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Chantelise – A Tale of Two Sisters

The Best Game Never Played

Chantelise – A Tale of Two Sisters (Action RPG/ PC)

Introducing the Genre

I found a great Action RPG on a Steam Summer Sale. I have to emphasize both parts of the genre, it’s not an action game, with RPG elements, it’s not a full RPG, it’s one of the great undiscovered gems that would have been at home with the likes of The Legend of Zelda, Beyond Good & Evil, or the Square and Enix renaissance of the 90s with Secret of Mana, Secret of Evermore, Illusion of Gaia, and their kind.

Introducing the Game

I accidentally discovered this game while I was investigating another. I saw another one of Extra Credits’ “Games You Might Not Have Tried” videos where they mention Recetteer: An Item Shop’s Tale, a game where you run the item shop for adventurers. This game was part of a package sale for games from the same publisher and developer. I decided investigate. If this other game was as clever and original and surprising as Recetteer, it’ll be worth it. What I ended up with was actually not as original or as clever. It was actually a throwback to the difficult Action RPGs of the past, the like I haven’t seen or heard of in a long time. It was a welcome challenge trying to beat Chantelise: A Tale of Two Sisters.

Gameplay

The gameplay is simple to learn but difficult to master. Aren’t the best games like that? The best way I can describe this is, “what if The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time had come out much earlier, with the Super Nintendo’s limitations with an early 3D FX chip?” There is a town, roads to dungeons, dungeons, bosses, sword fighting, a little bit of magic, secret items to find, even a little bit of fishing just to finish the Zelda parallels.

Combat from the beginning of the game is not too different from combat at the end of the game. You don’t have to purchase your attacks in order to string together 20-hit combos. You have most of your abilities at the beginning of the game. As you progress, you may find items you can equip to give you one extra ability. You’re forced to choose between special abilities, only able to have a limited number of items equipped at any one time. You can swap out on the fly, sometimes. This forces you to have to come up with some kind of strategy for difficult encounters, and believe me, there will be many difficult encounters.

The first real boss almost made me quit the game entirely, but I gave it another chance. There is a sharp difficulty curve when you reach the first boss, at least there was for me. Don’t get discouraged, you just have to come up with a strategy. Hint: Use magic. You can’t just power attack your way through the game. Figuring out how to defeat each boss is a satisfying challenge. They’re not quite Shadow of the Colossus specific and tricky, but it reminded me of that first time playing The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. I really need to stop comparing it to Zelda.

Once you beat the game, or if, there’s plenty more to keep you occupied. This is the type of game that should come with achievements and trophies, just to prove you’ve done the amazing. There’s in-game counters for secret items, special items to buy, super boss battles to take on, a fishing journal to fill out, even a crafting system if that’s your thing.

There’s an “old” amount of monsters throughout the game. By that, I mean there are few in variety, but there are plenty of pallete swapped versions that show up as you progress. You’ll end up seeing the same flying eyeballs, slimes, and floating wizard sprites again and again. This is actually a positive. The enemy placement is used to devious effectiveness, using what little they have in effective ways. Good old Mario has a limited number of pallete swapped enemies, but that never makes the games any easier. It’s how they’re used and placed that make things tricky. The developers of Chantelise definitely took some notes and implemented that design strategy. They’re not too punishing, but more than you’d expect considering the recent crop of Action RPGs to come out.

Story

I don’t want to say this. I don’t want this to come off sounding derogatory. However, if this is the sort of thing that would turn you off from a game, you probably don’t deserve to play it. The story is very girly. The heroine is a young girl trying to save her sister and break a spell after she’s been turned into a fairy(another Zelda-themed similarity).

The tone of the story is very light and the main characters are very bubbly, which matches the anime shojo art style. Still, be ready to get your pride handed to you by the difficulty of the game. If I had a daughter, this game would serve as an excellent gateway into gaming as a whole.

Graphics

I briefly mentioned in the last section about how the game is anime-inspired. There are very pretty and handsome male characters with chibi and cute female characters. It matches the tone of the story. No one is over-sexualized, so it’s great for all ages.

Even earlier I mention it’s also 3d. Imagine a 3d environment, but all the characters that you see are 2d sprites. It has slightly more graphical demands than the original Doom. If you’re on a budget PC, you’ll be able to play it, and probably enjoy it more than some other more demanding games.

Music

It’s a shame the soundtrack didn’t come with the game like some other Steam sales. I hope this is the last Zelda comparison I make because the game really does stand on it’s own. The music reminds me of something Koji Kondo, of Zelda fame, would do. Imagine if someone else had scored Zelda, you’d end up with a soundtrack like this.

Sound

Voices are all in Japanese, which doesn’t make any real difference. The accompanying text in speech balloons and text windows are all translated into English. Sound effects are very classic game-y, the kind you might have heard on an SNES. If you’re a fan of challenging, but not impossible Action RPGs, it’ll sound just right. The sound helps establish and remind players of the pedigree of the game.

Controls

I had no problem with the keyboard for controls. They’re sharp and responsive. Camera control is better than most. Deaths were more due to lack of a strategy than by any hangups caused by the interface. If you have a controller, you can use that, too.

Multiplayer

Even though the game is about two sisters who are always together, there is no multiplayer. For most RPGs, action or otherwise, that’s usually for the best. RPGs have never been for the competitive players. It’s hard to tell your own story when there is another player involved. The only multiplayer I can imagine would be asymmetrical like Super Mario Galaxy’s star collecting with the Wii-mote. That might actually make it better for younger players.

Depth/Replayability

Start to finish, the game is very straightforward. There are plenty of perks for traveling off the beaten path, like winning challenge and time attack rooms. Besides bonus items, they help to train and refine your fighting style. If you saw a reward for beating a boss in 2 minutes where it took you 10, it plants the idea in your head that there is a trick you haven’t figured out yet.

I’ve put in 22+ hours into the game and beat the final boss. I’m pretty sure I can double that before completing everything extra. If you’re the kind of player that likes challenges, real challenges, not artificially inflated difficulty, you’ll love this. There’s just as many “easy” challenges to bait you into seriously upping your game and wanting to complete others.

If you can get a group of people to buy the game, this is the type of game you can really talk about and exchange strategies. It’s the kind of game you’d talk about at recess and pass rumors about before people just looked up information on the internet. Sure, I could just do that to find all the hidden treasures, but I’d just be cheating myself and cutting my enjoyment of this wonderful game short.

Some levels are just fun to replay, thankfully this game lets your replay any one of them at will, even the bosses. You can’t XP grind because there are no levels. So replaying levels helps further refine your skills as a player.

If I were to start again, now that I’ve mastered the combat/magic system, I wonder how quickly I can beat the game and cut down that 22 hour time.

Personal

I’m SO glad I bought this game. It’s been one of the most satisfying buys, in a long time.

The penultimate boss was harder than the final boss. Classic!

At one point, you fight your shadow, another Zelda-ism. You know, if you were to re-skin everything, this could very well be renamed, “The Adventure of Zelda.”

You can buy riddles to find hidden treasure. They’re not obvious, but just enough to spark a treasure hunting bug.

If you’ve played Recetteer, you will find something familiar about the town’s item shop and the item shopkeeper.

Mastering the magic system, as a player, did wonders to my ability to progress through the game.

I can’t wait to see what else the duo of developer EasyGameStation and publisher Carpe Fulgur LLC come up with. They scored two major hits with this and Recetteer. Maybe I should check out their other collaboration, The Summoner.

Boiling it Down

If you like Zelda, classic difficulty, on a budget computer, for a budget price, this is for you.

Dear Esther

The Best Game Never Played

Dear Esther (Interactive Story / PC)

Introducing the Genre

The definition of what can be considered art is sometimes hard to define whenever a new style or genre is created. Gaming culture outsiders have been very adamant that video games can under no circumstances be considered art. Given how early games like Space War and Missile Command began, and how the games which make the news like the Grand Theft Auto series and the Call of Duty series are, it’s no wonder the outsiders can’t see what we see. As games are becoming more and more mainstream, there are more and more developers with more and more different ideas, ideas which will blur the line of what can be considered art.

I’m not sure what to call this genre yet, but there are more and more like it every year, very artistic games from new developers which concentrate on an immersive experience rather than racking up achievements in multiplayer. The objective isn’t as clear as reaching the end of the level or as predictable as anything I’ve seen before. These are games like The Stanly Parable, or the upcoming Gone Home.

These games most closely resemble interactive movies, like Star Trek: Klingon, from the early CD-ROM era. For the sake of differentiating the two, I’ll call these new games, interactive stories.

Introducing the Game

I don’t remember how I first heard about this game, if I read a review, if I saw it on one of the Extra Credits “Games You Might Not Have Tried,” if the description of the game during a Steam sale was interesting enough, or if reading the Wikipedia story of how this mod became a full game convinced me to finally try, Dear Esther.

Gameplay

I reiterate, it’s hard to classify this as a game, to there’s not any real gameplay to it. It’s more of an experience.

Story

I don’t want to be spoiling anything for anyone so I’ll just give a setup. You’re alone on an island, documenting, narrating about your life there to your dear Esther as if you were writing a letter. Before the end, you should be moved by it.

Graphics

The creatures rendered an extra detailed world with an atmosphere of bleakness I’ve never seen done better. It used the Steam engine which might be considered “dated” by now, but I’m continually and pleasantly surprised how much mileage everyone has squeezed from it. Only those without a sympathetic imagination would complain.

Music

Subtle and bleak, complementing the graphical aesthetic and completing the gloomy atmosphere. You can also buy the soundtrack through Steam. It’ll be worth it, if you like that kind of haunting ethereal style.

Sound

There is a wonderful narrator. The ambient noise and weather effects make the island come alive.

Controls

The controls should be accessable to anyone. WASD, mouse-look. They will not be a barrier to anyone playing the game. This is not an action-game or a real-time strategy, no one will be befuddled about how to use the controls. It is a bit frustrating having to walk at the character’s walking pace. It’s a bit slow, so you can’t quickly investigate everything. Then again, the main character isn’t the kind to run around mute, rutting through boxes for random items, so it fits. In my eyes, the slow pace of walking is part of what makes each experience unique. The point where I became frustrated and stopped exploring every little nook meant I focused on the story more, and I robbed myself of some storyline.

Multiplayer

No, not for this game. That would be like someone reading over your shoulder. It would take you out of this experience. Not that it couldn’t be done, just not for this game.

Depth/Replayability

I finished the game in about 2 hours even. I really don’t find myself yearning to repeat the game because of the slow walking speed. I might try it again and look in every corner, hoping to trigger some monologue I didn’t hear before. I’m sure there were some paths I hadn’t explored before I crossed a point of no return.

Personal

A $10(current price, not on sale) for a one-time, two-hour experience that I controlled, it was worth it. If this has sounded interesting so far, it’s worth it. If you’re still on the fence, wait for a sale and it’ll definitely be worth it.

