Category Archives: first impressions

It is only through Motocross Madness that the soul is revealed

motocross madness early impressions

Trials Evolution is a game I both love and hate, one with extremely hard swings, where one minute I’m leaping off a ramp high in the sky across a gorgeous vista and doing sick backflips and the next grumbling curse word after curse word as I try to get up an extremely steep hill and hit the next checkpoint. It’s really been my only toe-dip into the videogaming world of dirt bike racing–I guess since Excitebike–and its focus on hyper sensitive controls really means that only the driven and dedicated will continue on. Alas, I have not; think the last time I touched it was last fall, and even then it was only for goofing around in the user-created levels, which are, nine times out of nine, absolutely bonkers.

Well, I got the itch to gas a bike up a steep ramp and do silly tricks, and so I turned to Motocross Madness. No, no, not that Motocross Madness, the one from 1998. This is Microsoft’s Avatar-spearheaded take on arcade style and open sandbox motorbiking, and it was given out for free this month to Gold accounts, along with Dishonored, which I continue to be terrible at. More on that somewhere down the line…

To be honest, I’m enjoying Motocross Madness. A lot. While there may not be a ton of variety in the courses, there’s certainly variety to the things you can do in them. First, you can partake in a standard race via Career mode, aiming for that first place gold medal each time. Rivals mode has you competing against developer avatar ghosts. There’s a Trick mode that tests your aerial button-pressing skills and rewards you with new trick combos. Lastly, and probably my favorite part of Motocross Madness, is Exploration mode, which lets you hop off the track’s main path and explore every corner of the environment for gold coins and collectibles, all at your own leisurely pace. The courses are spread across three differently themed worlds, though I’ve only gotten to bike around Egypt and Australia for now; Iceland is still to come.

Unlike Trials Evolution, the racing here is much looser and more forgiving, meaning you can spill a few times and still stay in the lead or, with enough time, catch back up with everybody. I appreciate this greatly. If that’s not the case, then you probably need to lightly grind for some more coins and upgrade your bike a bit, which is easily done via Exploration mode or playing an older race again. The physics are not entirely arcade-ish, as landing after a jump or trick does require you to maintain some balance or skid out, and you eventually are able to ride behind another biker and coast within their wake, which is silly fun.

Much like with Doritos Crash Course 2 and, maybe, World Series of Poker: Full House Pro, seeing your Avatar in action is a blast. It’s a shame that the game encourages you to cover up my silly, bearded face with riding helmets, but sometimes you need to do that to look super stylish. While the outfits are cosmetics, you can make stat changes to your bike, purchasing new engine parts, tires, and brakes, and you will occasionally need to up a bike to perform better in a higher-tiered race. The cartoony graphics all around work well, though there’s some strange pop-in after each race is finished, when your Avatar hops of his or her bike and greets the crowd of cheering fans.

For another monthly freebie, Motocross Madness is a great addition to anyone’s digital collection on the Xbox 360. Perhaps a bit small in scope, but still brimming with things to do. You can also race competitively online though, if y’all know me like I hope y’all would know me by now, I’ve made no attempts to try this as of yet. Personally, I end up spending most of my time in Exploration mode, staring at coins and skulls in the sky and trying to figure how best to get ‘em. It’s certainly more enjoyable than hitting restart every few seconds on a tough-as-nails track in Trials Evolution.

Hatty Hattington is working for the cats in BattleBlock Theater

BattleBlock-Theater-1 early impressions

The title of this blog post might not make any sense to those unfamiliar with BattleBlock Theater‘s plot. That said, it might not make sense regardless. Either way, it sounded catchy in my mind, and so I wrote it, because “working for the cats” is the sort of life no one should live. As a daily scooper of cat poop, trust me–I know. Rarely do I struggle with finding an image and silly phrase to write on top of it in my now classic Showcard Gothic font, but blog post titles are tricky things; you want something that will, at the same time, grab a reader’s attention and inform them about what they will be reading about. Some of my post titles are more successful than others. Just a little insider baseball here at Grinding Down, Inc.

Right. On with the show, pun completely intended. BattleBlock Theater was one of July’s free Games with Gold thingies, and, just as with Charlie Murder, I ended up downloading right at the end of the month, almost missing it entirely. I have to not slack on these because free is free, and we’re getting Motocross Madness (nay!) and Dishonored (yay!) for August 2014. I just might have to remove both Halo 3 and Crackdown from my hard-drive to make space, but that’s okay–I don’t think I’m going back to either ever again, despite there still being some 100+ Agility Orbs left to collect; I’ll live, and so will you.

I knew next to nothing about BattleBlock Theater or its developer before diving right into it. I guess they previously made Castle Crashers, which seems like a fantastic group game if you have people to play with, which I unfortunately do not. Cue sad violin music. A quick glance makes it seem like a cartoony, side-scrolling action platformer, and I think I was pretty close with my first assumption. I wasn’t expecting it to be so quirky, but quirky is fine in my books, and so listening to the narrator–voiced by Will Stamper–dramatically tell the doomed voyage of the S.S. Friendship and how all of its people, even the great Hatty Hattington, got captured by an island of cats and forced to entertainment everyone via deadly obstacle courses…well, it delightfully took me by surprise. Seriously, his voice is a rollercoaster, and it takes you places, most often from one level to another, but in a way that’s more fun than a silent loading screen or text pop-up.

