Thursday, June 21, 2012

New Review: Grasshopper Manufacture’s downward trend continues with Lollipop Chainsaw. Still has its fair share of fun, just not nearly enough to recommend it.

Suda 51 is one of my favorite developers, with some incredible games under his belt. Killer 7 was a disturbing masterpiece, and I mean that in the best possible way. No More Heroes was a lot of fun and a truly unique game, and I couldn’t have been happier to learn that it did well enough to bring Suda 51 and his studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, into the public eye. It was with true excitement that I had looked forward to Grasshopper’s following games, though unfortunately, something happened after No More Heroes, and since then it hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride.

No More Heroes 2 left behind much of the original’s spirit and attitude as it attempted to appeal more to its predecessor’s critics than its fans, while Shadows of the Damned was a unique and memorable action/horror game unfortunately crippled by frustrating game design choices. Now comes their latest, a zombie-killing hack and slash that feels so lazily put together that it’s like they’ve stopped trying. The game’s not completely without merit and Suda 51’s crazy attitude is definitely on full display, but the writing and the gameplay are both so one-note and repetitive that even the developer’s most die-hard fans will be more than happy to see the end credits roll.

Things are not going well at San Romero High School. A Goth student who spent his high school years as an outcast has decided to retaliate against those who have wronged him, and sets a plan in motion to break open the gateway to Rotten World, unleashing a full-on zombie attack on the high school and, soon, the rest of the town. Cheerleader Juliet Starling and her family of zombie hunters plunge headfirst into the action; she’s armed with a chainsaw and her Sensei-trained knowledge of combat, while her family brings weapons and total insanity to the table. Oh, and Juliet also carries with her the head of her boyfriend, Nick, whom she decapitated to save from a zombie bite. He provides sarcastic commentary throughout the adventure, more or less playing the part that Johnson did in Shadows of the Damned.

It’s a fun setup, and there’s no shortage of cool undead bosses to fight, but it’s far below Suda 51’s talent as a writer. This is a guy who’s written what I think is one of the most compelling, twisted, and unpredictable storylines in the history of the medium with Killer 7, and here he’s just in non-stop joke mode. Much of the humor’s centered around Juliet’s sexiness and the way people inappropriately react to it, while other jokes reference everything from Katy Perry to My Chemical Romance, and they deliver laughs just about as often as they crash and burn. Suda 51 collaborated with Hollywood writer James Gunn (the Dawn of the Dead remake, Slither) on the script, and though I laughed a bunch while playing it, I have to say, I expected more from these two than a series of pole dancing jokes and Hot Topic references.

But Lollipop Chainsaw’s not meant to be taken seriously, that much is clear from the outset. The game’s actually structured a bit like an arcade game, with emphasis on replaying levels to boost your score on the online leaderboards; it even features endangered NPCs who you can rescue (if you’re quick enough) ala House of the Dead. The problem is that the gameplay’s just not fun enough to warrant the promised replay value. It’s never a good sign in a beat-em-up when you’re sick of the combat system about 15 minutes into the experience, and while the skills and powerups you can buy from shops improve things a good deal as the game goes on, there’s no getting around the fact that combat feels clunky and repetitive almost throughout. You progress through linear levels and take out wave upon wave of zombies, while gameplay variations such as the boss battles, Grasshopper Manufacture’s typical “video game” segments, not to mention Zombie Baseball, are as hit-or-miss as everything else is.

What keeps you going through the levels is the pacing; cutscenes are frequent, (though unskippable, even if you die and are watching them again, which is unfortunate) and Juliet and Nick’s back and forth banter is the source of a lot of laughs. In the age of Youtube, though, this alone doesn’t justify a purchase. Why buy a game with average gameplay if you can watch its best moments on the internet? Story’s always played a central role in Grasshopper Manufacture’s titles, and that’s awesome, especially when it’s penned by someone like Suda 51. But in this day and age you can’t just write some funny dialogue and call it a day, you have to design a game that also plays well, and that’s simply not the case here.

