Archive for the ‘Not-So-Casual Commentary’ Category

Comparative Review: MvC3 vs MKvDCU vs XM:ND

December 17, 2014

So, I recently picked up a PS3, and one of the games I bought with the system to give me something to play was Marvel vs Capcom 3. I also grabbed Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe because that was one of the games that I really regretted not being able to play. And I’ve played them both a bit.

Now, when it comes to reviewing fighting games, I shouldn’t be the one to review them. This is for two reasons:

1) I’m not all that great at fighting games, and so always play them on easy, meaning that you aren’t going to get any comment on how good the AI is.

2)I like stories, and so the reason I buy and play them is to get through their stories, which may not be what most fighting game fans are looking for.

That being said, I can do what I’m calling “Comparative Review”, where I pick out categories and rate the games relative to each other on the things that I subjectively think are important and how they feel to me. I’m not going to pretend to be objective here, although there’s some objectivity involved. And I’m not going to claim that, at the end of this comparative review, fighting game fans will know what game they should buy or play. But hopefully it’ll be interesting.

For this one, I’d like to compare superhero-oriented fighting games, and so, the three games are:

Marvel vs Capcom 3, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, and an old PS2 game, X-Men: The Next Dimension.

So, let’s get started…

Graphics:

MvC3: The graphics are flat panel drawings, like pretty much all Street Fight or Capcom fighting games. And they aren’t impressive. In any way. They’re dull and boring. The artwork for the characters isn’t all that great either; I found myself wishing, for example, for all the different costumes and images of Wolverine that you’d find in other games, since here he looked a bit off. That being said, it is in high definition and so looks nicely sharp; it’s just that there’s not much for it to look sharp about.

MKvDCU: As befits Mortal Kombat, it’s done in a fairly realistic, 3-D style. The characters look good, and the environments impressive at times. The backgrounds are interesting and detailed. Yeah, it’s pretty.

XM:ND: This was also done in a 3-D style. And it’s done pretty well. The characters look interesting, but the 3-D work can look odd at the end of fight mocking. The backgrounds, though, are done well.

Ranking:
1) MKvDCU
2) XM:ND
3) MvC3

Cutscenes:

MvC3: The end-of-fight cutscenes are the typical still picture with a comment underneath it. Ho-hum, nothing to see here.

MKvDCU: There aren’t really any cutscenes in the arcade mode, other than moving up the “ladder”. I’ll leave the story mode cutscenes to the story section. Not much to see here.

XM:ND: There’s not much here either … except that in arcade mode you stay in one location for a while, and they have a cutscene when you change locations officially, which is really nice.

Rank:
1) XM:ND
2) MvC3
3) MKvDCU

Sound/Voicework:

MvC3: Characters get their own lead-ins and victory comments voiced, as well as their special moves. A nice touch is that there are special voiceovers when certain characters meet — like, say, Wolverine and Phoenix — but this is minimized by the mechanic of having three fighters aside that tag in and out — see, because it’s the THIRD game — and only if they happen to align with each other at the beginning does the line kick off. The voice acting does a decent job.

MKvDCU: Few moves are voiced; it’s overall fairly silent. Arcade mode doesn’t seem to have intro and exit voiceovers. The story mode, however, has tons of voiceovers, which are reasonably good and done reasonably well, although Batman’s voice is a bit of a disappointment (although it does grow on you a bit).

XM:ND: It’s about the same in arcade mode as MvC3, although it doesn’t seem to have special voiceovers for critical meetings. The story mode obviously has more voiceovers and acting.

Ranking:
1) MKvDCU
2) XM:ND
3) MvC3

Moves:

MvC3: It has a fair number of moves, and the moves are reasonably easy to pull off, most of the time, for at least a lot of the characters.

MKvDCU: There are a decent number of moves, but they’re harder to pull off than those in MvC3.

XM:ND: A decent number of moves, including different ones for each level of charge. Varies on how easy they are to pull off.

Ranking :
1)MvC3
2)XM:ND
3)MKvDCU
(but they’re all really, really close).

Story:

MvC3: There’s kinda a story here in the arcade mode. It’s terrible. And you can’t even make your own story from the arcade combinations because the combinations of combatants make no sense. Yeah.

MkvDCU: The story mode proceeds from both sides — like MvC3 SHOULD have done — and is interesting. The cutscenes after each section really spell it out so that you don’t really have to think about it in the combats. Quite well done.

XM:ND: The story is good, and the fights adapt to the part of the story you’re in. There are cutscenes that work reasonably well. Overall, done well.

Ranking :
1)MKvDCU
2)XM:ND
1553) (okay, okay, 3) MvC3.

So, the scores will reflect the totals of their RANKINGS, and so the lower it is, the better it ranked throughout the review.

Totals:

MvC: 3 + 2 + 3 + 1 + 3 = 2.40 (average)

MKvDCU: 1 + 3 + 1 + 3 + 1 = 1.80(average)

XM:ND: 2 + 1 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 1.80 (average)

So, based on this comparative review, you get XM:ND = MKvDCU > MvC3, mostly because XM: ND wasn’t the worst in any category (it would have been the worst in graphics if MvC3 hadn’t been so poor in its art) and took the cutscenes category while MKvDCU didn’t bother to show up.

So, if you’re looking for a decent fighting game, you could do worse than loading up the old PS2 and playing XM: ND again. Specifically, you could try to play MvC3. MKvDCU, however, is certainly worth playing if you like superheroes and fighting games.

