Monday, December 31, 2012

New Reviews: Epic Mickey Power of Illusion (3DS)

A few years back there was a good bit of excitement over Disney's decision to revive Mickey Mouse's video game persona, this time in the form of an epic adventure headed up by industry vet Warren Spector. Epic Mickey was the end result, a game that I found to be such a disappointment that it really damaged my hopes for Mickey Mouse's video game future.

Epic Mickey 2 was released this year across all platforms, and though I have yet to play it, the game looked to me to contain all the same flaws that made the first one such a chore to play, so I haven't yet gone out and bought it. The one bright spot, however, was the 3DS version; Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion went a different direction entirely, taking the form of a 2D sidescroller meant as the spiritual successor to the Sega Genesis classic, Castle of Illusion. It was this version that I looked forward to, and without hesitation I picked it up and immediately dove in.

And the verdict? Well, "okay" is at least better than bad, right?

Let me start from the beginning, though. Power of Illusion is a far more straightforward game than its console brothers. You move Mickey from left to right across some gorgeously rendered Disney worlds as he takes out enemies by ground-pounding on their heads, the goal being to free Minnie Mouse and other Disney characters from the mysterious castle they've been imprisoned in. There's no "good/evil" mechanic, there are no in-game fetch quests, and there's no co-op play.

And, at first, it's decent enough. The sound effects and art style had an immediate "Genesis" vibe for me, with the 3D effect adding real depth to the backgrounds and creating environments well worth venturing through. The music is far better than what I can remember from the Wii's Epic Mickey game, featuring suitably epic tracks but fitting the environments far better. And there's something undeniably fun about spotting various Disney characters hidden throughout the levels and rescuing them. Doing so creates a room for them in the Castle, a static map you can explore between levels. In this network of rooms, you can take on missions from the newly-rescued characters, missions which always seem to involve visiting another character, highlighted on the map with an exclamation point, and talking to them. It's simple and not particularly challenging, but compared to the endless series of item hunts and fetch quests required of you in the console Epic Mickey games, it's unobtrusive and addictive.

To a degree the side missions are required, as they help net you the points necessarily to unlock new areas of the castle, but you can also spend points to "upgrade" the characters' rooms; adding more personality to each with every upgrade, something which winds up being a fun little distraction. It's the little things that you'll find yourself thankful for, because like with Epic Mickey, it's the core gameplay mechanics that drag the whole thing down.

As you progress through the levels you'll see no shortage of enemies to take out, but the ground pound, which requires you not only to jump but to hold the A-button midair, can wind up messing things up for you, especially if it bounces you too high off the defeated enemy and into a hazard above. To compensate, developer DreamRift has given you the "Epic Mickey" Paint and Thinner moves, though here it doesn't seem to matter much which one you fire at the enemy. Your amount of paint and thinner is limited, however, and doesn't fire particularly fast, making it ineffective when surrounded, something that becomes all too common and a source of much frustration in the game's later stages.

Another feature has you using the touchscreen to trace the outlines of various objects to bring them to life, all while rating you on your accuracy. It's a cool idea in theory, but in practice it's beyond clunky; bringing up the "draw" screen not only freezes the action and interrupts the pace, but you're then forced to sit through the unskippable animation of Mickey actually using the paint. With boss fights that demand you bring this screen up constantly, it doesn't take long at all for this to come across as tedious.

The power ups you can gain access to don't provide much help, though there are several to be unlocked, if you so choose.


Verdict: All in all, Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion is a game that, like with the rest of the Epic Mickey franchise, was developed with great intentions. Here we see an attempt to create a sequel to the iconic Castle of Illusion and World of Illusion games which played such a large role in my Sega Genesis gaming growing up. It's been a very long time since I've played those games so it's tough for me to remember why they worked and why Power of Illusion doesn't. But though the platforming feels uninspired almost from the start, the graphics, music, and atmosphere kept me going full speed, well, until the frustrating trial-and-error gameplay that defines the final levels shows up. Meanwhile the attempts to merge this with the world (and flawed gameplay concepts) of the Epic Mickey series feel tacked on and wind up being a bit of a pain.

If you want to play a Mickey Mouse sidescroller again, Power of Illusion fits the bill in the sense that we've been waiting a long time for it, and believe it or not I spent over 8 hours playing it. It's just too bad that flawed gameplay concepts and frustrating final levels show up to ruin the nostalgic fun.

Presentation: All-text story sequences continue to feel like a step back, and though the characters have their charms, their dialogue feels bland. A hub world Castle (of sorts) provides some fun character interaction between the levels.

Graphics: The game definitely looks the part, with colorful and very detailed foregrounds as the 3D adds depth to the back. (New Super Mario Bros 2, take notes.) Some framerate drops later on.

Gameplay: Your average 2D platformer at heart, with some last minute frustrations and under-developed ideas leaving a mark.

Sound: Music is epic. Effects are great.

Replay Value: There are plenty of additional powers to unlock should you want them, and upgrading your teammates' rooms is a fun bonus. Game took me a little over 8 hours according to my 3DS Activity Log; not bad for a game that many deemed to be "too short."

Overall: 6.5/10

(Note; my reviews go on a .5 scale.)  

Friday, December 21, 2012

Blog Post; When box art becomes a big deal

I had this post in mind about a week ago, with lots to say and a clear direction planned for this topic, but then the tragedy struck in Connecticut and I lost my enthusiasm for it. Not that I should have; the two are definitely not related, (despite the media's ever-present attempts to link video games and shootings) but I just couldn't justify, on a personal level, making a post on something as "created" as video game bo xart in the wake of such real pain. My heart goes out to all who were affected.

