• February 20, 2017

The Play Button

Rachel Kaser
  • Rachel Kaser
  • Blogger
  • News, reviews and commentary on video games.
Thursday 06/30/2016
Goodbye to The Play Button

Everything comes to an end eventually, and it's time for me to close up shop here at The Play Button. This will be the last entry in this column, but I'll be easy to find on the internet for anyone who wants to hear what I have to say about games!

I can't overstate how amazing it was to write this column for almost three years. As I've mentioned before, I didn't know what I was doing when I started. While I'm sure this made me sound awkward at first, it gave me the invaluable opportunity to make my own rules, set my own code, and learn how I wanted to state my opinions.

This is not – NOT – a goodbye from me to video games. I have loved video games from the moment I plugged in my first Super Nintendo controller in 1996. From Donkey Kong to Spyro to Nancy Drew to Lara Croft to Ezio Auditore to Commander Shepard to Bayonetta, etc, I have enjoyed every moment of the 20 years that have brought me to this point. Though I may seem overly critical at times, I still love games and I'll never stop playing them, talking about them, or critiquing them.

Let me assure anyone who has read The Play Button over the years: This is not the last time you'll see me talking about video games by a long shot. If you ever want to hear what I have to say about the current state of gaming, you can tweet at me using my handle: Rachel_knows (don't giggle, it's an old handle and I'm too lazy to change it). I will probably be continuing to review games in one way or another. While I might not be as regular with the reviews, they will likely be longer and tackle single games in more detail.

Also, I have a Twitch channel (GraceOfAthena) that I'll be on with some regularity in the coming months. I'm thinking about starting a YouTube channel, though it won't be exclusively game-centric. I also occasionally go on long rants over on Facebook about gaming news stories, and you can find my page if you search for "rachelgkaser."

I want to thank everyone who has read this column in the last three years. When I started, I had no idea if anyone would read my stuff, and I sometimes muted my opinions so I wouldn't feel like a crazy person ranting into a void. But as time went on, more and more people contacted me to comment on my writing, and share their own opinions with me. It's been very encouraging, and I appreciate every word of it.

I hope to see you all on my social media sites or my Twitch channel, or on any sites or video channels I may have in the future. It's been incredibly fun, and I'll miss this! But I'll still be around and I'll still be playing, no matter what! Have fun, everyone!

Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, June 30, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (1)

Tuesday 06/28/2016
You Should Be Playing: Overwatch

There’s something unrepentantly colorful about Overwatch in a way that has nothing to do with actual colors. It’s been a while since a game has left me feeling this buoyant and pleased through nothing other than sheer force of visual personality and smooth gameplay. I don’t think I need to itemize the minutiae of gameplay (and everyone else has done so much better). I’ll make a couple of points about the game, but I want to emphasize that I think, overall, it’s a well-made and enjoyable experience.

I haven’t been able to enjoy Overwatch as extensively as some, but to know Overwatch slightly is to know it well. There is only so much one can do with the game, and if you have no stomach for repetitive, replayable multiplayer rounds; then Overwatch won’t be your cup of tea. But if you do, then you’ll enjoy something that feels as though it was loved as much by the people who made it as by its devoted fans.

Overwatch does have a gloss of focus-testing on it. The colorful cast of characters felt as though they were built from the ground up to appeal to specific demographics in personality, gameplay, and country of origin. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily; targets exist for a reason, after all. The characters are aesthetically pleasing and memorable.

But here’s my sticking point: One of the ways I judge a well-written game character is to ask myself what they would do in a certain kind of situation, usually something mundane. All the operatic moments of tragic backstory in the world won’t make a character relatable if I can’t imagine who they are outside of it.

For example, I can imagine, even in a joking way, Ezio Auditore sitting down to carve an apple, or Bayonetta relaxing at the beach, or Lara Croft checking out a book at a library. It’s not the only measure of a character, by far, but it’s an easy way to pinpoint why an otherwise well-designed character would leave me feeling underwhelmed.

With Overwatch, I’m of two minds. A couple of the characters appear to have discernible personalities shown through their incidental dialogue, but others don’t really have much to speak of outside of the cinematic short films shown as part of the marketing. Call me old-fashioned, but I think a single-player story campaign, even a short one, would go a long way towards making the game sparkle with life just that little bit more.

Nevertheless, Overwatch makes me feel strangely defanged. It’s not perfect, and I feel as though I should be riddling it with criticisms, but doing so would simultaneously feel petty and cynical. It’s fun, it’s bright, and it makes no bones about being a repetitive multiplayer game first and foremost. I’ll probably play it for a while longer, and I have the feeling it’ll keep making me happy through its excellent art design and appealing gameplay.

Posted in Playbutton on Tuesday, June 28, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Saturday 06/25/2016
E3 2016: What the Future Looks Like

This last week, I was gifted with a glance into the future of my beloved medium. I said that I was too apathetic to write about the things I was sure I was going to see in this year's E3. That feeling has not entirely gone away, but I admit to feeling cautiously optimistic, and I wonder if perhaps I was being unduly cynical before now.

No, I wasn't encouraged by the new console rumors, and I really don't like the idea that the console makers are going to be releasing expensive hardware upgrades between official generations. I don't want to pay through the nose again for consoles that should have been more polished and impressive to begin with.

I also admit to feeling a little disheartened at the vast amount of sequels and remasters. Nearly every single thing announced was either an old game, a sequel to an old game, or a sequel to a not-so-old game.

But at the same time I was interested to see certain stories that I liked be continued or expanded upon. There are some games that I thought deserved to have a second bite at the apple, and some are getting it.

For example, I liked the story of Dishonored. While I thought the story was told very simply and anti-hero Corvo missed the chance to a be more talkative (and consequently more interesting) protagonist, but the art and universe were distinctive and memorable. In the sequel, we'll be seeing more of the world outside Corvo's narrow field of view, which is what I really wanted all along.

Mafia III is apparently turning from its Godfather-esque Italian roots to tell a story about family, organized crime-as-rebellion, and race relations. While that seems like a disingenuous step for a franchise called "Mafia" to take, I'm just happy to see a game that looks like nothing I've ever played before. Similarly, Watch Dogs 2 is ditching the previous setting and protagonist in favor of something far less chilly and grim, and far more fun and visually interesting.

In other words, I'm becoming more comfortable with the idea that games are taking established formulas and using them to explore new ideas. I've scoffed at the industry's apparent lack of new IPs in the past, but this seems to be the way it was always going to be. In decrying the lack of new names, I've been unfairly comparing video games to other mediums.

In conclusion, and for all my misgivings about franchises, cash-grab re-releases, and the expensive incremental upgrades to console hardware . . . there are still games I'm happy to see. I've never stopped thinking that gaming, as an art form and visual medium, will find a storytelling niche completely unlike anything that has been seen before. Sometimes I lose confidence that the game-makers will refrain from milking the whole thing dry, but whenever I do, I catch a glimmer of hope that one game, at least, will tell me a good story.

Posted in Playbutton on Saturday, June 25, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Saturday 06/11/2016
Should You Buy? Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

The return of Mirror's Edge is, for me, a look at my roots. Mirror's Edge is the game which got me into mainstream gaming (ironic, considering the game itself was a little too eccentric and unpolished to be called "AAA"). The game wasn't popular, but it had a cult following, and a sequel/reboot was inevitable. So does this one compare with the original in art and movement, while expanding the story, world, and parameters? Yes, no, and maybe . . . all at once.

The story in Catalyst is trite and forgettable. The characters in this one, including poor Faith, are all foolish and unlikeable, but they were flat enough to qualify as hieroglyphs in the original, so I suppose it's not that much of a step back. It's a bit disappointing that the implied moral ambiguity from Mirror's Edge isn't really explored here, but I wasn't holding out much hope for that to begin with.

The big difference, to me, is that Faith's movement feels marginally less kinetic than it did before. In Mirror's Edge, everything Faith did, felt possible, if not plausible. It never felt like she was overpowered, and it made the game feel more tense because, if Faith was only human, it meant she had limits and might hit them at any time.

It's difficult to describe how Catalyst is different, so I'll use an example: Faith has always been able to perform some spectacular gymnastics, including difficult jumps. But no matter what she did, she could only jump so high. In Catalyst, she can use stationary objects to spring herself straight into the air with such elasticity, she might as well have been on a trampoline. I remember thinking, "Great, so Faith is now Mario."

The open world is what made the game for me. I enjoyed poking around the stark white rooftops and finding new routes to use. The side missions are limited to footraces with different directives and time limits, but, considering that's all Faith is good at in-universe, I'm not too surprised by that. I'm also grateful that one can turn off Runner vision, since the cherry-red "Go Here" line made everything a little too easy.