For Capcom’s sake, I hope the latest Street Fighter game did a better job. MvC3 strikes me as an afterthought, and I hope that it was an afterthought to that game.

The specific breakdown, then, is that MvC3 finished last — and thus, behind a PS2 game — in three categories ( Graphics, Story and Sound/Voicework) while taking the very close Moves category and finishing second to XM: ND in the Cutscenes category that, as already stated, MKvDCU didn’t even bother to complete in. MKvDCU finished last in two categories (Cutscenes and the really close, too close to call, Moves category) while taking three categories (Sound/Voicework, Graphics and Story). XM: ND was better than at least one of the next gen games in all categories, and took the Cutscenes category.

Sometimes, new isn’t always better.

MMO Saturation?

December 16, 2014

Note: Some of these might not be running anymore …

I was browsing through the Best Buy PC games section recently, and noticed that I would grab what looked like an interesting RPG from the shelf and far more often that I would have expected it turned out to be an MMO. That I’d never heard of. Okay, maybe I’d heard of Rifts somewhere along the line and ignored it, but there was one game that did surprise me (Vanguards of something or other, I think?).

So, in terms of MMOs, here are the ones that I know are still running.

* I think the original Everquest is.
* Everquest 2 is still online.
* There was a box for Ultima Online in the store. No, really.
* Dark Age of Camelot is still online.
* Champions Online is up and running, as is City of Heroes and the newcomer DCUO.
* Lord of the Rings Online is still online.
* Eve Online is still online.
* So is Pirates of the Burning Sea.
* Star Wars Galaxies might still be running, as far as I know.
* Guild Wars is still running.
* Age of Conan is still out there.
* Final Fantasy is still out there, although if I remember correctly they’re on their second iteration.
* And there’s a little game called World of Warcraft that I think is still running. I’m not sure about that, though; did it ever get a large number of subscribers? I’m not sure how much attention it got once it went online …

And I’m sure there are a ton of others out there that I just haven’t heard of.

Now, Earthrise just came out. Guild Wars 2 is on the way. So is Star Wars: The Old Republic. And there are probably others that I’m just not aware of.

That’s … a lot of games. Since most of these require subscriptions — although a number of these are going “free-to-play” — that’s a lot to play at once. And since these games technically don’t have endings there’s no set time for you to stop playing, unlike regular RPGs. So is the saturation point for MMOs lower than that for other games? Is it harder to divide up the market for MMOs than for other types of games? Is this why perfectly good games are floundering after release when they were expected to do better, and older games aren’t fading away as quickly as you’d think they would?

This might be something for MMO makers to look into: are the dynamics of the market different for MMOs? Is the genre of the game more important than it is for other types of games, especially other types of RPGs? Do developers need to find another niche to exploit, as creating yet another fantasy MMO just won’t cut it no matter how good it is?

What’s the future of the MMO?

We Could Be Heroes …

December 15, 2014

Note: As I said yesterday …

So, I tried DC Universe Online, and managed to get two characters to level 6. At which point I have decided that I have no interest in actually continuing the game. That’s a little too short a playtime for an actual review, but since I have a column that’s good enough for a commentary.

DC Universe Online, to me, had potential. Tying it into the DC universe made it interesting — even though I’m not a huge fan of DC comics — and a lot of the choices and the backstory sounded interesting. That the initial missions, at least, are story arcs made it even better.

So where’s the problem? The problem, at least for me, is in the mix of the action elements and the story elements. Or, rather, how they don’t mix. In the game, you spend most of the arc in the streets, dealing with outbreaks and the like in specific areas. You have a mix of “Defeat X minion” and “Retrieve X thing” and “Protect X person/thing” missions. Which all sounds good. However, you have them all at the same time, while you’re out on the street … a street that you share with other heroes that may not be in your group. Which means that you end up competing with them for scarce resources. In at least some cases, you can get credit for helping someone else while they actually do the work, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Well, at least it prevents kill stealing. But anyway, sometimes these things spawn rarely and so you have a long time to wait to get one. I, at least, felt the need to leap onto anything that popped up for fear that I’d lose it and have to wait longer.

Add to this that you have multiple objectives per step. So you’re killing things and destroying things and protecting things all in one go. And they aren’t all directly related; invariably you end up with one objective that you’ve barely started when you’ve finished the others. And while you’re waiting for one to spawn, you not only have to deal with things that spawn for the other objectives (like enemies) but with things that spawn just to make your life more difficult (like enemies). All in all, the street parts are chaotic and hard to keep track of, and you can get knocked out if you fail to keep track of what’s going on.

But where it really fails is in the instances. For the most part, they’re good. They’re even slightly less chaotic than the street missions, and there’s no competition. This is good. But the final battles tend to add the chaos back in, and add additional objectives that you have to meet. You may have to plan out a strategy to beat it, but it isn’t at all clear from the first try what you need to do and how to play it. That leads to playing it wrong and getting beaten. And every time you’re beaten, the health and objectives reset. So you keep plugging away until you stumble on the right strategy for your character, and manage to beat it.

All of this combines to not wanting to enjoy the story, but to get the missions out of the way as quickly as possible.

And that’s the problem: the chaos seems to be there to add to the actiony bent of the game. And yes, it does lend itself to a nice action-based combat system. And if I liked that, I might be able to forgive the game. But I don’t, and so the chaos takes me out of the game and into a strictly mechanical “hunt that down and finish the quest” mindset. Which means I’m not enjoying, say, stopping Scarecrow’s men from spreading their fear gas. Which means I’m not enjoying the story.

