Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Soulful gaming roundup - 24/03

After 30 hours of play I am supposedly hitting the 'good' part of Final Fantasy XIII this week. As usual I'm finding the internet a mixture of lies and deceit when it comes to Square Enix's long running franchise. I've made no secret on Twitter that I'm enjoying the streamlined nature of FFXIII and I constantly find myself wondering what other players want this game to be. Reaching Chapter 11 this week has shown that FFXIII doesn't really do open-world stuff very well - at least not to me! The plains of blahdiggety-blah-blah look impressive (even on the 360) but going back and forth, running errands for long-dead l'Cie strikes me as, er, dull.

Of course, this is where the FF vets will grab their gunblades and tell me that this open-world, non-linear struture is A Good Thing. I'm not averse to that type of gameplay in the slightest, but having a really good narrow experience for thirty hours and then breaking it open like this feels like bad pacing to me. Beleive it or not, I'm really interested in these characters, the world and the story that's going on around them and would rather push ahead than spend four hours grinding up levels just to access the next chapter.

It strikes me that the developers made a concious effort to make a very different and accessible Final Fantasy and then got cold feet about the whole business and opened it up again. Through the osmosis of the internet I know this is only a passing moment, but it still feels oddly thrown in to appease the kind pf players who would have thrown FFXIII in the bin by now.

Enough of the Final Fantasying. Also this week I've got my hands on... *adopts Japanese shouty voice* SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI STRANGE JOURNEY!! It's a DS game I've been looking forward to for months and one that seems destined to be ignored by most of the UK - mainly because Atlus has no plans to release it here. (Sad face).

After three hours I can confidently say that its a very SMT-like experience with traditional turn-based combat and its demon-adopting/taming/fusing awesomeness. It's way too early to pass judgement but when Jeremy Parish of 1Up infamy calls it the best RPG release in March it gets me all tingly for what's to come.
Don't laugh. Please.
On the opposite side of the spectrum I've finsihed ploughing through my copy of Rune Factory and a review should be hitting the GamePeople servers very shortly. Those Harvest Moon folks really do make games that are easy to slate from an enthuisiast videogamer standpoint but there's something amazingly additive about sowing crops, catching monsters and wooing Japanese ladies. Soulful? Well that remains to be seen and many of these games rely on the player to use their imagination for the best experience. Something I'm not averse to using every now and then.

On a similar note I've also been doing the same on my iPhone - a device I actively refuse to play games on normally - and raking hours into the free-to-play We Rule. Expect a post about that very soon also.

What I won't be writing about any time soon is Yakuza 3 which is sitting forlornly on my shelf why I try and get through Final Fantasy before the end of the month. That and Heavy Rain (the game that seems to have 'Soulful Gamer Will Cry!' written all over it) are just going to have to wait until I get Lightning and her crew to their finale.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Bioshock 2 -> Review

[Originally posted on GamePeople]

Bioshock 2's essence feels somehow diluted by returning such a hallowed location. Although the atmosphere and environments conjure up the same rich experience, the story and revelations regarding Rapture's continued demise were not nearly as powerful as they could have been.

The most fascinating part of the original Bioshock for me was the journey through Rapture. The slow descent into this failed utopia, unearthing its brave vision and ultimate destruction, went hand in hand with the discovery of your own characters history and purpose.

The real star was Rapture itself and not the compelling personalities of Andrew Ryan, Frank Fontaine and Sander Cohen. In this sequel I found neither the new parts of the city or the characters sufficiently interesting enough to hold my attention.

Set ten years after the events of the first game you play as a Big Daddy, one of the hulking sea-suit wearing protectors of the Little Sisters. The premise for the game centres around finding the specific Little Sister you were bound to in the beginning. This girl also happens to be the daughter of Sofia Lamb - the game's deranged antagonist who's restarted the Little Sister project for her own disturbed philosophy.

At its heart the tale is about a father and daughter desperately trying to reunite even if the blood ties to them are a fabrication. It's a great motivator to get you to point A to B, pulling switches, throwing levers and generally causing more havoc and destruction to Rapture's continued demise.

Though the story was quick-paced and offered a few moral choices along the way, I never felt it breached the deeper subjects the first game paid attention to. There's no extension of the Ayn Rand philosophy that bled through the entire original, none of the revelations that made your encounter with Andrew Ryan or Sander Cohen so memorable or shocking.

It's easy to make these comparisons and portray Bioshock 2 in a less-than-flattering light. The game stands on its own as an excellent experience but I always felt the shadow of that first game hovering over my shoulder pointing out the cracks in this experience and nulling any emotional attachment I had for any of these new characters.

In many ways Bioshock 2 on PS3, 360 or PC is the greater videogame. All the technical aspects are superior in nearly every way; but with this advancement I feel many of the deeper considerations of the original have been lost. The addition of the Big Sisters - a lithe and acrobatic version of the Big Daddies - feel far too ‘videogamey' for a world such as this. The worst offenders were the Brute Splicers, the oversized and bloated enemies that felt totally out of character and looked like they belonged in Left 4 Dead rather than within Rapture's creaking walls.

