Top 10 Games I Played in 2011

In remembrance of 2011, I thought I’d compile a list of what I thought were the ten best games I played this year. Considering that I don’t play a ton of recent releases, a lot of this list will be older games. As anyone who reads this blog will note, that’s in line with what I actually play. Rather than ranking these games, I’ll simply alphabetize the list.

Animal Crossing: City Folk – This game is up there with Skyrim in the amount of time I devote to it. It’s awfully familiar to previous games in the series but I still find it as addictive as ever. I also had fun getting my friend into it and playing with him.

Batman: Arkham City – What a game! I loved Arkham Asylum and this game upped the ante in so many ways. Such a large environment with so much to do!

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Although I haven’t played a ton of this yet, I’ve already enjoyed it a great deal.

Final Fantasy XII – I can’t imagine I’ll ever like a Japanese RPG more than I like this game. Square Enix took everything to a whole other level with this game.

Gears of War 3 – The best in the series. The best playing, the most expansive content-wise, the best in every regard.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – This series holds a soft spot in my heart and this game did so many things right that made the similar format feel fresh.

Mass Effect 2 – I had so much fun discussing this game with others, more importantly though, I had so much fun playing this. The gameplay was much improved over the first game  and even though there were a lot of things taken out, the options I had were still astounding.

Mansion of Hidden Souls – An unusual pick for sure but this game turned my friend and I onto an unfamiliar genre and we’ve had a lot of fun solving puzzles in similar games since playing this.

Vanquish – Platinum Games took the usually slow moving military third-person shooter and blended it with Japanese quirks. A fantastical futuristic setting, a story with some ridiculous moments, a lot of great set pieces, and super fun and fast-paced gameplay.

You Don’t Know Jack – A stellar mulitplayer game that received a ton of rotation at my house. A great value.

Alfhedil’s Journal – Fredas, 21st of Last Seed, 4E 201

A resident of Whiterun, Ysolda wanted me to fetch her a mammoth tusk.

It’s only my second journal entry and I feel like I’ve accomplished so much since I last wrote. When I last wrote, I had only left Riverwood to retrieve the shopkeeper’s golden claw. Not forgetting that I promised Alvor to send message of the dragon attack on Helgen to the Jarl of Whiterun, I promptly left Riverwood.

It was not a short trip, but not terribly lengthy either; a few hours by foot. I couldn’t help admiring my surrounding on the way. I stuck mostly to a well-traveled path but I ran into much wildlife, including a deer, wolves, rabbits, and much fauna. Unfortunately I also ran into a wood elf selling questionable items; he attacked me for my inquisitive nature. I’m saddened to have taken his life but he made it clear it was my life or his.

After following the path for a few hours I spotted Whiterun. Before making it into town, I stopped by a few small farms and Honningbrew Meadery, all on the outskirts of Whiterun. Word had already reached Whiterun of the dragon attack and they were hesitant to let me in, less so when I told them I came bearing information. Since word had already reached Whiterun, I decided to explore the town and meet its residents, plus I was tired.

Whiterun is many times larger than Riverwood. Riverwood was a quaint village by the river’s edge, apparently most known for the small lumber operation there. They had a few cottages as well as the inn, shop, and Alvor the smith, but Whiterun houses at least three times Riverwood’s population. Needless to say I met many people who had many errands that I can help out with and make some coin.

After speaking with so many residents, I learned much about a feud between two clans, the Battle-Borns and the Gray-Manes. The Battle-Borns support the Imperials while the Gray-Manes support the Stormcloaks; I wonder if this civil war between the Nords is as large as these past few days have made it seem to be?

Before meeting the Jarl I also joined the Companions. This guild or mercenary band or whatever they claim to be say that they fight for those who wish not to, albeit for a price. I’ll be able to get much experience from my fellow companions and make a little money to boot!

I originally thought Jarl was a person’s name but in the land Skyrim it means the ruler of a hold, such as Whiterun. The Jarl of Whiterun was Balgruuf the Greater and he was a good guy. He was eager to hear what I had to say. After hearing of the dragon attack he introduced me to Farengar Secret-Fire, the Jarl’s court wizard and resident expert on sideburns. He was very interested in dragons and wanted me to retrieve a dragonstone from Bleak Falls Barrow. Thank goodness I kept that from a few days ago! Before we could continue chatting word reached the Jarl that a dragon had attacked a watchtower to the west of Whiterun. He sent Irileth, a dark elf, a group of soldiers, and I to investigate.

