Monday, April 29, 2013

Bring out yer dead! (TellTale's The Walking Dead, PC)


A slight warning to readers: while I will do my best to avoid specific spoilers. Since The Walking Dead is as much about the journey as it is the destination, even generic ones may end up removing much of the emotional punch that the game has to offer. Forewarned is fair warned. To those who want my suggestion without the spoilery details, know that the game comes highly recommended to both fans of the show/comic and newcomers alike.

Up until I played the game, I had never before read or seen The Walking Dead (TWD) in any other medium, so I was not entirely sure what to expect when I started playing. I had been hearing good things about the game, but my lack of investment in the series kept me from following it. Having received a few hearty recommendations from friends, I decided to give the game a try. What I ended up playing did not disappoint and remains one of the highlights of 2012, doing so well as a game that it sold me on the premise of the series and got me into the tv show and even comic. The game, though, stands out as the strongest of the three, and that has everything to do with TellTale's expertise in dialogue, story telling and characters.

Aside from the whole 'zombie apocalypse' thing, TWD is firmly rooted in being a realistic portrayal of 'normal' people desperately trying to survive the end of the world. The series is built around the question "What would you do to survive in a world bent on killing you?" As a player, you will get to live these decisions on your own choice and decide how you should react to events.

While TWD is sprinkled with Quick Time Events and standard fare inventory/environment management puzzles, most of the real gameplay comes by way of dialogue options with other characters. You decide almost (if not all) of Lee's (the main chracter) interactions with other characters. Each conversation choice will prevent with several options to choose from, with 'say nothing' even being an option in most cases. Decisions (or indecisions) you make can directly affect the story and will definitely change how other characters perceive you and interact with you in future situations.

However, you are not given an infinite amount of time to think about the decisions before you have to act. Almost all of them are 'real time' decisions, and while this may sound frustrating it actually makes the decisions you make feel far more natural and impactful. It actually helps reduce the urge to 'min/max' the game to try to make 'perfect' decisions and instead brings out more basic instincts and really prove who you are and what you would do when placed on the spot. Much of the impact of the gameplay occurs outside of the 4-5seconds you have to decide, as you personally come to grips with what made you make that split second decision and how you are going to deal with the repercussions.

While it can be frustrating that 'major' decisions are not explicitly labeled as such, I found that by not doing this, Telltale made the rest of the game more engaging. By not knowing which decisions are considered 'major' and which ones are just fluff conversation pieces, each conversation becomes important as you have no indication otherwise. It helps lend additional weight to the feeling that every decision is important and can have an impact on how the story plays out and how people react to you.

Speaking of characters, Telltale does an extremely good job of creating believable characters, situations and dialogue that helps emphasize their growth and place in the world. This is crucial for a world like TWD where characters are by no way guaranteed to make it past the next hour, let alone by the end of the game. It helps to make decisions more personal and more engaging when you have a level of investment in actual characters as opposed to nameless fodder and helps to give TWD that extra emotional punch that sets it above the pack.

The story and gameplay are also well paced throughout most of the episodes. Your time will swap between light puzzles (which are all very logical and do not involve trying to combine every weird combination of items you can pick up), conversation and quick action (QTEs). This helps to cover up one of the few flaws the game has, which is it's not much of a "game". Light, easy puzzles, QTEs and selecting dialog choices does not make for incredibly compelling gameplay. However, since it's paced well (and the story/characters are engaging enough) the game rarely begins to feel tired or samey and helps to keep you playing. Recapping major decisions at the end of each episode (and showing comparisons vs. other players) helps to keep the impact of your choices in mind and gives a good conversation starter for seeing how you and your friends played differently.

Possibly the only other complaint I would have - and one that I really only got after reading up on the game after completing it - was the fact that, over time, many of your decisions still do not "matter". If you just play the game through once, though, you would be hard pressed to notice it... in fact, the choices and story are so well placed that they VERY successfully give you the illusion of choice, even while rarely providing it.

*WARNING*: Continuing on to the next section is probably the most spoilery part, so if you are still trying to read this and want to avoid spoilers, DO NOT CONTINUE TO READ :*WARNING*

While most of your decisions will have short term impacts (who lives, who dies, who goes and who stays), very few have long term decisions as plot points tend to neatly tie themselves up one way or another. Did you piss someone off early? They might 'forget' if you help them on something later. Were you a helpful saint or a ruthless tyrant? Doesn't matter!

Now I'm not saying there are no decisions that have a meaningful impact, as some do and the rest are masterfully crafted to feel that way. But take a peek behind the curtain and it just doesn't feel as magical as it is if you don't. It is one of the few times that replaying the game can actually make the entire experience worse, not better.

Overall, The Walking Dead is a strong game and a breath of life into the well-tread Adventure genre. The game is not perfect, but it's a solid first offering and I look forward to how they improve in "Season 2".

Sunday, July 22, 2012

On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Awesome

Sometimes, when a game franchise switches developers mid-stream, things go awry. It just isn't as good anymore. Things are different for no good reason. New gimmicks are introduced. It just doesn't work.

Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 is the exception.

The first two episodes looked pretty good, yes. All the concept art came directly from the source and was turned into pretty backgrounds and character designs by professional animators. You (yes, you) were even a player in the game! Personally, though, I always thought the best part of the first two games was the writing, which came straight from the source, unfiltered. As a result, the games are intensely funny. However, I never thought they were really terribly great games. The combat was repetitive and a tad boring, and I thought the attempts to inject action-RPG elements into the game always fell a bit flat.

That said, I think I speak for both proprietors of this here blog when I say that we were kind of disappointed that the third game apparently wasn't going to come out. Hothead (the previous developer) and Penny Arcade had, uh, differences and they split up. Making up for it, PA published what is essentially a novelization of the plot of the third game online. (As one might guess, that link is pretty much 100% spoilers.)

And then, a simple page appeared in our programs at PAX 2011.

It was like this, except there wasn't a date on it yet.
Could it be? Yes, it was. And now it is. Zeboyd Games is pretty much two dudes who develop retro-style console RPGs with modern sensibilities. Though I was not familiar with their previous work, I had at least heard of it from hanging out on the Penny Arcade forums, which is where they started their enterprise. Suffice it to say, these dudes have a healthy respect for the source material.

