Category Archives: Gaming

Game Review: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

“Whaaaaaaaaaat? A PS3 game, on this blog? I thought you only had a Vita, a 3DS, and a PC?”

I do, except now I have a shiny new PS4 that came with Final Fantasy XV and Uncharted 4, and now I have the remastered Uncharted collection so that means I’ll be reviewing the entire series, starting with the first one.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is one of my favourite movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark is okay, Temple of Doom was so boring I fell asleep, and the less that can be said about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the better. Seriously, fuck that movie. But nowadays it’s difficult to view these movies (and the “adventurer archaeologist” trope in general) and not consider the colonialism inherent in a white dude (and it is usually a white dude) plundering cultural artifacts from non-white cultures and declaring “this belongs in a museum!”

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The protagonist of the Uncharted series is Nathan Drake, a descendant of Francis Drake. The story begins with Nathan Drake and journalist Elena Fisher finding Francis Drake’s coffin at the bottom of the ocean and leads to him embarking on a quest to unlock the secrets of El Dorado. Naturally, he’s not the only one searching for the legendary city, and he’ll have to solve puzzles, blow things up, and competently maneuver a jet ski in order to make it to the treasure before the competition, and did I mention his friend owes them money and they’re out for blood?

If I had to describe this game in one word, I guess it would be “derivative” but that sounds a bit negative, doesn’t it? Another word I thought of was “typical” but that also sounds like I didn’t like the game. I guess what I mean to say it that it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. There are platforming sections where you jump from thing to thing and occasionally swing on things or hang on things. There are shooting sections where you hide behind cover and play whack-a-mole with enemies. There are puzzles which are so easy the game will literally give you the solution if you rake too long, and there is the occasional vehicle section where you awkwardly control a vehicle and try not to get instakilled, and there are plenty of collectable treasures (60 in all) which unlock bonuses like new outfits for the characters to wear. That’s pretty much it. Honestly, if you’ve played pretty much any action-adventure game you probably know what to expect. I was reminded of Prince of Persia, but I suspect most people will think of the Tomb Raider series, particularly the most recent games.

The characters are a mixture of what you’d expect from the genre with some surprises thrown in. Nathan Drake is a dime a dozen white thirty-something protagonist with permastubble with slightly more wisecracks than average (although in this reviewer’s humble opinion, he seems like he’s trying to hard to be snarky). Victor is an older mentor figure to Drake that ends up getting him into the whole mess with the antagonist. Elena was the surprise. At first, you’re probably thinking “let me guess, she gets abducted and Drake needs to rescue her, and also eye candy” but not only does she save Drake’s ass, she’s competent with a gun, and her default outfit is not ridiculous and sexualized (although she is baring her midriff in dangerous situations). Most importantly, she doesn’t put up with Drake’s shit. Unfortunately, she’s literally the only woman in this game. I want more badass ladies just like her.

I feel like this is almost redundant but the environments in this game are beautiful. Drake will be running, jumping, and climbing through ancient temples and abandoned churches and taking in some gorgeous vistas. I don’t have the PS3 version to compare, but the PS4 remaster was given a graphical bump and it looks great.

Unfortunately the controls in this game were my worst enemy at times, especially when Nathan refused to jump even though I was hammering the X button or ended up leaping to his death because I pressed it a bit too hard. I am also not a fan of the jet ski levels, and by not a fan, I mean I hated them. Fuck jet skiis, you couldn’t even speed through those levels like a badass because of the explosive barrels and pirates shooting at you. Another complaint I have is that I found the shooting monotonous. They try to throw in new enemy types (like annoying snipers with laser sights) but it was basically just the same “shoot enemies before they can flank you and hide behind cover). There were also a few times where the environments were too dark to see anything (which was particularly annoying for one puzzle). Lengthwise it took me about 10 – 15 hours to beat it but I only found around 20 collectables so there is some incentive to replay it if you care about collecting all the things. Usually I would criticize a game like this for being so short, but honestly I think this is an okay length and the game definitely doesn’t overstay its welcome.

In terms of diversity, the main cast is white. The only characters of colour in the game are the faceless enemies you mow down by the dozens, a minor antagonist, and a slightly more important antagonist (both Latino). There are no queer characters (although I subscribe to the headcanon that Nathan Drake is bi and/or pan).

I obviously have the benefit of hindsight but if I was playing this game with no expectation that there would ever be a sequel, I would have probably written it off as an average action-adventure game starring a younger, snarkier Indiana Jones. It’s average in pretty much every respect, which is not a bad thing, but it’s not exactly the best first impression of such a critically acclaimed series. I’m excited to play the rest, however, because I’ve heard the sequels are vastly superior.

Review: Snow Like Ashes

Look at this cover. Isn’t it just the prettiest cover?

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The world of Primoria is divided into eight kingdoms: the four rhythm kingdoms, which cycle through all four seasons, and the season kingdoms, which have only one season year round. Each kingdom’s monarch possesses a Conduit-and artifact of great magical power which they use to protect their people and cause their kingdoms to prosper. Then Spring invaded Winter, killing its queen, breaking its conduit, and enslaving its people. The few survivors of the conquest include Meira, an orphan girl who only wants what’s best for her country, and Mather, the young future king of Winter. When these rebels hear word that the pieces of Winter’s broken conduit are nearby, Meira embarks on a dangerous mission to take them back for her country.

