The Room [Android] – Review

The Room was a mysterious puzzle game, perfect for bedtime sessions.
The Room was a mysterious puzzle game, perfect for bedtime sessions.

The Room is a puzzle game in the strictest sense. Players need not worry themselves with anything but solving puzzles. In each of the four stages, players are plopped down in front of a box composed of many mechanical locks. It is usually these, and other mechanical objects on the boxes that represent puzzles. Figuring out how they operated was the main brain drain.

Unlike Mansion of Hidden Souls and Juggernaut, I felt like The Room did a better job of implementing puzzles. The former games were puzzle games yes, but they placed more emphasis on exploring an environment, finding items, and making a connection as to where they needed to be used. This game’s puzzles are more self-contained in part because there’s no environment exploration. The boxes need to be scoured for clues, I mean scoured, but there’s no other exploration. The puzzles in the game were serious thinkers though.

This orrerey represented the final chapter of the game.
This orrerey represented the final chapter of the game.

With four brief stages, it only took me a few bedtime sessions to complete, most of the time though, I was staring at my tablet deep in thought trying to work a puzzle out. If not that scenario, then I was inspecting every inch of the larger box trying to figure out what to work on next. There’s a faint amount of narrative in the form of notes from a researcher friend, but it’s supplementary. They enhanced the mystery surrounding why the player is doing what they’re doing, but the puzzles were the motivation, at least for me.

This was the first output of Fireproof Games, a British studio made up of seasoned designers and I thought it was a mature experience among the cartoonish chaff that populates mobile platforms. The Room is available on Android and iOS devices for $1.99.

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Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones [GBA] – Review

Here's another post about an older game.
Here’s another post about an older game.

Very much wanting to be a part of the zeitgeist surrounding the release of Fire Emblem: Awakening, I had the urge to play a Fire Emblem game around the game’s February 2013 release. This is despite having written off the tactical role-playing genre previously and already owning a few Fire Emblem titles that I never got more than halfway through. You see, it’s a genre I like in concept, but in practice I don’t have the patience for; I usually haphazardly rush into battles which only get me so far. At least, that used to be the case. When I decided to play Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones alongside a friend (as he was having the same urges as I), I approached it with more maturity and was able to adapt to its gameplay style. In short, I came, I saw, I conquered.

The Sacred Stones was only the second Fire Emblem game to see release in the United States when it hit the Game Boy Advance in 2005. Intelligent Systems had been pumping out the Fire Emblem jams since 1990, but I guess Nintendo didn’t think highly enough of its western audience to localize any of these games until the 2003 release of Fire Emblem, also on the GBA. Which is strange, as this series is one of the forerunners of the genre, especially on home consoles and handhelds.

There were a few maps that utilized fog of war. Thieves and rogues were musts for these battles.
There were a few maps that utilized fog of war. Thieves and rogues were musts for these battles.

As is tradition with Fire Emblem games, The Sacred Stones is set in a fantasy setting where magic and demonic creatures are prevalent. Taking place on the continent of Magvel, this game focuses on Eirika and Ephraim, the princess and prince of Renais. Their country has recently been invaded by Grado, a former ally and in their quest to uncover why, they discover the well-intentioned actions of the prince of Grado has brought about the potential resurrection of the Demon King. Their efforts to prevent such a catastrophe lead them to every nation in Magvel in search of the Sacred Stones – wards of such evil.

Players control Eirika for the first third of the game, about the time she reunites with Ephraim. At this point, players have the option of playing through the next third as either character. Eirika’s path takes her to western nations in search of support while Ephraim chooses to confront Grado head-on. My friend and I each chose different routes and we can say with certainty that Ephraim’s path is a little tougher. We had fun discussing the story beats in these chapters, but like most of the game, it was shallow.

My only major gripe with The Sacred Stones is the thin story. There was a lot of exposition before and after battles, but the script was cliché-ridden, in regards to both plot points and characterization. It wasn’t a very exciting story all in all. The plot focused on a handful of major characters, but to get any details on the other twenty or so (besides the most basic information) support conversations were needed. These were lengthy conversations mid-battle between two characters that parlayed back-story, and sometimes a faint amount of character growth.

Animation was minimal, but there were some interesting looking attacks.
Animation was minimal, but there were some interesting looking attacks.

