Avalon Code – First Impressions

Avalon Code wallpaper from the official site.

Avalon Code’s premise is initially, very awe-inspiring. The world is going to end soon, but there is a book, The Book of Prophecy, that can capture anything and will remake whatever it contains. Once captured, you can adjust the properties of that thing, be it a person, a key or an enemy and alter it to solve puzzles or assist in battles. Most everything related to The Book of Prophecy is fun and unique; however the actual gameplay was tedious and turned me off after a few hours.

With The Book of Prophecy you are tasked to scan anything that you possibly can. The theory is that the book will aid in the creation of the new world and remake whatever’s inside. But this also adds a clever puzzle element to the game. Whenever you scan something in, it gets its own page. Each thing has a nine by nine grid which contains traits that make that thing up. So a flower for instance might have something forest or nature related and a fire creature might have an evil trait as well as something fire related. This led to some clever, albeit simple, puzzles early on like having to attach a forest element to a key to open a lock. These traits come in different shapes and piecing them in is reminiscent of Tetris. Every time something is added or subtracted, the page is reassessed and it leads to a short load time, which can add up when just experimenting and ultimately turned me away from changing the properties of anything I came across, unless it was necessary

Fighting a Dire Bat in Avalon Code, notice The Book of Prophecy on the lower screen and the info it holds about the enemy.

Outside of The Book of Prophecy you control a male or female character and travel between towns and dungeons, interacting with NPCs and fighting monsters. Rather than a turn-based battle system, Matrix Software opted for real-time action, which makes sense with The Book of Prophecy. Whenever I saw an enemy I generally scanned it in and then began to adjust the enemy’s traits, looking for something that would drop it’s hit points and then I’d attack; the game will pause when you’re using The Book of Prophecy, which takes up the bottom screen. Combat is simple, attacking with either your left or right hand, and enemies respawned as soon they died which discouraged me to even bother fighting them after a few times.

As far as I got, each dungeon progressed the same. They were divided into individual rooms which had tasks and time limits. You were given a task, such as light all candles, and once completed, the door to the next room would open; there were interesting tasks that required The Book of Prophecy but the majority of them were simple. Ultimately this made dungeons feel like a collection of minigames and this turned me off more than anything else I saw in the game.

I only clocked in three hours so I wasn’t able to see what Avalon Code has to offer, but it didn’t hold my interest in that short amount of time. The game is backed by an interesting gameplay mechanic that sets it apart from other games, but Avalon Code’s gameplay became tedious quickly. If it counts for anything though, I am still looking forward to playing more of Avalon Code at some point.

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The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess – Review

Link as he appears in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Like many others, I hold The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in high regard. I didn’t play it when it was initially released; I received it when I preordered The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and I bet many others’ first experience with The Legend of Zelda was through this method. It was around this time that I was beginning to get into video games, and those games were a big part of it. To say I was looking forward to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess would be an understatement; I remember getting hyped about it with friends but when it came out, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. I didn’t finish it then but have come back to it and experienced it all the way through and while it is all around extremely competent and fun game, I still came away somewhat disappointed. A lot of this stems from it feeling too similar to past Zelda titles.

Early on the dungeons advance similar to Ocarina of Time; forest dungeon, fire dungeon and then water dungeon, even the towns are similar; these places are designed in new ways and remain interesting to explore but it seems lazy. After this period however, the game starts to feel different and many of the later dungeons were interesting, both aesthetically and the way they played out. The items are similar as well, but I don’t fault this aspect of the game, wanting one hundred percent different items I feel would be asking too much. Many of the previous items have been slightly altered which changes up their use, both for puzzles and attacking, and there are a few totally new items that are interesting to use, however briefly. One of the things that I like about Zelda games is their mixture of puzzle solving and action and Twilight Princess didn’t disappoint.

Like in previous games, there are plenty of things to do on the side.

Throughout the game is an equal need for brain and brawn. In later parts of the game, I got stumped quite a bit on puzzles and would nearly give up. Then through what must’ve been some sort of divine intervention, something would click and I would figure it out, and that provided a great sense of accomplishment. Adding to the sense of accomplishment was the element of exploration. While traveling throughout Hyrule, I came across many things that I didn’t know how to interact with at that time. So I’d have a notepad handy and take notes. Once I realized what I had to do, I’d return and get whatever it was; this sort of backtracking and tab keeping is very appealing to me. The sword fighting and action in general stays on par with past 3D Zelda titles, but there is little advancement. Perhaps my biggest complaint in regards to Twilight Princess feeling similar is its story.

Link as a wolf, being ridden by Midna.

