Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mobile Look: Chrono Trigger

Is Chrono Trigger the greatest Role Playing Game? Perhaps not, but without question it is the most revered. Even Final Fantasy isn’t looked upon with the same reverence as this Super Nintendo classic. Why is that? Why is Chrono Trigger seen at or near the precipice of the RPG genre? I think the reasons lie in its simplicity.

Chrono Trigger is designed splendidly. There’s no wasted elements, no need to grind gameplay for hours, no need to farm gold, or sit through cutscenes. It’s the perfect length, just right difficulty, and streamlined story that make it a great game to play even today.

The premise isn’t shockingly original, it’s just done right! As the main protagonist Crono you’ll band together with heroes from different time periods to battle an evil that has blighted the entire world in the past, present, and future. The game goes from the dawn of man, to middle ages and into the distant future to uncover the fate of the planet.

Battles are your typical turn-based affair: you take a turn to attack, then the baddies do the same…blah, blah, blah – If you’ve played an RPG its nothing new! What makes battles a joy is the team unity. The “Tech” system combines two, to three party member abilities into a light show of a strike. Each character has his or her unique magic and set of skills that can then be mixed and matched together to form these powerful attacks. It’s these dual and triple tech’s that make diversifying your party a fruitful choice as every group combination has it’s own dynamic battle fusion.

I’ll admit 10 dollars is a steep price to pay for a nearly 17 year old game. Great games don’t become bad games because they get old though. And shelling out a little extra cash for one of the best on a mobile platform was a no brainer for a diehard like me.

How does this time-traveling adventure fair on the iPhone is the question -- Exceptionally well, is the short answer. Navigating the world with the virtual joystick placed on screen isn’t a big deal because there’s no need for precise movements when not in battle. Combat takes some getting use to. Most of the commands are initiated with a swipe across the screen: to either switch the enemy you wish to attack or the specific ability you wish to use.

It’s not as fast as simply pressing a button. It’s just not. So battles can take a minute or two longer than they would on the original console version – which makes setting the enemy attacks to “Wait” more important. If left on “Active” monsters will attack relentlessly making fights a tad more stressful to handle on the iPhone.

How you navigate and control takes some time. But once you figure it out Chrono Trigger on the iPhone is a picture prefect transition. This retro gem maintains it’s charm years after it’s release. I’ve written about my love for this masterpiece before as it’s among my favorite games of all time.

What makes it so is the complete package of art, story, music, and just plain fun that culminates into a game that should be played by everyone. As RPG’s go look no further, if you want to play what many consider the best, and you haven’t yet, check out Chrono Trigger on the iPhone, you wont be disappointed. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning preview

To make this simple think of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning as a cross between God of War, Fable, with a light touch of Mass Effect. The combat has that visceral punch Kratos unleashes in the God of War series, but Role Playing elements are heavily focused.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is an action RPG. So heavy on the action that even in this demo I’m tempted to say it may have the best melee system of any Action RPG I’ve ever played. Granted Fable and a few others aren’t the best examples but rarely do RPG’s have the brutality of the action genre.

The producers are full in your face with saying the battle system is reminiscent of God of War. Even down to contextual button presses or mashing of a button for cinematic kills is present. But it works, surprisingly well.

The game really is fast paced at least from the start. You’re rushed forward and shown each way to play the game almost immediately. And I love the focus on not jailing me to a specific character class. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning allows you to choose your own fate as it were.

Want a Rogue that can specialize in the use of magic – just do it. Unlike many games you’re aren’t penalized for spreading skill points out, instead encouraged to do so for creativities sake. Yes the standard Warrior and Mage classes are still present – you aren’t thrust into choosing and sticking with a particular ability set. You can pick how you want to fight and how you want your game to unfold.

One more step needed to be taken to give the game its on visual style.

The game is a little lacking on the polish. The visuals don’t have their own style; in fact it really does look a lot like Fable. The color pallet is vibrant: purples and bright blooming lights litter the open areas. NPC’s and even your own protagonist’s model on the other hand are very bland looking. It’s still the demo version and how the final game looks may not be indicative of this build.

And with all the dialogue that is featured; and there’s a lot. It’s tough to sift through all of it with a mute leading hero. Maybe Bioware has spoiled us but not having a talking character really hurts a gamer’s attention span. That’s not to say the story can’t still be compelling, it just adds more when you feel like your creation isn’t brain dead. It just feels a little last generation.

People should really take a look at this lengthy demo online now. The full game comes out in February, which isn’t a great place, as Mass Effect is looking to sweep away attention soon in March. Still little gaming gems are out there, and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has left an impression on me one that won’t be forgotten upon its release.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Skyrim Review/ Retrospect

The Elder Scrolls VI: Skyrim is a not easy game to summarize. Frankly, I’ve spent such a long time with the game that whether or not I actually like it is questionable. It’s a time suck: I’d never recommend Skyrim to an open-heart surgeon or something…they should have better things to do. When characters that you don’t play as have lives, and the world around you goes on even when your not there – it’s a sign that this is more than just a game.