This game picks up where the 2nd left off. The player is no longer represented in the game with a character, and there is no way to import your character into the new generation of games. Like I said, since to me the best part of the previous games was the writing, I don't view this as a terribly big loss. Speaking of which, the writing is great in this game too, as it's pure Tycho (Jerry Holkins). The story that I linked to above was expanded, messages, and adapted for the game by Tycho, and all the other text you need for a game (item descriptions, flavor text, etc.) were also written by the man himself. Suffice it to say, this is the funniest game I have played since the last Rain Slick game. (Yes, Portal 2 was funny, but there's something about poking fun at RPG tropes while playing a RPG to be really hilarious.)

I've basically been paying for Tycho's writing for years by purchasing all the Penny Arcade books, so I would basically like anything that had most of the text written by him. However, unlike the first two games, this game is also fun.

Okay, yes, there's a bit of grinding in some places, but that's part and parcel of the retro feel. The vast majority of the game aims to recreate the experience of the 16-bit SNES heyday of the console RPG. However, there are modern sensibilities. The squad regains their health after every battle, for instance. There is a pretty cool class system, allowing each character in the party to have up to two sub-classes. (Examples of classes in the game include "slacker", "cordwainer", and "hobo".) These sub-classes grant additional actions and abilities.

Items work in a similar manner. Items have two sorts of upgrades: quantity (the number of times per battle the item can be used) and quality (the level of the item). Characters can also use magic, as dictated by their classes. Every battle turn each character gains 1MP, with various items and abilities allowing one to gain MP more quickly. The turn systems itself is worthy of note, more akin to something one would find in a modern RPG. All characters and enemies appear on a timeline, with two parts: waiting to get an action, and then shortly afterward, actually doing said action. The key drama here is whether one's speedier characters can pass enemies before they act. There is also one sub-class that can manipulate the flow of action, such as kicking enemies out the short period between when they enter and action and before they act on it. I know this sounds complicated, but it works pretty well in practice. And, most importantly, it's a lot of fun.

And as previously said, I didn't really say "fun" in relation to the gameplay in the first two games a whole lot.

Many folks would pay $25 for a game like this. More would pay $15. What if I said this game was only $4.99 though? That's a downright steal. Even better, it's on Steam and XBox Live Arcade.

asim's "tl;dr" summary: This game is more fun than many games that cost 12 times as much. There's almost nothing to lose by getting this game and it's the most intentionally funny game that's come out since the last Rain Slick game.

Other stuff: Yeah, I was going to write a Mass Effect 3 review. But it might be awhile before I'm ready to approach that minefield again. Not sure how much there's left to say about it at this point. It was sort of like that Steven Spielberg move A.I.. It was really good until the last 45 minutes.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Reap on Ye Reaper Man

*** BEWARE! Here there be spoilers!!  ***

(Note: I began writing this after completing ME3 and before the release of the extended edition, so I just left my thoughts on the original ending in place instead of redoing it AGAIN. Those who know how long it takes me to do these and yet still read these for whatever reason will appreciate that).

After having a few discussions with friends, I'm getting to the point that I feel speaking about Mass Effect 3 as a whole is becoming increasingly unavoidable. The amount of forum discussions (or, more appropriately, whining), press, and commentators taking shots at it is starting to get at me.

If you remember my Mass Effect 2 Review, I gave the game pretty high praise overall, and for good reason. Even after another playthrough in prep for ME3, ME2 remains extremely compelling and continues to prove it's worth as one of the best games of this generation.

ME3 is largely the same, with a few hit-or-miss tweaks thrown in to try and fix what was "broken" in  the previous game. Some things that it does get right it does quite well: the weapon upgrade system is a welcome improvement from ME2 without being the confusing, inventory-crushing mess from the first game. Each weapon type (pistol, shotgun, smg, etc) have several different guns to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. You can buy better versions of specific weapons to improve their overall stats (weigh less, more accurate, etc) as well as add in 2 'mods' that allow you to more drastically change their usage. Maybe you want that shotgun increase your melee damage capabilities, just in case husks get a bit too close for comfort, while someone else might just want their shots to pierce through more armor. The system allows for a fair number of combos that really help you work with your class and preferred playstyle.

There is an even bigger choice when choosing weapons this time around, in that the amount of 'weight' you carry directly affects your power cooldown rates. So any class - not just a soldier - can load themselves up with all 5 weapons and go to town, but an adept's biotic powers will be significantly impaired. Unfortunately, I find that the balance tends to skew a bit too much towards going as light as possible: you can carry an SMG, pistol and assault rifle and still be near the 200% cooldown reduction mark, making powers EXTREMELY quick to fire off. Giving them even just a moderate number of skill points makes many of them very powerful, and since powers do not have "ammo" and weapons do, it helps to encourage really relying on your power pool to burn through enemy units. Having power cooldowns be a bit longer would've made them feel less 'spammy' and made the choice to use a power feel more impactful (going back to the 'infinite ammo' model from the ME1 days might have helped too).

Some 'improvements', however, feel more like a step backwards than a step forwards. I never thought they could make a system even less engaging than the planet scanning system from ME2, but I was very wrong. After spending a few attempts at randomly 'pinging' planets in ME3 and constantly hearing the LOUD BLARE REAPERS INCOMING! sound over and over, I was ready to go back to ME2 planet scanning just for some peace of mind. It doesn't help that this system is propped up almost entirely upon checkbox-style fetch quests that have no real gameplay on offer. Some of them even talk like perhaps they had been planned out as real missions at one point (please, we need you to go down to our planet and save our people!) but end up being nothing more than pressing down a single button to complete it.

The cover system also is starting to feel a little bloated and unwieldy, especially since so many actions are mapped to the same button. Take cover, jump, dodge, revive, sprint and vault are all mapped exactly the same and I often times found myself doing one of them when I really meant to do another one (like taking cover instead of reviving a companion, or vice versa). There are also several problems with cover as a whole, like some areas that appear to have space for you to shoot over but don't allow it, or cover that you look around and it points you straight into another object that blocks most of your abilities and shots. The over-abundance of grenades on harder single player difficulties also makes cover more frustrating than fun, as trying to find a place to reload or regen shields that isn't bathed in bullets means you are instantly greeted with 5 perfectly thrown grenades, ready to flush you back out into the shooting gallery. I understand you might want to make players shake things up and prevent turtling or overly-defensive play, but making your game utilize cover mechanics with such importance and then constantly punishing your players for using it doesn't seem like a very good use of the system.