The ending left me so exhausted and depressed that I’m not eager to replay it.

Boiling it Down

You’re buying an experience, not a game. It’s a new genre of entertainment.

VVVVVV

The Best Game Never Played

VVVVVV (Action Puzzle / PC)

Introducing the Genre

Genre is always the most difficult to define on the best games because they blend and bend the rules. This game reminds me of a very early “kids’ game” that you can beat with some difficulty, without getting frustrated, but with many difficult challenges for advanced players. It’s a puzzle game that uses gravity, but you have to be quick to solve the puzzles.

Introducing the Game

I saw clips of this game a long time ago and completely forgot about it until the Steam Summer Sale 2012 when I picked it up. It’s a wonderful experience for the price that I can recommend to anyone who wants a mindbending puzzle game that only stresses you out as much as you want it to. The game is named after the action key you’ll be pressing over and over, VVVVVV(that’s 6 Vs).

Gameplay

If you ever played Gravity Man’s stage from Mega Man V, imagine an entire game based around that concept. You have the power to control gravity, for yourself. Up becomes down at your whim. It’s an incredibly innovative, minimalistic gameplay mechanic, but the uses for it and puzzles based around it are incredibly varied in difficulty and nearly endless. It’s “simple” enough that I don’t ever want to admit defeat.

Up and down, it doesn’t seem too hard, does it? You will still die, many, many, times. There are checkpoints, thankfully, littered around the game very very liberally. Sometimes there’s more than one per screen, the puzzles are that deadly. Besides checkpoints, there are teleporters all around the map allowing you to save time when loading up the game.

Story

Your character and a handful of others are exploring outer space when there’s an accident and the laws holding physics and reality are broken. As the captain, it’s up to you to find and rescue your crew. It’s simple, it’s charming, and it’s somewhat engaging. The pace of the story, depending on your skill, moves along at a good and rewarding pace. Scattered around near teleporters, there are small recording devices that tell you bits and pieces as to what happened and why.

The simple graphics and constant smiles on everyone’s faces are endearing and make me care about the crew as if I were a kid again. Your crew return to your ship and you can talk to them. After each member is rescued, there is more to say. This basic interaction is as endearing as their smiling faces and helps you relate to them, and attach yourself emotionally to them. They’re just a dozen or so pixels, but if say, one of them met their end by the hands of Sephiroth, I’d be strongly affected. They all have a child-like innocence which makes this game appropriate for all ages.

Graphics

This could probably run on a x386. Simplicity! For a game to run on x386 graphics, you have to have great gameplay to back it up. Too often games rely too much on graphics, this game seems to excel in it’s retro asthetic. You could probably play it on an Atari, if it had the memory.

Music

I’ve repeatedly said that music can bring a game from good to great. The composer, Magnus Pulsen is a chiptune genius. I haven’t heard melodies like this since the NES era, and I watch the Penny Arcade show with chiptune themes in every episode. Ever since I first played it, it’s been stuck in my head. Thank goodness the soundtrack is available for purchase!

I was whistling it while walking down the street one day and thought this would be great material for OCRemix or TheSauce. This game’s soundtrack needs more exposure. Not to belittle chiptunes, but I’d love to hear these tracks remade with instruments. Behold, after looking for the soundtrack online, I see Pulsen has an arranged album already available. Awesome!

The music is as much a triumph as the rest of the game.

Sound

The sound is a small part of the game. There’s no spoken words, just simple sounds for death, flipping, and teleporting. It’s cute and reminds me of the games of the era this game is representing. It’s charming as the graphics. Even though I died over 416 times(yes, the game keeps track and shows you at the end), the sounds never became annoying.

Controls

VVVVVVV, so easy to learn. If you die, it’s never because of the controls.

Multiplayer

None. I can barely keep track of myself let alone another person. I might just throw up. Blergh.

Depth/Replayability

In your quest to rescue the crew, you’re likely to run into a “Shiny thing, 1 out of 25.” Many are hidden in out of the way places or behind insidious death traps. BUT – there are just as many non-difficult ones to find. So you can still make progress in your collection without frustrating yourself. There was just as much “easy” bait to drive me to go find the harder ones! Thank goodness for an in-game map. After you finish the game, the locations are all mapped for you. Getting there is half the puzzle!

The music has also kept me coming back. I just wanted to float and fly while trancing out to the chiptunes.

If you’re truly into self-punishment, you can play the alternate unlockable modes that only allow you one life. That will be an ultimate endurance challenge to watch live. You can stumble your way through most of the game, but to lower the death count and refine your skills is an enjoyable “grind.” Sections of this game would be interesting to see in the Penny Arcade competitions at PAX.

Overall, the game is actually pretty short. A younger gamer might take some more time, but I finished it in two sittings of a couple hours each. That’s not a bad thing. It will encourage me to make the trip all over again much sooner than the 60+ hour RPGs.

It’s fun, it’s short, it’s uncomplicated, there’s stuff to do after the main game. They get what replay is about.

Personal

I love the aesthetic choice, the music, and the concept! It’s hard not to watch this game or play it and not get excited.

There is the occasional “escort” mission, but it’s not a rehash or repeat of a typical escort. Each one changes things up just a little bit. Things flying at you, multiple things flying at you at once, the occasional auto-scrolling screen, paradoxes, you’ll lose a little bit of your mind and love it! There are parts where you have to think outside the box and plan ahead several seconds in advance.

Boiling it Down

WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! Go download the demo and I dare you not to fall in love with it!

Hoard

The Best Game Never Played

Hoard (Strategy Action / PC)

Introducing the Genre

I’ve never really played a game like this, at least not on the computer. It half-reminds me of a board game, but it’s played in real-time, at the speed of an action game. The closest thing I can compare this to is Hungry Hungry Hippos, but with depth. You can easily employ a strategy and if it’s not working, adapt, change, and implement a new one at any time.

Introducing the Game

Like many games, I saw it when Steam was having it’s annual 2012 Summer Sale. There was a dragon on the cover, so I was immediately drawn to it. I conjured up a game on the Perfect 10 section based on the Dragon’s World fake-documentary. This game seems to have actually taken many of those features and brought it to life. It’s called, Hoard!

Gameplay

There just aren’t enough games out there where you play AS a dragon, living the dragon lifestyle. Raid kingdoms, kidnap princesses, repel knights, fight other dragons, and hoard treasure. You get to do all these in Hoard. Throw in a batch of random power-ups and score multipliers, you’ve got yourself a game. I’ve just never played a game where you live a dragon-life. There are other games that might involve dragons like Breath of Fire, Lair, Panzer Dragoon, but the dragons there are just tools or fancy-looking vehicles. The fact that you’re riding a dragon isn’t played up.

The game plays like a re-imagined “digital” board game, if that makes any sense. There are dozens of maps to play, different game types, and ways to win. You begin with a lair where you will deposit gold. Fly out into the countryside to burn down buildings, supply carts, or crops and take the treasure back to your lair. As time goes on, stakes escalate. Towns become bigger, wizard towers appear, princess can be kidnapped, archers and knights try to take you out, thieves come to steal your hoard, and it all happens in 10 minute sessions. There is a distinct early-game, mid-game, and end-game. There can be multiple dragons on the same map with lairs spread out. You can rob other dragons, destroy towns, have them fear you and pay tribute. There’s many different strategies to implement.

As your hoard increases, your dragon levels up. When this happens, you can increase your flight speed, fire breath power, carrying capacity, and natural armor. Every round you begin fresh. So you can level up all over again, and adapt to changing circumstances with every level. Maybe you want to stay close to your hoard to protect yourself from thievery? So flight speed won’t be important. Maybe you want to fight knights off, so firepower and armor are more desirable? If you play co-operatively, and I love co-op games, you can each customize your dragons to optimize your hoarding strategy.

Your dragon has a health bar that can be affected by archers, wizard towers, other dragons, giants, and knights. When your health reaches zero, you automatically fly back to your lair to heal. The longer you go without reaching zero, or having your hoard robbed by thieves, you gain a gold multiplier up to x3. Every gold piece deposited counts as 3. One strategy I enjoy is to attack other dragons just to remove their multiplier. It really gives you an edge.

This is a fast paced action game, not the Dragon’s World game I imagined, but it’s the closest thing to it. Instead of a long campaign of hatchling to elder, it’s all played in 10 minute bursts. Instead of customizing your own dragon’s appearance, they’re all the same except for color. Instead of a behind-the-shoulder camera, it’s all top-down. Regardless, I’m very happy with this. There’s nothing else like it.

Story

This is an action board game, there really isn’t much of a story other than: You are a dragon. It’s your job to hoard treasure, kidnap princesses, raze the countryside, and fight away knights, thieves, and other dragons.

Graphics

The graphics are exactly what they need to be. Everything looks a little small because of the “board game” perspective. It looks like a high-resolution version of Warcraft II. I’d love to see more detail on the dragons, but that’s not really necessary. It’s just me wanting more dragons. On the plus side, the simpler graphics mean more computers are able to play it. It’s an excellent game for resource wary computers.

Music

The music is enjoyable, not too repetitive, not of poor quality. It hasn’t been stuck in my head yet.. yet. By the end of the month, it may be. The music is not dynamically generated so that means there are some actual signature tunes in this game. I haven’t played a game with a definitive soundtrack in a long time! Yay!

Sound

Since this is an, action board game, it might not be out of place in any arcade, the sounds are very video-gamey. The sounds are simple and distinct so you always know what’s going on in the chaos. It matches the small scale of a board game.

Controls

The game is very easy to learn, though I must confess that I failed the first tutorial mission. I quickly recovered and have been enjoying it immensely. The dragons all fly using a combination of WAS and D. Fire is the left mouse button. Activating a power-up is the right mouse button. Leveling up is done with the space bar. This game might do well on the mobile or tablet market. Fly with a digital stick, tap a circle to breathe fire, and double tap to activate a power-up, tap level-up to apply points.

Multiplayer

This would be an excellent LAN party game. You can arrange teams verbally, if you like, or just go all out and team up on whoever is winning in a frantic king-of-the-hill climb. The game plays out in 10 minute rounds, so whoever wins, might not hold the title for long.

Even in single player mode, there can be multiple dragons. To me, that feels like playing with bots in Counter-Strike, and that’s good enough for me. The AI dragons all have personalities reflected by their name like, Mr Honorable, Miser, Sheriff, and so on.

Steam offers a 4-pack bundle, 4 being the max number of dragons on a map, so you can gift it to friends. I think I’ll do that before I host the next LAN event.

