Tag Archives: Renald Lefebvre

The Witness (PC, PS4, XBox one)

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There’s an island covered in puzzles, you solve them. It’s very pretty and and quite breathtaking. There are people statues and tape recorders with recordings of people talking about god — or something. Um… the puzzles get pretty complex. That’s the game.

History

The Witness is the second major release from gaming giant Jonathan Blow, known most however, for his work at the Games Developers Conference. The whole point of the game was to showcase game and storytelling. Not simply delivering a narrative via dialogue but delivering the story and gameplay in a way that only a game can. Allowing game’s talents for exploration and player agency to guide the player naturally through the story and the adventure.

It was released on January 26th, 2016. It’s competition was Pony Island (PC, Mac, and Linux), Darkest Dungeon (PC and Mac), and FNaF World (PC).

Gameplay

The Witness is a game in which the player solves a series of puzzles made like geometric grid mazes. Each one begetting more puzzles and more rules that combine to transform routine puzzles into mind bending affairs often incorporating elements of the natural environment to present meaning. Recordings of the islands, presumed, previous occupants can be found hidden among the puzzles.

The issue with talking about the gameplay of puzzle games is that I cannot speak more about them without spoiling the solution, undoing the point of the game. So I’m instead going to speak at length about my response to those puzzles.

Experiences

I cannot recall the last time a game had me from moment one and then lost me at moment 4. The opening puzzles were a gentle guiding hand, showing the bare basics. As were those outside the first section these served to introduce that some grids had rules and paths that had to be crossed. Then came the symmetry puzzles, which introduced restrictions that complimented the path crossing rules nicely. The troubles started in the Desert Ruins. I could not manage to solve the first puzzle in the sequence.

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This image technically has all the information someone needs to solve the puzzle on this screen. But I could not see it then and can barely recognize it now.

I wasn’t sure if I didn’t know the rule or trick of the puzzle and therefore should wander until I found something different and new that would lead back to this. Or if I didn’t know that I was supposed to understand what was going on. This lead to ten minutes of guessing, checking, and brute forcing in the hopes that finding the solution would reveal what the method to it was. It did not. I solved the first, but when I approached the second I realized I had no idea how I had completed the first and therefore was still unsure whether I had or had not figured things out. It became apparent that my success had been the product of blind luck and that I had learned nothing about the puzzle’s intended solution or method.

I elected to leave, running into more and more areas with more and more puzzles. I was unsure whether or not I did or did not have the tools I needed to solve them. Some I did manage to solve but it felt like dumb luck again rather than the application of concerted thought or effort. I managed to figure out what to do, not by any deductive reasoning, but more like a prehistoric man banging rocks together until one of them gains an edge. Yes, it’s sharp but it also grows dull easily. Thankfully there are always more rocks around but unfortunately the process of chippings rocks takes a fuck-load of time. I found rules that I had previously encountered and thought I had mastered but with new twists that I couldn’t manage to wrap my head around or presented in new ways unlike their previous iterations.

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When I found this I don’t know if I was supposed to understand the little orange squares or if this was the puzzle that was supposed to teach me what they do.

Which would then prompt me to run further, trying desperately to find a group of puzzles that had a thematic link, something that would help me complete them. This was my understanding of puzzle games. Each zone has the basic mechanics of the game but plays with them in interesting and different ways. Thankfully I was able to stumble upon an Orchard and a Zen Garden that offered such things but they too offered seemingly insurmountable walls of difficulty. Somehow this felt worse than bouncing off a series of puzzles wholesale like I had at the temple. Now I knew what I was supposed to be doing, at least I thought I understood the rules and logic, but now I could not manage to apply them.

 Overcome with despair and doubt I committed the great sin of looking up a guide. Particularly for the Desert Temple. It was my understanding that that’s where my confusion began. I figured that if I could complete the puzzles in that area then I would learn more about the rules and logic of other puzzles I had found. Upon seeing the solution and seeing how I was supposed to come to it my immediate response was to wonder in dumbfounded confusion how the hell I was supposed to figure it out. But the response was obvious, “fuck around with it until you figure it out.” Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like fucking around with things for too long. If I don’t apprehend something quickly — I give it 10 minutes of messing around tops — I get the distinct impression that I’m missing something, not that I just need to keep experimenting more.

I continued through the temple hoping that now that I understood the basic logic of what I was meant to do would guide me through the rest. I was wrong, so incredibly wrong. So incredibly guide guzzling wrong. I eventually opened my laptop, with the guide open on it, only glancing at it when I was confused, which was almost constantly. Deeper in the Desert Temple I could not even recognize the method for finding the solution, I only copied them knowing that I would need this logic later, having not learned it and therefore ruining the rest of the game if I didn’t stop using the guide as a crutch. But… I was at a standstill. I could not manage to derive the logic with the guide. Nor could I solve the puzzle without it.

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This is the screen that broke me. Dark, oppressive, probably a little moist but not totally wet, not enjoyably wet. It’s like that feeling of sweat all over the body on a humid day level of uncomfortable. I thought it would be a great place to take a long rest and just sink into the mire of my failure.

And so I quit. I admitted defeat. I wasn’t having anything that could remotely be called fun. I wasn’t experiencing that feeling of discovery I had heard about and read about. Every success only prompted me to consider my past failures or the puzzles that I had found and still had no clue how to even begin to solve. And if I couldn’t understand this logic here, then what hope did I have of understanding the parts I found later?

But I can’t bring myself to give up, I can’t bring myself to leave it behind completely. I know I won’t enjoy it, unless something changes dramatically — either in myself or in the game. But I can’t let it beat me. I was able to finish Bubsy, goddamit and that game’s only got nine lives and two continues. I could certainly finish, but certainly not complete — who knows how many hidden puzzles Blow’s tucked away — the game. But… I dread going back.

The Gush

The world is incredibly pretty, but I often spent too much time looking at it with a critical eye. I was unable to simple smell the fresh air. I was too busy scouring rock outcroppings, trees, and piece of geography in a manic and paranoid frenzy, desperate for direction or meaning. No longer was a derelict ship simply something to look at and explore. It was now, perhaps, some place I would find meaning or more puzzles to solve, perhaps not. Soon I began to suspect that there was no decoration, that every object or surface was some sort of clue that I was unsure whether I could or could not decipher the meaning of. But, at least, it was all very pretty.