The single player game was overall very impressive, but definitely left me scratching my head a few times. On one hand, the level of detail and amount of 'fan service', cameos, tie-ins and connections to previous Mass Effect games and decisions is absolutely astonishing. In fact, so much content is connected to previous games in some way that the 'new' characters and are few, far and in between and feel overall much weaker. While every decisions you ever made may not end up being the butterfly effect that destroys entire worlds, many of them come back to change small things or, at "worst", be mentioned in a few lines of dialogue. This, in and of itself, is incredible to me: the number of potential permutations is astonishing and really helps to reinforce that this is YOUR game, not anyone else's. (More on this later, as this is by and large the reason I wanted to write this review) The single player game took me over 50 hours to complete on the hardest difficulty (which was slightly easier than an ME2 insanity playthrough), so the content on offer here is very substantial.

On top of single player of course is the multiplayer addition, which surprisingly does not feel as lame or tacked on as I thought it would be. The idea is relatively simple - a very basic 'horde mode' type gameplay with different potential enemy types, maps, and difficulties to choose from - but is layered with interesting choices in terms of your chosen class, weapons, and mods. Unfortunately, the whole multiplayer affair seems to be designed as a long-term monetization scheme, relying on a 'booster pack' system to unlock new weapons, characters, mods and powerups. You can unlock them all simply by playing the game, but chances at rare items will require you to beat 3-4 missions to afford enough in game currency for one 'pack', meaning you'll be puting in hundreds of hours into the game just to try and unlock one specific item or class that you'd really like to play. I would've preferred a system where you can just buy whatever specific item you'd like, but then again I've never liked the 'booster pack' mentality in any form. I suppose there is some portion of our brains that loves that RNG, lottery-style system of acquiring upgrades, but having to play for several hours just to buy a chance at an item really kills it for me.

I also wish that the classes would've been treated like they are in single player, where you start with half your skills and earn the second half through leveling, as starter characters are EXTREMELY weak due to having almost no skill points. It takes being almost level 12 or 13 before you start seeing your powers and weapons have significant effect on enemies, and while you do level relatively fast if you do well, having to be ineffectual in 1-2 games just to get to the point you can be useful just does not feel very cool. And while we're on the topic of character powers, why can you not remap them? Some characters have the same abilities mapped to different buttons, and it becomes VERY CONFUSING swapping between them.

Overall, I'd say multiplayer was a welcome addition to the game, but I'd like to have seen it be used a bit less as a post-retail monetization scheme and more about getting to fight big waves of enemies with your friends. Also, let's be a little less brutal on the galactic readiness decay next time, ok?

So we've established that the game is a very strong entry into the series, chock full of some amazing content and, while not perfect, definitely worth a playthrough. So why did I feel so strongly about writing this if it's nothing more than a strong-but-not-stellar entry into a popular franchise you've probably played already anyway? Simple: the overly dramatic fan response to the ending. I have it on top of the review, but I'll put it here again just to make sure you are really interested in continuing on, full spoilt.

*** BEWARE! Here there be spoilers!!  ***

I've heard many complaints about the ending, and while some are definitely valid (the ending is somewhat confusing and disappointing), I think by and large they miss the mark/point and take a very narrow minded approach to defining the 'ending' and band wagoning has taken it to even greater whiney heights than it really deserves. Allow me to do what I can to explain why I'm disappointed - but not RAWRRAWRRAWR ANGRY - at the game's ending by going through some of their major complaints.

1) Normandy/Squadmates escape through a mass effect jump
This one resonates the most with me, because I asked myself the same question as I watched it. A team member who was on the grund with me ended up on the normandy, taking a mass effect jump as it was 'blowing up', and ends up on the random planet with joker/. While it is not explicitly explained how much time it takes to perform the final sequences of ME3 after you get hit by the giant reaper lazer beam (so technically this is possible, if not still questionable), it seems unlikely that the normandy would reroute to earth, pick up your squadmates that more or less abandoned the cause at the "all or nothing" moment (or were somehow incapacitated with you and saved by someone??) and then proceeds to fly away while the rest of the fleet still fights off the reapers. This one's for the angry people, because I definitely agree these actions don't seem to fit in even the craziest of theories.

2) Mass Effect Relay destruction is supposed to cause total system annihilation!
This one I don't agree with at all. The argument here is that in ME2's DLC 'Arrival', you destroy a mass effect relay and that ends up causing the entire system to be wiped out. However, not only does ONE event not a pattern make, but the ways in which they are destroyed are very different. In arrival, you destroy a mass effect relay by running an asteroid into it. This is a completely uncontrolled, brute force method that has (predictably) unintended consequences. Whatever causes the relayed to stop functioning in ME3 is NOT, in any way, required to have the same side effects. It is roughly equivalent to saying that because you ran a train into your car to stop and the car exploded, turning the keys to the 'off' position will also cause the car to explode. No points for the whiners on this one.

3) Entire races are stranded and this is completely ignored!
This is a little of yes and a little of no. It is true that the fleets of many of these races are now stranded in the Sol system, but it can be presumed all fleets (except probably the quarians) are not the entirety of those races. They have a chance to continue living on their own home planets regardless of where the bulk of their military force is now caught.

While it is true we don't know what happens to the fleet that gets stranded, I'm somewhat glad we don't. The amount of things that could happen there is extremely numerous (especially given your actions in the game), and I'd rather be involved in that playing out than just watching it happen in some kind of CGI or conversation. However, none of this has anything to do with the main point of the three mass effect stories - the reapers - and really acts as additional dénouement to Shepard's final actions, but I'm not too torn up that it is left out. I can see some people wanting to know, but honestly you could go down that road for a LONG time before everything was finally wrapped up in a neat little bow. Sometimes it's just better to let people imagine the details while you fill in the major events. We'll call this one even, though, just to be fair to those who might have specific major events or characters they would've liked to see wrapped up a bit more nicely.

4) War Assests don't matter!
This is also tricky. They do matter (it can change potential ending options and even the eventual fate of earth), but it probably feels very ineffective compared to the amount of 'options' presented in ME2

5) None of my choices matter!
This is probably one of the more offensive complaints. If you think none of your choices matter because everything doesn't get plugged into some equation and directly affect the games "ending", then you clearly weren't paying attention to the entire rest of the game when choices you made not only in this game but also in previous ones made direct impacts to the events, stories, and even well-being of both your squadmates and the galaxy at large. You decide how to cure the Genophage, you decide how to deal with the Quarians and Geth, you decide how to deal with Cerberus... the list is pretty substantial. Honestly, I think that if you treat the entirety of Mass Effect 3 as 'the ending' (which, given the context of the events relative to the entirety of the story, it kind of is) then there are many subplots that are resolved almost exclusively by your action(s).

