Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: Though I'm glad I was given the chance to play it, my final verdict on the Last Story is far from a recommendation.

It was, in many ways, a momentous occasion. With the years of speculation, hope, and then ultimately disappointment, Nintendo of America’s handling of The Last Story has been nothing short of tragic. Courtesy of Xseed Games, however, the latest RPG from Final Fantasy creator (and arguably the father of the modern Japanese RPG) Hironobu Sakaguchi was finally allowed to reach North American shores, serving as a symbolic farewell to the Wii system. Xseed, well aware of the built up demand for this title, packaged it with more care and in a more elaborate casing than I’ve ever seen, and as I took the game from its seal, I felt like I was holding something truly special.

And then I played it.

Well, okay, to be fair, The Last Story does begin with promise, though unfortunately that promise is never realized. This is a tedious and unadventurous journey to nowhere: an adventure so forgettable that I could feel it fading from memory even as I was playing it. I’m glad that I was given the opportunity to try The Last Story for myself, but my verdict is far from a recommendation.

One thing immediately clear to me was that this is not a game meant to be played on an HDTV. Though the Wii’s unquestionably not a system designed with HD gaming in mind, many of its games look nice in 480p, including Xenoblade, the other JRPG we had to fight to receive. The Last Story’s visuals, on the other hand, don’t survive the jump. Even with Component cables the presentation’s muddy, the colors washed out, and the jaggies seem to be everywhere. By no means am I picky about graphics, but The Last Story simply looks ugly, at least, on an HDTV. I can’t speak for how it looks in Standard Def, but I definitely recommend playing it that way if you have the choice, though unfortunately the frequent load times and heavy slowdown won’t be fixed.

Distracting visuals aside, I was initially prepared to enjoy this game. It begins the way many great JRPGs do by throwing you into the heat of battle, giving you a taste of what appears to be a fun combat system. Shortly after this opening mission you find yourself in a packed tavern in the middle of Lazulis City, a bustling and atmospheric town that feels like it’s just waiting to be explored. The scenes that follow, including your introduction to the rest of the cast and the chasing down of Calista, a character who initially bears more than a passing resemblance to Dagger from Final Fantasy 9, have a great sense of humor and demonstrate Nintendo of Europe’s superb localization effort. Things seem to be great as you prepare to set off on your adventure, and my hopes were incredibly high. But then, well…

Let’s step back a bit though and I’ll explain how The Last Story works. The gameplay’s divided into two categories; town and combat. Lazulis City is where the game’s exploration elements are most prominent, as you can wander around, chat with locals, buy and upgrade equipment, do battle in the Coliseum, and take on sidequests. The city’s got atmosphere to spare, with its narrow winding roads and many different neighborhoods, and it would make a great town in any RPG world, but in The Last Story, it *is* the world. Outside the town you’re almost always battling through linear levels in areas that are somewhat varied but feature little in the way of personality; it’s like Final Fantasy XIII, except without the beautiful graphics and the strong combat system. But I’ll get to Last Story’s combat a little later. The big issue I have with this game is that neither the town gameplay nor the action gameplay is satisfying, either on their own or together. Lazulis City’s got plenty to do but little incentive to do it. With no Quest menu to give you easy access to the sidequests you choose to take on and with a map that’s not the most helpful thing in the world, there’s just not much fun to be had here. When Xenoblade offered you sidequests it did so in a way that wove them seamlessly into the rest of the game, and you couldn’t walk through town without opportunities for side missions presenting themselves at every given opportunity. The Last Story instead requires you to seek out the sidequests, and given how bland most of them are, it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort. As far as story-related content in the city is concerned, it’s very little in number; story-wise, you have precious few adventures in the city streets, and though you can choose to warp back to town at many points throughout the game, the rest of the cast basically just sits in the tavern and does little else. The final few hours of the game give you no ability to return to town, further cementing The Last Story’s place as more of an action-driven dungeon crawl than anything else.

Outside the city, combat’s the main focus, and it’s another aspect of The Last Story that shows initial promise but falls victim to poor execution. In some ways it’s similar to the MMO combat system seen in games like Xenoblade but with more of a focus on individual battles. You and your teammates all have a certain amount of Lives, and when a person’s lives run out they can no longer be revived. Though you control only Zael, the main character, you can dictate certain commands to your allies, such as telling them to use a certain magical skill, and commanding them decreases the charge up time they’d spend to use the spell otherwise. There’s a cover system in place, and you’re given some cool moves, like the ability to dive from behind cover and fly right at the enemy, the ability to block and even counter-attack. Items that you find in chests throughout the environment or bought in stores can be used to upgrade your weapons, either in town or from one of the salespeople you’ll encounter elsewhere.