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So Idyllic. Wait, are those marks a puzzle? Is there a puzzle there? Is this puzzles?!

The sound design is spot on, the sounds of beginning and completing a puzzle are chipper and encouraging. The sounds generated by failure are not discouraging for the first 20 times or so but after that they get quite grating. Most liberating of all were definitely discovering the sources of the larger puzzles, as the light on the grid gives way to some sort of fire that burns across the lines.

The Kvetch

I think the lack of music is supposed to leave no distractions in the way of figuring these puzzles out but I ended up feeling alone — and not the good sort of ‘company of myself’ alone. I’m talking the ‘looking inward at oneself and no longer recognizing the individual whose eyes I am currently staring from or at’ level of alone. In constant conflict between playing my own music or playing the game as it was meant to be — or something. An Oddworldesque leitmotif ambiance could have been a welcome to distraction to my near constant frustration in the latter portions and maybe helped me understand when I was entering a new zone with new rules.

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Just a little musical change from the paths to the field could make all the difference in teaching me that I’m someplace new. Someplace that is not, ‘new derelict place with puzzles in it.’

God, I wish I could jump. Not huge Mario jumps or something, just little hops. Perhaps the ability to climb chest high walls. I cannot relay the number of times I’ve come to a small cliff I, my literal self, could climb up or down but instead have to find a path around. Sometimes it leads me to lose my way to an area I really wanted to go. But I don’t want to leave this new area behind. I mean, it was put there for a reason right? Was that vista meant to lure me to this point? Is this puzzles?!

The Verdict

The Witness is a game I’ve only played for four hours but has felt like far more and I mean that in the worst way. Every setback, every puzzle I found but did not have the knowledge to solve — but also did not have the knowledge that I didn’t have the knowledge –, every puzzle I could solve but could not apprehend the ruling logic created an incredibly frustrating experience. I feel that searching for a puzzle that I might be able to solve was meant to be an opportunity for a scenic tour of the beautiful landscape. But it instead transformed into a desperate affair. Hoping, often in vain, that I would find something I could call forward progress. Or at least something that would release me of the stubborn feeling of total stupidity that lingered in my success and festered in my failures.

I know that the point of the game is to stump the player until they un-stump themselves but I found the experience of being stumped so distasteful that it was not nearly balanced by those rare moments of brilliance. Any pretense I had to intelligence or discovery was doused in thoughts that someone had been able to solve this puzzle with incredible ease. That even when I had cracked the code it was not impressive or interesting because someone else had. Relating the experience of having cracked it rendered as pointless as going in detail about a dream I had. The Witness invited me into a grand maze, I wandered, and was lost. But I keep coming back in the gloomy hope that I might somehow find my way. Or at least show it couldn’t defeat me.

Next Week: Space Pirates and Zombies

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Super Meat Boy (Xbox 360, PC, Mac, Linux, PS 4, PS Vita, Wii U, Android, and there’s probably some sort of conversion for the Gameboy Advance or some shit, seriously, this game is everywhere.)

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Alright, here’s what you need to know about Super Meat Boy. The Super Meat Boy is a terrific athlete, everyone loves the him. He loves Bandage Girl and they got a good thing going on. Dr. Fetus is fetus in a jar in control of a person suit and a jerk, so he…

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…beats the tar out of Bandage Girl…

…and whisks her away to the improbably large number of properties that he owns. Meat Boy gives chase, but whenever he’s about to rescue her, Dr. Fetus takes her to another location. Locations such as, the nearby woods, a salt factory, and literal hell. Meat Boy is fast and made out of meat so he can jump and run, using his parkour powers to navigate increasingly bizarre and treacherous terrain.

History

Super Meat Boy and it’s development team, Team Meat, spearheaded by Edmund McMillen have a colorful history. McMillen often drew monsters and strange things as a boy and started publishing Flash Games on sites like Newgrounds in 2001. Games such as Dead Baby Dressup, 12 Dead Baby Uses, WWF Baby Dressup, and Clubby the Seal. McMillen’s first commercial release was Gish, in which the player controls a sentient ball of tar trying to rescue his girflriend. Meat Boy was released in 2008 made in Flash and it was quite popular, netting millions of views across the sites hosting it.

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McMillen here sporting his meatiest Garb.

Microsoft and Nintendo approached him about making an expanded game for XBLA and WiiWare. McMillen formed Team Meat with Tommy Refenes to code stuff, Danny Baranowsky to do the music, and Jordan Fehr to make the various metallic and meaty noises. Development started in January of 2009 and in August of 2010 McMillen got word from Microsoft that they wanted the game released in two months for a promotion they wanted to start — even though they would fail to promote the game at pivotal moments. Which prompted McMillen and Refenes to design and code as if their game depended on it — because it did. But the game did get released on schedule to plumb and great fanfare.

Super Meat Boy was released on October 20th, 2010. It’s competition was Fallout: New Vegas (PC, XBox 360, and PS3), Dragon Age Origins: Ultimate Edition (PC, PS3, XBox 360), and Fable III (XBox 360).

Fun Fact: PETA protested the game with the release of Super Tofu Boy. Edmund decided to include an easter egg based on this. If the player types ‘petaphyle’ at the title screen they will unlock Super Tofu Boy, a character so slow and with a jump so low it’s literally impossible for him to complete most stages.

Experiences

I’m not sure how long the leaderboards stay up or if they ever get cleared. Point being I completed a stage so fast that I held the fastest time. It’s an early stage, so it’s not like I’m  master of the game or anything, but I still felt really stoked. The leaderboards are also split between different characters so it’s possible to be the best at your favorite character if Meat Boy isn’t your bag.