6) But the ending is just a giant Deus Ex Machina!
This is also a frustrating excuse. Did you not pay attention to the first part of the game? Your character stumbles face-first into a magical device that is supposed to be the Prothean's secret answer to beating the reapers, and you spend the entirety of the game chasing down some completely arbitrary solution that is conveniently never mentioned before in any other game despite the Reaper menace being very real and very known (by you and several others) throughout the entire series. Why is this wordlessly accepted at face value, but then seeing solution being some thing we've never seen before (which, duh) cause such vitriol? I vividly remember thinking to myself at about the hour 2 or 3 mark that I felt this would be a pretty sad way to end the series by just building some kind of special device that just hands me the victory after fighting on the ground against reaper agents all these years... so by that standard, the ending is actually a kind of improvement (yes, it still just wins it for me, but I had to fight tooth and nail to get it all back and ended up having an option of how to win and what that would mean). Point here is, yes, the ending can be viewed as a giant Deus Ex Machina, but then you're really just saying that the whole game is one.

There is more, but at this point, it does seem rather moot. Bioware released an 'extended cut' that very likely makes none of the haters happy and adds nothing of significant value to those who thought it was fine before (aside from longer, unnecessary ending sequences) and the whole thing has kind of died down. But when I sit down and look and see people trying to sue Bioware for 'false advertising' or report them to the BBB (or, worse, voting EA into the golden poo award simply for a lackluster ending to a video game), I really have to wonder where some of you people place your priorities. Or maybe I'm just not as diehard into games and needing closure to all my fantasy universes to be as perfect as I can pretend imagine it. I will say good on those who voiced their complaints or wrote about their dissatisfaction in a way that the developer can use and take with them to make their next series better.

It may not have been a perfect ending, and I'll certainly add my voice to those of us worried about it happening because it was rushed versus just trying something new, but to let the (relatively unimportant) final 10 minutes of a game ruin an otherwise amazing 150 hour trilogy because the known end goal (beat the reapers, save the galaxy!) was not well executed just seems.... unfortunate. If you've played ME1 and ME2, get ME3, enjoy ME3, and then *maybe* be disappointed at how it all ends. You'll still enjoy the 50 hours it took you to get there, that is almost guaranteed.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Settin' Me Up With the Spirit in the Sky

[Not sure this was clear last time around, so to be sure, asim here with you again.]

So let's review a game that's been released in the past six months for a change. I'm talking about, of course, everyone's favorite reason to actually turn their Wii on again, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

Zelda games are, of course, Nintendo's second most-venerated franchise. When it comes to me, however, these games are number one. So in some ways I'm very biased toward liking these games, but on the flip side that means I tend to be critical of them simply because my expectations are higher. Let's step back in time in a bit and examine what I mean.

Probably one of the first games I ever beat all the way through by myself was Link to the Past. I didn't own it, however, so to do so I continually borrowed the game from a friend who lived in my neighborhood off-and-on for a year until I finally prevailed. Then, in 1998, I got Ocarina of Time. However, being 13 at the time, I still had little control over how I got games, which means my explicit instructions to my parents on how to procure the gold cartridge version didn't quite get through. I got over that (well, sort of) and as I did I realized that I was playing probably one of the greatest games ever made.

Debates rage on across the Internet over that last statement there, but for me it is still true. I don't really play the Mario games, so instead of Mario 64 Ocarina was the title that showed me the power of this new-fangled 3D thing. If you look hard enough on the Internet, you can even find videos of me playing this game somewhat badly. It remains one of my favorite games, and is the standard by which I have judged all subsequent Zelda games.

Ocarina was probably also the game that got me into "gaming" as a thing and becoming cognizant of the nascent Internet gaming websites and communities. (Remember, it was 1998.) I remember debating kids at middle school the value of in-game rendering versus Final Fantasy VII's pre-rendered cutscenes. (Fun fact: I never had a non-Nintendo console until I got my first job five years ago and bought a 360.) I don't know if I would call myself from back then a fanboy, but I certainly had an opinion.

Thousands of other teenage boys also had opinions, and as the N64 era ended and Nintendo announced its new console, a demo appeared. I think anyone who paid attention to gaming news at the time probably remembers that video. It was determined: we were going to get another epic Zelda game in the same vein as Ocarina, just with better graphics! Three long years later...

Not so much. Oh, the wailing and gnashing of keyboards! Of course, if one got away from the keyboard long enough and actually played The Wind Waker, they found it was actually pretty good. And you know what? I think stylistically, Wind Waker has held up pretty well and I'm glad to see that Nintendo has preserved the style for the DS Zelda games. So, to reference another classic rock lyric, I didn't get what I wanted, but in a way, I got what I needed.

Nonetheless, the wailing and the gnashing and whatnot continued, and eventually Nintendo announced it was developing one last Zelda game for the GameCube. Well, like with many other games, one last game for the 'Cube turned into a launch title for the Wii, and so I got my copy of Twilight Princess before I ever actually acquired a Wii. Since it was right when I moved to California, I remember about this time five years ago I was wrapping up that game, in much the same way I just finished Skyward Sword.

And I have to say, I mean, I liked Twilight Princess, but... I sort of wish it had never come out on the Wii. The tacked-on motion controls were just that, and it showed. Additional evidence that the game was a relatively last-minute port job was the fact the game world was actually mirrored, as Link is stilled properly left-handed in the GameCube version. Other than the controls, though, TP was a pretty standard Zelda game, and since the controls weren't really that great, that mean the game wasn't really that great. In some ways, in releasing the game "everyone" said they wanted, it was almost like Nintendo said, "see, we made the Zelda game you said you wanted, now do you see what we're trying to do?"

Now flash forward to PAX2011, where I got the chance to play Skyward Sword for the first time. I was impressed but afraid the new, actual motion controls (thanks to the Wii MotionPlus stuff) wouldn't really work out. Well, they did, which means I feel pretty good about saying this has been the most fun I've had playing Zelda since Ocarina. Since this one of (if not) the last major titles that will come out of the Wii, one would expect a certain amount of polish, and it is there for this game. I think one of my favorite things is the way the game handles drawing objects in the distance. Instead of fading into a fog or popping in, the game gracefully degrades textures until they look like something out out of an Impressionist painting. Simply put, this is the best looking Zelda game ever made and probably the best looking game on the Wii. I would think that this game is probably about all the console is capable of.

Let me go back to the controls for a second. Okay, they're not perfect, but fortunately the game makes it easy enough to calibrate things when they get out of whack. So the vast majority of the time, when you slash sideways, so does Link. When you slash diagonally across an enemy, so does Link. This manner of control adds a whole new layer of depth, which means overall in this game there aren't as many enemies, but there is more depth simply because almost all enemies are capable of blocking your attacks if you don't approach them correctly. It also means that there are new items and new puzzles. Yes, that's right kids, "move the blocks to a certain configuration" puzzles are at an all-time low in this game.

