Thursday, December 24, 2015

Game Review - Lifeless Planet (Xbox One, 2015)

Video games can provide experiences that no other medium can because of player interaction.  The best books and movies can tap into the audience's emotions, but the mere act of guiding a character generates enough investment in the narrative to drive deeper than a film ever could.  Lifeless Planet is a prime example of this sort of game.

In fact, it is one of the best storytelling games I've ever played.  While some games let you overcome complex challenges or beat your friends in a head-to-head match, Lifeless Planet provides a brilliant stage for exploring the world its developers created.  Therein lies both the strongest and weakest features of the game, but I'll get to that in a bit.

The Basics

Lifeless Planet opens with an astronaut making the first trip to a planet 30 light years away.  Unmanned probes have indicated is full of plant life with an oxygen-rich atmosphere, but when the astronaut crash lands, he discovers it is actually barren and hostile.

Yep. Chock full of life.
From there, he desperately searches for answers and a way home.  The path ahead is riddled with small puzzles and platforming sections, but for the most part, the emphasis is on exploration - looking for clues and finding minerals and other objects that suggest something about the planet's history.  Each discovery brings new questions, leading to a more complex narrative than you might initially expect.

The Good

And that narrative is amazing.

As I played, I kept thinking that the story was ripped straight from a Twilight Zone episode.  The desolate world provides the perfect backdrop for that kind of reality-questioning vibe.

More impressively, that tone persists throughout the entire game.  After one piece of the story fell into place, my focus shifted seamlessly to another part of it - "ok, so that's how that happened, but I still don't know about this other thing.  Maybe it's this."  This process continued for the 9 hours or so that it took for me to complete the game.

Large structures make an appearance, too. Hmm.
And at the end, I still had questions.  That lingering uncertainty about key story elements often makes for an unsatisfying conclusion, but for Lifeless Planet, it still felt like all the necessary bits were wrapped up.  The story was told, but it gave brief insight into a fascinating world, which left me digging for more answers.

In short, Lifeless Planet succeeds in telling the kind of story that is usually reserved for the best science fiction.  It's awesome.

The soundtrack also plays a crucial role in setting the tone.  While the game is usually quiet, some bits of music will occasionally pop up to enhance the tension of a particular scene.  It's done really well, and it further complements that Twilight Zone feel.

And... desks?

The Not-So-Good

For Lifeless Planet, I don't think it's quite fair to list "bad" features, as nothing is overly negative.  There are, however, a few things that could be a lot better.

An obvious one is the graphics.  While they did a great job of conveying the isolation of a lifeless world, there are some places where simple textures undermine what could have been breathtaking structures or objects.  Similarly, there are a few cutscenes featuring human beings, and they look pretty bad.

These graphical issues aren't enough to detract from the overall experience in a significant way, but there's some lost potential in making the game even more engrossing.

Time to jump!
The real frustrations come with the gameplay mechanics, though.  Unlike most games I've played, your character actually conserves momentum when jumping - once you're in the air, you can't change your direction or speed.  While nice from the perspective of presenting some realism, this is definitely a place where I think realism should be sacrificed for good gameplay.

The reason?  It can be really easy to misjudge jumps, and I often found myself having difficulty getting up to speed on small platforms.  It led to me failing a number of platforming sequences where it felt more like the game was screwing me than a lack of skill on my part.

Another problem lies in some of the dark sections of the game.  When night falls, you'll understandably need to use a flashlight to get around.  The issue is that your flashlight isn't very powerful, so your sight is limited enough that the platforming can be nearly impossible.  Finding the next platform is a big challenge, and it's far more frustrating that fun.  I spent well over 10 minutes stuck in one area, jumping every way I could (and dying) in a desperate attempt to find the next platform.

I'm just saying that the few dark sections are either poorly designed or should be a lot shorter - or both.

Despite these criticisms, Lifeless Planet provides an unparalleled experience.  If you're a fan of classic science fiction or you're looking for a fantastic story of isolation and confusion, you should absolutely check out this game.  If you're more likely to get invested in the gameplay, you might be better served elsewhere.  I still highly recommend it, though.

My Rating: 8/10 - great.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Game Review - Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians (Xbox One, 2015)

Despite developers' best intentions, a lot of games lean very heavily on one of their major features: a fun mechanic, a compelling story, or a beautiful setting.  Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians falls solidly into that last category, with amazing aesthetics but lackluster gameplay.  Let's just get into it:

The Basics

In Beatbuddy, you play the titular character as he works to save his aquatic world, Symphonia, from... something.  Honestly, the plot wasn't very clear to me until near the end of the game.  All you know at the start is that somebody is trying to "take the temple" and "control the music," which is apparently a terrifying proposition.

A gate, a submarine, and a little blue dude.
To accomplish this goal, Beatbuddy will have to navigate strong currents, break down barriers, and activate switches.  It's essentially a puzzle game, where figuring out how to get from A to B is usually more challenging than actually doing it.  As the game progresses, there is an increasing emphasis on fairly simple combat (you can punch and dash and that's it), but it is relatively minor even in the final stages.