Gameplay

Super Meat Boy is a platformer with the sensibilities of Hotline Miami. You’re gonna die a LOT. Pits, sawblades, other meat, cannons, salt, and syringes will all cause Meat Boy to explode in gore and death but he’ll be back in a literal second ready for more. Each world and each level slowly ramps up the difficulty and adds new gimmicks and mechanical elements until it’s a giant mass of fans, conveyor belts, salt streams, cannons, and other things that the player will come to master.

Completing the level is one thing but what’s more important is doing everything in the game — right? Super Meat Boy comes with unlockable characters, collectible bandages, warp zones to alternate stages, dark world counterparts — for those who find the regular levels too easy — , and A+ing every stage by doing it fast. The unlockable characters aren’t just skins, most of them have special and unique abilities which change the way they play, such as Commander Video’s glide or Josef’s propeller head spin. Certain characters are even more effective on certain maps so if you get stuck it might just mean changing up the character you’re playing.

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Characters are unlocked in warp zones and by collecting bandages.

The Gush

The game’s fucking hard to complete 100% and I think all the things necessary to do so actually do a better job at dissuading the player from that sort of behavior rather than encouraging it. I got to chapter four, liked the story, had a blast with the game, and played with all the characters I had unlocked but put it away for a few months when it started to get too tough for me. Now I’m back on the horse and I’m having just as much fun as I did in my first run through. The whole while I don’t feel the pressure I usually do to 100% the game because christ, that would just take too much effort.

When you do finish a level the game runs a replay with every failed attempt running at once. This is one of the most cathartic things on the entire planet. Seeing all of your failures in motion as they fall into pits, get chopped up by saws, or fall into piles of needles while the one who matters gets to the goal really made me feel like I had done good.

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It’s a Thing of Beauty

If you just couldn’t get enough then have no fear, there’s no such thing as enough. The game has a well constructed level editor and those levels can be found in the bonus world, Teh Internets. It might be possible to literally play this game forever.

The Kvetch

Oh no, ooooooh no, the Social Justice Warrior hat is going onto my head. Curse my love of hats, I can’t bring myself to be rid of a single one. Well, the SJW hat is on so I might as well talk about something that I think is ‘problematic’. The game is a send up the platformers and games of McMillen’s childhood so Bandage Girl is gonna get kidnapped — it was an inevitability in design meeting #1. That’s not so clearly the problem because there’s a game mode where you can play as Bandage Girl rescuing Meat Boy instead, so that’s cool. The problem comes in the sheer number of times Dr. Fetus beats the piss out of her. Whenever Meat Boy completes a stage he gets dragged along to the next as Dr. Fetus pummels her mercilessly and poofs them away. It’s just a framing device but maybe not every animation had to be a ‘comedic’ beating. The problem is that the beatings are all game references that seem like their meant to be played for laughs.

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Look away Meat Boy! Look away from the horrid violence against (presumable) females.

Some of the warp zone levels are just leagues more difficult than the world their in. I understand that they’re sort of bonus content but sometimes a warp zone is just too hot for me to handle. It’s a difficulty spike so large that it’s more dissuading than anything. It’s probably just because games of the past have hard-wired that bonus levels are cool fun things.

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This cool thing should not inspire dread like it does for me.

The boss fights are a little meh. It’s tricky business making a boss fight out of a platformer, especially when Meat Boy has no attack. They’re all basically all forced platforming challenges and they’re all pretty good. But they don’t scratch that boss itch like an enemy from another game might.

I’m quite the prude and this game has got a lot of toilet humor. Literally, one of the bosses is a pile of Dr. Fetus’ fecal matter that Dr. Fetus has somehow given sentience. Needless to say I’m not a big fan of it.

The Verdict

Do I gotta say it? This game is seven years old and its’ a fucking masterpiece… if you like platforming. If the allure of jumping and not getting hit by things never appealed to you then this ‘un is not gonna light that flame. But if you ever longed for the days of Bubsy, hard Mario levels, or the madness induced fury of a Ghouls and Ghosts game then this was made for you. For the slick price of $15 it’s cheap to boot, especially considering all of the content therein.

Next Week: The Witness

Antichamber (PC, Mac, and Linux)

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Why are there always facilities filled with puzzles and tests? Between Amnesia, Portal, Mondo Medicals, The Talos Principle, Quantum Conundrum, Tiny Brains, and all the rest how many puzzle filled testing facilities are there? Not to say that Antichamber is exactly like those games but it’s a weird trope that keeps popping up. You’re a faceless operativ, test subject, or something who’s got to solve strange time and space bending puzzles as they attempt to find the center of, or escape — maybe both, the Antichamber.

History

Antichamber was developed by Alexander Bruce and it was a tumultuous creation. Not tumultuous in terms of risk of being shut down or running our of money or something. Lemme put it this way, Antichamber’s development started in 2006 as an arena combat game. It gradually shifted and morphed over time into a single player puzzle game. One of the things that really inspired Bruce to make the change from combat to puzzles was a simple coding error that resulted in impossible geometries.

Antichamber was released on January 31st, 2013. It’s competition was DMC: Devil May Cry (XBox 360, PS3, and PC), Dead Space 3 (PS3, PC, and XBox 360), and Aliens: Colonial Marines (PS3, PC, and XBox 360).

Experiences

Antichamber is a trip, like a straight up drug trip. It’s filled with impossible spaces, bizarre objects, and mind bending puzzles and trials. Unfortunately this creates a situation where getting from A to B is mind boggling and can be incredibly frustrating. Combine that with the game’s two hour time limit and it engenders a lot of stress about getting to the right place at the right time. Another interesting thing about Antichamber lies within the design of most puzzle games. In most games as the player gains access to more verbs and more ways to interact with the puzzle space the game gets more difficult but instead Antichamber becomes more simple as the player’s ability to change their surroundings grows.

Gameplay

Antichamber is a puzzle game that likes messing with the player’s head and revealing more mechanics than meets the eye. The puzzles start off by teaching the player simply how to navigate the bizarre and non-Euclidian space of the Antichamber. At any time they can hit escape and go back to the main room which allows them to teleport to any room or puzzle they have already solved — paradoxically, the player gets the puzzle’s hint after they solve it. Unfortunately I made the mistake of assuming that the map was actually useful, that its paths were truly representative of what the map was like — and it is. But because the paths are geometrically impossible the map is less than useful — the teleport function is incredibly handy though.