For me, story is a major part of the experience, I want to follow along and see the story the developers have crafted but Twilight Princess is almost laughably similar to past games, namely Ocarina of Time. Many of the key elements I already know from playing past games, so it’s like a refresher throughout the game. There are plenty of things that separate it from past games, such as the ability to turn into a wolf when traversing the Twilight Realm, but the overarching story doesn’t seem new. That being said, the cutscenes are extremely well done and a joy to watch as they do convey a lot of information, but a lack of voice acting is a major hindrance. The characters in the game are crafted excellently, with unique personalities and an interesting look, and having voices would make them seem more fleshed out.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is a great game and I had fun throughout the adventure, but I still can’t help but feel disappointed. Twilight Princess feels like a compilation of what the developers thought were the best parts of past Zelda games and this sense of familiarity turned me off. Much has been said of Japanese game design lagging behind that of western developers (that the Japanese are very conservative) and in many ways Twilight Princess is the perfect example of that.

Grandia – Review

The title card for Grandia.

That Grandia was released recently on the PlayStation Network is a coincidence to my play through of the game. I had purchased it earlier in the year and finally got around to playing it, coincidentally it was released on the PSN a week or so later so this review is relatively timely. Prior to my play through of Grandia, my only other experience with the series was a play through of Grandia II on the Dreamcast which I remember loving, but I’m unsure if I finished it. Personally I’m a fan of more action-orientated RPGs and Grandia is one of, if not the best.

Grandia opens up in a somewhat bustling port town and quickly introduces the player to Justin and Sue, two young kids who are playful and not very serious. Nevertheless Justin is intent on becoming an adventurer like his father and Sue would follow Justin anywhere so she’s up for it as well. While the initial premise for the game is one that is often used, the game’s story gets deeper as Justin and crew learn of a mysterious ancient civilization that once perished. As they search for this ancient civilization they run into trouble with an army lead by a power monger and go through a few non-permanent party members. The story is very light and comedic, with an overarching sense of seriousness.

Justin and Sue standing next to a save point.

Like I said earlier, Grandia is more action-orientated than a traditional turn-based RPG; however this element of control is kind of a façade as the battles are ultimately a turn-based affair. In a dungeon you can see any enemy before battling, as opposed to random encounters; once you’ve run into an enemy or vice versa, you’re shifted into a battle scene. Along the bottom of the screen is a meter that shows icons representing your party members and all enemies; the icons move from left to right until one hits the command point. Here the battle will pause and you can tell that party member what to do. There is still a bit of time before they enact whatever you told them to do and this allows for strategy and planning as you can delay and cancel enemy moves based on when and what attack you hit them with.

There are many options when in battle: normal attacks, critical attacks which delay or potentially cancel depending on when landed, special moves, magic and items. One of the more interesting, and addicting, elements of battling is that every special move and magic attack has its own level that increases as you use it. The characters level relatively slowly but having all of these moves that are going up frequently gave a good sense of progression and feeling of accomplishment. Of course with any RPG that has magic there are elements of strengths and weaknesses but I never paid attention to this facet, probably due to my want to just level up everything, and this worked for me. The battles were fast-paced and fun, I looked forward to battling every enemy and leveling up many different things made me not want to skip out on fights.

Justin, Sue and Feena in a battle.

The soundtrack, like the story, was lighthearted; many of the tracks were quirky, with unusual sounds and upbeat tempos, matching the game’s tone. There were a few standout tracks that I really enjoyed listening to and I can’t say there were any I disliked. The voice acting on the other hand was quite poor. The voice acting was infrequent throughout the game and when there was any, what the characters said, would never seem to match the tone of the situation at that moment. Grandia is set a 3D world, with characters, buildings and other objects being made of 2D sprites. This mixture of old and new (at the time) graphics give it a feeling reminiscent of the “golden age” of the JRPG, while still progressing technologically. I’ve already mentioned that the game’s story and soundtrack were lighthearted and fun, and the look of the game matches. Grandia is set in a colorful world with interesting character designs and locales.

Grandia cost me fifteen dollars and I put fifty-plus hours into it, and had fun the majority of the time. If you’re someone like me, who likes owning a physical copy of your games and having the chance to look through the manual, I’d recommend seeking out a copy of Grandia rather than purchasing it off of the PSN, but maybe do that as well to support it! Grandia’s manual is robust, and while much of it is explaining relatively basic mechanics of the game, which if you haven’t played a Grandia title will be very beneficial, I did get stuck on a boss and consulting it did help me.

I loved Grandia. It’s quickly become one of my favorite JRPGs and even after I beat it, I can imagine wanting to play more to level up the rest of my party’s stats. It’s a long game with rare feelings of tediousness and overall, it was a lighthearted, adventurous romp through a colorful world, which is a great escape from the current market of more adult, serious games.