So at this point, I suppose I should list some things I didn't like about this game. The only thing that really sticks out to me is that I found the soundtrack somewhat unremarkable, but, uh, that's probably about it. The only other thing that I can think of is that the Wii MotionPlus thing can really chew through batteries, but my initial playthrough also went on for over 60 hours. (Last minute edit: Just a couple of weeks ago and 40 hours of playtime later, I re-beat the game on Hero Mode, where your collectible inventory is preserved but you have to replay the game and enemies do twice as much damage while never dropping hearts. Take the fact I did that how you will.)

asim's "tl;dr" summary: This is the best and most original Zelda game since Ocarina of Time and is an excellent reason to dust-off your Wii.

Addendum: Yes, I realize I sort of skipped over Majora's Mask. Well, that's sort of because I skipped over it when I was kid. Sorry. I did get for Virtual Console though and I'm working on it.

World of Iterate-craft

I've had a few people over time ask me to write my thoughts on World of Warcraft for various reasons: some were curious of what I thought about it, some wondered exactly how I would tear it down and some just wanted me to write about games they had actually played so that they could agree or disagree in the comments.

I've had a really hard time figuring out exactly how to do this. How does one write a review about a game that is evolving and expanding so quickly and so much that after as little as 2 years the game has been altered on almost every level? Reviews like this become stale and meaningless in a world where the game doesn't remain constant. That's not to say that snapshots in time or thoughts on a current direction aren't warranted, but for someone like me who invests his time in this only to still be behind the times by several months, it seemed like an impossible task. There are also so many aspects of the game that I don't play or particularly care about (like arenas, battlegrounds, 25 man raiding or dps) that overall the review just wouldn't be very interesting to a very large audience.

I, however, am not one to back down from a challenge and so I'm going to attempt to do my best to cover a bit of the general game's history and current condition, as well has how it has evolved itself - and the genre - over time. I don't really feel this will be a terribly useful review for someone who has never heard of WoW or mmos at all, but for someone who is at least familiar with it it may provide some insight as to just how far Blizzard has taken their mammoth mmo in the past 6-7 years, and perhaps where they could be going or areas I feel they could still improve.

When it first started, World of Warcraft was known (and highly praised) for taking a lot of the grueling punishment and work out of an mmo and instead attempting to streamline it for a slightly more casual audience. I say 'slightly' because most people who are only familiar with Wrath of the Lich King and beyond have no idea of much much MORE streamlined the game became in the 4 years following its already impressive launch. Reputation grinds were far more common (and more tedious) in vanilla, raid content was 'gated' to players both inside (staggered numbers available per week) and out (strict limitations for 'earning' your ability to get into an Onyxia, BWL or Naxxramas instance). The game was a HUGE time and gold sink by today's standards, even though it was better overall than most other products by not severely penalizing you for death and even adding 'dungeon' tiers for people who did not often raid. As it moved forward, Blizzard eventually began adding 20 man content (instead of the current standard of 40) to promote a smaller guild and smaller team environment that were unique from their 40 man counterparts, and updated 5 man gear to give even smaller groups something to work on.

Original WoW also saw a few iterations on a 'PvP' style system. While they had no reward structure to speak of at launch, they started by offering rewards for simply killing one another but eventually added more goal oriented 'battlegrounds' such as Capture the flag (Warsong Gulch) or Capture/Defend (Arathi Basin). PvP was excessively grindy and the absolute best rewards were only given to those capable of dedicating the highest amount of time to it. Being a top-tier PvPer in vanilla almost assuredly meant you did nothing but play WoW (or had multiple people playing the same account).

The Burning Crusade moved everything one step further, adding new 'tiers' for players that helped to segregate content out a bit more by skill or dedication. Dungeons would have both a 'normal' and a 'heroic' mode, which would allow leveling and 'casual' players to experience all 5 man content without feeling too overwhelmed by difficulty or time commitment (though many normals were still considered quite a challenge when under-geared). 'Heroic' dungeons added the next step up in difficulty and gave the more dedicated player a place to go for pre-raid gear that also allowed you a way to farm reputation for different factions while you played. There was a sort of 'gate' to this content in that you needed a friendly reputation with specific factions to unlock those heroics, which made gearing up alt characters or players who joined a bit late difficult.

Blizzard also began a movement forward with TBC of completely abandoning the 40-man raid model and instead focusing on smaller 25 man groups. Blizzard also offered an olive branch to even smaller guilds by starting the expansion off with a 10 man raid: Karazhan. TBC would eventually also see a 2nd 10 man raid in Zul'Aman, but otherwise the rest were 25 man raids.

Raid gating was more abundant but (somewhat) less difficult depending on the place. Karazhan had a fair amount of 5 man content that was required to complete before being unlocked, but only 1 person in the group would need it to open it for everyone else. 25 man content had a more fine-grained content lockout system that generally required guilds to defeat easier bosses before they could unlock harder ones, but this really only became a problem as newer guilds formed later in the expansion and had to go redo content over again to unlock it for newer players. (Fun fact: Blizzard actually poked fun at themselves that year with an April Fools joke detailing a laughably ridiculous set of rules and circumstances required to get Black Temple Attunement). It did, however, help keep older content 'relevant' later into the expansion, even if only by force.

TBC added some new PvP toys - Arena matches (2v2, 3v3, 5v5 deathmatch) and a new battleground, removing much of the absurd grinding requirements while pushing WoW towards a more 'esport' style pvp system while still allowing for more 'casual' battleground style pvp.

Wrath of the Lich King, to me, feels like the first time Blizzard really started taking this plan of 'give everyone something to play' to heart. Building on the popularity of Karazhan and Zul'Aman, blizzard made EVERY raid in WotLK both 10 and 25 man capable. The new 'path' was meant to be: Level --> Normal dungeons --> heroic dungeons --> 10 man raids --> 25 man raids, and as such, 25 man content still contained better gear and (debatably) harder content. Blizzard also introduced a boss (Sartharion) that had variable difficulty depending upon how many drakes you left up, rewarding you more for doing the harder versions of the fight. This proved an incredibly popular concept and, thus, the next raid included a slew of bosses that could have their difficulty increased in a similar matter. By the last raid, every boss had a 'heroic' mode on offer and essentially doubled the amount of content available to players. It also ended a problem that blizzard had significant issues balancing for some time: How to make something everyone could see and do while still offering a challenge to those who have seen and done everything.