You can compare this to City of Heroes and the X-Men Legends/Marvel Ultimate Alliance games. The stories here are better than most of the arcs in CoH, and possibly the entire story in the Legends/Ultimate Alliance games. They’re really well-done, in my opinion. But I’m not enjoying them. And I’m not enjoying them because the action elements are getting in the way, and making me forget why I’m doing what I’m doing. That’s bad.

And CoH and the XML/MLA games both solve this conundrum in different ways. CoH solves it by instancing those competition missions, allowing for players to use strategy and take their time with them. They never feel rushed. While there are “Arrest 10 X” missions that are in the world, that’s a pretty minor competition that can be annoying but generally isn’t. But competing for glowies is non-existent, as they’re all in instances, meaning that you always have enough to meet your objectives.

XML/MUA goes the other way. While CoH toned the action down to get at the story (slowing down the game), those games ramped it up. You face a ton of enemies. Most of which are fairly easy to beat, especially since they I think allow you to set the level of difficulty to what you want. But there’s a lot of action. But the story fits around it; you’re told to go here and do these things, you clear out enemies and then do those things, story advances, and more enemies appear. So while CoH slows things down, XML/MUA speed things up. And at the end of the day, both are better at the action/story mix than DCUO is.

So … I will be cancelling my subscription. And maybe going back to CoH. While waiting for The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2.

So that I can be a hero again …

(I never did try GW2, am playing TOR, and wish I could play CoH again …)

Let’s Make This … Difficult

December 14, 2014

Note: I’m not playing DCUO anymore …

So, what you’ve probably come to expect from me so far are wide-ranging articles about very general and abstract concepts that reference more than one game. And, to be honest, I have a couple of those percolating in the back of my mind . But lately, I’ve been playing DC Universe Online, and I think that I can sum up that game in one sentence:

Healing potions have a cooldown.

Yep, you read right. At least the initial healing potions — called Soder Cola, I believe, which I’m sure is some great reference to something really cool in the DC Universe, but I was never that big a fan of DC comics — have a cooldown timer on their activations. Which means that after you use one, you have to wait before you can use one again. For a surprisingly long time.

Now, this might be okay for something like the “Rest” button from City of Heroes, which is a power and all and so if it didn’t have a cooldown you could just keep using it and using it and using it. But these things are, in fact, consumables. You can pick them up in the game and can buy them from associates, but they cost you money and you always only have a limited amount of them. So you aren’t going to be able to keep using them, since you’ll run out eventually. The game should let you down them like, well, soda if you want, since you’ll eventually run out or have to conserve them at other points in the game to make up for the spamming of them you did in the part that you found more difficult.

Ultimately, it seems to me that DCUO was so worried about the game being too easy that they decided to make it more difficult through really, really odd means. The game is chaotic and even at lower levels just tosses additional objectives at you, even in final boss missions where you’re having enough trouble just keeping Power Girl from pounding you into the floor. Especially since if you do happen to get knocked out, the health of your enemies and those extra objectives tend to reset, at least in the final instanced stages. So, in order to avoid making it too easy, they may have made it too difficult.

That will not bode well for the future of that game. Especially since DCUO has the potential to draw an awful lot of casual gamers in who want to fight alongside Superman and Batman or Lex Luthor and the Joker. Those sorts of gamers will not take the frustration of retrying and retrying and retrying well.

(Another note: TOR uses the same system. It’s very irritating, but the story is strong enough to drag me through that one).

Let’s Get Not-So-Casual …

December 13, 2014

If I haven’t posted this already, it needs to be said. And if I have, it’s a good time to repost it. Actually, a few days ago would have been a good time to repost it [grin].

This seems like a good time to explain just what “Not-So-Casual Gamer” means, and why that name was chosen.

I’m pretty odd, for a gamer. In a lot of ways, I act like a casual gamer, looking for quick, fun games that I don’t have to learn a lot of involved mechanics to play. I just don’t have the time to learn that much about a game before I can have fun playing it. I’m also not all that informed about the latest and greatest games; an awful lot of the time I hear about a game off-hand or when I browse in the store. All that adds up to my wanting games to simply have fun with, without a lot of in-depth analysis over graphics or gameplay details.

But, as the previous columns have shown, I’m not that casual either. I do have a few websites that I visit where I can see what’s coming up. I browse on Gamefaqs frequently to see what new things are coming out and what people are saying about them. I have some fairly strong opinions about what I’m looking for in a game. I don’t generally like very shallow games, and instead prefer games with either a good story or the ability to make a good story yourself. And I have strong opinions about what genres I like and don’t like.

All of this combines to make me a bit of an odd gamer. In terms of time investment, I’m clearly casual; I don’t have a lot of time to play games and don’t care to invest a lot of time researching them to decide what I want to play, or even how to play them. I’m not going to enjoy a grind, for example, and am more than prepared to gripe about it. But I’m used to the conventions and so know what’s really grinding and what’s just necessary to make the game, well, a game.

So my columns come from that perspective, the perspective of someone who’s capable of picking up the little tricks but doesn’t have a great interest in doing it . The well-informed casual gamer. Or, the not-so-casual gamer

It’s My Story …

December 12, 2014

And I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to. You would cry too if it happened to you.