Depth/Replayability

This game is endlessly replayable. The more gold you hoard, the more powerful your dragon becomes. Each player, human or AI, can customize their dragon. If you find a need early-on, you can invest in one skill above another. Skills are flight speed, fire power and quantity, carrying capacity which increases deposit speed as well as amount, and armor. You might find a preference right off the bat which doesn’t work, you can change easily enough. If you lose, the next game begins in less than 10 minutes. Do you want to fly back and forth to your lair quickly, or gain an advantage over other dragons by defeating them and denying them the score multiplier? It’s the old buff vs de-buff argument. Do you want to increase your hoard, or decrease theirs? Do you want to fight wizard towers and claim large gems? Or kidnap princesses and fend off knights? Maybe you just want to sweep the countryside and capture supply carts? Are you waiting for a particular power-up like max speed, max fire, fireballs, or ice breath to use in your strategy? Do you attack the town without destroying it? That makes it fear you and supply you regularly with gold and tributes. Do you let the towers, towns, and castles grow so they produce more valuable carts, princesses, and wizard gems? Or do you raze everything as fast as you can, keeping the world in the dark ages?

The strategy involved in this game is very interesting compared to a game like Starcraft or Command & Conquer. In those RTS games, you usually have to find a Rock, Paper, Scissors strategy and stick to it. Adapting means wasting an investment. If you immediately made a bunch of upgraded marines, and the enemy invests in area effect tech to wipe them out, you’ve already lost, it’s just a long, long time before it’s official. In Hoard, it’s much easier to come back from a strategy that didn’t work.

Every dragon is personal, every strategy is adaptable. The maps are many, the game modes are varied, the AI is varied, the treasures are varied, there’s enough variation mixed with strategy to keep anyone interested for a long time.

Personal

Dragons! What more do you want? Mod tools. There’s got to be some mod tools or a map maker available for this game. Google, ho!

This would be a great first game to introduce young players to.

Boiling it Down

This may be one of the first of a generation of endlessly-replayable, digital family board games, appropriate for all ages. And, dragons!

Under A Killing Moon

The Best Game Never Played

Under A Killing Moon (Adventure / PC)

Introducing the Genre

When adventure games were at their last peak, Sierra and Lucas Arts were leading the pack. I remember playing Sierra’s King’s Quest VI, introducing me to the genre. The rest of the Sierra catalog included the likes of Space Quest, Torin’s Passage. I wasn’t fortunate enough to experience most of the Lucas Arts catalog with titles like Sam & Max, Full Throttle, and Day of the Tentacle.

Double Fine’s Kickstarter campaign to design a new game from some of Lucas Arts’ best, has shown that there’s still a rabid fanaticism for this type of game. Fans, like myself, have been waiting a long time for a return. Foreign studios have been keeping the genre alive, like the French studio Frogware’s Sherlock Holmes series, and the Norwegion studio Funcom’s The Longest Journey duo.

Introducing the Game

Adventure games were one of the first computer games to start using full motion video(FMV). Lucas Arts had been toying around with it since at least 1993 with Rebel Assault, but hadn’t produced an adventure game. Sierra’s Phantasmagoria adventure game came out in 1995. Between those, came a gem of a game came out that wasn’t from the big two, Sierra or Lucas Arts. It was revolutionary for it’s time. It came on four CDs in 1994. It wasn’t until the early-to-mid 2000s, around the changeover to DVDs, that games were routinely that big. (One of the exceptions being Sierra’s Phantasmagoria.) Ever since the mid ’90s, it’s never really left my mind. It’s responsible for shaping my love of pulp, mystery, noir, and possibly part of my sense of humor with it’s main character Tex Murphy, in Under A Killing Moon.

Gameplay

Under A Killing Moon took a great technological step forward for adventure games. Instead of the point and click method of directing an on-screen avatar, you walk around in a 3D world. The normal adventure game genre tropes of collecting random items, solving complicated puzzles with them, interacting with people non-violently, asking questions, and visiting strange locations are all present.

What makes this game such a standout one from its peers at the time is the fact that the game accomplished everything in a 3d environment. Instead of just clicking on a desk and it automatically opening a door, you have to navigate around the desk, look at the drawer, open it, and look inside. That’s common in today’s games like Sherlock Holmes and Dreamfall, but back then, it was the first of its kind.

Story

Under A Killing Moon is part of a series of adventure games starring Tex Murphy. Tex is a down-on-his-luck PI with a quirky sense of humor as a response to just about everything. He loves metaphors as much as Max Payne. The opening “quest” in the game involves looking for work. What begins as a simple case, unfolds into a massive conspiracy, like all good pulp mystery novels.

I have to admit, I never finished the game. I always regretted that. I regretted it so much that years later I went out to find a Let’s Play video. The game and its story, even incomplete, is not a forgettable one.

Graphics

The early Tex Murphy games were about what you’d expect from the pixelated sprites typical of adventure games at the time, early King’s Quest and Space Quest. Under A Killing Moon’s graphics today don’t seem too impressive, but for their time, they were revolutionary. The world was made of 3d modeled objects and photographic textures placed over many others. What may have been a limitation at the time is played into the story. For example, when you look at the extinguisher that is drawn into the flat wall texture, Tex says, “Hey, this fire extinguisher’s just painted on.” Since the building inspector has one eye and no depth perception, the building manager can get away with that.

Whenever Tex is interacting with people or other objects, the view cuts to a short FMV. These segments are used to advance the story or to give the characters more character. The backgrounds are frequently green screens, exactly like what the TV show Sanctuary is doing now, more than 15 years later.

Music

I have to admit, I wasn’t very good at this game. However, I looked forward to starting a new game over and over because I loved the “Day 1” opening music. The wailing sax is exactly what a noir theme song should be. I’ve mentioned before that music is one of the things that elevate a bad game to just okay, or a good game into an excellent one. I need to go find it again or watch the new Tex Murphy Kickstarter video again.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GodOPoyNIYg

Sound

Again, I’m going to compare this game to the sci-fi TV series, Sanctuary. Amanda Tapping, one of the main characters also acts as one of the show’s producers. Christopher Jones, one of Tex’s creators also plays him in the FMV sequences. This game is a labor of love, and the heart Mr. Jones puts into the character makes sure nothing is lost between page and screen. His noir and humor delivery is perfect, charming, and unforgettable. I haven’t seen as good a sci-fi humor noir since Red Dwarf: Back to Earth a few years ago.

Controls

Navigating the world is done through first person view using the arrow keys. You can also duck, and look up and down. If you’re used to first person games of today, the system will seem awkward and hard to get used to. Under A Killing Moon was one of the first of its kind, so there were no great examples to draw from. It had to forge it’s own way. There are A, B, and C buttons for dialogue options, and you can choose a topic from the upper right menu. Everything is pretty intuitive, yet radically different from any other adventure game I’ve played. The interface may take some time to get used to. My biggest roadblock to playing the game was honestly my own imagination. I didn’t think to look up and down, around or inside things. I wasn’t thinking 3 dimensionally yet. Later 3D adventure games refined the interface, but these are the guys who had to do it first.

Multiplayer

There is no multiplayer. I’ve never seen an adventure game that includes multiplayer. It doesn’t need to have it. Playing an adventure game is like reading a good book. It’s a mostly solo activity, unless you’re reading to someone else.

Depth/Replayability

I just compared adventure games to a good book, and that’s applicable here. Sometimes there is more than one solution to the same puzzle, but most of the time it’s a single solution from beginning to end. There may be some slight difference in the order which some events occur, the order which you gather objects or talk to people, but by the end of the game, everyone is going to have a shared experience. The world itself is deep, the more you look around at objects, the more history you’ll uncover about San Francisco, World War III, mutants, Tex’s past cases, prior games, and it’s all narrated in Tex’s silly noir style.

Since there’s only one path through the game, at least that I’d seen, there’s not much encouragement to go back and play through again. Except for listening to Tex Murphy’s narration and the soundtrack, and that was enough for me. I just can’t get pulp noir from many other places. I think I still have everything necessary to complete “Day 1” memorized, but I never made it much farther than that.

Personal

The fact that this game sticks out, has such a big place in my heart, and is from a developer outside of Lucas Arts or Sierra, speaks volumes about it. It’s also one of the first games I ever played to depend on humor.

As this review went on, I kept thinking about how, “if this game were re-released today” like some of the Sherlock Holmes remastered games, and “with today’s typical interface” it would probably be a hit. I would also probably be better at it than I used to be. Given those thoughts, I can’t wait to see what the developers will do with the series next and how it will evolve. It’s gone from heavily pixelated sprites, full-motion video, what next, I cannot imagine.

I can’t get enough of the way Tex Murphy looks at the world.

I want to hear more from that saxophone player.

And-

I can’t stop wondering what Puppy Rescue Squad could be about.

Boiling it Down

Tex deserves more, but more than that, a new generation of players deserve to be introduced to the Adventure genre. I can’t imagine a better guide than Tex.

Duke Nukem Forever

The Best Game Never Played

Duke Nukem Forever (FPS / PC) 

Introducing the Genre

This is a very special entry for a very, very special game. It’s a game that sells itself on being a first person shooter, yet it dabbles into genres like driving, role playing, military shooter, casino gaming, first person platforming, physics puzzle, and comedy.

This game reminds me in part of the anime, Excel Saga. In Excel Saga, every episode parodied a different genre of anime. One episode it was a giant robot anime, and the next it was a martial arts anime, then a school based anime, and so on. There was another game that reminded me of this genre bending. Come to think of it, the games Eat Lead: Return of Matt Hazard, Comic Jumper, and the upcoming Retro City Rampage are all games that advertise as a selling point the constant genre-shifting. Is genre-shifting or parody itself a genre?

Introducing the Game

I have a lot to say. This game reminds me why I have to do what I do. In every review I’ve ever read about this game, I never saw a single positive word about it. It’s like the community all had a raging hate-on for this game, that jumping on the bandwagon was trendy. When I finally had the chance to play this game, I enjoyed it immensely. This game has some history to it, twelve years of development, all of which you can read on the other review sites. I discovered the game from an E3 trailer announcement and followed it as best as the developers would allow for the general public. I’m talking about the infamous Duke Nukem Forever.

Gameplay

Despite being marketed at a “modern” first-person shooter, there are a number of throwbacks to older, more classic FPS games, and some elements that might even be called “arcade.” If people think they’re getting a fishing simulator when they buy Madden NFL ’13, they’re going to be sorely disappointed. If you bought Duke Nukem Forever expecting a total 100% FPS, you’ll only be slightly satisfied. Near the beginning one-third of the game, there are many frequent change-ups in game-play because you’re going to need to know how to use them for some part later.

Duke Nukem 3D was a paradigm shift, giving players a realistic environment to explore, a main character with some personality, and defied the conventions of the first-person shooters of the day. Duke Nukem Forever gave us the same, but this time we have a whole new generation of shooters to examine. Instead of breaking new ground, Forever draws attention to many of today’s faults by, unfortunately, by having to include them. The brief examples of what make games a stagnant and unimaginative mess are some of the most highly criticized points of the game. It’s as if someone read Catch-22 and critiqued it for being stupid without understanding the commentary that it was making.