Not everything was coming up roses though - while initial raids were EXTREMELY easy and had record numbers of people participating in them, later tiers were more appropriately tuned and many were incapable of playing at that level. These people were left in a strange state of 'limbo' for a good portion of WotLK, as almost no single or small group content was added to the game during this time, and normal/heroic dungeons were so quick and effortless with the new Dungeon Finder system that many people were left with nothing to do. By the end of the expansion, new daily quests were added and even 4 brand new 5-man dungeons, but in 'internet time' this felt like eons. Add in problems balancing healer and tank classes (especially the new Death Knight), burst PvP woes, issues with gear scaling and the painfully short 5-boss raid 'Tier 9', and WotLK can be remembered for about as many ups as it had downs. Perhaps the worst part of WotLK was the fact that it's final 'tier' raid was released 1 day shy of a whole year before the next expansion, meaning that aside from a single extra boss you were facing the same 13 bosses for 12 months straight. Not exactly the best way to keep players hooked, and certainly not a way to drum up much excitement.

But that's ok, because the announcement (and plethora of changes later) of Cataclysm gave many a fan hope where once only a cold, undead shell remained (see what I did there?). Blizzard promised (and delivered) huge systems changes designed to solve a fair number of problems that really stuck out during the WotLK days. Things like significantly larger health pools (to cut down on 2-shot scenarios in PvP and PvE), stat re-balancing (to fix problems with heroic gear scaling seen in ICC), a significant overhaul to the healing playstyles (to reduce the 'wack-a-mole', single-spam feel), as well as a MASSIVE change to nearly all level 1-60 content.

In 'The Shattering', the entirety of Azeroth as we knew it was forever changed and Blizzard took this opportunity to go back and try to clean up nearly all of the 'old world' Vanilla content that had grown stagnant compared to more recent content. Nearly everything was changed. Thousands of quests were added, changed, or updated to provide a better play experience. Quest flow was substantially improved to prevent having to constantly fly across huge continents to find level appropriate content. Many zones had updated looks to provide a more interesting visual experience (leaving many names like 'Barrens' or 'Desolace' being much less appropriate titles). Political control ebbed and flowed across continents to provide new points of contention and make old battles feel like that had some amount of impact. Talents and skills were rearranged to give classes 'core' abilities earlier on while still adding complexity and unique abilities at later levels. To many players of 'Vanilla WoW', the game seemed almost entirely different and often times worth another playthrough; to new players, content was updated to be far more modern and to take into account many of the features and design choices created out of nearly 6 years of evolution.

Cataclysm is interesting to me in that despite the fact that Blizzard has dominated the market for over 7 years now, they are still making tweaks, iterations and overhauls to their own game design. Watching how people reacted to the difficulty level of heroics raids and taking that to heart in the Firelands patch and again in Dragon Soul, the HUGE daily quest hub zone in the Molten Front, the addition of Transmogrification (the ability to visually wear one piece of gear while getting the stats from another) and LFR (Looking-For-Raid, an easier difficulty, dungeon-queue style raid), revamping the Darkmoon Faire, and even more subtle differences like the Vengeance changes all prove that Blizzard is not one to rest on it's laurels.

And rest, it is not! Deathwing may have fallen already, but new adventures await Azerothian heroes (and heroines) in Mists of Pandaria, and while the details are obviously anything but finalized, the current plans certainly seem to indicate Blizzard is once again trying to shake things up. Sure, you'll get a new level cap, spells and raids, but there's also a new class (monk), a new 'neutral' race (Pandaren), a dungeon challenge mode, small group 'skirmishes', and a pet battling system. On top of all of this, they say they have learned a great deal from how they did questing/zones/dailies in Cataclsym and will be working on fitting these lessons (such as not allowing flying until max level or relying less on world phasing) into the new zones to improve the overall player experience with them.

So there you have it. My thoughts on the past 7 years of life on Azeroth. If nothing else, Blizzard has taught us that trying to make something for everyone ('casuals' and 'hardcore' alike), coupled with a very iterative design process and a constant strive for perfection, can create a game that can be enjoyed by millions for over half a decade. With the MMO space having grown, well, massively in the past 7 years and many companies looking to try and muscle in on Blizzard's turf (RIFT, SW:TOR, GW2, etc) or going Free To Play and being handsomely rewarded for it (LOTRO), it will be interesting to see how these outside forces affect Blizzard's decisions for how to continue to move World of Warcraft forward. And let's not forget that they are still working on their brand new MMO, Titan, which will obviously release soon (tm) and promises to flip the genre on it's head again. Though if you think about it, doesn't that mean it will just be back to being right side up...?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Portable Game Triple Pack

In the past few months, I've completed three games for portable systems: Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions (PSP), The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS), and Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth (DS).

Since they're portable titles or ports of well-beloved console versions, I found it difficult to write at length about any of these. So here's some quick takes about each.

Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions (PSP)
Tactical RPGs are probably my favorite genre of game for portables. Why? They're deep, but they're also turn-based, which means means it's possible to just sit the game down at some point, even during the middle of a battle, and pick it up later. So to this point, I've played several Fire Emblem games for GBA, that Advance Wars game for the DS (Days of Ruin or some such), and of course the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance series. Jonesing for some good tactical RPG goodness, I picked up a PSP and a copy of the original Tactics.

Part of the reason I got the PSP version in the first place is because of one very big problem I had with the original. Square's original efforts for the PlayStation, such as Tactics and, of course, some game called Final Fantasy VII, became instant classics. But in their rush to get the games to the North American market these games got very shoddy translations. (My favorite: "off course!" instead of "of course!" in the battle arena in the Gold Saucer, which was probably just a typo, but still.) As bad as FF7's translation was, FFT's was that much worse. Tactics features a wide cast of characters in a plot full of history and political intrigue, including people very literally getting stabbed in the back. In addition, the gameplay itself is complicated. I tried to get past all this, but without a good idea of what was going on I quickly lost interest.

So what I'm driving at is that the PSP version features an excellent localization. The only other major features of the port are a multiplayer mode (which I never tried) and very occasional animated movies for key moments in the plot. (The animations are great, but they are few and far between.) The graphics and gameplay are pretty much the same, except now it's possible to actually understand what the tutorials say.

As I said, the gameplay is pretty much unchanged. Which is great if you played the original (though, since the class names also changed with the translation, there might be a slight learning curve), but can be harder for newcomers. Many gameplay evolutions have occurred in the past 15 years for tactical RPGs, and while some may interpret this as today's games being easier, I'd say in many cases they've just had enough time to get things right. The most annoying issue I found is that I couldn't evaluate the odds and damage for attacks capable of hitting multiple targets, which made spellcasting difficult. The only other problem I had with the port also had to do with spells: the spell animations caused the software to read the UMD every time, which made them much slower than they were in the original version. (Apparently this game was released long enough ago that "installing" hadn't really been thought up yet for PSP games, as I had this option in the more recent Tactics Ogre port that I just started playing.)