At first I was having a blast with this book. Sure, it’s basically “young Xena” since Meira’s weapon of choice is a chakram, but I think you could hand me a book with the most thinly disguised Xena and I wouldn’t complain. I also found the writing easily engaged my senses: I could hear the crackling of fire and taste the frozen berries that are a popular treat in Winter.  Unfortunately, the book quickly gives up on the sneaking and stealing from Spring soldiers in favour of politicking, and depicting people in horrible conditions. This is where the book started to wear on me for a couple reasons:

  1. For someone who claims to want to do anything for her country, Meira is rude and childish towards a king who is the best chance they have of getting any help. She even admits that she’s throwing a temper tantrum and it’s childish of her.
  2. Oh look, a love triangle.

In a nutshell, Meira is betrothed to the king’s son, Theron, because this is What’s Best For Winter, Meira, naturally, isn’t too thrilled with the idea (especially since she has a very obvious crush on Mather) but Theron seems like a decent guy. Then he gets into a sparring match with Mather over Meira because it isn’t a love triangle unless the love interests duel at one point, that’s just how it goes. Also, it’s really obvious which one “wins” the relationship game, I honestly don’t know why some authors bother if there’s no contest between the potential love interests.

The other issue I have with this book is that it’s a book about oppression and prejudice that is almost completely erased of actual marginalized people. Autumn is a kingdom of dark-skinned people, but the Autumnians are barely in the book. Winterians apparently have the same phenotype: white skin, white hair, blue eyes, and it was difficult for me to root for these characters when they are literally the whitest of white people, although the scene in the underground “catacombs” where the Winterians record stories and customs of their homeland was poignant. Unsurprisingly, it’s also very heteronormative and cisnormative as well, it’s a shame, because there’s a plot point that could have lent itself well to one character being trans but that’s not what happens or I’d probably be praising it more.

Also, is it just me, or is “girls dreaming of dead queens” a genre now? This is the second young adult book I’ve read that has this as a plot point (the other is Throne of Glass).

Snow Like Ashes has some good ideas, and its not as blatantly offensive as something like The Queen of the Tearling, but it feels like it doesn’t do anything new with what it has. It’s your basic “girl power” fantasy, if you like those, you might like this. If you want another book in the same vein, I thought Throne of Glass was fun (if not very diverse either).

Review: Rosemary and Rue (October Daye #1)

It’s time for the latest entry in “books I bought because tumblr friends said they were good” lately this strategy has been hit or miss. As I’ve discovered, some of the folks I follow on tumblr have very different tastes than I do. In fact, I bet if you tallied the positive vs. negative reviews of books recommended to me by tumblr friends, there would probably be a few more negatives.

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The world of Faerie never disappeared. It exists parallel to our own, protected by secrecy. When the human world and Faerie intersect, changelings are born, belonging to neither world. October Daye is one such changeling, but after getting burned by both sides of her heritage, all she wants is to live as normal a life as possible. Naturally, she’s drawn back into faerie politics when Countess Evening Winterrose, one of the more powerful fairies in San Francisco (and Toby’s sometime friend) is murdered, her dying curse binding Toby to find the murderer, or die trying.

I found most of the characters likeable. Toby’s been through hell and she’s just trying to live a normal life after what she’s been through (as usual, that doesn’t last long), but there are some really great secondary characters: October’s good friend Lily, an undine who lives in the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park, to Sylvester, Toby’s liege lord, his wife Luna and their acerbic daughter Rayseline, to Tybalt, a Cait Sidhe with whom she shares a mutual dislike. Toby’s world is populated by a variety of creatures drawn from world mythology, from selkies to kitsune to rose goblins.There are a couple characters I’d really like to mention, but that would be spoiler territory.

The world of faerie, so close to our own, is both magical and dangerous, with magnificent gardens of glass flowers, doors that open to places you weren’t expecting to be, and denizens who are sticklers for protocol and take hospitality very seriously. Changelings like Toby naturally occupy a dubious space in either sidhe and human society, not quite belonging to both and struggling to live in either. Toby’s position as a knight errant to a sidhe liege lord is something of a novelty.

This book had me hooked from the prologue. In fact, it’s one of the best prologues I’ve ever read. I was definitely not expecting what happened and it explains why October didn’t want anything to do with Faerie and had to be dragged back into it by her not-quite-friend’s death. I also like that the plot wasn’t overly focused on romance, there are some sexual tension laden scenes between October and a few men, but she doesn’t have a lot of time for romance.

Unfortunately, while the prologue is strong, I found the plot loses momentum. For a private investigator, October doesn’t really do any serious investigating and spends most of her time getting shot, nearly bleeding out, and having to be rescued by other characters. October’s circumstances remind me of a recent post I saw on tumblr, which talked about how some protagonists have the plot happen to them, and this is definitely what I felt happened in October’s case: she doesn’t so much drive the plot, the plot happens to her and she reacts to it. The Big Bad in this book was obvious to me from their introduction, and all it really took to uncover them was October remembering her powers. Speaking of her powers, they seem inconsistent, one moment she can’t maintain a simple illusion without experiencing a splitting headache, the next she’s using her abilities with no issues (although this is explained by coming into contact with a magical artifact, I thought there was a point where the effect wore off). My other criticism is that even though this is the first novel in the series, there are many references to past events. Occasionally these sort of references can be used to give a sense of history to the world, but in this case this first novel feels like the fifth in a series. (Note that although she has written prequel stories, I’m reading each book in order of publication.)