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This is not the exception, it is a regular occurrence.

Eventually the player finds a gun like tool that can capture and deploy certain blocks in the environment. These blocks can trigger switches and make good building tools. Then another tool that can capture and deploy blocks very quickly. Then another that can beckon blocks and all blocks connected to that one. And then a final tool that can eat blocks and then spawn nearly infinite blocks radiating from one. I only bring these powers up because I found myself frustrated by not knowing whether I had the tools necessary to complete a certain puzzle. The game attempts to make this clear by color coding the blocks and tool as if to say, ‘do you see red blocks but you haven’t gotten the red tool? Then you can’t handle it yet’. But I was able to solve a puzzle with blocks of a tool I hadn’t gotten yet, and when I did that once I figured the sky was the limit and then later realized my cunning success had simply been a fluke.

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Moving blocks and breaking chains is all well and good but some of these are just wizardry.

The Gush

This game has got impressive visuals. The visual style aside, the things in the game simply look strange. The lighting also gives everything around it an otherworldly air. Any time those colors lights were around my eyes were peeled for secrets or something strange coming up.

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One of the areas is akin to a museum, filled with strange objects and shapes.

The ambient music and noise serves both as a calming agent that kept me from losing my shit in some of the more frustrating moments and as the occasional clue to puzzles. Certain areas have certain music so if the music changed, I knew that whatever I had done had triggered a teleportation effect, for instance.

 

The Kvetch

There’s no narration, there’s often no clear indication of whether something is helping or not, it’s the player teaching themself about the rules of the world. And that’s all well and good but then we get to this thing.

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This bizarre black floating series of shifting cubes emits whispering murmurs and floats around ominously near new tools. I was under the impression that it was something that was menacing and was meant to be avoided. Apparently it’s supposed to intrigue the player because reaching it serves as the overarching goal. I just feel like it gives off bad vibes.

There are a few puzzles that I got stuck on and would not have been able to complete if I hadn’t looked up the solution. Most of them involved situations regarding things I didn’t even know the world was capable of. Bizarre tricks and peculiarities of the game’s rules that are neither obvious nor intuitive.

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There came points, especially near the end, when I thought, “What the hell do I do now?”

The Verdict

I got a little frustrated with it at times, but some of that’s me being bad at puzzle games and some of it’s genuine difficulty in learning certain bizarre tricks.. As such I would recommend Antichamber to anyone who knows what non-Euclidean geometry is and loves to warp their brain. I hate to say it and I don’t want to pull hourage but I got three and a half hours of fun — and thirty minutes of pure frustration — out of Antichamber and with a $20 price tag it’s a little steep for my tastes. With Portal 1 sitting at $10 and Portal 2 at $20 I feel like it would be most satisfying to pick up Antichamber at $15 when it goes on sale next.

Next Week: Super Meat Boy

Unholy Heights (PC, 3DS)

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Hell, a place where the sinful dead of mankind burn in torment for all eternity. It’s a pretty good gig… but not a very profitable one. To make some money Satan sets up a series of tenement housing — hey, chicken people, undead, and demons need homes too. The profits would be steady if it weren’t for all those damn crusading adventurers seeking Satan’s riches — and the few monsters foolish enough to think they can cheat the devil out of his due. Thankfully the tenants neglected the part on the lease where they have to defend Satan to the death in the event of an adventurer incursion — suckers. Fill your housing project with creatures capable of defending it… and capable of paying the rent at Unholy Heights.

History

Unholy Heights was developed by Petit Depotto, a japanese indie game developer composed of a four person team. The overall game was inspired by the leader’s experience with property management, including one tenant who had left in the night never to be seen again. Their website is completely in Japanese so if you’re in need of a laugh, check out Google’s instant translation.

Unholy Heights was released on August 16th, 2013. It’s competition was Payday 2 (PC, XBox 360, and PS3), Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (XBLA), and Papers Please (PC and Mac).

Experiences

Do you remember demos? When you could play a game for a few levels to see if you liked it enough to buy the full product. The year after my graduation from University I let someone stay with me for a few weeks while his apartment application cleared. On an idle evening, in a half remembered rant he relayed to me the demo of a game he played about Satan managing a slum. That game ended up being Unholy Heights and we both immediately bought it. What really surprised me was how different our management styles were. He was throwing people out left and right, while I was more lenient. Until someone neglected to pay their rent for three days running, at which point I would send them on a suicide charge into battle. I’m not sure which of was crueler.

Gameplay

Unholy Heights is a cross between a simulation game and a sort of tower defense. Satan’s tenement consists of 1-4 floors and each floor has four rooms. Each room can contain one tenant.. When adventurers attack, whether randomly generated or goaded on by Satan, you can send tenants to fight the advancing adventurers. Different types of tenants have different attacks so it’s important to deploy and house your tenants tactically.

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Tenants will also shack up with each other and even sire progeny.

Each room comes with available slots for furniture. Certain furniture types enable a monster’s employment while others, like exercise equipment, can increase their combat stats. Other furniture can make the slum more appealing to certain types of monsters. But it all costs gold so you’ll have to speculate to accumulate.

The different types of tenants all have different needs, preferences, and capability of paying rent. Demons for instance love when tenants die, the more of your tenants die the more likely they are to move in. On the flip side, demi-humans hate casualties so they’ll stiff you on rent if the body count starts rising. Some tenants require rooms to be hot or cold. It’s your responsibility as the land lord to make the tough decisions. Do you let the guy who hasn’t paid rent stick around because he’s a good fighter, or do you chuck him out because you really need the cash to satisfy a picky tenant who’s been paying consistently?

The Gush

The monster designs are really silly and fun. I love unlocking new characters just to see what they look like or what they do.

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It’s a deadly, teddy bear, monstrosity that throws magical bolts. Simply Incredible.

The early game is incredibly sentimental. It’s easy to give all of the tenants the attention that they deserve. I really enjoyed learning their daily routines, likes and dislikes, and hoping they would succeed at their job. Not just because it would earn me more money but because it meant I was managing their homes well.