The tower was destroyed and there were smoldering fires when we arrived, definitely similar to Helgen and sure enough, a dragon appeared not soon after we arrived. It was a ridiculously tough battle but the half dozen of us managed to defeat the dragon, not without loss of life however.

A strange thing happened when the dragon died. Somehow I began sucking in the dragon’s soul or something like that and all of sudden I felt very powerful. The soldiers began speculating that I was a dragonborn. I’m not sure what this means but after they provoked me to yell, something magical happened; I let out a ferocious yell that a normal person should not be capable of.

Upon returning to the Jarl and telling him of this he assured me that I was a dragonborn and someone very special. He indicated that I should travel to High Hrothgar and speak with the Greybeards. Balgruff also gave me the title of Thane which makes a local hero and appointed Irileth to follow me; and to think I’ve only been in Skyrim for a few days. Balgruuf didn’t make much clear but the way he talked about High Hrothgar and the Greybeards leads me to believe they’re very important. I guess I’ll find out soon enough…

Alfhedil’s Journal – Middas, 19th of Last Seed, 4E 201

Alfhedil's adventure begins!
I received The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for Christmas and I finally began playing it today. For many reasons, I got the idea of doing a journal from the perspective of Alfhedil, my character. I will compile each post on the page labeled Alfhedil’s Journal; there’s more information there. Now, let’s begin…

I survived! Just as I was about to beheaded, a dragon caused a ruckus and I was able to get to safety. But that begs another question. Where’d that dragon come from? They haven’t been seen for hundreds of years. This journey began as I tried to cross into Skyrim…

I was to be beheaded along with a group of Stormcloaks, the Skyrim loyalists who are attempting to break from Imperial control. As I laid my head on the chopping block that dragon came out of nowhere, killing many, and practically destroying Helgen, the town I was brought to. The dragon caused chaos; it was remarkable how powerful it was! Luckily, Hadvar, a fellow Nord and I escaped via a tunnel and we made it to safety after fighting a handful of Stormcloaks.

When we were safe, he and I made our way to Riverwood, a small village nearby. Hadvar’s uncle, Alvor lived there and he promised me shelter. Hadvar is a member of the Imperial Legion and suggested that I should join and fight the Stormcloaks. Nord’s like us aren’t common among the Legion ranks but he was very convincing in his reasoning. He believed the Imperials offered the best chance for peace. I shan’t make a decision yet. I’ve only been in Skyrim a few days and need to get my bearings.

While in Riverwood I met with many, if not every, resident and offered to lend a hand to the shop owner, who just recently had a valuable item stolen from him. With a lead I traveled to Bleak Falls Barrow, a nearby Nordic shrine. Sure enough there were many bandits there and I did come across the shop keeper’s item. He rewarded me with a meager amount of gold but I was glad to help; I feel better introduced to my surroundings and the people now.

It’s been a rough couple of days and it looks like there’s much ahead of me. Alvor wants me to travel to Whiterun to send word of the dragon attack to a person named Jarl. Hadvar has been very persuasive in recruiting me for the Imperial Legion, but it’s no time to make a decision. Tomorrow I must head for Whiterun and deliver Alvor’s message.

The Maw – Review

Like a computer-animated film in video game form.

Twisted Pixel has been making a name for themselves in the past few years for developing critically and commercially successful games on the Xbox 360. Their first stepping stone to prominence was The Maw, released for Xbox Live Arcade on January 21, 2009 via publisher Microsoft Game Studios.

The Maw opens up with a cutscene showing Frank, the alien I controlled, getting thrown into a jail cell. Riding in a space ship that soon crashed, there were creatures all around Frank, most importantly was the Maw. After the crash Frank and the Maw were on their way to freedom. They soon came upon these small, cute creatures, which the Maw happily ate. After eating a few more he grew larger. This trend continued throughout the game and the Maw became enormous. There were some creatures that also gave the Maw special abilities.

The abilities were interesting but they didn’t stave off the boredom that grew on me. I had to feed the Maw until we were able to continue on to the next area or stage and that was it. The abilities added a new element, break this or fly over that, but I still needed to eat a lot of creatures. I led the Maw around each stage as I attempted to find more edible creatures and this didn’t do it for me.