So, there’s a trend in at least some of the new MMORPGs that are coming out that I should find very encouraging: the idea that you can forge personal, individual stories for your character inside the open world of the MMO. City of Heroes is doing it with “Going Rogue”, which has already been released. Guild Wars 2 is pushing this as one of its main selling points. And it should come as no surprise that having one of these for each class, with important choices in each, is one of the main points that Bioware is harping on in advertising Star Wars: The Old Republic. Since I’ve always liked having stories in my games, this should make me very happy.

But instead, I’m a bit worried. Why is that? Well, it’s because it’s not clear that these are going to work out very well.

Going Rogue is already out, and I’m playing it now (watch for previews and maybe even a review fairly soon). But it didn’t implement personal stories all that well. It seems to be what it is: stories welded onto the City of Heroes basic model as an attachment. An attachment that sticks out and makes you notice that it’s an attachment. And City of Heroes had an incredible base on which to build many, many different types of characters, allowing you to potentially run the story gauntlet with multiple attitudes. So that potential seems wasted.

Guild Wars 2 has an advantage in bringing individual stories to an MMO, in that it best fits the model that players of single player RPGs expect: buy a game, play it, and then buy expansions. So if it pulls off an interesting RPG story, it could pick up a fair amount of customers that way. And it also has the benefit of having a successful predecessor to draw customers from. So it might be able to succeed long enough to hammer out any issues and make it all really, really good.

Unfortunately, it’s also not that well-known among people who don’t play MMOs (and even among those who do). So that’s one strike against it already. And the number of classes seems to be low; there are only four listed on their website. And while the questions to set up some starting positions for the story sound interesting, how different can each story be? For me, I’m an alt-o-holic, and I want to play with multiple characters, but Guild Wars 2 seems to be a bit limited in that regard.

Star Wars: The Old Republic, on the other hand, is going to draw the attention of pretty much everyone who knows anything about Bioware or Star Wars, which means they’ll get a lot of people to try it out. However, there’s a lot of money invested in it, which will make it a risk to go bust if things don’t work out properly. While it has more classes than Guild Wars 2, it still is limited to 8. And since they’re really trying to a traditional MMO as well and really need to draw people, it remains to be seen how that will all come together. But it does have some promise.

Ultimately, if either Guild Wars 2 or Star Wars: The Old Republic can deliver on their promises of engaging world-changing impacts alongside good personal stories that really affect you, I’ll be in heaven. But if they fail … well, it’ll be back to City of Heroes, flawed though it is

The Whole Sum of the Parts.

December 11, 2014

It’s been a tradition for as far back as I can remember, and it continues to this day. Almost every review site and pretty much any review worth reading (and a number of them that aren’t) use the same standardish layout for reviewing games: take a number of categories (like Graphics, Sound, Gameplay, Story, etc, etc) and break down a game by analyzing each of these. Give each a score. At the end of the review, average the scores in all categories to get an overall score, that’s the rank, and that’s all she wrote.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. Well, except for one teeny-tiny little problem: for a significant number of games, it doesn’t actually work.

We’ve all played games that had crappy graphics — even for the systems that were out — basic gameplay and little to no story that were somehow incredibly addictive in spite of that. The old game “Scorched Earth” on the PC was basically a number of immobile tanks trying to figure out geometric angles to drop a number of creative — and not so creative, but certainly explodey — bombs on each other. The graphics were terrible (the Amiga version “Scorched Tanks” had better graphics in addition to the normal far better sound), the gameplay trivial, and the only story was the one you gave it. And yet, I — and others — found it an amazingly fun and addictive game.

But the best example — and the one that was more mainstream — might be Tetris. Think about it. Break Tetris down into graphics, sound, gameplay and all of that good stuff, and add them all up. You’ll probably end up ranking it lower than its massive popularity would suggest it should be ranked, because unless you add a category of “Addictiveness” and make that count for half the score you won’t be able to capture that, somehow, that game is incredibly addictive even though at an objective level it really shouldn’t be.

Also, we’ve all had games that had great graphics, gameplay, story and yet all that didn’t really add up to a good game. A minor example on this very site is my review of “Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love”. I talk about how I like the graphics, like the sound, love the music, and like the story and the gameplay. Taking all my scores together, it comes out to 4 out of 5 stars, which translates to about 8/10. And yet, in my subjective score at the end, I give it 7/10, because to me how it all fit together was about there. While the sum of the parts looks good to me, the whole isn’t quite at that level.

So, are gaming review sites doing it wrong? Should they be giving out subjective overall scores and ignoring the categories, like my subjective overall score at the end of my review?

I’m going to say “No”, for two reasons:

1) The parts are, in fact, important and useful gauges in determining how good a game is and if someone will like it. Despite them not really determining that a game will be good or bad, they definitely matter. Games with bad graphics will tend to have a worse overall feeling than games that have good graphics. And tired, trite gameplay generally leads to a more boring game than new and well-executed gameplay. The fact that it doesn’t always work doesn’t mean that it never works, or that that summary isn’t useful.

2) The subjective overall thing I do and that some others do is just that: subjective. It’s what I think of the game. Some people might be raving over the game and think it definitely deserves at least an 8. Some people might hate it and think that my 7 was too generous. The objective, sum of the parts ratings are my best attempt to analyze the categories objectively and thus start with an objective base. The sum, then, is the sum of the reviewer — at least for me — being as objective as they possibly can. So that’s what they feel is an objective score. The subjective is just “Okay, how do I feel about this game?” Without the objective breakdown, all you’d get is my impression, and in order to decide if you’re going to spend your hard-earned money on a game you need more than that from a review.