But now it's been a week, and now I feel I can go back to doing..well, this. So let's get to it.

It may have been a long time coming, but after lighting up the gaming press for what has been years at this point, the 3rd installment in the Bioshock series (and the 2nd one with series creator Ken Levine again back at the helm) is almost here. With that comes the marketing, which of course will attempt to sell the title to as many people as possible, and with that comes, yes, the box art. And Bioshock: Infinite's boxart was hit with immediate scrutiny among the series' passionate fanbase.

*The Issue*
I don't think there's much doubt that Levine saw it coming. Though the box art itself definitely isn't badly-done, the image conveyed is one at odds with the very artistic way the series has presented itself previously. Bioshock is a series set in an incredibly cool setting with a great sense of place, and this has always been conveyed in the game's marketing. Infinite's boxart, instead, simply features the main character, gun clearly visible, looking off to the side as if willing himself to appear as badass as possible for the camera. Not much else is there to convey Infinite's new setting, its retro theme, its other characters, or even a level of mystery; there's the main character, there's the gun over his shoulder, and there's the fire behind him.

The reason I think this has struck such a nerve is because this past console generation we've seen the price of game development rise with the more advanced hardware, and as a result, larger audiences became a requirement for games to become profitable. In some cases this only applies to the marketing, in others, like the disaster that was Resident Evil 6, it seeps into the gameplay as well; the idea that a game needs to look and play like a Hollywood action movie for it to interest the masses. Bioshock is not that game, but it has box art that seems designed to be interpreted that way. With Bioshock always wearing its "individuality" on its sleeve in the face of the industry's increasingly mainstream methods of promotion, it's easy to see why its fans would feel betrayed by such a Hollywood-looking cover.

*A Good Response*
And it shouldn't be a surprise that shortly after the pic of the box art hit the 'net, Ken Levine was ready with an explanation and the solution of an alternate cover.
"We went and did a tour… around to a bunch of, like, frathouses and places like that. People who were gamers. Not people who read IGN. And [we] said, 'So, have you guys heard of BioShock?' Not a single one of them had heard of it. Our gaming world, we sometimes forget, is so important to us, but… there are plenty of products that I buy that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. My salad dressing. If there’s a new salad dressing coming out, I would have no idea. I use salad dressing; I don’t read Salad Dressing Weekly," Levine explained. "I don’t care who makes it, I don’t know any of the personalities in the salad dressing business. For some people, [games are] like salad dressing. Or movies, or TV shows. It was definitely a reality check for us."
"I wanted the uninformed, the person who doesn't read IGN… to pick up the box and say, okay, this looks kind of cool, let me turn it over. Oh, a flying city. Look at this girl, Elizabeth on the back. Look at that creature. And start to read about it, start to think about it. [But] We had to make that tradeoff in terms of where we were spending our marketing dollars. By the time you get to the store, or see an ad, the BioShock fan knows about the game. The money we’re spending on PR, the conversations with games journalists--that's for the fans," he said. "For the people who aren’t informed, that’s who the box art is for."
Before I get into my own opinion on this, I have to give credit to how Levine and 2k Games are handling this issue; a reverse (fan-chosen) cover will be provided, while others will be available soon to be printed out, and by addressing the controversy, he put at least my mind at ease regarding the game itself. I think it's always nice when developers engage with the fan community and show that fan input matters to them, and I definitely believe he's sincere in this gesture.
*But the wrong decision*

That said, I still think 2k games and Take-Two Interactive made the wrong decision in going with this cover, even with the fan service they've offered since. I'm not sure which frathouses they got into to ask about the Bioshock series, (a concept that seems a bit strange to me, to be honest) but I've had college friends who were by no means video game enthusiasts who heard of, and played, Bioshock. I'm not saying that the series is Call of Duty-huge, of course, but it's definitely a well-known and respected property, and I don't think you have to pander so hard like this to a demographic who likely would give the game a shot anyway, as long as the other marketing (such as TV commercials, etc.) was effective in making the game look like the event that it is. In a sense I agree that marketing to the mainstream should be a priority, as this game looks excellent and an excellent game can certainly reach a wide variety of people if they give it the chance.
But Bioshock is simply not Call of Duty, regardless of the box art they choose. It's far too artsy of a series to ever score Halo or Call of Duty numbers, and I don't think an "uninformed" audience will be swayed to learn more about the game by this box art, which makes it stand out far less on a shelf than it deserves to. And frankly, the big difference between video games and salad dressing is that salad dressing doesn't often cost $60 a bottle; I think most people already know what game they're getting before they even get to the store. And I don't feel that those who would be pulled into a game they haven't heard of by its box art exist in a significant enough number to warrant sacrificing the game's originality (in its marketing) to appeal to. To me it even comes off as a missed opportunity to make a statement to the industry that an artsy game can sell well without having to pander so obviously to the mainstream.
*And that's that*
But that's it; in the grand scheme of things, it's not a big deal. The cover will be reversible, and even better, it's going to be this gem that we can swap the official cover out for;

So all's well, though it does make for good discussion. I think I'll end this semi long-winded blog post by saying that it's my hope that next gen, we'll see far less of this going on. The industry's in a transition period, for sure, and the future's uncertain. But there has to be a way to grow the gaming userbase without the industry Hollywood-izing itself. I truly hope we find some sort of balance soon that makes everyone happy.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Spike TV 2012 VGAs....

I've gotta say............they were pretty good. 0.o