Throughout the game there was one aspect I really enjoyed and that was the cutscenes. They were told exclusively through body language and they routinely put a smile on my face. Frank and the Maw had a good chemistry and it seemed like they needed each other to succeed; one was the brains and the other was the brawn.

Frank could make the Maw crash into the ground and break objects when he was in this mode.

I didn’t really enjoy the gameplay of The Maw but it was short enough that by the time I got bored with it I was close enough to beating it to simply plow through. The highlight for me was the production. Twisted Pixel had a solid vision for the game and they nailed it. The visuals and soundtrack were comparable to a CGI movie and the interactions between Frank and the Maw routinely put a smile on my face. Not too shabby for an initial stepping stone.


In Between Posts, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas! I woke up this morning with sleep crystals in my eyes and gazed upon the gifts that Santa left me last night and found… Skyrim! Many other great gifts too. I enjoyed being with my family and later on, visiting with my girlfriend’s. Hopefully everyone else had a pleasant day as well.

After completing Skyward Sword earlier in the week I needed a quick game to get me through to Skyrim and that game was The Maw for Xbox Live Arcade. I’ll post a review over that tomorrow.

I probably won’t get to play Skyrim until Tuesday but I have something interesting in mind for it… I will play some games tomorrow with my pal and then in the evening it’s off to a friend’s wedding. Expect some posts soon.

Also, my friend wrote his review of The Bouncer so check it out!

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – Bundle Review

A special edition Wii Remote Plus and a soundtrack CD come packed in with the special bundle of Skyward Sword.

Seeing as how The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword requires the Wii MotionPlus add-on or a Wii Remote Plus, it makes sense that Nintendo would also sell Skyward Sword bundled with one. What’s great about the bundled Wii Remote Plus is that it isn’t a stock vanilla controller, it’s gold and emblazoned with Triforce insignia. It looks nice and the form factor matches that of a normal Wii Remote which is good; the Wii Motion`Plus accessory adds a few inches to a standard controller. Too bad there wasn’t a matching gold nunchuk though.

Also with the bundle, and with every copy of the game I believe, is a soundtrack CD celebrating the series’ 25th anniversary. About half are medleys or symphonic movements with the rest being specific songs from the series. The medleys combine many games while the symphonic movements hone in on one game in particular, either The Wind Waker or Twilight Princess. At first I liked the songs better because they were easy to identify and they weren’t such a time investment, but after listening to the CD for a few days, the longer tracks grew on me. They were all done with a symphony too, real instruments!

The bundle was a good value at seventy dollars when it originally came out, a little less so for me since I already had a Wii MotionPlus, but I had to get that Zelda memorabilia! Now it seems to be going for at least one hundred dollars on the internet and that’s ridiculous. Unless you’re just hurting to get the special Wii Remote Plus, I’d hold off on the bundle because it’s the only unique thing in it.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – Review

Best game in the series?

When I think of a category of games and attempt to decide which is best, I end up with what the first was and what the best was since then. Whatever game did something first receives a lot of weight because it initiated a concept or formula. Everything to come in that game’s wake can improve upon concepts and formulas however and excel past the original in many ways, but the original always holds a special place. Keeping with this idea, I believe The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the best 3D Zelda game since Ocarina of Time.

Why do I feel that way about Skyward Sword, the most recent game in the series? It seems like during the development of Twilight Princess the developers had Ocarina of Time forefront in their mind and the goal of being bigger and better. Twilight Princess is definitely a fantastic game but thanks to the visual style, it felt very similar to Ocarina of Time and not necessarily a step forward for the series. I feel during Skyward Sword’s development, the developers now had the idea of doing something new within the familiar Zelda format. I believe this can be attributed to the inclusion of enhanced motion controls.

Because of the inclusion requirement of the Wii MotionPlus, enemies and puzzles seem fresh. There are many familiar enemies but defeating them requires evaluation. Common enemies like the goblins could block my attacks so I couldn’t just wail on them. There are a ton of new enemies that require special methods to defeat too. Puzzles were devised around the 1:1 movements that the controller would pick up and they were fulfilling. My movements weren’t picked up exactly 100% of the time and when this happened, it was annoying.

When the motion controls didn't work in a fight, it could be devastating.

With the developers having to develop around the new functions, it brought the concept of doing something new to other areas of the game, like the soundtrack. It’s performed by an actual orchestra for the first time in the series, and it sounds good! I heard some very unusual songs (that I enjoyed) throughout dungeons. Overall, it helped to set the mood when exploring and matched the tone of touching moments, and there were a lot of touching moments between Link and Zelda.