Thus, I say that gaming review sites get it right to do that breakdown. And, also, that’s why I toss my subjective impression score in at the bottom of all my reviews. I’m giving you as much information as I possibly can, and leaving it up to you to decide what matters to you.

You’re welcome.

Review : Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love

December 10, 2014

Well, this is it: one of the last games we’re going to see on the PS2. And it’s almost fitting that this game pretty much defies description.

This game is, essentially, an interactive anime. It weds a dating/life simulator with a turn-based strategy game based on mech combat, and wraps all of that up in an episodic, anime-style plot and game. Heck, it even has commercial breaks (the save points leap right out of the game) and a “On the next episode” finale to every segment. It’s not only unapologetic about being an interactive anime, it seems to be trying really, really hard to make it clear that it is one.

The basic underlying story is that you play as Shinjiro Taiga, a young aspiring samurai who comes to New York from Japan to become the captain of S.T.A.R.S., a group of mech based heroes who save the city from many dangers. Since this is set in the 1920s, all the mechanical things are basically steam driven, and this carries on into the game. Oh, and S.T.A.R.S. is also based in the Little Lip Theater, a company that puts on Broadway musicals.

From that alone, you should be able to guess that this is not your typical game.

This game is, from what I’ve read, a prequel to other Sakura Wars games, but I haven’t played any of them. Thus, I have to start this completely new, as someone who has no idea what’s going on. If you’ve played the other games, your mileage may vary.

Gameplay:

The game play isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either. Essentially, there are two main parts to the game: the real world/dating sim and the mech combat.

In the dating sim, you wander around New York doing things and encountering your fellow group members. Actions taken here will make them like you more or less, and this will carry over into the game. You work through this section by moving to places — that take time off the clock, and there’s a deadline for when you have to return home or to the theatre or to some other place — and encountering whatever and whoever happens to be there. So it’s kinda like the board game “Arkham Horror”, except without Elder Gods (at least at first).

When you encounter a person, you’ll generally just get a standard dialogue tree, where you select the right responses and see what happens. The game goes on no matter what you say, so there are no game-ending dialogue choices, as far as I can tell.

Sometimes, thought, some of the sections will trigger challenges. When you hit a challenge, there are a couple of types. One is that you have to decide what to reply, and you just do that by hitting up or down enough to select the response you want, but you do generally have to do it (there is a default answer, but often that’s not the one you want). In other cases, you have to move the analog sticks or the controller’s directional buttons the right way to succeed.

It’s all fairly standard, and there’s nothing really bad or good about it.

The one major issue with it, though, is with the fact that your real-world exploring is both timed and that the characters you want to talk to move around. This isn’t a big deal most of the time, but this even carries over to the big part of the plot where you choose the girl you want to be your partner and life-long love. I actually had to reload because I wanted to make Subaru my choice … but I couldn’t find her in time. This could ruin the game for you, and didn’t need to happen. Even just making it clear where each girl would be so you could seek them out would have made it all so much better.

The other side is the mech combat. This is a fairly standard system as well. You, as Shinjiro, control all characters in combat, one at a time in a turn-based strategy grid manner. You can move, attack, heal (yourself), defend, or use your supermove. All moves depend on a set amount of movement points, displayed as a set of blocks on the screen, and the amount required for any move varies. Supermoves and healing also depend on momentum and use it up when you activate them, and you get it back by being hit. There’s also a set of three "attitudes" that you can put your whole team into, which determines when you can defend, heal, or use your supermove. You can also engage in combination attacks with other teammates if you’re aligned properly, which will bump up their like of you.

If you get one of them killed, it reduces how much they like you, though, which means that you have to consider sacrifice tactics very carefully. Especially since, in general, your teammates get attack and move bonuses if they like you. So, if you tick them off in the world game, you’ll actually hurt your abilities in the strategy portion. This is both good and bad: what you do in the world portion matters, but it also limits what you can do in the world portion unless you want to risk gimping yourself.

The combat portion is usually divided up into a battle against random mooks, and then a boss fight at the end.

It’s all fairly standard, and it isn’t all that challenging. I didn’t need to use combinations until over halfway through,and then once I knew how it was only gimmicks that made me reload the game (or check a FAQ). Yes, this is an interactive anime, so of course the boss fights will use gimmicks.

Saving is only allowed at pre-determined commercial breaks, which are fairly regular but at times are lacking in the combat portion. However, dying in the combat portion always lets you restart from the start of the battle.

Graphics:

I liked the graphics. It uses still, drawn pictures on a background to do many of the story scenes, but they’re nicely drawn pictures. The look of the city areas as you walk around are fairly nice as well, the battle scenes look good, and there are anime-style cutscenes. All in all, it looks pretty good on the PS2.

Story:

There are two main portions to the story. One is the story underlying the entire anime, filled with goofy characters and goofy situations, mass battles, action, explosions, and Broadway musicals. As an anime story, it lacks the quality of a Record of Lodoss War and the amazingly in-depth characterization of a .hack: Sign. It’s mostly light with a serious backdrop, and a few good surprises that you’ll likely see coming a mile away, but that help ramp up the drama. Good, for an interactive anime.

The other part is the one that we must not forget: the dating sim. Each girl has an eccentricity as well as a problem. There will be an episode dedicated to each girl and then the final episodes involve choosing one, and then interacting with that to the big finale. The problem here is that in giving them unique personalities, they gave them too eccentric personalities, and you might end up not really liking any of the choices you’ll have. Or maybe one or two. In a dating sim, one would expect that in general you’d have the opposite problem, of liking too many. The eccentricities never go away, even after you solve their problems. So that’s a bit of a downside. The individual stories, though, are interesting enough, and the interactions between the characters are done well enough as well.