The Kvetch

A lot of the mechanics are poorly conveyed. Inccubi and Succubi for example, lose combat effectiveness when they shack up. And lose even more when they dote on a child. But there’s no explanation of that in their bestiary description. The only way you would notice is if you were watching their stats meticulously.

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I see all these pluses and minuses but I have no idea what’s conferring them.

I found the game trivially easy. It was all a sort of escalating build of stronger monsters vs stronger adventurers. Get melee guys in the front, spellcasters in the back. I would lose most of my tenants every fight. But that would just inspire more demons and undead who respected my victory at any cost mentality to join the ranks. Soon the rooms were full again and in a few minutes they found eager mates who were happy to be a part of this brave housing experiment. Then it was time to invite the next giant wave.

The Verdict

Unholy Heights is casually fun but doesn’t stand up to long periods of play or serious scrutiny. I certainly had fun will my little manor, I was even satisfied laying it aside without finishing the game. But it’s more obfuscated elements will frustrate more serious players and might make casual strategies unsustainable. That being said, this game is a steal at four dollars on Steam. You can literally buy this game with the loose change you find in your couch and I would say it’s worth it. It provided hours of genuine entertainment before it lost my interest.

Next Week: Antichamber

Total War: Shogun 2 (PC)

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The year is 1545 and Japan is gripped in a terrible civil war. The Ashikaga Shogunate –the guys in charge of Japan who generally tell the Emperor what to do — has lost all control over the Daimyo — wealthy land owners who do a lot of killing and not a lot of dying — of the provinces of Japan and now everyone has equal claim to their throne. All they need is sufficient strength of arms. Whether the army consists of peasants armed with spears, devout warrior monks, or the most elite samurai that can me mustered from the realm they’ll fight with all the tact afforded by their honor. Or you could loot, plunder, pillage, and employ enough ninja to choke a horse — you know, you do you.

History

The Total War series has been developed by Creative Assembly and Shogun 2 is no exception. Shogun: Total War was the first in the Total War series and fans had been eagerly awaiting the series’ return to Feudal Japan after the release of Medieval 2. I wasn’t actually able to find much information about the development but I did find a tidbit or two about the advertising. Those who bought the limited edition of the game received access to the Hattori Clan, which would later be sold as DLC. Whereas those who pre-ordered the game from Best Buy got extra in-game currency for the beginning of a campaign.

Every time I hear something like this I’ve left asking, ‘what fuels this pre-order culture?’ It was available on Steam at release so there’s no lack for copies of the game. Spoilers — it’s a good game and I like it. It didn’t need to offer all this useless junk or cut out extra clans to give the game the illusion of value because it is valuable on its own merits. Now I’m cranky and I feel like the game chopped up content to sell later. Which is never a good sign so… why would they do that? Don’t they know they’re just hurting their bottom line?

Total War: Shogun 2 was released on March 15th 2011. It’s competition was Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy (PSP), Crysis 2 (PC, PS3, XBox 360), and Homefront (PC, PS3, and XBox 360).

Experiences

I mentioned in my Medieval II review that I love defending a castle and that passion has not died. If anything, Shogun II has brought it out stronger than ever. The castles in Shogun are much more compact instead of being large sprawling cities. Instead of needing siege weapons, towers, and ladders to scale or break down walls and gates any infantry can climb the walls of the castle or try to burn down gates. Shogun also makes it so any unit defending in the inner fortress has infinite morale and will always fight to the death, they know there’s no other way out. But… the AI does act strangely predictably. They always try to climb over the walls instead of burning down the gates. Someone defending a siege can routinely defend against armies 2 or 3 times their size. It creates these intense situations where an impossibly small force can grab victory from the maw of defeat.

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Fire, blood, chaos, no time for that! There’s glory to be won!

Gameplay

The Gameplay in Shogun 2 is split between managing towns and armies in the overworld and fighting battles as armies clash. Managing your clan consists of choosing what buildings to construct in which provinces. Larger fortresses allow you to build more supporting buildings like dojo to train more powerful samurai or markets to make extra money and help train your secret police. Speaking of secret police –or metsuke, they, monks, and ninja compose the cast of agents to serve a rock, paper, scissors like espionage system. Metsuke catch ninja, ninja assassinate monks — and anyone else you sic them on, and monks send metsuke into contemplative retreats. Each of them can also have effects on towns and allied armies when stationed with them. They can also effect enemy armies and towns in a myriad of ways. Castles and certain buildings also constrict your food supply and starving people are angry people so don’t build too many huge castles without the farms to support them — gotta throw that out there because most of my early campaigns suffered because I didn’t understand that.

Your playstyle is sure to be influenced by whichever clan you’re playing as, each one comes with their own unique abilities. For instance, the Chosokabe Clan make more money off of farms and produce superior archers, or the Oda Clan who produce superior Ashigaru (Peasant troops, cheap, affordable, bodies on the field). Between these traits and each clan’s starting location, and the inherent randomness of events each campaign ends up being unique.

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Or you can choose your clan by the quality and design of their hat. I ain’t gonna judge.

It’s finally time to get on the battlefield and it’s pretty simple. The player is given a tactical view to deploy troops and then they march around engaging in combat and occasionally disobeying orders — some inexperienced troops will charge without orders whereas others will prefer to stand and fight rather than flee. Certain troops are more effective against others so battles come down to having good troop compositions and getting your men where you need them when you need them there.

DLC

I’ve already mentioned the extortionate clan DLC packs but I’ll bring it up again. Three clans and over twenty different unit types meant for the main campaign are held to ransom behind a pay wall. I just checked it out, BLOOD IS HELD BEHIND A PAY WALL! Want your samurai to bleed their last miles from home at the behest of a man far from this bloodshed and mayhem? Welp, you’d best be willing to dish out two dollars for it.

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This is what you’re $1.59 gets you, and shame, mostly shame.