When fighting against basic enemies the combat system works and proves to be a good bit of fun. When more skill is required of you, though, is when things get ugly. First and foremost, far too many moves are mapped to the A-button, so the button that allows you to dive away from en enemy’s move can also cause you to stick to the wall in a cover position. Whoops. (And that’s just one example.) Adding to your frustrations, your AI allies have so little intelligence that they need to be revived constantly, and the more advanced combat tactics such as “diffusing” magic circles and commanding your squad mates are very poorly explained to you in various video tutorials and never come off as intuitive or natural. It’s a combat system that tries to do far too many things and would have been so much better if it focused on less. Boss fights are often repetitive and can drag on forever; an initially clever chase through a mansion loses its fun after about the 12th time you’re forced to run back to the living room to grab more special arrows to fire at the boss. No “retry” option is offered for if the fight isn’t going in your favor; instead, you can load up the most recent (and pointless) “Checkpoint Save” which often sets you back at least one load screen and a cutscene, which you can fast forward through, but not outright skip. Collision detection needs a lot of work, as your (or the enemy’s) weapons never seem to have problems hitting their target through the solid walls which are *supposed* to be providing you cover. It becomes a complete chore to play.

Though there’s no shortage of cutscenes, the story told is as uninteresting as the world it inhabits, and though the characters all make a great first impression, the game gives them nothing to do and they fade into the background very quickly. The plot involves an ascent to knighthood, an invading enemy force called the Gurak, a bland love interest, a powerful object, and lots of battle scenes that aren’t nearly as epic as they think they are. The cutscenes are okay, demonstrating some good character animation but not much cinematic flair. The well-written and acted dialogue is frequently undercut by a pointless narrator who has such a love for stating the obvious that it becomes laughable. Things get a bit more interesting towards the end but by that point the game’s jumped the shark to such an extent that it doesn’t redeem much at all. For the most part you’re watching characters you don’t care about trying to protect a world you barely get to know in scenes that have been done better in countless RPGs.

Verdict: When The Last Story was in development, Hironobu Sakaguchi was quoted as saying that this would be his final game. Though this was later revealed to be a mistranslation, I can’t help but think how awful it would be if the guy who created some of the most memorable experiences in gaming ended up going out on this note. This is an RPG with no sense of adventure, with little new to offer story-wise, with a flawed and frustrating combat system, and with visuals that just don’t look good on an HDTV (even for a Wii game). It all starts with such promise, but in the end The Last Story comes off as a failed attempt to re-invent a genre that I wish people would stop trying so hard to re-invent.

Presentation: A forgettable storyline that goes through the motions like they’re being read off a checklist. It’s amazing that a game this short has as much filler as this one does. Load times aren't too long but they show up at the worst places. Menus fairly clunky, bad tutorials. City is bustling, areas outside it have little to offer.

Graphics: Play this one in Standard Def if you can, as the decent art direction and great character design is otherwise ruined by the game’s awful look on an HDTV; even the CG cutscenes only manage to look “okay,” which has to be something of an achievement. Lazulis City looks good, that’s about it. Some slowdown during the busy battles can be distracting.

Gameplay: Lazulis City is awesome but not all that compelling to venture through. Combat starts off nicely but tries to do too many things and gets frustrating fast. Weapon upgrading is shallow, more advanced battle tactics feel unrefined. Bad collision detection, repetitive dungeons and boss fights.

Sound: Incredible voice acting that’s some of the best in a Japanese game this generation and great sound effects. The music, though, is among the blandest I’ve ever heard from Nobuo Uematsu. Aside from the relaxing music of Lazulis City, hardly a single other song stood out to me.

Replay Value: 18-24 hours is what the main quest takes, though I wanted it to end about halfway through that. You can theoretically spend more time doing sidequests and other things.

Overall: 5.0/10

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: Sleeping Dogs brings the crazy back to the open world genre

When True Crime: Hong Kong was first revealed at the 2009 Spike TV VGAs (one of the few highlights of a painful awards show) I was completely excited for it. Though I had a decent amount of fun with the first True Crime game, what got me so pumped for this new one was the Hong Kong setting, as a move to the Far East was something I had always wanted Rockstar to undertake with their iconic GTA series.

Turns out I was one of the few. True Crime: Hong Kong was met with a collective "meh" among the gaming community, and Activision took notice, officially cancelling the game a little over a year later and leaving its future in doubt. Long story short, Square-Enix stepped in, and the result is Sleeping Dogs: a fun and compelling take on the open world genre, one which may not reinvent the wheel, but one that pulls off everything it attempts to do with both style and energy.

You are Wei Shen, an undercover cop who has a personal motive for dealing with the Triads, and fully enters into that world by getting directly involved in a vicious war between the various gangs. What makes the storyline so compelling is the risk that Wei has taken on, and his constant fear of being discovered, either by his friends or his enemies, keeps you on your toes. Wei's a likable enough guy, and it becomes easy to root for him, though the supporting cast is far less interesting. Between missions you have the ability to wander through a gorgeous version of Hong Kong, engaging in dating sim mini-games, doing favors for people who know of you, looking for shrines that will increase your HP the more you find (think Zelda) and taking on drug busts. What's so impressive about Sleeping Dogs is how fun this world is just to walk through; in GTA I always find myself eager to return to my car, but here the outdoor markets, the bustling sidewalks, and all the nooks and crannies to discover make walking around a treat.