With the exception of the music (including Silent Hill’s Akira Yamaoka, not to mention an incredibly entertaining collection of licensed tracks and the always awesome Tara Strong voicing the main character) and voice acting, this just doesn’t feel like a $60 game. Though it’s running on the Unreal Engine 3 like Shadows of the Damned was, Lollipop Chainsaw looks like an upscaled Wii game for the most part. You take that into account along with its short length and simple gameplay and this feels like a digital title that you should be paying $20 for, not full price. It’s built for replay value; unlockable harder levels of play, tons of items to collect and purchase, plenty of choice in the customization of Juliet, but it needed stronger central gameplay to warrant the return trips, and playing through this again without the novelty of its storyline is about as unappealing to me as anything.
Verdict: Lollipop Chainsaw may have been made by some incredibly talented people, but it’s like they were on auto-pilot here. There are a few moments of inspiration, plenty of dialogue that will have you laughing out loud, plus a great soundtrack to ensure that your playthrough of Lollipop Chainsaw isn’t a total waste of time. There’s fun to be had, without a doubt, but not enough to make up for a stiff combat system, and definitely not enough to warrant a $60 purchase.

Presentation: A fun story with some hilarious dialogue from Suda 51 and James Gunn, though this is work far below the capabilities of each, I feel. The menus feature a cool comic book motif that I wish carried over to the visuals in the game itself. Jokes hit as often as they miss.

Graphics: Grasshopper Manufacture’s sense of style is muted here by a washed out color scheme and bland-looking enemies. Frequent load times on dull load screens. Carries the look of a last generation game upscaled to HD.

Gameplay: Combat plays like an even less fluid No More Heroes 2, and considering the large role that zombie-killing plays in Lollipop Chainsaw, this is a big issue. Upgradeable powerups and some fun mini-games shake things up but can’t make up for core gameplay that’s lacking in as many ways as this one’s is.

Sound: Definitely its strongest aspect. A killer soundtrack and fun voice acting brings some much-needed life to the proceedings.

Replay Value: This game was designed around multiple playthroughs, though how many people will take advantage of this remains to be seen. Game ended for me after a little over 5 hours, and in that time I’d definitely seen enough.

Overall: 5.5/10

(Note: This is a review of the Xbox 360 version. My reviews go on a .5 scale)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Review: Xenoblade Chronicles is an incredible adventure and a major step forward for the genre. Not a perfect game by any means, but one you definitely won't regret playing.

It’s been a long road, but after much struggle and plenty of doubt, Tetsuya Takahashi’s epic Japanese RPG, Xenoblade, has finally been localized for Western shores after a well-received release in Japan two years ago. And now that I’ve finally gotten the chance to experience it, I can see why Xenoblade is being widely regarded as one of the best Japanese RPGs to come around in years. It’s not a game without its flaws, there’s no doubt about that, but it succeeds in delivering a fun and memorable adventure in a stunning world, single-handedly bringing the Japanese RPG genre into the next generation…on the Wii, of all systems.

Graphics: Yes, this is a Wii game, and the Wii is, of course, not capable of delivering high definition games, something that you’ll just have to accept when booting up your copy of Xenoblade. However, what Monolith Soft (Xenosaga) has done here has been to squeeze what feels like every ounce of power from the aging hardware to deliver a truly gorgeous game, one that, yes, is in Standard Definition (To HDTV owners, I recommend springing for Component Cables to at least jump the visuals up to 480p) but one that nevertheless manages to amaze. Almost every environment you’ll wander through over the course of this 60 hour+ adventure is gigantic, each one looking different from the last and providing no shortage of nooks and crannies to explore. The draw distance is some of the best I’ve encountered, allowing you to see what feels like miles ahead of you. The art direction’s top notch, and the use of color and lighting effects bathe the environments in a warm glow that really pops in 480p. Cutscenes are surprisingly frequent and look great, with great character animation and well-directed action sequences the likes of which really haven’t been done on the system. There are bumps in the road: some truly awful textures rear their ugly heads from time to time, and even actions like opening up the menus cause the Wii to strain, while the framerate in battle can drop to *completely* unacceptable levels. But Xenoblade remains a gorgeous game, one that does all that can possibly be done to overcome its hardware restrictions and deliver some of the best visuals you’ll find in a Standard Definition title.

Gameplay: Tetsuya Takahashi, who created the linear and story-heavy Xenosaga series, had said during Xenoblade’s development that he considered those types of games to be “a dead end” for the genre, something that I took to be a bit of a dig at, among other things, Final Fantasy XIII, which took RPG linearity to a whole other level. Xenoblade instead takes an entirely different stance, focusing on exploration from the very start. This is a game where you can wander up to the top of a cliff and jump off into the waters below; where you can not only see for miles in every direction, but where you can explore it. Where the amounts of quests you can take on seem endless. With scope that hasn’t been present in Japanese RPGs, by and large, since the large worldmaps of the PS1 era (and even these Xenoblade puts to shame) Monolith Soft has created a world that not only looks great, but one that truly feels alive.

