Overclocked On Caffeine v.1.1 2009-11-20 06:38:00

The Suffering: The Ties That Bind

PS2

I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on…

When the first game in the Suffering series was released, it was to critical indifference. It was seen as trying too hard to be dark and edgy, throwing in lots of blood, gore and random swearing simply because it could. This was a Mature game for Mature gamers – read: impressionable teenagers who still think saying ‘fuck’ is the epitome of cool. First impressions, however, are never anything short of deceptive. Actually play it, and you’ll discover that, behind the swearing and the violence and the unrelenting darkness of it all, there’s actually a good game behind it. Surprising considering the lengths it goes to to prove it’s got a pair, but The Suffering actually had something to back up its posturing. The plot concerned Torque, prison for the murder of his wife and kids. He was being transferred to the brutal Abbot State Prison on Carnate Island, before an earthquake released all manner of evil monsters and freaks. Barely escaping, Torque made it to Baltimore, and is now hunting his old stomping grounds for a man known only as Blackmore.

One of the interesting things about plot of the original game was there were three different endings depending on how you played it. Along the way, there were people you could save or outright kill depending on your actions. Save people, and the story would reveal that you’d been framed for the murder of your family. Kill anyone and everyone and you’d be shown as an irredeemable monster. In the first game, all this would do is affect your ending. Here, it also acts as a sort of experience meter for your Insanity Mode, a sort of berserker mode in which you turn into a giant rampaging demon and rip everything around you a thousand new ones. It was somewhat gimped in the last game, since if you over-relied on it, you’d eventually trigger the third ending of the game, the Beast ending, which pretty much sucked if you were aiming for one of the other two. Here, it’s been fleshed out properly. Depending on your alignment, you’ll not only get a different form, but different attacks as well. And considering a whole class of enemies requires you to use it, it’s probably a good thing.

Outside of that, the game does a lot of other things right. The voice acting is a cut above, with Michael Clarke Duncan doing his best Scary Black Man voice as Blackwood, the main antagonist, and Rachel Griffiths (Brenda from Six Feet Under) as Jordan. There’s one or two bad spots, but by and large, the talent on show here is great. Unrelated, but also worthy of note, is the fact that you can switch out of first-person mode and into third person, something a lot more FPSes could stand to do. Considering the speed some enemies attack with, being able to see more around you will save your rear more than once.

Aside from that, the story is, once again, all over the place. You start off arriving in Baltimore, trying to find Blackmore. Then you’re attacked by a group trying to capture you to work out how you do that transformation thing of yours (despite it being hinted at in the last game as a mental, rather than physical thing). Then you escape only to find that the entire city has been taken over by the monsters from Carnate, as well as the spirits of a pair of notorious murderers. Then you wind up in another prison, then sewers, then a mining complex, then everything gets a bit Twilight Zone and by that point, you’ve either stopped playing or caring. Dr. Killjoy, the mad ‘experimental’ psychiatrist from the first game also makes a return which I’m somewhat split over. On the one hand, his appearance in the first game added a sort of House On Haunted Hill vibe to the proceedings. Utterly out of place, but not necessarily in a bad way, since he was arguably about the only person in the game you could say had any kind of character to him. Here, on the other hand, its harder to argue that, since he barely has any impact on the story, unlike in the last game. He shows up on a TV screen, does a kind of summing up/trial of the player at the end then… well, doesn’t do much else. Even worse, it’s not until you get to the very end and you look back on both games that you realise that not a damn thing in the story makes a blind bit of sense, even for an action game, such is the scattershot application of the events and plot. Impressive in a perverse sort of way.

Of course, any and all goodwill the game’s built up by this point will evaporate swiftly in the face of one small detail. The game glitches like you would not believe. No joke, this game is horribly programmed: I’ve had CPU-controlled characters refuse to move, blocking my path, falling through floors or failing to trigger the next section. I’ve had enemies refuse to activate at all, just standing there, seemingly taking no damage or even noticing me. I even had the game crash outright on me, twice! I honestly can’t remember the last time I played a console game with such glaring bugs. On a PC, sure, you almost expect it, but on a console… And they all happened at more or less the exact same places with worrying regularity, which, frankly begs the question: did anyone even bother to playtest this game before release?

The original Suffering was a great game, far better than it had any real right to be. Not a classic by any measure, but not a game you’d regret spending time or money on either. The sequel, on the other hand, takes all of that and squanders it, somehow winding up with a worse game in the process. If the game had actually been coded properly, it would’ve merely been below average, but with the glitches and bugs present (including one which makes the game impossible to finish, should it kick in) there’s no way to recommend this. And the ending is non-existent as well, but that should come as no surprise to absolutely anyone. Get the original, but woe betide anyone who goes looking for the sequel: all that awaits you is a litany of disappointment and NPCs glitching up to their knees in the floor.

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Overclocked On Caffeine v.1.1 2009-10-21 05:51:00

Silent Hill 0rigins

PSP

Mirrors are more fun than television

Prequels have a very bad reputation. Oh, the intent is fine enough: showing what the world was like in the Before Time, letting us see familiar faces and the events that shaped them, that kind of thing. But all too often, they devolve into brainless fanservice, burying you in an avalanche of knowing winks and sly glances. You can hear them pissing themselves with sheer glee as one character tells another that their brother will never betray them/will be the death of them/could be the greatest of us all, or some other ironic comment, rather than trying to get some actual tragedy or pathos out of the events. And woe betide if you don’t have any working knowledge of the original, since you’re going to be left wondering every few minutes if you just saw something important. So yes, to your average viewer, prequels are never a good idea.

Silent Hill 0rigins is a prequel to the original Silent Hill. It’s also, not very good, though in its defence, that’s not entirely the fault of its status as a prequel. Give it its due, it sucks on its own merits.


Okay, fair word of warning here: I love the SH series. It redefined the then-burgeoning survival horror genre beyond all recognition upon its release ten years ago. The other main front-runner in the genre, Resident Evil went for traditional shocks, showing you things you were more than likely already scared of, but bigger (a spider the size of your thumbnail is not scary – a spider the size of a van, on the other hand…). It was classic Hollywood jumpscares, and looking back, frankly, they’re laughable. I played the first game again recently: even with the most infamous scares, like the dog window (you know the one I mean) there was barely even a twitch. Going back to the first Silent Hill, on the other hand, you realise that, regardless of the fact that the graphics have aged badly over the last decade, it’s still scary. Play it on a PSP with the lights out and headphones on and watch your complacent smugness fly out the window as you’re scared shitless by a so-called ‘old’ game. The second set the benchmark for storytelling, not just for survival horror games, but arguably for gaming in general, knowing exactly how much to say and how much to merely hint at, leaving many of the finer details for the player to work out for themselves. The third simply had the unfortunate luck to come after the second, being an underrated but still good sequel to the first, and the fourth tried to do something new, but failed in the attempt.

There was no fifth Silent Hill game. This isn’t the flauros you’re looking for, move along.

The deck was stacked against 0rigins from the start really. Of the original Team Silent, only Akira Yamaoka, was to be involved, and, outside of the music department, he had been relegated to ‘creative consultant’ or something equally vague. The game itself was being handled by Climax Studios, better know for such games as Battlezone: Rise of the Black Dogs and Disney’s Lilo & Stitch 2: Hamsterveil Havoc. But fear not, they claimed they were big fans of the series and wanted to do it justice. They knew their shit, and they were itching to prove all the naysayers wrong. All they needed was a chance to prove themselves.

SH0 is set about seven or so years before the original. While on a job near the town of Silent Hill, Travis Grady, a trucker, nearly hits a figure on a quiet road. Trying to find out where the person went, he goes for a wander in the countryside and eventually stumbles across a burning house. He rescues a girl from being burned to a crisp (well, more of a crisp by this point) and gets back outside. And that’s the point where the story pretty much collapses on itself.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a story here, and it’s an okay one, except for two details. First off, it’s a prequel, yet Grady’s involvement with the larger plot is almost non-existent. He runs into most of the major cast, but doesn’t have any real impact on them or their goals. He unwittingly assembles an important McGuffin one Harry Mason would later find somewhat helpful, but you can hardly say he plays any major role, or makes any amazing revelations about anything we already know. Well, that’s not true, the game clarifies one minor fan theory about the relationship between Lisa Garland and Dr. Kauffman. SWEET SAMAEL IN THE OTHERWORLD, EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG!!! Is your mind shattered? I know mine is.