Had I not had another person playing alongside me, I imagine the predictable story and flat characterization wouldn’t have been enough to entice me to complete the game. However, the meat and potatoes of the game if you will, is the gameplay. As a commander of a small military squad, players had to scout out the battlefield, figure out a suitable composition of unit classes, and ultimately outperform the opposition.

I think the biggest reason I was successful playing the game this time around, was thoroughness. I took everything into consideration. Before battles, I’d carefully plan out who I wanted to fight, aiming to keep everyone about the same level. In battles, I’d keep everyone together for the most part, having a squad with a strong perimeter. Some weapons and magic were more effective against others so I’d check the equipment of enemy units to make sure I was sending in someone who could handle the enemy and hopefully have an offensive or defensive advantage. I’d also pay very close attention to the enemies’ movement range, hoping to not push my units too far into enemy territory too quickly. Without this thoroughness, I wouldn’t have beaten the game.

There’s a lot of diversity in the battlegrounds and the enemy forces meaning that players can’t milk a strategy for too long – they have to continue adapting. Although we spoke about the game weekly and were going through mostly the same content, our squads were made up of different characters. Our different “all-stars” led to slightly different strategies for battles. This was especially true later in the game since we had spent a lot of effort leveling and classing up different characters. It provided us a great deal to talk about and opened my eyes to how the game could be tackled in a multitude of ways. My disdain for the genre was partially born of my opinion that these games were meant to be tackled in a very specific manner, with little room for variation or improvisation.

One aspect I really enjoyed about the game was the intricate art style.
One aspect I really enjoyed about the game was the intricate art style.

Thanks to the zeitgeist surrounding Fire Emblem: Awakening, I wanted to give the TRPG genre another chance. I’m glad I did as playing Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones alongside a friend was enjoyable. I found little to compel me forward with its narrative and characterization, but its gameplay was both challenging and rewarding. I can think of little else in a video game that is as rewarding as winning a 2½ hour battle, adapting to every gameplay system, mechanic, and enemy unit thrown at me, and to do so without losing a single character. I’m not necessarily brimming to jump into another TRPG, but I’m happy to look at the genre with new eyes.

Dead Space [PS3] – Review

The pet project of Glen Schofield - an industry veteran who came up through hard work on licensed titles.
The pet project of Glen Schofield – an industry veteran who came up through hard work on licensed titles.

Set about 500 years in the future, Dead Space centers on Isaac Clarke and the horrific events surrounding the USG Ishimura. This “planetcracker” is a mining spacecraft that recently sent out a distress signal which Isaac and a small squad is answering. What he and his cohorts find is multitudes worse than what most of them could’ve imagined. Any hopes of the mission being routine are thrown out the window when almost immediately the squad is attacked by garish creatures – “the ship’s crew slaughtered and infected by an alien scourge” to quote the back of the box.

The underpinnings of cultish intrigue are soon the full-scale narrative driver of the game. As Isaac survives his way through the Ishimura, he learns of the crew’s discovery of the Marker and the impact it had on them. Supposedly a holy artifact for the Church of Unitology, the discovery is of great importance to many of the ship’s members who then change course at the direction of Captain Benjamin Mathius. This wasn’t the only discovery they made however. Coming along with the Marker is an unknown alien life form that begins ravaging the crew and turning them into Necromorphs.

Necromorphs came in many shapes and sizes. Dealing each variety required a slight twist on dismemberment.
Necromorphs came in many shapes and sizes. Dealing each variety required a slight twist on dismemberment.

These creatures are grotesque abominations of former crew members who are anything but gentle. With repair objectives taking him all over the Ishimura, Isaac runs into hundreds of Necromorphs. Equipped with a plasma cutter and an arsenal of other weapons, it’s soon made clear to both Isaac and the player that the most effective way of combating this enemy presence is through dismemberment.

I found the gameplay loop that dismembering small groups of Necromorphs turned into, to be highly enjoyable. The precision and power that the plasma cutter ripped through these fiends was such a satisfying and visceral experience, encountering groups of Necromorphs almost wasn’t scary. After a playthrough and a half, I’d recommend not using any other weapon; the plasma cutter is that incredible.