Unfortunately, while there are a lot of different types of fae, there aren’t any explicitly marked people of colour (although my impression of Lily was that she was at least half-Japanese), the only reference to queer sexualities is one character’s offhand comment that he slept with a (male) faerie, although based on what I’ve heard, there’s more queer representation in other books in the series and the author self-identifies as bisexual.

In terms of triggers, Devin, the man in charge of the halfway house for changelings where October used to live, is implicitly and explicitly abusive to his charges. There’s also some blood-drinking (sidhe can drink blood to experience the memories of dead people), and violence.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and the preview for the next one was genuinely intriguing. I can safely say I’m hooked and I can’t wait to catch up with it. If you’re a fan of urban fantasy, you’ve probably read it already. If you like urban fantasy that focuses on something other than vampires, check out this series.

 

Game Review: Why am I Dead at Sea?

By the time you read this Hallowe’en will probably be over, but in case I manage to write this review before midnight: Happy Hallowe’en and Blessed Samhain!

In the past, I’ve played games that were conventionally “scary” on Hallowe’en, but I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, but I’ve found I just don’t enjoy jump scares as much as I used to, the horror titles I’m into these days are more atmospheric.

One thing that has remained consistent throughout my life is that I love a good ghost story, and that’s exactly what Why am I Dead at Sea? is: a ghost story where you are the ghost and your task is to solve your own murder on a boat at sea.

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You solve your own murder by possessing the passengers and crew and getting them to converse with one another. Depending on their relationships, they’ll have different things to say to each other. In the beginning, you have limited control over the characters, and can only say what they would say in that circumstance. However, as you get to know them, you can take full possession of them and speak through them. You can also read peoples’ minds and uncover more information about them or hints as to what you’re supposed to do next. Each character also has a special ability: one character can see what’s in a person’s pockets if she’s near them, another can peek through keyholes to see what’s behind a door before she opens it, another can see objects he can interact with, etc. The puzzles in this adventure game are more about getting to know people and ferreting out secrets, and every single character in this game has a secret.

The characters themselves are interesting, although given the length of the game (Steam has me clocked at six hours, all achievements obtained) there isn’t really a lot of time to flesh them out. I loved Quella, the writer who writes because she enjoys it and she’d rather do something she enjoyed even if she isn’t making a lot of money (I feel like I understand her) or First Mate Ferdinand and his ridiculous announcements. They all deal with some dark stuff as well: from coping with the death of a spouse from suicide to cancer to parental abuse and more.

The graphics are obviously reminiscent of Earthbound, some of the characters have a leitmotif that plays when you possess them, but the music isn’t especially memorable, perhaps because of the game’s length.

One of my major criticisms of this game is that it’s sometimes unclear as to what your next move should be. You can always ask Paolo, the only character who can communicate with you, for help, but basically what it comes down to is talking to everyone (exhausting all dialogue options) and examining everything. Another issue I had is that Xu’s portrayal (a waitress who steals stuff from passengers and crew and is also secretly here illegally) strikes me as racist stereotyping, characters even comment on how her English is good and keep mispronouncing her name (as “Sue”). Out of all the characters of colour in the main cast, the only one I found remotely sympathetic was Quella, as the others are in on the unpleasantness described below (although most of the characters have something to sympathize with).

In terms of triggers, one character’s depressed spouse committed suicide, another is implied to have been stalked or sexually abused, there’s also abuse, one character is dealing with cancer, one on screen suicide (which is unavoidable) and discussion and depiction of human trafficking. There are also some flashing graphics at the very beginning of the game, and reading a person’s thoughts will occasionally show bright colours and flashing, moving text and images.

Overall, you can finish the game in an afternoon and unlock all the achievements. It’s a nice little diversion while you’re waiting for the latest big budget title to download. It has some interesting ideas, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’m not sure that it’s worth the full price of $10, but on sale it’s worth a look if you like murder mysteries.

Game Review: Aviary Attorney

There are games that are obvious attempts to cash in on another franchise’s popularity, and there are games that are obviously a loving homage to its parent franchise. The difference between the two is often a matter of who you ask.

Aviary Attorney is an obvious homage to the Ace Attorney series, only with birds. As defense attorney JayJay Falcon, you’ll explore 1840s France on the cusp of a revolution. Whether France is consumed by revolution or not is up to you.

Oh, and there are bird puns, tons of bird puns.

