Portal [PC] – Review

Portal

I’m a little late to the party on this one but I finally beat Portal. It’s an ingenious puzzle game that doesn’t overstay its welcome. In fact, I was befuddled that it was over as quickly as it was. Since I’d heard so much revelry and acclaim for it and witnessed the cultural impact it’d had in the gaming space I just figured there’d be more of it. What was there engrossed me though. The increasingly complex puzzles were mentally stimulating and the enigmatic GlaDOS’ darkly humorous speech had me chuckling well into the few hour experience.

Portal was a puzzle game with an ingenious mechanic.
Portal was a puzzle game with an ingenious mechanic.

The game is built around the portal gun which allows users to shoot portals on flat surfaces. The portals are connected and can be easily referenced as an entry and exit. At its most basic use, I could place a portal on ground level, shoot the other portal on a wall above a higher level and use the portal to reach higher ground without using a ladder. Through the game’s nineteen test chambers, the quandaries were rarely this simplistic. The way I had to manipulate the portals was fascinating and thought-provoking. Dropping into one and utilizing the momentum to fling myself across the room was always amazing.

As I mentioned the game has nineteen test chambers that lock progression behind increasingly difficult puzzles. There are no other lifeforms present although observation windows and empty chairs indicate there were at some point. Guiding the player through these chambers is GlaDOS, a disembodied mechanical female voice. Her statements are delivered with a sense of dry, deadpan seriousness that are made clear when her motivations are discovered. Things are not what they seem and while there is no narrative, there’s an abundance of environmental storytelling that allows the player to fill in the gaps themselves. It all culminates in an appropriate ending sequence that was riddled with GlaDOS’ hilarious interruptions.

Infinite portal loops were easy to do and fun to witness.
Infinite portal loops were easy to do and fun to witness.

For most I’ve probably revealed nothing new about this game. Portal sent shockwaves through the gaming culture when it arrived in 2007 as a part of The Orange Box and is still highly regarded and oft-discussed. I’m glad to have finally experienced it and would recommend it to those who have yet to do so. The game was brief but left me both fulfilled and wanting, in a good way. I can only imagine the impact the modding community had on this title and I’m excited to see the crazy stuff they came up with.

Her Story [PC] – Review

Her Story

It’s no surprise that my playthrough of Her Story was unique. After all, it’s the type of game that walks the tightrope between video games and more generally, an interactive experience. In my case, it was a cooperative playthrough with a friend. We had returned from a local independent theatre after watching Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, a riotous Japanese language film. (Wowzidukes! This article is going to earn me so much hipster cred!) I rarely play PC games so this was somewhat unusual but I’d heard much of it through social media word of mouth and gaming sites last week, plus it was only five bucks. It was a good plunge to take too, as the game provided a fun cooperative experience.

The presentation of the game was top-notch. Notice the light glare on the CRT monitor!
The presentation of the game was top-notch. Notice the light glare on the CRT monitor!

Her Story revolves around a series of interviews that the police conducted with a British woman whose husband was found dead in 1994. These were filmed at the time but for whatever reason, are no longer able to view in their entirety. Instead the player can interact with a police computer and search a database that retrieves clips based on search terms or phrases. The corresponding video clips seemed to average about thirty seconds in length. It’s unclear what ever became of the woman and the police’s investigation, but it’s implied that’s what the player’s character is after and serves as motivation for the player.

The way the game is presented is nostalgic. The police computer that the player interacts with appears to be running a dated version of Windows on an equally ancient CRT monitor. When a search is conducted, it takes a second for the computer to produce the results and the work it performs is audible. The player isn’t locked to a single program however as there are a few .txt documents and a “rubbish bin” with a minigame on the desktop. Crucially, all of the video footage is rendered as full-motion video. FMV tends to be a divisive issue in terms of video games, but the execution of it here is perhaps the best example I’ve seen, even beating out the Mad Dog McCree trilogy!

The police computer in question, with the woman in question.
The police computer in question, with the woman in question.

I’ll save any sort of plot spoilers or ruminations for another article. The way everything played out led to a lot of discussion between my friend and I. After our initial playthrough, there were two obvious ways everything could’ve happened, but I think we’re still undecided on the truth. I’m looking forward to replaying it with him so we can take detailed notes and reach a verdict. That in itself is hardy praise for Her Story. I feel confident enough with my theory on what happened that I’d be satisfied enough to move on, but I want to fire it up again, and definitely will this weekend. It’s well worth a look.