These days, I probably wouldn't recommend this game as an introduction to the genre. However, it remains a classic. If you're a fan of the original, you'll probably want to pick this up just for the new translation alone. I'd also recommend it for anyone who likes tactical RPGs but hasn't played this game yet, especially if you liked the Tactics Advance games but want something with a little more depth. (Well, okay, a lot more depth.)

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS)
Spirit Tracks is the second Zelda game for the DS, following the lead of Phantom Hourlgass. Controls are mostly unchanged from the previous game, where the stylus is used to move Link around the screen, select/talk to NPCs, use items, etc. It was innovative the first time around, but now it's expected. The game can be said for the rest of the game. It's a direct sequel to PH (and, therefore, Wind Waker), except instead of ships, this time around the game has trains. Yes, that's right, trains. You can collect treasures to sell and use to upgrade your train's health, as various baddies will occasionally attack you as you traverse the world map. This game is fun and I would generally recommend it, but it's not going to blow your mind or anything. (Fortunately, Skyward Sword is shaping up to be very good, and I hope to finish it and write about it soon.)

Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth (DS)
The Ace Attorney games have been covered pretty extensively here, between the original series and Apollo Justice. Timeline-wise, this game takes place shortly after the events of Trials and Tribulations but several years before the core of Apollo Justice. This game is pretty much made for people who are fans of the original series. Several characters make cameos and references abound. You certainly could play this game standalone, however. As it says in the title, this game is just "investigations". While the game still features the originals' trademark cross-examination bits, the focus is on investigating crime scenes deducing exactly what happened. Nonetheless, I still missed having parts in the courtroom (as it provided a change of scenery), and for the most part the investigations aren't nearly as free roaming (as you cannot, most of the time, move between areas at will). In addition, the game doesn't feel deep enough, from a certain perspective. In the Ace Attorney games, you're fighting the prosecution and the witness, in many ways, whereas in this game that extra "side" is missing.

The biggest problem I had with this game, though, were the puzzles. There were certainly times I would be frustrated in the other games, but in this game I really felt like I had to solve things much more on the game's terms, not to mention the number of times I was a step ahead of the game (for instance, in order to present a piece of evidence I would often have to introduce another piece of evidence first, even though I had already made the connection between the two).

Basically, I would only recommend this game if you're fan of the Ace Attorney series. If you aren't yet, hunt down a copy of the original Phoenix Wright game (or download it on the Wii), and perhaps eventually you'll fit in the category of people who I'd recommend this to. Also worth noting is that a sequel to this game does exist in Japan, but Capcom currently has no plans to release it in the US. Would I buy that game if it made it over here? Probably.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Texas' Twisted Pixel Two-Step

Twisted Pixel is a small team development studio with big ideas, and each game they make gets more epic and more impressive. With Ms. 'Splosion Man and The Gunstringer right around the corner, I felt I should take the time to spotlight one of Austin's better known "Independent" game studios with a review of two of their bigger projects: 'Splosion Man and Comic Jumper.

'Splosion Man skirts a very thin line between playing it safe with known gameplay and mixing it up with a bit of experimentation, to (mostly) great success. At its heart, the game is nothing more than a simple 2.5D platformer in the same vein as New Super Mario Brothers, but don't start hunting for those fancy platforming moves just yet. Mario might be able to spit fire, pound the ground, spin and float to help him reach the end of the level, but in 'Splosion Man you only get one thing: exploding. The game even goes so far as to make a gag achievement to get you to try and change the controls, only to find that all 4 buttons are mapped to 'SPLODE'. There are a few things you can interact with or pick up along the way that involve not exploding, but the majority of the game is pure platforming. There are a few basic rules to follow:

1) You can only get 3 consecutive jumps in a row, after which you must wait for your power to recharge. This can be avoided by moving across streams of fire to automatically recharge you back to a full 3 jumps (they use this to give you the ability to do long, continuous jump sequences late game while still providing areas that require precision jumping and timing).

2) This 'jump' mechanism is also tied to your health. Taking damage with no jumps remaining will kill you, while taking damage with jumps remaining may not, depending on the enemy. Falling into pits/spikes/electricity/etc will still insta-gib you.

3) Making other stuff explode (barrels, other players, some background devices) can give you a small increase in your jump distance.

Using these basic rules, the team at Twisted Pixel is able to offer an extremely impressive variety of gameplay options to challenge you throughout the course of the game. Add in the bit of extras, like the cakes you can find for exploring or getting to hard-to-reach areas of the level, and the amount of content available for the dollar is extremely impressive.

Now don't think that because there isn't much else to do than jump means the game is easy: far from it. 'Splosion Man has an extremely satisfying difficulty curve that helps you learn new techniques and enemies before being completely overwhelmed by them. Overall the content is challenging and it feels good to beat a level, but some levels do feel a little annoying/cheap in that the only way you can learn to time certain jumps is by first trying and then dying. Most of the more difficult platform sequences do a pretty good job of letting you see in advance what you are up against and plan your timing, but a select few feel that the best way to ramp up difficulty is just to send you full speed towards the side of the screen and hope you either knew what was their already or have split-second trigger fingers. These bits can be frustrating but are few, far and inbetween so if you just power through it you'll be back to great level design in no time.

'Co-op' platforming is an interesting feature and when I first heard about it I thought it would either be awkward or lame. I mean, a platforming game designed for single player but allowing multiple people? This promises nothing but chaos! (Which games like New Super Mario Brothers Wii also later proved). Twisted Pixel seemed to think the same way, though, because they designed co-operative levels to be 100% unique to co-op which let them put in platforming 'puzzles' that required 2 people. This requires a very strong level of co-operation between players to finish levels and adds and even greater sense of pride and accomplishment when you pull off some ridiculous feats with your quick timing...

Or, it would, anyway, if it wasn't so bogged down with issues. The idea was great and is amazing fun for the first dozen or so levels, but as they ramp up in difficulty the timing required to pull off different tricks becomes almost impossible to pull off correctly. This makes long sequences of timed jumps nearly impossible to pull off and infinitely more frustrating to play, because now you feel like you are fighting against the game, not playing it. And that's just local multiplayer! The game launched with Xbox LIVE multiplayer which sounds great, but it was plagued with terrible latency and HUGE synchronization issues from the start that could completely ruin your chances of finishing a level halfway through it. To be fair, they worked on it and it got better over time after a few patches but to this day I'd still only try to play local, if at all, because of the absolutely precise timing required to finish some of the levels properly.