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If you’ve played any of the Ace Attorney games, the basic flow of the game should be familiar to you, although Aviary Attorney is much closer to a pure visual novel. This is one game that definitely wears its influences on its sleeve. You’ll still be investigating, gathering evidence, pointing out contradictions and the like, but instead of scrutinizing every individual line of testimony, you’re given a transcript and asked to point out contradictions. Also unlike Ace Attorney is that the story continues if you lose cases (albeit it becomes much darker). You’re also on the clock, so if you spend too much time wandering around, there’s a good chance you’ll lack evidence for a trial, and the game is surprisingly strict about this. I ended up losing the second case because I visited a certain location early and ate up a valuable time slot. Even though I went back and tried to do the chapter over, I still couldn’t get the exact sequence of events down and gave up because I’m impatient like that.

The character designs are taken from the work of J. J. Grandville, who I am actually familiar with through his art being used for the Fantastic Menagerie Tarot and the Victorian Flower Oracle. The music is by the romantic-era composer Camille Saint-Saëns, whose work adds a certain grandeur to the setting. The graphics are in a sepia style that have an old sketchbook kind of appeal.

Although I liked this game, I do have a couple criticisms. The ending you get is based on the outcome of the third case, so you can theoretically bumble your way through the other cases and still end up with a good ending. Also I never thought I’d say this, but the bird puns sort of wore out their welcome by the third case, and I felt like the game has a hard time deciding whether it wanted to be a barrel of laughs or dark and serious. It felt like it just didn’t know when to put on each mask, unlike its inspiration, Ace Attorney, which can go from courtroom antics to serious drama in a matter of moments, Aviary Attorney doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do. Part of it is probably due to length, I was able to get a decent ending in four hours. Understandably, that’s not a lot of time to immerse players in sweeping drama.

I don’t want it to sound like I hated the game. It definitely scratched the AA itch, and I recommend it to anyone who’s waiting for Ace Attorney 6, but I want to emphasize that it’s a fleeting experience and at times it seems like it doesn’t know what it wants to be. I would definitely recommend picking this one up on sale if you’re interested. IMHO the price is a little steep considering its length. If you really want a game to scratch that AA itch, I’ve definitely played worse than Aviary Attorney.

Game Review: Hustle Cat

If there’s one thing visual novels with a bunch of romance options and dating sims have taught me, it’s that fictional people are better than real people, and I have A Type. Unfortunately, if there’s one other thing these games have taught me, it’s that at least one person in my fictional dating pool is bound to be a total jerk.

Then there’s Hustle Cat.

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Hustle Cat is a visual novel about a cat cafe. You play as Avery Grey, the newest employee of A Cat’s Paw, a place where the coffee’s good and the staff are friendly (not to mention cute!). Sure, your coworkers disappear and reappear at odd times during the day and there’s a strange book in the basement that you can’t read, but it’s probably nothing, right?

This is one of the cutest visual novels I’ve ever played.

This isn’t an exaggeration. The characters are genuinely sweet and the closest thing to a jerkass route is the “delinquent” taciturn cook who fell in with the wrong crowd in the past and the assistant manager, who is a little full of himself but is easily (and adorably) flustered by your awkward attempts to flirt with him. There’s none of that “he’s a jerk to me it’s so romantic!” thing like in certain other games *coughAmnesiacough* and I know I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but it’s a refreshing change from games like Sweet Fuse, which, despite being pretty sweet at times, still had jerkasses, angstbuckets, and a male yandere character.

There isn’t really any gameplay so to speak apart from the typical visual novel mechanic of reading text and picking choices. There’s not a ton of choices, either. Unlike many visual novels with separate routes, there are no bad ends with individual characters (although there are a couple that you can get by picking certain choices). Once you’re on a route, all you have to do is read until the final encounter. Regarding length, it took me nine hours to finish all the routes and get all the achievements. Hayes and Mason are probably my favoutite routes, and unlike some games, you can’t unlock the route that explains much of the story until you complete the others, so don’t worry about accidentally spoiling yourself.

I can’t really think of any criticisms. Sure, it would have been nice to have some choices once you were on a certain route, but “bad ends” don’t really fit the tone of this game (although there are a couple you can get). The requirements for the secret ending are kind of weird, but on the other hand it wouldn’t really be a secret ending without being, well, secret. Although having a non-binary option for Avery was great, I would have liked to see at least one non-binary love interest. It’s great to have that option for a main character but I find it hard to see the game as “non-binary friendly” if the only character who is actually non-binary is the one character where you can specify your pronouns. The writing is generally decent apart from some awkward sentences (also, it’s “vampires” not “Draculas”).

In terms of diversity, Mason, Reese, and Landry are all dark-skinned love interests. Any of the main cast can be romanced regardless of gender. It’s implied that Hayes has some form of anxiety, though it’s only stated that he gets “anxious” and nervous around people. The only obvious trigger I found was that one of the routes (Finley’s) deals with misogynist online harassment.

In sum, Hustle Cat is easily one of the cutest visual novels I’ve ever played with love interests who aren’t massive jerks. It’s a little on the short side, but is definitely worth the money if you like fluffy romance, especially fluffy romance involving cats and witchery.

Game Review: Pillars of Eternity

I love RPGs: Western RPGs, JRPGs, action RPGs, games with RPG elements, all kinds of RPGs, so when I heard that Obsidian, the studio behind such gems as Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape Torment, wanted to make an old school RPG in the vein of the old Infinity Engine games, I backed it right away on Kickstarter.