Lucky for me, the art design hasn't changed that much, and has actually improved in some areas. The original game was impressive but not irreproachable in that area, and the city you traverse feels prettier and more alive this time around. Sure, you can only interact with a few of the people you'll see, but the city isn't as hauntingly empty in Catalyst as it was before.

Overall, Catalyst feels like a more expansive experience than Mirror's Edge, and that's both a pro and a con. It's bigger, broader, and faster; but also safer, fussier, and less likeable. It might not fully satisfy fans of the original game. However, if you're coming to it fresh, you'll find it a passable title with unique beauty and an easy-to-ignore story that doesn't interfere with the parkour too much.

Posted in Playbutton on Saturday, June 11, 2016 8:00 pm. Comments (0)

Tuesday 06/07/2016
Coming Soon: E3 2016

Despite the fact that it's good for the Play Button, I don't especially enjoy the yearly Electronic Entertainment Expo. It has a reputation as the game show, but I've yet to see a single show that really tickled my fancy. So while I don't think I'll be able to work up the enthusiasm to write about it after the fact, I'll talk about the rumors and what I don't want to see.

With rumors and purported leaks coming out all over the place, I think I have a fairly good idea about what will be shown at this year's E3. And as much as I hate to say it, there's really nothing all that interesting being shown. Even the purported console upgrades just make me feel a crushing sense of "industry ennui."

The most likely candidate to unveil a new console is Nintendo. I catch myself hoping that the NX is really just a codename for their mobile campaign, because I think they haven't really exploited the Wii U's capabilities to the fullest. I have a bit of a bias, though, being a new Wii U owner myself.

I have heard rumors that Skyrim is going to be released as a remaster, and that reminds me that remasters are bound to be a staple of the show. Considering how God of War 3 was shown last year, I'm going to assume they'll be on the floor rather than part of the shows. The one "remaster" that might actually bring a smile to my face is Resident Evil 2, if only because I have a passing, irrational fondness for RE.

Judging by how popular last year's HoloLens demo with Minecraft was, I presume virtual reality will also be a major draw. I've never thought that VR will be as much of a moneymaker as the people who make the headsets think it will be. Playing a game by having a screen strapped directly in front of your eyes, as opposed to across the room, only has so much applicability as far as I'm concerned. But I didn't enjoy my one experience in an Oculus Rift, so this might be some more bias.

In trying to get to the root of my apathy towards E3, I think I have to blame the fact that I've yet to hear a single rumor about a new game. And I mean a really new game, not a remaster or a sequel or a franchise revival. Last year, I saw a few new games I liked: Horizon Zero Dawn, Cuphead, Unravel. I'm worried there won't be anything like that this year.

I suppose that this lack of excitement leaves some room for the conferences to surprise me. Maybe one of the major publishers will reveal a new game or a new entry in a franchise which I'm not already anticipating. I'm not going to hold out much hope, and I don't think I'll be doing any recap articles, but I'll leave the possibility open.

Posted in Playbutton on Tuesday, June 7, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Friday 06/03/2016
Don't Waste Your Money: Homefront: The Revolution

You have no idea how sad I am that I've used this prefix twice already this year. I try to save it for games that I don't think have value for any audience. At first, I thought using it a second time in less than six months was cynicism on my part, but then I realized that, no, Homefront: The Revolution actually is that bad.

It's the future, and North Korea – now a corporate state with advanced tech – has invaded and occupied the United States. A group of ragtag American resistance fighters seeks to take them apart one skirmish at a time. No, I don't know why the title of the game isn't Red Dawn either.

Within minutes of the opening cutscene, silent protagonist Brady's career in terrorism is cut short by a raid. He's rescued from torture by major resistance figure Walker, who is treated as incredibly important despite his only personality trait being a trace of common sense (the only trace anyone has in the game, by the way).

Walker is promptly injured and captured himself and sends the rookie to the nearest Underground. There, the supposedly noble freedom fighters immediately assume the bedraggled American boy is a spy, beat him half to death, and when he's cleared don't even apologize. I consider myself a patriot, but even I find myself longing for a Fallout 4-style option where Brady can defect to the other side.

I'm not being facetious. There's an extended sequence right at the beginning of the game where the resistance fighters assume Brady's malice (despite insisting their hiding place is safe), bash his head in, and threaten him with a slow death without ever asking his name. This is the sort of brutality I'd expect to herald the entrance of a Far Cry villain, not the video game equivalent of the Wolverines.

I could almost buy it if I believed it was a satire of the sort of gung-ho, America-on-top, Call of Duty-and-equivalent games on the market, but I think this is just plain horrible writing. It never gets any better, and I think the heroes unintentionally make the situation much worse.

The game is scarcely more fun to play than it is to watch. The framerate dropped so much that the game was virtually unplayable on the PS4, and sometimes it would stop dead right after a loading screen or cutscene or an autosave. Considering Brady dies at the mere suggestion of gunfire, even on the easiest difficulty (not to mention the game autosaves every five minutes), this makes even attempting to play an exercise in patience.

In fairness, the aesthetics feel more realistic than usual. Every single location has a lived-in look that many games attempt but fail to have. The weapons were also more varied than is typical in an open world game like this. That's about all the praise I have, though. This game is unpleasant, tedious, and disappointing. I couldn't recommend this to even the most desperate first-person shooter fan.

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, June 3, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Thursday 05/26/2016
You Should Be Playing: Doom 2016

Someone apparently gave Bethesda free rein to remake all '90s first-person shooters. First there was the superb Wolfenstein: The New Order, and now they've made a new Doom game. But you won't hear a single objection from me, because like its predecessor, this throwback to a classic franchise is surprisingly good.

This is one of those wonderful games where I don't have to decide whether to do the bulk of my review on the story or the gameplay. In Doom, they're both good, and good for the same reasons: Pacing, simplicity, and a sense of gory comedy overlaying even the most difficult parts.

The gameplay is fast and responsive, and there is an incredibly visceral thrill in the strafing, the shooting, and the chainsawing of demon faces. There is no precision or care to this gunplay. The weapons pack an oh-so-satisfying punch. Doom really wants you to get a kick out of playing it, and I certainly do.

You play Nameless Silent Protagonist, whom I reflexively called "Doomguy." There's no point recapping the story, because it hardly matters even in context. Demons are invading Mars. Go ye, and sort that out one hellspawn corpse at a time. At the same time, there are subtle hints here and there of deeper story and more emotion on the part of our silent protagonist. It's masterfully done, and neither distracts nor detracts from the gameplay.

For example, very early in the game, Doomguy hears the voice of a scientist who tries to justify the invasion by saying that they opened a portal to Hell for the good of humanity, Doomguy takes one look at the dead human bodies around him and smashes the speaker. In just one, short exchange, they've managed to convey Doomguy's frustration and rage, and he didn't have to say a single word.

It also bears mentioning that the level design is impressive. Levels are expansive and filled with hidden collectibles and secrets. The art design, while occasionally on the dark side, evokes a similar vintage sci-fi look to Alien: Isolation.

I do have a couple of complaints, though the overall quality of the game renders them relatively petty. First of all, some of the weaponry feels like dead weight. When you've invested a few upgrade points into two or three of your favorite guns, they do all of the heavy lifting and you'll only use the others when you've run out of useful ammo.

Also, the sound mixing can be a little obnoxious. There will be places where you'll hear the shrieking of Possessed as loudly as if they were next to you, even after you've cleared the area of demons. And no matter how much you tweak the sound settings, it never seems to get any quieter.

Doom is a carefully-designed game that appears very carefree. It manages to balance speedy gameplay, rewarding exploration, and a minimalist storytelling. It's a fun and breezy game to play, and I recommend it with absolutely no reserve.

Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, May 26, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Friday 05/20/2016
You Should Be Playing: Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

I already gave my thoughts on the multiplayer of Uncharted 4, and it's a good thing I did, because this review only has room for the campaign. So let's get right to that!

Nathan Drake, adventurer extraordinaire, has settled down with his wife Elena, wistful for the old days but living a good life. Then his older brother Sam, whom Nate believed dead for years, reappears with a good lead on a pirate treasure and a pretty solid reason to pursue it. So it's time for one more adventure!

The gameplay feels a bit more cohesive and smooth this time around. Climbable scenery is cleaner, and the introduction of the grappling hook is a welcome new mechanic. My favorite sections are the driving sections, which manage to bring together the game's superb graphics, a sense of lightheartedness, and Nate's own snarky attitude together into a fun mix.

But that brings me to a bigger complaint. For all Uncharted's claims to fame as a story-heavy series, it's never made enough of an effort to marry its gameplay and story effectively. Both elements feel like they're fighting for the player's attention, rather than sharing it.