Gameplay shifts between many different styles. There are several driving segments where Duke controls a car with a wicked turbo boost. Other segments sees Duke shrunk down to about 4” and navigating the tiny world. When big or small, Duke has platforming segments like navigating above an electrified floor or trying not to fall into a bottomless chasm. None of these segments lasts too long without shooting something or running something over. Sometimes there’s a wave of alien ships that needs to be shot down via turret, or just an oncoming tide of enemies. There’s very few physics puzzles where you need to weigh down something or connect pipes to one another. There’s even the occasional role-playing game parody where you have to fetch a few items and return to the quest giver. In the DLC, this RPG parody is made even more clear and blatant when Duke has to kill rats in a cellar.

This is the first game where I actually enjoyed Quick-Time Events(QTEs). QTEs are required to finish off some enemies. All you have to do is rapidly press the space bar, and Duke will continue brutally executing the opponent. At least in these QTEs, there’s only one button to press and I can sit back and watch the animations rather than look everywhere else for another button prompt. It’s silly and mostly pointless, and more importantly points out how unnecessary QTEs actually are.

If I died, it was often my fault. I can’t blame the interface or the gameplay, it was on me. Regenerating health wouldn’t have been my first choice for the game, but it dawned on me, what’s the difference between finding a shady spot to recover after a fight and the game just tossing you a health pack at that convenient moment? If I had to worry about my health from second to second, I probably wouldn’t be as reckless or Duke-like if I didn’t.

The pursuit of “Ego-boost” items is akin to a scavenger hunt. Shooting a basketball into a hoop gives Duke an Ego boost, his Ego shield gets longer. To me, this is drawing attention to games that hide collectibles in every corner of the map and want you to find them for “100% completion.” This could be mocking the Zelda series of hiding heart containers all over the map and forcing you to help people in order to get them, or finding tiny pieces of concept art viewable only in the main menu. You’re not forced to seek them out, it’s all optional. The game might be a bit more difficult, but some folk like a challenge. There is a mixture of the easy and the difficult ego-boost challenges, so you can still have an easy game without needing 100% of them.

Duke’s ego shield system reminds me of old arcade games with random power-ups. If a creature is killed, there’s a small chance it will fall to its knees for you to execute. Frozen enemies are always executable. Whenever you execute an enemy, you recover completely. That’s like a random “full health” drop in the middle of battle. The freeze ray is basically a life-stealing weapon since it generates “full health” drops. In a chaotic battle, that lucky drop can make all the difference. This random element made many battles more tense than games without such an item.

Dukes other items include steroids which make Duke’s punches one-hit kills. It’s like having a handy Quad-damage power up at your beck and call. Duke can chug a beer for increased defense. That’s great if you’re having trouble getting through an area or dying too often. Holoduke creates a mobile distraction while you become invisible.

There are originally only two weapon slots, but soon after release the developers agreed that the two-weapon limit was too crippling to be considered fun, even if they were just making a commentary on the state of games today. Thankfully, pipe bombs are considered an item and not a weapon. They’re great for room clearing or taking out groups, if only I remembered to use them more frequently. The second play through, I certainly will. Laser trip mines are also just too fun to ignore and are considered an item rather than a weapon. They can act as a secondary explosive when you lob them at an enemy, just functioning as grenades. Or, they’re useful when you can see trouble coming.

With the “expanded inventory” option selected, Duke’s weapon carrying capacity is increased to four. Honestly, with the combination of four weapons, I had to make some small choices about what to carry. It didn’t hamper me in the way that it seems to have hampered most reviewers. When I consider all the FPS games I’ve played, I don’t use more than half the arsenal anyways. That’s just my playstyle, unless the game forces you to change by requiring certain weapons for certain monsters. I never felt at a loss. Instead, it made me “own” the character more as I made my own choices.

Bosses can only be harmed by high explosives like the RPG and Devastator. Reviews say you have to “waste” one slot by always carrying one. Untrue. Every time there’s a boss encounter which requires a high explosive weapon, it will be provided to you, along with an infinite ammo resupply spot. You’re never “forced” to carry anything. Some weapons are good in some situations, others aren’t. The game will always give you what you need.

Story

An alien ship is hovering above Las Vegas. It’s just hovering, not doing anything, just like in the movie District 9. The aliens begin covertly attacking Duke, so he overtly attacks them. It looks like he’s the aggressor. Air Force General Graves knows this isn’t the case and is all gung-ho for killing the aliens. The President, on the other hand, doesn’t want Duke to get involved. This doesn’t stop Duke or the rest of the Earth Defense Force from unleashing hell on the alien invaders. The aliens also kidnap earth women to impregnate them with little octabrain larvae.

The story takes you from Duke’s casino in Las Vegas to the Duke Burger seen in the Duke 3D expansion pack, across the desert, to the Hoover Dam, and in the DLC, you go back to the moon(seen in Duke Nukem 1 episode 2, and Duke Nukem 3D episode 2. Manhattan Project took Duke into space, but it wasn’t the moon. Outer space seems to be a running theme for Duke.

Duke himself is more lecherous than he’s ever been, living a live of pure hedonism and decadency with gold statues dedicated to him, a museum, and visiting strip clubs. The game paints Duke as a champion of alien killing, the go-to guy for saving the Earth. His admiration is seen by his interaction with NPC soldiers and strippers.

One review I saw criticized the story about how little it added to the Duke mythos as a whole. I have to challenge that. Besides the lavish lifestyle he lives when he’s not on the job, the game gives us General Graves, Captain Dylan, and a vehicle, a big-ass giant Bigfoot-type monster truck called Mighty Foot, a reference to Duke’s melee attack in 3D and Manhattan Project.

Sure, it’s not A-material that will make you reevaluate your major life decisions, impart some major moral or life lesson, or offer enlightenment by asking a science fiction question you’ve never heard before. It’s a “popcorn movie” story, a B-movie, campy, and that’s why we love it. It’s like the straight to DVD action/sci-fi/horror movie that tries to coast on the coattails of the summer blockbuster. It’s the movie that they might show late at night on Skinemax. Some games know not to take themselves too seriously, and play it up.

Graphics

I think the graphics are perfectly acceptable. Then again, I’m not the harshest critic on graphics, and never will be. There’s nothing wrong with them, I never noticed any glitches or clipping errors. Heck, I’d still be happy to play the old builds of Duke Nukem Forever that are seen in the unlockable trailers. The action doesn’t offer much time to depreciate anything.

The enemy models are mostly upgraded versions of enemies seen in Duke Nukem 3D. It’s a bit hard to tell the difference between the basic assault troopers and the lizard men at long range. All the infantry enemies are decked out with different armor and weapon builds, so it’s not like all the pig cops carry shotguns, or all the assault troopers die in three shots. Some are even equipped with the riot shields seen in the old promotional videos.

There is a visual indicator on how much damage enemies take, they get bloodied and parts of their armor fall off. Pig cops especially take advantage of this mechanic. When they’re low on health, they rage out and regain all their health. They’ll charge at you and try to grapple you, being tougher to kill. So, please remember to finish them off, for your own sake. The environment also takes damage in some places, so you have to run for cover elsewhere.

Each room reminds me of a game of D&D. It’s like each encounter was scripted. Raging pig cops climb up surfaces to chase after you if you’re out of reach. The game didn’t just spawn several enemies, let the AI take over, and hope for the best. The pig cops have pathing abilities that I haven’t seen since Left 4 Dead. They will chase you anywhere.

Music

Grabbag, the main theme from Duke Nukem 3D, is back, as well as several interpretations of it. If you listen carefully at certain points, like when in an arcade or an elevator, you can hear it.

Unfortunately, none of the other music is very memorable. It follows the same format as most modern shooters where it ramps up when there’s danger and calms down when you’re safe. I would have loved to have heard Grabbag when I was fighting the Cycloid emperor in the finale. Any game that digs out the adrenaline pumping theme song is great, like Simon’s Theme in Castlevania 4, or the Halo theme in the escape from the exploding ship, or the great John Williams theme for flying the Star Wars Death Star trench.

I’ll go back and mention a previously reviewed game, Dark Void. Dark Void was a great example of a game that had the variable music “dynamic” soundtrack, and still managed to be memorable. That’s probably in no small part due to Bear McCreary. I even bought some of the Dark Void soundtrack over iTunes.

As for Duke Nukem Forever’s soundtrack, maybe it’ll grow on me after a few more playthroughs when I’m not paying as much attention to the environment.

Sound

Jon St. John is back as the voice of Duke Nukem. That’s about the only place I can imagine where the game might have gone wrong. There’s no real soundfont for the game, no iconic noises like lightsabres or blasters. St. John does sound a bit older than I remember, but that’s to be expected after a decade. His one-liners are a good mix between corny, fourth-wall breaking, parody, perverted, and just downright threatening. There’s specific lines for fighting specific enemies, like the octabrain or the pig cops. There is a great variety to the enemies, just not of enemy types. So you might hear the creature-specific ones more often than the others.

None of the voice actors for the rest of the Earth Defense Force, the aliens, or the human civilians are recognizable to me. Maybe that’s for the best. No one should take the spotlight away from Duke. Everyone does a good job of being crude.

Something peculiar happened to me while I was playing. A roommate was talking to me, so I turned the sound off to hear him better. I was frequently taken by surprise. Duke Nukem Forever frequently uses sound to telegraph an encounter and let you know there’s a fight coming up, be it a teleport flash, a pig snort, or a verbal threat. I might not have noticed how deeply the game depends on sound if I hadn’t turned it off.

Controls

I had to increase the mouse sensitivity all the way to the max, right off the bat. Duke controls and jumps a bit awkwardly, but I adapted. Though that might have something to do with my semi-working space bar. He’s not the most agile of heroes. There’s no cover system. Duke stands and delivers most of the time, circle strafing and retreating when tactically sound.

Here I have to mention a fault that none of the other reviews ever mentioned. Originally, the game was designed to have only 2 weapons. So there’s no need to map the number keys to swap weapons. Instead, the number keys deploy inventory items like the steroids, pipe bombs, holoduke, and trip mines. It only happened a few times that I died because I was cycling through my weapons too slowly, or I accidentally looked into the laser of my own trip mine.

Some of the vehicle segments are difficult to get used to. There’s an RC car to drive remotely, an RC car to drive from the seat, and “Duke’s Mighty Foot” a Bigfoot-model monster truck. They all handle a little differently so a new learning curve is required each time. These are only a few levels that use these, though. They weren’t difficult to control, they were just unique. They weren’t difficult to overcome in any way and did not ruin the game for me. Previous reviews have mentioned them and I have to say they’re not the big deal everyone else is making them out to be.

Multiplayer

I didn’t have anyone to play with, so I can’t fairly judge the quality of the multiplayer experience. My connection was rather poor at the time as well, so I didn’t try any of the public matches.