All the Elder Scrolls games are massive adventures. But Skyrim doesn’t reinvent anything it just piles on top. Skyrim starts out as plain vanilla ice cream, then turns into a massive sundae with all the toppings – and sometimes too much of a good thing turns your stomach.

Fighting dragons is by far the highlight of Skyrim. You never know when and where they’re going to attack. They can terrorize any town or city; caves are possibly the only refuge…although I’m not sure on that either. On more than one occasion I fast traveled to a settlement to find it under siege from these flying lizards. The townspeople were running; guards unsheathed swords (for all the good that was going to do), and I began to sling arrows at the fiend. Dynamic and unexpected interactions like these are the bright spots of playing.

Fighting dragons is unsurprisingly always fun in Skyrim.

It’s these spontaneous reactionary creatures that make Skyrim so appealing. If dragons weren’t included or if they had scripted behavior patterns, Skyrim would only feel slightly different than Oblivion, it’s predecessor.

I frequently find myself exploring the vast wastes just for chance meetings with these aerial menaces. Battling dragons is the true fun to be had with this game – the same can’t be said of the main story.

It’s shocking in many ways. Yes, Oblivion had a dreadfully mediocre primary quest line. But Bethesda rebounded and landed with a ten with Fallout 3. Not just the quests but from point A to B Fallout 3 was a complete quality shift in storytelling from Oblivion’s, “Go in this cave, and kill this guy”, structure.

Unfortunately Skyrim gets its chain boots stuck in the mud of stale quest structure. I’ve yet to feel compelled to do anything for an NPC, even with promises of a reward. There’s a few key elements for why the main story isn’t very engaging and why the side quests don’t feel as rich as Fallout.

It think a big portion of someone’s reason for undertaking a task lies in the reward. Rarely in Skyrim do you get repaid with loot – but what bothers me most is you don’t receive any experience for completed a job. Nothing.

The way you level is purely based on the usage of a skill. Use one-handed weapons, and the experience bar fills as that skill grows. The higher the skill level the slower it levels, but when it does your character will gain more experience. This is a terrific system for combat -- but when you have a game that is filled with this much content I don’t want to get just a pat on the back and a handshake for my efforts. I want that classic experience gain for completing a quest. Otherwise, why the hell did I do it?

Well because it’s supposed to be fun, right? Well I think that’s the biggest problem with Skyrim. The fun, the pure enjoyment of playing is buried. The combat is better, but not great. Visually I had to look twice to remind myself that this wasn’t an expansion for Oblivion. It’s just an ugly looking game on console. Animations and bugs are abounding. So many negatives make me feel like I’m working when I play Skyrim. I have to get myself out of bed and coax myself into playing. Now that’s not fun at all!

Most areas are a step up from Oblivion. But the changes aren't Earth shaking.  

I don’t think Skyrim is a bad game. There’s gold here, you just have to dig for it. But after putting 70 hours in and getting thoroughly bored with the main adventure I don’t feel enticed to continue playing.

Now everybody will go through his or her own experience with this game. I for one found it maddeningly difficult at first. But at this point my character is so powerful (through the use of skill building and grinding for the best armor and loot) I find little challenge even when fighting the biggest meanest dragons. And that was just my chosen path. The game became easy because I knew how to exploit the system, not through cheating; I just saw the strings and manipulated them to the unintentional point where I stopped caring about the game.

This is still a massive game with lots to do. And while there are large complaints about bugs and just questionable game design, Skyrim is still enjoyable in spurts. It’s not a win by any stretch and I question so many news outlets giving it game of the year – that said it seems like most of the entertainment is lying dormant on this disc: it takes lots of effort to get the most from Skyrim. And the appeal has fallen flat for me.

Skyrim is what you make of it. And if you only scratch the surface you’ll be disappointed. Below that surface you’ll find a really good game…but even further below you’ll begin nitpicking everything to the point of dislike. For me, beginning, to end, Skyrim wasn’t great, and at some points it dipped below average. Like I said everybody would take away something different upon playing – make no mistake though when it comes to slaying dragons, Skyrim is number one. In the end that’s some type of accomplishment. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Final Fantasy XIII-2 demo

Just a quick look on this demo since I really couldn’t stand Final Fantasy XIII – not much has changed. Pressing Auto-Attack throughout the entire fight is just as boring as in the previous game. Sure I could queue up each attack individually, but that split second could cost you valuable time used to hit your enemy before it hits you.

Making automatically queuing up commands a necessity. Enemy encounters are somewhere between random battles and what was seen in the original game. You wont see monsters on the battlefield initially, you have to walk past candid areas then they’ll pop out of the ground. A gauge then appears giving you the ability to initiate a preemptive strike: possibly staggering the opponent, which opens them up for meatier damage during a fight.

I do like the pacing of the demo showcased. Final Fantasy XIII-2 had me rushing through areas without too much time to explore. Sure paths only branched in three directions, but I found turning off the map and just walking around at my own leisure far more inviting than the last installment.