It’s that gameplay loop that kept me jiving on the game for so long. The narrative unfolded at a brisk pace and I learned much about the goings on before Isaac arrived via plentiful text, audio, and video logs, but the chapter objectives were so drab. I felt like Fix-It Felix as Zach Hammond and Kendra Daniels (fellow crew members responding to the distress signal) issued Isaac around the Ishimura having him repair broken equipment. Aside from some awesome boss encounters and a handful of entertaining tasks, the chapters mostly felt like a means to an end.

Much praise has been heaped on Dead Space for it's innovative HUD and UI.
Much praise has been heaped on Dead Space for it’s innovative HUD and UI.

Somewhat memorable was Dr. Challus Mercer. After the captain was accidentally killed by Dr. Terrence Kyne, Dr. Mercer assumed control of the Ishimura. He is more of a cultish zealot than Captain Mathius was and this is seen firsthand by Isaac. With an ever watchful eye on Isaac, Dr. Mercer always seems one step ahead of Isaac, Zach, and Kendra. Their run-ins usually entail a challenging combat sequence. Paired with that sequence is a dose of Dr. Mercer’s maniacal devotion to the church and his belief that transformation into Necromorphs is humanity’s higher calling.

Dr. Kyne plays a role soon enough and eventually they are led back to the planet where it all came from. He is a character with good intentions consumed by the hallucinations of his deceased wife. He and Isaac aren’t dissimilar; Isaac is also haunted by increasingly lifelike hallucinations of his deceased girlfriend Nicole Brennan. Nicole and Dr. Kyne are key figures in returning the Marker to its former resting place, hoping to calm the chaos and prevent the Necromorphs from reaching Earth.

The boss encounters were remarkable.
The boss encounters were remarkable.

Dead Space was a game with loads of prerelease marketing courtesy of Electronic Arts and among the content were a handful of developer diaries. In one of these, it was mentioned that the intention was for Isaac to be an “everyman” but I don’t think this was achieved. I feel this way solely because he was a silent protagonist interacting with very realistic characters. Much of the dialogue consisted of other people speaking directly to Isaac, and his lack of speech created a weird dissonance.

That’s about the only gripe I have as far as the audio/visual qualities are concerned. The game looks remarkable, but there isn’t a lot of variety outside of the sterile, futuristic corridors splashed with copious amounts of gore. The soundtrack was used more to cultivate a continuous sense of fright regarding what’s around the next corner instead of building up to an ultimate crescendo over and over again. Jason Graves’ score, composed of mechanical sound effects and haunting instrumental bits, helped in creating a dreadful ambiance reeking of Doom 3’s impact.

Fairly often, Isaac would traverse sections with no gravity, having to jump from wall to wall to get around.
Fairly often, Isaac would traverse sections with no gravity, having to jump from wall to wall to get around.

It was with Dead Space that EA Redwood Shores, now Visceral Games, was given the chance to moonlight with a new intellectual property and I think they knocked it out of the park. The cultish narrative was intriguing enough, although it was the dismemberment gameplay loop that carried the entertainment weight for me. The plasma cutter offered such precision and power that dealing with groups of Necromorphs was something I looked forward to. After, I got over the fright of them appearing of course.

Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth [PSP] – Review

There's hidden depth to this game and perhaps it's my loss for not discovering it soon enough.
There’s hidden depth to this game and perhaps it’s my loss for not discovering it soon enough.

http://www.joystiq.com/2013/03/15/remembering-my-favorite-rpg-valkyrie-profile/

I’m going to approach this article a little differently than I usually do. The above is a link to a Joystiq article by Kat Bailey wherein she discusses her love for Valkyrie Profile. Coincidentally, I had quit playing Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, the PSP remake, only a few days before she posted this article. After spending about thirteen hours with the game, I decided it wasn’t for me. Today, I’m going to riff off her article and try to get the core of what exactly it was about this game that didn’t appeal to me.

What Kat really dives into first is the combat system. She describes it as it is – “fun, fast, and interesting to look at” and I agree, but more so when she considers it serviceable. She doesn’t linger on it long and neither does the game. It’s a combat system that lacks much depth. In my time with the game I kept waiting for combat to expand and it never really did.

Towards the end of my tryst with the game, I began to see promise in the form of new skills. These augmented my roster of characters in many ways, but why didn’t I see more of these in the first third of the game? It would’ve given me more desire to customize my crew and maybe look forward to battles. There were many passive skills that increased stats with many more that seemed to only impact my ranking for sending characters to Asgard – a concept that’s barely discussed. The combat and support skills that began appearing after a dozen hours, I wish, would’ve appeared sooner.