For example: Near the beginning, there's a very long cutscene of Nate, home from his lucrative union job, wallowing in ennui in his spacious house while his lovely wife cooks for him. (Do I sound unsympathetic? Perish the thought.) The only thing that breaks up this interminable tableau is – no joke – a level of Crash Bandicoot. It's nice to see Crash, but he's obviously put in because Naughty Dog realized that otherwise the cutscene would be 20 minutes long.

Also, speaking of the story: I understand that it's heavily inspired by Indiana Jones and National Treasure, and therefore is more interested in showcasing historical knowledge than tight plotting, but some of the holes in the story stretch the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.

Sam's apparent importance – despite never being mentioned in the previous games – is so contrived that even Nate's early-game childhood flashbacks can't lend it appropriate context. Elena urges Nate early in the story to go on an illegal treasure hunt because she knows he's feeling restless, yet she's furious later . . . not because he lied to her, but because he's on a different illegal treasure hunt.

Still, I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that I didn't like the story. Many including me have worried in previous games that Nate might be a little too flip about his lifestyle, and his character arc does address and resolve his treasure addiction in a satisfactory way. His relationship with Elena feels more genuine than in previous games, and the baggage that Sam brings makes Nate feel more relatable than ever before.

Uncharted 4 is a solid, enjoyable game. It's not perfect, but even its weak parts feel as though real effort has been put into them. I'd recommend it to anyone who has a PS4, for the spectacle if nothing else.

Posted in Playbutton on Friday, May 20, 2016 11:00 pm. Comments (1)

Monday 05/16/2016
Should You Buy? Star Fox Guard

In the middle of playing the last game I reviewed, Star Fox Zero, I had another game edging its way into my peripheral vision. That game was Star Fox Guard, the game that came bundled with my version of Zero.

Guard is a tower defense game. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing. Properly-designed tower defense games can be tense and rewarding, but I maintain that any game in this genre needs a deft hand in order to be balanced, unique, and interesting. And I played this game after I'd already played Star Fox Zero, and (in case my description of the motion controls didn't get this across) that game frustrated me quite a bit.

So I won't lie: The game was working at a disadvantage with me. It's not outside the realm of possibility for me to like a tower defense game, but it's steeper slope. Therefore, I'm hoping it won't sound like damning with faint praise to say that Star Fox Guard was okay. I won't be playing too much of it any time soon, but it wasn't horrible either.

It bears mentioning that this game bears little resemblance to Star Fox Zero beyond the cosmetic. Star Fox themselves only show up a couple of times, and instead you play Unnamed Security Guard, tasked with guarding the mining operation of Slippy's uncle, Grippy. So no frustrating motion controls, but also no dogfighting with Fox. Given distance, I actually kind of miss Fox.

Your adversaries are adorable little robots, who want to attack the mining operation for . . . reasons? Considering Grippy is mining metal, I can't help but wonder if we're somehow sapping lifesaving materials from the robot population. I'd really like a better explanation, considering Zero gave me the impression that the galaxy Fox inhabits is expansive. Why could there not be even a humorously unimpressive antagonist who's sending his robots to sabotage the mining, as opposed to robot enemies with no apparent reason for being here?

In terms of gameplay, though, Guard is not actually that bad. Being able to attack the robots via the camera – as opposed to a separate gun – is a nice shortcut. The levels are laid out fairly intuitively, and the ability to move the cameras before the robots arrive eliminates some frustration. Flicking your eyes between screens takes some getting used to, but it feels more intuitive and less like wrangling an angry cat than it did in Zero.

One other complaint: The game is short. There are three maps, with a handful of missions and challenges to each. There's a multiplayer mode, in the Super Mario Maker sense, but I took one look at that and promptly lost interest. It's not very well-supported.

So Star Fox Guard won't be winning any awards with me, but it's at least a little more playable and fun than Star Fox Zero was. For the price, I suppose I can't really ask for more than that.

Posted in Playbutton on Monday, May 16, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Thursday 05/12/2016
Don’t Waste Your Money: Star Fox Zero

It took me a little while to get to Star Fox Zero, and I'm releasing this review quite late, I know. I saw multiple posts on social media about the game's quality, or lack thereof. They seemed to be coming from Star Fox fans complaining about Zero being a disservice to the series. Having never played a Star Fox game before, I'd love to be the lone contrarian voice not blinkered by nostalgia who praises Zero. But sadly, I'd be lying if I did.

Zero follows the adventures of the Star Fox dogfighting team, led by our hero Fox McCloud. He fights Andross, the monkey overlord who murdered his father. He's also opposed by the Star Wolf team. That's pretty much all there is to the story. The bright, colorful art design is pretty pleasing, I'll give it that. That's about all the praise I have for this game.

SFZ is already working with a three-dimensional space, so keeping the controls relatively fuss-free would be the best way to avoid a headache. But SFZ isn't interested being uncomplicated. Instead it overcomplicates itself in the worst way possible, and unfortunately it seems to be solely for the sake of serving the Wii U's atavistic motion controls. Let me explain the three levels of gameplay happening all at once in Zero.

First, the television screen shows the third-person view outside the Arwing, and you use one analog stick to steer. The gamepad shows Fox's perspective inside the cockpit, and you use the other analog stick to turn his head. Finally, you have the aiming reticle on both screens, which is controlled by the motion controls. It doesn't sound too complicated when I describe it like that, but trust me when I say this is the video game equivalent of simultaneously patting your head, rubbing your tummy, and rewiring a light fixture with your teeth.

Fox's Arwing can also transform into different vehicles in Zero, presumably in an effort to further jolt the gameplay. In theory, this means that he and Star Fox can navigate different kinds of terrain and battlefields, giving them a greater variety of missions and enemies. In practice, it further complicates a system so convoluted it cannot afford more tangles.

The Arwing can become a hovercraft, a tank, and a two-legged walker. Each of these forms are beholden to the three-tiered controls, and the hovercraft is particularly tedious. It drops a tiny robot on a tether, which you control via the gamepad. To complete the analogy from before, it's like occasionally taking a break from rubbing your tummy to do a crossword puzzle.

Star Fox Zero might be a betrayal of the series it represents. I certainly wouldn't know. But it fails as a game even without its legacy factored into the equation. I'm not averse to complex games, but such tedious and overcomplicated gameplay destroys any sense of fun the game has. I think both series fans and newcomers can feel free to give this one a pass.

Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, May 12, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Sunday 05/08/2016
Back to Childhood: Hooking Up My Super Nintendo

Recently I decided to reorganize my entertainment center, and realized that there was a little bit more room in my console deck. I definitely didn't want to get another modern console, but it seemed a waste to just leave the shelf half-bare. Then I remembered that my very old friend, the Super Nintendo I've had since I was five, was sitting unused in my brother's closet.

At first I didn't think it'd be possible to use this ancient console with my HDTV. First, I was too young when the console was in use to have done any hooking-up myself, so I for all I knew it required a pair of pliers and luck. Second, I already had three consoles and a DVD player hooked up to my poor TV. Clearly, some research was in order.

First, I inspected my television more closely to see what slots were still available. Second, I consulted the all-knowing internet about retro consoles. I still had the original RF cable that came with the SNES, but I remembered that, due to a bit of cable hot potato years ago, I was using the coaxial slot for my DVD player. Thank you, Ye Olde Radioshack! So that was obviously out of the question. Besides, my research convinced me RF might not give me the most pleasing image on an HDTV.

But I managed to find an S-video cable that, I was assured, would work with my TV. It's ironic to me that I was waiting eagerly for a cable to come in the mail that would allow me to play games on a console that is literally as old as I am. But after I managed to fix the AC adapter, that was the only thing holding me up.

Here's the problem I ran into: I was already using my composite slot for my Xbox 360, which probably explains why I've never been satisfied with the picture when I used that console (and why I complained about "muddy graphics" in Rise of the Tomb Raider, though I stand by my criticism of Lara's apparent access to Eagle Vision). Therefore, even after I got my S-video cable, I had to wait for my component cable so that I could give that console an even better picture.

Even with all this, I wasn't sure it would work until I changed my television to the right input and pushed the "On" switch on my old console. The sound of that Donkey Kong Country music brought me a feeling of pure elation, and maybe a little nostalgia.

I came away from the reorganization with scraped knuckles and more cables along my back wall than I care to count. But now I can play all of my consoles, including the one which had been consigned to a closet for the past ten years. As for what games I'll play, I'm currently content with my (meager) library, but if anyone has any suggestions on must-play SNES games, I'd love to hear them!

Posted in Playbutton on Sunday, May 8, 2016 11:00 pm. Comments (0)

Thursday 05/05/2016
You Should Be Playing: Bravely Second: End Layer

Hey Final Fantasy Explorers? This is how you make a good FF-esque game! Bravely Second is the sequel to Bravely Default, a game where the goofy title somehow becomes even goofier once you know the explanation behind it. And the sequel is no saner or more sober, but it's still rather charming and very fun to play!

