Monday, December 29, 2014

Game Review - DmC: Devil May Cry (Xbox 360, 2013)

On the list of franchises I expected to get a gritty, real-world reboot, Devil May Cry was pretty far from the top.  It does make some sense in retrospect: there's always a market for good third-person action games, and if you remove some of the the cheesy lines and smarmy protagonist and tie the plot more closely to the real world, you just might have a quality title all around.

In the end, I think DmC does a great job in both respects.  It's an impressively fun hack and slash game, and the story is a nice re-imagining of the Devil May Cry premise.  Here's why:

DmC follows Dante, handsome rogue and lady-killer, as he is drawn into a demonic plot to destroy the world.  You know, pretty basic stuff.

There are two pretty good reasons that the story is worth experiencing, though:

First, the demonic plane, Limbo, exists parallel to the world we all know and love.  The locations are similar, with Limbo being a generally perverted version of the same landscape, and changes in one world affect the other.  This setup allows for some interesting dynamics and plot points along the way (though nothing that has a significant impact on gameplay).

Second, the overall visual style is breathtaking.  Locations range from mundane warehouses to hopping clubs to molten hellscapes, and each has a distinct and impressive style.  Characters and monsters are similarly detailed, and while things can get a little weird at times, it's always fantastic to see.

Aside from those broad categories, nothing in the game's plot really stands out, good or bad.  It's a different take on the Devil May Cry storyline (with much of the character backstories carried over from the original), which I found cool as a longtime fan of the franchise.  For others, the storyline leaves a bit to be desired in a few places, but it was still interesting enough to keep me from getting bored during brief cutscenes between gameplay segments.

Speaking of gameplay, the real reason you should play DmC is the opportunity to slaughter thousands of demons in the most stylish of ways.

The basic gameplay of other Devil May Cry titles remains intact: fluid combat with a variety of weapons and combos for dispatching enemies.  As you progress, you'll unlock more weapons and related combat abilities, allowing for more complex combinations of moves.  You can even switch between weapons very easily during a fight, which lets you chain cool attacks together in exciting ways.

The combat system is really deep and executed very well.  It's incredibly satisfying.

I really only have two complaints.  First, the camera can be a huge pain in the ass.  There's this lock-on system the focuses your view on one enemy.  It's really nice most of the time, but when you're fighting half a dozen demons and need to change targets on the fly, it can get really awkward.

Second, I found some of the combos to be rather hard to pull off.  I'd love that added difficulty if they were more powerful or beneficial in some other way, but that didn't seem to be the case.  The result is that I ended up using the same set of combos pretty frequently for most enemies.  It was still a pretty diverse set of combos (using only one combos for each of the five melee weapons still yields a nice spectrum of attacks), but there was really no incentive to explore the rest of Dante's combat skills.

Still, it was tons of fun fighting my way through the game, which took me around 7-8 hours to complete.

Like previous Devil May Cry games, however, there are many additional difficulty modes to tackle once completing the story the first time.

Two of the additional modes increase the difficulty, but not just by making monsters stronger.  Instead, they change the composition of enemy groups.  These changes require you to change tactics instead of just becoming more precise, which makes playing these difficulties a different experience than your first playthrough.  It's the best kind of replay value.

The other two additional modes provide a unique twist.  In "Heaven or Hell" mode, Dante and all enemies die in a single hit, changing the dynamic of the game considerably.  It's much easier than the main game, but it's another unique experience.

"Hell and Hell" makes Dante as fragile as in "Heaven or Hell" but leaves his foes at their normal power level - you'll die in one hit, but the demons won't.  It's definitely the biggest challenge the game has to offer and yet another new perspective on DmC's gameplay.

All told, running through the additional game modes can bring the game clock up to 30+ hours, with a fair number of challenges, if you're up to it.

DmC is overall a great game with tons of replay value.  There's nothing groundbreaking, but its smooth execution makes for a very entertaining game with more longevity than most single-player games on the market these days.  It's definitely worth a look.

My Rating: 9/10 - awesome.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Game Review - Darksiders II (Xbox 360, 2012)

My favorite games have always been those that force you to solve puzzles to progress.  I really enjoy defeating challenging enemies and managing limited resources in addition to more traditional puzzles.  If a game can successfully integrate many of those kinds of elements, it's almost a sure thing that I'll like it.

Darksiders II does an excellent job of combining exploration and that sort of problem solving, making for a wonderful gaming experience.  Here's what you can expect:

Being a direct sequel, Darksiders II follows closely behind its predecessor both in terms of gameplay and story.

On the story side, we get to see Death, one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, set out to redeem his brother (War), who is blamed (fairly or not) for the destruction of humanity.  In this quest, he confronts angels, demons, and everything in between as he searches for the relics necessary to resurrect the human race.

The storyline is actually pretty thin.  The vague connection to Christian mythology isn't fleshed out, and the plot is nothing more than a vehicle for "go here, do this thing, and come back."  The good news is that it doesn't force you through long sequences of boring cutscenes or tedious dialogue, so while the story doesn't enhance the experience, it doesn't really detract from it, either.

The gameplay, on the other hand, is solid.  It's a third-person action-adventure game in all the important ways.  You'll guide Death through a rather expansive world and numerous dungeons, all while slaying any monsters that get in your way.  Darksiders II feels like a particularly good take on the genre because each of its components are exceptionally done.

Let's start with the exploration: After passing through an introductory area and becoming acquainted with the story, you'll be sent to the first dungeon.  Along the way to completing your first major mission, you'll pass an optional side area to explore.  It sets the tone right away - there are primary objective you could pursue, but you could also get lost following side paths.

Sadly, the later stages of the game lose some of that sense of exploration, as side paths disappear completely from the last few areas.  It's a disappointment to be sure, but the main story dungeons become increasingly large and complex as the game wears on, making up for some of that lost exploration.

And those dungeons are surprisingly well done.  Each one presents a new goodie to help you progress, but unlike a lot of games of this genre, most of those items are used in later dungeons as well.  Off hand I can only think of one that doesn't make a repeat appearance, making the items feel much less gimmicky than they might otherwise seem.

This scenario often means that the puzzles themselves can get rather challenging.  It was nice to have to stop and think about the right way to progress on several occasions, making successful completion of a puzzle particularly satisfying.

Combat is similarly well done.  It plays a bit like a hack and slash game, with fast, flowing battles against several enemies simultaneously, and the basic controls are fluid enough to allow that style to shine.

Darksiders II has a leg up, though, because it incorporates light RPG elements as well.  There's a leveling and skill system that allows you to enhance Death's fighting capabilities, which allows some customization based on your preferred combat style, even if it's not incredibly deep.

There's also a heavy emphasis on loot in the form of equipment.  Following the tradition of dungeon crawlers, items will drop from chests and defeated foes, so there's always a drive to find better gear.  You can also purchase items from a few merchants throughout the world, giving you guaranteed access to some baseline item quality.

The only real flaw with this system is one that is fairly common with this sort of game: there are few enough things to purchase and they are cheap enough that you'll basically always have enough money starting about halfway through the game.

Despite all that, the battles in Darksiders II are never too easy (at least on higher difficulty settings).  I found myself struggling with some of the random encounters throughout the game.  Many of the game's epic bosses require some strategy and precise timing to overcome.  And, yet again, it can be quite satisfying when you finally do, as none of them really feel cheap.

Honestly, I was a little disappointed with some of the fight sequences near the end of the game, as they seemed to be pushovers compared to what happened during the mid-game, but I still had a lot of fun with it.

Nothing in the game feels groundbreaking or exceedingly clever, so there are limits to how good it gets, but it's a great incarnation of a classic genre.

On the more superficial side, the game gets the job done.  Nothing really stands out graphically, in either a positive or negative way, though there are some cool cutscenes and many of the game's environments are fantastic.

I was impressed by the game's soundtrack, though.  Many of the tunes did a great job of highlighting the tension of certain scenarios and brought a feeling of solemn isolation during others.  In the end, the soundtrack resonated with me a lot more than I would have expected it to.

And all that combined makes Darksiders II an enjoyable game.  It took me somewhere around 25 hours to complete my first playthrough (though I did most of the side quests and side dungeons).  While the last quarter of the game kind of drags a little bit, it smoothly integrates a number of different elements and genres (there's even a portion that plays like a third-person shooter, and it works!).

I had a very good time with it, and I highly recommend it.

My Rating: 8/10 - great.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Game Review - Far Cry 3 (Xbox 360, 2012)

I recently started watching Arrow, the tv show based on Green Arrow from the DC universe.  One of the reasons I enjoy the show is the character's backstory - harrowing experiences on an isolated island transform a trust fund baby into a vigilante hero of the masses.  It makes for some pretty exciting flashbacks.

The basic premise of Far Cry 3 follows a similar narrative.  A band of pirates abducts a group of twentysomethings vacationing near a remote island.  The protagonist abandons his humanity and becomes a cold-hearted killer to save those he loves.

While the story is built on a solid foundation and the gameplay is very well polished, a few annoyances stop the game from being truly top-tier.

Let's start with the story.  Far Cry 3 suffers from an unfortunately common problem in gaming, where the story starts strong but fizzles a bit in the later acts.  The script is generally pretty good, and the voice actors do a great job of bringing life to their characters, but I found I wasn't invested in the story by the end.

I think that mostly has to do with the fact that there are some fantastic characters and a compelling conflict early on, but as the plot progresses, those are replaced by story elements that pale in comparison.  I was excited to see where it was going, but I was let down by where it ended up.

To make matters worse, I think the story should end a couple missions before it actually does.  There's a sequence at the end that really feels tacked on and detracts from overall plot significantly.  It was simply unnecessary and disappointing.