Rise of the Dragon [Sega CD] – Review

Rise of the Dragon

Follow video games or movies closely enough and eventually you’ll see something likened to Blade Runner. I always knew of Blade Runner, but lacked the context that comes from having seen it. Finally, that moment came for me earlier this year and I’ve been able to continue the worn-out trend of likening other entertainment to it ever since. That trend continues with this write-up of Rise of the Dragon. Originally released on home computers in 1990, it was later released on the Sega CD in 1993 (1992 for those in Japan). It’s a graphic adventure so its focus is more on solving the mystery rather than gunning down criminals, although it has that too. I encountered a few lows and many dead ends playing it, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Oh yeah, this game was inspired by Blade Runner.
Oh yeah, this game was inspired by Blade Runner.

Just like Blade Runner, Rise of the Dragon is set in a cyberpunk version of Los Angeles, in this instance, in 2053. The protagonist – William “Blade” Hunter – is a former cop now operating as a private detective. The game follows his work on researching the death of the mayor’s daughter. While it’s known she succumbed to her drug addiction, the mayor wants Blade to bring the culprits to justice, not necessarily for the benefit of the public so much as his personal catharsis. However, what Blade becomes embroiled in winds up being much larger than lowlife druggies. Indeed, his investigations put him in the spotlight of an ancient Chinese prophecy forecasting the end of the world.

Very early on, even immediately, the supernatural elements are present. But, the majority of the game is quite grounded, for a game set in a dingy version of LA circa 2053, that is. Exploring a handful of locations throughout LA, Blade interacts with his environment and those in it. As a graphic adventure, this entailed me moving a cursor around the environment attempting to pick up or use objects, move about, and have conversations with others. Most conversations were lengthy and branching and highlighted the game’s full voiceover – unlike the PC releases. The cursor changed to indicate when an object could be interacted with, which was very helpful.

The voice work was plentiful, and not grating! Which is a compliment considering the time frame of its original release.
The voice work was plentiful, and not grating! Which is a compliment considering the time frame of its original release.

Late in the game, “arcade” sections were also present. These shifted the gameplay from the cerebral investigative fare that composed the majority of the game to shoddy action-platforming levels that played like a bad NES movie tie-in. The diversity was appreciated, especially in a genre that I view as very narrow in terms of the way players interact with it (which admittedly, a genre I’m not the most familiar with) but these sections were downright awful. Everything about them: the character movement, platforming, and gunplay, was imprecise and just not fun. A noble attempt by the developers, but this style of game was obviously not their specialty. Thankfully, they were a minor portion and not too difficult to conquer.

Worse than the “arcade” sections was the fact that I had to restart this game twice. The first time was the game’s fault entirely. When I moved an ID card from Blade’s inventory to the environment he was in, it changed into a bomb, exploded, and disappeared. I didn’t realize this at the time and it was only when I was at one of the myriad of dead ends I encountered that I turned to GameFAQs to realize I was lacking this crucial item. Not happy, but I restarted anyways. Then, I screwed myself over losing access to not one, but both of the guns Blade acquires throughout the four days the game covers. Again, I restarted. These instances were a blessing though, as I was able to blow through all I had previously accomplished and became very familiar with the first ¾ of the game. These were disheartening events in the moment, but not so much that they lingered with me and colored my overall experience negatively.

Rise of the Dragon - Spare Me
The arcade sections were Rough (with a capital R).

As far as Sega CD games go, Rise of the Dragon ranks high on the list of quality experiences. It’s an enjoyable graphic adventure full of mystery and intrigue. The full voiceover honestly astounded me too, not just because it was present, but in part because it wasn’t totally garbage. Despite encountering many dead ends and having to turn to GameFAQs often, the majority of the game was fun to experience. Of course, the “arcade” sections weren’t and neither was having to restart twice, but these negative aspects didn’t turn me away. Rise of the Dragon is a worthwhile game in any Sega CD collection.

Also, I did a comprehensive playthrough of this game and published the series on YouTube. The playlist below includes the ten episodes I recorded which translates to roughly five hours with the game and chronicles everything from the game’s conclusion to the multiple times I had to start from scratch.

