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.