Trav’s story, on the other hand, involves a trip he took as a lad with his parents, when his mother got herself committed to an insane asylum after she tried to kill him. Yup, turns out he has a Dark and Twisted Past with the town, and it’s keeping him here because… well, see, that’s the other problem with the game. It all falls apart when you realise there’s literally nothing keeping him in this town. His primary reason at the start is to find out what happened to the girl he rescued. Fair enough, I can respect that after saving someone, you’d want to at least know if they’re dead or not, right? But once he confirms that, and the town’s started doing its spooky shit (more on that in a bit) he’s determined to stick around for no goddamn reason.

Let’s take a moment and compare the motivations of the heroes of the games, shall we?

Silent Hill: “I’m not leaving this town until I find out what happened to my daughter.”
Silent Hill 2: “I’m not leaving this town until I find out who sent me that letter and what happened to my dead (?) wife.”
Silent Hill 3: “Stay in this town? Me?! Fuck that, yo, I’m getting the hell out of here!”
Silent Hill 4: “I’m only here so I can get out of my fucking flat, I don’t even want to be here!”
Silent Hill 0: “I’m not leaving because someone keeps leaving me vague clues about where to go next and it really annoys me when people do that!”

Clearly, Travis is a man driven by an OCD urge to punish people who mildly annoy him. That, or he has a fetish for being led about by the nose everywhere. Worthy and admirable traits for any hero to possess. Sorry, did I say ‘hero’? Darn, I meant to say ‘easily manipulated fuckwit’. I always get those two confused.

Okay, okay, we’ve played games with flimsier plots and dumber heroes. None that can top this are springing to might right this very second, but I’m sure there was at least one. Besides, it doesn’t matter as long as the gameplay’s up to snuff, right? Resident Evil’s storyline had dozens of incidents and plot details carved from finest whatthefuckium, and people still enjoyed them.

Would it surprise anyone to learn the gameplay’s not up to scratch? Didn’t think so.

Take a look at this map here:

Big, innit. That’s the second major stage. Not the last, the second. Actually that’s one floor of the second major stage. There’s another floor above that, and a basement as well. And, thanks to the game’s reality-shifting mechanic (you can move into the famed Otherworld at will simply by going up to a mirror), there’s two versions of it, so that’s a grand total of six floors you have to wander about! Okay, yes, most of the rooms suffer from the classic “The door is stuck/locked/actually painted onto the wall itself” thing, but seriously, look how many of the fucking things there are! And it’s not like things logically lead from A to B with a small sidetrip to C, D and E, oh no, everything is placed at opposite ends of the map from each other, resulting in lengthy journeys all over the place. There’s a costume to be unlocked if you complete the game in under two hours, and another for looking at the map less than 25 times. Frankly, both of those are bullshit: the asylum takes about two hours by itself, and it’s stupidly easy to get lost or forget where you’re going without outside help. I don’t mind backtracking as much as others, but done to this degree, it’s padding, plain and simple.

One of the biggest bugbears I have with this game is with the combat. Okay, Climax, buddy, I know you probably thought it was a good idea, but on behalf of everyone who played this game, DESTRUCTIBLE WEAPONS ARE NEVER A FUN GAMEPLAY MECHANIC! Lowering the durability/effectiveness of a weapon? Well, that’s just about forgiveable, as long as you’re not reduced to poking away at a tumorous mass the size of Godzilla with a wet teabag. But weapons that break outright is not on. Really, it didn’t work in the last game, and it sure as hell didn’t work here. And when that’s coupled with a weapon quick-select that’s anything but, you’re looking at a lot of very unhappy gamers, especially since, when they break, you’re automatically forced to go back to the basic 1-2 punch combo, that does bugger all damage. It’s a horrible idea, and a terrible design choice that makes you wonder what the fuck they were thinking. And don’t think gunplay’s going to be much better, because that’s just as fucked up. Shooting foes is all well and good, but then you’ve got to finish them off when you drop them. And shooting them again while they’re down is spotty at best, so you run up to finish them. Except, you’ve got about three seconds to do that before they get back up again, and the game’s mighty picky about letting you finish a downed enemy. So they get back up again, and you take a whole lot of damage from them and you vow never to fight another foe again. But that’s not that difficult, really, since the moment you put the lights off, you’re amazingly invisible to all! And since the stages are reasonably bright, you almost never need to have your flashlight on at all. Y’see, this is another thing you should be aware of, Climax: we avoid combat in survival horror games because we;re scared of it, afraid of going into battle unprepared, lest we get our shit royally fucked up. We do not avoid combat because it’s badly done and because, overall, it’s infinitely easier to just sidestep anything that confused its insides with its outsides.

And another thing, Mr. Climax (why does that sound like a pornstar name?): your choices of weaponry. My suspension of disbelief is a mighty thing to behold. If you could hook it up and use it as a power source, mankind could travel to the stars. You tell me something works in a show because it does, I’ll buy it. Tell me those vials over there contain a virus that transforms some people into plain old zombies, but others into freakishly deformed abominations? Fair enough. Walk over first aid kits or magical glowy things to be cured of all that ails you? Not a problem. People can survive any number of explosive magical or physical attacks in battle, but the second we move to a cutscene, a simple prison shiv can end the live of even the biggest badass? Sucks because he was my favourite, but yeah, alright. So while I can get behind Generic Effeminate RPG Hero #712 being able to carry several million tonnes of equipment and supplies on his girlish form (but only ever up to a stack of 99 per item), something about its usage here pisses me right off. I mean, giving you tons of weapons like straight razors, screwdrivers, okay, they’re small and easily concealable. Sledgehammers, meathooks and pointy bits of wood? Bigger, but still well within acceptable limits. How about IV drip stands and lamps taller than the character himself? How about large gallon jugs of medicinal alcohol? How about filing cabinets, typewriters and portible TVs – often a dozen or so at a time? That’s the point where you start calling bullshit on the whole endeavour. You can get away with it in an RPG, because, by and large, you can say they’ve got advanced/ancient technology, or an airship or, fuck, magic or something. But this gets to the point of stupidity, then decides, “screw that, we can go further!” with a rousing ‘hurp, durp, fight the power!’ as its battlecry. The only reason I can think of for any of this is to make some of their other ideas, like the QTE attacks, for example, look like glorious successes by comparison.

Perhaps the biggest sin committed, however, is to the series itself. Climax claim they know their shit. I claim otherwise. Now, I’ll admit, I’m one of those freakish people who reads and studies things I’m interested in at great length. You ask me about any of the symbolism or plot elements in the first few games, there’s a better than average chance I can give you a fairly good explanation of why X = Y. And I’m not the only one. Even the most casual Silent Hill fan knows that the series is heavy in symbolism and meaning. It’s one of the cornerstones of the games, and probably one of the best things about it. And yet here, Climax have managed to do something amazing: they’ve managed to take all this symbolism and allegory… and miss the point entirely. One of the main references for the game is most obviously, Silent Hill 2. The opening – a character walking through a long, lonely stretch of deserted road – is taken almost verbatim from the earlier game. Travis is also a poor man’s James Sunderland, a self-deluding type with some vaguely sexual hangups if you squint a bit and tilt your head to the side, kinda. But you can’t force genius, and while everything came together right for SH2, they’re trying too hard to force it here, and it just rings hollow and artificial instead. They’re aping things with seemingly no understanding of why they’re doing it. Why is there a long walk through the fog from the start of the game? Because it was in SH2. Why are there holes that you have to jump into to progress towards the end? Because they were in SH2. Why is there a big scary man in an apron with a big sharp slicey thing that looks like everyone’s 1d4-headed monster violator? Why the hell do you think? There are, in fairness, a few big nods to the movie, but SH0 wants to be the second game so badly, it’s almost hilarious.

Are there any redeeming points to this game? Well, the music’s good, but coming from Akira Yamaoka, you’d expect that. But even here it seems half-hearted. There’s nothing on a par with You’re Not Here, Theme of Laura or even Room of Angel or Hometown. There’s a couple of nice ambient pieces, but otherwise, the soundtrack’s mostly forgettable. But the fact that ‘forgettable soundtrack’ is probably the thing the game does best least wrong alone should give you some idea of the thing as a whole.

