While they have their differences, namely that The Simpsons is four player and TMNT is two player, they both are two button brawlers (jump and attack) where you’re generally fighting the same enemy type over and over.  The real fun of both games is looking at the graphics (in which TMNT has a bit of an edge), and listening to the music and sound, both of which have voice samples, and both of which use the same sound chip.  Both games are designed to eat quarters, although neither is nearly as unforgiving as, say, Metal Slug.

Onto some differences.  TMNT’s story revolves around Krang stealing the Statue of Liberty, and Shredder opening a portal in time to keep you from getting it back.  You travel through some American history like Wounded Knee, and move on to the (distant) future of 2020 A.D., where there’s a neo-metropolis, and also the year 2100 A.D. fought on a space base.  You finally make it back to New York to fight Shredder, who’s pretty darn tough.  Once the battle ends, the turtles return Lady Liberty to Liberty Island.  Roll credits.

Meanwhile, in the Simpsons, Smithers and Mr. Burns steal Maggie after she replaces her pacifier with a diamond jewel.  You travel to Springfield locations such as Moe’s Tavern, Channel 6, “Dreamland”, and last, the nuclear power plant, chasing Smithers carrying Maggie.  In the end you fight Smithers, and then Mr. Burns in a robot suit.  Once both are defeated, Maggie is released, and the Simpsons have a happy family moment.  Roll credits.

Again, you’re generally fighting the same enemies throughout both games.  In TMNT, it’s Foot Soldiers, in the Simpsons, it’s business people in suits (likely henchmen of Mr. Burns).  The Simpsons has two button-mashing mini games, but is shorter by about ten minutes.  Both games have health items.  In TMNT, it’s always pizza, where in the Simpsons, it could be any number of things, from apples to hoagies (grinders, subs, whatever you call them).  TMNT has a pizza box with a bomb on in, that, when consumed, has you spinning around destroying every enemy in sight.  In the Simpsons, there are multi-use weapons like a slingshot, and single use weapons like a bowling ball.

It’s hard to believe arcade brawlers were so popular that the same company would make two in the same year, especially considering how expensive arcade hardware was to produce.  The games aren’t as fun with unlimited continues.  Instead, it’s better to play where every hit you take gets you closer to losing another quarter.  But alas, these are two very similar games that were fun at the bowling alley but haven’t aged especially well.

Score for both games: 3/5

Review: Skies of Arcadia: Legends

Skies of Arcadia: Legends is, for the most part, a delight. Although my favorite Dreamcast RPG is Grandia II, this is a very close second. Skies is a classic turn-based JRPG about exploring the skies on an airship and the locations and people you meet along the way. The game does drag a bit at the end, but if you’re into really great early 3D role-playing games like those on Playstation, here’s one for Dreamcast and GameCube.

The story mostly revolves around Vyse, Aika, and Fina, who are air pirates fighting against the evil Valuan Empire.  Vyse and his crew are after the six Moon Crystals to restore peace to the world, while the Valuans wish to obtain them to rule over the world with an iron fist.  You meet a lot of interesting characters on your journey, including a old man looking to kill a giant whale (Moby Dick?), a womanizer, and a Valuan Prince who wishes to fight against the empire that raised him.  The story doesn’t really have a lot of plot twists, but I enjoyed following along.

A lot of the fun of the game is exploring the world.  The game takes place entirely in the air, and you fly an airship to various flying islands.  You start out being restricted to a small part of the map, but as you progress, your ship gets enhancements that lets it explore more of the world, until eventually the entire map is open to you.  Without spoiling later game locations, much of the world is inspired by locations from planet Earth.  An example is Nasrad, which could easily be compared to a Middle Eastern city, existing in the desert and home to a giant palace.

Being a traditional role-playing game, cities have weapon and item shops where you can stock up on gear, but you can also upgrade weapons and buy items for your airship, as the game features airship battles in addition to regular battles.  Most interesting, is that almost every town has a Sailor’s Guild, where you can buy discoveries to look for, or sell discoveries you’ve found.  Discoveries are rumored locations on the map that you have to find with your airship.  There’s a reward for each discovery.  Also, every Sailor’s Guild has a Wanted List of pirates that have a bounty to their name.  These pirates scale to your level, so fighting them is always a challenge.  The Sailor’s Guild was a fun hook, and good way to stock up on gold.

As mentioned, you can get in airship battles, though these are sort of low points in the game.  You and your opponent need to spend a lot of time “focusing” to prepare for attacks, which, along with the slow pace of the battles, makes it feel like a Dragonball Z episode, where more time is spent watching two parties (or people, in DBZ) charge than watching much attacking.  Airship battles are more strategic however, where you often get an option midway through like deciding to move in closer or hold your distance.  One of these options is the *right* option, giving you more chances to attack or allowing you to use your ship’s most powerful cannon, so use your best judgement for every battle.

Normal battling is really fun.  It’s very much a traditional RPG: You’re in a party of one to four people, and can attack, defend, use magic, or an item.  Unique to Skies, are “Spirit Points”, which are shared by the entire party.  Every magic attack costs one magic point, but any number of SP.  There are also “S-Moves”, which cost only SP, and are unique to each character.  If you want to use an S-Move that costs four SP, and magic that costs six SP, but only have nine SP for that round, you’re out of luck.  You can have your characters “focus”, which raises SP for the next round (on top of the SP you automatically get for a round) although focusing costs that character’s turn.  Balancing your parties SP meter is a big part of the challenge in battles, as well as the fun.  Otherwise, turn-based RPG fans will feel right at home as it’s pretty standard combat.

Something to the game’s credit, is there is very little grinding.  So little, in fact, that I only recall doing it one time.  Maybe the game is just too easy, but the character leveling is right in line with where you’re supposed to be fighting, and not a lot of great RPGs are great at that (Earthbound, e.g., or even Final Fantasy).  The game is around forty hours long because it’s a seriously long game, not because you’re running around the world grinding all the time.  Pretty amazing.

I have to give Skies of Arcadia: Legends five stars.  For one thing, it makes me nostalgic for the Dreamcast.  But for another, it’s a seriously great early-3D RPG from an era when a lot of 3D RPG makers were still finding their footing.  Sega and Overworks really nailed it.  I shudder to think what this game would have been were it released today, with streamlined combat and uncanny valley graphics.  Skies has excellent writing, a long fun adventure, and charm.  What more does a JRPG need?

5/5