Each face button represented a character in battle.
Each face button represented a character in battle.

As she continues, Kat begins discussing the role of the plot in the game and the dueling narratives. In regards to the overall story of Ragnarok, it’s very straightforward. Lenneth is on a quest to recruit einherjar to defend Asgard in the impending end of days. The subplots of Lenneth’s past and deeper truths of other important concepts in the game are present, and intentionally obtuse. Kat describes this subplot information as “bad game design” as it’s there for the player to experience but the main narrative misleads the player. I highly agree and would add that the game really doesn’t explain much about the subplot.

I do like the concept of the game misleading the player to believe an untruth, but I find it curious that these subplots are present, but there isn’t anyone advocating these paths to the player. I guess the player is expected to stumble upon these encounters, which isn’t guaranteed because of the game’s structure. Granted, in my time spent I only had a few encounters that were related, but they explained nothing! I suppose that’s to be expected in the first third of the game – questions, not answers – but, honestly, barely anything is explained in this game.

This sounds like it could foreshadow a solution to a later puzzle.
This sounds like it could foreshadow a solution to a later puzzle.

Perhaps, the biggest detractor to Valkyrie Profile was its lack of explanations in regards to pretty much anything be it a gameplay mechanic or story beat. That being said, I was dissatisfied with the lack of attention devoted to the, admittedly, large roster of characters. Besides the initial recruitment cutscene, there was little attention paid to them again. I also felt limited by the game’s structure. Divided into chapters and further into periods, entering towns and dungeons became a commodity as I did cost benefit analysis to determine whether or not to take a certain action. After a few hours though, I didn’t really want to explore because towns offered me nothing and dungeons were hardly any better. The combat was unimpressive in the first third of the game as well. So ultimately it was a combination of EVERYTHING that left me ambivalent towards seeing how Ragnarok played out.

Kabobber and Thwocker [Atari 2600] – Reviews

You really ought to check out how well Dave Giarrusso duplicated Activision's manuals for this game.
You really ought to check out how well Dave Giarrusso duplicated Activision’s manuals for this game.

Here it is – my final article about Activision Anthology. After 41 straight days of articles and 44 games covered, I’m fixing to discuss the final two games on this magnificent compilation. These are unlike anything else on the collection as they were originally unreleased.

First up is Kabobber, a game discovered in 2000. I’m not sure of the story behind its discovery, but it was cleaned up before being released to the internet. In fact, much credit is presumably due to Dave Giarrusso, the man responsible for the manual. It can be found here, at AtariAge. The game was designed by Rex Bradford and is a weird action game.

Players control the little squad of blue creatures. Gameplay is similar to a mode in Tetris DS actually.
Players control the little squad of blue creatures. Gameplay is similar to a mode in Tetris DS actually.

Players control a small squad of Buvskies and progress down a grid, growing their squad and avoiding or destroying enemies in the hopes of reaching the Princess Buvsky before she exits the stage. The controls were very precise which allowed for no uncertainty when playing, but the overall game lacked polish. This is understandable as it was unreleased, but even as is, I didn’t find a sweet enough set of mechanics or rewards to enjoy it for long periods of time.

Would you pass this over in a thrift store?
Would you pass this over in a thrift store?

Next up is Thwocker. This game’s rediscovery is so cool. Imagine shopping at a local thrift store and stumbling upon an unassuming Atari 2600 with a stock red label on it. Being the video game enthusiast you are, you pick it up anyways because it’s a pittance and it might be a game you don’t have. For AtariAge’s d8thstar, it was more than just another game; it was an unreleased prototype that had been floating around for twenty odd years.

Like Kabobber, Thwocker is an interesting action game that, unsurprisingly, isn’t all there. Controlling a little composer, players bounce around stages trying to pick up musical notes in the correct order. This composer is made of flubber though and controlling him is easier said than done. I found it to be a little frustrating. The game looked advanced compared to many of its contemporaries, but overall, it was a little flat.

White men can't jump, but they sure can bounce.
White men can’t jump, but they sure can bounce.

If 10,000 points are scored while playing Kabobber in Activision Anthology, a commercial will be unlocked. This commercial is a montage of some early Activision titles that features truly amazing transitions of pixilated characters into the real life counterparts that games are replicating.