But for all the emphasis on exploration, Xenoblade doesn’t forget its Japanese RPG roots; a waypoint will almost always guide you to your next cutscene, though you’re encouraged to venture off the beaten path at every opportunity. The story itself progresses in a linear fashion, with you having no control over its progression or outcome, which is good; this is a Japanese RPG, after all. And don’t let Xenoblade’s emphasis on exploration and gameplay fool you; there’s a lot of story here, with, I’m sure, more voice acting than all games Nintendo has ever released…combined. It manages to find the balance between offering the gamer total freedom while at the same time telling a story, an accomplishment that should prove, beyond a doubt, that you can do both in a Japanese RPG.

The battle system plays similarly, in a sense, to that of offline MMOs like Final Fantasy XII, though it offers a far more exciting take on the combat style. Your input is constantly required, whether it be selecting moves for your main character to pull off, or even moving him around to make sure you’re in the right place for those moves to do their most effective damage. There are no items to speak of; instead, when a party member dies, you have to walk up to their fallen body and revive them with the B-button, though you can only do this if you have enough power in the gauge that dictates combat actions. The AI controls the other two characters, and you can’t switch between them during battle, unfortunately, but Monolith Soft did their best to instill in the game a sense of teamwork; you can “encourage” characters at various points in battle to grant them stat boosts, you can pull off team attacks, and the characters, for better or for worse, never seem to get tired of talking to each other as they slay enemies. It’s fast, it’s exciting, and it can be challenging at times, especially if you go after a foe far more powerful than you are.

As I said earlier, though, despite the MMO-like battle system and emphasis on exploration, Xenoblade doesn’t forget the genre it’s part of. When you get past the incredible opening cutscenes and battles, you find yourself inside Colony 9, a huge town brimming with things to do, and it’s here that I couldn’t help but smile and think to myself, “wow, the first hour of Xenoblade is the best Japanese RPG in a decade,” and in many ways, it is. Everywhere you look, there are places to explore, sidequests to take on, loot to find, gems (which provide stat boosts) to create, and equipment to buy. Day changes to night, something I always love in games like this, and the differences to the atmosphere are palpable; some areas look nothing at night like they do during the day, and the things you can do in the environments alternate as well. Between all of this and the stunning environments that you’ll always find yourself in, Xenoblade rarely ever feels boring or repetitive. In many ways, this is what I think a game like Final Fantasy XII tried so hard, but failed, to do, and Xenoblade nails it. Not only is the battle system fun, but the many things available to you outside of combat, plus the ability to warp back to any location you’ve previously visited from the menu, prevent this from feeling like a grind.

This has thusfar been an overwhelmingly positive review and I need to stress this: Xenoblade is a must-play for fans of Japanese RPGs. It’s an adventure with ambition and scope that we just haven’t seen in the sub-genre in many years and for that reason alone it’s worth experiencing. That said, there are also some major flaws, issues which prevent Xenoblade from achieving “classic” status and standing with the very best.

The combat system, while without a doubt fun and complex, is sadly home to many of my frustrations with the title, the first being a general lack of strategy. While there are some bosses where you’ll benefit greatly from fighting certain enemies first and that sort of thing, there’s otherwise a surprising lack of complexity here. Oftentimes when you run into a challenging boss, (and some are incredibly challenging) you have little choice but to go back and level up; there’s just no other way to defeat them. To me, this is the wrong way to go about providing difficulty in video games; games should be about figuring out a strategy, planning the strategy out, and then executing it. RPGs like Final Fantasy XIII and Lost Odyssey cap your EXP at certain levels, which stops you from leveling up entirely, and they do this because those games are about strategy, not brute force. Xenoblade unfortunately falls at the other end of the spectrum, and when I’m stuck on a boss and find myself forced to wander back and level up to stand a fighting chance, that’s when the game to me becomes a chore. And it’s something that happens here a few times too many.

Your AI companions aren’t a whole lot of help, often demonstrating a startling lack of intelligence. Since Xenoblade’s combat system doesn’t make use of items, you depend greatly on your healing character, and her AI seems to do everything just a few seconds too late. Some bosses feature environmental hazards (like deadly liquid near the fight) and the computer will mindlessly wander into it, losing health by the second and eventually dying off. Your commands over them are limited to “Come here!” “Stay there!” “Attack the same enemy I am!” … and that’s about it. It’s easy for frustration to mount, especially since keeping an eye out on your characters’ health meters, as well as their positions and which enemies they’re attacking, is made all the more difficult by a camera that can at times provide you with the worst possible view of your surroundings.