Combining the two, the story is fun and entertaining, but not the best in breed.

Controls:

Controls are nothing special. The gimmicks in the challenge sections are often too easy or too hard, but you can get decent results without actually caring, and things will move on no matter how badly you mess up something with the controls. In the battle side, they’re generally simple and straightforward.

Musical score :

The music works really well. The themes are all catchy and fit the game well. And since this game is based on people in a Broadway musical, pretty much every episode features a new set of music for the new musical the Little Lip Theater is putting on. And it’s good. The end theme is excellent; I can still remember it months after I’ve finished the game. I’d buy the soundtrack to this game if it was available.

Voice acting:

It’s good. The voices do carry the personalities of the characters they portray. They can be over the top at times, but then the characters have a tendency to be over the top as well, so it fits right in. There aren’t many noticeable translation errors or errors between the text and the voices (unlike in, say, Persona 4). So a fairly good job.

Sound:

The sound is good. It generally uses fairly standard sounds and an occasional musical lilt to tell you if you’ve made someone happy, but I don’t have any complaints about the sound. But it didn’t wow me as being the best you could have, either, but more than good enough.

Replayability:

Since this game is a dating sim that limits you to one girl that you can take all the way to the “true love” stage, you’d think it’d have more replayability as you want to return to it to see how it plays out with different girls. And the way the endings change to focus on that girl should make it more interesting. But the eccentricities of the girls make that hard to do; you may well only find one girl that you like in the whole game. Thus, replayability is not as strong as you might expect.

That being said, there are extra scenes to get on a second game and you might get to date the girl who seems the most normal and generally appealing: Ratchet. So that bumps it up a little. But only a little.

Production Value:
I’m always going to be bad at reviewing this category. This game uses a lot of still pictures to tell the story, but they’re very pretty ones. The music is done well, as is the sound and voices. For what they were going for, it seems to be done well.

Conclusion:

You’ll have the addition of all of the categories on the main display, but here I want to give my subjective opinion, ignoring what I said in all the categories, and a score based only on what I think of the total experience. This is an entertaining game. It has its warts, but it has its benefits. If you like the idea of an interactive anime — as I do — you’ll like this game. If you don’t, you might still find it entertaining. So my overall subjective score is: 7/10 (I use a 10 scale). A good game, worth getting and playing, but it won’t make the list of best games ever. But good enough that hopefully the interactive anime will be something that’s tried again.

Gameplay=6.0
Graphics=8.0
Story=7.0
Controls=7.0
Musical Score=10.0
Voice Acting=8.0
Sound Design=8.0
Replayability=6.0
Production Value=8.0

Overall: 7.0

Getting Into the Role …

December 9, 2014

Another old GG repost …

So, I’ve just picked up the game “Elder Scrolls: Oblivion” with some trepidation. After all, when I played Morrowind a few years ago — I got it for free with a new video card — the game … didn’t go well. What happened was I was enticed into the game with the vast character creation options, hopped onto a Silt Strider, ended up in some out of the way village somewhere, picked up some plates and things for the novelty, had no idea what to do next or if I was even in the right place … and then went homicidal and attacked a guard, who killed me. I uninstalled the game and never played it again.

So, in thinking about my past history with the series, I started thinking about the age-old debate over what makes for the best roleplaying in a roleplaying game. Some say that sandbox-style games are, in fact, the epitome of roleplaying, because there’s so much freedom to create your own story. Some disagree, finding the lack of a clear story too limiting in being able to play a role.

Thinking about the games that I consider the best games for roleplaying that I’ve ever played, I think I fall into the second camp. The games that I find the best for roleplaying are Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Persona 3 and Persona 4. These games are all incredibly linear; while there are some choices of ending and the like in them, the story pretty much proceeds without you. In a sense, you don’t really make the story at all. So how, then, can I consider so great at delivering roleplaying?

For me, it seems, I don’t really want to change the world when I roleplay. I’m perfectly happy being railroaded down plot elements, and where even if I don’t want to do something the plot conspires to make me do it anyway. Of course, there are better and worse ways to railroad, but the plot working out regardless of what I do isn’t a problem for me, and isn’t really what I’m looking for in a roleplaying game. So, then, what is it that I’m looking for?

I wanna be me … or, rather, I want to be my character. To me, a strong plot and underlying story helps me be my character, as I can play the game as if I was my character tossed into strange circumstances. I can react as my character would react, and the story — more or less credibly — reacts to it. As long as the game doesn’t try to tell me what I’m really thinking, I can be who I want to be. But if that story is taken away, then it’s a bit harder. Not only do I have to craft my character’s reactions, I have to write the story while I’m doing it. It’s too much work; I might as well just write a novel instead of playing the game.

A good example of this comes from KotOR. In that game, at one point you get the big reveal, and the main villain asks if it upsets you. I was playing a version of Corran Horn from the EU novels, and thought that he definitely would be upset by the reveal. However, he also would never let the villain know that it ticked him off. So I answered for my character that he wasn’t upset about it at all. Later, when with my friends, I did unload that it bothered me. But the game didn’t tell me how I actually felt, but just let me decide what to say. It gave me the background story to get really tough decisions in, and never let me get lost, but let me be my character. That, to me, is good roleplaying.