That said, it does feature one of the most memorable characters I've ever encountered in a game, so playing through the story still has a lot of value.

The gameplay has a very similar vibe - a few disappointing design choices sting a little more because it's generally very well executed.

Far Cry 3 is played from the first-person perspective, but it doesn't feel like your stereotypical first person shooter (like the world's Call of Duties).  Instead, the game emphasizes stealth augmented by RPG-style skill trees.

Honestly, I think that's the game's biggest strength.  You're generally better off sneaking around silently eliminating enemies than running in with the biggest guns available, especially on harder difficulty settings.  It makes for a more strategic gameplay experience.

It's a lot of fun stalking guards and waiting for the right time to strike, and the skill system enhances the entertainment.  There are three skill trees, essentially focusing on combat, survival, and stealth, and you collect skill points by earning XP for killing enemies or completing objectives.  I found many of the skills to be borderline worthless, as they only applied in one or two instances, but planning the customization of my character was still enjoyable, and some of the skills had a pretty significant impact on how I approached encounters.

Sadly, this emphasis on stealth was also the cause of one of the game's sore spots: most missions encourage stealthy approaches by having wide areas and observable movement patterns.  Near the end of the game, however, you're forced into a few big firefights in close quarters (as far as I could tell; maybe I just couldn't figure out how to stealth my way through these sequences).

It's like the majority of the game prepared me for one play style but then punished me for focusing on it.

Fortunately, the main quest line is just one piece of the game's content.  Among the other ways to keep yourself occupied are sidequests (ranging from hunting missions to executing specific targets to searching for objects in a given area), timed challenges that allow you to compare your high scores to your friends', and generally exploring the gorgeous open world of these remote islands.

While some of these excursions can get a little tedious - there are, for example, some platforming sections, which is always a bad idea in games where you can't see your character's feet, and traveling from one objective to another can be frustratingly long at times - it's overall a nice diversity of in-game tasks.

The game also has an appropriate level of challenge - higher difficulty settings can get quite hard near the end of the game, but even the easiest setting isn't a cakewalk.  It's pretty generous with checkpoints, though, so you never lose much progress if you make a mistake.  There seemed to be the right balance of difficulty (to make me feel like I'd accomplished something) and forgiveness (to keep me from getting overly frustrated).

All in all, Far Cry 3 is a fun game good for well over 15 hours of entertainment (and much more if you're looking to complete all the side content).  It trails off a bit in the latter half and has a few bouts with general dullness, but it kept me reasonably well entertained.  I'd happily recommend it to anyone looking for a good first-person adventure.

My Rating: 8/10 - great.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Game Review - Asura's Wrath (Xbox 360, 2012)

As much as I rant about the value of a good story, I still want my games to feel like games.  When the cinematic-to-gameplay ratio starts to approach 2-to-1, I start to lose interest.  Those games aren't as entertaining as just watching a movie because the narrative tends to be more drawn out and gets broken up by spurts of gameplay.  They aren't as fun as playing other games, either, because I find I get dumped into a cutscene just as the action picks up.

It sort of feels like the worst of both worlds.

Asura's Wrath is the most recent offender I've played.  With a heavy emphasis on a disappointing story, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Let's get this out of the way: a big reason I'm not much of a fan of Asura's Wrath is the pacing.  While the game features some pretty cool episodic storytelling, where each chapter is presented as an installment of a tv show (complete with opening credits and previews for the next episode), very little happens along the way.

It's definitely in the tradition of classic anime series like Dragon Ball Z, where long periods of slow buildup lead to epic (though often quick) confrontations.  That style always felt awfully niche to me, and it was never really my thing.  If you're like me in that way, Asura's Wrath is unlikely to hook you.

The story itself definitely has potential, but it falls short because it doesn't really go anywhere.  Asura is one of eight demigod generals defending the planet from the corruption of the apparently evil Ghoma.  That conflict is never explained in any detail, cheapening what could have been a very interesting backstory.

Instead, the bulk of the game focuses on the other generals betraying Asura and his ensuing vengeance.  That betrayal is slightly better explained, but it still doesn't flesh out the game's universe enough to draw my interest.

Yes, there are awesome fight scenes (and the game is beautiful, so they're particularly awesome), but I was never invested in it.  There's a lot of failed potential in this one.

And the gameplay doesn't pick up the slack.  Part of that is because it relies pretty heavily on quick time events.  You'll need to be quick on the draw during cinematics to follow on-screen inputs and common button-mashing sequences if you want to get a good ranking in each chapter.  It also means that many of the cutscenes are unskippable, so multiple playthroughs become a huge chore.

The rest of the gameplay lacks focus, as it is split almost evenly between two genres - third-person beat 'em up and rail shooter.

The beat 'em up gameplay isn't anything mindblowing.  You use simple combat abilities to dispatch a decent variety of enemies while filling your "burst gauge," which allows you to unleash a super-cinematic attack (another strong parallel with Dragon Ball Z).  Battles are usually spamming affairs, where your best tactic is to wail on opponents indiscriminately.  Higher difficulties require more strategy and precision, but the hardest fights generally devolve into tedious exercises in pattern recognition rather than flowing combat.

My favorite bits of the game, on the other hand, were definitely the rail shooter stages.  During these sections, Asura will automatically rush towards some objective. You control his lateral movement to dodge incoming attacks and fire projectiles to take out enemies along the way.  There is generally not much riding on these sequences (it is pretty hard to fail in most of them), but they were reasonably entertaining.

To be fair, I think nostalgia is the reason I preferred those stages; they evoked memories of games like Panzer Dragoon, making me wish more games like that were on the market these days.  Whatever the reason, those sections of the game were the ones I was most excited about.

Despite an uninspired story and rather shallow gameplay, Asura's Wrath is one of the most beautiful games I've played in a long time.  The cutscenes are gorgeous, featuring charming art direction overall.  The soundtrack is similarly fabulous; there were definitely times that the background music amped me up more than anything else.  It's a fantastic presentation, even if the content is a little lacking.

In the end, Asura's Wrath was more of a niche title than I had expected.  It's really just an interactive action movie.  The plot is little more than an excuse for big fight scenes (though it drags on in a lot of places), and the gameplay touches on quality genres but never delves into them.  It's decently entertaining at times, but it failed to hold my attention for the full 6-8 hour campaign, and I have virtually no desire to play through it again.

Asura's Wrath will likely appeal to gamers looking for a Dragon Ball Z-style story, but for others, it's unimpressive.

My Rating: 3/10 - bad.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Game Review - Spec Ops: The Line (Xbox 360, 2012)

I'm a sucker for a good story, but games have this annoying tendency to build up a wonderful plot only to collapse in the final act.  Spec Ops: The Line is unfortunately one of those games, with excellent storytelling heading towards a pretentious climax in the last chapter.  Oh, I guess it's also a decent shooter, but that's not why you'd play this game.

Spec Ops takes place in a world where the glamorous city of Dubai has been buried by unrelenting sandstorms.  After a failed attempt to evacuate the city, a trio of Special Forces operatives (that's you) enter the city to figure out what happened and look for survivors.

The setting is fantastic.  Dubai is an unusual location for a game, and it allows for a wonderful mixture of sandy exteriors, apparently war-torn slums, and opulent plazas.  It leans a little on the desert side of things (given the basic plot, that much is to be expected), but it's still pretty sweet to explore an underused real-world city.

The plot itself isn't too compelling, mostly because there's just not enough content to make sense of everything that's going on (perhaps by design), but the details are phenomenal.  I was particularly impressed by the characterization - the banter among the three protagonists is well-written with impressive voice acting, making them each unique and believable characters.

In fact, the best part of the story is the evolution of the characters' responses to events as the game progresses.  When you start the game, they're mostly professional and detached with a nice dose of playfulness; by the end, they are clearly exhausted and frustrated, and that professionalism is replaced by raw anger.

That slow change is fantastic, and it's supported by visuals along the way.  The protagonists' faces become increasingly caked with sand and blood, adding a surprising level of immersion.  It's all wonderfully presented.

On the other hand, the game's conclusion is a huge disappointment.  It goes completely off the rails, capping off that gradual psychological devolution with an over-the-top twist.  The last chapter is definitely the most memorable part of the game, but not in a good way.

The let down at the end is a problem because the story absolutely carries the game.  The gameplay is exactly what you'd expect from a third-person shooter in the post-Gears of War era: a cover system, long battles with waves of enemies, and a small array of available weapons fill out the majority of what you'll be doing throughout the 5-8 hour campaign.

A few features try to mix it up a bit, but at best they feel like underdeveloped gimmicks.  The biggest is the ability to issue orders to your squadmates.  You can have your allies focus on a particular target or, sometimes if you're lucky, you can get one to snipe a distant foe.  More often than not, though, they'll just run into the fray, becoming a liability instead of an asset (you'll hit a game over screen if a teammate is downed and not revived quickly enough).

It makes for a very repetitive gameplay experience.  You're just fighting waves of identical enemies in arenas with different arrangements of walls and debris.

In fact, the most damning part is that the game can get incredibly frustrating on higher difficulties.  There are segments that seem to require more luck than skill or strategy, as your allies get themselves killed constantly. The frustration really hampers the replay value of what is already a fairly short campaign.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the multiplayer mode.  I tried searching for a match every time I booted up the game and never found one.  So it's there, but the community is completely dead.

And that's all there is - fantastic storytelling bundled with acceptable gameplay, at least until the last fifteen minutes.  It's decently fun and excitingly immersive, but the disappointing conclusion and overall lack of replay value knock it down a few notches.