What I also don't understand is why they even allowed it to be 3-4 players "co-operative" to begin with. There are no specific levels for this number of players, and exploding near anyone can cause them to just fly off in the wrong direction and die. This makes 3 players pointless because someone will always be missing a partner and die, and 4 players just absurd because it's just 2 pairs of 2 players trying to make it through timed levels without somehow killing each other (hint: you still do). 2 player mode is challenging enough, but 3-4 player co-op seems to serve almost no purpose other than to be there and be absolute mayhem. Come to think of it, maybe that IS the purpose...

The inclusion of leaderboards was a somewhat interesting idea to give the game a bit of replay value - see how fast some people were smoking you on levels that took you several minutes! - but after a few weeks/months the game was so overrun with exploits and hackers that almost all of the best times were simply impossible '2 seconds' times that you know could not actually be real. It's fun for a while to check out some of your friends' times and see if you can beat them, but as is often the case in asynchronous competitive events like this, it doesn't really hold you for too long before it becomes boring, especially since it's not something most of your friends will be constantly watching and trying to beat.

The single player game itself oozes with humor and charm that adds a flair of style to game that really helps set it apart from other solid platformers. Wrap all of this up in a VERY reasonable price, and 'Splosion Man has what it takes to stand out as one of the best games to date on Xbox Live Arcade.

Comic Jumper, on the other hand, is an entirely different experience. Part side-scroller, part beat-em-up, part twin-stick-shooter, Comic Jumper is an attempt to mix a good number of known genres together to make something unique and interesting. While it can certainly be described as unique, some of the gameplay elements don't work out as well as they could and the whole thing ends up feeling like a great idea bogged down by some awkward execution.

Comic Jumper's strongest asset is its story and its characters. Twisted Pixel once again does an amazing job taking a unique idea and combining it with an intriguing story and filling it with zany, larger-than-life characters full of... well, character. The duo of 'The Captain' and 'Star' make for an excellent comedic pairing, especially since they have such a symbiotic relationship with one another. This means they can be placed into situations that might seem implausible for two true individuals to actually participate in.

Their sparring also helps make other characters have even more to play off of, and to great effect. One of the best 'enemies' is the Captains "arch-nemesis" Brad. Star is overly infatuated with him (much to the Captain's chagrin), so once the three in the same room the laughs just keep rolling in. Other enemies - like the Puttmaster or Mistress Ropes - are just as hilarious and memorable. A few of them (like Nanoc and the Cutie Cutie Kid Cupids) are still funny even if they don't stand up as well to the others.

The worlds themselves are also varied and well designed. Each 'comic' is unique and gives the feeling of a specific genre/time period of comics, and even the protagonist gets a new look for each set change. It means that even at the end of the game, you are getting to see something new and different that you haven't seen before - something that can't be said for most games today. When you don't have copy/paste/recolor to fall back on, variety is sort of forced upon you. This doesn't mean that you won't see the same monsters reappear from time to time (because you will), but over the course of the game you will definitely see a wide range of unique models and even art styles.

The over-arching story is adequate, though a bit awkward at times. The amount of direct reference to themselves in the game is occasionally funny but sometimes borders on feeling a bit too egotistical. It sets up some good jokes and some really laugh out loud moments (like the hilarious 'animation' behind the 'help me!' ability) but mostly just feels overdone or overused. The live action sequences are well shot (and thankfully high-definition friendly) and do help add that 'someone is reading a comic book' feeling. And despite my earlier warning of overusing themselves, the final shot of Twisted Pixel at the end is (dare I say it?) priceless!

I would be a little remiss for not at least mentioning the music - 'Splosion Man may have had the  'donuts' song go viral, but it can barely compare to the pure awesome that is "Brad's Theme", or the unfortunately catchy 'I love u'. They get most of their power from actually experiencing them in-game, so don't expect to be blown away if you just decide to look it up on youtube, but many of the original songs in the game are truly exceptional and only add to the experience.

The gameplay is good, with a high difficulty curve and a scoring system to keep perfectionists coming back for more, but often suffers from the sudden shifts in genre and a not-quite-there control scheme. Sometimes the genre shifts work well, keeping the game fresh and adding a nice change of pace to prevent the gameplay from becoming stale. Unfortunately, some transitions occur too suddenly and are quite jarring, throwing you off and often times getting you killed. It doesn't help that the controls feel a bit overwhelming at times. During twin-stick-shooter portions, you are expected to be in control of both analog sticks, fire with triggers, jump AND slide. I don't know about you, but with thumbs on analog sticks and both index fingers planted firmly on the triggers, attempting to jump while maintaining control of my current position, current target and current rate of fire can be daunting. Then again, maybe I'm just old now >-<

The game itself is fairly long, propped up a bit by the necessity to replay harder parts over and over again when you die. You can also go back and replay small sections of older missions to try and get 'best scores' or 'longest streak' for cash to buy upgrades, or even special bonus content. Which is actually fairly extensive, now that I think about it. The amount of concept art, music, video interviews and other 'behind-the-scenes' goodies rivals (and actually exceeds in some cases) what many companies offer for money in "collector's edition" boxes. All for free, and all for just playing the game! Certainly a nice touch, and it really goes to prove that this was definitely the game Twisted Pixel founders dreamed of making when they started the company.

In the end, Comic Jumper is a collection of several ideas put together that both succeeds and stumbles in equal parts. It may not win many awards for anything other than originality, but the game is by no means bad. My only true 'complaint' here is that the gameplay sometimes doesn't hold up to the otherwise incredible production values, and even this is rare. The game may not be for 'everyone', but for someone looking for challenging gameplay in a funny, unique world with over-the-top characters with tons and tons of unlockables, all at an extremely reasonable pricepoint (and soon to be even lower!) you would be hard pressed to find anything better than Comic Jumper. The real shame here is that there will be no DLC to continue the Captain's wild adventures with.

So there you have it - two reviews for games from Austin's very own Twisted Pixel. They've come a long way from their humble beginnings with "The Maw" and have delivered two original IPs that stand out with their style and humor and keep you entertained for hours on end. Twisted Pixel is most assuredly a shining example of the incredible things being done on the Xbox Live Arcade every year, by small developers with big ideas. And with Ms. 'Splosion Man coming soon, and the western puppeteering Gunstringer on the way for Kinect, there is definitely more to come.