The Good

This game is absolutely gorgeous.  Each of the game's six levels has a unique feel to it, and every detail is fantastic.  The art style and implementation are amazing, and it's generally a pleasure to look at.

Look at that big, dumb fish!
The soundtrack is similarly fabulous.  Each stage features a single prominent theme woven throughout it, and that music is integrated into the gameplay itself.  While this integration isn't terribly clever, as it's mostly just objects pulsing with the beat and a few rhythmic punch combos, some on-screen features affect the music.  For example, when certain types of creatures are on display, bass drums or hi-hat cymbals may be emphasized.  It's kind of a minor feature, but it makes for a surprisingly dynamic experience.

And that's the best thing I can say about this game: it's a great audiovisual experience.  Fantastic music paired with a charming world does a lot of work.

But that's it.

The Bad

Everything else is mediocre at best.

I don't think it's entirely fair to criticize the tissue paper thin storyline, as that's obviously not the focus of the game, but they put enough into it for the plot to be disappointing.  There are many brief bits of dialogue, but they don't do anything except distract from your exploration.  It doesn't quite reach the point of being frustrating, but the game would be better without such a feeble attempt at a narrative.
Because a game can't exist without some attempt at story these days.
The biggest problem, though, is that the gameplay is incredibly shallow.  For what seems to be a puzzle game, just about every obstacle you encounter is pretty straightforward, so it's pretty mindless.  The biggest exception is a puzzle that involves switches opening and closing various gates, but this puzzle spans several screen-lengths.  It's "challenging" because you can't see which gates each switch opens without swimming around the whole area, so it feels like a terrible design more than anything else.

To be fair, little to no challenge is not necessarily a problem.  With such fantastic aesthetics, the simple act of exploring the world could be reason enough to play the game.

Except that there's very little to explore.  I completed the full game in about 3 hours, and I don't feel any drive to play through it again because there's absolutely nothing to look for off the main path.  There are some collectibles, "beat points" that unlock concept art and the like, but they're mostly in little caches here and there.  There are never multiple pathways or side areas; everything in the game is a piece of normal progression.

The pipe organ of the sea.
The combination of linear worlds with few challenges but awesome presentation makes the game feel almost like a glorified slideshow.

And I think that summarizes the experience quite nicely - shallow but pretty.  With more entertaining gameplay, Beatbuddy could have been one of the best games of the last few years.  As it stands, though, it's probably not worth the investment, but you're not setting your money on fire if you decide to give it a shot.

My Rating: 4/10 - mediocre.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Game Review - Fallout 4 (Xbox One, 2015)

Fallout is easily one of my favorite game franchises.  Its setting in a post-apocalyptic retro-future is perfect for a unique and exciting world to explore, and the lore behind its nuclear wasteland is just bizarre and creepy enough to make every discovery fascinating.  Plus the games are built upon a solid RPG foundation, so the series is tons of fun in many respects.

Five years after New Vegas, Fallout 4 is finally here, and it brings the biggest world of the series.  It isn't without flaws, but it certainly gives a better exploration experience than any of its predecessors.

The Basics

Fallout 4 opens a bit differently than the previous entries of the Fallout series - the protagonist and his or her spouse prepare for an evening at a veteran's hall before the nuclear war that gives the franchise its name.  Shortly after settling on your character's appearance, their small family (infant included) are ushered to nearby Vault 111 just before the bombs hit.

Plus you get to see the bombs hit. It sets a somber tone in a way that no other Fallout game has.
Once inside, they're cryogenically frozen to be reawakened once the surface is safe again.

Of course, that doesn't happen as intended.  Instead, your character is abruptly awoken long enough for their spouse to be murdered and son to be kidnapped.  You unfreeze permanently some time later (roughly 200 years after the nuclear war), with only one obvious objective: find your son.

The core of what follows is very similar to the previous 3D Fallout games - lots of characters to meet and locations to discover, with first-person shooter combat supplemented by the statistics-driven VATS system, which allows you to pause the action and target specific enemies and body parts for a more strategic experience.

If you've played either Fallout 3 or New Vegas, you know how the basic mechanics feel.

The Good

The absolute best feature of Fallout 4 is that the world is huge.  There are well over 250 distinct locations to discover.  While some of these locations are just major landmarks without much to explore or discover, it's still a whole lot to see and do.  To give some perspective, I had logged 70 hours on one character by the time I finished the story, and there were still a handful of side quests and unexplored areas I hadn't visited.

Even better: this post-apocalyptic wasteland is surprisingly gorgeous.  Yeah, the dilapidated buildings and urban debris are aesthetically very repetitive, but the world outside is just stunning.  I think a lot of it comes down to diversity - instead of being a bunch of washed out browns and grays, there's quite a bit of color scattered around.  The weather is also fairly dynamic, with fog and rain occasionally breaking the monotony, and the sky makes the game feel impressively open.

Seriously, look at that!
The size and beauty of the world make for an amazingly fun and inviting world to explore.