Alien 3 [Sega Genesis] – Review

Alien 3

Truly my foray into the Alien franchise began with Alien Trilogy on the PlayStation, although I’ve barely touched that game. It began in earnest after watching Prometheus, an “unofficial” movie in the series, although it’s about as official as anything else if you ask me. I’ve now watched all movies in the franchise and am ready to dive into the related games and feel confident in my understanding of the source material. It helped too! I can comprehend the mediocrity of Alien 3 on the Sega Genesis a little more knowing that the movie it’s based on is of the same quality.

Of the “five” movies, I’d put Alien 3 at the bottom of the list. This is to say, I didn’t begin playing the Genesis game with much optimism. On the whole, I thought the movie was rather brown and monotonous visually, and the game didn’t shake this aura early on. It looks to have a few different environments to be fair, but I didn’t witness these firsthand. The gameplay was related to the events of the movie too but skewed (and omitted) the storyline in favor of more action.

Most stages tasked Ripley with rescuing the prisoners of Fiorina 161 and combating the aliens.  The stages needed to be completed in a set amount of time and this was hard to do the first time through. Most took a few attempts to learn where the aliens popped up and rushed me and where the prisoners were. Locating the prisoners wasn’t so bad (I had to explore the stages anyways, right?) but constantly getting bum rushed by the aliens grew annoying. Often, they’d materialize at the edge of the screen as I progressed. They’d quickly charge and if I didn’t immediately start shooting, I would take damage. This led to much trial and error.

Hostages were abound, but aliens were more prevalent.
Hostages were abound, but aliens were more prevalent.

This sounds like a lot of negativity towards Alien 3. You want the lowdown though? I only progressed to the third stage and the game has twelve! I had no idea it was that beefy until I did further research. This being the case, I would only take this review as my experiences with a minority of the game and not a comprehensive examination of it. After seeing that I barely scraped the surface I am interested in playing more of it, but not because what I experienced was such a joy to play. I was oddly compelled to continue playing it, even when I felt like many of my deaths were cheap, so take that as you will.

Zoo Keeper [Nintendo DS] – Review

Zoo Keeper

Zoo Keeper is a game that has intrigued me since the early days of the Nintendo DS. In North America, it was the first game to release outside of the system’s launch window. A launch window that was a veritable drought – after the system’s November 21, 2004 launch, there weren’t any releases until this January 18, 2005 title. Even then, I don’t recall there being an actual noteworthy release until June 14, 2005 – Kirby: Canvas Curse. My curiosity in this game shouldn’t be construed as a belief in its quality either; after ten years of thinking about it, I refrained from hyping myself up for it which was a good call, as it’s merely a basic match-three puzzle game.

You crazy lion.
You crazy lion.

There are a handful of modes available to play, each a variation on the familiar match-three gameplay present in many like puzzle games. The quest mode in particular is quite ingenuitive. It’s not a beefy affair however, nor is there a lengthy distraction present. The drive for high scores or killing time would have to be one’s long-range motivator with this game. Fortunately, the underlying gameplay is solid and enjoyable. Bearing in mind that this released a year or two before the dawn of the App Store, this was a predecessor of sorts to the touch-controlled match-three games that are a deluge now. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly progressive in what it is – it’s just a basic, solid puzzle game that incorporated touch controls well.

The scoring in quest mode was unlike anything I've seen.
The scoring in quest mode was unlike anything I’ve seen.

It’s worth noting that I have played an Android version of Zoo Keeper in my ten year quest to experience this version. A year or so ago I downloaded a multiplayer focused version and had little more than a passing session with it. That says nothing of its quality and perhaps everything with my desire to abstain and experience the Nintendo DS game fresh. Ironically, I wound up not spending too much time with it either – no more than a few hours. Again, that says nothing of its quality. As I mentioned before, it’s a basic puzzle game that plays well. It may have curried more favor with me before my exposure to the match-three hell (heaven?) that is mobile gaming. It has a cute art style too.

Virtua Racing Deluxe – Sega 32X [Review]

Virtua Racing Deluxe

Having completed Doom on the Sega 32X, I decided to spend some substantial time with the only other 32X game in my possession: Virtua Racing Deluxe. Originally released as an arcade game in late 1992, it is one of video game’s polygonal pioneers. Nowadays, it looks extremely primitive, although it’s still a joy to play. As it originated in Sega’s AM2 division, this is no surprise; they were led by Yu Suzuki – one of video game’s greatest designers. Released in late 1994, the 32X version is scaled down graphically, but expands upon the arcade game in content.

So yeah, that's positively the Golden Gate Bridge.
So yeah, that’s positively the Golden Gate Bridge.