My Rating: 6/10 - decent.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Game Review - Remember Me (Xbox 360, 2013)

I find that I'm less likely to get sucked into a game's story than when I was younger.  Maybe common tropes are more apparent as I get older, maybe gaming's narratives aren't as well developed as they used to be, or maybe I'm just becoming a cynic.  Whatever the reason, Skyrim is the last game to really enthrall me, so I've gone nearly three years without such an experience.

Until I played Remember Me.

Now, I'm not suggesting that Remember Me really compares to an open-world RPG like Skyrim.  I'm simply saying that it's the first game since Skyrim that had a story and world that were interesting enough to keep me absolutely hooked.

And honestly, that's an impressive feat these days.

Remember Me is set in a futuristic world where memories have been commercialized.  You can literally share your memories with loved ones, or you can buy and sell particularly potent memories.  Memory manipulation is so ingrained in that society that prisoners have their memories removed (to be returned upon release) to reduce resistance (if they can't remember life before prison, why would they struggle against their fate?).

It's a fascinating world worthy of classic science fiction, and the game sucks you in by opening with a beautifully rendered advertisement for the prominent memory brokerage.

It's one of the most creative gaming worlds of recent memory.

While you don't get a chance to freely explore this world, as the game is fairly linear, the storyline certainly makes up for it.  You play the role of Nilin, a recent prisoner whose mind had been wiped before the opening scene.  As she's sent towards a final processing of sorts, a mysterious voice aids in her escape and her eventual connection with a rebel group.

You can probably imagine how it progresses from there.

The conflict is made more interesting by the fact that some talented memory extractors are able to alter existing memories instead of simply transplanting them as they are, which is the standard procedure.  As such, certain individuals have the potential to change someone's entire world.  It's a bit like Inception: The Game, and it works beautifully with the world they constructed.

The really compelling part of it all, though, is the detail put into the characters and the world itself.  I was consistently interested in minor characters' stories and the lore of the world - something that I can't honestly say for a lot of games with optional side material.

On top of all that, it looks pretty good.  Pre-rendered cutscenes are generally fantastic, and the voice acting is usually solid.  There are a few sequences that feel a little awkward, but the presentation is generally superb.

There are a few lapses in story quality, with sudden changes in characters' expressed opinions and the like, so it's far from perfect, but it's still more coherent and entertaining than a lot of games out there.

Given the quality of the storyline, as long as the gameplay isn't horrible, I'd still say that Remember Me is a good game.  While there are some disappointments, the gameplay is pretty smooth overall.

It breaks down into three basic categories: stealth, combat, and memory manipulation.  While none of the three are as deep or well-developed as I might like, there's a good balance of them, so I never felt that any of the basic mechanics became tedious or frustrating.

The stealth sections happen when Nilin is dealing with automated sentry drones.  They follow specific paths, and you just have to find the right timing or tricks to be able to get through the area undetected.  The stealth mechanics are particularly simple, but they're also not the main focus, so these sequences do a pretty good job of punctuating the more prominent combat sequences.

Combat uses a neat customizable combo system to enhance what is essentially the style of a third-person beat 'em up.  There are three hand-to-hand combos you can use over the course of the game, but you can alter the effect that each individual hit has.  As an example, you can choose to make each hit in a combo deal extra damage or heal you a bit; the later the hit occurs in the combo, the more pronounced the effect.

While you only get to choose from four different types of attack enhancements, changing the effects of each blow is a surprisingly satisfying degree of customization.  You get the chance to tweak the available combos to fit your playstyle, which is not something that I think I've ever really seen before.

There are some special attacks, which shake up the combat a little bit, too.  It's nothing groundbreaking, but it allows combat to be diverse enough to compensate for the relatively small number of enemy types you'll encounter.

It's also worth noting that the difficulty of the fights increases at a challenging but reasonable rate.  The challenge usually comes from mixing enemy types so that you have to adjust your tactics to deal with different combinations of strengths and weaknesses, so it feels a little more organic than just making individual enemies harder to kill.  Even so, it can get somewhat repetitive because you'll be using the same three combos over and over throughout the whole thing, but it never feels unreasonably easy or brutal.

The memory manipulation sections are really cool, but they're also the biggest reservoir of untapped potential.  The basic idea is that you are able to replay another character's memory with the opportunity to make changes.  Those changes are usually pretty subtle (like turning a machine off or on or moving a table), but they may affect the scene in some significant way.

It's an awesome concept, and the first instance of it is a great introduction to this sort of mechanic.

Unfortunately, it never evolves past what the introductory segment teaches you.  There are only simple interactions between possible changes, with only a couple possible outcomes for each memory, so they're pretty straightforward.  The only difficulty is that it's not always easy to notice the indicator that says something can be changed - in fact, I spent much too long on one of these memory sequences because I never saw one of the vital pieces of the puzzle.

It failed to be something amazing, but it's still a unique concept.

None of the gameplay categories are too exciting, but the mixture of three keeps the gameplay from getting stale.  Still, each of the three categories hinted at something awesome, leaving me wishing that some of the mechanics had been a bit more involved.  In short, it's not the best gameplay out there, but it never gets in the way of the narrative, so it's definitely good enough.

So in the end, I highly recommend Remember Me because of the way it builds around a neat story idea.  If you're only looking for engaging gameplay, you'll probably be disappointed, but the game's world is totally worth it.

My Rating: 7/10 - good.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Game Review - Abyss Odyssey (XBLA, 2014)

The Abyss Odyssey demo evoked the same sense of excitement that I get when playing a new Metroidvania or Rogue-like game, so I paid for the full game without hesitation.  What I got falls far short of the legacy of those genres.  Here's why:

At its core, Abyss Odyssey is a simple rogue-like title.  The entirety of the gameplay revolves around exploration of the titular Abyss, and death resets (most of) your progress and generates a new layout for the game's only dungeon.

It's a classic formula.  It's also not something that hits consoles very often, so it's a nice treat when it does.

Sadly, the rest of the details are disappointing.

The goal is always to reach the bottom of the Abyss to defeat the warlock residing there.  While the structure of the rooms along the way changes with each iteration, the overall layout is always the same - three columns of rooms with only a small handful of connections between them.

For the most part, you won't find much incentive to explore.  Sure, there are chances at finding some shiny new loot, but your inventory is limited to only a few usable items and most of the stuff you'll find isn't very compelling.  It's the kind of system where a single powerful weapon marginalizes the rest of your equipment, so once you find one, there's no reason to pursue anything but the main objective.

And the main objective is really all there is.  Once you figure out how everything works, you can easily clear the Abyss in about an hour, and your only option is to do it all again.  No sidequests, no special difficulty settings, and basically no longevity, as you can't even look to collect powerful items because you lose them when you complete the game.

To make matters worse, the intervening parts aren't all that great, either.

Moving and fighting in the Abyss is similar to a side-scrolling beat 'em up.  You have a couple basic attacks, a few more powerful skills that evolve according to simple RPG experience levels (which are the only things that don't reset upon death), and some straightforward 2D platforming sections.  It's simple, but that's not the biggest problem.

Unfortunately, the control scheme is awkward.  I experienced noticeable input lag at times, where the player character hesitated to perform any actions I made.  You can certainly get used to that kind of thing, but it makes combat with usually aggressive monsters pretty frustrating.

Screen transitions also don't scroll smoothly.  While running through an area, the graphics will get a little jumpy, making some of the trickier platforming sections frustrating, too.  It's probably just another form of that underlying lag, but the result is a game that feels woefully unpolished.

That said, there is a pretty cool mechanic for capturing monster souls for your use.  It's never explained outside the tutorial pages in the options menu (and who does that, right?), but you can take on the form of a vanquished foe to dominate your enemies.  While it's a nifty idea, it's not very deep, and many of the monsters are annoying to control anyway, so it's only a minor bright spot.

Basically, the game is short, frustrating, and it gets stale much too quickly to be worth the price tag.

Of course, there's a little more to it.  A couple of unlockable characters add some diversity to the gameplay as each has a distinct play style.  You can also collect a bunch of journal pages, filling in some of the warlock's backstory.  There's nothing earth-shattering, but it's nice to have the option to delve a bit more deeply into the game's (admittedly still weak) storyline.

It's also worth praising some of the game's aesthetics.  Many of the environments have lovely backgrounds, and it features several hauntingly beautiful tunes.  It's certainly not good enough to make up for the tedious gameplay, but it is a pretty game.

But that's really all you get with Abyss Odyssey - a short, tedious romp through a surprisingly pretty world.  If you're looking for something to mindlessly grind away at, this one isn't the worst choice you could make; otherwise, though, I'd stay away.

My Rating: 3/10 - bad.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Game Review - Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 (XBLA, 2014)

Let's be honest: Magic: The Gathering is an expensive hobby.  Competitive decks can cost $200+, and even acquiring the collection to build casual decks can run into the triple digits.  The cost combined with the expansive (and continually growing) set of rules and interactions can be a daunting obstacle to anyone interested in the game.

Over the past few years, the annual update of Duels of the Planeswalkers has served as an excellent, low-cost introduction to the game.  For about $15 you've been able to get a nice little Magic package: sleek stand-alone games with nice tutorials, several interesting pre-constructed decks, and a few hundred hand-picked cards (of more than ten thousand from Magic's history) that showcase some of the game's more popular mechanics.

Historically, most Magic veterans would point interested newcomers to the most recent iteration of Duels of the Planeswalkers to get their feet wet.

That may not be such a great idea this year.

DotP 2015 takes a big step forward with its fully customizable deck building, but it takes a couple colossal steps back in other ways - terrible starting decks raise the barrier for entry for new players, and fewer game modes mean advanced players won't find nearly as much content as previous versions.