Before I go any further: If you have not played Bravely Default, then you really should before you play Second. Trying to go into this one cold will not only mean that you'll have absolutely no idea what's going on with all of the returning characters and plot points – and, speaking as someone who has played Default, this story is hard enough to follow even if you do – but you will have its interesting and subversive plot spoiled for you. Go and play Default. Consider this a recommendation.

In Second, you are trying to rescue former player character Agnes, now a prominent religious leader held captive by an enemy nation. That's more or less all I can tell you without spoiling both Second and Default. I'll say that the plot this time around is marginally less tedious than Default and you don't have to fight the same bosses three or four times over.

The trick to the game is the Brave/Default battle system. Through this, you can "Default" on some of your turns, defending rather than attacking and therefore saving up your moves. You can then "Brave" a turn, unleashing all of your Defaulted moves in a big stack. Before I played the first game myself, I thought the system would be a reinvention of the wheel, mucking up something that didn't need to be more complicated.

But when you actually play the game . . . it works. It both simplifies and deepens the gameplay, and once you're used to it, you'll wonder why turn-based RPGs haven't had this since their inception. And Second has an even richer job system than Default, allowing you to have a plethora of different moves and classes at your disposal at any given time.

The second pillar of the gameplay is said job system, which allows your characters to change classes at will and retain skills from certain jobs as passives. It's comprehensive, though a little easy to abuse. I'm relatively inept at character builds, but even I could build a game-breaking party on Normal difficulty.

If any one element of Second is bad compared with its predecessor, it's the music. Bravely Default had a beautiful soundtrack that went a long way towards giving that game a sense of charm and energy. Second's sound just isn't as intense or interesting. Also, on a lesser level, there is some overlap with the jobs which makes some of them erroneous (looking at you, Bishop).

Bravely Second is a slightly incomprehensible and goofy game, but it's an admirable and fun sequel to a game I like, and I recommend it to anyone who likes Final Fantasy-style turn-based RPGs.

Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, May 5, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Saturday 04/30/2016
Coming Soon: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Before I instituted my rule about not playing betas or unfinished games, I played some of the Uncharted 4 multiplayer beta. Since I don't think I'll have the space to talk about the multiplayer in my proper review of the game, I thought that I'd cover it while I'm waiting for the (allegedly) final game in the series.

Uncharted is a game series famed for its story, even if the story is kind of schlocky and cheesy. That's alright, since I'm a sucker for a game with clear villains and heroes who look like they have some clue what they're doing. The multiplayer contributes nothing to the overall story, but the humor of it is very much in line with the rest of the series. All the series' heroes and villains team up on two sides and have to compete for objectives.

In terms of replayability and gameplay, it suffers from the fact that the gameplay of Uncharted is probably one of its weakest elements. The shooting feels unresponsive and the terrain of the map I played made it very easy for people to kill right at the spawn points. So it wasn't the most substantive experience.

One thing I noticed while playing the Uncharted 4 multiplayer was how little the people who made it seemed to care about story or context. I've seen games go miles out of their way to integrate their multiplayer into the larger universe created by the single-player campaign in a way that makes sense, even if only just.

Think about it: The multiplayer in Assassin's Creed is a Templar Animus training program. In Dragon Age and Mass Effect, it's the exploits of a squad of grunts fighting battles to help the main character. In Destiny, it's a gladiatorial combat arena which boosts your reputation amongst merchants. My favorite might be Rainbow Six: Siege, where all characters are ostensibly on the same side and yet they fight each other for the vast majority of the game, apparently training both each other and the player for an arduous single-player campaign that has yet to materialize.

But Uncharted? There is no explanation forthcoming for the multiplayer, and that's probably the best way to do that in a cheesy game like this. Any convoluted explanation would kill the absurd fun of it all. You can be on a team comprised entirely of Nathan Drake clones and there is no acknowledgement of the weirdness of it. Sometimes I wish more games would throw continuity to the wind and just have a little more fun in that way.

I'm looking forward to the release of the main game, and I'm glad I was able to play this multiplayer for a while. I probably won't be able to cover it in the main article, but assuming they don't change anything before the main release of the game, there will be at least one thing I know I'll enjoy about Uncharted 4.

Posted in Playbutton on Saturday, April 30, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Thursday 04/28/2016
Should You Buy? Quantum Break

On paper, Quantum Break looks like a product I would respect and praise even if I didn't personally enjoy it. I love video games. I like television sometimes. And I usually like to applaud games that try something new and take a risk. But Quantum Break's frenetic fusion of game and show is so poorly-executed that I can't help but wish it had stayed on the drawing board.

Quantum Break's problem is that it's in such a hurry to get to all of its story stuff that it doesn't really stop to involve the player in its world or lore. Within the first few moments, the game is busily fleshing out details about a campus protest, an evil megacorporation, and the ambitions of its main character's best friend. Trouble is, it's doing this without bothering to establish a solid core story about the main character. It feels like the game is giving the punchline of a joke we're not in on.

Compounding the problem is that the show/game hybrid doesn't play to the strengths of either format. In the game segments, protagonist Jack and his former friend Paul are played as light and dark sides of the same coin, having gotten time travel powers in the same accident. But their conflict is out of focus in the show segments, and we instead get a look at uninteresting side characters. This results in no characters being properly developed.

The gameplay is alright, when it's there. Jack's magical time powers supplement decent third-person shooting. He also occasionally uses them to solve simple puzzles and complete short climbing segments. These parts, terse as they are, are the highlight of the game. Even Jack's tepid screen presence seems slightly more bearable at times like this.

The art design in this game is terrible. First, the style of the game and the series clash. The game is filled with stark, geometric shapes overlaid with dusky shadows, like if Beyond: Two Souls took place in the world of Mirror's Edge. The show is all earthy darkness with occasional slashes of light, most obviously golden light, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Despite the clash, you might think this sounds positive, considering I just name-dropped two games I love (and Beyond: Two Souls). But the game's propensity for lens flare and orange-and-blue smears of color make it look – I can think of no better way to put it – ugly. It's especially heinous when Jack is using his time powers, since they often manifest as massive blots of light that actively hinder gameplay.

I wish I could say that Quantum Break failed due to excess of ambition, but I think it's more an over-eagerness to stretch the attention span of a dedicated audience it has not earned. Its flashy-yet-functional gameplay doesn't really do enough to make up for shortcomings. This is the gaming equivalent of a person in a sharp business suit taking a confident step forward, only to turn their ankle and fall face-first into a mud puddle.

Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, April 28, 2016 11:00 pm. Comments (0)

Sunday 04/24/2016
You Should Be Playing: Dark Souls 3

It's time for me to officially review a Dark Souls game in this column. It's tricky, since I get the sense I'm expected to talk at length about the game's alleged difficulty. But that's by far the least interesting thing about the Souls games in general and Dark Souls 3 in particular.

I've heard Dark Souls described in terms of pain with its difficulty, and reward with its victories. Those words have never sounded right to me. Instead, I liken playing Dark Souls to a marathon viewing of The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition films: It's a feast for the eyes and ears, and yet requires a lot of patience and investment to pull off, and it's to be endured just as much as it is to be enjoyed.

Dark Souls 3's combat was obviously inspired by Bloodborne, and it's much more quickly paced than it was in the last two Souls games. Enemies gang up on you and if you're playing anyone other than a shield-wielding tank, you need to be quick on your feet. I felt this removed some of the tediousness that gummed up the works in previous Souls games.

Another new thing is "battle arts," special attacks that add new life to the Dark Souls combat system. They are risky, often needing a long time to charge up. Still, at least I could do something in combat other than avoid the over-large hitboxes and nip the bosses in the ankles like the world's most persistent Border Collie. And they are finite, lest I get uppity and dare to make progress too easily.

My primary criticism of the game is that it still doesn't feel like the story of the series has progressed in any material way. In a nutshell: The world is down for the count again, and you are the Unkindled, a cursed being who has world-saving talents thanks to little more than clerical error. I know DS prefers to leave most of its story to the imagination, with "exposition" practically being a dirty word. I like that, and I think it's one of the series' strengths.

But one thing that's more-or-less clear is that the goal of the last two games – performing a ritual of fire – is just a bandage designed to keep this sickly world in a persistent vegetative state for just a bit longer. It's ultimately futile. It's Nihilism: The Video Game. I get it already! But by the third game, it's just tedious, because our goal is to rustle up the souls of several ancient beings and do the whole thing over again.

