Wednesday, 26 May 2010

A Nier do well

I really don't like puns. That is, I don't like them because I'm so revoltingly bad at them and Nier is actually a game I've having a rather wonderful time with. After many weeks of barely gaming at all and even less writing it's been nice to ease back into a game that isn't flashy or particularly gorgeous but still manages to give me an experience that feels... worthwhile. If I had my enthusiast gamer hat on then the list of concerns would be long and boring but none of them get in the way of the setting and characters.

Unlike Darksiders (which I did not like at all) Nier feels much more coherent and meaningful to me. The cornerstone of the entire game is the protagonist's driven desire to cure his daughter's fatal illness. The nature of this and the history of the post-apocalyptic future is yet to be fully explained even after seven hours but instead of feeling directionless, it helps Nier to brings its characters forward.

The main guy himself is immensely likable, and comes across as a gentle father who will do everything to save his daughter and help others along the way. He never feels like a wishy-washy Paragon Jedi and the gruff voice acting is a perfect foil for the generous acts and gentles dialogue he can deliver. In the process of saving your daughter from an early threat the game introduces Grimoire Veiss (sounding like a camp Alan Rickman, if that's possible) - a talking book that gives you the magic powers that make combat vaguely more interesting than just slashing your sword.

Inanimate objects always need strong personalities to bring them to life and Weiss is wonderfully sardonic, pithy, arrogant and yet also shows more humanity than many other videogame characters you'll likely to comes across. There's a great rapport between these two characters and it’s a testament to the translation team's talent that they make a relationship between a human and a book feel remotely believable and funny.

The only character that stands out for the wrong reasons is Raine. Not for her dialogue, which is brash and offensive in all the right ways, but the fact that her voice simply doesn't match the visual character model. It's the same problem I had with Splinter Cell: Conviction and it makes a striking difference to how legitimate she feels as a character.

Objectifying women isn’t the exclusive domain of Japanese developed games but Nier’s Eastern origins are pretty obvious with Raine dress-sense. The game even draws attention to this issue with a few disparaging comment from Veiss about Raine wandering around in her underwear. I often wonder if this gratuitous self-awareness is put in as an excuse for putting some young girls butt-crack on display, or whether they’re just taking the piss out of their own audience.

Regardless, I’m enjoying Nier far more than I thought I would considering my rocky past with most action-RPGs. It’s moments where the gameplay changes from a typical sword & sorcery setup into a twin-stick shooter or bullethell level seamlessly makes me believe this could be something special.

With bad things happened to good people within the story I have a feeling that Nier has a lot more depth hidden away during its latter parts. I can only hope my pun-generator can get produce something of mediocre value the next time I write about it or I’ll Nier hear the last of it. Ugh.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

On holiday with Mother 3

The only great thing about going on holiday with a self imposed ban on all “new” games and game systems means I’m forced to experience some RPG called Mother 3. Yes, it’s that time in every ‘I want to write meaningfully about videogames bloggers life’ to scrawl something about this un-translated work. Un-translated by official means that is. I won’t try to pull a righteous than thou attitude and say I bought the original cartridge or some shit – I torrented the ROM and downloaded the fan-made patch just like 99.8% of the player base.

After only three hours I can’t really say much about the story only that its first chapter does everything you’d want a sprite-based RPG to do. Children, family, happiness and light turning to death and despair, strange stuff going on, feelings that the world is changing – all essential RPG primer for a potentially epic tale.

What I love so far are the character sprites. There’s something so basic yet beautifully expressive about the way all the characters have been drawn in this game. And this is just the NPCs we’re talking about. Every one of them is so unique and individual that it puts every other sprite-based RPG to shame.

As good as these look on my crappy Game King screen (complete with three dead pixels ithankyou) it’s the manner with which they’re animated that makes them come alive. When Flint gets his bad news the stop motion animation makes it so easy to see exactly what he’s doing and what he’s feeling.