Let's start at the beginning:

When you first start the game, you'll be lead directly into a tutorial.  This introduction to Magic is essentially an interactive lecture, and it's about as good a lesson on the basics as you're going to get unless you sit down and talk to a veteran player.  For that purpose, DotP is still unparalleled.

After covering the basic mechanics, the game lets you choose your starting deck.  Veteran planeswalkers will recognize the choices as each of Ravnica's guilds, but their basic strategies are also described in plain English.  Again, it's a good way to ease newer players into this complicated game.

But that's where it all falls apart.  The game is ultimately built around unlocking new cards to improve your decks as you progress, so the starting decks are particularly weak.  The final tutorial duel, which is a straight-up game against an AI-controlled deck letting you see the rules in action, is hard.  The AI's deck is just better than yours, and I could only progress into the rest of the game (I couldn't figure out any way to skip this tutorial battle) after reducing the difficulty to the lowest setting and retrying until my opponent had terrible draws.  It's an absolutely unreasonable barrier to enter the majority of the game.

Things only get marginally better from there.  The single-player portion of the game consists of a sequence of themed enemy decks covering some of Magic's iconic locations and characters.  After each win, you'll be rewarded with a virtual booster pack, which will add a handful of new cards to your collection.

Those duels will be a struggle until you get a fair number of new cards, though.  It's the same problem as in the tutorial - your starting deck is weaker than the decks you'll face, which means you'll need to win through superior luck in the first several matches of the game.  It gets better as you go along, but it's certainly an uphill battle.

Once you've unlocked a good fraction of the nearly 1,000 cards (including copies) available in-game, you'll find a pretty nice Magic constructed format awaiting.  With fully customizable deck building, your collection allows for a wide variety of archetypes.  It seems like there are a number of solid decks, so I imagine the multiplayer side will develop an interesting metagame.  Taking your deck online to battle other mages is definitely the highlight of the game, and with the customization available, it's a ton of fun.

However, I imagine that this system will be tough for new players.  In previous DotP titles, the available decks were more or less at the same power level, with only relatively minor modifications being possible.  Here, it's entirely on you to put together a decent deck to be competitive because the starting decks are terrible.  If you haven't already developed rudimentary deck building skills, you're not going to get a whole lot of help from the game.

I suspect the deck building feature makes this version of DotP much less accessible newbies, which is exactly the opposite of what DotP has historically been about.

Given the emphasis on deck building, I would have expected the process of building a deck to be a lot smoother.  The deck builder uses the same format as previous games, showing available cards in one row and the cards included in your deck on another.  You can apply some filters that make things more manageable, but you're still only able to see a handful of cards on the screen at a time, so it's hard to get a holistic picture of the deck you've thrown together.  Add the sluggishness of the whole process (scrolling through the cards can be tedious) and the process of building your deck is a bit of a chore.

Another downside deals with the cards you can use in deck building.  To start, many of the cards you'll play against in the single-player game aren't available, so you'll see some cool ideas that you'll never be able to use yourself.  There are also a number of "premium" cards that can only be unlocked through microtransactions giving you premium booster packs.  Those cards aren't oppressively powerful by any means, but it's annoying not to be able to access all the cards just for the price of admission.

The menu system is also abysmal.  Loading times are long, and important features are buried in several layers of menus.  The worst offender is without a doubt changing your active deck: instead of being able to change your deck while in a multiplayer lobby (you know, if you decide you want to try one of the other decks you've put together), you have to back out to the main menu, enter the "deck equipping" menu, choose the deck you want, back out to the main menu, and re-enter your multiplayer lobby.  It's an arduous task for doing something that should have been very simple, and it's just the most egregious example of poor design.

Another frustrating point is the surprising lack of game modes.  If you want to play DotP 2015, you're stuck playing duels and free-for-alls.  There are no casual formats like two-headed giant or archenemy like in previous iterations of the DotP franchise.  They even omitted the challenge mode from previous games that gave you a game scenario and asked you to find a way to win on your next turn.  Those challenges were cool Magic puzzles, but there's nothing like that here.

In the end, you get a fantastic explanation of Magic's basics and a frustrating process for unlocking cards that eventually leads to a thoroughly enjoyable multiplayer game.  But this fully-customizable deck building came at a significant cost, as many previous features of the series have been omitted, and newer planeswalkers may find the barrier to entry to be a little too high.

As a result, I actually think that this year's Duels of the Planeswalkers is better suited to regular Magic players.  If you're already familiar with Magic and you can trudge through the tedium of the single-player features, this is a decent online Magic game with a pseudo-Standard format.  If you're looking for a way to introduce a friend to the game, however, you're much better off looking to previous versions.

My Rating: 6/10 - decent.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Achievement Guide - Inherit the Earth in Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015

Inherit the Earth in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015.

To earn this achievement, you need to use Mentor of the Meek's ability to draw 3 or more cards in a single turn.

Mentor of the Meek's ability triggers any time you get a new small creature: "Whenever another creature with power 2 or less enters the battlefield under your control, you may pay 1.  If you do, draw a card."  We just need to have lots of little dudes enter the battlefield once the Mentor is in play to get this one!

I'll provide the deck list that I used, but first I'll outline some basic strategic considerations so that you have an idea of why certain things are included, both to help you use that deck and to allow you to make changes as needed if you're finding that it doesn't quite work for you.

Deck Strategy:

A single-colored deck eliminates any concerns about having the right kinds of lands and generally makes life a lot simpler and more consistent.  Seeing that the Mentor is white, a mono-white is the way to go.

As you might imagine, the Mentor's ability can easily get prohibitively expensive.  You'll have to spend three mana drawing cards, leaving less mana to actually cast those creature spells.

As such, in addition to the Mentor, we want lots of cheap ways of making little weenies to trigger his ability.  Fortunately, white has a bunch of 1-costing creatures in this game.  If you can hold on to three of those while building up to 6 total mana, you're good to unload them all at once to nab the achievement.  Don't overlook spells like Raise the Alarm, which also generate creatures for one mana each (essentially).

The Convoke mechanic is a nice way around the cost problem, too, as your creatures (including Mentor of the Meek himself!) can allow you to cast some spells.  Triplicate Spirits is perhaps the best spell for this task, as it already creates three little spirits to trigger your Mentor.  If you can get six creatures in play, you'll only need three open mana to draw your cards.

As always, we'll want to devote some of our resources to staying alive.  I'm partial to straight kill spells like Divine Verdict.  Resolute Archangel is also very nice for prolonging your life, as it can negate all the damage you take over several turns.  Since we're looking to make tons of dudes anyway, Seraph of the Masses is excellent on defense.

Deck List:

After each card name, I'll list the area that you can find that particular card (i.e., if you don't have the listed number of copies, which plane you should explore to earn more).

1 Elite Vanguard (Shandalar)
4 Selfless Cathar (Innistrad)
2 Trained Caracal (Ravnica)
2 Loyal Pegasus (Theros)

2 Ajani's Pridemate (Theros)
2 Lone Missionary (Zendikar)
3 Raise the Alarm (Shandalar)
1 Brimaz, King of Oreskos (Theros)

2 Mentor of the Meek (Innistrad)
1 Banisher Priest (Zendikar)
4 Attended Knight (Shandalar)
2 Divine Verdict (Theros)

3 Angelic Edict (Ravnica)
2 Triplicate Spirits (Zendikar)
1 Resolute Archangel (Innistrad)
3 Seraph of the Masses (Innistrad)

24 Plains

Technique:

Because there are only two copies of Mentor of the Meek in the game, the trickiest part about this achievement is surviving long enough to draw a copy.  If you're patient, you can cast every creature spell you draw to hold the line until you draw the Mentor, at which point you just sandbag creatures until you can make three enter the battlefield in the same turn.  It's definitely doable, but it might take well over 20 turns to make it happen.

An alternative is to restart your duel until you have the Mentor, a couple cheap creatures, and a few lands in your opening hand.  This plan is a little bit more dangerous, as you won't be able to defend yourself during the first few turns of the game, but it'll get you there a lot more quickly if it works.

This deck obviously works best against creature-heavy decks without many removal spells.  I tried it in a few different cases and it seemed to work pretty well, so you can reasonably expect to win with this deck while trying to unlock more cards.  It does work particularly well against the "Tangled Growth" encounter on Zendikar, as 6-10 weenies are usually enough to hold the AI's forces back.

Let me know if you have other insights into earning this achievement!

Achievement Guide - Defensive Line in Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015

It's not often that I can come up with procedures for earning video game achievements before a multitude of guides are available online, so I'm excited to share my solutions when possible.  The next few posts will focus on various challenges in Magic: The Gathering -  Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015.

Defensive Line in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015.

To earn this achievement, you must deal 20 damage with Vent Sentinel in a single game.

Vent Sentinel is a red defender with a unique activated ability - 1R, Tap: Vent Sentinel deals damage to target player equal to the number of creatures with defender you control.  Obviously, the key to dealing 20 damage with Vent Sentinel is to have a bunch of defenders in play, and you probably want to make Vent Sentinel your win condition so you know you're not going to fall a couple points of damage short.

I'll provide the deck list that I used, but first I will outline some basic strategic considerations so that you have an idea of why certain things are included, both to help you use that deck and to allow you to make changes as needed if you're finding that it doesn't quite work for you.

Deck Strategy:

The basic plan is to play a deck with a bunch of defenders and various other ways of keeping yourself alive.  Black and blue are good choices for survival, as both have relatively cheap responses to whatever your opponent may be doing and have a fair number of defenders.