Silent Hill 0rigins is a game that somehow manages to annoy me on three levels: as a Silent Hill fan; as a survival horror fan; and lastly, as a gamer in general. If it seems like I’m being a horribly nitpicky retard fanboy just because it’s not done by my beloved Team Silent, trust me, I’m not. Frankly, I wouldn’t really care who was responsible for it if the end result was any good. This is a bad game, plain and simple. The combat is terrible, the enemy designs amount to big chunks of meat with no real defining characteristics (and they have the cheek to reuse some of them – only bigger!), the final boss is Diablo, from the games of the same name and the whole premise the game hinges on – that it’s a prequel to the first game – is borderline false advertising. The game’s a gigantic con: you think you’re about to uncover something interesting, only to find that there’s nothing here you didn’t already know. It’s like two slices of prime Kobe beef steak glued onto either end of a cut of discount meat from a cheap butchers – literally, since the majority of the non-Travis related plot occurs at the start and the end of the game. Silent Hill 0rigins is a hideously misaimed game with none of the atmosphere or dread we’ve come to expect from the series, and an outright insult to anyone with any love for the series, or the genre in general. Avoid.

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Overclocked On Caffeine v.1.1 2009-09-22 10:11:00

Hulk: Ultimate Destruction

PS2

Normally, I avoid licensed games like burning death. You can hold on to your memories of Goldeneye and the like all you want, they are the few pearls buried deep amongst the suck. For the overwhelming majority, the best you can hope for is that they’re less than terrible, and even that’s possibly raising your expectations high. Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, on the other hand, is a slightly different beast. For one thing, I actually went out of my way to track this puppy down. Why? Well, two reasons. First and foremost, it was the last game by Radical, a little-known group who you might recall were responsible for a fun game by the name of Prototype. Second, this is, in all but name, a prequel to that game. But with the Hulk instead of Carnage/Venom.

The plot is even more bare-bones than its successor: Bruce Banner, in yet another attempt to rid himself of the Hulk, teams up with Dr. Leonard ‘Doc’ Sampson to try and create a machine to purge the Hulk from his system. However, long-term arch-nemesis, General Thunderbolt Ross, is determined to stop him. On this occasion, he’s being aided by the shadowy security agent Emil Blonsky, who seems to be remarkably well connected for someone in his position. And after coming into contact with gamma radiation at the remains of Banner’s lab, Blonsky seems to be going through a few… changes of his own.

Okay, anyone familiar with Prototype? Then you know exactly everything you need to know about this game. Seriously, I’m not joking, for all the violence, carnage and other neat stuff, Prototype is, at its heart, little more than a refinement of the H:UD engine and gameplay. You can pick up cars and charge your way through the streets, you can charge attacks, jumps, you run vertically up the sides of buildings, health comes in the form of little glowing balls – green for Hulk, orange for Mercer – and you can buy upgrades and new moves with experience earned by destroying enemies and completing missions. There’s even an extra bit on the end of your health bar for ‘critical mass’ attacks

Of course, there are a few fundamental differences. For one thing, the Hulk being the Hulk, there’s no different forms or weapons to switch to. However, you can ‘weaponise’ certain objects around the map, like turning a van into a shield that doubles up as a boomerang, or, my personal favourite, turning a car into a pair of giant gauntlets to help you further punch the crap out your foes. Second, and least surprising, the various areas you can visit are nowhere near as crowded as the streets of New York. You can still tear down the streets knocking folks and cars out your way, but you won’t be as fast, and there won’t be anywhere near as many folks or cars. That’s a limitation of the hardware and the engine, however, so we’ll let that slide. Hulk isn’t anywhere near as acrobatic as our man Mercer, but in fairness, that’s in keeping with the comics: Hulk hits hard, not fast. Perhaps the most important thing is the stealth elements – namely that there aren’t any. I mean, come on, the Hulk’s a ten-foot tall green behemoth! It’s going to take more than a cardboard box and a crocodile mask to hide this bastard anywhere. If the police or the army see you, they fire on site. However, they won’t call out the big guns at first. The game features a GTA-style threat level meter: the more destruction you cause, the higher it gets until they eventually call out a Strike Team on you. Stay out of sight and the meter eventually drops Maybe it’s just me, but the Strike Team attack choppers in this seem more vicious, swarming over you like angry wasps, one thing that you’ll quickly wish was different no matter which game you’re playing.

The one thing this does have, that Prototype doesn’t, however, is a sense of humour. For as good as it was, Prototype was frequently accused of being more than a little po-faced about everything, being as deathly serious as it could possibly be. Here? Well, you can collect comic covers to unlock art galleries, art and the like. Some of the first things you’ll unlock are different coloured pants for the Hulk, the first few being various flags of the world. I spent most of the game running around in the Canadian flag for no other reason than I found it utterly hilarious. And then there’s the Cow Missile cheat. Surprisingly does exactly what you’d expect, replacing every missile in the game with cows. Call it revenge for the way you can punt cows over the horizon in the second major area of the game, another little touch that never gets old.

Hulk: Ultimate Destruction is, well, a prototype Prototype. Not quite as refined or polished, but still worth a shot for those like me who blazed through the original and want more. On its own merits, however, it’s still a darn good game. It’s difficult to get across the power of someone like the Hulk in a game. After all, the Hulk is easily one of, if not the single strongest character in the Marvel Comics universe. Putting him at full power would completely kill any and all challenge in a game. H:UD strikes a good balance between the two poles, even if Radical’s love for missile spams on a par with the best of Macross do result in you pinballing across the map. For anyone looking for more Prototype-style hijinks, or a younger sibling who’d love the game, but is too young to be messing about with that much blood, gore and other cool stuff we grown-ups get to play with, this is a fine choice.

And the inevitable “Who’d win in a fight between the Hulk and Alex Mercer” question?

Hulk strongest one there is. Hulk Smash.

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Overclocked On Caffeine v.1.1 2009-09-21 03:30:00

Clive Barker’s Jericho

PC

A tale of gods, monsters, and telekinetic lesbian snipers

Of all the most frustrating things in the world, one of the greatest must be when something is so close to greatness, only to fall short. The film with solid actors and ideas, but no spark. The book that doesn’t quite gel together, despite some fantastic moments. In short, The Little Engine That Could, If Only It’d Had Another Six Months In Development. If you were to take this concept, wrap it up into a whole and ship it off for sale, that concept would be shipped in a box labelled ‘Clive Barker’s Jericho‘.

The story opens with the titular Jericho squad being shipped out to the ruined city of Al Khali. The team are a supernatural special ops unit sent out to deal with possible demonic incursions into our reality, and Al Khali is potentially the biggest, as the ruins sit on top of The Box. The Box is a prison, of sorts, containing The Firstborn, God’s pet science project before Mankind. Arnold Leach, a former member of the Department of Occult Warfare is trying to break open the prison and release the Firstborn, and the Jericho squad is sent out to stop him. Of course, when they finally encounter him, they discover that not only has he gone through a few… modifications, becoming a huge demonic entity, he’s also been able to open a breech in The Box. Before they can do anything about that, however, Leach grabs hold of Devin Ross, the player’s character, and rips him to shreds in front of everyone. Of course, The Box is outside the normal realms of the world, and death is very rarely anything more than a minor setback…

Ross’ death opens up the major selling-point of the game. As a spirit without a body, he is now capable of hopping in and out of his teammates’ bodies. Obvious oo-err-missus jokes aside, this is where the majority of the gameplay comes in. Each character is equipped with a main and sub-weapon, ranging from a minigun, an assault rifle/shotgun combo, to a sniper rifle or machine pistol and katana, and you’re free to hop from one to another at will. The team is split up on occasion, but by and large, you’re free to choose whoever you want, whatever the situation. One of the characters, a ‘reality hacker’ with a wrist-mounted supercomputer, also has the ability to ‘rewind’ the team’s ammo reserves, so you never have to worry about running out of ammo for very long. Good thing too, because it’s here that we encounter one of the game’s biggest problems.

What do action games and your characters have in common? Answer: they both live and die by their enemies. Even a bad game is looked upon a little more fondly if the foes are interesting, and with Clive Barker involved, you’d expect something special. Sadly, you’d be disappointed. The enemies start off as blade-handed gimps ripped right out of The Suffering or Soul Calibur. Get used to these guys, as you’ll be seeing them at least once or twice a stage from now until the end of the game, and there’s going to be next to no graphical changes to them the entire time. Ditto the exploding cultists, huge warped blobs of flesh that, funnily enough, explode when they get to close to a character. They have painfully obvious glowing blobs on their bodies that you need to shoot in order to kill them, and, wouldn’t you know it, that’s never an easy thing to do. Anyone who has the patience to do that repeatedly, rather than switching to a character with an explosive weapons and wiping them out in a single shot is destined to reincarnate as the Buddha in their next life. Beyond those two, you’ll be lucky to see more than one or two unique enemies per chapter, and given that this is a game sprawling over five different time periods, that’s a really poor offering, especially when said enemies really aren’t remarkable in the least.

