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.