From black, I'm a big fan of removal like Tribute to Hunger for the extra life gain, and from blue, I find counterspells like Dissolve and bounce spells like Voyage's End to be really powerful, in part due to their Scry effects to filter out things you don't want to be drawing.  Extra card draw from blue is also a plus.

With at least three colors involved, you'll also be looking to fix your colors of mana to ensure you don't get stuck with a hand full of uncastable spells.  The Traveler's Amulet artifact is useful in this regard, but green also excels at finding good sources of mana.

As such, I settled on a four-color deck: Red for Vent Sentinel, Black for removal, Blue for counterspells and removal, and green for mana ramp/fixing.  The ramp and fixing are certainly the most important part of the equation, so the deck is a little heavy on Forests to make it more consistent.

Deck List:

After each card name, I'll list the area that you can find that particular card (i.e., if you don't have the listed number of copies, which plane you should explore to earn more).

Blue
4 Doorkeeper (Ravnica)
2 Voyage's End (Theros)
1 Dissolve (Theros)
2 Thassa's Bounty (Theros)

Black
3 Tribute to Hunger (Innistrad)
3 Corpse Blockade (Ravnica)
3 Ogre Jailbreaker (Ravnica)

Red
4 Vent Sentinel (Zendikar)

Green
4 Grave Bramble (Innistrad)
4 Cultivate (Theros)

Artifacts
2 Traveler's Amulet (Theros)
3 Gargoyle Sentinel (Innistrad)
1 Avarice Amulet (Theros)
1 Meteorite (Shandalar)

Land
6 Island
4 Swamp
3 Mountain
7 Forest
1 Gruul Guildgate (Ravnica)
1 Simic Guildgate (Ravnica)
1 Golgari Guildgate (Ravnica)

Technique:

The plan as described above is to survive long enough to get Vent Sentinel in play with 4+ other defenders and start shooting your opponent.  The Avarice Amulet is in there just to help you draw more cards if you don't hit a copy of the Sentinel quickly enough; the Meteorite helps with color problems and can occasionally kill a pesky creature when necessary.

With four colors, it's important to be careful when choosing which lands to tap to cast spells.  Make sure that you're always leaving the lands that you'd need to cast the next spell you want for that turn.

Using this setup, I was able to get the achievement on my first try.  I didn't worry about what deck I was playing against (I used this as an opportunity to unlock some more cards by exploring Zendikar), but it's definitely stronger against more creature-heavy decks.  Stay away from decks that run a lot of spells that will just kill your creatures outright.

Let me know if you have other insights into earning this achievement!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Game Review - Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition (Xbox 360, 2014)

Originally released for Playstation devices last year, Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition is an exceptional action platformer.  It manages to combine entertaining fighting mechanics with challenging platforming and exploration, all with an occasional chuckle. It's a fantastic experience.  Here's what you can expect:

Guacamelee puts you in the role of Juan, a farmer in a world that idolizes luchadores. Juan's effort to prevent the abduction of his romantic interest, El Presidente's daughter, leads to his death in the opening scenes of the game.  A mysterious luchador bestows Juan with a magical luchador's mask in the world of the dead, allowing him to chase down the evil skeleton that kidnapped his love (and, you know, return to the world of the living).

At its core, the premise is pretty standard.  The aesthetics, however, are based on Mexican folklore, with heavy emphasis on art styles from things like Dia de los Muertos and a mariachi-inspired soundtrack.  It's an overall style that's generally absent from the gaming world, and it's done very well.

The game also never takes itself too seriously, which is a lot of fun.  There are scenes with ridiculous dialogue or, even better, interesting camera action and other graphical gags, all while incorporating a number of nice references to gaming icons.  It's very entertaining all around.

That overall style is also backed up with incredible gameplay.  On the surface, Guacamelee is just a challenging platformer.  Some sections of the game require precise jumps and timing, and they're among the hardest platforming segments I've played in a long time (maybe even since old-school Mega Man games).

Successfully navigating these sequences is pretty satisfying, too, because the control scheme is nearly flawless.  Clear objectives and responsive inputs make it obvious that poor design is never the reason for your failure; it's all on you.  As such, the game never feels stacked against you.

The combat really seals the deal, though.  Fighting monsters feels like a standard side-scrolling beat 'em up: you'll punch, you'll dodge, and you'll defeat tons of mobs over the course of the game.

However, as you progress, Juan will obtain new combat skills that add complexity to the many monster encounters you'll face.  In fact, these skills will become necessary as enemies develop resistances as the game wears on.  It's a really cool system because it makes the relatively small number of enemy types feel much more diverse as you're forced to dispatch them in specific ways.

Those combat skills also aid in mobility, allowing the platforming challenges to become more complex, too.  And that's what makes Guacamelee so damn entertaining - you'll never encounter the same obstacles twice, either in platforming or combat sequences.  Every room feels new and presents a new challenge, and the difficulty ramps up consistently throughout.

Simply put, Guacamelee's gameplay is some of the best I've ever seen.  Period.

My only complaint on that front is that some of the boss fights aren't that interesting.  I found the first major boss to be significantly harder than any subsequent boss (until the final boss, who offered substantial resistance), so most of the boss fights were a bit of a letdown.  Getting to them was always tons of fun, though.

Suprisingly, there's also a good amount of content.  I finished my first playthrough in 5-6 hours, but there are tons of optional areas to explore and upgrades to find, including 17 challenge rooms and the hardest platforming challenges available.  Everything seems doable from the outset, though, and with some dedication you'll get there.  Still, it can easily take 10+ hours to reach 100% completion.

And then there's hard mode, which unlike a lot of games is a significant increase in difficulty.  Even after mastering the challenge rooms, I had trouble with several fights on hard mode.  It requires deeper strategy and is much less forgiving, so I had to rethink my approach many times.  It was a nice additional challenge.

I'm genuinely impressed that the game not only kept me interested for 15 hours but also felt fresh and exciting the whole time.  That may be more of a comment on the current state of gaming, but either way, Guacamelee is one of the most all-around enjoyable games I've played in the last few years.

My Rating: 10/10 - epic.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Achievement Report - Bean Dive 2014

For the last few years, the True Achievements community has celebrated summer by committing achievement hunter statistical suicide.  Bean Diving, dreamed up by TA member Beanpotter, involves playing every game in your backlog until you pop at least one achievement in each.

The way I see it, there are a couple good reasons for taking the plunge (aside from the community event aspect of it).  First, from an achievement hunting perspective, it makes your achievement stats an accurate representation of all the games you own; it means your completion percentage reflects your full collection.

Second, and I think more importantly, a Bean Dive gives you a taste of all the games in your backlog.  It allows you to discover gems you may have purchased but overlooked.  Past dives have gotten me really excited about some of the games I kept putting off.  I take it as an opportunity to see what games I should be playing.

My Dive
This year, I figure I'll take some notes as I dive and share them with the world.  Here's how it'll go down: I'll list a game, give an approximate amount of time to pop the first achievement, and then brief thoughts on it.  At the end, I'll summarize the ones I'm looking forward to.

Asura's Wrath - 5 minutes - A beautiful game. The first level is a combination of Panzer Dragoon-type gameplay and quick time events.  I think I'll enjoy playing it much more for the ambiance and story than the gameplay, but I'm looking forward to playing this one.

DiRT 3 - 5 minutes - DiRT 3 seems much more streamlined than its predecessor.  Different options aren't as obvious, but I think that might actually make the experience a little less overwhelming.  Should be a fun one.

Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen - 10 minutes - Seems like this one's a pretty decent RPG, though completing the first quest doesn't show much of it off.  I'm excited to come back to it.

Far Cry: Instincts Predator - <5 minutes - I didn't get much of a feel for this one, as I followed the solution on TrueAchievements for popping a simple multiplayer achievement.

Far Cry 2 - 5 minutes - This game seems like it'll just be your typical FPS.  Nothing too exciting here.

FIFA 14 (Win 8) - 10 minutes - I'm not a huge fan of the sport in the first place, but I grabbed this game because it was free (I have to stop doing that...).  It doesn't seem like it'll be a very fun game due to very simplistic yet frustrating controls.

Gotham City Imposters - <5 minutes - The achievement popped right as I booted the game, so I didn't play any of it.  I already have the PC version, though, so I know what it's about.  Seems like it'd be a lot more fun with a consistent group to play with...

Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition - <5 minutes - The first achievement in this one is trivial, but I played the demo a bit earlier this week.  I'm pretty excited to play this one for real, so it may be the first game I get into post-dive.

Kinectimals Unleashed (Win 8) - Another free game I'll regret starting.  It just seems like it'll be incredibly tedious...

L.A. Noir - <5 minutes - The vehicle achievement can be done as soon as you get control of the character, so I didn't get to experience much here.  I'll have to give it more of a shot later.

Microsoft Sudoku (Win 8) - <5 minutes - It's a basic Sudoku game. What do you expect?

Remember Me - 5 minutes - I'm intrigued.  It's gorgeous, and it seems like it has an awesome story.  Aside from running, there wasn't any gameplay in episode 0, so I can't comment on mechanics, but I think this will be another good one.

Samurai Warriors 2: Xtreme Legends - 2.5 hours - Nope, not a fan.  I'm not sure why I picked this up in the first place years ago, as I've never really liked the "kill hundreds of mooks with sweeping attacks" genre.  It's basically a button masher, and as such it's probably one of the last games from this dive that I'll play, if I ever get around to it.

Sanctum 2 - 5 minutes - I like this FPS-tower defense hybrid.  This game may be one of the first I go back to after the dive.

Saints Row 2 - 1 hour - I'm losing interest in GTA-style games.  Maybe it's just an age or maturity thing, but this one didn't appeal to me too much.

