A Recommendation: Humble Indie Bundle V

What a deal!

I’d always heard about the Humble Indie Bundle, but never bought in until I learned more about it courtesy of jsicktheslick and his post covering the Humble Indie Bundle 4. It came packed with seven critically acclaimed games and their soundtracks, DRM free for as much as I wanted to pay. As the name suggests, these games are developed by smaller studios and usually don’t have the multi-million dollar marketing plan behind them. Even though the developers might not be grossing as much as they would off each individual sale, they’re probably getting into the hands of many more consumers then they would’ve otherwise and that’s awesome.

Now that I’m in the know as it were, I bought in on the just-released Humble Indie Bundle V. It contains Bastion (I’ve heard nothing but praise for this hand-drawn action-RPG), Amnesia: The Dark Descent (a survival-horror game that I’ve also heard good murmurings about), LIMBO (a well received artsy puzzle-platformer often compared to Braid), Psychonauts (one of video games’ hidden gems that I have yet to play), and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (a game that I played on iOS).

Each one of these games is critically acclaimed and wonderful in their own ways, and you have the potential to get all of them and their soundtracks for as much as you want to pay. While I still have plenty of games to play from the previous bundle, I jumped on board right away and picked this one up, and I recommend you do the same!

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MS Saga: A New Dawn – First Impressions

Did Bandai attempt to obscure the link between the Gundam franchise with the game’s title? Never mind the mobile suits in the background…

Distilling MS Saga: A New Dawn to its most basic pieces is pretty easy, even after playing the game for only twenty or so minutes. Before I do that though, let me give some background information. MS Saga is a role-playing game for the PlayStation 2 based off of the Gundam franchise. It was released in North America on February 21, 2006 and was developed and published by Bandai. As it’s based off of the long-running anime series, mobile suits are abound, however it tells an original story. Now, onto a succinct distillation.

For starters, the gameplay is very traditional, and by that I mean basic. According to Wikipedia, the game was designed to be accessible to an audience unfamiliar with Gundam. I’d also add that it was designed to be accessible to those unfamiliar with RPGs because the combat seems ripped from a fifteen year old game, which isn’t bad. Bandai didn’t need to set the world on fire with a video game based off of a preexisting property. Instead they built a simple RPG around that property, and that works for me. I’m not an avid fan of Gundam and I like that MS Saga is easy to get into. Sometimes, I just want a simple RPG to play, one that I can casually play while listening to a podcast, all the while still going through the motions of character development and advancement.

Because I barely played MS Saga, I can’t comment on the worth of the characters or their surrounding world. Still, it took me by surprise when I realized that the protagonist was a male when he looked like a female. Androgyny aside, I imagine that like the gameplay, MS Saga is filled with characters and scenarios I’ve seen before. With the exception of piloting giant human-like mecha that is.

Come on mom, just gimme the keys to the mobile suit!

Mobile Suit Gundam is one of the most influential anime series out there, but in the video game realm, the Gundam franchise has been anything but influential. The franchise has been incredibly prevalent, appearing on many systems with many releases, and from what I can remember, games were generally received lukewarmly and that sums up my feelings regarding MS Saga: A New Dawn.

In Between Posts, May 27, 2012

My highlight from last week was an evening out to a WNBA with my girlfriend and another couple. My friend’s wife won four tickets to a Tulsa Shock game and luckily we were all available to go! Unfortunately for us, and Tulsa I suppose, the Shock are the worst team in the WNBA – last season they were 3-31. During that period I know they had a mass exodus of players and coaches, and I’m guessing they’ve had a hard time adjusting to new owners; from 1998 to 2009 they were known as the Detroit Shock, before packing up and heading my way.

The game far exceeded our expectations. This was only the second game of the season and they played the Phoenix Mercury in a high-scoring match, yet, they lost 89-87. They actually made a buzzer beater shot, but after review it was discounted.