Of course, it’s not made any easier when you’re facing endless waves of foes without respite. The way the game works is like this: you enter a room, enemies spawn, you kill those enemies. Then more enemies spawn. Then you kill them. Then yet more enemies spawn and you kill them and eventually, the game is merciful enough to let you out of the room and into the next one where you repeat the whole thing again from the start. Now, if all this were played at the breakneck pace of, say, Painkiller, Serious Sam or, hell, even Doom, it’d be great, frantically dodging wave upon wave of charging monsters, it’d be fantastic fun. But it’s nothing like that. The monsters come at you one or two at a time, take way too many shots to kill (unless you’re using Abby Black, the sniper, who kills anything headshottable in a single hit) then, once they’re dead, another couple who have been waiting patiently at the side wander in and it all repeats itself again. If I wanted to spend time grinding enemies, I’d be playing an RPG. At least then there’d be some kind of reward for standing somewhere, repeatedly wailing on the same enemies over and over again.

The team themselves are an interesting bunch. Essentially, everyone plays pretty much the same, barring their weapons and special powers, so you don’t have to worry about the typical fast-but-weak/strong-but-slow shenanigans. Some, like the TK Push and fire shield are situational and used solely to progress, the latter being used in all of one section. Others, like Cole’s Temporal Loop (bullet time effecting everyone but her) and Ghost Bullet (a guided sniper round) are infinitely more useful, and will probably mean you spend most of the game using those characters more than anyone. Most powers take a while to recharge after usage, to keep you from spamming them at every opportunity, and the computer has the foresight to actually use most of them to a decent degree. That’s where the AI pretty much begins and ends, sadly, as the computer will derp its way through every encounter in every other way possible.

Here’s an example for you. In the squad, there are two characters who can resurrect the rest of the team: you (i.e. Ross in the body of whoever you’re controlling) and Father Rawlings, a Texan preacher who dual wields a pair of big-ass handguns. Now, common sense would suggest that you should keep a fair bit of distance between yourself and Rawlings, assuming you’re not controlling him, in case of explosive death, something that happens all too often in the game. But no, both he and everyone else in your group will cluster together at every opportunity, no matter what’s going on, forcing you to drop whatever you’re doing and revive their dumb asses, if only to get them to shut up about how someone or another is hurt. Likewise, they they never, ever think about positioning or actually aiming. Take the cultists and their ‘shoot here to kill’ weak spots. If any of your team actually hits one, it’s nothing more than a fluke. Sure, they’ll unload bullet after bullet into them, but never at the painfully obvious squishy bits, oh no. Enemy is heavily armoured everywhere but a suspiciously large space at the back? Sounds like a perfect opportunity to – you guessed it – fire randomly into its front, then shout at you for letting everyone die, while you’re desperately trying to hack away at its arse. Then complain that they’re running out of ammo because none of them have learned yet that aiming is not necessarily the same as hitting a target. I know it’s there to keep the game from becoming too easy, and to make the player feel like they’re the single most important person on the team, but it feels less like you’re the centre of the universe, and more like you’re the only one in the universe capable of eating anything more complex and dangerous than mashed banana.

As for the script and the story, if Michael Bay were to direct a horror movie, this would be the result: tough-talking macho men who don’t give a fuck, sexy kick-ass chicks who don’t take no shit and explosions technically measured in kilotons. It’d be interesting to see how much input Clive Barker had with the game beyond the storyline, because if he had any, it sure as hell wasn’t with the script itself, filled wall to wall with with every action movie cliché you can imagine. Try searching for any more depth than that, and you’re going to be left very disappointed indeed. Try incorporating it into the game as a kind of buzzword bingo, ticking off a list of one-liners as you go, on the other hand and you’ll have a lot more fun.

If you’ve gotten this far, you’ll probably be wondering why I played this game at all, since I haven’t had much nice to say about it. Well, here’s the thing, for all the stupid mistakes it makes – and it makes those in spades – you’re left with the impression that somewhere, deep inside, there’s a far better game waiting to get out. The combat is genuinely great fun, but it’s slowed down to a laborious crawl because of the constantly spawning enemies. The few times you’re allowed to maintain a kill-and-move rhythm, the gameplay improves no end. The cast are a bunch of one-note assholes, but some of them are surprisingly likeable, indulging in banter and the like. The idea of seeing the same area from different time periods is an absolutely fantastic one and woefully underused. Last game I can remember playing that trick was Eternal Darkness back on the Gamecube. Just a crushing pity that the graphics exemplify everything wrong with the current generation: very pretty, very shiny, physically incapable of displaying any colours other than brown, grey and bloom.

And as for the ending, what ending? There’s a brief 10 second uncontrollable cutscene after the complete non-entity of a final boss (“Oh no! It’s immune to our weapons! Let’s all fire wildly in the hope that will change!”), and then the credits roll. That’s it, so long, thanks for all the fish. A lack of an ending is a complete kick in the balls after spending any decent length of time of a game. I know studies have shown that only one or two in ten people will ever reach the ending of any given game, but getting a decent ending should be a reward for our diligence and appreciation, rather than an afterthought, the equivalent of the dev team walking in and saying ‘what, you’re still here?!’ then doing some half-assed shadow puppetry until we get bored and go home.

There really is a good game in here, and there are occasional flashes of that greatness to keep you playing. Whether these flashes are actually a sign of something special, an idiot savant showing off their smarts, or heartless cockteasing is up to the player to decide. In my mind, this could’ve been a superior game if they’d been able to fully realise what they have on offer here. But, for whatever reasons, they couldn’t and all we’re left with is a basic shooter with some great ideas and occasional glimpses of something better. Clive Barker himself has spoken of a possible sequel, though whether that will appear as a game, a book or even possibly as a movie, is something we’ll have to wait and see.

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Overclocked On Caffeine v.1.1 2009-08-30 12:36:00

Gilgamesh

26 30-minute episodes

Gilgamesh/Enkidu OTP?

Fifteen years after a terrorist attack that has wiped out electronic equipment worldwide and turned the sky into an electromagnetic mirror, a brother and sister are on the run. They run into a group of teens who offer to help them escape their pursuers if they agree to join them. Their cause? A war to cleanse the earth of humanity and usher in a new age. And the teens, a group known as Gilgamesh, have psychic powers, are capable of transforming into monstrous beasts, and are just the ones to step into the gap left over. Needless to say, the siblings are somewhat reluctant to join. Not just because they’re not interested in the whole genocide business, but because their father is the leader of Gilgamesh. And the one who unleashed the catastrophe on the world to begin with. So when they’re rescued by a second group of psychic teens, these ones lead by the harshly authoritative Countess of Werdenberg, it’s hard to know which side to take, and the pair are forced to decide where they belong.

Okay, first things first, this is a hard show to watch. I’m a man who likes his stylized character designs and artwork, but even I had a hard time warming to this one. The palette is muted and washed out for the overwhelming majority of the series, the main flashes of colour coming from the red stripes on one character’s jacket and the red dresses worn by the female members of Gilgamesh. When we finally see the blue sky it carries with it some measure of impact. According to at least one character, who has never known anything but a mirrored sky, it’s ‘creepy’. Given the events that transpire soon after, she’s not entirely wrong in her unease.

The character designs are what takes the most getting used to though. Frankly, everyone in it looks like a strung-out heroin addict. Doesn’t help that one of the psychics is constantly pestering the others for a quick boost every ten minutes. Once you get used to them, they make a refreshing change to the standard saucer-eyed moeblobs infesting the majority of modern output, but it’s going to put a hell of a lot of people off within the first few episodes, I can assure you of that much.

It’s not just the artwork though, everything about this show is weird. There’s an unsettling atmosphere throughout. Background music is used sparingly, though Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, a strangely melancholy piece, is referenced frequently. Characters act… well, they act. It’s not like the voice actors are wooden or anything, but I was left with the odd impression that the characters themselves were just playing roles, acting as the plot dictates. Like I say, it’s a weird feeling, but I’ll be damned if I can tell you what it means.

In the end, there are no happy endings. How could there be in a show such as this. But the very end takes it just that little step further and all but says that, when you get down to it, none of it really meant much anyway. It’s yet another attempt at an Evangelion-style metaphysical ending (man, I’ve really been watching a lot of shows like that, huh?), and while not as hamfisted as, say, Blue Gender’s, which came right the fuck out of nowhere, it renders the last 25 episodes moot. Nothing is accomplished, except a whole lot of people are now dead. And in the final frames, it all but outright states that it wasn’t worth it anyway.