I don’t have any nostalgia for games with this sort of graphical fidelity and the few that I’ve played retroactively have been unpleasant. Those that I have played seemed to have been notable only for their choppy graphical prowess at the time and were otherwise unenjoyable. I was blown away then when this game not only moved at a fast clip, but was highly responsive and a blast to play! It’s a stepdown visually when compared to the original but still remains palatable. It also features significant pop-in, but it wasn’t so abhorrent that it impacted my performance.

There were five stages to race on and three vehicles to choose from – two more of each than the arcade game. Each of the stages and vehicles required a different sort of finesse to achieve greatness. Lacking a career mode, the motivating force for solo play was high scores, or rather, best times. Placing first in the field of sixteen was a tall order, and my best after an hour is second place. The responsiveness of the vehicles and the limited time involvement required saw me continuously attempting to best my computer opponents. A split-screen multiplayer mode is available for two players although I haven’t tried it yet. My biggest fear is slowdown which, to be fair wasn’t an issue in my solo sessions.

I liked racing with the zoomed out camera angle - although some structures conflicted with it.
I liked racing with the zoomed out camera angle – although some structures conflicted with it.

The enjoyment I had with Virtua Racing Deluxe came as a surprise to me. I had doubts about it based on my past experience with primitive polygonal games. Any doubts I had were erased when I grabbed the controller. It was as fast-paced and responsive as any other racing game of the time period, and perhaps more so. Although my exposure to the 32X library is limited at this point, I feel confident in asserting that this is one of the premier titles on the platform.

Doom [Sega 32X] – Review

Doom

Who can say what sparked it, but one evening Jeff and I played the Sega 32X. It’s an add-on for the Sega Genesis that increased its power but never proved successful for a variety of reasons, namely poor timing. Its library rounds out at about forty titles which pales in comparison to the nine hundred plus that the Genesis hosted. Along with it, I also have a Sega CD which makes setup an absolute chore. There are three power bricks (although only two are needed if the Sega CD isn’t being utilized), an A/V cable connecting the Genesis and 32X, and an A/V cable connecting the monstrosity to the TV. Our session was a memorable one though, so it was worth it.

With such a limited library there aren’t a lot of options, especially when I only have a few games. The two that we spent the most time with were Virtua Racing Deluxe and Doom. As he’s not partial to racing games we barely touched VRD. That game’s primitive polygonal graphics can be off-putting at first, but I was surprised at how fast and responsive the game was; it’s definitely a worthwhile title. Therefore, we spent our time with Doom. Our session lasted a couple of hours, and we wound up making it to the final stage*.

One knock against the 32X version is the limited real estate devoted to the game screen.
One knock against the 32X version is the limited real estate devoted to the game screen.

His experience with Doom supersedes mine, having played it on PC closer to its cultural explosion. My first gameplay exposure came with the Xbox Live Arcade release. I couldn’t tell you what went through my head then, but I don’t remember being blown away, even considering the context of its release. After all, this was the most significant of the early first-person shooters and became one of the most popular, if not played, video games up to that point in time. Honestly, I wasn’t particularly jazzed about playing the 32X version but it’s hard to ignore how well-made it is, even this version.

For hours, we blasted demons with a handful of weapons and searched for keycards in order to open locked doors and progress to each level’s exit. That took place across fifteen-odd levels, with one or two focusing on a boss fight rather than exploration. On paper, this all sounds monotonous, but the gameplay was quite fun. It was a fast-paced shooter and the stages and enemy encounters never felt duplicated, despite a limited palette of either. Undoubtedly, playing with a friend and taking turns completing levels enhanced my enjoyment.

Doomguy, now's not the time for knock knock jokes!
Doomguy, now’s not the time for knock knock jokes!

This newfound enjoyment and appreciation of Doom surprises even me, considering I really enjoyed Doom 3 – a game most others didn’t. I’m contemplating more Doom and my next steps branch two ways. The 32X version was a port of the PC original which hadn’t even fully released at the time, so I haven’t completely seen Doom (which this FAQ detailing version differences is just phenomenal). I’ll either start up the XBLA release or the version included with the Doom 3 Limited Collector’s Edition. I’ve also never played Doom II: Hell on Earth so that’s a natural progression too. Either way, I’m excited to play more Doom. I guess that’s one redeeming quality for the 32X.

* The final stage to reach the credits. If we had reached the same stage on a harder difficulty, there were actually two more stages.

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