The multiplayer portion heavily parodies Team Fortress II and other “upgradable” multiplayer games. Once you achieve certain feats like killing frozen players, blowing up enough people, or melee killing, you unlock costume accessories. At least this has no effect on gameplay, like the Modern Warfare games. In those games you unlock the use of more powerful weapons, creating a great power disparity that only grows with time, barring new players from joining in. It’s all ridiculous to me. I’m not allowed to use a sniper rifle until I kill a certain number of players with a pistol. If they’re all packing sniper rifles already, that climb is needlessly difficult and, it’s just not fun. Duke points this out in the form of silly pointless unlockables.

You can visit Duke’s apartment from the opening of the game. More and more decorations are added the higher up in rank you go in multiplayer. It’s silly and reminds me of the Sims or those Facebook games where you decorate your apartment. More than those, it reminds me of Overlord how you dip into the treasury to decorate your dark tower. It’s all cosmetic.

A disappointing surprise was a recreation of e1m1, the very first level, from Duke Nukem 3D as a multiplayer map. It’s not a perfect recreation. All the explosive walls have already been blown up. Some power-ups are missing. The entire battleground has been “recreated” as a paintball field somewhere inside the great Lady Killer casino, pre-stained. It just looks dirty. I’m sure this was a nod to GoldenEye’s paintball mode, since there’s also an unlockable “cheat” for big head mode. That shows just how long this game was in development.

Depth/Replayability

Duke Nukem Forever gets replayability and depth right, at least as far as first person shooters can. There are 4 weapon slots, that has been stated as a fault most of the time. I see it as replay value. I usually carried with me the golden pistol from Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project, the shotgun for point blank headshots, something high explosive like the devastator or RPG, and the freeze ray. On my next play through, I think I’ll try carrying more of the alien weapons and the triple barreled machine gun.

There are scattered collectibles, “ego boost” power-ups that extend your shield. They’re not necessary to completing the game, but the hunt is fun without being frustrating. With the ability to jump back into any chapter you’ve previously completed, you can easily go back and hunt again without starting the whole game over again. I like that feature which was seen also in DN:MP and their hidden “nuke”icons.

Also, now that I know ammo conservation is not something I need to be worried about, I can be a lot more reckless the second time through. There will always be spare weapons and ammo just strewn about. Though that’s not taking into account the fact that once you beat the game the first time, there are unlockable cheats such as infinite health, ammo, big head mode, classic freeze thrower, and more, to put a spin on the second time around. Thank you Goldeneye for the N64 for what must have been the inspiration.

There just aren’t enough FPS games nowadays that allow that kind of freedom of silliness. It reminds me of the times I used to play with cheats on because the games were too tough for me at that age. I hadn’t matured into a competent FPS player yet.

Some reviews criticized the game for its short play length. It was kind of short, but that means I’m not intimidated in picking it up again. It’ll last a few days if you’re not cheating. It’s not like I’m taking on another 70 hour Role-playing game. I worry that if the game were much longer, it might feel artificially padded, and nobody wants that. Short can be good.

I honestly had to think about what made Duke Nukem 3D so memorable to me in the first place. What made it so revolutionary? Well, it’s first few levels were different from the common labyrinthine maze-like levels of shooters of the day. The first few levels of Duke 3D took place in relatively recognizable locales, a movie theatre, a street, a jail. But then, all too soon, the game became a series of strange unintuitive rooms of alien design that were meant to disorient and confuse. All those maze like rooms were meant to pad the game. This game has no padding and I believe is better for it.

Personal

I’m a fan of Duke, and always have been. I remember playing the original 2D side scrolling platformers by Apogee back in the shareware days. I remember loving the Build editor that let you create your own levels. I scoured the early internet for map making communities. I remember playing co-op with friends in school. I remember Manhattan Project and beating the game on each difficulty while searching for all the collectibles and seeing how high I could get my ego bar to go. I remember the disappointed Google searches when I looked for more Duke Nukem Forever information and didn’t see any. I didn’t have a pre-order for 12 years, but I was one of the long waiting fans.

I loved Duke Nukem Forever. I’m probably one of the few folk who did and will publicly admit to it. I think that is one of the most important reasons why this review needs to be done.

The extras that unlock after finishing the game are a great insight to the history of the game, especially the old trailers. Some of those trailers I’d never seen before, and I thought I gobbled up every bit of info there was. Then again, I saw some test footage that wasn’t included. There were some action scenes like a giant roach chasing Duke on foot while he was riding in the back of a truck on a freeway. There was also an assault rifle, and several other smaller roach like enemies in the early versions. Some of these ideas were obviously transferred over into Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project’s roach queen boss where she chases you over a speeding subway.

There’s also a timeline that shows all the different milestones that DN4 had to go through, when rights changed hands, when deals were made, when engines were swapped. I wouldn’t expect this kind of detail outside of a special collector’s edition.

I had a little trouble with the Octaking boss. During the fight, a bunch of floating octabrains come out. I had trouble taking them down since they were at a distance. The pistol was weak, the shotgun was meant to be for close up encounters, the freeze ray was ineffective, and they just snatched the devastator rockets right out of the air and threw them back at me. I tried the same thing with pipe bombs, they reached out, grabbed them, and threw them back at me. That’s when I realized, they will reach out, grab them, and throw them back at me. I didn’t even have to aim! All I had to do was throw a pipe bomb in their general direction and they’d grab onto it like bait. Once it was in their slimy tentacles, I just hit the detonate button and made the whole fight so much easier.

I had a great time with this game, from start to finish, to start again. Even the parts where I was dying frequently like the Hoover Dam bridge when a battle lord threw a car at my head. That’s tricky for a game to accomplish.

There are a variety of environmental weapons just laying about. At one point, I picked up an exploding barrel and threw it at a pig cop. At another, I picked up a frisbee and hit a jetpack alien in the back, causing it to lose control, Boba Fett style. I got an ego boost for that one!

I think it’s funny that the game takes Duke to the Hoover Dam at one point. I remember playing many maps from Duke 3D from the map making community that recreated the Hoover Dam.

If you download the DLC, The Doctor Who Cloned Me, you get a nice fight with Doctor Proton, the villain from the first game, as well as some new weapons not seen in the single player campaign like the expander and impregnator. His underground fortress reminds me of the city of Rapture from Bioshock. I’m sure that’s what they were going for.

Was the game worth a 12 year wait? I don’t even know what that means. What does a game that takes 12 years to complete look and play like? The way I see it, Duke had to take this long, it couldn’t have come out any sooner. Duke is a time traveling icon, filling the role of a video game court jester. Duke’s games point out what is faulty in a humorous way. We needed 12 years worth of bad material to create this game. It’s a window into gaming’s past and present.

Would I change anything? Maybe some better music.

Boiling it Down

Believing the hype is doing yourself a disservice. If you’re frustrated with the generic crop of bland shooters, this game will satisfy you with it’s loads of personality and parody of several gaming genres. If you’re able to appreciate games on a deeper level than pure action, you will appreciate Duke Nukem Forever.

Command & Conquer: Renegade

The Best Game Never Played

Command & Conquer: Renegade (Real-time First-Person Shooter / PC)

Introducing the Genre

First Person Shooters have a long, dull, boring history. Few games in the genre ever break new ground, or tread the old ground in such a way as to be memorable. For every great FPS game, there are dozens of spirit-less clones. Wolfenstein 3D and Doom set the bar for silent protagonists, Ken’s Labyrinth was an early attempt to to add some humor to the formula. TRON2.0 was a great memorable experience that made the game more than a shooter, but a TRON experience. Duke Nukem 3D, at least the first and third episodes, changed the setting to more realistic environments like city streets instead of alien worlds. Half-Life was an incredible experience from beginning to end, asked the player to think on an unprecedented level, as well as, like Duke, had an arsenal of original weapons. Serious Sam was a series of carnage, gore, and action on a scale that dared to be different and offer bright, open environments. Doom 3 pushed technical boundaries and emphasized horror over action.

Then, there are the Modern Warfares, Call of Duties, Medal of Honors, that all seem content to out copy each other. They are bound by history and realism, to an extent. I’m sure they appeal to some people, just not me. As much as I love historic and educational games, or games that offer teaching moments, they seem too bland and not innovative enough. I like the balls-out action, the bizarre physics puzzles, and mad science weaponry.

Introducing the Game

I saw someone playing this game in the early 2000s. He was the only person I ever saw playing it, and I never heard of it again. I just assumed it had flopped and would never be heard from again. It would be another 7 years or so before a new friend and I temporarily traded games. I let him borrow Hellgate: London, he let me borrow his Command & Conquer collection, which included the overlooked Command & Conquer: Renegade.

Gameplay

When I think of this game, I can’t come up with a better description than, “big damn heroes.” You’re in the boots of a particularly bad-ass C&C GDI Commando unit that carries all his weapons, collects armor and weapon power ups, blows everything up, and mows down the forces of the Brotherhood of Nod by the thousands. It’s a guilty pleasure and a wonderful change from current generation cover based shooting with regenerating health and a 2-weapon limit.

If you’re familiar with the C&C universe, you’ll get the most out of this game. You get to set foot inside the bases and structures, and blow the crap out of them. You have to fight your way through each building, plant some charges or destroy a critical component and escape. For example, at one point an Obelisk, a giant enemy laser tower, is blocking your path. So you have to destroy a power plant to shut it down. Then it’s up to you if you want to bypass the obelisk, or go inside and make sure it never works again. If you destroy the Nod version of a barracks, you’ll face less infantry as you progress. Destroy the airstrip and helipads, you’ll face fewer aircraft. Destroy the SAM sites, and GDI reinforcements can land and help.

The other forces on the battlefield are all C&C staples. Nod forces have infantrymen, flame thrower units, chemical spraying units, rocket troopers, guard towers, turrets, SAM sites, Obelisks, buggies, light tanks, and more. The enemy types bring different challenges to the battlefield, as well as some redundancies. For example, there are at least 3 different types of basic infantry units, soldiers, officers, and elites. They can be armed with assault rifles, shotguns(where’s mine!?), sniper rifles, or mini-guns. They all go down easy. The tanks and vehicles are vulnerable to small arms, but require explosives like C4, rockets, or grenades to fight effectively. There’s enough of a mix up of these units to make me frequently switch up my weapons. So I’m never stuck using any one “primary” weapon for long. Chemical troopers and flame troopers are immune to their respective weapons, and they’re thrown into the mix of infantry often enough, that I can’t just run through an entire level with the flame thrower. Flame works great on groups or in close quarters, but against a flame soldier in close quarters, you have to switch, quickly!

There is a radar that shows the position of enemy buildings, units, and vehicles. It’s incredibly helpful, but there are times when Nod forces will jam the radar, like if you’re near a Nod communications tower. This power subtraction helps add a little tension and forces you to play a little sharper than you may have been.

The officer units are an interesting innovation. As long as they’re alive, Chinook helicopters will fly in, dropping more troops off. So you can stand and deliver, mowing them down in wave after wave, or strike at the guy calling them in. The idea of every different type of enemy having some special ability is a good idea, rather than just having one version with varying weaponry. Honestly, how different are some enemies in current shooters, or any shooter, if you disregard the fact they’re armed with different weapons?