XIII – Review

XIII is a first-person shooter based on a Belgian comic book series started in the mid eighties that took inspiration from Robert Ludlam’s The Bourne Identity. I have never read the comic books so that isn’t what initially drew me to the game when it first came out; XIII was originally released in November of 2003. I was in love with FPSes and cel-shaded games at that time and this was a godsend. I played it probably six months after it came out and I remember liking it, but not loving it. Recently I’ve had the urge to play it again and since it’s a pretty short game I decided to go ahead and play it.

The game is centered on Steve Rowland, aka XIII, who suffers from amnesia. Apparently he has assassinated the president! Things aren’t what they initially seem as XIII globe trots to figure out if he really is the president’s assassin. Along the way he learns of The XX, a group that has ties to the assassination and which he is a member. It’s worth noting that David Duchovny does the voice work for XIII; Adam West and Eve also do voice work for key characters in the game.  It’s also worth noting that they don’t do that great of a job. Adam West gives a performance that seems… like an Adam West performance, the downside of that is that I don’t view him as a serious actor, it’s simply my frame of reference for him, every time he speaks, I hear his dialogue as sarcastic. Eve’s performance wasn’t terrible but David Duchovny’s was, he doesn’t sound committed early on. My biggest problem is there isn’t a ton of exposition that these characters are involved in. Most of XIII’s dialogue consists of one-off questions or statements until the end of the game when he becomes more aware of his past, which is fine for his character but did they really need to get David Duchovny to voice him? I’m sure investing in the game would’ve been better but attaching these “high profile” celebrities probably helped sales in the short term.

Blowing stuff up with the rocket launcher, hopefully a baddie.

Well anyways, the game is an FPS and a competent, if not boring one at that. There isn’t anything I can think of gameplay-wise that it excels at as compared to other FPSes. Nothing in particular was bad about the gunplay and action, but seeing a group of bad guys didn’t excite me, nor did I have different strategies for taking them down. This could be due to the heavy emphasis on sneaking around and a general sense of espionage. Much of the game’s levels require you to remain unseen and this sets it apart from being another “run and gun” shooter, but there is much trial and error and after a while, failing due to something minor gets old. A problem I had later on was hiding bodies. Throughout the game you have the ability to pick up and hide dead bodies, but early on you don’t need to, so towards the end when hiding bodies is a necessity, I found it hard to reprogram the way I had been playing the game up until that point. And with missions that required sneaking, it seems there were varying degrees of AI attentiveness which made it frustrating when something that worked previously, all of a sudden did not.

In gunfights the enemies never seemed lethal and I never felt that I died because they outsmarted me, only ever because they outnumbered me. Whenever I saw an enemy, I just stood in place and shot until he was dead, this method was helped by the abundance of medkits but playing on a harder difficulty would potentially require a change in strategy.

My favorite part of the game without a doubt was the art-style which was brilliant. The game holds up visually and I attribute this to the cel-shading. While nothing in the game is very detailed, the art-style helps offset this and lets everything pop. The graphics weren’t the only thing inspired by the comic book though. Whenever you get a headshot, a three part comic book panel pops up showing in detail the projectile entering the targets head; similar to this, if an enemy falls from a high location another panel comes up showing their descent. In parts that require stealth you’ll need to sneak up on enemies and when you move slowly or stop, you can see their footsteps as indicated by comic book onomatopoeias.

What happens when you get a headshot.

The last thing worth noting is the multiplayer and the exclusive modes depending on which console you purchase the game for. Anyone purchasing XIII this long after it’s come out, I imagine isn’t purchasing it for the multiplayer. It’s competent but not high on my list with friends over, but the game has bots and plenty of maps so it’s worth trying out alone. One big concern of mine is the lack of a dedicated grenade button. Throwing a grenade requires switching from a gun proper to the grenade, and this creates a different dynamic that I found unappealing for a multiplayer match.

The Xbox version (which is backwards compatible with the Xbox 360) has an exclusive mode titled Sabotage. This is a class based mode where one team plants bombs on three bases and the other team defends. The GameCube has The Hunt, which has everyone chasing around Death and shooting him to get points. With each shot he gets smaller and faster and if he touches you you’re instantly killed. The PlayStation 2 has Power Up, as well as The Hunt. Power Up plays out like a normal deathmatch except crates throughout the levels hold everything, from weapons and health to random power ups like invisibility and invulnerability. Although I didn’t play the PC version, it includes all three “exclusive” modes. Overall I found The Hunt to be the most fun and it’s something different from other games; unlike the rest of the multiplayer, this is something I want to try with friends.