Dark Souls 3 is more Dark Souls. It ticks all the right boxes, and rewards patience and memorization of attack patterns. It's not something I'd choose to play in my free time, but I can see the appeal. If you want to wail on some massive boss monsters, it'll give you your fix. If you want a conclusion to the fantastical story, it's not very satisfying.

Posted in Playbutton on Sunday, April 24, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Tuesday 04/19/2016
Slime Rancher and Rules for a Game Critic

2016 will be my third full year reviewing video games. While I'm not one to mark anniversaries – and The Play Button's has long passed anyway – I have been thinking about how my review parameters have changed since I started. You have a cute, unfinished game called Slime Rancher to thank for that.

When I started, I had no clue what I was doing, and I'm sure it shows in some of my early reviews. It was almost like being in some superhero origin story. No one told me what to do or what rules to follow. I had to set my own limits, create a format, and draw up my own set of rules and principles. I've changed and refined my formulas over time . . . for the better, I hope.

This year, I'm making a conscious effort to expand the roster of games I play. I have many consoles and I think I should challenge myself to take on games that I might not necessarily choose to play. It's why I subjected myself to a Tom Clancy game, and am currently subjecting myself to a Dark Souls game.

In the midst of all this, I've also been playing Slime Rancher. At first I wanted to review it for this column, because I've put several hours into it and I find its cutesy art and sound design well done. I will say, in brief, that I don't care for the fact that it lives and dies by how much you like said cutesiness. As a simulation game, it's unbalanced and succumbs into tedium due to a lack of meaningful endgame content, but in fairness I am playing the unfinished version.

I realized, while working on a column about Slime Rancher, that I was not giving this game a fair chance. I was playing a version of it that, while available for public consumption, was clearly not ready for general audiences. My primary consideration, as a game critic, is to determine whether a finished game is worth the money it costs, and reviewing an early piece of a game runs counter to that.

While I shall withhold my opinion on Steam Early Access for the moment, I do feel that a game that is available for purchase there makes no pretensions to being complete, so it's a gamble up front. A regular game purchase should not be a gamble, and I think it's my job to take a game to task when it isn't worth the price.

No matter what, I'll do my best to make sure I give every game a fair chance to make a good impression. So from now on, I'll make one big change to my own rules: I'm not going to be playing betas or unfinished builds anymore, at least not of games I intend to review. I can't completely rid myself of preconceived notions, but this rule will keep me from getting the measure of games that aren't yet ready to be measured.

Posted in Playbutton on Tuesday, April 19, 2016 10:30 pm. Comments (0)

Thursday 04/14/2016
Should You Buy? Tom Clancy’s The Division

I'm almost at a loss for what to talk about with regards to The Division. It was so boring that I could barely work up the energy to write about it. I apologize if this review is hard to follow.

It's not difficult to rake a game like this over the proverbial coals. But I can at least give them credit where it's due and say that they didn't have the Ubisoft map, like I was afraid they would. The world is based more around exploration and missions, and it's quite a detailed world.

The Division made a terrible impression right out of the gate by claiming "server problems" before the opening cutscene had finished playing. I was a few minutes into the live-action snoozefest intended to showcase the story of how the world got to be in the state it's in, when I was greeted with a "server error" message. When I clicked out, I was booted back to the start screen and forced to sit through the cutscene again. It was a long time before I even made it into the main menu.

Not that there was much to see to begin with. Far be it for me to bother The Division about its story while it's doing its best to court a run-and-gun, competitive-player audience. But it's a Tom Clancy game, which means that, by definition it's supposed to have some kind of story . . . preferably one with a weird sociopolitical moral.

Some kind of disease, implanted in dollar bills, was released on Black Friday. Very shortly New York's infrastructure completely collapses and people turn into scavenging murderers en masse. Highly-trained sleeper agents – the titular Division – are activated to help control the situation.

The thing is, there's no real character arc or progression of any kind. You'd think there would be visible reward for your character's chipping away at the status quo, but the fact that they don't really seem to help the crisis at all contributed to the feeling of pointlessness and ennui.

I could spend time talking about the Dark Zones where player conflict is integrated into the main game, but I honestly was too bored to spend much time there. I suppose that the game would be fun to play with other people, but I've never taken that as a reasonable excuse for anything. Whenever I think about the possibility of a party in the Dark Zone, I can't help but think there a number of other games a group of friends could be playing together.

The Division is an average game with no apparent target market. It's not fast-paced enough to be an effective team-based shooter. It's not interesting enough to hold the attention of a single player by itself. It doesn't have enough end-game rewards to create a lot of dedicated players. Other than the rather tepid appeal of the Dark Zone, I can't really see what would keep people coming back to The Division in the future.

Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, April 14, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Wednesday 04/06/2016
You Should Be Playing: Stardew Valley

Playing a sim game feels like hibernating. Time vanishes into the game, and you emerge from the experience blinking in the sunlight. I've lost several hours to Stardew Valley this week, and I can't bring myself to regret it.

Your character is fed up with city life, and moves onto a plot of land in Stardew Valley formerly owned by their grandfather. They then rebuild their family farm and carve a niche for themselves amongst the Valley's inhabitants. They milk cows, clear brush, find love, and more.

It's Harvest Moon, Indie Edition. Though I don't necessarily consider that a bad thing.

There's something charming about the guileless inhabitants of the Valley, though they're all a little too pure and toothless for me. There's a reason small towns have frequently been the subject of both romances and horror/mystery novels. It wouldn't take much for me to believe one of the Valley's residents had a literal skeleton in their closet.

They're also entirely too mundane for the setting. The romanceable characters include a novelist, librarian, local doctor, and a couple of teenagers. In a game fantastical enough to have a wizard, magical sprites, and a bottomless mine with enemies right out of a generic roguelike, the semi-serious elements are the ones that feel out of place.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the point-based approval system that wins you the friendship of the Valley's residents. You can gain points slowly through natural conversation and friendliness, or give them a gift and get a large lump sum. It is quite jarring to spend weeks steadfastly gaining characters' approval through daily attention, and then make just as much headway by running up to them and shoving a turnip in their face.

Despite any perceived shortcomings, the game is incredibly addictive. While I don't necessarily like addictive games, I do respect them. It's not an easy accolade to earn, as a repetitive cycle can backfire and a game which forces the player into it can feel like an interminable drag. Stardew Valley has its slow moments, but manages to be beguiling even then. At least a part of its addictiveness comes from the balance of the challenge, and well-done art and sound design.

However, there is another, more insidious explanation for how Stardew Valley hooks its gamer victims: The save system. The player is never given the option of saving at their own discretion. Instead their progress is saved for them at the end of every day. Even when you get bored in the middle of a day, you have to play through to the end or risk losing progress.

I'm not sold on the Stardew Valley model of gameplay, but I enjoyed my time playing the game and I do see all its points of appeal. And I am impressed that this game was developed, by and large, by one person. So if you have a lot of time to kill, you could do far worse than to kill it with Stardew Valley.

Posted in Playbutton on Wednesday, April 6, 2016 10:30 pm. Comments (0)

Thursday 03/31/2016
Should You Buy? Fire Emblem Fates: Revelation

Earlier this year I reviewed Fire Emblem Fates, and I liked it, though I had it some reservations. When Revelation, the massive DLC for Fates that offers a "third route" came out, I immediately bought it, thinking that another perspective on the story could make this already lofty and ambitious narrative even more complex. As much as I hate to say it, I was disappointed.

In Conquest and Birthright, the Avatar must side with one of the two warring nations, but in Revelation they are given the option of refusing to choose between either of their families. Shunned by both sides, they must flee, and the heretofore-unremarkable Azura leads them to shelter in a hidden kingdom between the two nations. There they begin to discover the true cause of the conflict between Hoshido and Nohr, and seek to avert total ruin.

Revelation sounds very impressive, and the Avatar in this does seem like a braver and more steadfast person than they do in either of the retail versions. They take on a mad dragon god called Anankos in order to save their extended family, and, against all odds, convince everyone else to follow them. The story finally feels complete, and the story threads that were left dangling by Conquest and Birthright are seen through to their logical conclusions.

The problem is that Revelation feels completely divorced from the main story, to the point where it might as well be a different game. There's too much tonal dissonance between the main retail versions of the game and this purportedly "final" version of the story that ties it all together. It feels like someone tried to combine The Avengers and Game of Thrones and failed.

To put it another way, the main story is interesting because it's not easy. No matter what you do and how good your intentions are, people you love will die hating you. The endings are hard-won and bittersweet. I'm not against a happy ending, especially not for the royal characters who all mature more in Revelation than ever before. But Revelation feels like it robs the two nations of their complexities and obligations, making them pawns of a mad god rather than active participants in a tragic-but-necessary conflict.