The Persona games are different. The main story is just as linear, if not more so, and there aren’t all that many conversational choices in the game. But about half the game is leveling up what are called “Social Links”. And what are they? Your interactions with people in your high school and city/town. So, outside of the dungeons, you decide who you hang around with, who you date, and who your friends are. And while the individual links are linear as well, they again don’t go into your internal motivations. In one S-link, you meet an unscrupulous businessman you tries to scam you out of some money. To activate the link, you have to “fall” for the scheme a few times, until he tells you that you are naive for falling into it. The second time through the game, I had a character with millions of yen (since money carries over between games), and so my character pretty much suspected that it was all a scam … but with money to burn, he wanted to see how far it would go. So, when charged with being “naive”, he was able to simply shrug his mental shoulders and think to himself “Ah, this is how far you’ll take it.”

Ultimately, good roleplaying allows you to be your character. Yes, more choices about how the story turns out certainly helps with this, but what linear plots give is just that: a plot. A story that you find yourself caught up in and reacting to, and something for you to react to. That reaction to events is roleplaying, no matter how you get it.

Whether that’s by the railroad or the winding country road

Review of Catherine

December 8, 2014

Catherine has to be one of the most innovative games to come out in quite some time. It marries the interactive movie/anime genre with a life simulator and adds in a puzzle game, all wrapped around an odd and mature story from the fertile minds of the guys who brought you the Persona series. You play as Vincent, a relatively normal guy, maybe a bit of a slacker, who’s been with his girlfriend for years and who now is facing real pressure from his girlfriend Katherine to finally tie the knot. A night where he’s had too much to drink brings a younger girl into the picture, named Catherine. The story unfolds through daytime animated cutscenes, night-time interactive discussions at the local bar, and through puzzle-oriented nightmare sequences. Again, this is not a combination that you’d normally find in a game.

But being innovative isn’t enough. The game’s innovative, sure, but is it any good?

Music – The musical score is good. It remixes some of the most famous classical music in existence, and if you like that sort of thing it will blow you away. If you don’t, you still shouldn’t have any problems with how the music was done in general, as it’s still catchy and yet blends in enough and fits the scenes well enough that you should never have to care that it’s not quite your genre.

Sound – The sound is good. You can hear things moving around on the towers and general footsteps when you’re moving around.

Voice acting – The English version features voices that you’ll recognize from the Persona series, such as Yukari for Katherine and Rise for Catherine. They do a pretty good job in general, and do seem to bring out their characters and their feelings fairly well.

]Graphics – The graphics are pretty good. The details on the blocks are nice, if you have the time to notice. The anime cutscenes are well done, and the interactive portions in the bar are maybe a bit fuzzy, but are still fairly nice. That being said, they aren’t much better than what you would have seen in something like Sakura Wars: So Long My Love, and I thought that we were in the next generation already. So, they aren’t that big a disappointment, and might be chalked up to the art style.

Gameplay – And now, into one of the first of the really, really important categories for how good a game this is: the gameplay. The gameplay is divided up into three parts, and each of those parts offer a completely different experience.

The first section is the anime cutscene section, which really are cutscenes and not really any sort of game at all. You don’t get any real choices here, or at least not very often. And while whether you’re tending towards Law or Chaos will impact what Vincent thinks, it doesn’t impact what he does. So if he’s thinking that he really has to come clean about all this, he’s still incapable of actually doing it. They’re fun to watch, but they aren’t actually playing. But that’s okay.

The second section is the time you spend at the local bar before heading home for the night. This is basically a life simulator, if your life is hanging out in bars talking to complete strangers, weird people, and some of your closest friends. Everything you do takes up time, and as time advances people will come in and leave. You’ll also get text messages from Katherine and Catherine, and how you reply will affect how lawful or chaotic you are, which has an impact on what you think in the anime sections and also on what ending you’ll get. So you spend time drinking — because you’ll get trivia on each drink you finish and if you get totally sloshed you’ll have an easier time with the next phase — wandering around talking to the customers, and answering your phone. You can also spend time practicing with a video game that’s like the tower sequences and that might reveal more of the story. This is the most fun part of the game. Unfortunately, you don’t spend all that much time in it.

The third part is where you’ll spend the most time if you’re anything like me: the puzzle section. This section is basically a race to the top of a tower, except that, in general, you have to make the path yourself instead of just moving up it. And did I mention that you’re a sheep in this section? Well, not really, but you seem to be representing one and there are other climbers on the tower who look to you like sheep. So you have to push and pull the blocks around, dodging enemies like other sheep, other homicidal sheep, and ants. Yes, ants. There’s a reason for that in game, actually, but just trust me on that one. Anyway, while you’re doing that you have to make sure that you look out for the special sorts of blocks that will do nasty things to you if you aren’t careful. Oh, and you have a time limit, as the bottom blocks fall away as you climb up so if you aren’t fast enough you’ll fall off. Fortunately, you can grab pillows and other special items — but only one at a time for the items, but pillows give you extra continues — to help you along your way.

In between levels of the tower, you reach an intermediate stage, where you can talk to other sheep — who seem familiar somehow — to learn new techniques or to change your karma meter, or to buy special items using coins found while climbing the tower. Before moving on, you have to enter a confessional and answer a question that impacts your karma meter before moving on to the next level.

Eventually, you’ll reach the last level for that night, and that almost always means you’ll face a boss that will be chasing you up the tower and making your life a living hell while you try to get to the top. One of the issues that comes in here is that the camera has a tendency to at least be impacted by the boss, meaning that at some stages while you’re trying to see the way up it’ll zoom way out or turn the camera around so that you can see what they’re doing, which only slows you down. You’d better be good at this game to avoid getting rather messily smashed by them.