In terms of mechanics, not a lot has changed from previous titles in the franchise, though that's not a bad thing.  VATS still lets you play the game essentially as a turn-based RPG if you wish, or you can run and gun like a first-person shooter, and both options are reasonably well done.  Nothing groundbreaking on the combat front, but it's good enough to keep things interesting.

There are, however, a couple noticeable mechanical changes, and I think they're both for the better.

First, the perk/leveling system is a bit more streamlined.  In previous games, you would begin the game by assigning your starting attribute points, choosing primary skills from among a dozen or so options, and then obtaining special perks every couple of level ups.  It's a good system to be sure, as it allows a lot of customization and nuance.  At the same time, though, this system puts a lot of emphasis on knowing the game - some skills are just less useful than others due to what's actually in the game, and choosing perks could be tricky for similar reasons.

Fallout 4 removes those skills entirely, integrating their functionality into the perk system instead.  This time around, you get a new perk each and every level, and perks do everything from increasing your damage with certain types of weapons to unlocking new crafting options.  Yes, you lose some of the game's complexity, which will be a disappointing change for some, but I think the gain in more accessibility (and fewer feel bads if you invest skill points into something borderline worthless) is worth it.

Plus perks are now in a handy dandy table, making it easy to see your options.
Speaking of crafting, the second major change is that the system for using resources to make new goodies is substantially more robust.  A lot of that change has to do with the new build mode, which allows you to make structures and defenses in some friendly encampments and recruit new allies.  But on top of that, there are tons of recipes for consumable items and gear modifications to let you become exactly the kind of killing machine you've always wanted to be.

The biggest benefit of these expanded crafting options is that all the random crap you find is actually useful.  Every "junk" item in the game can be scrapped for raw materials, so you might actually find yourself scrounging for hot plates and oil cans as you clear buildings and bunkers.

There are, of course, other good features of the game as well (like the fact that you can loot containers without having to "open" them), but that covers the biggest ones.  As much as I want to continue singing the game's praises (I am a big Fallout fan after all), there are a number of disappointing features as well.

The Bad

The biggest problem is one that seems to plague a lot of games these days: loading screens are atrocious.  Each individual load screen may take 10-20 seconds.  That's not oppressive in the abstract, but when you're trying to quickly travel from, say, one town to another, there could be three or four of these loading screens in your way.  The fast travel system doesn't feel so fast when it takes a minute of waiting or more to reach your destination.

Loading screens aren't much of an issue when you're in full exploration mode, but it can get awfully frustrating when you're trying to buy ammo or turn in a quest or something of the sort.


The other big disappointment is embedded in the main storyline missions.  As is typical of a Fallout game, there are several factions with a vested interest in the game's major events.  Unsurprisingly, these factions are at odds with one another, all fighting over the same resources to push their own agendas.  Even better, there's no obvious "good guy" in this particular conflict; each organization brings their unique biases and whatnot.  That moral ambiguity is great!

Unfortunately, as far as I could tell, there's really only one way to progress through the story - with brute force.  There's no sneaking around and sabotaging, there's no convincing a faction to lay down their arms.  You can't talk faction leaders out of using violence as an answer to their problems, so the only way to influence the story is in the faction you choose to join.

And that is really disappointing and frustrating.  A pure intelligence/persuasion build is impossible to pull off, as you are forced to deal with big firefights throughout the game.

For a lesser complaint, given the sheer size of the game, it's a little disappointing that there aren't many new species to discover (and brutally murder).  It's basically the same menagerie as before - humans, supermutants, ghouls, mirelurks, and bugs.  There are a few new strains of mirelurks, but that's it for new and unusual fauna.  A missed opportunity in my mind.

Including the intimidating Mirelurk Queen.
Sadly, the in-game music falls in the "bad" category as well.  You have a couple radio stations to entertain you in the wastes, but many of the songs were included in previous games.  I guess it fits with the world building a bit because radio stations around the country have the same pre-war popular music, but it has definitely gotten old.

Ambient music, on the other hand, is actually pretty good, so I guess it's not all bad.

One more complaint: the town-building aspects of the game, while cool, have some problems.  The first is just that moving and placing items can be a huge pain given the perspective of the game and the lack of a strict grid (or something similar) for guiding placement.  That process can get quite awkward and frustrating.

The second is a bit more significant.  There are mechanics for measuring the happiness of people in each of your allied settlements.  Unfortunately, those mechanics are either glitched or unintelligible, as it seems impossible to make people happy for an extended period of time.  I'm not sure if their dissatisfaction affects anything else in the game, but it's annoying nonetheless.

(Full disclosure: the base-building in the game isn't really my thing, so I spent an hour or two on it and moved on.  Despite those flaws, there's a fairly impressive system in place, so you may find it to be a ton of fun, if you're into that sort of thing.)

The Summary

If you're a fan of the lore and atmosphere of the Fallout franchise, Fallout 4 is amazing because it gives you a huge world to explore.  The game does a decent job of letting you develop a character and use him or her to dominate your enemies, if you're into that sort of thing instead.  But if you loved the open-endedness of the interactions in previous Fallout games, you'll probably be disappointed by this one.

Still, it's definitely worth playing if you're RPG fan.

My Rating: 8/10 - great.