Pillars of Eternity is about an ordinary person who is thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Your journey begins with you accompanying a caravan into the Dyrwood pursuing a fresh start. Soon after, you witness a terrifying event and find yourself thrust into the role of a Watcher, a person with the ability to see into the souls of others. Your journey will take you across the Dyrwood in the hope of finding out what has happened to you and whether you can free yourself from your new burden.

Pillars of Eternity is an isometric CRPG, a style of RPG which has become less popular in recent years but is enjoying a resurgence thanks to funding platforms like Kickstarter. If you’ve never played a CRPG like Pillars before, it’s difficult to find a point of comparison, if you’ve ever played Dragon Age Origins on “tactical mode”, it’s kind of like that with tighter controls.

The game starts, naturally, with character creation. You choose staples like race (with a number of sub-types) and class, but also background and place of origin. These choices aren’t just cosmetic, they have an effect on how NPCs treat you and what you can equip. Godlikes, for instance, have some sort of protrusion that makes it impossible to equip helmets and other headgear. For my first character, I broke my own tradition of playing a human mage and opted to play as a Moon Godlike Cipher (a class focused on using psychic abilities to manipulate others’ souls directly instead of using complex formulae like Wizards or songs like Chanters) named Paresh whose background was as an Old Vailian Aristocrat. As always, I tried to do “good” and honest things over acting like an asshole.

Unless you’re dedicated to soloing your journey of discovery (which you can apparently do with the right build), you’ll probably want some companions to help you out. The game gives you the option to create your own party from scratch a la Temple of Elemental Evil, but you’ll also meet a variety of colourful companions you can recruit, including Eder, a farmer turned fighter who is a follower of the persecuted Eothasian faith who is looking for an answer as to why his brother fought on the opposing side during a war, Aloth, an elven mage with some interesting secrets, Pallegina, an avian godlike who joined an all=male knighthood on a technicality who is caught between duty to her superiors and her conviction that there is a better way to help the Republics, Sagani, a dwarven hunter who is searching for the reincarnation of her village elder, and others. Each companion has a personal quest and the outcome of that quest (as well as how you treat them throughout the narrative) determines which of a few different endings you get. The characters all have depth and they all have a central conflict that you can influence. You can also gain reputation with various factions, which affects everything from which quests are available to you to the ultimate fate of a settlement. One of my favourite aspects of reputation is the way your decisions shape your character’s personality and open up different dialogue options (in one case, an Honest character will have an easier time giving testimony during a certain event, whereas a Cruel character gets more opportunities to be a complete asshole).

Combat is definitely one area of the game that sounds complicated but actually isn’t as hard as the fanbase or critics are saying it is. In a nutshell, enemies have four defense types: Deflection, Fortitude, Reflex, and Will, higher numbers indicate more defenses against that sort of damage. For instance, an enemy with high Fortitude but low Reflex might resist most status effects but be susceptible to area of effect spells, whereas an enemy with low Deflection is very susceptible to melee attacks. It’s often a matter of checking enemy stats to find the lowest number and then using spells and abilities that cause damage against that attribute, provided you’ve fought enough of those enemies that you can tell what those numbers are in advance. Combat (at least at the time of release) involves adjusting the position of your fighters and coordinating their attacks, as (again, at the time of release) they didn’t have much in the way of AI. Some might dislike this level of micromanagement, but fortunately you can (and should) pause the game to issue orders. The “with pause” part of “real time with pause” makes combat much less stressful. Another important part of combat is health and endurance. In a nutshell, endurance is short term injury and is refilled at the end of battle and through healing potions, food, and spells. Health is long term injury and can only be recovered through resting. On every difficulty except Easy, if a character’s health is depleted, they permanently die. There are no resurrection spells or the like in this world. There’s something about the combat that is deeply satisfying, especially when you score a critical and the enemy explodes into giblets. There’s also something deeply satisfying about emerging from a fight with no unconscious party members, especially if you were like me and had trouble with the dungeons at the beginning. The fact that someone like me, who had immense trouble with the Infinity Engine games, can conquer the bonus dungeon and kill the challenging bonus boss is proof that the game is not nearly as difficult as everyone is making it out to be (or else I’m better at delegating than I thought).

While I was playing this I was also playing Dragon Age Inquisition, and I think modern RPGs like DAI could learn a thing or two from Pillars of Eternity‘s quest design. Whereas DAI had me running all over the Hinterlands looking for letters and corpses and endless distractions like shard hunts and constellation puzzles, Pillars of Eternity had fewer things to do (some areas are practically empty except for monsters) but made up for it in quality. Almost every quest has something more to it. Almost every quest is more than it initially appears to be. Even simple quests like “kill this bear in this cave” or “deliver this ring” tell stories of treachery or desperation, and many of them give you opportunities to develop your character’s personality as well as dole out precious experience. The bulk of experience is gained through completing quests, you do get some experience for killing monsters, but (at least when the game was released) you stop gaining experience when you’ve learned about them. You can also gain experience through exploring new areas and interacting with the world (unlocking chests, disarming traps, etc.).