Story

The game takes place during the first Command & Conquer game, following a side story of one of the Commando units, “Havoc.” He’s a reckless bad-ass commando that disregards authority but gets the job done. He jumps into his work like a summer movie action hero, complete with one-liners. “Where’s my medal?” he says, after coming back from a mission he was never assigned, and stole a hovercraft to kick off.

Havoc meets a team of specialists in the basic training tutorial, they’ll show up again in the single player story. They are well characterized, in an action-movie kind of way, and charming. I can’t wait to see them all in action together. There are also very talkative villains with as much character as the protagonist and the other good guys.

In many shooters, the protagonist is silent, not here. Havoc takes pride in his work. The extent of an NPC’s existence is to be escorted to safety. Again, not here. NPCs are capable to take on Nod forces if left to their own devices. There’s enough background actors to make you believe you’re in a living campaign with it’s own ebb and flow

The story moves at a constant rate from radio instructions or cut scenes, there’s always something to do, always somewhere to go, always something to destroy. There’s always a sense of urgency provided by the war always going on in the background.

Too often, I’m disappointed by FPS games that go on for too long in silence or without any updates, dialogue, or developments. I could almost, but not quite, compare this game to playing a game by Luc Besson. It’s not quite that intense, though I may be proven wrong on higher difficulties.

Graphics

The graphics are definitely dated by today’s standards, you can count the number of sides on round objects like wheels or helmets. But the way I look at it, that just means there will never be any slowdown or break in the action. Any computer today ought to be able to run it.

The animations are all very smooth. I’m surprised that the character animations are as good as they are. I’ve seen some games today that aren’t as well animated. When the animations of a human-like figure are off, you can tell. These are all far ahead of their time.

Music

The music is there. It’s not as memorable as the other C&C tracks that I remember. Though I played the original for a hundred hours or so, it had to sink in. If I spent that amount of time with Renegade, I’m sure it’ll be just as memorable. The music uses much of the same set of techno/synth instruments that the original C&C used, so it definitely sounds like C&C. Perhaps by the time I’m done with the game, I’ll feel differently. Still, it’s better to have some C&C techno/synth music than the bland atmospheric ambient music that only flares up during action scenes in modern FPS games.

Sound

The use of sound is part of what puts you into the C&C world. When I’m mowing down bad guys, I hear the familiar infantry “death” sound, and it takes you there, you know you’re in C&C. I’d swear the main character was voiced by a young David Hayter(Solid Snake; Metal Gear Solid), but upon investigation, it’s not. Then I thought I heard Clancy Brown(The Kurgan; Highlander), again I was wrong. Rene Auberjonois(Odo; Star Trek Deep Space Nine) is in it. The cast does a solid job! Every character has some character and personality to them. There are no bland performances here. They may be cliché, but not bland.

Controls

Just in case you’ve never played a first person shooter before, the game opens with an optional tutorial so you can get down all the basic and frequent controls that you’ll be using all the time. When the game puts you in a brand new situation, you’re prompted to press the “use” key. I never had any real or serious problems with the control of this game. The biggest problem, which is really minor, is that I keep pressing “3” for the assault rifle, and get the sniper rifle instead. The game has no shotguns, which are usually the “2” button in most FPS games. So, that’s on me, and if that’s the worst I can say, the controls should be easy enough for anyone.

Multiplayer

The multiplayer is richer than the team class based Return to Castle Wolfenstein. You have to destroy the enemy base. Destroying each building requires a well oiled team. I didn’t have anyone to play with, so I just had bots. It would have been a lot smoother, and challenging in a different way, if it were real humans.

Each team has their own tiberium counter that acts as money. It increases by about 2 per second. Tiberium harvesters go out and gather tiberium and when they make a return trip, you’re awarded a bonus amount. Attacking enemy harvesters is always a strategy that will make a dent in the enemy’s economy.

Each building has a very sturdy command center. First, you have to fight your way past the base defenses, which are much tougher in multiplayer than in single player. Then, have enough explosives to demolish it. One person, even engineers, cannot carry enough C4 to blow up a building. So you’ll need multiple people to work together. Or, it’ll just take you multiple lives to demolish one building. Before it’s destroyed, Engineers can repair the building from the inside. Each building destroyed, limits what advanced units are available to that team, the price of items, the rate at which you gather tiberium, or your bases defenses. Or, you can just place a nuke or ion cannon beacon in the building to demolish it in one swift stroke. If the beacon isn’t disarmed, you’ll see something awesome.

Each team will require some organization since there is a shared pool of resources. Impatient uncooperative players could just buy vehicles or weapons for themselves and the team will never have enough cash to purchase advanced vehicles. This is why you can’t have nice things!

The idea that each class is valuable and has a role to play is a plus, compared to modern “class” based shooters. The class you play means more than just what abilities are available to you or what weapons you can carry. Each class has a job to do while assaulting a base, that’s more than the traditional “capture the spawn point for 10 seconds” model we’ve seen in games like Star Wars Battlefront, Day of Defeat, or Unreal Tournament. The “capture” model simulates the demolition of enemy structures, this game has you go through with it. You have to protect your engineers, engineers have to plant explosives, repair vehicles, someone has to plant a nuke/ion beacon, attack the harvester, sneak around back, distract the other team, the strategies are more than just, “flood the enemy base.” I wish more games had this complicated multiplayer, like Starcraft: Ghost could have.

It does have LAN capability, so if you can gather enough friends, you don’t need Westwood’s servers or Game Spy. Even if you stack all the humans on one team, it will be a challenge. Fire it up for a LAN party and enjoy a struggle unlike anything you’re used to.

Depth/Replayability

I’m going through the game on the easiest difficulty level, for the sake of reviewing. It’s too easy, so I’m definitely going to go on and replay the harder ones. It’s fun being nearly invincible and mowing down bad guys, but it’s not as satisfying if they die too quickly. I want to see them flail around on fire for a few more seconds before they collapse.

Besides the “main objective” of every level, there are secondary and optional tertiary objectives to complete. I was doing pretty good up until level 5 when I saw I missed on at the mission debriefing screen. I’m compelled to go back again and find it. What did I miss? I thought I was good at exploring. My next time through, I suppose I could try to challenge myself and not complete the secondary objectives, but going out of my way to raid buildings and blow stuff up is just too much fun!

The amount of detail that was put into this world, including weapons, weapon use, and enemy variety, is above and beyond what I’ve seen in the likes of many modern games. In Halo, I usually stuck to my primary weapon, not that I had much choice. In Bioshock, I never really needed anything more than a wrench. I just don’t want to think of how many games stick with a stock light, medium, and heavy enemy type, and call it a day.

Personal

I haven’t finished this game yet, yet I felt compelled to add it to the list. It’s fun from level one, all the way to level 5. Most games have level 1 a sample plate of everything you’ll see throughout the game, it’s tested the most, and has to be the most impressive. Then, level 2 onward has the pressure laid off and applied at various moments. This game keeps it on, constantly.

I was really looking forward to Starcraft: Ghost, a chance to step into the world of a real-time strategy game at foot level. Command & Conquer did it first, and they did it well. I’m puzzled why Blizzard never completed their game.

My first time playing around with a stolen chemical sprayer yielded interesting results. Apparently, there is a small percentage chance that your target, instead of dying a horrible painful death, will mutate into a gelatinous, amorphous, tentacled, blob that attacks you or the Nod forces, indiscriminately. I didn’t know if what I did was a good thing or a bad thing. So I ran away. I let Nod deal with it.

I wonder why there was never any Red Alert: Renegade, starring Tanya, the WWII commando from the C&C: Red Alert series?

Sadly, there is no melee button. I can’t pistol whip anyone or clock them across the jaw with the butt of my rifle. That totally seems like something the main character would do when given the opportunity, and more for spite than for conserving ammo.

Boiling it Down

Renegade describes this game’s attitude towards current generation shooters. It needs to be remade, or at the very least, have other games learn from it!

BW: Dante’s Inferno

Better Worlds

Dante’s Inferno (Action Brawler / PS3)

Introducing the Genre

Brawlers have been a staple of the arcades and home gaming consoles since the old NES days. I played the early TMNT series, the home TMNT series, Capcom’s Final Fight and sequels, the X-Men arcade game(original and PSN port), even that strange Simpsons’s arcade game. I’ve even got my eye on the new Team Fortress 2 Arcade game in development. It seems like a brawler is a shoe in for possible franchise games. I’m surprised there was never a Star Wars brawler.

As consoles began to increase in capability, the scope of brawlers increased along with it. Sprites were replaced with 3d models, 3d environments and backgrounds. 2D side scrolling brawlers gave way to the 3d environment brawlers like Devil May Cry and God of War. Try to imagine, if Dante and Kratos came out a decade prior to their release, what genre of game would they be?

Introducing the Game

Dante’s Inferno is a game based on, something. It’s obviously not based on the epic poem by Dante Aligheri. However, I wish it were. I think that would make for a much better game. This version was even less faithful in its adaptation than the Mortal Kombat: Annihilation movie. Perhaps adapting works of literature presents its own unique challenges, like adapting video games into movies, and the process needs to mature. However, the amount of material that was disregarded is amazing. The developers stole some proper nouns of people and locations, hired a concept artist, and just ran with it. I doubt anyone really read the book beyond the jacket and the table of contents.

Gameplay

In the game, Dante has a large, heavy scythe of magical shape changing length that must be super strong and weigh, like, an ounce. He uses the scythe to gut, rend, maim, eviscerate and disembowel everything that moves, even some things which don’t move, like the doors. I confess, I had a personal sense of satisfaction in torturing the doors, but that’s just me. He also has a ranged weapon, a holy cross that emits a holy light. Each weapon can be upgraded with experience points gained by either “punishing” or “absolving” enemies. I took the high road and absolved everyone in the mini-game. There is a skill tree for the “punishment” points that mostly gives scythe upgrades and one for the “holy” skill tree that mostly enhances defense, regeneration, and upgrades for the cross. I had plenty of points leftover to fully upgrade the scythe, but I didn’t need to.

The game plays very much like a God of War mod. That God of War development team should just sell the God of War development kit, maybe they have. That would explain the plethora of GoW copies out there. The game is an action brawler and that’s pretty weird. If I were to attempt to bring Dante’s Inferno to life, it would probably take the form of an adventure game or an action/adventure, not a brawler.

There was a very very old NES game called Bible Adventures. For health bonuses, you’d pick up and read pieces of scripture. In order to advance, there were trivia questions at the end of each level. It was educational. It kind of reminds me of Carmen SanDiego how you had to read your almanac after a case, or Mario’s Time Machine(SNES) where you had to do your “homework” and Mario is Missing where you had to learn about geography and answer questions. I would have appreciated some attempt at reading or bringing in material from the poem. It just wasn’t there.