As I said earlier, Gilgamesh is a tricky one to get into. If the drab colour scheme doesn’t put you off, then the character designs will, and if the character designs don’t, then some element of the story probably will. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good show, and despite what I said about the ending, it does work, though that’s more than likely to piss a few of you off. It’s the story of a broken world slowly winding down, but refusing to admit it.

Perfect Autumn fare if you ask me.

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Overclocked On Caffeine v.1.1 2009-08-30 12:34:00

Rez

PS2

Big fish, little fish, cardboard box

It’s one of those accepted conventions of media, that if your premise is suitably weird or OTT in some way, it is [reference point] On Drugs. Gives you something to base your expectations and tells you that this is the next manic step forward from that. It’s Father Ted On Drugs, Angel on Speed, Tron mainlining Jack Daniel’s while getting into a chainsaw fight with Evangelion and Fullmetal Alchemist as Babylon 5 watches and takes notes, grabbing handfulls of impressively-coloured pills ‘purely for medicinal purposes’. Be impressed by the man whose life’s work is described as, say, “what FLCL takes to get high”, that’s a man who knows where it’s at.

So, following on from that logical progression, Rez is Panzer Dragoon at a 72-hour rave doing lots and lots of E with a few hits of acid for good measure. That’s it, review’s over, you can all go home now.

What, you’re still here? That wasn’t enough?!

*sigh* Fine.

Rez is an on-rails shooter that’s remarkably difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t played it before. Which kinda defeats the purpose, since reviews are generally there to aid people who haven’t played, read or watched something before. The plot, for what it’s worth, is that a supercomputer AI called Eden has become overwhelmed with knowledge, making her doubt her own existance. As a result, she’s shutting herself down, with an impending catastrophe on the way. The player takes on the role of a hacker, flying through her subsystems in an attempt to get Eden to pull herself together. This is acheived with the powers of wireframe graphics and techno, apparently. So it turns out Hackers was actually spot on. Who knew?

A stage goes like this. Your avatar flies along. Enemies pop up. You lock on, they explode. Eventually, a password cube comes along. You shoot it enough times, it opens, you go to the next layer of the stage where the music is more intricate and the graphics are slightly more detailed. Repeat until you get to a boss, kill the boss and that’s it, on to the next stage we go!

To give you some kind of reference for the next part, here’s how the game looks in action, since that’s the only way to actually get a feel for it. The Video’s of the 360 HD version, but it is, to all intents and purposes, the exact same game:



So, let’s take each element at a time. Gameplay is lifted directly from the Panzer Dragoon series. You can’t change your direction at all, and while you can move the camera around, it’s almost always facing in the right direction for you to deal with any oncoming threats. You hold down the fire button to lock on to enemies (up to 8 at a time) or you hammer the button to fire rapidly. You occasionally encounter items that give you Overdrive attacks, smart bomb-like items that target everything onscreen, which can be useful if you’re going for that all-important 100% shot down ratio. You also find health items, but rather than directly increasing the amount of damage you can take, they go into a bar. Fill the bar and your avatar evolves. Take a hit, and no matter how full your health bar is, you’ll go down to the previous form. Take too many hits and you’re booted out the system.

Rez, however, is one of the few games where I can say gameplay really doesn’t matter, since that’s not where the main draw is. This is a game all about the visuals and sound, though not in the obnoxious way most other games are. The word for tosay is “synesthesia” which, depending on its use, is either a neurological condition where senses become slightly skewed, most commonly perceiving sound as having shape or substance, or an artistic attempt to get several senses working in tandum, in this case, sight, hearing and touch. Everything that happens is synced up to the soundtrack. The graphics pulse in time with the beat, your shots basically hit when it’d sound best (but never interfering with your hit percentage or making you take damage). The soundtracks start off bare-bones, only a few skeletal beeps and notes to give you the impression that there is something there. As you progress, more effects are added, filling out the music slowly. It’s a great effect and gives an interesting feeling of progression, far different from almost any other game out there.

The graphics follow a similar path of gradual enhancement. If you’re someone who always demands the absolute finest from your machine at every turn, you’re probably going to be put off here. The visuals rarely ever progress further than basic textured polygons, so anyone seeking fancy shaders or lighting effects, this is not the droid you’re looking for. For everyone else though, the graphics work with everything else. When you actually start seeing something other than flat angles and pretty lights in the final stage, it’s oddly impressive, and gives you the feeling that this is going to be something different.

Downsides? Well, it’s hard to say really. It’s difficult to tell what’s actually a threat and what isn’t until it’s too late. And since you can only ever take, at absolute most, about 4 or 5 hits before dying, that not only results in you being blindsided more often than neccessary, it also makes boss battles more frustrating than hard, since when they attack, there’s usually a ton of missiles onscreen and working out which ones are actually going to hit you is guesswork at best. The boss battles themselves are arguably too long as well, some of the later ones being complete brick walls when it comes to taking damage, one having the added bonus of being super-fast, making hitting him trickier,and also having a shield of rapidly-shifting cubes! The whole thing hinges almost entirely on your enjoyment of the provided music as well, a problem common to every music game on the market, so if dance and techno cause you to erupt in a painful rash, you may want to steer clear. For my money, I actually like it, and I can’t stand most dance music, so take that as a recommendation if you will.

Rez is utterly unique, and for that reason alone, it’s worth a look. There’s a few similar games on the market – Synaesthete probably being one of the best-known, Darwinia sharing a similar visual style, but little else – but Rez stands virtually alone, I couldn’t tell you if it’s art, since I find the whole ‘games as art’ argument laughable at best. But I can tell you that it’s a solid game, short, but definitely worth your time, and that’s really the only thing that needs to be said.

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The Best Game Ever (Pt.2)

Persona 3

PS2, 2008

And I swear that I don’t have a gun…

WARNING: This review contains spoilers. Proceed at your own risk

Persona 3, for many, is a game of mixed blessings. On the one hand, it arguably revitalised the Shin Megami Tensei franchise in a way nothing else had. After its release, the level of interest in the series simply exploded, resulting in more games being announced and localised in the space of 12 months than we’d seen in the last few years. Of course, this was not without its drawbacks, according to some. Upon first look at the game’s revamped artstyle, people were quick to react, largely with horror. The designs were being handled by Shigenori Soejima, who did some minor work on Persona 2 and Trauma Centre, rather than series mainstay Kazuma Kaneko. The game would be set primarily around a school, and deal with day to day life to a strict time limit, rather than cheerfully allowing you to set your own pace. And, as people were so very quick to point out, you just know that where there’s a fandom, there’s people ready to write really messed up fanfics where they grab the characters and smoosh them together like dolls, making kissy noises as they do so (you know exactly who you are, don’t try to deny it!). But this article is called “The Best Game Ever” and not “Reasons Why People On Both Sides Of Fandoms Suck”, so we’ll move on for the moment.

Behold the main character, saviour of us all! He has an official name in the canon, but I can’t remember it right now, so for the purposes of this article, his name is Kazuma. Kazuma Tenryu. Kazuma’s transferring to a new school this year, and is moving to the local student boarding house. On his way there, however, things get kinda… weird. Weird as in the sky turning a queasy green colour, all liquid turning to blood and, oh yeah, everyone around him spontaneously transmogrifying into coffins. And as he arrives, he’s immediately confronted by a creepy kid who has him sign a contract of some sort. And then he has a gun pointed at him. It turns out the girl on the other end of the gun, Yukari, is one of his classmates in his new school, and the event is waived off as part of the school club she’s a part of. Of course, that doesn’t entirely explain the massive control room in the upper part of the dorms. Or the fact that they seem to be spying on him as he sleeps. Or the weird visions that he’s having as he sleeps. Or the fact that everyone turns into a goddamn coffin on the stroke of midnight every night!

His suspicions that something is amiss are proved a few days later when the boarding house is attacked by a gelatinous blob monster wielding a mask and too many hands. Yukari drags him out of bed, hands him a sword and tells him to follow her. Unfortunately, they make it as far as the roof before the monster catches up to them. As a last-ditch effort, Yukari pulls out her gun… and turns it on herself? The monster, known as a Shadow, knocks the gun out of her hand, the weapon landing at Kazuma’s feet. Instinctively, he picks it up, puts it to his own head, and pulls the trigger…

“Per… so… na…”

And thus, the game begins.