The graphical style should be familiar to you if you’ve ever played this sort of RPG. The graphics are 2D and made by rendering high quality 3D models but the effects and characters are in 3D. Pillars has gotten some flack for its “old” graphics, but while it might not have sprawling vistas like Skyrim, the Dyrwood is still very pretty and objects like the “Gilded Vale Welcome Tree” would provoke an emotional reaction from me regardless of rendering. The music is another high point, with tracks that reminded me of the likes of Icewind Dale and Morrowind. Although there is little voice acting, it’s all pretty great with no voices that I really hated. Durance’s voice actor in particular nailed the “fire and brimstone preacher” personality, and Matthew Mercer is truly a man of a thousand voices.

Keep in mind that the few negative points I have may or may not have been fixed with a patch since then, but when the game first came out, the AI had a really annoying pathing problem where they would run back and forth instead of moving around to strike at an enemy. Although your party members are all very interesting, I feel as if Sagani, Pallegina, and especially Grieving Mother weren’t given as much attention as Aloth, Eder, and Durance. Grieving Mother is a particularly egregious case because the Watcher is the only one who can see who she actually is, limiting opportunities for party banter, and you can also permanently lose her at least twice in the story if you make the wrong decisions (although the second time you deserve it, you monster). Ciphers at the time of release seemed somewhat overpowered, with plenty of abilities that could knock an opponent down or make enemies attack each other, although I hear they have since been nerfed. The game is also pretty difficult at the beginning, and one of the earliest dungeons, the Temple of Eothas, can easily wipe the floor with your party and laugh. Stick with the game, however, and characters like Eder and Aloth become practically superhuman (casters starting off weak and then becoming powerhouses by the end game are apparently a staple of the Infinity Engine games). Miraculously, I didn’t encounter any game-breaking bugs, something that Obsidian games are infamous for having.

Pillars of Eternity might look like a standard fantasy romp in a standard fantasy setting but its also a very bleak world where terrible things happen to good people. In that sense, it’s very much a successor to Planescape: Torment. Rape is mentioned but never depicted in a couple quests, war and its effects on the land are ever present, human sacrifice (which can be performed by the player), death by hanging, and violence against children are all present, as are parental and spousal abuse, and this is barely scratching the surface of the dickish things the player can do. Suffice it to say if you can think of a way that a person can suffer, this game probably has it. No character earned quite as much ire from me than Durance, with his sexist comments and leers to his hatred of absolutely everyone, he is, as someone on tumblr put it “such a white boy”. My dislike for Durance is so great that someone actually messaged me asking how they could avoid recruiting him. Unfortunately, as he’s a priest, if you want to do a playthrough with no player-created characters and you’re not a priest/ess yourself, you’ll want to have him around, and to be fair, Hiravias is at least as filthy as Durance and doesn’t get half my scorn.

In terms of diversity, Pallegina, Sagani, and Kana are people of colour. Pallegina is black, and Sagani’s people clearly resemble the Inuit, Kana is a bit more ambiguously brown. Interestingly, the dominant culture in the Republics (which resembles Italy) are the dark-skinned Calbandra (also known as “ocean folk”). I do wish, however, that at least one of them was a normal human like Eder, Durance, and Grieving Mother. There isn’t much in terms of queer representation outside of backer-created content (the little stories that appear when you view an NPC’s soul), although a quest may be about a female captain and her lover, and two of the deities, Berath and Wael, have male and female aspects (Berath) or are flat out seen as genderless (Wael) although the decision to use “It” for Wael’s pronoun wasn’t the best decision. An interesting bit of lore concerns godlikes, who are legally seen as agender regardless of how they present or identify, which becomes a plot point in Pallegina’s story.

In short, Pillars of Eternity was one of the best RPGs I played last year and if you’re looking for a great RPG and don’t mind a bit of a learning curve or difficult beginning levels, I absolutely recommend it. Steam has me clocked in at 96 hours although the in-game clock says around 60, but regardless of my exact time, it’s an RPG that focuses on quality over quantity, and when so many RPGs seem to be focused on cramming the most stuff in as possible, Pillars of Eternity is a breath of fresh air.

Game Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC

The trails series has quickly become one of my favourite series. The first chapter alone was a huge game with NPCs who constantly had something new to say, and it actually felt like the characters were wandering around doing a job. In fact, the only teal complaint I had was that the combat system was nothing special.

Trails in the Sky SC kicks its predecessor in the pants.

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The first thing you need to know about this game is that the second chapter takes place right after the first, so you’ll want to play it first to understand what the heck is going on. It’s difficult to talk about the plot without completely spoiling both games, but suffice it to say that it involves Estelle and friends going toe to toe with the mysterious Society of Ouroborous. Secrets revealed and shocking twists are the order of the day. Seriously, you don’t want to be spoiled, stay away from TV Tropes and the like until you’ve finished the game.

Not much has changed in terms of gameplay from its predecessor. You still insert quartz into slots in order to use Arts (basically magic) and grant passive abilities. This time around, you can (and should) upgrade your slots to hold more powerful quartz. In battle, you can now perform combos with other characters, but only if you have enough CP. Combos can be used to quickly finish enemies or allow a character who is out of range of an enemy to strike them, but they honestly don’t add that much to the combat, although destroying an enemy with a well timed combo was pretty satisfying. combat is still pretty slow, and after a while I started avoiding combat in my haste to get to the next story point. The combat is definitely one of the weakest points in both SC and FC. As a bit of an aside, if you’re worried about slow combat being a trend in this series, I’m happy to report that Trails of Cold Steel has vastly superior combat and an awesome battle theme.