A lot of the previous structure still remains intact. The Crystarium is your primary way to level up. It’s still a far cry from what I consider to be the best leveling system in any Final Fantasy game: the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X. You still just press a button on the node and skill you want to unlock. The illusion that you’re customizing your own path isn’t even hidden; you really just choose a power and equip it. Nothing interesting and I don’t know why a classic 1 to 99 level system couldn’t have just been used instead?

What's good is still good, and what's bad is still bad

One new addition does peak my interest. Upon defeating a baddy you have a chance to capture it and have it fight alongside you. This is a treat as from what I’ve seen Noel and Serah are the main playable the cast, party members will only join temporarily. Having these monsters by your side to either heal or deal damage is a nice touch. You can even mix and match them into your Paradigm Shifts to create the perfect battle synergy.

There are some good ideas on the surface of Final Fantasy XIII-2. I’m tentative on whether I’m just done with Square Enix’s long running franchise. It's definitely a love hate relationship. And I feel scorned my last romp with their flagship game. Still for those who loved the original there’s more here for you – for the rest of us who were severely underwhelmed the few tweaks added may not be enough to bring back the love we once had for the fantasy. 

Monday, January 9, 2012


BBC Television series

Series 1

Won over by the crime drama Luther, I decided to take another trip into the realm of British television. Sherlock is a modern-day take on whom else, Sherlock Holmes. Setting Holmes in our current generation is a simple and yet surprisingly easy premise to grasp. As it’s straightforward to turn a lot of what makes Sherlock Holmes fascinating into something that persists even today.

A thing like Doctor Watson, Sherlock’s trusty assistant, is an Afghanistan war veteran to keep up with the times. Instead of writing about each completed case for instance Watson blogs about it. Instead of being a traditional drug addict Holmes is addicted to Nicotine patches. Grounding the show in the now, isn’t distracting at all as I thought in initially might be.

Benedict Cumberbatch really takes Holmes to an even more eccentric place than any iteration I’ve ever seen. To the point where Holmes is so enamored with the riddle that each killer presents that he doesn’t even care if people die. Sherlock Holmes is unlikable by the end of the first season; he’s an emotionless brilliant man but Watson (played by soon to be Bilbo Baggins, Martin Freeman) is the only one that actually cares for the fate of the innocent.

The show never gets too far ahead of the viewer, which is exceedingly helpful. Some shows get so trapped in their own ideas that they leave the audience behind, even the Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes is a little too reclusive in his approach to a crime – so much so that we are left in the dark to the how’s and why’s of the actual mystery itself.

Cumberbatch plays Holmes as a man that sees the world completely different, even mocking the average person’s intelligence. The show still holds your attention as clues are usually presented in the form of text that subtly pops on the screen when an idea forms in Sherlock’s twisted mind.

Martin Freeman is the glue that holds things together: that might sound like a somewhat benign thing to say. But even though Holmes outshines Watson when scouring a body for clues. It’s Watson’s grounded realistic thought that keeps the show from revolving solely around Holmes and his great wit. Watson may not have much input in the investigation front, but his touch of sanity keeps the audience from completely loathing Holmes, which is nice.

Each episode is the length of a short film. But the mystery, and performances keep you from realizing the movie like length; so viewing fatigue doesn’t set in. A show like this can become overwhelming with the amount of information you are presented with. But even the final episode, where Holmes has to solve five cases, never gets too bloated with facts that your head explodes. The show is smart but not so clever that you ask, “what?” Every five minutes. 

I continue to be impressed with the quality programming on BBC. Yes it’s probably been at the forefront of great TV for years now, but sometimes it takes awhile for people to gravitate towards what is popular. Luther and Sherlock are two shows I’ve thoroughly enjoyed in the past few months. Don’t be afraid to think and dive into the unknown, Sherlock will help you with that anyways.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Mobile look: Groove Coaster

Played on the iPhone

Like my favorite rhythm game Rez, Groove Coaster is an inventive game that gives the feeling of creation. Having a simplistic visual style, you control almost nothing as the entire game is on rails. As the funky beats sound nodes pop on the screen, touch them to unleash the song -- that’s the game, just touching to make music, but it’s very addictive.

Each song is no longer than 2 minutes or so, great for just a quick hit of gaming while on the go or waiting around. I found myself getting through a few songs while at work. Most of the tracks are electronic downtempo hip-hop and Japanese pop. But the lyrics and the entirety of the song never really get played out in full until on harder difficulties.

The casual fun is there in Groove Coaster, but it turns into a real game once you play on hard. Along with shorter times between each touch of the screen, swipes, scratches and increasingly more difficult presses are required to complete the tune.

While I love music, like most people I have little ability to make it. Games like Rez and Groove Coaster shine with how they entice you to make the song grow. It’s the closest thing a non-musician can get to producing – I love that.

Not a long game, but unlockable skins and sprites that change the graphics makes you want to keep playing, but its really just the ability to play through a handful of tracks then get back to your day that makes Groove Coaster a joy.