Xenoblade has a feature that’s an interesting addition on one hand and an annoyance on the other; the sword that Shulk, the main character, possesses allows him to see into the future, and this plays into battle as well. From time to time battles will briefly pause, and you’ll be shown a vision of a powerful move that the enemy’s prepared to unleash on a member of your party. You’ll then have a limited amount of time to prepare for the move before it’s pulled off. It’s a cool feature, but needless to say, the game interrupting an already frustrating boss battle to show me a clip of one of my characters getting mauled isn’t something that helped my mood, especially with some of the worst slowdown I’ve seen in ages grinding battles to a near halt anyway.

Other combat-related flaws are smaller but they add up. It’s harder than it should be to locate a fallen team mate on the battle field. You can’t revive anyone from KO unless you have at least 1/3 of your combat meter filled, and it’s very hard to build the meter up without both team mates still alive. Adding insult to injury, the game lacks a “Retry” option for just such a situation. Xenoblade also has an annoying tendency to end bosses early; sometimes you’ll win the battle after only 2/3s (or even 1/3) of the enemy’s health gauge is depleted, but you’re never exactly sure when this is or isn’t the case, which makes it tough to know whether to spend time leveling up or not. These aren’t major flaws, but they’re sources of frustration, and they do crop up often enough that it detracts from the experience.

The other big mistake Xenoblade makes is that it goes on for too long. This is a huge game that will take most people anywhere from 50-70 hours, and I have to give Monolith Soft credit; it’s exciting and compelling for the most part. It’s too bad that it features such an uninspired 3rd act in a far less interesting location than the rest, while throwing at you a near-endless amount of dungeon crawling and boss encounters. Had Xenoblade ended about 10 hours before it did, I think it would have been far stronger for it.

All in all, it’s a flawed game, to be sure, and I don’t want to downplay those flaws; Xenoblade has some substantial issues. But these issues can’t erase the sheer enjoyment and sense of fun that made up most of my experience with the game, and it’s one that I highly recommend in spite of them.

Storyline: Xenoblade’s story takes place on a world made up of two giant gods interlocked in a battle with each other. I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, as a lot of the fun in Japanese RPGs is in getting to witness these things yourself. It’s a far simpler story than Xenogears or Xenosaga but there’s definitely a lot of it, with cutscenes, and the usual Tetsuya Takahashi flair, making frequent appearances. The characters, sadly, aren’t all that memorable or well-developed, and things get a little convoluted towards the end, but it’s an interesting scenario that’s paced very well and easily encourages you to continue playing. The script can be a bit corny and heavy-handed at times, but Nintendo of Europe did a great job with the localization, including the voice acting, which stands far above that of other voice acted Nintendo titles. (Metroid: Other M, I'm looking at you.)

Music: Handled by a team of composers, including the likes of Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts), Yasunori Mitsuda, and others, Xenoblade has a pretty awesome soundtrack loaded with variety. The sheer amount of music and the high quality of much of it makes it one of the best soundtracks this year, and definitely one of the game’s highlights.

Verdict: Xenoblade represents the triumphant return of the Japanese RPG. Featuring plenty of cutscenes and story progression and yet placing gameplay and exploration at the forefront, Xenoblade proves that Japanese RPGs can compete with the worlds and content offered by their Western counterparts, while still remaining true to their Japanese RPG roots and telling a story. The MMO-styled battle system has flaws, as these often do when featured in offline games, the characters aren’t the greatest, and the last few hours are pretty terrible compared to what came before them, but flaws aside, Xenoblade’s a must play for fans of the genre or for those who just enjoy a good adventure. If you own a Wii, there’s no reason not to pick this up now, as it’s the exact type of thing we need to see more of from the Japanese RPG going forward.

Presentation: A gigantic and fully explorable world, a well-presented plot with great pacing, and an above average translation and dubbing from Nintendo of Europe. Navigating menus can be a little tedious, but you get used to it.

Graphics: One of the best-looking Standard Definition games. Colors really pop on an HDTV if you have Component Cables and turn on 480p in the Wii System Settings. Draw distance is incredible, massive environments, great-looking cutscenes. The Wii really struggles to handle it, and slowdown during some battles is a major annoyance.

Gameplay: A truly fun and addictive combat system is let down slightly by an emphasis on level grinding over strategy and a brain-dead AI. But the world is the star here and it does not disappoint. More towns like Colony 9 would have been nice, but Bionis feels alive, and I loved visiting it and seeing what it had to offer.