Oh, and one more thing (*SPOILERS*): Royals and their entourages fighting a dragon god who can only be killed with the help of a Fire Emblem; a god who seeded a warring kingdom with a puppet king and is intimately connected with the player character? Wasn't that the exact plot of the final act of Fire Emblem Awakening?

I respect Fates for making a valiant attempt to have scope. I really wanted to like Revelation, since it completes the story and gives all of the characters more opportunity for development and growth. But the happy ending it provides feels both too easy and too confusing. It's more like a traditional Fire Emblem game, I suppose, but it still doesn't feel very satisfying.

Posted in Playbutton on Thursday, March 31, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Monday 03/28/2016
Should You Buy? Layers of Fear

Horror games bear the albatross of subjective material. I can criticize the pacing, art style, and sound design of Layers of Fear all day, but if I give the most damning indictment of all – that it isn't scary – someone can retort that it is scary and be just as correct in their assessment. Regardless, there you have my review in a nutshell: I don't think Layers of Fear is scary. And I think I can put that down to the horror game fads it's imperfectly emulating.

Silent Hills really was too good to be true, wasn't it? Well, I should qualify that: The value of "good" here is the amount of perceived star power that was in that project. Everyone involved, from the game maker to the popular actor to the Hollywood director all purported to be involved, was a Big Name. Stuff like that doesn't happen in the video game industry, right? With such a pedigree, Silent Hills was poised for greatness. Or so said the optimistic.

When Silent Hills failed to materialize, the only scrap of it left, the Playable Teaser, became a valuable object. This short-yet-polished mini-game is at least partially responsible for the trend of first-person horror games taking place inside residential homes (the other culprit being Slender).

I mention all of this to get to the heart of my problems with Layers of Fear. I don't want to say, "I don't find this scary," and leave it at that. I think what games like these misunderstand about horror is that it needs some set-up or respite in order to work. Constant, never-ending attempts at scares will eventually numb the player to each new spook, especially when each one can be seen from lightyears away. It came to the point where I was weary, rather than frightened of opening every new door.

P.T. – the game Layers of Fear desperately wants to be – is scary precisely because the setting is so mundane. It's a suburban house that looks very ordinary, albeit claustrophobic. The house in Layers of Fear, meanwhile, looks like the sort of musty, timeworn mansion whose property value would drop if there wasn't a ghost or two on site.

There's also the fact that the story presents itself as a meditation on art and the nature of artistic endeavor as it relates to the human psyche, then just sort of fades away. There's subtle storytelling, then there's lazy writing, and Layers of Fear skirts just a little too close to the latter. None of the presented events appear to follow any kind of consistent timeline, and explanations for even minor parts of the core conflict are slow in coming.

Layers of Fear wants to be a hybrid of Silent Hills and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but ultimately fails to be either by virtue of not understanding what made either of those games scary. It's a box of magic tricks, all visual misdirection with each new gimmick more lacking in shock value than the last.

Posted in Playbutton on Monday, March 28, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Tuesday 03/22/2016
First Impressions: Hitman

Of all the game series that could possibly be episodic, I suppose Hitman makes the most sense. Each episode consisting of an open area with extra missions is a new take on the concept, too. So that's alright. Trust me, "being episodic" is the least of this game's worries.

In the first mission, "Paris," you have to murder two targets at a fashion show. The highlight for me was when I dressed 47 up in haute couture I poached off of an unconscious body and made him walk the runway, which he did beautifully. I'd say 47 missed his true calling in life – with his gaunt features; blank, icy stare; and talent for changing outfits very quickly – and this episode is an attempt to redress that.

Here's the problem: The Paris level was large, full of interesting weapons, and dripping with potential death scenarios. My mind spun with the possibilities. Do I make it look like an accident? Do I get each of them alone? Can I find a way to use my proximity mine? I was excited to begin my macabre work and began to case the perimeter.

But as I started to explore and idly eavesdropped on a conversation, I saw a little white bubble over my head that said "Opportunity Revealing." When I selected the option to track that Opportunity, the whole assassination turned into a quest. All I had to do was follow the quest marker that told me where to go in order to "complete" the assassination of one of my targets.

These "bubbles" appeared during the prologue as well, but, as that was an extended tutorial, I thought the game was just showing me how to recognize a good opening. It turns out the game keeps the training wheels on you by default, which I find rather insulting. If I hear two men loudly discussing how my target is going to be alone by the river with a Russian criminal he's never seen before, I think I can take it from there, game.

It isn't just the Opportunities that make it too easy. Before you even start the mission, you are shown a list of challenges you can complete, which include various disguises to try on and various ways of murdering your targets. This has the same effect as the Opportunities, in that it tells you, "Here is a way to kill your target that will get you a reward." This is before you even have the chance to play the mission yourself.

Would it not make more sense to show those challenges only after the player has successfully completed the mission? That way you could reward those who play multiple times and those who got creative the first time.

Hitman doesn't make the most auspicious of impressions in the first episode. My brutal assassination should not have to consist of me looking at a checklist beforehand that reveals all the possible moves. It's like playing a game with a walkthrough in my hand.

Posted in Playbutton on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Saturday 03/19/2016
Should You Buy? Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD

Just to let everyone know up front: I'm taking the pedant's path in this review and talking about what the game represents rather than what it is. I don't think there's much to talk about with regards to this particular title, since it's about as bare-bones as a remastering can be. So instead of picking it apart like a fresh corpse to find the tiny bits that are different, I'd like to take a different tack.

I will say one thing about Twilight Princess HD: It's one of those games that makes me appreciate the nuts and bolts of games, the little things you don't really notice until they're either really good or really bad. In this case, I want to praise whichever beleaguered developer handled the lighting direction in this game. The character models are bland and featureless, but the lighting in TP creates personality by making them look soft, sinister, cute, or just about anything else. And that's the faint praise out of the way.

The concept of remastering, in general, is not an unsound one. With the major consoles – excepting the Wii U – putting backwards compatibility low on their priority list, it falls to the game makers to ensure that younger generations of gamers have access to classic games. It's an important thing to consider because I, for one, am interested in seeing the entire history of the medium preserved for its own sake as much as to give context to future gamers.

But . . . there are limits to that sentiment, and there is a point when the noble goal of keeping classic games available begins to look like a mere cover for lazy money-mongering. And quite frankly, I'd like to slap whoever introduced the concept of remastering at Nintendo's board meetings.

The Legend of Zelda series is about exploring new gameplay concepts within the confines of a recurring framework. According to the series' story hook, the universe is destined to have the same good vs evil conflict with the same major characters involved. So Nintendo gets to be lazy with regards to basic story details while simultaneously being creative with regards to gameplay and art design.

Putting new textures and adjusting a few features on a game that – thanks to the aforementioned backwards compatibility of the Wii U – is still playable on current consoles in its original state is just lazy. It's also a single-use ticket. Unless Nintendo waits through another two console generations to do this, I think they'll see vastly diminished returns.

Remastering old Zelda games has worked to fill the gap before the next game in the series gets released, but I can't help but feel that the resources would have been better spent elsewhere. If the new Zelda game scheduled for later this year turns out to be delayed, or curiously lean on content, I maintain the right to say that I called it. The Amiibo was really cute, though. I'll give you that.

Posted in Playbutton on Saturday, March 19, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Sunday 03/13/2016
Going Casual: Living Legends: Bound by Wishes

Yeah, yeah, I know. It's not Twilight Princess. But you know what? Sometimes we all need to unwind and relax with something easy and pleasant, and I'm no exception. Also, it's been a while since I did a Going Casual article. So I might as well kill two birds with one stone.

You play a woman whose husband has disappeared to a place where all wishes are magically granted, though at a terrible price. The place is called . . . Wishville. That's not just on the nose. That's hitting the nail on the head directly into the nose. Meanwhile, rose plants are encroaching on the town and gruesomely murdering anyone who attempts to get close to a massive castle surrounded by a labyrinth.

I'd like to officially declare myself tired of hidden-object games based on fairy tales. I love Dark Parables for being the gorgeous Faberge egg of a series that it is. I could play those all day, or at least I could before Eipix got hold of them. But no other series has managed to do a shared-universe reinterpretation of classical fables well, and believe me it's not for lack of trying.

I've never played a Living Legends game before, but based solely on what I've seen in Bound by Wishes, the mishmash of fairy tales just does not work. In this case, it's an attempt to fuse the Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, and Labyrinth stories that hangs together about as well as a garlic braid and a velvet curtain. To my knowledge, neither story involves malevolent roses, so I have no idea from whence that came.

Also, I don't expect Oscar-worthy design, but this game required a lot of tweaking before the sound was comfortable to listen to. The action hook plays at every available opportunity and the terrible voice acting tends to blast much louder than the ambient sounds. The map is also incomprehensible, and at one point the main character inexplicably warps to the top of a beanstalk from underground with no explanation.