Saints Row: The Third - 5 minutes - This one seems much better.  I think it's finally at the level of absurdity that it's essentially mocking itself and the sandbox crime genre.  Smoother control scheme, too.  Seems like a good one.

Spectral Force 3: Innocent Rage - 5.5 hours (I already logged 4 hours, though, so it wasn't that bad) - It's a turn-based strategy RPG, in the vein of classics like Ogre Battle and Fire Emblem.  I like those kinds of games, though this one seems like it's exceptionally complicated.

Super Street Fighter IV - 5 minutes - I'm not a big fan of fighting games, and I've always preferred the ones that are way over-the-top to more competitive ones. This one seems like it'll be a pretty nasty grind for me.  Not looking forward to it.

Tomb Raider: Underworld - 5 minutes - The tutorial wasn't bad, though the camera is pretty frustrating.  Seems like a decent piece of the Tomb Raider marathon that I'll probably do at some point.

Viking: Battle for Asgard - 20 minutes - This game made a bad impression because I couldn't figure out where to go right at the start.  It seems like it might be an entertaining third-person action game, though.

The Walking Dead: Season 2 - 10 minutes - Sequel to the popular adventure game; seems like more of the same.  But that's not necessarily a bad thing!

21 games and nearly a full day later, my completion percentage has dropped a whopping 3.11%.  I played another game for a couple hours, Dungeon Defenders, but I was still not even half way to the first achievement, so I decided to abandon it.

The Best of the Bunch
Having completed my dive, these are the games I'm most excited to play:

Asura's Wrath
Dragon's Dogma
Guacamelee!
Remember Me
Sanctum 2
Saints Row: The Third

I hope to review these games as well, so look forward to more detailed thoughts on these games in the coming months!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Game Review - Rayman Jungle Run (Windows 8, 2013)

As I am one of the seventeen people left in this world without a smart phone, I've only recently been able to play any games that originated as mobile apps because many have now been ported to Windows 8.  They are games, (mostly) like any other, so I figure they're worth reviewing.

For what it's worth, my criteria for judging apps will be the same as a full retail game, so scores for the two types of games should be comparable.  I have much less experience with apps, though.  I played a bunch of Flash games back in the day, which seem pretty similar in a lot of ways, but things may be a bit rocky to start.

Anyway...

The first screen you'll see.

Rayman Jungle Run takes the successful Rayman franchise to the mobile world, making for a game with high production but low replay value.  It's fairly entertaining for a time, but it never rises above a decent way to kill 10 or 15 minutes during your day.  Here's what it has to offer:

Being unfamiliar with the mobile game market, I don't know if there's a general category for games like Rayman Jungle Run.  The basic gameplay is very simple: Rayman will continuously run toward the end of the stage; your job is to get him there safely.

Inputs are limited to two of Rayman's characteristic actions, jumping and punching, but his abilities (also including wall running and floating) are introduced slowly as you progress, giving the player plenty of time to adjust.  That's actually one of my biggest complaints - out of 50 levels, only 10 incorporate all the skills without featuring one in particular.  A broader diversity of stages would have given the game a lot more longevity, but the ones that are included are decently entertaining.

The levels themselves are bite-size nuggets of gameplay.  Each can be completed in under 2 minutes, with the vast majority being closer to 1.  Even if you work on collecting all the Lums (the standard Rayman collectible), you likely won't need more than a handful of attempts to figure out the proper paths and timings.

(Almost) always running right, with the occasional break to swing on vines.

The game's only real challenge comes from the 5 unlockable levels at the end of each section.  Only accessible after collecting all 100 Lums in several stages, these levels involve more rapid responses and precise motions than the rest.  Successful completion of these stages is therefore much more satisfying than any of the others.  Again, more than 5 levels like that would have been awesome.

And that's really it.  I was able to complete every level and collect all the Lums in well under 4 hours of game time.  You could compete for leaderboard positions, though they're only tracked for those unlockable levels, and there are a couple achievements you wouldn't earn by replaying each level until you've mastered it (most notably for playing through the game without dying or restarting a level), but those are flimsy reasons to keep coming back.

There are also some issues with stability.  I had the game crash on me several times, often with no clear cause.  I was able to relaunch and resume the game without further difficulty, but it was quite an annoyance.

Flying with the aid of random updrafts.

On the bright side, Jungle Run does use the overall aesthetic from Rayman Origins, so it's pretty.  Sound effects and music tracks are taken from that title, too, giving an overall solid presentation.

All things considered, Rayman Jungle Run is a decent way to kill some time.  It's probably not one that will keep you interested for more than a few days, even with intermittent playing, but it's fun while it lasts.  There are definitely worse ways to spend a few bucks.

My Rating: 5/10 - ok.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Game Review - Killer is Dead (Xbox 360, 2013)

I fear that Suda 51 may be transitioning from gaming's Stanley Kubrick to its M. Night Shyamalan.

For years, Suda 51 has written and directed some of the most bizarre but satisfying games on the market.  Each game is clearly marked with his characteristic strangeness, but buried beneath their eclectic appearance has usually been an intriguing story worth exploring.

His previous Xbox offering, Black Knight Sword, broke that trend by having (what I found to be) a nearly unintelligible plot.  It was like he was trying too hard to be weird for weird's sake, drifting uncomfortably towards Shyamalan's legacy of focusing more on the gimmick than overall quality.

Killer is Dead has similar flaws.  Set in a futuristic world of cybernetic enhancements and moon colonies, Killer is Dead follows the exploits of Mondo, a government-contracted assassin. While the premise is promising, it turns out to be a series of mostly disjointed episodes and random events.

There is an overarching storyline, but it's also uncomfortably random.  The characters aren't interesting, their conflicts have no depth, and the whole thing seems like a flimsy excuse for an orgy of violence and pointless sexualization.  While the twelve-year-old in me was pretty excited by that prospect, the plot as a whole is awfully disappointing because none of the gratuitous content served any discernible purpose.  Unless you're looking for titillation, there's not much worth seeing in this story.

In fact, Killer is Dead was the first of Suda 51's games that took effort for me to complete.  About halfway through the 9-hour storyline, I was bored with it, wishing the various cutscenes would end so I could get back to gameplay.

But while it's the best part of the game by far, the gameplay is only mildly entertaining at best.  Essentially a third-person action game, Killer is Dead doesn't do much beyond the simplest of mechanics.  You'll run through the 12 main episodes and handful of side missions slaughtering everything in your path.

In general, the combat reduces to a balance between dodging, blocking, and slashing furiously with your sword.  There are a few upgradable skills, though almost all of them just change the flow of that basic three-point strategy without adding new options (by, for example, increasing your attack speed if you maintain a hit streak).

You also have access to four secondary weapons, which adds a little bit of diversity.  Three of the four are guns of various types (the fourth being a giant drill), but aside from very specific circumstances, I only found the default rapid-fire ranged weapon effective - proper use of the others tended just to make me more vulnerable to counterattacks, so they seemed like bad tactical options.

Speaking of counterattacks, your most powerful enemy is often the camera.  As is usually the case with this sort of game, you'll regularly fight off a number of enemies or fast bosses.  Intelligent camera angles and the ability to make quick, precise adjustments are therefore very important, but I found myself frustrated by the camera pretty often.  Enemies would get behind me or the screen would be covered with unnecessary flourishes obscuring my view, making some fights seem difficult for the wrong reasons.  It was definitely a pain.

And that's basically the whole game.  Run through several stages and complete a bunch of fights using the same strategies so you can progress the nonsensical plot.  It's far from compelling...

To be fair, I am oversimplfying a bit.  The initial stages of the game are pretty fun; it's only tiring when the repetitive nature of the gameplay becomes apparent somewhere around halfway through.  There are also a number of unlockable challenges and advanced difficulty modes, each of which can be quite challenging at times, even with the relatively simple combat system.  There are redeeming qualities, but they're really nothing special - it's just a moderately fun 4-6 hours before the tedium sets in.

Oh, it's also worth noting that Killer is Dead is the first game I've ever played that effectively implemented a second-person camera during one of the boss fights, where you see the game from your enemy's perspective while still controlling the protagonist.  It's another gimmick, but it's still kinda cool to see.

In the end, I can't really recommend Killer is Dead to anyone but the most hardcore fans of Suda 51 or third-person hack-and-slash gameplay, and even those people may be disappointed.  It's not worthless by any stretch, but it doesn't come anywhere near the legacy Suda 51 seemed to be building a few years ago.

And that's probably the worst part.

My Rating: 3/10 - bad.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Game Review - Super Time Force (XBLA, 2014)

Occasionally a game comes along that executes a concept so well that you're genuinely sad when it's over.  Super Time Force is one of those games.

Channeling some of the best in gaming from the 80's, the highly-pixelated Super Time Force is a side-scrolling action game at heart.  You'll fight through several stages in 7 distinct worlds, each with its own diverse set of characteristic enemies.  The game starts with three playable characters with different weapons and unique abilities.  Over the course of the campaign, you can unlock a dozen more, providing no shortage of skills at your disposal.

Even just those details, combined with a fluid control scheme and somewhat complex level design, make for a solidly entertaining game.

Of course, that's just the foundation for the game's real draw.  What sets Super Time Force apart is, unsurprisingly, its use of time as a gameplay mechanic.

At any point during a stage, you have the option of taking a "time out."  During a time out, you can rewind to an earlier point in the level to redo some sequence and change your active character, letting you switch to someone better suited for a particular challenge.

The coolest part, though, is that anytime you rewind the level, your previous actions are not reset.  Your precise motions will still be carried out, allowing you to focus on other enemies or objectives or even to save a character from an untimely death (giving you a powerup in the process).  As a result, in many stages you may have 8 or more shadows running around with you, firing their weapons, destroying enemies and other obstacles, each representing an earlier sequence of your own gameplay.