Sound: A quality soundtrack with no shortage of pleasant tunes. Great voice acting in both English and Japanese. Environmental sound effects are also well done and draw you right in.

Replay Value: This game will take you a very long time to complete, but there are even extensive New Game Plus options if you want another go at it.

Overall: 8.0/10

(Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

E3 2012: My thoughts on the Big 3

It's with mixed emotions that I step back and view E3 thusfar. We've seen Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all reveal their plans for the upcoming year and beyond, and the fact that this industry's in a transition has made itself pretty apparent. With gimmicks seeming to take prominence over big reveals in both Microsoft and Nintendo's conferences, it was a little too refreshing to see Sony's devoted almost entirely to games; which was, I thought, anyway, the biggest reason we turn these systems on to begin with.

Microsoft's conference was, to me, not too different from their last couple; a major focus on the Kinect add-on and non-gaming features being added to Xbox Live. The continued rehashing of IP such as Fable, Halo, and Gears of War. Long demoes devoted to Activision products. I have to say that it's just not my thing, and while Kinect owners should be happy that games will be coming to the device...eventually, it's just not a method of play that's ever interested me, and, as a person who has owned an Xbox 360 since 2007, I felt a little left out, which I'm sure wasn't Microsoft's intention.

Their showing was somewhat redeemed in my eyes, however, after I watched Nintendo's total mess of a conference. I may not like the direction Microsoft has chosen to take their Xbox 360, but it's one they're sticking to and one they've confidently presented. Nintendo...

I swear, watching their conference, I almost don't feel like Nintendo's living on this planet. It was a showing that they should have nailed; they're the only ones launching new hardware this year, and they went into E3 with such momentum. And yet, as their showing went on, I could almost feel the hype and energy deflating from the room. This is the year they had everything to prove, and yet they gave us almost nothing. We're supposed to be excited about a montage made up of games we can already (or soon will be able to) buy on our Xbox 360s. We're supposed to be thrilled that the Wii U has "HD visuals" as they present us with games, including games developed in-house, that look no better than current generation software. If the Wii U is truly a console capable of next generation visuals, that wasn't evident anywhere in this presentation.

I don't understand how Nintendo, a company with Retro Studios and Monolith Soft under their belt, felt the need to spend time demoing Batman: Arkham City, a game from last year whose visuals already look alarmingly dated. I was off the train even before they began trotting out Wii Fit and Just Dance 4.

The Wii U remains a mystery to me. Despite Nintendo devoting an entire press conference to it, I have no idea what type of online features it will have. I don't know if it's a next generation console or an Xbox 360. I don't know if it, like the Wii, will be a system where fans will have to literally beg Nintendo of America to bring over games with any substance, like we had to with Xenoblade and The Last Story. Is it possible that Nintendo was completely oblivious as to what was expected of them? Based on their showing, they have not created a next generation console, and amazingly enough, they don't even seem to realize that they were supposed to.

What I took from this conference is that the Wii U will be another system overloaded with Mario titles and a casual focus, with a cool-looking and gimmicky controller but last generation hardware: another Wii, in other words. In this case, a system meant to stall for time until the Xbox 720 and PS4 arrive and crush it.

I guess like last year, I have to declare Sony the winner by default; the once-king spent this entire generation in 3rd place, and the humbled company made it a point countless times to thank their devoted fanbase for their support. Despite issues with their presentation's pacing, (cut down on the long game demoes, Sony, that way you have more to show) there's little doubt that, content-wise, they were the king. And their games look great visually; hell, they look better than Nintendo's "next generation" titles, which is a pretty bizarre concept if ever there was one.

It will be interesting to see where the industry heads. Microsoft is sticking to their guns and  continuing a strategy that has obviously been successful for them. Sony seems to be doing their best to win gamers back over before trying again in the near future with the PS4. Nintendo, though, is a mess. They don't have the right idea with the Wii U: its controller won't have the same appeal among casuals as the Wii did, and, based on what we've seen, graphically it's doing nothing but playing catch up to current systems. HD capabilities and current gen ports alone may be enough to interest some of the casuals who Nintendo brought onboard with the Wii, though many have been gaming in HD on their smart phones for quite some time. And hell, I'd pay for a Zelda game with Xbox 360-quality graphics. But in the end, the Wii U does not look like an essential purchase. It looks like a system I'll be able to buy for $150 2 years down the road when the Xbox 720 and PS4 usher in the real "next generation" of gaming and it's left behind in the dust. Sad but true.

Microsoft= C
Sony= B
Nintendo= D