Three things helped make our evening (besides the fine game). Firstly, the tickets she won weren’t general admission but tickets to a preferred lounge complete with padded seats, a bar, and a buffet, plus prime seating at half-court. Secondly, my friend and I caught free t-shirts! Every now and then their mascot would throw shirts into the crowd, and since the arena was only 1/4 to 1/3 full, we had a great chance of getting one. Too bad they’re XL and we’re not… Lastly, the crowd was awesome. As I just mentioned, it was a small crowd, but they were passionate. Their passion brought some out in me as I rooted for my home town team. We got on the jumbo-tron too and that was cool, haha.

Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean – First Impressions

No, Baten Kaitos isn’t a jumble of made up words; it’s Arabic for belly of the sea monster and another name for the star Zeta Ceti.

Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean is a role-playing game released in late 2004 for the GameCube. It was co-developed by Monolith Soft (known for the Xenosaga series and the recently released Xenoblade Chronicles) and tri-Crescendo (Eternal Sonata) and published by Namco. The game is a story of revenge for Kalas, the primary protagonist but it also focuses on his (and his compatriots) quest to save the world. I didn’t find the story or characters interesting, but what’s exceptional about the game is its card-based battle system, which could’ve been its biggest liability.

Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean takes place in a fantastical world, a world where landmasses float in the sky, oceans are a thing of legend, and the human inhabitants have wings. The young adult Kalas is on a mission of revenge as he searches for the murderer of his brother and grandfather. He believes the person responsible is a soldier in the imperialistic Alfard Empire. The game begins as he awakens, confused but not suffering from amnesia, in a remote village. Soon after this point, he meets Xelha, a kind but mysterious girl who believes the Empire is on the verge of unleashing a great evil. Although Kalas believes he has no need for her, they join together as their goals run a similar course.

At the point I finished (about a dozen hours in), I had met a third party member: a rural fisherman named Gibari. He was beefed up and helpful in the rural town I found him in, but he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Beyond those three, I can’t comment on anyone else as I didn’t sink enough time into the game to meet anyone else. After joining up with Xelha, I visited another town or two and trekked through a few enemy-riddled areas, but the main focus was the routine run-ins with the Empire, which helped narrow the protagonists’ motives.

There wasn’t a ton of discussion regarding the character’s wings, and they rarely used them.

I don’t really have an opinion on the general story because I only played it for a dozen or so hours, but in that time span I already knew that I didn’t like Kalas. He was off-putting from the get go with his lack of respect for others and rudeness. Of course, naïve characters are the norm for role-playing games of this ilk; I’m sure that over the course of the estimated sixty hours of gameplay, he would mature and grow as a person. A lot of my opinion of him (and others) was based on the poor voice acting and that didn’t help in forming my opinion. It’s not necessarily that characters over or under act, instead my grievance lies with the quality of the audio – it sounds like I’m listening to people in a sound booth, as if whatever audio mixing that would remove this aura wasn’t done.

On the back of the game’s box is a quote from Nintendo Power: “It’s possibly the most beautiful GCN title ever made,” which I’d have to agree with. The game’s locales are like paintings that you walk around in, or like the PlayStation 1 era Final Fantasy games; they feature a fixed camera perspective with no player control of it. The pre-rendered backgrounds of the towns are intricately detailed and will often have animated bits and pieces, but because I wasn’t able to control the camera, navigating these areas was sometimes less than great; for instance when Kalas would walk into the background and shrink to signify distance from the camera. This isn’t a problem with Baten Kaitos, it’s just a style that I don’t prefer.

As the land masses reside in the sky, clouds were occasionally a nuisance.

What makes Baten Kaitos unique compared to other RPGs is its reliance on Magnus (playing cards) for items, attacks, equipment, and just about anything else. Each character had a deck of cards that they used in battles. As they leveled up, the amount of cards they could put into it, as well as their hand size in battles grew.

Battles revolved around each character’s deck of Magnus. A good deck would contain a mixture of offensive, defensive, and healing cards that were suited to take advantage of enemies’ elemental weaknesses. In battles, characters would have a hand of cards and I’d try my best to link them together to create optimal attacks and defensive maneuvers. I found that if I didn’t suit my deck to each area and continually keep it fresh, I wouldn’t advance.