It's an awesome idea, and it's awesomely implemented.  Many of the stages are designed in such a way that you cannot possibly beat them within the given time limit without setting up multiple characters to work together.  Bosses are a great example - your damage output with one character is simply not enough to defeat the bosses; you must make good use of the time out feature to survive those fights.

It all amounts to a side-scroller with a strategic twist.  Deciding how to set up your future actions sometimes requires thinking three or four sequences ahead.  You can only use at most 40 time outs in a single level though, so you can't quite brute force your way through everything.

To be honest, I don't think my description quite does it justice.  It's a really cool concept, and it's tons of fun.

Super Time Force also has a good balance of difficulty.  Some of the stages are a little challenging to complete in the first place (though I never actually failed at any of them; 40 time outs is a lot), but earning all the medals in each stage, which requires reaching the end quickly enough, can be really tough.  Nabbing all the collectibles isn't bad, but you really have to optimize your run to meet those timing challenges.

There's also a "Super Hardcore" mode available after beating the game, which makes the game quite a bit more difficult, and leaderboards for competing for the best overall medal counts and times.

Basically, there's a high skill ceiling and a competitive component for players interested in that sort of thing.

To top it all off, this phenomenal gameplay is embedded in a clever little story.  It follows the titular group's mission to defend the world from the robot invasion of 1987 and other awesome things, like saving the dinosaurs from extinction and navigating the Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic world of the 1990s.

While the storyline and writing are pretty silly, it never substitutes randomness for lightheartedness, which is one of my biggest pet peeves with this sort of plot.  It's full of pop culture references and amusing dialogue, making for an all-around entertaining game.

The presentation is fantastic, too.  The pixelated graphics and chiptune-esque audio do a great job of dredging up nostalgia, but it's still fresh and detailed enough not to actually look dated.  It may rub some people the wrong way, but I'd say it's a pretty good stylistic choice.

My only real complaint is that it's just much too short.  I completed the storyline in under 6 hours, which included replaying a few levels to try to get more medals.  Grabbing the rest of the game's achievements (which don't require earning the time challenge medals, so they're not too difficult) took another hour or so, leaving me desperately craving more levels to explore and bosses to fell.

Due to its length, Super Time Force may be a bit pricy for the amount of game time it provides, but it's still one of the most fun and satisfying games I've played in a while.  Do yourself a favor and check it out.

My Rating: 9/10 - awesome.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Game Review - Child of Light (XBLA, 2014)

About a month ago, a friend and I lamented the fact that there haven't been any good turn-based RPGs recently.  It's an old school style of gameplay that has fallen out of favor in the last decade, sure, but I still enjoy those strategic battles from time to time.

Child of Light's arrival last week filled that hole in my gaming heart.  While not strictly speaking turn-based, Child of Light is a fabulous game that does a lot of things right.

The game's biggest success is its overall aesthetic - Child of Light is stunning from the moment you boot it up.  It features a whimsical world with characters and monsters straight out of classic fairy tales.  The graphics are incredible; smooth animation plus gorgeously detailed (and dynamic!) backgrounds do a fantastic job setting the stage, and each of the game's areas is as lovely as the last.

Child of Light is very possibly the most beautiful game I've ever played.

The sound quality is similarly high.  The major melodies throughout the game are haunting, effectively combining the fantasy tone with the tragedy and despair prominent in the plot (more on that shortly).  There are spurts of narration with voice acting, which are also well done, but they're brief enough to be forgettable.  Even so, there's not a blemish in the game's overall presentation.

Thankfully, the rest of the game makes pretty good use of this fantastic foundation.

The story revolves around a young Austrian princess, Aurora, whose death sends her father into a spiral of depression in traditional fairy tale fashion.  Her death is just a ruse, however, as she was actually transported to Lemuria, a mystical world populated by a variety of unusual creatures.

Aurora soon learns of Lemuria's plight: the Queen of the Night has stolen the sun, the moon, and the stars, leaving the entire world in eternal darkness.  Helping the people of Lemuria is Aurora's only chance to return home, so she embark on a quest to find and defeat the Queen of the Night.

As you can likely tell, the plot is as influenced by classic coming-of-age fairy tales as the overall aesthetic.  It's a little shallow when compared to its inspiration, as the sources of evil are pretty poorly developed, and it could stand to shake up the genre a little more (the characters are almost exclusively one-dimensional), but it's an enjoyable narrative nonetheless.

The best part of the story, however, is that the script is written entirely in rhyming verse.  It's essentially an epic poem, and while it is occasionally very forced (as rhymes can be), it's quite impressive.  This rhyming structure is even used as comedic relief at times.

When all is said and done, Child of Light presents a unique and enjoyable world to explore.

To top it off, the gameplay is a sleek meld of 2D exploration (think Metroidvania, though much more linear) and turn-based RPG combat.

The overworld exploration is full of goodies to uncover with excellent movement controls to boot.  Colliding with an enemy in the world will enter combat, which I'd say is the most compelling part of the game.

The basics are pretty standard fare: Battles use an active battle system, where each character progresses along an action gauge.  The rate at which the gauge fills is determined by a character's speed statistic, but the action pauses every time you need to issue a command.

However, there are two features that keep these battles interesting.  First, after selecting which action a character will perform, there is a brief "casting" period.  The duration of casting varies from ability to ability, but the important bit is that any time an enemy lands an attack against a character while they're casting, they will be interrupted and push them back down the action gauge.  Enemies can also be interrupted, so fights become more an issue of managing interruptions than choosing the most powerful attacks.  It's a cool system, making combat more tactical, and it's implemented pretty darned well.

Second, you're able to influence battles by moving what amounts to a cursor between the participants.  If you highlight a friendly character, you can heal them; if you choose an enemy instead, you can slow their progress on the action gauge.  Either action depletes some energy (which can also be used outside battle to heal your party), leading to an active component of these otherwise turn-based battles.

These ideas (plus a few other, less notable but also important features) are integrated almost seamlessly, giving a surprisingly fulfilling combat system.

Early on, these fights can get a little tedious, but there was a point within the first few hours where I noticed a big jump in difficulty.  After that, nearly every battle was a challenge, which was refreshing, as many RPGs these days are full of filler content.  To be fair, I played through the game on the "Hard" difficulty setting, so maybe the lower difficult setting isn't as exciting.  I was pretty satisfied with it overall.

Though I've been praising Child of Light throughout this review, it's worth noting that there are some frustrating flaws.

The most obvious is that the game is relatively short.  Once I completed the story and all the game's achievements, I had spent less than 15 hours on it, which includes a fair amount of experience grinding to deal with a couple of the bosses.  There was a ton of potential for a longer adventure, and while I'm happy they didn't drag it out with monotonous quests, I would have liked to have seen more content, especially in terms of side quests (as there are only a few minor side quests).

Another big complaint deals with the skill system - each playable character has a pretty large, seemingly complicated skill tree, though each reduces to three linear branches.  Basically, it looks like there's a lot more strategy involved in skill development than there actually is.

So it's not perfect, but those are relatively minor criticisms.  All things considered, Child of Light is an incredibly charming and entertaining game.  It's a beautiful game that's definitely worth your time.

My Rating: 9/10 - awesome.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Game Review - Hexodius (XBLA, 2013)

I've always been a fan of the classic arcade style of gameplay.  Easy-to-learn mechanics and a relatively high skill ceiling make this kind of game perfect for killing ten minutes or challenging everything you've got for a new high score, especially now that the coin-eating component is (mostly) obsolete.

Hexodius is a recent iteration of that classic formula, and it plays the role pretty well.  There's nothing particularly groundbreaking about it, but it is a solid twin-stick shooter, and therefore worthy of your attention if you're into that sort of thing.

First, the basics: Hexodius is essentially your standard shoot 'em up.  You work through stages flooded with waves of enemies, destroying everything you can for the highest score possible.  Classic arcade action at its finest.

Game modes are divided between a "story" campaign, which uses a thin plot to push you through a quasi-nonlinear series of arenas and boss fights, and an "arcade" mode, in which you have three minutes to beat your friends' high scores.

It's a simple formula, but it's executed nicely.  The story mode has levels with a variety of objectives, keeping things interesting as you trudge through dozens of stages.  The boss fights can be taxing, especially if you're going for the highest possible rank, but the other levels tend to be pretty forgiving, making them feel like filler after sinking a few hours into the game.

Progressing through the story mode unlocks six different arcade mode arenas; those arenas are where the game's challenge really shines.  Earning an "A" rank in any arcade arena is an impressive feat, as it requires quick thinking and reflexes to get the necessary score.  It's definitely a case of "easy to learn, hard to master."

In a slight deviation from the standard shoot 'em up style, Hexodius gives you the opportunity to equip up to four secondary weapons and three upgrades, adding a tactical element to the genre.  I found myself settling on one particular arrangement for the majority of the story mode, but when tackling the arcade, incremental advantages start to have huge implications.  It's nice to be able to experiment with different equipment to find the one that fits your playstyle best.

It all works out pretty well, giving a simple but smooth action experience.  There's not a whole lot of flourish, but the fundamental mechanics are sound, so the game tends to be pretty fun.  The individual stages can usually be completed within five minutes, too, so it's a great game for killing a little time here and there.  It's great entertainment in short bursts, only really showing its major flaws if you dedicate a few straight hours to it.

As for the superficial side of things, there's nothing to impressive to see or hear with this one.  The music and sound effects are forgettable, and the graphics are pretty much standard fare for this kind of thing these days.