One thing I'm not sure I've mentioned with regards to casual games is the quality of their writing. It's a good moment in any of the games I've thus far reviewed in a Going Casual article when there isn't a spelling mistake, iffy punctuation or a poorly-structured sentence. I'm not necessarily a stickler for perfect grammar, and goodness knows I've made plenty of mistakes in this column alone, but in Bound by Wishes it reaches hilarious new lows. At one point in the bonus chapter a character was asked to fix – I swear I'm not kidding about this – a "mashine."

Bound by Wishes was a pleasant game. It's generic in terms of art design, music, and plot, but it's at best inoffensive. Like all casual games, its saving grace is its brevity. But if you want to play a game that puts an interesting spin on old fairy tales, I'd still recommend the older Dark Parables games above and beyond this game.

Posted in Playbutton on Sunday, March 13, 2016 11:45 pm. Comments (0)

Monday 03/07/2016
Should You Buy? Far Cry Primal

So now there's a Far Cry game about cavemen, set in the Stone Age? Ubisoft, when your critics say that your games have become same-y and pedestrian, and maybe you should go back to your roots, this isn't what we mean.

You play a primitive hunter named Takkar. His people are traveling to join up with the Wenja tribe in the Oros valley. Then his companions are killed by a sabertooth, and he arrives to find that the Wenja are scattered due to war with other tribes. Takkar discovers that he has the ability to tame various prehistoric beasts and use them in the war, which makes him the Chosen One, according to the shaman. Of course it does.

Unfortunately, there's not much that's different from the previous games, in terms of mechanics and goals. So that makes it tricky to talk about Primal, because it feels pointless to complain about the things the previous games got wrong. Yes, there are ride-able, tame-able animals now, but I get the disturbing feeling the game is expecting me to say, "You can ride a sabertooth? 10/10, best game ever!"

I could complain about the anthropologically inaccurate depiction of the Stone Age setting. But the last two games used exoticized and specious depictions of Far Eastern animism and religion throughout, so (again) it feels pointless to start complaining about that now.

No, for me, the part which breaks Primal in particular is that it leaves no room for a character arc or progression of any kind. Jason Brody's story in Far Cry 3 was about giving into violent urges due to being trapped in a violent world. Ajay Ghale's story in Far Cry 4 was a very dark version of the "rightful heir returns" tale. Far Cry has given the impression that it's about stripping a man down to his base components of greed and violence, then seeing which way he grows from there.

The problem is that, in Primal, everything is already down to its base components. Takkar is a caveman, so his personality could not believably be complex. His needs and motivations would seem barbaric and antipathetic in a modern man, but they make total sense for him. There's nowhere for his character to go.

If he'd started off as a small, frightened human, at the mercy of the world around him and then later grew into the Beast Master tribal leader, then he might have been compelling as a lead. But instead he more or less starts off as a supreme hunter and stays that way throughout the game. The same is pretty much true for his entire tribe. They grow in number, but there's never any indication they're becoming more sophisticated and evolved either.

In short, the game feels unsatisfying. It's a neat premise that is never properly realized, made with copied mechanics. Here's hoping Ubisoft gives Far Cry a year-long breather like Assassin's Creed while they play around with the Tom Clancy license.

Posted in Playbutton on Monday, March 7, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Wednesday 03/02/2016
You Should Be Playing: Unravel

I've been looking forward to Unravel for months now. The first place I heard of it was the EA E3 show last year, where its Creative Director stole the whole show by being adorably nervous and earnest at the same time. I wanted to see if the game was as charming as this first impression promised it would be. And it is a fairly good platformer, if not without some faults.

You play as Yarny, a tiny red yarn creature traversing various levels entered by looking at pictures around the house. During every gorgeous level, Yarny sees holographic images of people, solves various physics puzzles, and retrieves a tiny red charm at the end of the level. There's no immediate explanation as to why he does this. I presume that it's because Yarny is a family toy and was actually taken to the places in the pictures. It's never explicitly spelled out.

The physics in the game are fairly good. The red string that functions as Yarny's all-purpose tool pulls, stretches, and bounces the way real woolen yarn does (speaking in my capacity as a veteran knitter). Though there are times when Yarny's weight is not consistent: He's able to bend branches and sink logs by standing on them, yet soars easily while attached to a kite that he should have sent plummeting to earth.

The levels are usually brief enough to keep them from getting tedious, and the save points are thankfully numerous. This means if you die – which you will, most likely from drowning – you'll be sent back only a brief distance. This is helpful because while the game isn't difficult in the Dark Souls-esque, battle-of-attrition sense of the word, the puzzles can be tricky and it's easy to get tangled up or fall into the claws of a hostile crab.

Visually, Unravel checks all of the indie game boxes. The main character is an adorable creature with big eyes; and the color palette is shadowed neutrals, bright jewels, and pastels. Though the real beauty comes from the sense of breadth to the world around Yarny; and a depth of field technique, complete with vanishing points, that is reminiscent of pastoral artwork. The music is also quite lovely, if a bit repetitive.

What I like most about Unravel is that there's no sense of tragedy, or disaster in any of the levels. There's no Ori & the Blind Forest death within the first few minutes or any typical indie sense of underlying sadness. Yarny's trips through various locations seem to evoke more a sense of nostalgia, or of capturing memories, as exemplified by a literal photo album you unlock at the end of every level.

Unravel is charming, inoffensive, and fun. It's not the best platformer I've ever played, and I don't think I'll be pinning a gold medal on it, but it's pretty and substantive enough to be worth your time. It's also just the right length, so it won't overstay its welcome.

Posted in Playbutton on Wednesday, March 2, 2016 11:00 pm. Comments (0)

Saturday 02/27/2016
Should You Buy? Street Fighter V

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not really an expert when it comes to fighting games. So reviewing one is always tricky. In the case of Mortal Kombat X I got absorbed in the craziness that was the story mode and had a great time regardless of whether or not I was any good. Since Street Fighter V doesn't really have much of a story, I can't really do that.

I won't be able to tell you how balanced the game is compared with its predecessors, or how expansive the roster is, or whether it's ruined now that Vega is a motion character. But what I can tell you is whether or not the game is fun to play. And the answer is yes . . . someday.

There isn't that much in the way of content to the current iteration of Street Fighter V. There's some ranked multiplayer, a very underwhelming story (if one can call it that) and a survival mode that matches you against apparently random opponents. That's about it. And none of these things are as fun as I'd expect them to be.

The closest we get to a story is a series of fights with each character, not really related to each other, and each "campaign" is shorter than the average television episode. The still animations that bracket the fights are quite beautiful, though. Of the characters available, my favorite is newcomer Laura, though I did have fun when I tried Rashid.

There is a local multiplayer mode, a welcome addition, but the online multiplayer modes are poorly implemented at best. Want to play a quick match with your Steam or PSN friends? You'll have to create a battle lounge protected with a password and hope your friends can find it. It's about as fun, casual, and user-friendly as filing paperwork.

The fighting itself was also a little clunky. While it's not as slow as the early footage made it look, there were still times when characters would not respond to my button presses within two seconds, and my reflexes aren't the quickest to begin with. Also, the character's hitboxes are much larger than their actual bodies. My Laura, at one point, was KO'd by Birdie striking the air above her shoulder.

Oh and if you're playing this on a PC, do yourself a favor and get your hands on a controller. If you don't have one, then buy, borrow, or steal one. Playing this game with a keyboard is awkward, unintuitive, and painful, to the point where voluntarily doing so should be classified as self-flagellation. I played with my Xbox 360 controller.

I think Street Fighter V will be at the very least a mid-level fighting game. I really look forward to playing that game when it eventually comes out, as opposed to the anemic and clearly unfinished product that was actually released. Don't waste your money until after the big update I really hope is one the way.

Posted in Playbutton on Saturday, February 27, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Wednesday 02/24/2016
Some Spoiling Thoughts on Fire Emblem Fates

When I reviewed Fates, I implied I had some problems with the story that could not be talked about without spoiling. I think it would be remiss of me to move on to the next game without talking about those issues. So consider this your preemptive *SPOILER ALERT* before I talk about some of the less-savory aspects of Fates.

I have a high tolerance for weird stuff in video games, and Fates is no exception. I'm good with the dating sim aspects in my battle game. I'm good with inviting characters into my room and gazing dreamily into their eyes. I'm even okay with the fact that you can marry your own siblings. After all, you're not related to any of them by blood, and the main character's personal life is so unusual and traumatic anyway that marrying someone they've grown up with might be one of the most normal things they do.