The Magnus weren’t just used in battles though; they were used in place of items too. Special Magnus could capture the essence of an item, say water, and I could then use that Magnus to solve a puzzle, such as putting out a fire. I had to be careful with Magnus however, as the cards would age and their properties would change. For instance, if I had a Magnus with green bananas on it, as time passed, the bananas would ripen and the card’s effect would change. This aspect of the Magnus kept me on my toes and was in some instances, annoying.

An important aspect of battles and deck building was to try and use cards that had similar numbers. For instance using three cards with the same number yielded bonuses.

Card-battling games have a reputation for being obtuse, complicated, and slow-paced. Of course, they’re also known for requiring strategy, skill, and a little luck. What’s great about Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean is that it takes the best things about card-battling games: strategy in deck building, skillful combinations of cards, and a little luck of the draw, while reducing the negatives by speeding up the battle system and easing players into the extensive number of Magnus. It may not have captured my attention for too long, but damned if I didn’t absolutely enjoy its battle system.

Samurai Western – Review

The game’s cast consists of about a dozen recurring characters.

Released in 2005 for the PlayStation 2, Samurai Western is a spinoff of Acquire’s Way of the Samurai series. To say the developer, also known for the Tenchu and Shinobido series’, dabbled in similar games, thematically and genre-wise, would be an understatement; samurai and ninja are their bread and butter. Dropping a samurai in the Wild West should instantly intrigue most people, and their execution pays homage to classic westerns and samurai films, if not directly aping tropes. However, the combat is basic and controlling the protagonist exemplifies the brittleness to the combo system and his mechanical movement.

Gojiro Kiryu, a samurai vehemently dedicated to the tradition, has traveled to the Wild West in search of his brother. Rando has forsaken the way of the samurai after coming to the conclusion that the sword is obsolete in a world that’ll soon be ruled by guns. Gojiro’s search takes him to a picturesque western town with a massive bar, wooden facades of buildings, and of course a tyrannical leader. That leader, Goldberg, has co-opted Gojiro’s brother and with the help of the (no longer) lone gunman Ralph, the dopey sheriff Donald, and many townsfolk, Gojiro defeats Goldberg and his goons and eventually settles the score with his brother.

Samurai Western’s story unravels through diary entries of main characters and brief cutscenes, and it’s a no-frills experience all the way through. Stereotypes and tropes are abundant as players plow through Samurai Western’s fifteen short stages, but the game still took me longer to complete than I expected thanks to the RPG elements it incorporates.

The game sure doesn’t wow me visually.

Not relying solely on the subpar combat, Samurai Western also features a smidgen of character development and customization. Like a typical RPG, Gojiro gains experience from killing enemies and when he levels up, I can assign experience points into his health, magic, strength, or defense. A few bosses were way too tough for me initially; requiring me to replay earlier stages a dozen or so times to beef up. Even then, those bosses were still super challenging. There were also unlockable accessories that improved my character’s stats, and spiffed him up.

Back to the subpar combat comment. Samurai Western’s combat doesn’t have a flow; I know I’m just pressing buttons to chain together attacks, but there are so many other games that can do it and make me feel like I’m not just pressing buttons such as God of War, another 2005 action game. It might’ve been the animation or the timing required for combos, but I couldn’t make the game’s combat a habit.

Something that had me confused as I was slicing cowboys into tiny bits (not really) was the lack of clear objectives. I would know to defeat all of so-and-so’s minions, but it sometimes seemed like I really needed to get to a certain point in the stage. Other times, stages would drag on and I imagine I needed to kill a specific number of goons. This lack of clarity oftentimes had me doubting the clear conditions after minutes of combat and I’d begin wandering around until I arrived at a place that looked like somewhere I needed to go.

Although many other games have done it, I noticed Samurai Western adapted the enemy health bars originally (?) introduced in Streets of Rage 2.

I enjoyed Samurai Western, but it’s not entirely a recommendable game. Japanese and Americans both have a definite nostalgia for their manly men, and it’s fitting that they get mashed together in a surreal way. The gameplay in Samurai Western seems very mechanical though and honestly, the story isn’t new; I’m sure most people are familiar with its rehashed tropes. Of course, I’m still glad I played it.