The story mode took me a little over five hours to complete (according to the in-game clock), but it seems like there's near-infinite replayability in the arcade if you're interested in securing a spot at the top of the leaderboards.  As such, there's probably not enough content to justify the price of admission for your average gamer, but fans of twin-stick shooters or players looking for the occasional ten-minute filler will find a solid title in Hexodius.

My Rating: 6/10 - decent.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Game Review - Mars: War Logs (XBLA, 2013)

I'm always looking for a great new RPGs.  Immersing myself in an expansive world and seeing an epic story unfold or building my character(s) with the skills and equipment I find useful are some of the highlights of modern gaming.

Mars: War Logs is not one of those games.

While some aspects of the game make strong first impressions, evoking memories of Knights of the Old Republic with its aesthetic and basic controls, the whole thing rapidly deteriorates into a long sequence of tedious fetch quests, a frustrating real-time combat system, and a generally forgettable storyline that lacks momentum.

War Logs opens with a young soldier called Innocence describing the situation (a war on Mars) while he's taken to a POW camp.  Immediately after exiting the prisoner train, a large prisoner threatens Innocence with rape.

This scenario is just the first of many scenes throughout the game that seem to have been written by a 12-year-old trying to be "edgy;" it seems totally out of place given the nature of the situation (a war prisoner is going to rape a kid from the same side of the conflict right out of the gate?) and the view of the world that we get elsewhere (after this initial confrontation, the camp as a whole seems surprisingly friendly and inviting).

And that's essentially the whole game: a vaguely oppressed group of prisoners deals with their situation and the occasional bout of unnecessary adult content.

To make matters worse, the story is divided into three acts, but they are only loosely related.  The major issues introduced during each segment are hastily resolved during brief cutscenes, so you get a few disjointed storylines rather than the coherent narrative as you might expect from an RPG.

Overall, the story in Mars: War Logs lacks the depth and the polish to be anything more than a passing interest.

The gameplay sadly doesn't pick up the slack; there's just nothing really inspiring about it.

While the quests throughout the game aren't too unusual for a modern RPG, the lackluster story fails to mask the tedious elements.  Nearly every quest reduces to "go here, fight them, get this," and its hard to overlook the repetitive structure.

Combat doesn't add much enjoyment, either.  To be fair, there are a few nice technical features: battles are handled in real-time, playing almost like a third-person action game, and they're usually pretty intense, as 3+ enemies will all come at you simultaneously.

The problem with fighting lies in some of the details.  First off, the introductory tutorials present strategies that are irrelevant during your first major encounter (and many encounters throughout the game).  The ability to break an opponents guard seems totally ineffective against certain types of enemies, so rather than engaging them as the game teaches you, it forces you to develop new strategies almost immediately.  That's just frustrating design.

Second, the level design forces you into combat more often than not.  Ordinarily that setup wouldn't be a huge deal, but the game places some emphasis on being able to sneak around; I was almost never able to avoid fights, and the skills directly associated with sneakiness were impossible to use in most of the plot-oriented fight sequences.

As a result of the poor combat design, you're kind of pigeonholed into following a couple of paths through the game's skill trees.  It looks like there are some interesting options to explore, but it's really a false choice - if you don't prep yourself for straight combat, you can very easily find yourself stuck in a near-unwinnable fight.

The gameplay is frustrating at almost every turn.

Sadly, the disappointment doesn't stop there.  While the voice acting and overall sound design are generally pretty good (though never particularly outstanding), the art direction is uninspired.  Yes, the whole thing takes place on Mars, so the dusty red setting is expected, but the fact that nearly every area is a rundown slum gets tiring, as there's no aesthetic incentive to explore.

The end result is a game that's just not very entertaining.  It has some nice ideas, and the overall vibe evokes some nostalgia, but it rapidly becomes a tedious exercise.

If you're looking for an enthralling story with fun mechanics, you should look somewhere else.

My Rating: 2/10 - terrible.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Game Review - Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (2014, Xbox 360)

The Castlevania franchise is one of the oldest and most beloved series in gaming, and the newest entry, Lords of Shadow 2, promises to build on its predecessor's success as a solid 3D action-adventure game.  Sadly, the latest excursion into the Belmonts' world falls short due to a series of weird plot and gameplay features.  The most frustrating issue is that there seems to be an awesome game hiding behind this awkward collection of confusing elements.  Here's why:

NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for the original Lords of Shadow game.  I will try to keep those spoilers as vague as possible, but it would be impossible to describe my disappointment with this game's storyline without including some specific details of the ongoing plot.

Lords of Shadow 2 is unique among Castlevania games, as the main player character is Dracula himself.  During the game's opening tutorial, you get a chance to explore Dracula's powers while defending his castle.
While it's cool to see (and control!) Dracula at his most badass right off the bat, the tutorial gives the first hints of something amiss with the overall gamplay.  The combat is fluid and a lot of fun, emphasizing the use of a whip as in the original Lords of Shadow, with a number of different ways to dispatch your foes.

The frustrating part is the surprising emphasis on Prince of Persia-style climbing: you will spend a large chunk of this game jumping from handhold to handhold, and you'll generally do it just to fill time.  The platforming itself is rarely difficult, as only a few spots in the game require any sort of timing or strategy (one of the biggest challenging sequences actually appears in the tutorial), and you can always highlight grippable pieces of scenery using an in-game command.  All that climbing gets incredibly tedious.

Back to the tutorial, though - the game's introductory sequence ends with Dracula's ostensible victory over the Brotherhood of Light, defeating an army in a matter of seconds.  However, a cinematic indicates that the Brotherhood saw that battle as a victory as well, as Dracula disappeared following the fight, martyring the paladin who led the charge.

At this point, the storyline has incredible potential - we get a chance to see the Castlevania universe from Dracula's perspective.  It could portray him as a tragic villain with some depth (you know, as opposed to just being pure evil), or it could embrace the whole evil thing and give the player control over one of Dracula's conquests (asserting his dominance over some race of evil beings, for instance).  I was incredibly excited to see where it would go.

And then Dracula woke up in a modern world, emaciated from centuries of isolation...

Yep.  It's a game with Dracula roaming streets straddled by skyscrapers.  Sure, the world still has a clear Gothic vibe, and the overall aesthetic is generally well-done, but it's quite jarring to think of a Castlevania game in a contemporary setting.

But the weird doesn't stop there: one of Dracula's old acquaintances appears to restore some of his strength, informing the Prince of Darkness that Satan has finally regained enough power to fill the void left by Dracula's disappearance.  In return for removing Satan from the world, Dracula's old friend makes an apparently irresistible promise: permanent death.  Looking for an escape from his existence, Dracula therefore searches the city for Satan's acolytes in an attempt to bring the devil down for good.

Oh, and Dracula's memories try to kill him along the way, so there's that too.

The basic plot isn't necessarily offensive following Lords of Shadow, it's just really unexpected.  The offensive part is that it seems to go too far.  It's nice in that it humanizes the main series antagonist, but I felt that it made him too soft to be compatible with his previous appearances in the franchise.  While I think it wraps everything up pretty nicely in the end, the generally schizophrenic presentation (jumping back and forth between the modern world and Dracula's memories, for example) makes for a confusing narrative that doesn't really seem to have a strong direction.

The gameplay, while built on a strong foundation, just doesn't have the oomph to support the shoddy storyline.  I've already mentioned the mind-numbing breaks from action due to unnecessary platforming sections, but the combat loses its luster as the game wears on, too.  There are some cool features - a nice variety of combos and a nifty weapon experience system which encourages you to diversify your attack patterns - but it falls all too easily into one or two repetitive combos that are the most effective in virtually every situation.

In the few cases where those combos aren't the most powerful, the game overcompensates by making them completely worthless.  Instead, you have to break the enemy's defenses (with a skill that requires magic power, so you may not be able to use it) so you can resume your normal combat strategy.

Even worse, many of your enemies throughout this nightmare-infested city have guns, so they can damage you from arbitrarily large distances.  That makes some battles a serious pain; often I would have an off-screen enemy pummeling me with rapid-fire bullets, and projectile attacks make it very difficult to run from random mob encounters (because you have to do that silly rock climbing to transition between areas, and taking damage will knock you from a wall).

On the other extreme, boss fights are typically easy, as the only real obstacle to your success is learning the animations that signal specific attack patterns.  As a result, the difficulty of the game's combat seems skewed in the opposite direction of what you might expect, and beating down a boss doesn't seem like much of a triumph.

And then there's the biggest disappointment of all the gameplay flaws: Lords of Shadow 2 has stealth sections.  The Prince of Darkness must sneak through some areas of the game (primarily to avoid big dumb dudes with huge guns), and it is abysmal.  The stealth sequences aren't very well designed in the first place, but the control scheme also doesn't give enough sensitivity for it to make much sense.  A couple of these sequences were particularly bad simply because the path the developers expected you to take is far from obvious - in one instance, I struggled towards a clearly-visible ladder, only to find that you can't climb it; the "correct" path required a very different strategy.

To be fair, despite all the frustrations, the game has some impressive moments.  A couple of scenes are downright visceral, which is pretty sweet, and many of the fight sequences are actually pretty fun.  But the good bits make everything else even more depressing; its predecessor's strengths are still there, but they were downplayed in favor of a number of bizarre, poorly executed design choices.

Lords of Shadow 2 is one of the biggest gaming letdowns in recent memory.  It took the brilliant, successful formula in Lords of Shadow and perverted it to the point that it's rarely recognizable.  Fans of the series might get a kick out of seeing more from Dracula's perspective, and it can be genuinely entertaining, but the prevalence of unusual flaws make it a hard one to recommend.

My rating: 4/10 - mediocre.