Not all the DLC is bad actually. The game comes with two different campaigns, the Rise of the Samurai and the Fall of the Samurai. Each of these campaigns actually completely revamps the entire campaign with different units, goals, and tactics. The Fall of the Samurai even has a different map and has a modernization mechanics to determine how much of the old ways you’ve left behind. That being said, Fall of the Samurai is thirty goddam dollars but blissfully does not require the original game to play — it’s standaloneness has got to count for something… what it counts for I have no idea.

The Gush

NINJA ASSASSINATION CUT-SCENES ARE BACK! One of the best parts of the original Shogun returns with fanfare. Whenever you send one of your shadow warriors to dispatch an enemy commander or agent you’re treated to a mix and match series of scenes showing how your agent sneaks into the enemy midst, dispatches their enemy — or fails miserably, and how they make their daring escape — or fails miserably.

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They can really strike from anywhere.

The incidental dialogue from each of the characters is in japanese. It’s small but it’s certainly better than the voices from medieval and their insensitive accents.

The mod library for this game is incredibly verbose. If it’s not in the game there’s a mod to put it in. If there’s a problem there’s probably a mod to fix it.

It’s something small but your generals can gain retainers and each one offers small bonuses to various stats like unit morale or general loyalty. Included in the pool of retainers is the Seven Samurai themselves, you know from that movie…

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No, not that one.

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Nope, still not right.

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THERE WE GO! That’s the bunny.

The Kvetch

The land divide is one of the most frustrating mechanics implemented into the game. Once your clan becomes renown enough the other clans will realize you’re a problem and send everything they’ve got at you. Ignoring war with each other, you become the universal enemy of all Japan. And there’s no clear indication that this will happen and once it begins there’s no undoing it. It’s this bizarre point of no return and if you’re not ready for it, the results can be disastrous.

The research system is actually quite interesting but it suffers from one gigantic problem. It takes too damn long. Even if you go full bore for one of the highest level research topics you will never finish it before you’ve completed the campaign. Even in the long campaign. Even on total domination campaign. You can construct buildings like temples and castles to improve research speed but it barely puts a dent in these research times. And some whole units and buildings are locked off behind these research trees so it’s impossible to play with all the toys in a single campaign.

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Each wing takes about 70 turns and that’s for each category. It’s madness.

Naval combat is fucking wizardry. It takes long enough for infantry to change their flank directions or take cover behind a castle wall but the ships move ponderously even by that comparison. I was also never able to figure out how boarding works. The whole thing baffled me so utterly so I ended up employing the auto-calculate function for all naval combats.

Cavalry really seems to get the short end of the stick. The basic unit is a spearman so most armies are composed with the innate ability to defeat cavalry. How far cavalry has fallen since the days of Medieval. Strangely enough cavalry is generally best at defeating more expensive more well put together armies made up of archers and swordsmen. But most armies either have spearmen or naginata wielding samurai so I’m not exactly sure what to do with them. They’re also more expensive to boot so I generally feel like I’m wasting my time hiring these guys.

The Verdict

I know the kvetch is super long but I actually love this game. It’s a super solid Sengoku Jidai based world tactics game. It does a lot to spice up its content between different clans and game styles. The DLC is pretty punitive at full price but it goes on sale often — not that it excuses the badness. The base game goes for $30 and $50 if you want all the DLC, not including the Fall of the Samurai campaign. I would catch it on sale if it sounds interesting.

Next Week: The Guild of Dungeoneering.

Wild Arms 2: Second Ignition (PS1)

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Our tale takes place in the planet of Filgaia. A tumultuous world which faces planetary disaster on a disturbingly regular basis. One such disaster, dealt with mere generations ago, was the Blaze of Disaster. A rampaging demon who was thwarted by Anastasia Valeria and the magical blade Argetlahm. Her descendant, Irving Vold Valeria, senses another disaster on the horizon and has a deep desire to fulfill his lineage. To accomplish this –and save the world but that’s sort of secondary — he reinstates the ARMS program. A crack team of operatives able to respond to threats all over the globe. The team he means to create is composed of Ashley Winchester, a member of the Kingdom of Meridia’s elite military unit. Lilka Eleniak, a very promising sorceress. And Brad Evans, the Prisoner in Cell #666, a former lieutenant in the Slayheim Liberation Army.

History

Alright, here’s what I know about Wild Arms and the Wild Arms series. It was developed by Media Vision in a joint effort with Contrail, drew influence from a lot of westerns, and was released on April 30th, 2000. You might know Media Vision as the people who made Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth.

Other than that, I’ve got nothing so onto the competition, which was: The Misadventures of Tron Bonne (PS1), Perfect Dark (N64), and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (N64).

Experiences

Wild Arms 2 is an insanely long game and having tasted the snow on its peak it pains me to say that I’ll probably never finish it. I was at the point I was completing side-quests and exploring before I went into the final dungeon — this is the age before I had the internet, no guides if there’s something I had to find it myself. Then my PS2 died. I went in on a PS3 with the expectation that it would be backwards compatible as the jump from the PS1 to the PS2 had been. I was sorely disappointed insofar that some games suffered quality loss like The Bard’s Tale and others like Kingdom Hearts RE: Chain of Memories were completely unplayable. Bear in mind, our PS3 was the most backwards compatible. Point being, there was no way to transfer the save and I wasn’t about to put another 40+ hours into the game just to replay it. So it’s probably going to end up being the best game I never beat.

Gameplay

Wild Arms 2 is a turn based RPG with puzzle elements in its dungeons. As your characters roam Filgaia they’ll find tools which they can use on objects to solve puzzles to gain access to additional loot or forward passage. The game also wants the player to treat it kind of like an anime complete with a special introduction whenever they load a save and an ending sequence whenever they use the in-game quit.

The combat system is tricked out with a plethora of toys and techniques to play with.  To begin, the MP system is unique. Instead of MP character’s have FP ranging from 1-100 which increases as they deal and take damage — guarding increases FP gain despite decreasing damage so this is one of the first RPGs n which guarding served a purpose. Higher FP grants characters access to their special weapons, spells, and abilities. Spells and arms don’t consume FP but abilities do. BUT using special weapons, spell, and abilities does not give the character FP. So, you can dish out some damage now, or save up for a more powerful ability later. Ashley’s got his high accuracy, higher damage than his regular attack guns and –spoilers– has the ability to turn into a demon. Brad has incredibly high damage explosive ordinance which suffers from a lower accuracy. And Lilka can take advantage of enemy elemental weaknesses and heal herself with her spells.