In my review of FC, I remarked that the characters don’t really deviate much from their assigned archetype until the very end. SC gives everyone some much needed character development and sheds light on their background, including characters you might not have used much in the first game, like Schera or Zane (who I almost never used). As with FC, some chapters focus on a particular character. Unlike FC, the characters stick with you when their chapter ends for the most part. As expected for a main character, Estelle’s growth is significant. In FC, i often felt like she was overshadowed by Joshua and Cassius, but in SC it feels like she was given more time to grow into her own person. Although she doesn’t always make the smartest decisions, her enthusiasm is infectious and she’s easily one of the most dynamic characters I’ve played as in any JRPG. (I love you Square Enix but sometimes I need less brooding and more cheer.) A newcomer to the cast is Kevin, a wandering priest of the Septian Church who is nearly as big a flirt as Olivier.

Other than the combat, my second complaint is that there’s a lot of backtracking. In fact, you travel the whole (or most) of Liberl at least twice. The first time is arguably necessary to familiarize yourself with the world again and check up on your favourite NPCS (another reason for importing Clear Data from FC: NPCs will remember you helped them and you’ll get extra bits of dialogue), but the second time involves traveling the whole of Liberl on foot again, which just seems excessive. I also didn’t feel like there was much of a point to upgrading your slots a third time since the upgrades are very late in the game and it seems kind of pointless at that point. There aren’t as many hidden quests this time around, but you’ll still need a walkthrough to get the most Bracer Points, as well as to get all of the novel series, Gambler Jack (which can be redeemed for two of the best weapons in the game). I finished the game five BP shy of the max rank and I was following a walkthrough (although, I know I missed a sneaky extra BP by not bringing a certain NPC with me during an early game short term quest (hint: when you need to snap a photo, bring a professional photographer). The game doesn’t have much in the way of replay value (unless you want to get max BP) but it’s still quite a long game. My playthrough was just under 80 hours, which I’m pretty sure is the longest I’ve ever played a single run of a JRPG which average about 30 -40 hours).

Triggery things include implied rape (not of the characters, but during an event that happened in a major war fifty years ago) and it’s also heavily implied that a child character was a survivor of sexual abuse. Schera still fills the role of the sexy mentor but this time she gets a little more character development. As for Estelle and Joshua’s relationship, let’s just say that by the end, it’ll be very hard to think of them as siblings.

There are a bunch of little touches in both games that I like, like the way a character’s name on the status screen will change in response to certain events, or the way the quests are organized as if Estelle is writing in her Bracer notebook. Little things like that are not exclusive to these games, of course, but they make the world seem more alive.

If you haven’t played FC, you absolutely need to play it before playing SC. If you really didn’t like FC, you probably won’t like SC unless you really need to know what happens storywise, but if you loved FC and were clamoring to play SC, you have probably already picked this one up. Trails in the Sky SC may not break any new ground in terms of combat and it may start out slow, but it’s more of the huge world and endearing characters you’ve grown to love over FC.

P.S. Pick Agate, you’ll thank me later.

Game Review: Tales from the Borderlands

“Play Tales from the Borderlands,” said my tumblr friends. “You’ll love it!”

“Do I need to know anything about Borderlands?” I asked. I’m not a fan of shooters, so naturally I skipped the series.

“Nah, you might miss some references but it’s not essential.”

“ok”

Tales from the Borderlands is one of the more recent titles from Telltale Games. In it, players assume the role of Rhys, a salary man for the villainous Hyperion corporation, and Fiona, a Pandoran hustler, as they chase a case full of cash they both think is theirs, a trail that may lead to one of the planet’s elusive Vaults and the greater riches contained within.

In an age where every other game is “dark and mature” and the environments must contain at least sixty shades of brown, Tales from the Borderlands is a fun, funny, and at times just plain weird ride that manages to be hilarious without insulting several minority populations. Seriously, the game is laugh out loud funny. It was such a treat to play a more lighthearted game after the roller coaster ride that was The Walking Dead Season 2.

Also, this game has one of the cutest robots ever. Cutest. Ever.

If you’ve played the previous adventure games from Telltale (The Walking Dead series, The Wolf Among Us, etc.) you’ll know what to expect: a bunch of pointing, clicking, QTEs, and choices. Some of the consequences of your choices are apparent as soon as you make them, others less so. In fact, some choices you make in the first episode don’t bear fruit until the very last episode. There are also plenty of opportunities to shape the main characters’ personalities. Is Rhys a nice guy who just happens to be working for the “wrong” side, or is he desperate to climb the corporate ladder and will cut down anyone in his way? Similarly, is Fiona only in it for the money, or is she one of the nicer members of the cast? I played Rhys as a nice guy and Fiona as a kind, but sly con artist, and both of them snarky.