Ultimately, the part of the game that’s the most like a game is also incredibly hard. I played it on the optional “Very Easy” mode and still spent most of my time in those stages and still died a ton of times. Now, I’ve never been great at puzzles but that’s gotta be worse than the Personas’ combat, which on Easy wasn’t that hard and was made a lot easier if you just remembered to analyze and checked to see what Personas you really couldn’t bring. There’s nothing in this game to make the puzzles that much easier just by knowing the right things or through good preparation. Add to all of this wonky controls and wonky cameras, and you’ve got gameplay that’s more frustrating than fun. While I’m all for a notion of having a different gaming experience instead of relying solely on combat, adding the time limits and the bosses so that it isn’t an exercise in thinking but an exercise in rushing isn’t the way to go with this.

The fact that the company patched in an easier version and added the “Very Easy” version to the North American release should tell you all you need to know about the puzzle section’s difficulty. And since the rest of the sections aren’t really gamey, that’s not great for the gameplay.

Controls – The controls are poor. The PS3 controller is supposed to be well-suited for this game, and yet I still had many cases where I ruined or almost ruined a tower climb because pulling out one block suddenly pulled it two sections instead of one. Trying to face differently so that you can climb or pull a block sometimes moves you, which is really bad if that block you climb onto is one that will kill you. Sometimes you won’t grab a block when you try to grab it, for some odd reason. When you move behind the tower your controls get reversed, but it isn’t clear what counts as “behind the tower” and so sometimes you’ll end up moving the controls in the exact wrong way to get back up on the block. Also, a lot of the time you won’t be able to see what you’re doing to see what you have to do to get back on. And since sometimes you drop down completely by accident — because you’re rushing with bad controls — this might get you killed when you wanted to do something else, like hop up onto the next block. And all of this only gets worse the more time pressure or other distractions you have, like boss fights and bad camera movement.

Multiplayer – All of the multiplayer support is for the puzzle part of the game. There’s nothing for the story level or anything else. So if you like the puzzle parts, you can compete against your friends in them, which might be fun. Otherwise, you’ll just be doing things you hate with more people.

Story – This should be — and is — the big draw in this game. The story is mature and unique, and is interesting. It also plays out across pretty much all parts of the game, from the anime cutscenes to the discussions in the bar to the text messages you receive and in some sense to the questions asked in the confessional. The karma meter that determines what ending you get is nice as well, and it’s moved pretty much through your interactions as Vincent, and not at all through the puzzle sequences — which is really nice as it makes it all self-contained. And through that, you can feel like you’re Vincent and not just some voyeur watching his life.

But that’s where the problems start. The fact that where the karma meter is affects what Vincent thinks but not what he does always reminds you that you are not Vincent, even as the game in other ways tries really hard to let you act as if you are Vincent. While that might be part of the story itself, it is a bit jarring. The story is also a bit short; it takes place over something like a week of nights, and you’re just dropped into it without really having the full history. You get some as you go along, but again with only a few short days there just isn’t the time to really get the depth that you’d like, which is a problem since there are a lot of hints dropped about things that you do find out about in some cases, but which you can miss entirely if you aren’t paying attention.

There are also some issues with the ending. Without spoiling too much, the nightmare’s Vincent has been having are, in fact, from an external force. Now, it could have worked well if it had been all internal to Vincent’s tortured psyche, but this can work, too, as long as the reason the force is doing it makes sense. But when it was revealed and gave its reasons my reaction was "… Really?". It wasn’t all that impressive. And maybe it wasn’t supposed to be. But it, again, is jarring.

Now, with all of these problems the story would still be a solid 6 – 7. It’s good and entertaining and has some depth to it. But the gameplay hurts it, because remember when I said above how the story seems too short? Well, spending most of your time in the puzzle sequences makes it seem even shorter, as that’s your short break from the frustration into the stuff that ‘s really fun, and it ends far too quickly. It also hurts the fact that there are multiple endings to the story, since you likely won’t want to spend the time going through them again to see them. All of this combines to make what could be a glorious story experience one that’s “meh” at best.

Replayability – The replayability is either go through the story mode again and see different endings — solving the same puzzles along the way unless you did really well on them the first time — or play with new puzzles. If you like the puzzles, it’s replayable. If you don’t, it isn’t.

Conclusion – So, for my own personal overall score for the game, which may not match the score above, I give it 6 (out of 10). And that really hurts, because I think the ideas are brilliant and innovative and well-worth doing. But the execution is poor. I would have liked to have seen a longer story session with perhaps the tower sequences spread out more, thus allowing for a more developed story with some deeper issues, and a slower progression through all the insanity that comes up in the story, with more hints as to what’s going on before you find out. I’d also like to see easier puzzle sequences, or at least ones without a time limit and with less gimmicks. Or, to be honest, I’d like to see one of these Golden Theater games just like this one without any other sequence at all. You just go through the game as a story, alternating cutscenes and interactive scenes and deciding what type of person your avatar is, until you get to the end and see what ending you get. The gaming part would be just trying to influence the world and your karma meter to be what you want it to be, and nothing else. If they’d done that in this game, it would have been a far better game. And that’s really sad, when you think about it.

Musical Score=9.0
Sound Design=8.0
Voice Acting=8.0
Graphics=7.0
Gameplay=4.0
Controls=4.0
Multiplayer=5.0
Story=6.0
Replayability=5.0

Overall: 6.0


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