One of the most bizarre moments of the first few hours which proves you can still do epic on a handheld is the appearance of the massive character just outside of town. At the moment he’s seems to serve no purpose and only lifts his hat courteously when approached. But just seeing this tall man, four times the size of every other character scared the life out of me for some reason. It’s an odd inclusion that may or may not become clear later, but it’s a quirky bullet point that ticks the right box for me.

What I’m a little unsure of is the translation and the dialogue. By Thorin’s left testicle I’ve no idea how fans managed to take the raw Japanese and translate this entire game – and patch it back up to work. It’s a feat that transgresses the limits of my pitiful mind quite easily. Yet I’m not sure if the game itself was actually trying to be that dippy or if the translation team were. For the most part it seems to work fine but on other occasions, the moment when Flint receives his good news/bad news for instance, it feels a little cold and out of place. It’ll become clear after dozen hours and I could be ignoring a massive style of the Mother games due to my criminal ignorance. Yeah, it’s probably the latter. I guess I’ll shut up.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Splintering my Fragile Dreams

I had hoped to be earlier with this post but... oh y'know, preparations for moving house, several deadlines, the baseball season or feeling burnt-out. They all conspired to keep me from being regular about anything.

So back to Fragile Dreams before I uncork Sam Fisher. There's no doubt I entertained this game a little too much during the first couple of hours and in my last post, mostly because it felt good to not play a shooter or a highly-involved RPG. The slow nature of Fragile Dreams was a welcome change of pace that papered over a number of bone-crunching flaws that eventually came to the surface after finishing all of its eight hours. Though I still like the setting and the melancholy atmosphere that pervades every part of the experience it just doesn't do enough with its premise and setting to make slogging through the combat worthwhile. It's a classic case of older game design ruining an idea that could've been something special. If it had followed (or led) Silent Hill Shattered Memories example by reducing the combat to just 'running for your damn life' then it would have made the needless backtracking feel a little less... well, needless.

When you have an awkward combat system and antiquated level design/direction then any story is caught up on those game-breaking barbs. I will say that Fragile Dreams had some beautiful moments in it. The entire level with Crow was fairly irritating but the underlying history of that character and the fact that he kisses the main character, on the lips, was a pretty special and hilarious moment.

My full review is on GamePeople along with my Heavy Rain and Final Fantasy XIII musings as well. I shall probably put up my full 1,500+ words review of FFXIII on the blog, uncut and unedited. Not because I think my greatest words were cut by the evil hand of the GamePeople overlord (though that is an awesome thought) but because it was one of the games I seemed to think the exact opposite to everyone else.

Moving on, I also burned through Splinter Cell Conviction for a mainstream review and ended up finding a few interesting points to put into a soulful gamer critique. It's biggest impact on me wasn’t the overall story which couldn't be more typical of an 24-style action-film if it tried, but the manner with which it depicted the killing of civilians. I think the visuals of this game aren't exactly stellar but the sound and incidental voice acting (in parts) is incredible (the enemies still sound like a self-parody). Hearing the sounds of scientists and workers being executed was harrowing and there are a couple of specific scenes I mention in my review that stood out especially.

I think this is Conviction's best part. It's not pleasant or fun, but the way it portrays violence, death and interrogations is incredibly brutal but understated enough to stay within the realm of reality. Understated is the wrong word but I find most videogames closer to comic books with their 'realistic' violence than successfully being edgy or dark. Conviction doesn't fall into that trap and made the slaughter of innocent civilians feel uncomfortable and nasty.

Another kind of slaughter - that of monsters - is what I have to look forward to next week as Monster Hunter Tri takes up residence in my Wii. I have to admit that I liked the PSP versions, purely as a dungeon crawling game and I'm interesting to see what the transition to the Wii does for the series. I doubt it'll be anything meaningful but if all else fails I have a copy of Toyko Beat Down that'll let me focus on the existentialism of being a hard-boiled cop in the Shibuya district. Or not.