As far as things to keep in mind, make no mistake, the game is hilarious, but there’s also quite a bit of blood and gore, and a part of the game requires you to gouge someone’s eye out (the subject of some very dark humor). The blood and gore is no less over the top than the rest of the game, but the characters will definitely end up covered in it at some point. The game also makes use of several “imagine spots” where a character will narrate something spectacularly awesome happening and then be interrupted and asked for the true story. (Note that the game uses a framing device where characters are telling the story of how they got there, so unreliable narrator is a thing.)

The Borderlands series has been highlighted by many reviewers for attempting to be more diverse than the typical shooter, and Tales from the Borderlands is no exception. Although Fiona is a bit more ambiguous and appears to be white-passing at least, Sasha is less so, although it’s possible they’re both biracial. Cassius, Yvette, and Finch are unambiguously black and at least one can end up on your final team. There’s also a character from past games who may or may not be Latino (or its fictional equivalent in the Borderlands universe). Unfortunately, most of the characters of color can die during the course of the narrative, although all but one is mandated by the plot and keeping them alive is just a matter of picking the option that amounts to “don’t let them die”. This isn’t The Walking Dead, after all. In terms of disability, main character Rhys has a mechanical right arm. Unfortunately, the only character of size I encountered in the game is a villain, although they are not played for laughs and are intimidating and badass. There’s also a badass queer lady couple you’ll probably be familiar with if you’ve played the other Borderlands games. In fact, you pretty much can’t be successful in this game without being a badass on some level, that means lots of badass women.

If I had one complaint about this game, it’s that sometimes the way the arrows showing which direction to push curved around in a way that I wasn’t sure which one to push, and during one timed sequence, I was a bit confused as to what I needed to do to select something and ended up with an interesting combination for my robot buddy (it wasn’t a big deal).

In short, this game was a treat, from the hilarious subtitles that pop up whenever you meet a new character, to the over the top shenanigans of two unreliable narrators, Tales from the Borderlands was a game I didn’t think I’d like that much and ended up loving. Check it out if you want something that’s equal parts hilarious and action-packed. I for one hope we get at least two more seasons. Seriously when is Season Two happening, I want it.

Game Review: The Walking Dead Season Two

(The following review contains SPOILERS for season one of The Walking Dead game.)

I have no idea why it took me so long to play this because I love Telltale’s adventure games and this one’s been sitting in my Steam library for a few months now.

Season two picks up several months after the first season’s end. Clementine is now traveling with Omid and Christa. After things go south very quickly in the game’s opening scenes, Clementine finds herself alone in the wilderness with no help in sight. The events that follow will test her morals and survival instincts.

If the dominant emotion I felt while playing the first season was sadness, the emotion I felt the most during season two was rage. The second season seemed tailor made to make me angry, and not in a “the controls are broken and this game is terrible” way.  I was angry at the characters, I was angry at the way things kept getting worse all the time, and I was especially angry at Telltale Games for making me feel so angry.

As I said in my previous review of the first season, the zombies almost take a backseat to the interpersonal drama. In fact, the apocalypse could have been, well, anything, and you’d still have desperate people scavenging for survival and being despotic overlords of their own insular communities. Season two gives you a cast of mostly likable characters, so it’s all the more heartbreaking because the player knows that at least some of them will become zombie food (if their fellow survivors don’t kill them first). Even though I knew their deaths were very likely inevitable, I couldn’t help but get attached to Sarah, the sheltered daughter of the doctor in a group Clem meets, or Rebecca, who definitely started off on the wrong foot with Clem but slowly warms up to her. There are also some really great character moments for Clementine, who has been forced to grow up way too fast by the events in the first and second seasons.

The art is the same cell-shaded art of their other adventure games, and it’s only improved since the first season. I didn’t notice the music very much, however, the sad piano music during one of the credits sequences and the return of a familiar track from the first game really had an impact on me.

Few games are perfect, and when compared to the first one, I felt that the second season lacks the raw emotional depth of its predecessor, that is not to say that it doesn’t have its moments where it gets to you–the ending I got made me equal parts angry, frustrated, and sad, but I feel like it’s difficult to care about the characters when you know from experience that the game is going to screw you over. The episodes are also pretty short. Steam has me clocked in at eighteen hours for the first game, and fifteen hours for the second, although, 400 days might have given me a few extra hours. I also found that the prompts for QTEs sometimes blended in to the rest of the scene, but unlike the first game, I was never really stuck on a particular sequence.

As for potentially triggering content, if you thought you’d be spared a gory fate because you’re a child, think again. Clementine can be eaten by zombies, shot in the face, and has to stitch up a wound while fully conscious and aware, a scene that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. As a dog lover, there’s also the death of a dog in the first episode that is particularly heartbreaking. Although the cast is pretty diverse, the only same-sex couple (and even then it’s not outright stated they are a couple, just that one is the other’s “partner”) doesn’t even last half an episode compared to the other couples in the game.

At this point, it seems kind of redundant to say that I enjoyed my time with this game, because Telltale Games could make an adventure game about conceivably anything and I would love it to pieces. If you’ve played Season 1 and 400 Days, you’ve probably already beaten this one. If you haven’t tried this series before, you’ll want to start with the first one (and 400 Days).