This isn't to say that I didn't find pockets of true meaning. Bioshock is always at its best when Andrew Ryan is either speaking or being referred to and the entire level of Ryan's Amusements gives a glorious insight into the arrogance, genius and showmanship of Rapture's founder. Stumbling through the dilapidated museum exhibits and the broken funfair scenes evoked a real sense of history, doing a great job of making Rapture believable and more disturbing in the process.

The other moment which gave me an unexpected shock showed that the Splicers weren't always the deranged killers. In an early level I crept into a cabaret bar. On the stage, caught in a tender embrace were two Splicers gently dancing to the strains of The Ink Spots. It was an amazing moment. Here, amid the psychopathic terror of creeping around Rapture was a glimpse into the past, of when the inhabitants of this beautiful city were still human and unravaged by the addiction to ADAM.

Only after I saw their bodies lying next to each other did I realise that I had acted just as the rest of the deranged splicers would have done. Not thinking or reasoning - just succumbing to basic emotions and killing everything in my way. It made me question my motives within the game and whether or not I was just as brutal and soulless as everyone else in Rapture.

Though all these positive aspects come together to create a game worthy of the Bioshock name I couldn't help feel hollow at its end. The experience felt like traversing a huge Frankenstein's monster - all the parts were in the right place and a fresh life-force flowed through its veins - but Bioshock 2 ultimately lacked the same soul which made the original so unique and memorable.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Endless Ocean 2 -> Review

Endless Ocean 2: Adventures of the Deep brings a gentle and calming underwater adventure to the living room that, in spite of the Wii's awkward motion controls, succeeds in transporting you to a serene world.

[Originally posted on GamePeople]

I was surprised to find myself enjoying the peaceful moments of diving amid the coral reefs and following the hokey story to its gentle conclusion and even more surprised to find parts of the game fairly intense. The only aspect that threatened to ruin the experience was with the Wii's motion controls that frequently tried to eclipse the game's overall beauty and calmness.

I couldn't say that I looked forward to playing Endless Ocean 2. The first game appeared to be nothing more than a glorified diving sim that had you cataloguing endless sea-life with blocky graphics and a perpetual new-age soundtrack droning along. It certainly wasn't a terrible game but it lacked drive and purpose. But not for the first time I found myself completely wrong about a series of games. In spite of my snooty attitude to the visuals, I found Endless Ocean 2 a tremendously relaxing and interesting experience.

The changes from the first game are apparent within the first few hours and I was relieved to see that the job of Marine Biologist had been pushed to the periphery in favour of a more interesting, story-driven career. The option to scour the reefs and sea bed for unusual sea-life is still available but the game doesn't require that same level of commitment to the cause as the first one did. None of that naming and photography business interested me at all.

I felt I shouldn't really have been interested in the story either, but Endless Ocean 2 has a certain charm - a friendly Tomb Raider-like appeal - that saw me exploring and discovering Lapis tablets and mysterious messages with relish.

I described the story as hokey, and while that's true it still fits the overall vibe of the game. This isn't in any way an accurate portrayal of scuba-diving. There's no danger in dying and attacks by sharks or poisonous fish merely mean a depletion of your air tank - there's no health bar to worry about and even an empty tank simply transports you immediately back to the boat. The characters are oddly portrayed and I can't be the only person slightly uncomfortable with having a close friendship with a 15-year old girl as my diving partner. There's even a jive-talking black American among the cast that immediately made me think this was a Japanese developed game - and, it turns out, I was right.

But all of these video game tropes fit together nicely and I found myself getting pulled into the globe-trotting tale of ancient civilisations and the personal voyage of discovery my young companion was on. There moments during the exploring that I found myself comparing the game to Tomb Raider Underworld and more specifically the underwater exploration sections that game did so well. Unfortunately this only made me see the flaws of the Wii's controls and despite getting hooked on Endless Ocean's environments and story, the awkward way of moving and using items nearly broke the whole experience.

The real reason I love Endless Ocean 2 is because it has an environment, a heart and soul that gave me beautiful moments that no other game could ever hope to achieve. One such instance occurs early on when I discovered an ancient castle. I was swimming through a long resplendent corridor and as the fish swum amongst me the pale light of the sun came through the crumbling windows. I found the portrayal of such a long-forgotten place amongst the sea-life as the song 'Nella Fanstasia' echoed within the walls quite magical. The fact it was the good version of the song and not some Sarah Brightman warbling nonsense all the more moving.

The other instance that impressed me so much is down to a personal fear of water. I find the idea of being under the sea terrifying and the game does a great job of portraying a sense of depth and scale that effectively made me sweat on several occasions. Endless Ocean 2 tapped into my personal fear and made my experience far more meaningful than I ever thought a mere diving sim would.

Endless Ocean 2: Adventures of the Deep feels like a game I shouldn't like. It should appeal to the ultra-casual Wii crowd and serve as a reminder that Nintendo's console is a true family favourite that offers experiences for all types of gamers. But it has a certain charm and genteel nature that sucked me right into its watery world. The special moments I found the game providing were sublime and down to atmospherics rather than obvious story-driven events. This is a very different video gaming experience, and proves games can still surprise us.