No, the thing that doesn't work for me is the children. Your units have the option to marry, after which they will immediately spawn fully-grown offspring ready to join the battle. Awakening also had fully-grown children of the main characters, but there were a couple of critical differences that made it more palatable.

First of all, the children in Awakening were fully-grown because they were from an alternate universe. So despite of the fact that one or two of the marriageable people in Awakening were about fifteen at the oldest, the squeamish player could comfort themselves by saying that the consummation necessary had not yet taken place in their timeline. One potential wife of the youngest male character even says they won't marry until he's of age.

In Fates, there is no such reassurance. The children are born, with no indication it's any way other than the natural way. And at least one female per route is no older than 13, by my estimation. Not only that, but you still have the ability to marry the children in Fates. At least in Awakening, the children weren't in a position to consider you an honorary aunt/uncle.

The other creepy part is that the children are not only born from such young parents, but they were "raised" by being left in another dimension where time passed more quickly, resulting in them all having horrendous abandonment issues. It's supposed to be a convenient way of explaining why the children are old enough to be participating in the conflict, but it mostly comes across as grossly unfair for everyone involved, and a transparent (and failed) attempt to capture the appeal of the child units in Awakening.

None of this really takes away from my enjoyment of Fates. Still, as much as I enjoyed Awakening, I don't need Fates to ape everything about it in order to win my approval. And I don't like the fact that there's no way to "opt out" of the kids and all the unpleasant implications they bring with them.

Posted in Playbutton on Wednesday, February 24, 2016 10:30 pm. Comments (0)

Monday 02/22/2016
You Should Be Playing: Fire Emblem Fates

I only discovered Fire Emblem recently after my purchase of a New 3DS, but it's already shot to the top of my list. It's fun, challenging, and appeals to my love of strategy. I've been looking forward to Fates for a long time, and now that it's finally here, I'm not disappointed.

In Fates, your character is torn between two different countries in a civil war. Born in Hoshido and raised in Nohr, the decision of who will win the war falls to you. The prologue culminates in one big decision, made while on a battlefield with two armies staring you down and two families with equal claims on your affection begging you to side with them: Hoshido (Birthright) or Nohr (Conquest)? Of course, depending on what version of the game you purchased, your choice is already made, with the other being unlocked later for a reduced price.

There is a decent amount of difference between the two campaigns. Conquest is the harder of the two, while Birthright has more opportunities to grind for levels. The fights are the game's high point, by far. The intelligent enemies keep you from getting complacent, and any battle could be a character's last if you're not careful. The support system, in which characters can learn the skills of close friends and spouses, creates an organic reason to keep as many fighters alive as possible.

The Castle feature lets you customize your base of operations and interact with your characters in their downtime. You can defend your Castle from other Avatar's armies and have friendly meet-ups with other Avatars, though this can be turned off if you don't wish to. It's a fun little feature, if not particularly enthralling as a story device.

Granted, both the story and dialogue can be a bit on the cheesy side. It is a little contrived that both kingdoms have the same number of royal offspring of the same ages and gender order, each with similar attitudes, but it works thematically. I have some misgivings about certain parts of the story, but I won't spoil them and will cover them in an appropriately-marked column later.

One criticism that isn't a spoiler: The cast of this game is extremely underwhelming, especially compared with the last game. Awakening was a master class in how to make an ensemble cast. Even now, I can name all 30+ important characters and two or three things about them. In Fates, the cast, while larger, is much less colorful. Some characters are clones of Awakening's characters, and many others are just not interesting in design or personality.

I freely admit that I went into this with some bias. I liked Awakening, I was excited for Fates, and I suspected I was going to like it. And I did like it quite a bit! Is Fates perfect? Absolutely not, but it's got an interesting story concept and goes all-in on it. I'll be playing it again when I have the time.

Posted in Playbutton on Monday, February 22, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (0)

Wednesday 02/17/2016
Should You Buy? Assassin’s Creed Chronicles

In case you missed it, Assassin's Creed is going on a long-awaited and much-needed hiatus in order to allow the next game to stew. Anyone who reads my stuff knows I'm very much a die-hard fan of this series, but I must admit: I'm not opposed to this idea. Quite the opposite, in fact. If you want to know why, you need look no further than Chronicles, the last wheezing gasp of the series for the foreseeable future.

It's bizarre that Chronicles should be the perfect embodiment of so many of AC's problems, considering it's gone several miles out of its way to be different from its predecessors. Gone are sidequests, property management, and a three-dimensional open world. Instead it's just a lone Assassin character, spending an entire level closing the distance between their blade and a Templar throat.

The one thing that Chronicles has that puts it on par with even its most lauded AC brethren is its art design and music. Each separate story has its own gorgeous and historically-appropriate style. China looks like a Ming dynasty brush painting. India has a mix of striking jewel tones. Russia resembles a series of black-and-white photos. The common factor is Mirror's Edge-esque splashes of red to direct you to the parts of the scenery on which you can climb and free-run.

I could go on at length about the unpardonably atrocious combat (a series low), or the decent level design, or clunky controls. But every other critic has done so, with good reason. Instead, I'd like to focus on something a little more ephemeral that I think needs to be fixed in this series.

I said in my review of Syndicate that the series is hobbled by not having good villains, but Chronicles has made me realize that the heroes of the series haven't been that great either. All three of the main characters in Chronicles are more two-dimensional than the actual game. They kill Templars because they're Templars, not because they believe they themselves are working towards a greater goal or a better world. When was the last time an AC protagonist actually uttered, let alone philosophically examined, the actual Assassin's Creed?

Also, I think it's high time Ubisoft stopped forcing the "Pieces of Eden" into the story. The fact that these much-ballyhooed-yet-still-vague MacGuffins are the basis of most of the Assassins' campaigns – you know, as opposed to purely ideological or political motivations – just makes both the Assassins and Templars look ignoble, especially since we have yet to see a single instance of the Brotherhood using the PoEs to enrich the lives of the downtrodden.

As irrationally enamored as I am with this series, even I'm ready to send it away to boot camp until it finally matures out of this rut. I can't come up with a single downside to this series taking a year-long breather. Let's hope the next game (rumored to be titled Empire and set in Ancient Egypt) benefits from the extra development time.

Posted in Playbutton on Wednesday, February 17, 2016 11:30 pm. Comments (1)

Tuesday 02/16/2016
Should You Buy? Firewatch

Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way early: Firewatch is very, very beautiful. Its rich, vivid color palette and slightly unreal, cartoon-like art style are gorgeous enough to occasionally leave me speechless. It's just a pity this stunning surface is wrapped around a game so shallow, boring, and nonsensical.

My first thought in trying to sum up my opinion of Firewatch . . . is that Gone Home has a lot to answer for. Make no mistake: Firewatch is using the playbook that Gone Home (and to a lesser extent Slender) codified. It has the sad backstory, the exploration, and the generic sad music.

Unfortunately, Firewatch somehow manages to lack the one thing that made Gone Home compelling. I thought Gone Home was frankly insufferable, but it had a very interesting opening hook and a compelling motivation to move forward, namely the question of why your entire family had vanished.

In Firewatch, huge swathes of time pass off-screen, during which nothing of interest happens. And to make matters worse, the only interesting part of the story – namely that of main character Henry and his sick wife – is told to the player at the beginning, like the Star Wars text scroll. This is a huge mistake in a genre that thrives on the hook of a slowly-uncovered story.

Here's the thing about a revealed narrative: When it's woven throughout the game and uncovered organically over time, even the most innocuous of stories can be compelling and interesting. Take (again) Gone Home: The story was revealed gradually, and that made even the tepid and (as mentioned) insufferable teenage romance at its core somewhat engaging.

But imagine how boring the game would have been had you been told ahead of time who the main character is and the entire dynamic of the family. And that's the Achilles Heel that hobbled Firewatch at the starting gate: As opposed to telling Henry's backstory through his interactions with Delilah, and have his storytelling and her reactions lend it some context, we're told his whole story unfiltered at the very beginning.

The only good thing about this game, aside from the aforementioned beauty, is the interaction between the two primary characters. It's funny, a little awkward, and feels like the sort of conversation two real people would have in their circumstances. Is it weird that senior ranger Delilah, who presumably overlooks the whole of the local wilderness, has the time to grill Henry about the particulars of his rather boring, sedate life? Yes, but isolation, strange bedfellows, and all that.

I'm going to break a rule of writing here and bring up a new point of comparison in the last paragraph: Despite its obvious desire to be like Gone Home, Firewatch is far more like Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. It's beautiful, but all surface. The story, while neat, never realizes its full potential and turns into a snoozefest. Buy it if you're into walking simulators, but otherwise you won't be missing anything.

Posted in Playbutton on Tuesday, February 16, 2016 10:30 pm. Comments (0)