Dante’s Inferno has inspired countless artists over the centuries. A game that truly and accurately reflects it, the language and the scenery and the characters, rather than some action/gore fest game would be wonderful to see. The read/trivia format is an old mechanic, but a good one. It could have worked

Story

The game follows the story of a crusader / rapist, Dante, who comes home from war to find his beloved(???) Beatrice murdered, and is then murdered himself. When Death comes to claim him, Dante kills Death with his own scythe. He finds his beloved Beatrice’s soul and sees her being pulled down into Hell, so he jumps down into Hell after her. Dante carves a bloody trail through each level of hell, all the way down to Cocytus, and fights Lucifer in hand-to-scythe combat. There was a guy named Virgil that pops up from time to time in an Obi-Wan type way, but it’s never explained why. Dante then crawls out of Hell with Satan on piggyback.

In the book, Dante is absolutely head over heels in love with a woman, Beatrice. Tragedy strikes and both Dante and Beatrice fall ill. Though Dante recovers, he is devastated by the loss of his beloved and becomes an empty shell of a man. He wanders aimlessly, cowering away from life. At the midpoint of his life, he comes upon a Dark Wood where three fearsome animals keep him at bay, and keep him penned in the woods. From Paradise, Beatrice sees this and descends to Limbo, picks up Dante’s favorite poet, Virgil, and charges him with bringing Dante to her. Virgil leads Dante out of the Dark Wood, through Limbo, through the depths of Hell, past some historical figures, outwits the Minotaur, escapes the harpies at the gates of Dis, hops past the Bolgae, and down to Cocytus where they must hide from Satan and actually sneak past him to the opening that leads to the mountain of Purgatory.

In the book, Dante was much more afraid, as would anyone if they stared literally into the mouth of Hell. He was scared the entire way through. The game version of Dante was as single-minded and has as much emotional range as Kratos. I think that fear would be a powerful conveyor of emotion. I would have shown Dante and Virgil, talking back and forth, expressing fear, being pursued by the denizens of Hell, like the arch-demons and Cerberus. I wouldn’t give Dante or Virgil any weapons, at least not any very powerful ones. That one-sidedness and being underpowered would enhance the message that the two pilgrims are in so far over their head.

Graphics

The graphics are up to par with the standards of the day. The art style is completely unified between the different levels of hell. It definitely looks like they were all designed by the same person. While I don’t agree with some of the interpretations by the main art director, they kept the art style unified. Consistency is credit where credit is due.

The creature art design seems to have been guided by “gross out factor” more than anything else. Souls of the damned excrete all kinds of fluids, have exaggerated features, and, well, are just gross. There’s no polite way to describe them. If you’re able to tune it all out and not focus on the visuals, just treat them like any other enemy, the AI behavior has very few variations. Monsters behave similarly, regardless of their type.

One of the bigger departures from the epic poem is the level of gluttony with Cerberus. The entire level is one big intestine, living and oozing. Instead of the very recognizable three-headed dog from Greek lore, Cerberus is a three-headed earthworm with a set of human teeth. The gluttony level isn’t cold, like it is in the book, there aren’t people regrettably eating each other. It’s just another gore fest. The game never focuses why people are here or why the punishment is appropriate. People are just damned and tortured in particular ways.

Music

The music is very forgettable. Music is one of the elements that can make a good game great, or drag a frustrating and difficult game okay. Castlevania, I’m looking at you. But since this game seems to have failed at staying faithful to source material, reproducing the experiences, or even of making me care about any of the characters, the music was ineffective. Music is an experience multiplier. If you don’t care about the game, the music won’t enhance anything.

Sound

I pity the sound engineers who had to create all the wailing sounds of the damned, and all the

bodily functions of the creatures and environment. That couldn’t have been pleasant and must have taken its toll. The sound team had a job to do, and regardless of the subject matter, they did their job well. They’re not the writers or the directors and have no control over the corny dialogue or the one-dimensional characters.

Controls

Essentially it’s God of War. The scythe has a light or heavy attack, grab, and a ranged attack with the cross. The cross has unlimited charges, so it can be used continuously. But the scythe is where the game becomes ridiculous with 7xhit combos just by pressing the same button over and over. The movement controls are very sharp and responsive, but combat is bland and unimaginative. Certain arbitrary combinations perform outrageous feats. Then there are the quick time events, which you can’t enjoy unless you’re watching someone play because you’re too focused on when the next button prompt will pop up. If I were designing this game, of course, I wouldn’t have much combat at all, it would have been a completely different genre. For a cookie cutter, by the numbers brawler, God of War clone, it sure hits all the points it’s supposed to.

Multiplayer

The original game came with a multiplayer DLC pack where one character could take on the role of Dante’s patron saint, St Lucia, to help Dante through some new areas.

Why they never included Virgil as a playable character, I’ll never know. Virgil was more aggressive than Dante. After all, Virgil was already dead. One player could control Dante, the other could control Virgil. That wouldn’t be too difficult.

The game came with a level editor that I didn’t bother to play with. I was just relieved that I finished the game. I didn’t care about the multiplayer. And I usually love the level editors!

Depth/Replayability

The game is a shallow experiences. Cookie cutter and by the numbers that includes every typical element common across all of the modern brawlers. The two weapons, the cross and the scythe, are upgradable, but you don’t need to max yourself out to finish the game. I upgraded the cross tree because it had the most utilitarian abilities. I could have done both, but I just didn’t need to. So not only is every Dante character a copy of one another with no real choice, there’s no reason to make the choices in the first place.

I never bothered to replay the game. There wasn’t a want or a need. The characters weren’t likable, the combat was dull, the entire game is a stab in the eye of the original epic poem. Some games have a cheap “morality” system, like Bioshock or Infamous, where you should replay it twice just to see the “other” path. Well Dante’s Inferno lets you do both paths on the first playthrough. So there’s no need.

Personal

I already had a low opinion of this game. Then I came across a “lost soul” that needed absolving or punishing. It was Boudecca. The fact that the developers put Boudecca in Hell really bugs me. I forget if she was in there in the book, but that wouldn’t have sit well with me either way.

Come to think of it, survival horror might be a good genre for a Dante’s Inferno game. Sure, it’s the epitome of the escort quest, Virgil making sure that Dante arrives safely, it would be an interesting mechanic. Virgil is already dead, only Dante can be harmed. Protecting Dante would be a spin on the other, previously only annoying, escort mechanic.

If the game were just renamed Inferno and wasn’t trying to be Dante’s Inferno, I’d have fewer problems with it. Why did they name it after Dante? Were they trying to attract the intelligent and highly literate crowd with a shallow action game?

Boiling it Down

Go read a book. The book is always better.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

The Best Game Never Played

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Action RPG/ N64)

Introducing the Genre

The genre of Action RPGs or Action Adventure appear to be one of my favorites, based solely on the number of times I’ve reviewed Action RPGs. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, Sudeki, Beyond Good & Evil, and Mass Effect. Then there’s the more popular ones like Secret of Mana, and The Legend of Zelda series

Introducing the Game

I’ve known about this game since it was released, but since I didn’t have an N64 at the time, I had to let it slip by. It wasn’t until many years later when I was catching up on a few classics I’d missed, that I finally had the opportunity to play it, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.

Gameplay

The traditional Zelda formula is thrown a loop or two in this game. The traditional mindset will only cause frustration. The formula I’m talking about is the, goto dungeon, get item, use item to defeat boss, formula. The dungeon/item formula is still present, but there are more different elements that play just as important a role. In fact, this game is so different, it could have probably been part of a stand-alone franchise. A little work replacing graphics and names, it could be totally converted.

One of those gameplay elements that makes Majora’s Mask so unique is the concept of masks. Besides the normal equipment menu, Link has access to a collection of masks that each have different attributes. For example, the goron mask turns Link into a powerful goron, able to roll himself into a ball and roll at high speeds off of ramps. The bunny hood gives Link enhanced default speed. Other masks let you talk to animals or gossip stones. Finding out what mask ability to use and when can be tricky and requires a little unorthodox thinking. You always have to consider not just your own ability, by the abilities of your other forms.

The game takes place away from Hyrule, in the town of Termina. In three days, the moon is going to crash into the town and obliterate it, unless you can stop it. Link is given a magical song that will rewind time over and over to the start of the three days. Certain things only happen on certain days. Keeping track of what happens when is a real challenge.

Besides that looming lunar cataclysm, the people of Termina have other, more personal problems. Solving these people’s problems is tied to advancement through the game. Usually there is a reward for helping people is a new mask, a new item, or a heart piece. Finding out what their problem is, when they need help, and what you can do to help is a real challenge. It’s difficult to even know if you have the ability to help, or how to get the ability. There is a handy in-game guide that keeps track of everyone’s schedule once you meet them, but even with that, the game is hard and I needed a guide.

These additional gameplay elements are just as much a part of the game as the typical Zelda formula. This sets Majora’s Mask apart from the rest of the Zelda catalog, almost as much as Zelda II was set apart from the original Zelda. The amount of care given to the NPCs wasn’t seen again until The Minish Cap.

Story

The Legend of Zelda meets Groundhog Day. Just within the first few minutes of the game, Link runs into problem after problem. First, while riding through the forest on his horse, Epona, Link is ambushed by the skull kid he met in his previous adventure. After the pursuit, the Skull Kid steals his horse Epona and curses him to become a deku shrub. Before he can get all his belongings back, the Skull Kid is posessed by a magic mask that threatens to crash the moon into the nearby town of Termina in three days. Thankfully, Link’s magic ocarina has the power to turn back time three days over and over again while Link searches for a solution to save himself, Skull Kid, Termina, and especially its inhabitants. Meeting and greeting the inhabitants of Termina every day, following them all throughout their daily routines really lends heart to the game. It’s rare that you’ll meet so many NPCs and actually care about them.

Graphics

The graphics are a slight upgrade from Ocarina of Time, but the art style remains the same. The polycount is indicative of the era. After a few minutes of playing, you can probably identify the year it was made just based on the average polycount, and name a few other games that were made around the same time.

Music

Fantastic! As soon as I stepped out from Termina, the original Zelda fanfare began playing. That’s what I’d been waiting the entire of Ocarina of Time for. Strangely, it was absent from Ocarina, entirely. The rest of the individual melodies aren’t as memorable, though that could simply be because I haven’t played it as much as I have the others. Though the quality of the music is just as high as in Ocarina.

Sound

“Hey! Listen!” It never really bothered me. I never joined the bandwagon of all the Navi-hate from Ocarina of Time. Link has another faerie friend that serves the exact same purpose. She only speaks when you Z-target something, if there is a puzzle nearby, or if you haven’t done anything constructive in some time. Perhaps knowing when and why it would happen stopped it from being annoying. The majority of the rest of the sounds seem to be recycled from Ocarina, which is appropriate.