Persona 3 takes place over the course of a year, and can be neatly split into two parts: day time and night time. During the day, you’ll go to school. This is far more important than you’d believe, since this is where you’ll build up your Social Links. In gameplay terms, Links are required for the enhancement and evolution of your Personas. As its explained in-game, a Persona is a facet of your inner self that can only be released with an Evoker – the gun-like item Yukari tried to use at the start. Everyone has it within themselves to be, at turns, a wise mentor or a cruel bully, a crusader for justice or a vicious destroyer. These take the form of beings of myth and legend, gods and monsters and everything in between. The Social Links themselves all correspond loosely to cards of the tarot, as do the Personas themselves, and the stories that unfold are oddly compelling. There’s the friendly rivalry you encounter with a fellow athlete (The Star), the girl you meet in the online RPG (The Hermit), the shady businessman who offers to take you under his wing (The Devil) the shy treasurer of the student council (Justice)… all of these stories are woven into the bigger picture, and as the Links develop, you find yourself warming to them. You find yourself making time for them, not just because it has a practical effect on the game, but because you actually like these people, and seeing them work out their problems and dilemmas gives you a small sense of pride at having helped them. Your influence, as they point out, has changed them, and your friendship has made them stronger. Of course, as each rank of each Link grants bonus experience to a Persona during fusion, their friendship has an arguably greater effect on you.

The night time part is where the majority of the game takes place. On the stroke of midnight, we enter the Dark Hour, a secret time between 12:00:00 and 12:00:01. During that period, the game’s only dungeon, Tartarus opens up. Tartarus is a 260+ floor randomly-generated dungeon that, chances are, you’ll rapidly grow to hate. You won’t be able to tackle it all at once, thank god, as new areas are only opened after certain events, mostly boss fights. Added to that, is the fact that your characters will suffer from fatigue the longer you stay in the dungeon, potentially rendering them unusable for the next few days. This only really affects you at the beginning of the game, and past the halfway mark, probably won’t even factor in to your decision-making, but it’s at the beginning of the game that you’ll want to spend as much time as you can in there, not only to gain money and experience, but also to get a feel for the combat, and limiting you in such a way is frustrating.

More than that, the dungeon designs are, frankly, poor. The decor only changes when you complete a full block of the dungeon. There are a total of about five or six blocks in the whole game. The game takes place over a year or so. Get used to seeing the same bleeding floors quickly, because they’re not going to be changing any time soon. Of course, when they do change, it’s not always for the better. The progression of the first couple of areas is nice, leading on from one area to the other visually, keeping the same motifs, but towards the end… come on, who thought it was a good idea to have an area that’s best described as ‘blacklight disco party freakout’? And then decided this was a good area to put black enemies in? Don’t be surprised if you spend most of your time watching the radar in the corner of the screen than the game itself, because otherwise, you ain’t seeing shit, buddy. Then the block after that goes even more into whiplash by apparently being made entirely of crystal. It’s like the designers went “Yeah, I know we’ve been trying to have each area thematically consistent with each other, but we’re, what, three weeks away from deadline, let’s just throw in some wacky crap and be done with it!” Smooth move there, guys, doesn’t show at all, really.

Of course, the Tartarus music isn’t that much better. It starts off low-key, subdued, but, as with the level designs, it only changes with each block. And when I say ‘changes’, I mean ‘gains an extra instrument’. It’s horribly repetitive and droning, and it was only with the aid of an mp3 player at my side constantly, that I was able to tolerate it. Of course, that leads in to the main battle theme, Mass Destruction. The Megaten series has a reputation for some of the best boss and battle themes in gaming – Hunting: Comrades from Digital Devil Saga and Battle For Survival from its sequel, the boss theme from Nocturne and so on – and as a piece of music by itself, it’s great. Seriously, can’t fault it, I love it. However, those of you out there reading this, quick question: how quickly did you come to dread the words “Baby baby baby baby”? Like I said, it’s a great song, but they always play the track from the very beginning each and every time. When the intro rapidly acquires the Pavlovian response of your hand hitting the mute button, it’s probably a sign that you should rethink putting lyrics in a battle theme (or not, since Persona 4 did the exact same thing, albeit with a slightly less irritating song intro).

Actually, much of the music in the game suffers from this problem, as anyone who ever felt like da da-da-da-dah can attest. It’s not that its bad, its just that it’s repetitive, and it has to start from the very beginning of the track each and every time you enter a new area. And trust me, you’re going to be doing that a lot. As I’ve said before, lyrical themes are a great idea, but only if they’re used sparingly, otherwise you’re going to be driving a lot of people hopelessly mad on a scale your average Elder God could only dream of.

And then we get to the combat itself. The Press Turn system from Nocturne is reused here, but with a minor difference: any character who scores a critical attack, or exploits a weakness gains an automatic chance to attack again. If they do the same thing again, this time on a different enemy, they get to attack again, and so on until they miss or run out of enemies. If they manage to do this, the enemy (or character, as it can happen to you as well) is knocked down and has to waste a turn getting back up, assuming they’re not hit with a physical attack in the meantime. If all enemies are down, you get the option for an All-Out Attack, where everyone bum-rushes the enemy dealing massive physical damage to everything. Needless to say, exploiting weaknesses is arguably more important in this game than others in the series. Unfortunately, that’s not particularly easy with the AI exhibited here.

If you know anything about the game, it’s probably this: you only directly control the main character throughout the game. You can issue orders to the others, which they will follow, but it’s mostly broad suggestions like ‘support the group’ or ‘hit the enemy with everything you’ve got’, and its up to the game how they choose to interpret that. For example, if you get someone to act in support, they’ll immediately heal any and all damage or status affects. Great in theory, but that means they’ll heal all damage, no matter how insignificant, effectively meaning they’ll never heal otherwise. Tell them to cut loose? Enjoy watching Mitsuru use Mind Charge or Ice Break, thus wasting a turn that could’ve been used just stabbing the damn thing! Of course, if your character is incapacitated for whatever reason – status effect, knocked down, whatever – you’ll be incapable of ordering them at all, further flirting with death. And, in proud Megaten tradition, if you die, it’s all over. Your milate may vary, of course: some have found the system perfectly agreeable, and have never had the computer make stupid mistakes on their behalf. Personally, I prefer direct input as to what happens. Call me a control freak if you will, but I like to know any deaths are the result of my screwups, not anyone else’s.

The only other main flaw comes in the voice actresses for two of the main characters, Fuuka and Ken – Ken starts off bratty, before becoming dull, and I’m sorry, but no high schooler should sound like a 30-year-old housewife. Of course, this is balanced by an otherwise phenomenal cast. You’ll recognise most of the characters from other previous roles (the cast has credits from series such as Fullmetal Alchemist, Bleach, Digimon and Disgaea to their names), but after a while, you’ll be hard pressed to imagine anyone else in their roles, the voices are that perfect. Special mention has to go to Derek Stephen Prince, voice of Takaya, who manages to straddle the line between controlled madness and charismatic evil. In a game filled with a stellar cast, the fact that he’s able to outshine them all tells you all you need to know. The man knows how to play a charming villain on a par with Crispin “I’m Allucard, y’know” Freeman, and that’s a hell of a compliment to both.

The characters are, without a doubt, what makes this game. Most of you will probably find yourself liking Junpei most quickly, because, when you get down to it, he’s the easiest to relate to. He likes games, he’s fairly laid back, in a lot of ways, he’s a lot like us. When he finds out that sealing the Dark Hour means the loss of his Persona, he goes into a slump. In his mind, his powers make him a hero, and if he gives that up, he’s back to being a nobody. In that, it’s hard not to feel even the merest twinge of sympathy for him. He doesn’t want fame or recognition. He just wants to be somebody, something more than he is, and who hasn’t wanted that? Then there’s Akihiko, who initially comes across as brash and imposing. As you start to learn about him, you realise he’s not such a bad guy after all. Then, a close friend, practically a brother, is murdered in front of him. Rather than running off wildly for revenge, however, he uses this to drive himself further onward to try and live up to his friend’s memory. Honestly, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone do that in a game, standard protocol is to charge head on, screaming like a lunatic.

And then… then there’s Ikutsuki, and here, the game plays its cruellest trick. Y’see, in the previous games, there was a character called Philemon, a benevolent (sort of) deity (kinda) who gave the characters their powers, known for wearing a camel-coloured suit and a porcelain mask adorned with a butterfly. You never had much contact with him, but, by and large, Philemon was on the level. Philemon himself isn’t in this game, but here’s Shuji Ikutsuki, head of the team and, by and large, a guy who’s seemingly on the level. He’s dressed in a similar outfit, and while he didn’t expressly give you your powers, armed with this prior knowledge, you’re probably more inclined to trust the guy than someone unfamiliar with the series. And then events unfold, and you realise how much of a fool you were to believe him. The game told you he was okay, but while everyone playing it was fooled, series veterans would’ve been fooled that much harder. You went the extra mile. No one else did. It’s heartless and messes directly with the player. I loved it.