In addition to these combat options every level confers an ability point which can be spent on special abilities. Such as regaining health when the character regains FP, turning guarding into a method to actually regenerate health. Or giving a character the ability to counter attack when attacked. Even rendering a character immune to certain status ailments. Speaking of status ailments…

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The counterattack ability combos quite nicely with the FP into Health ability.

Status Ailments in this game are more unique than any other game I’ve seen. Such as Disease which prevents all healing or Nightmare which acts like both poison and sleep. Or Forgetfullness which prevents XP gain. Also, a character can have multiple status ailments at once so if someone’s paralyzed and suffering from a nightmare things are going to get dangerous fast. They’re annoying but they change gameplay in a way other game’s status ailments don’t. If you don’t have the item necessary to heal a status ailment then you can cure them by reaching 100 FP and achieving what the game calls Code Green — and gaining access to the characters most powerful ability.

The Gush

The music in this game is phenomenal. They pushed the PS1’s sound card to its limits. Each character gets their own theme and almost every scene is punctuated with music appropriate to its mood.

Every boss fight starts the sillouette of the creature posing and the camera movements making it appear as if it’s slinking around. Culminating in a splash screen of the monster’s name  and a descriptive phrase e.g. Poison Armored Dragonoid, Trask. It really gets me pumped to fight the terrible beast.

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Disabling boss’ limbs stop special moves and reward the player with more XP.

Brad Evans is every 14 year old DBZ fan’s epitome of badassery. The only reason he joins the party is because Irving has the detonator to a bomb in his throat. His weapon is a giant glove that he uses to crush his enemies and beat them to death. He has a streak of white hair to perfectly accentuate that he’s getting too old for this shit. And to top it all off, he’s gay. When he reunites with his former partner his lover is in a PTSD induced madness coma. And all of his other friends are dead because the Slayheim Liberation Army’s operations ended in a terrible disaster… that got a little too real. Because Brad is too real.

The world of Filgaia exists in this bizarre state. It’s got ancient lost but advanced technology — with more being discovered all the time. Legitimately new technological advances are being made in the world as well. But its very much split between the haves and have nots. All this coexists with a a magical city deep underground where people are taught to be wizards. It’s bizarre, makes no sense, but is an interesting world to explore.

The story is actually quite compelling. It does a great job of presenting escalating threats that culminate into fantastic crescendos of pain and bloodshed. Each character also gets a stunning amount of development from learning about Brad’s troubled past to Ashley’s journey to discover what a hero is.

Secrets! There are secret dungeons, secret summons, secret characters, secret items in dungeons and on the overworld, TRADING CARDS, and more bizarre and hidden shenanigans so keep your eyes open and explore all the hidden nooks and cranies Filgaia has to offer.

The Kvetch

The translation in this game is laughably bad. The dialogue that falls out of characters’ mouths turns quickly into cryptic and absurd mumbo jumbo. Ability names include Hot Fencer and Gat lv 1-4 which is short for gatling which is mean to  imply that the character unleashes a series of blows — how is that hard to get? One of my favorite bad lines is, ‘A broken clock begins to move to some rhythm.’ And this sort of thing happens everywhere, moments are made and destroyed by the quality and lack thereof of this translation.

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Although sometimes it’s on point, though out of context.

I have no idea how the character stats work or what they mean. I know that the higher the better but I’ll be damned if I know off the top of my head what raising my resistance does. Or what the response or sorcery stats are meant to govern. It makes it so I often ignore abilities that raise statistics because I don’t know how they effect my combat abilities.

The Verdict

Now that I think about it… this game is basically an anime that you play. It’s got intros, outros, magical mid fight transformation sequences, a terrible translation, trope laden characters, goofy enemies, and the gang routinely defeats these enemies with the power of friendship. So if you ever wanted to play an Anime this game presents that boldly and without shame. It’s available on the Playstation Network so if you’ve got the time to sink into a massive JRPG then this might fill the mighty void in your schedule. You can get it for the low low price of six dollars so if you don’t mind the blocky battle graphics and you can laugh at a bad translation I definitely suggest giving it a whirl.

Next Week: Total War: Shogun 2.

X-COM: Enemy Unknown (PC, Mac, Linux, PS3, XBox 360, Android, and PS Vita)

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The world is in peril. Overpopulation, mis-distribution of resources, poor leadership, environmental degradation, international terrorism, and now to top it all off intergalactic terrorism. That’s right, the aliens have begun their invasion and they mean business. Why did they choose Earth? Reasons. What’s the purpose of the invasion if their technology vastly surpasses ours? Stop asking logical questions and get ready to fill some little grey men with lead. You are the commander of the vague yet menacing X-COM initiative, which was awkwardly well prepared for aliens to attack. As the commander it’s your responsibility to handle operations, research and engineering projects, and command soldiers in the field to stem the aliens’ campaign of havoc and chaos.

History

The X-COM series has quite a legacy. The first game, UFO: Enemy Unknown or X-COM: UFO Defense in the US, was released in 1994 and featured more tactical elements and way more death. The player could build multiple bases and each sortie generally fielded 14 soldiers who would generally die in one hit. The series was discontinued in 2001 with the release of X-COM: Enforcer.

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This game’s got quite the legacy and it started looking like this.

It was revived as Enemy Unknown in 2012. X-COM: Enemy Unknown was developed by Firaxis Games — who’d have thunk that the Civilization guys would be so good at making X-COM. It was created as a counterpart game for 2K’s The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. Although the games took place in different universes I’ve heard word down the grapevine that Enemy Unknown’s primary purpose was to set the stage for the Bureau. Shocking absolutely no X-COM fans, the turn based tactics game in the vein of the original was more popular than the new game that took place in the 50s or something..