Sleeping Dogs is dripping with atmosphere; a smaller city than you find in many current open world games means far more attention to detail, and Hong Kong looks great and feels truly alive. Much credit goes to the sound effects, which do a great job of complementing the visuals and drawing you into the world. Some pop up does occur when driving at particularly fast speeds, and facial expressions during the game's cutscenes aren't always the most convincing, but aside from these nitpicks, this is a great game visually and definitely feels like much effort was spent creating its lifelike world.

The missions themselves aren't afraid to focus on fun and go over the top, a refreshing change after the more grounded open world adventures Rockstar's been delivering this generation. This is the type of game where you leap from your car and onto the back of another one before sliding into its window and taking it over, and where you evade police pursuit by ramming their cars literally off the road. It's a game where you go from singing karaoke in a bar to smashing some thug's head into a full-wall fish tank. It's not a game afraid to push the boundaries of believability and go over the top and I think it's all the better for it.

A big focus in Sleeping Dogs was its combat system, and this becomes evident very quickly. Relying on a mixture of weapons, environmental kills, an expanding arsenal of moves and heavy counter-attacking, combat's one of the most exciting features this game has to offer, and it's a major factor that helps it stand out from the pack. Finding hidden statues throughout the city and returning them to a certain gym will get you new moves, while you learn other techniques with points acquired at the ends of missions. How many of these new moves you'll wind up making use of is another question, but the feeling of progression and character development kept me interested anyway.

When you do wind up making use of firearms, the game features a cover system similar to what you find in many action games these days, but with a cool bullet time mode that you enter into if you hop over cover. The shooting, like most everything else here, is quite satisfying, and the game's decision not to over-rely on guns means that these shooting sections don't get stale.

Every so often a mission will require you to make use of a police tool, like planting a wiretap, tracing a call, picking locks, or hacking a system. Though some of these would have benefitted from a bit more explanation, they further add variety to the gameplay and keep things fresh.

How do the cars control? For the most part incredibly well. This is the only open world game in recent memory where I'd do street races for fun, the cars really control *that* well and can reach very high speeds. Hong Kong's painless to navigate by car, with an easy-to-use freeway system linking its various districts together, and the streets feel just populated enough that you have to drive with skill, but not so much that you're crashing constantly.

Thanks mostly to main character Wei, the story proves to be just as compelling as the gameplay that propels it, and though in the end I wished the fairly straightforward plot had offered up a couple more tricks than it does, the main character's dilemma and his personal struggles and doubts throughout keep things interesting. Voice acting's good all around, the occasionally awkward line readings aside, and the licensed music, while definitely not up to par with Rockstar's offerings, gets the job done and features a good mix of both Western and Eastern tunes.

A couple things in the end stop Sleeping Dogs from standing with the best of its genre. Clocking in at around 14 hours for me (with some sidequesting undertaken) the campaign's definitely at the short end for this type of game, beating out even LA Noire for that crown. There's plenty to do outside the main story, of course, and you can continue doing these after the game's done, which is nice. But with most of these consisting of driving strangers around or looking for objects in the environments, it's not exactly the definition of compelling content. I also feel that the game holds your hand a little too much at times. Sleeping Dogs isn't a cakewalk, especially in the hand to hand combat area, but also feels like it's afraid to challenge you too much. Evading cops is a snap, and the optional drug busts, missions where you survey dealers with hacked cameras and try to identify the suppliers, are made far less interesting than they could have been because the game basically tells you who the supplier is. Also, as I alluded to before, the storyline isn't all that it could have been either, lacking the twists and turns that you'd usually expect in crime fiction.

Verdict: Some flaws aside, however, Sleeping Dogs is the perfect example of a good time. Though it definitely follows the template established by Rockstar Games, it has enough cool features, including a surprisingly strong combat system, to set it apart from other games in the genre. With a likeable main character, an incredible setting, plenty to do, and solid gameplay all around, Sleeping Dogs is a title I'd unquestionably recommend to fans of action games, especially to people who crave a little of the insanity done so well in games like GTA:Vice City back in the day. Definitely a nice surprise.

Presentation: Some standard load times, occasional glitches. A well-presented story whose main character goes a long way in bringing you along for the ride. Easy to use maps and menus, occasionally confusing explanations for things like call tracing.

Graphics: A smaller city means higher detailing, and Sleeping Dogs' Hong Kong is my favorite open world setting in a long time. Definitely a great-looking location and one you can zip through if you happen to be driving a fast car. Some screen tearing and pop-up makes appearances from time to time.

Gameplay: Everything that Sleeping Dogs attempts it pulls off well. May not totally change the face of open world gaming but it does a hell of a job at delivering a fun experience. Cars control incredibly well, combat never gets old, and the shooting works well too.

Sound: Good voice acting, good soundtrack of both licensed and composed music, and strong sound effects.

Replay Value: 14 hours is pretty short for the storyline in an open world game, a fact that's pretty much unavoidable. Still, Sleeping Dogs is great while it lasts and offers more beyond the main plot to keep you playing.

Overall: 8.5/10

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