In Between Posts, May 20, 2012

What a week! More precisely, I mean what a weekend. Friday night, my girlfriend and another couple went to the movies and watched The Dictator. Coming from Sacha Baron Cohen I expected disturbing language and imagery, and there was plenty of that, but I wasn’t expecting such a smart and entertaining satire of world politics. Since graduating from high school, I’ve become an incredible news junkie, and because of that, I was able to appreciate each and every poke and jab and reference. Still, without an in depth knowledge of that sort of stuff, the movie was still quite funny, in a gross-out way most of the time.

Saturday night, my friend and I went to a Daughtry concert and despite my indifference towards the performer, I had a good time, especially so because we weren’t paying! The first opener consisted of an acoustic guitarist and a keyboardist, and the guitarist was laughable. He could sing well, but his insistence on reminding the audience his name (Mike Sanchez) and that we were at a rock show grew to be ironically humorous. SafetySuit was the other opener and they blew me away. They had an energy that I associate more with a punk band and that energy livened up the audience and made for a memorable set. Lastly Daughtry. Him and his band rocked a lot heavier than I was expecting and he of course performed all of his hits, but I actually preferred SafetySuit. Still, the audience clearly didn’t as they were on their feet for the duration of his hour-and-a-half set.

Now I’m finally to today’s events. After work, a friend and I played tennis for three hours. It was my first time playing with him and we are on the same level, which makes any competitive event so much more fun. Throughout our session, I downed three bottles of water and a Gatorade! Despite these activities, I also put in twenty-four hours at work in those past three days. Still, life is good!

What have I been up to video game wise? Well I took a break from Xenoblade Chronicles to check out (and complete I guess) Samurai Western, a PS2 action game from the Japanese developer Acquire and Atlus. I’m writing a review for the game and that should be up tomorrow or at least in the next few days. With that done, it’s back to Xenoblade Chronicles!

Centipede: Infestation (3DS) – Review

This reboot of a classic arcade game is less than stellar.

In the interest of making money, some companies resort to rebooting their classic franchises and the results are usually less than stellar. This is a common practice for Atari and its stable of classics from the 70s and 80s. Since the era of the Atari 2600 and the golden age of arcades, Atari has struggled and been in the hands of many. In the late 90s when Hasbro owned Atari, Pong, Missile Command, and Centipede were rebooted. They’ve once again fallen back on their classic lineup and last year’s Centipede: Infestation from respected developer WayForward Technologies is one of their newest reboots.

With a strong Saturday morning cartoon vibe, Centipede: Infestation is definitely skewed towards a younger audience. In between stages, stills of animation and goofy voice-acting propel the budding relationship of Max and Maisy. The young gun-for-hire and gardener live in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by giant, radiated bugs and surviving is their day-to-day goal.

Centipede: Infestation cribs from another early 80s classic: Robotron: 2084. In that game, stages were very quick and players were tasked with destroying enemies, rescuing innocents, and surviving. The common element between them is the control scheme and arena-style stages. Robotron: 2084 spawned the dual-joystick shooter that has been oh-so popular in the past handful of years.

Harking back to the original, a giant centipede caps off each stage, telegraphing its movements.

The analog moves Max while the face buttons shoot. Shooting in four directions isn’t very fluid and it caused me to try and shoot in one direction the entire time and “walk” my weapon fire into enemies. To be fair, you can shoot diagonally as well, but it didn’t make me change my strategy.

Stages in Centipede: Infestation take place in small arenas and players help Max survive by killing enemy bugs with his gun, powerful stomp, and power-ups. Capping off stages are fateful battles with a centipede whose movements call to mind the original Centipede. Stages are short and sweet and although the shooting isn’t perfect, the dual-joystick genre is still easy enough to get into and most importantly, fun.

The game does support co-operative play, but both people need a copy.

Reboots of classics usually aren’t successful but there are always exceptions – Pac Man Championship Edition (DX too!) comes to mind and I’ll include Galaga Legions because I like it. Centipede: Infestation isn’t the Centipede game people will remember and, while enjoyable, it’s not for me.

By the way, a dozen or so classic Atari 2600 games are available to play for free on Atari’s website.