In Skyward Sword, Link and Zelda are just normal kids. Well, normal kids who then realize that they were chosen by the deity Hylia to save the world. The game’s introduction sets up their relationship as well as the relationships between their neighbors. They felt like normal kids instead of a princess and a hero destined to save her. The quest was enthralling, although a little tedious to always chase after items that are in multiple pieces. It makes sense to have checks and balances but at some point you’d think all these supreme beings would realize all I’ve gone through and say “yeah, you’ve proved yourself already, here you go”. In the end, there was a lot of interesting information dropped on me about the historical chain of events relating to Skyward Sword and the series in general and the last couple of hours were packed with memorable moments for the Zelda fan.

One thing that helped to make Skyward Sword feel fresh was the visuals and the setting. As I mentioned in my first impressions of the game, Skyward Sword features an interesting art style that looks fantastic on the less than stellar powerhouse that is the Nintendo Wii. Skyward Sword isn’t set in traditional Hyrule though. Instead, Skyloft, a floating island in the sky acts as Link’s home base. With many shops and residents with side quests, I had plenty of reasons to return throughout the quest. In the sky were a handful of other floating islands and it was a large overworld, but it took too long to get places and there wasn’t really a lot to do. To get to the ground though, where all the dungeons were, I’d have to fall through holes in the clouds.

Getting to the dungeons required traversal of many other obstacles including forests, oceans of sands, and volcanoes. Getting to the actual dungeons were challenges in themselves. The surface areas were not entirely accessible from the beginning and I returned to and uncovered much more about them with each return.

Skyward Sword had an interesting cast of characters.

Skyward Sword is a much fresher Zelda experience than Twilight Princess was. It’s still a Zelda game through and through with a similar format and story but it shines brighter because of what it requires. Combat and puzzle solving has been reinvigorated thanks to the 1:1 movements. The surrounding elements feel fresh and are enthralling too. Skyward Sword is a fantastic Zelda game and a fantastic game in general, worthy of being placed together with any recent release.


Blue Toad Murder Files: Little Riddle’s Deadly Dilemma – Review

The four detectives players get to play as.

Blue Toad Murder Files in its entirety consists of six episodic downloads wherein one to four players assumes the role of a detective and solves crimes. The first episode, Little Riddle’s Deadly Dilemma is available for free on the PlayStation Network and my friend and I recently played through it.

Developed and published by UK based Relentless Software, Blue Toad Murder Files is a departure from what they’re known for: the Buzz! series. At the same time, they’ve used their experience and crafted a game that is fun with friends, cooperatively or competitively.

Set in a picturesque British village with banal villagers who talk in a nearly foreign tongue, to me (an American) Blue Toad Murder Files seems as British as it gets. But that’s part of the game’s charm. When it comes to detectives, Sherlock Holmes and the work of Agatha Christie are forefront in my mind, never mind that Hercule Poirot is Belgian…

Anyways, my friend and I soon witnessed the mayor of Little Riddle get shot and we began questioning the villagers attempting to find the culprit. Nearly every time we talked with someone they had a puzzle for us. We were supposed to solve these ourselves but we worked cooperatively. The puzzles reminded me of the ones I saw in Professor Layton and the Curious Village. Puzzles didn’t fall into one category and for all twelve of them we were asked to do something different. The difficulty was well paced and we had fun attempting to get the gold medal on each one.

The old lady provides a memorable recurring event.

Blue Toad Murder Files: Little Riddle’s Deadly Dilemma couldn’t be tackled in a free fashion; it was a guided adventure that gave us all the information it had and then tasked us with putting it all together and coming to a conclusion. I loved the setting and the character’s and dug the variety of the puzzles. It took us about an hour to play through and I suspect we might play through the rest. If that’s the case, expect another write-up over the game in full.


The Bouncer – Review

Tough guy.

Surprised by how much I enjoyed the Streets of Rage games earlier this year, I look upon beat ‘em ups in a new light nowadays. However I have yet to play one in 3D, disregarding games which feature beat ‘em gameplay but rely on many more elements, like Batman: Arkham City. Therefore The Bouncer is my first foray into a 3D beat ‘em up with a traditional, simpler focus.