XIII was a short and overall mediocre game. It ended with a sense of satisfaction although it does have a cliffhanger ending that leaves many questions unanswered, but for those dedicated enough to want closure, there’s the comic book. The art style was fantastic and while the gameplay isn’t the best, it’s competent enough to stick with it to see the end.

Pluots

Two spring flavor pluots.

Pluots are a hybrid fruit combining plums and apricots. They’re often referred to as plumcots and there is great confusion about the differences between the two, even to me. I found an interesting article on Slate Magazine that talks about this confusion and helps clear it up; I’ll add a link at the end.

I’ve had plums before but I only remember eating them as a kid and I’m fairly certain I’ve never had fresh apricots. This was my first time tasting a pluot. I bought a few and they look just like a plum, although there are many varieties. The ones I bought were grown and sold by Kingsburg Orchards (who are located in Kingsburg, California) and are of the Spring Flavor variety.

One of the pluots I'd bitten into.

I washed them off and began eating them; at first I cut a few slices off but then I decided to just bite into them. The first thing I noticed was the sweet scent they emit. The flesh was whitish/yellow and very juicy. They didn’t taste very sweet; in fact they tasted tart and maybe a little bitter. I’m not much for unsweetened food so I didn’t like them that much; I also found the texture unappealing. Like I said, they were juicy but the meat almost fell apart, I’d say it was kind of soggy. I’d be willing to try different varieties of pluots but after this initial experience, I can’t say I’m a fan.

Kingsburg Orchards website
Slate Magazine article

Lemon Blueberry Cheesecake Bars

A close up shot of the finished product.

After making blueberry pancakes I still had a lot of blueberries left so I wanted to make something that would use as much as possible. I was browsing the internet for something I thought sounded good and I came across Lemon Blueberry Cheesecake Bars on foodnetwork.com. I happen to really dig cheesecake and this recipe turned out to need a lot of blueberries.

I first had to take a trip to my local grocery store and purchase the ingredients as I had almost nothing that was required. Once I was home I began making the crust. I needed to smash up nine graham crackers, add sugar and cinnamon, then add half a stick of melted butter, mix it all up and break it down well. Having broken the crust down well, it needed to cook for twelve minute. With that in the oven I began making the filling.

In a large bowl I dropped in the cream cheese, eggs, and sugar and then proceeded to zest and juice two lemons. After mixing the filling well, which was conveniently around the time the crust was done, I dropped it into the cooled down crust. I then added 1½ cups of blueberries, making sure to spread them out better than I did with my blueberry pancakes. That needed to go into the oven for thirty-five minutes and cool for a couple hours before eating.

Once we started eating it, it went fast. I think I was a little overzealous zesting and juicing the lemons as the lemon taste nearly overpowered the blueberries, but I like lemons so I’m fine with that. If you don’t want the lemons overpowering the recipe, I’d recommend using two small lemons or zest and juice one large lemon. All in all it probably cost $40 to buy everything but the majority of the ingredients required a fraction of what was there.

The recipe

Blueberry Pancakes

Recently an idea popped into my head. I work in the produce department of a grocery store; I ought to eat produce often, not just for my health but to be able to answer questions like “how is this.” Currently I don’t eat totally healthy although I don’t eat terribly either. My plan is to buy something from produce and eat it straight or make something with it. The first item… blueberries!

A nearly empty case of Naturipe blueberries.

The blueberries were on sale: an 18oz container for $2.99, normally $5.99. They are super fresh as I purchased them on the day they were delivered; surely a benefit of buying fresh produce is knowing the delivery schedule. Naturipe is the brand and they are grown the US, specifically where, I’m not sure. The case says they are sold out of Naples, FL and checking Naturipe’s website showed me the location of their farms in Florida.

The blueberries are plump and juicy. Biting into one reveals the pale green flesh and a somewhat tart taste. My first thought was to make blueberry pancakes. I bought a case of Hungry Jack pancake mix for a couple of dollars and on the side of the box there is a recipe for blueberry pancakes which I decide to use. I made the batter, dropped in some blueberries and then off to the griddle I was.

Once completed, I got myself a plate, slapped some butter in between the pancakes and dug in. The initial pancakes only had a few blueberries in them whereas the last couple had upwards of eight. Next time I try blueberry pancakes, I’ll have to portion out the berries better. They added tartness to the pancakes and juiciness when bitten into. Personally I’d prefer to not have the whole blueberries and rather smash them together and make a glaze. The pancakes were very simple to make; all I had to do was make the batter and plop the blueberries in. All told, I spent about seven dollars: three for the blueberries, three for the batter and two for the syrup.

The internet's source for Mansion of Hidden Souls.

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