X-COM: Enemy Unknown was released on October 9th, 2012. It’s competition was Dishonored (PC, XBox 360, and PS3), Hotline Miami (PC), and Of Orcs and Men (PC, XBox 360, and PS3).

Experiences

X-COM hit me like a wildfire. I spent 2 days playing it non-stop. When I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking strategy about it. When I wasn’t thinking strategy, it was still in the back of my mind like a Sectoid’s mind control. But now that I’ve finished the campaign I don’t know if I’ll ever come back to it. Now that I know how to get to the final chapter I’m not sure what mystery or challenge there is left. I might pick up the DLC, Enemy Within, I’ve heard good things. But it’s $30 and that’s a little steep. Point being, the draw of the game is the challenge. I climbed the mountain, planted the flag, and I’m essentially contented.

Gameplay

X-COM: Enemy Unknown is a tactical combat game. It’s the standard fare with half cover, full cover, and exploding vehicles and barrels. Sending the commandos into cover reduces the damage they take while flanking enemies increases their chances to get hit. Even though the soldiers are much more durable than they are in UFO Defense they still can’t take a lot of damage — and once they’re dead they’re dead forever. The accuracy of all attacks is determined by a die roll, influenced by the aim of your troops and the strength of the enemy cover so there’s a lot of praying to RNJesus for victory. Different soldiers you have will unlock different abilities — so sending the sniper to the front lines might be a bad idea.

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Every level offers perk choices so two characters of the same class might not be the same.

Things in the field got tricky until I figured out I was neglecting the X-COM base R&D divisions. X-COM base comes fully equipped with an engineering facility and a research lab for developing and building things that will give your team the edge they need to survive and dish out the pain. Like making new weapons, better intercepting aircraft — chasing down UFOs is hard business, shooting them down is even harder–, or constructing and deploying satellites to other parts of the world to monitor their activity. Without satellites X-COM won’t know what’s going on in that part of the world which means the aliens have free reign… which is in fact, no bueno.

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There are also power plants and other such buildings that are boring but necessary.

You fund these new items, fresh soldiers, and expanded facilities with credits passed on by the mysterious Council. The more countries you have satellite coverage on the more credits you get monthly — and the more responsibility on your plate. You can also sell items like alien corpses at the grey market — a little joke that almost passed me by.

The Gush

It’s a double edged sword but I really like the destructible terrain. Even though the aliens can destroy your cover it’s really satisfying when you destroy theirs. Better yet, starting fires can also destroy terrain. So if you can ignite a blaze and lure an enemy into it the results can be pretty humorous. It makes it feel like the more powerful weapons you build still have impact, even if your attacks miss.

The game does a really good job of making you get attached to soldiers right before they’re horrifically murdered. They start off as rookies who suck and are basically fodder for the alien hordes. By the time rookie Hannibal becomes a shotgun toting Assault trooper it the claws were in. Then when the rest of the crew starts calling Hannibal Banzai I really got attached. I start to think about Banzai’s personality. He’s an assault so he’s always rushing in… but maybe he takes too many risks. Maybe he would rather die to spare his teammates the same fate. Then I start playing him a bit too rashly. He meets the wrong end of a Muton plasma rifle but he dies knowing he ate a shot meant for someone else. And that’s how the game gets ya.

The alien designs are really fascinating and visually compelling. Not too busy but with enough visual clues and colorful parts. From the Ethereals’ mysterious, eerie, and silent presence to the simple brutishness of the Muton.

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The Thin Man, my favored alien, has bizarre gangly movements that I find enjoyable.

The Kvetch

I know that these things are aliens and they should be kind of unknowable but there are some enemies whose rules I still don’t understand. And that’s a kiss of death for a tactics game. I need to understand the rules we’re all playing by if I’m going to make tactical decisions. The first mission against certain enemies left me baffled but soon I was developing strategies to handle these new foes. That’s fine. The problem comes with the aliens whose mechanics I still don’t understand. I still don’t know how many Overwatch attacks Sectopods get and I still don’t know how the Muton Berserker or Cryssalids’ melee attacks work. I managed to beat the game anyway but that victory felt unsatisfying because I didn’t fully understand what I was doing. Speaking of Chrysalids…

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You see this thing? Fuck this thing.

I don’t know who designed these things but if I met them I would mention this creature adn just stare at them incredulously for several minutes. This is a Chrysalid and it’s got a number of abilities that all sound totally reasonable until you put them all together. They melee attack for a lot of damage. That’s fine, X-COM operatives all have ranged weapons and can shoot on enemy turns with the proper preperation. When they kill something that unit rises from the dead as a zombie. Also fine, the zombies do more damage than expected but they’re slow and have low defense. The problem comes when three turns after a zombie rises it erupts into a new Chrysalid. These creatures are the main enemies in the Terror Missions which showcase combat arenas filled with civilians in need of rescue. Defenseless civilians make great hosts for Chrysalids which then beget more Chryslids. Defending against them is easy but I still haven’t found a good way to mount an offense.

Here’s something that happens with startling regularity. I’ll have a marine happily ducking behind cover when a Space Ogre will destroy the cover he’s hiding behind via grenade or random plasma fire. Then all of his Space Ogre Friends will abandon their defense and charge the bastard as they blast him with plasma fire. It’s frustrating enough to make a guy abduct and then probe himself. Each of the X-COM soldiers takes multiple missions to rank up but these aliens are expendable and the more they act like it the more frustrating it is. It doesn’t happen often enough but when it does it’s incredibly dissatisfying to see, what I considered to be AI logic, get thrown out the window.

The Verdict

This game was a killer. I installed it, beat it in a few days, and I probably won’t go back to it. But I was totally hooked for those few days. It’s not like the game doesn’t have replay value. Beating it unlocks a bunch of options that change the way the game is played like giving weapons a wider range of damage for instance. Not to mention the DLC, which I find pricey, but hear is a good deal. I don’t want to call it a flash in the pan because I know it’s better than that. It’s like a flash in the pan of a fantastic kitchen that’s making a fresh remake of an old dish you love while time is dilated really slow so the flash seems like it lasts way longer. Yeah, that’s a good metaphor.

Next Week: Wild Arms 2