The Bouncer was released very early on in the PlayStation 2’s life cycle. It was developed collaboratively by Square and Dream Factory and published by Square Electronic Arts on March 5, 2001. With Square being more familiar with RPGs, I assume most of the game’s development was handled by Dream Factory, known for fighting games with minor RPG elements at the time. Regardless of the pedigree, The Bouncer is a beat ’em up.

The Bouncer follows a group of three bouncers as they rescue their kidnapped friend. Sion, Volt, and Kou are all working when Dominique, a young girl who Sion recently found, gets captured by ninja-like thugs. As they search for Dominique, they get involved with a major corporation run by a megalomaniac named Dauragon. He is the root cause for their woes and they deal with him and others as they get closer to finding Dominique and unraveling Dauragon’s plans.

It's easy to know how many enemies are left and their health thanks to the heads-up display.

It took less than two hours to complete The Bouncer and I liked the pacing of events. Unlike an RPG which may resolve a minor story thread over the span of hours, The Bouncer introduced a few key players early on and dealt with them over the short run time. I didn’t know a lot about the characters, but I didn’t need back story to understand them. Sion had strong feelings for Dominque and wanted to rescue her. Dauragon had a complicated past that shed light on his reasoning for kidnapping Dominque, but then the plot in general snowballed into craziness.

Whereas the older beat ‘em ups are primarily gameplay with little story development, The Bouncer is mostly story with minor gameplay bits. I haven’t tested it myself but some say that 2/3 of The Bouncer is cutscenes, and that sounds right and maybe for the best.

I didn’t like The Bouncer’s gameplay. Attacks felt like one-time affairs that could rarely evolve into a combo and never be chained with another attack. I had four attacks: low, medium, and high as well as a jump attack. I never mixed and matched attacks with any success and combos were short bursts of the same attack dependent upon how much pressure I applied to the attack button; The Bouncer took advantage of the PS2s unique pressure sensitivity feature. I found that I could lightly press the high three times and get a nice combo and I stuck with this.

Because attacks felt like one-time affairs, the combat felt stilted, very stop and go. The same can be said for the overall pacing of The Bouncer. I’d witness a few cutscenes and then get to play, only to defeat two enemies and watch more cutscenes. I found it jarring how little I spent actually playing the game. Most of the combat took place in closed off areas resembling arenas with only a few stages requiring me to get from point A to B. Some of the stages lasted less than a minute.

When I did get to play the game I had the option of choosing which bouncer I wanted to play as. They each had their own stats that could be upgraded. Implementing an element of RPGs, I gained experience from each enemy I took out. I could then apply the experience to level up Sion, Volt, or Kou’s health, power, or defense, or use the experience to learn a special attack. I stuck with Sion and focused on boosting his stats and it had a noticeable effect.

Tetsuya Nomura received the first credit in the game, character designer. His work here is reminiscent of his other work, notably Kingdom Hearts.

The Bouncer, my first foray into a traditional 3D beat ‘em up was lackluster. The gameplay was rough around the edges, what little of it there was. The addition of the experience system is actually a solid idea and tied with the game’s short length and multiple playable characters, it’s conducive to me playing more of the game. In retrospect, maybe I should’ve given more credence to the pedigree, because at the time Square seemed more interested in making movies, not beat ‘em ups.


In Between Posts, December 18, 2011

Finally got some time with Skyward Sword this week. I believe I’m wrapping it up and if correct, I should complete it this week. There’s been a lot of information dropped on me in the past couple of hours. Nintendo seems to put a lot of thought into the general history of each Zelda game’s universe and when this information becomes clearer, I always make sure I’m paying attention.

Other than that, my friend and I dabbled with about a half dozen games, attempting to pick one to play through. We weren’t successful but two standout games were Odama (GameCube) and Mystaria: The Realms of Lore (Saturn). Odama is super weird for a few reasons. It is basically a pinball game set in feudal Japan but there are also elements of army management. Another weird thing: it’s controlled nearly exclusively with a microphone. I thought it was fun, but I got frustrated at it easily. I’ll definitely put more time into it.

Mystaria: The Realms of Lore, also known as Blazing Heroes, is a tactical rpg similar to Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber or Front Mission. We played it for a few missions but I was turned off by the visuals. It’s in 3D and it doesn’t look great, worst of all the camera changes are oddly jarring. The gameplay seemed easy, with a lot of depth potentially, but it was very slow. I might have an idea as to what we’ll play through next however…