Persona 3, more than anything is a story about stories. Everyone has one, from the main characters, to the social links, to even the people standing around doing nothing. Everyone has a tale to tell that unfolds slowly as the game progresses. And at the tale’s close, when you find out exactly how much you meant to everyone, even the people who didn’t know what you were doing at midnight every night, it’s hard not to sit up that little bit straighter. You’re no longer playing a game. You’re fighting for these people. You’re fighting to ensure the sun rises tomorrow. The effect it has will vary from person to person, but if you’ve made it this far, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the story by now. And with the ending… I can’t spoil that here, not even a little, but if you didn’t find your eyes just a little moist, you have no soul. Even now, writing this, the throat’s tightening just a little, and at the time… let’s just say I lost a little of my manly composure and be done with it, huh? The end is played beautifully – another five minutes and those final moments would’ve been positively heartbreaking. As it is… there’s no way I could see it as sad. It doesn’t end badly. It ends exactly the way it was intended to. The way it had to.

There was an updated re-release, FES, with an extra 30+ hour epilogue that caps the whole saga off. I haven’t played it yet, so I can’t comment on it. In all honesty, I’m not entirely sure I want to. It’s not that the extra content is bad or anything, more that… I liked the way it ended. It was a subdued ending, the likes of which you don’t often see in games these days. A quiet, melancholy finale that lets the game wind down to a natural stop. No. Better to leave Kazuma, sitting on that bench, enjoying the warm Spring morning, as a hand strokes his hair softly. He’s earned his rest.

To Kazuma Tenryu. The young man who fought a god to a standstill. Twice. I can think of no better tribute, than starring in a game such as this.

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The Best Game Ever (Pt.1)

Devil May Cry 3

Capcom, 2005

PS2

The adventures of a narcissist with OCD on a quest to beat up his brother.

When you were a kid, someone – probably a well-meaning elderly relative or aunt or something – told you that no one likes a show-off. It’s one of those things everyone had to go through at least once. Well, Grandma Hilde, I’m afraid to say you were so horribly wrong. Showing off may not be big, and it may not be clever, but it is awesome and it makes you awesome. This is Scientific fact, and trying to say otherwise makes you a fool. Just look at Dante.

Dante, as I’m sure you’re all aware, is the walking personification of Awesome incarnate. Everything he does and says has to be as OTT as possible, no matter how mundane, and, as a result, he winds up reeking of the Awesome, and possibly pizza. Or strawberry sundaes, if the anime’s to be believed (which we’re all hoping it isn’t). Devil May Cry 3 is a prequel to the series as a whole, detailing the events some time prior to the first game. While setting up his titular (as yet unnamed) agency, Dante receives an invitation of sorts from his long-missing twin brother, Vergil. Seems he’s planning some shenanigans, and wants Dante to come along with party favours for all his friends! Except by ‘shenanigans’ he means ‘summoning a demonic tower in the middle of the city’, by ‘friends’ he means ‘demons’ and by ‘party favours’ he means ‘violence’. So, Dante, never one to miss a shindig, ventures forth to figure out what in the hell his brother is up to. And, I dunno, stop another demonic incursion into our world if possible, or something.

This is the intro to the very first stage:

That tells you just about all you need to know about the game. Over the top acrobatics? Check. A cocky main character just the right side of obnoxious? Check. A fantastically thumping soundtrack? Check. Riding enemies like the devil’s own skateboard, firing and whooping like a lunatic all the while? Oh hell yeah, check! Of course, if the game were all improbable sword-slinging and nothing else, it’d be a pretty piss-poor show. Thankfully, the DMC3 has the chops to back up its boasts, with chutzpah to spare.

So, after the intro, and once you’ve stopped laughing at how insane that opening is, you finally get to take control of Dante himself. And it’s good. The controls are as fluid as you could ask for, and while they do take some getting used to at first, once you have them down, pulling off the myriad combos will be child’s play. It’s okay if you start feeling every bit as cocky as Dante when you start facing down the legions of enemies ahead of you, we all do it ourselves from time to time. Even better though, showing off actually has a practical application in the game. The style meter, trademark of the game, makes a return appearance. As you beat up on demons, the bar fills. The more impressive the combo, the more red orbs, the game’s currency, you get after they die. In the grand scheme of things, you don’t have to invest much in the combo system: it makes things easier for upgrading and the like, but, other than investing in a couple of key moves and some extra health, you can easily murder your way through the underworld with the same basic attacks. The very existence of the bar, however, almost guarantees that, like it or not, you’ll be driving yourself to reach the upper ranks as often as possible, for no other reason than the fact that you can. After all, you’re Dante! No way in hell he’d do anything less than the craziest moves known to man or demon!

The soundtrack is similarly fantastic. The ambient music that makes up the majority of it is inoffensive and fits into the background easily. Not that you’ll really be hearing it that often, as the game’s main battle theme, Taste The Blood kicks in each and every time you encounter an enemy. And there’s a hell of a lot of enemies. If you’ve played games like, say, Persona 3 and 4, you’ll know it’s hard to have a battle theme with lyrics in it. It’s a nice idea in theory, but it all falls apart when you remember that your average player’s going to be hearing it several hundred times during the course of a normal game. More so if they’re grinding for whatever reason. Thankfully, unlike the Persona games, Taste The Blood and its variants work well as both a stand-alone piece of music and as a battle theme, probably due to the emphasis being on the music rather than the voice (and due to it fading in, rather than crashing in with the same repetitive intro every time). The boss battle themes are, likewise, of a high calibre, being, at turns, dark foreboding pieces, as in the case of the Cerberus fight, or frantic electronica when you’re fighting the succubus Nevan. The game’s overall theme, Devils Never Cry is easily the standout piece. It accounts for what seems like half the tracklist by itself, showing up in various remixes and rearrangements and as a piano version on several occasions. Give the song its due though, it’s a fantastic track, and while your mileage may vary, it’s not a bad piece of music to riff on.

Devil May Cry 3 was eventually re-released as a budget-priced special edition. While there were a few extra modes – Bloody Palace, a 9999 level endurance mode, extra costumes and art and so forth – two spring to the forefront most clearly. First off is the ability to play as Vergil. While this is touted as a separate storymode, that’s actually something of a lie. There’s a few extra cutscenes as Vergil, mostly at the start and end, but between stages, there’s nothing. There’s not even any difference between the stages or the order you tackle them in – the first stage takes place in Dante’s office, note for note, for God’s sake! Vergil mode basically amounts to little more than a palette-swap with a new set of moves and no story, rather than a ‘true’ new gameplay mode, and while it’s a nice addition, it’s really nothing to get excited about.

What’s more interesting is the re-jigged difficulty levels. We all know how crushingly hard the game gets on account of the difficulty levels being moved up a notch during the translation to Western Shores – our ‘Normal’ is the Japanese ‘Hard’, our Dante Must Die mode doesn’t even technically exist over there, and so on. With the release of DMC3SE, they decided to throw us a bone and moved the settings closer to the original Japanese settings. The end result is a game that’s not exactly easier, as much as it is less frustrating. Lots of people out there wanted to like the original, but were put off by the monumental challenge it offered, even on the sarcastically offered Easy Mode (to unlock: die. That’s it). With this, and a few refinements and tweaks here and there, the game is finally within the reach of even the less than godly of us out there.

DMC3, if you haven’t already guessed, is a phenomenal game, and easily one of the best ever seen in the action genre. The cutscenes are wonderfully overblown, and there’s a healthy vein of self-mocking humour running through it from end to end – anytime Dante does something cool, and takes a moment to congratulate himself on it, events never fail to remind him that he’s still an utter goofball. The controls, the gameplay, the graphics, voice acting and characters all come together to produce an absolutely amazing finished product. It’s even more amazing considering it came out after the second game in the series, an offering so laughably poor, even Capcom themselves are doing their best to distance themselves from it. When a company is more ready to consider a cameo in another company’s game (see Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne) more canon than an actual instalment of the series itself, it gives you some indication of just how dire that offering must be. DMC3 puts you in the boots of a qualified badass and lets you go wild with some of the most demented attacks and weapons you’re ever likely to see – if you can find a weapon more spectacular than an electric guitar that doubles up as a scythe that also fires electrically charged bats with every riff that, fyi, was also originally a virtually naked succubus not ten minutes ago, for the love of all that is holy, keep it to yourself, less its magnificence tear the very fabric of the universe asunder!

Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening is, without a doubt, the craziest party you’re ever likely to visit. Let’s rock!

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Overclocked On Caffeine v.1.1 2009-07-13 03:34:00

Baroque

PS2

RPGs are a weird breed. For all the crowing made about pushing the boundaries of gameplay forward, by and large, the settings are inevitably the same: the same cod-Tolkein medieval landscape, the same large expanses of nothing with the same few hamlets and forests, and the obligatory village of ninjas and samurai, despite the rest of the world ostensibly taking place in 14th century Europe. And on the few occasions when they take place in a more modern or futuristic setting, there will always be, without fail, one person, more than likely the hero, running around with a sword. Or a laser sword.

In any case, it’s rare that anyone actually tries to do something different with the setting. There has never been, to the best of my knowledge, an RPG set in the Renaissance. I’ve never seen a film noir strategy game, and if you want something in a recognisable modern day setting, if you don’t like the Shin Megami Tensei series, you’re pretty much boned.

Baroque is something different. Following a catastrophe that nearly destroyed the world, known as The Blaze, the land is left in a twisted state. Twisted abominations known as ‘meta-beings’ roam the earth. The only semblance of order and authority comes from the False Angels of the Order of Malkuth. Their leader, the Archangel, claims to have God trapped at the bottom of their former headquarters, the Neuro Tower, and charges the main character with purifying her. If he does so, he will receive absolution for the terrible sins he has committed – sins he has trouble even remembering.

Right from the off, you’re thrust into a landscape charitably described as ‘hellish’. The sky is a painful crimson, the buildings crumbling down to girders and rusted metal gratings and beyond that, blasted sand as far as the eye can see. The only building of any real worth in the area is the Neuro Tower, home to the game’s main quest. The area’s not completely devoid of inhabitants: there are several people in the area you can talk to who will offer help and advice, after a fashion. The Bagged One will hold items for you, the Coffin Man talks about building the world’s greatest dungeon (goddamnit), while the Baroquemonger will read any Idea Sephirah, glowing pearls that contain the thoughts and feelings of its former owner, that you’ve found. Other characters, like the neurotic Longneck, the cryptic Horned Girl, and the worryingly pleasant Bagged One offer up interesting tidbits of background and advice depending on your actions. Eventually, you head towards the tower. As you near it, a vision of the Archangel appears and hands you the Angelic Rifle, reminding you of your mission to purify God. Picking it up, you enter the tower, and the game proper begins.

Baroque is a Roguelike, a modern-day version of the classic dungeon-crawlers of yore, exemplified by games like Diablo 2, Azure Dreams, Nethack, and, to a lesser extent, games like the Marvel Ultimate Alliance series, and that means one thing: crushing difficulty. If you haven’t already noticed by this point, you have two main meters onscreen: the first is your health, which is pretty self-explanatory. If you take damage, it recharges itself over time as long as you avoid more hits. The other is your vitality meter. No matter what you do, this is always ticking down. When it empties, it starts draining your life meter at the same rate until you die, so its in your best interests to keep it topped up as much as possible. There’s a few ways to do this, but the main way should clue you in to what kind of game this really is:

You eat the hearts of your fallen enemies.

Yes, for all it’s RPG trappings, Baroque is really closer to the survival horror genre. The environments are lifted right out of Silent Hill, the atmosphere out of a David Lynch movie and the enemies right out of that unsettling dream you could never quite remember. They start off reasonably enough – mutant fish, hopping bugs that are easier to step on than hit with your sword – but before long, you’re encountering wicker and mesh manikins that fire balls of dark electricity at you, fake walls with grotesque faces that try to consume you, and floating monstrosities with more appendages and status effect attacks than is strictly necessary. This is a game that manages to put the creatures of Silent Hill, long a World Leader in the export of Freaky Shit to shame, though they’re usually less outright horrifying, and the sense of isolation is easily on a par with it. You never really get to a point where you feel capable of taking on everything with ease: in the back of your mind, you always know there’s a trap or a group of enemies that will shut you down for good, so you’re always on your toes. And all the while, you’re eating the hearts, flesh and bones of your foes. No one said this was a happy game, after all.

Eventually, after some probable mishaps, you will encounter the God of the Order of Malkuth, and more than likely do as instructed by the Archangel. One confusing cutscene later, you’ll be dumped back outside the tower with none of your equipment or levels, and even less of an idea of what’s going on. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the two core mechanics of the game. The first is that you’re going to be assaulting the tower. A lot. Be prepared to restart from nothing repeatedly, because that’s the only way to unlock the story and further floors of the tower. Woe betide anyone who forgot to give Eliza their Idea Sephirah on the 15th floor, because you’re going to have to do the entire thing aaaaall over again. Granted, while the tower itself is always randomized, the NPCs that appear on each floor are almost always on the same floors, so if you screw up, really the only one at fault is you. Thankfully, you’ll level up fairly rapidly just by killing enemies as they appear, and items are always plentiful, so a lot of the time, restarting is more of a hinderance than a game-breaking flaw.

Of course, you’ll want to repeat the tower, because this is the only way you’ll uncover the other main draw of the game: the storyline. It’s drip-fed to you in the most agonizing way possible. At the start, all you’ll know is that the world is ruined, and that, somehow, you were the one responsible for this. As you continue to assault the tower, you start piecing together the background to the story. You’re told fairly early on that the Archangel knows more than he’s letting on, which even the least attentive of players will have worked out, but then you begin to start understanding how much he’s not telling you. Then you find out exactly what happened. To the game’s credit, no matter what you thought was going on, somehow, it’s even more twisted than you ever dared imagine. It’s almost a shame that Baroque isn’t a more traditional RPG as the darkness of the story is easily one of the most intriguing I’ve ever encountered. It’s so hideously warped, and it’s a wonder that it manages to surpass even the darkest of expectations, and if I could recommend a game based solely on its premise alone, this would be getting the highest marks imaginable.

Unfortunately, I can’t and I have to judge it on gameplay, and there’s several gaping flaws here, first and foremost being the difficulty. It’s a Roguelike, so you expect there to be a steep learning curve attached, but somehow the game manages to outdo itself at every turn. It’s hard to feel like you’re making any progress at first, and when you finally start gaining some ground, you’re inevitably dumped back outside with no equipment again. Characters will eventually start dropping hints as to what to do to – how anyone would work out what ‘pure water’ actually means without a gigantic leap of logic is beyond me – but the going is slow, and the majority of players will drop out long before they uncover the good stuff.

Secondly, for all the items the game throws at you, it’s oddly stingy in some respects. Good weapons and armour are maddeningly difficult to acquire, and wandering around with a Puny coat and Junk sword does nothing for morale. That wouldn’t be so bad if, like in other Roguelikes, items to power up your equipment were plentiful, but here, you’ll be lucky to encounter a single stat-up item every half-dozen tower runs. Of course, that doesn’t stop certain enemies tossing around weapon-degrading attacks like confetti at a funeral. Keeping items from run to run is also needlessly hard. On certain floors, you’ll encounter a fixture known as a Consciousness Orb. As well as being an important plot element, any one item, and one item only, thrown in will appear in the item collector’s inventory back in the town. You’re guaranteed to encounter at least two on the final (enemy-free) floor of the dungeon, allowing you to keep your sword and armour between runs. Unfortunately, you’re not likely to encounter many more than that. So if you also happen to find a really awesome item the level before that you’d like to keep for the next journey, tough noogies, it ain’t happening. It adds a maddening degree of unfairness to an already hard game. Surely letting us keep anything equipped, and using the orbs to send back extra goodies would be a far better idea, with the bonus of making the game that little less masochistically hard.

It’s a shame that the difficulty and repetition will put of just about everyone who plays Baroque, because in every other way, this really is a fantastic game. The levels are nicely atmospheric, the music is fantastic, a heavy industrial influence underscoring the journey well, the enemy designs are gleefully grotesque, even the swords are fascinating, being less sharp bits of iron, more borderline organic slabs of metal. There’s also a ton to unlock, with every voice clip and cutscene going into a gigantic directory, and an extensive list of every character and enemy in the game. If you have a high tolerance for basically restarting a game over and over again, or a lot of patience in the face of ludicrous difficulty, this is well worth a look. If, however, you’re like me, and just want to try something different, you could do a lot worse, and if you can get through the difficulty barrier, you’re in for a real treat. A shame then, that that single barrier will put off most everyone who’ll play it – even the ones who’d enjoy it most.

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