Controls

The control scheme is much the same Ocarina of Time. The innovative Z-targeting system that made Ocarina of Time possible, returns. I had no problem adjusting from one game to the other, and neither should anyone else.

Multiplayer

The Legend of Zelda didn’t get any actual multiplayer until the Four Swords adventure for GBA. Majora’s Mask came out long before then. Even after Four Swords, the inclusion of any kind of multiplayer would be alien. Sure, Link has a faerie friend following along, but they’ve never been controllable by a second party. Perhaps that can be addressed in future installments, like the second player in Super Mario Galaxy 2 collected star bits.

Depth/Replayability

Majora’s Mask is a long game. Rooting out all the secrets of the town of Termina can take it’s toll on the player. It’s an experience to remember, but not one I’d want to repeat frequently. I’ve practically memorized the two NES Zelda experiences, Link to the Past, as well as Ocarina of Time, but Majora’s Mask remains elusive. There’s too much content to really memorize it all. That adds to it’s level of depth, and perhaps detracts from its replayability. Though, at the time of this writing, I’m getting a craving to fire it up all over again.

Personal

This is a long game. I feel exhausted just thinking about it.

Right off the bat, beginning the game in the form of a cursed deku shrub is a little silly and not very encouraging or endearing. I didn’t really want to finish the game, but I struggled to hold out until I turned back into a human. After that, it started to become more fun.

I enjoyed rolling around in the goron form, maybe too much. Though I might have enjoyed swimming around as a zora even more. It’s hard to tell. The awesome power and speed of a goron versus the beauty of the aquatic environments is a coin toss.

I’m always a sucker for any story that involves time travel. So getting to warp back and back and back to the past is fun.

Boiling it Down

One of the harder Zelda games that fans who have memorized the first few ought to try.

Chrono Cross

The Best Game Never Played

Chrono Cross (RPG / PSX)

Introducing the Genre

Belive it or not, but Squaresoft has other franchises besides Final Fantasy. They partnered with Nintendo for Super Mario RPG. Squaresoft partnered with Capcom to make the Breath of Fire series. The Mana series that most people began with Secret of Mana was a real time action RPG, a departure from the typical turn based format. Their American partners developed another game with the same engine called Secret of Evermore. Squaresoft was also the driving force behind Xenogears, Xenosaga, Parasite Eve, Bushido Blade, and Ehrgeiz.

While Final Fantasy is still the most recognized brand associated with Squaresoft, there is a long burning torch held by many players for one of their other masterpieces, Chrono Trigger. The torch is strong enough to have the game re re released over several consoles. First it was on the Super Nintendo, then the Playstation, then the Nintendo DS, and most recently on mobile platforms.

Introducing the Game

Besides being re re released over and over, the Chrono universe was expanded. During the short lived era of satellite systems, there was a mostly text adventure called Radical Dreamers. That was the prototype and unrefined original incarnation of what would eventually be called Chrono Trigger’s official sequel, Chrono Cross. Even now, there are rumors of another game in the series in development, Chrono Brake.

I first discovered the game from a random Google search. A friend had over zealously recommended Chrono Trigger to me as one of the greatest games of all time. I’m always wary when someone’s enthusiasm is out of control, but after playing it, I can see why. It was almost totally justified. I wondered if there was a sequel, and was delighted to see that Chrono Cross was in development. I can only imagine the pain of anticipation my friend felt having to wait all those years while I only had to wait a few months. The story had to continue. I borrowed someone’s Playstation in order to play it.

Gameplay

Oddly, this is where Chrono Cross gets some of the most criticism. It was different. It wasn’t standard turn based, it wasn’t real time, it was different and new. For some reason, critics just couldn’t adapt to a varying initiative system. Who goes first in combat is determined by each character’s speed. That sets up the order, like D&D’s “roll for initiative.” However, that order can change depending on how much you exert yourself in that round of combat. Everyone has 7 stamina points to keep into account. Light attacks count as 1 point, medium count as 2, and heavy count as 3. Everyone has a set percent chance to hit, and landing one hit will increase the percent chance. The most balanced and reliable order of attacks would be a light attack, medium attack, and heavy attack. The most dependable and least damaging would be to use 7 light attacks. Risky and damaging would be one light attack and two heavies. Spells cast all 7 points. Though you could attack heavily twice, and then cast a spell, where your stamina goes into the negative for a while. Everyone regains 1 point of stamina per action. There are of course different ways to customize recovery or chances to hit, and that’s what any good and deep RPG ought to have.

Magic is also handled differently. Characters can “equip” spells that they buy. So you can buy a fireball spell, and use it from battle to battle. However, spells can only be used once per battle, unless you have an item that allows it. You can buy the fireball spell seven times and equip it into a character’s “element grid” seven times. The element grid is like a spreadsheet where you equip spells. As characters grow, they gain more slots. The slots at the right are more powerful than slots at the beginning. So a fireball in the seventh column would be more powerful than one in the first. Some massive spells like summons can only be equipped in certain spots. Certain characters like those designed to be mages have more high end slots, while warriors might have only a few.

For every spell cast, there is a magical residue left on the field of battle. If three blue, water, or ice elements are cast in a row, then the field will be all blue. Then, blue spells will be stronger, while red spells will be weaker. Manipulating the field, or disrupting it, can be the difference between a difficult boss fight, and having to load your game.

Squaresoft’s RPGs haven’t been the most innovative. The Final Fantasy formula has stood strong for decades, until recently. Chrono Cross dared to be different. Personally, I applaud the attempt of doing something different. It put more control in my hands, it was more than just selecting “fight” or “magic” each time. Battles were much more interesting. Compared to Square’s most recent activity in Final Fantasy XIII, which took most of the control out of the player’s hands and automated the supporting characters. A good RPG needs to put control into the hands of the player. The player needs to play the game, the game should not automatically lead the player.

Story

Even if you didn’t play Chrono Trigger, the story stands on its own. There actually isn’t much to tie one to another, although there’s more than any two Final Fantasy titles besides X and X-2, XIII and XIII-2. Chrono Cross’s antagonists are victims of a collapsed universe, denied the right to exist, from a future that never happened, a future that was erased because of the events in the first game.

Chrono Trigger was all about ripping back and forth through time. Chrono Cross is about ripping back and forth through two dimensions. The biggest difference between dimensions is whether the protagonist, Serge, drowned at a young age. Imagine if a Squaresoft RPG decided to use the theme from It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s amazing the difference one life makes in the long run.

Serge ends up lost in the alternate dimensions and looks for help returning home. In the process he’s wrapped up in events which lead to becoming a burglar, a pirate, a savior, and a destroyer of worlds. There are 40 playable characters in your party and you will not be able to recruit them all in the first run through. Surely you’ll be able to find several you can relate to, customizing your story, bringing along the ones you like the most. Recruiting some will make it impossible to recruit others, based on the paths you take.

Once you beat the game, you’re given a magical item, the Chrono Cross, which lets you merge the realities of your saved games. So you can recruit characters on the third playthrough that are impossible to recruit on the first.

I love the amount of freedom that branching paths the story take. You can miss about a quarter, to maybe a third of the content depending on the paths you take. And that’s what RPGs should offer. I also love it for the closure it brings to some hanging threads in Chrono Trigger’s story, even the sad ones.

Graphics

No one should be playing an RPG for the sake of graphics. I hope the players all have powerful enough imaginations to make up for it. Considering it came out for the original Playstation, the graphics aren’t the most impressive anymore. Still, the colorful environments and art style are pleasant to look at, more pleasant than say, a modern RPG like Mass Effect. That game has way too much gray. Or, Dragon Age with 255 different shades of brown. The tropical archipelago of El Nido, where most of Chrono Cross takes place, is much more visually appealing, even if the polycount is lower. Most of the backgrounds are hand drawn, like Final Fantasy VII or King’s Bounty: The Legend.

Music

This is one of the games where I bought the imported sound track. I really don’t do that very often. This music will stay with you. It’s more masterful musical work from Yasunori Mitsuda, the man who brought you the music of Chrono Trigger. For folk familiar with that soundtrack, there’s a few homages and variations on a theme. You’ll hear echoes of Chrono Trigger within the work.

Sound

It’s nice to hear some of the same soundfont used from Chrono Trigger, but other than that, the sound isn’t of any spectacular note.

Controls

The controls are nothing complicated, despite what other critics and reviews have mentioned, blending controls and gameplay. There’s a standard accept and cancel buttons, movement via stick. One wonderful innovation that Chrono Cross came up with is that once you beat the game, you’re given another magical item that lets you speed up and slow down time. You can accelerate the long summoning animations, or easy fights and slow down the difficult mini games. More games need this feature, or at least the accelerating of easy fights and long casting animations.

Multiplayer

It’s a Squaresoft RPG. They aren’t known for multiplayer. Secret of Mana and Evermore allowed more than one player, but normally the tactical decisions are best made by one player alone.

Depth/Replayability

This game is one of the best at encouraging replayability. There’s no trophy collecting or achievement unlocking. It doesn’t resort to some cheap “morality” system, or an “ultimate” ability that is only unlockable if you follow one extreme path or another. I really hate those systems.

There are several main objectives throughout the game, and there are several branches to reach them. Some have two, some have three. So to see them all, you’ll have to play the game at least three times. Think of Star Fox, how there are multiple paths to reach Venom.

Next, there are 40 total playable characters. Some are only available to certain paths. So you can play the game over and over, trying to recruit certain characters, then merging the save games to collect them all.

Like Chrono Trigger before it, the game has a New Game + feature that lets you begin the game again with all the equipment from your inventory at the end of the game. So your second and third playthroughs will be much easier. Also like Chrono Trigger, there are ten different endingsThe choices you make, don’t make, or when you beat the game, will determine which ending you get. I haven’t seen another game since Chrono Trigger or Chrono Cross to have that amount of detail in the ending. Maybe Marvel: Ultimate Alliance comes close, but it’s just not the same.

Lastly, I play it for fun. It’s genuinely fun, which should be the reason anyone picks up any game.

Personal

You don’t have to have played Chrono Trigger to make sense of this game, but you won’t get the most out of it. There are moments with more significance if you have. A few slightly confusing monologues will be clarified. Certain names will have more weight. Certain objects will be more highly prized. Every reward will be just a bit more rewarding. It’s the cherry on top of the RPG sundae.

I have a love of strong female characters. This game has some of my favorites, Kidd & Steena.

The fates of Frog, Robo, Lucca, Schala, Toma, Magus, Ayla, Crono, Ozzie, Flea, Slash, Doreen, Masa, Mune, Balthasar, and Marle from the first game are all touched upon. One of them is even playable. 😉

I love It’s A Wonderful Life, as well as time traveling with recklessness. So of course I gravitated to this game. I can’t wait to see where the long rumored Chrono Brake eventually takes the series.

You can’t name anyone in your party “Crono.” The game just won’t allow it.

Boiling it Down

Great story, great depth, great soundtrack, great replayability, great game. Period.