If you’ve been reading along with every article or even just a few, I’m truly appreciative. Also, thanks to those who liked my articles. I’m grateful for that outreach and the community we can create on WordPress with our likeminded blogs. I’ve had fun keeping my schedule of an article a day and look forward to a similar challenge. Perhaps more importantly though, I’ve had fun discovering Activision’s early catalog of video games. The majority of these are undisputable classics. Thank you!

Starmaster, Space Shuttle: A Journey into Space, and Tomcat: The F-14 Fighter Simulator [Atari 2600] – Reviews

Here we have three deep and different flight simulators for the Atari 2600. And no, that's not an oxymoron.
Here we have three deep and different flight simulators for the Atari 2600. And no, that’s not an oxymoron.

Like my last article, this one will cover a few games that I passed over writing about, and that my friend and I passed over playing. Unlike Bridge and Checkers though, these three weren’t really meant for competition. All are flight simulators of different stripes. Starmaster is a sci-fi flight simulator akin to Atari’s Star Raiders. Space Shuttle: A Journey into Space simulates a NASA operation and lastly, Tomcat: The F-14 Fighter Simulator lets players act out the role of a top gun.

What’s fascinating about these games is how the designers were able to implement them on the Atari 2600. After all, the platform’s main method of input was a joystick with a single button. My first thought when approaching these was how the heck they were going to make something decently complicated like a flight simulation using a controller with one button. The answer is ingenious.

If you know what this is, you're infinitely more prepared then I am to conquer Starmaster.
If you know what this is, you’re infinitely more prepared then I am to conquer Starmaster.

Turning and pushing the plethora of knobs and buttons found in the cockpit of these flying craft is done by hitting the toggle switches on the console itself. This blew my mind. What a stunning workaround that allowed these simulations be complicated. And really, that’s what players of these games are looking for, right – something complicated?

I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been a fan of flight simulations, although I think I can understand the appeal. Humankind has desired to make flying craft since we first saw birds. For the past one hundred or so years, this has become a reality. Still, piloting airplanes is a task that appears to require a high level of smarts and skill – let alone flying spacecraft. Replicating this act makes for a solid use of the medium.

I love how the double windshield is replicated.
I love how the double windshield is replicated in Space Shuttle.

That being said, I don’t know much about these games having only played a smidgen of them on Activision Anthology. I’ll admit, they seem mighty complicated, so much so that I wasn’t ready to invest time learning how to play them. The manuals for these three range from the average manual size of around eight pages to the gargantuan thirty-two. That last one is Space Shuttle and its manual highlights something that makes these early Activision titles so great. The passion that oozes out of these manuals and the refined gameplay so often found in the games I’ve written about. Although these three aren’t titles I’ll delve into, I know someone has, and they loved every minute of the experience.

That guy better watch out!
That guy better watch out!

These three games were designed by Alan Miller, Steve Kitchen, and Dan Kitchen, respectively and were released in 1982, 1983, and 1988, respectively. When played in Activision Anthology, a commercial and four patches can be unlocked for Starmaster, two patches for Space Shuttle, and nothing for Tomcat.

Bridge and Checkers [Atari 2600] – Reviews

Let's play spot the differences.
Let’s play spot the differences.

Bridge and Checkers are two of Activision’s earliest games. Designed by Larry Kaplan and Alan Miller respectively, both were released for the Atari 2600 in 1980. These should’ve been some of the first games I wrote about, but I skipped over them because they’re not that interesting. They’re self-explanatory and lack any wacky modes that set them apart from other simulations of these games. If this article was written in 1980, it’d be another story. Having the ability to play bridge or checkers without having a human opponent and do so in the comfort of my home would’ve been great. Chances are though, if you like either of these games enough, you have a friend or two who is similarly into them.

Which one's which?
Which one’s which?

Honestly, I didn’t play enough of these to render a qualitative judgment either. For the 2012/2013(/2014?) Game-a-Thon Olympics, my friend and I passed over these, opting to have them as “in case” games. You see, if one of us barely won the Atari 2600, the other could then ask for a competition in one of these, hoping to sway the platform. Thus, I can’t speak to how the computer AI is in either of these games, or even how to play bridge, which would be the most useful information from a review. Sorry.