For the story mode, you play through a bunch of short, platform- and puzzle-themed levels, trying to complete them as fast as possible while collecting gems and balls of yarns, both of which are used to unlock new avatars and powers, respectively. At the end, you get a letter grade, with the best being A++ and giving you two extra green gems. To get that, you need to move fast and collect everything in one go. Your little dude–which is always green for me and generally rocking a funny face–can jump, double jump, punch, and use a special attack like throwing fireballs or tossing boomerangs to knock away persistent enemies standing in your way of progress. Other parts of the level require timing, hitting switches, finding secret teleporting portals, clinging to walls/ceilings, and so on.

Naturally, getting the gems and balls of yarn is fairly easy in the early levels, but I’m now up to world five and struggling to even finish the levels with a letter grade above a B. That’s not to say that the levels are punishingly hard, just more devious about the puzzles and ways to reach everything, and since time is of the essence, you have to pick: pound your head against the wall in hopes of figuring it out or move on and finish the level faster. That said, every part of the level has a purpose, so there’s never any frustration felt over getting stuck in this corner or that; each piece in a level has a purpose, but you have to figure that out yourself. BattleBlock Theater is the type of game that gets under your skin, driving you forward to see what the next world’s levels look like and what new twists they throw at you. It also helps that, in reality, each level can be completed in under a few minutes, so the dopamine pace is rapid-fire.

As I already mentioned, the narration throughout is fantastic. In fact, audio is possibly BattleBlock Theater‘s lead actor in the limelight, deservedly so. The song that plays during the main menu begins with just some electronic noises before kicking it to the next level with a catchy-as-all-gets drum beat and horn combo. The majority of the soundtrack is upbeat, bouncy, which works great for leaping from platform to platform and punching enemy cats in the face. Oh, and the sound effects are snappy, but addictive, like the notes that play when you snag enough gems to open the exit to the level. I’m excited to hear more of it.

There’s some online play and co-op stuff in BattleBlock Theater, which I’ve not tried yet and most likely won’t ever get to. I mean, I could take a deep breath and randomly join another online player’s game, but I won’t. For starters, I’m not sure what the benefit of playing these levels with a second player is, though I guess we could potentially grab all the gems faster. Eh, I’d rather just go at it by myself, that way when I repeatedly fall into spikes or water seven times in a row I don’t have to explain it to anyone. If co-op adventure story levels aren’t your thing, then arena challenges exist, which are basically twists on classic multiplayer games like King of the Hill. Lastly, there’s a level editor, which I’ve also not explored…yet.

As a freebie for Gold members, BattleBlock Theater is a hit. It is colorful, accessible yet still challenging, brimming with content to eat up, and flavorful in the same vein that Thomas Was Alone is. Those that consider graphics everything are not going to be blown away, but this experience is more about learning a level and running through it as perfectly as possible, and it really helps that the game plays well, save for the unsatisfying melee combat. I’m glad I’m playing it now and am looking forward to finishing up the Story mode; I think there’s six worlds in total to go through. Again, I most likely won’t try to play any co-op Story levels, but maybe I’ll jump into an Arena match or two and see what that’s all about. Until then, my feline overlords.

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent is solving mysteries in Scoggins, Minnesota

puzzle agent first impressions

I think Fargo is a really great movie; I remember the first time I saw it, some ironically cold, wintery night in my freshman year of college, on one of those many weekends my roommate went home to see his parents and friends and left me to my lonesome–which, in the grand scheme of things, was perfectly fine by me. We were not meant to be. I had the lights off, the volume up, and my eyes glued to the screen. It’s a humble movie about small people committing big crimes, all for, to quote Marge Gunderson, “a little bit of money.” So far, I’ve seen the first episode of the Fargo TV show and really liked it, so here’s hoping it comes to Netflix down the line.

Anyways, that intro paragraph exists because I played a bit of Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent last night, which clearly takes inspiration from Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 cult American crime flick. Both are set in Minnesota, and both rely heavily on accents and smallfolk quirks to sell the setting’s personality. Granted, one deals with murder and kidnapping, and the other an accident at an erasers factory, so there are some slight differences in tone, but a mystery must be investigated nonetheless. Which brings us to the titular Nelson Tethers, who works for the Puzzle Research Division of the FBI; this is his first field assignment, and he’s humble enough to really want to do a good, thorough job, impress the higher-ups. As soon as he arrives, Tethers begins to see that this quiet, snowy town has a few extra secrets slinking in the shadows.

Puzzle Agent is a puzzle-driven adventure game in the same vein as the Professor Layton series. There’s a story at play, but to see it unfold, you’ll have to solve seemingly random puzzles–though some are definitely more themed for the plot than others–and these range from jigsaws to answering a question based on a specific set of rules. I think I even ran across a “bug grouping” puzzle that I also recently found in Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy, which I need to get back to sooner than later. You can collect pieces of chewed-up gum (gross), which act as hints for puzzles, and naturally, you get rated for how many hints you used and how many wrong answers you submitted. Other than that, you’ll question people via your trusty notepad of topics á la L.A. Noire and examine scenes, though there is no inventory to manage.

Visually, Puzzle Agent is a delight. It has this wonderful art style from the creator of Grickle Graham Annable, which is a really cartoony look, and you can see it so when the cutscenes zoom in on characters and you can make out the pencil lead in their outlines. As an artist, I dig this, though I get why some might not. Environments are detailed where it matters so far, and the illustrations for the puzzles get the job done. Speaking of that, when you submit an answer, you get this fantastic animation of your solution being zipped off to HQ for review, as well as a ticking number tallying up how much taxpayer dollars you are spending on this. It’s probably the slickest element of the entire game’s presentation, and yes, the character animation is meant to be so rudimentary. It’s for effect.

Not to keep comparing it to Professor Layton, but that series is really the pinnacle of puzzle-based adventures, and so there are a few things I wish Puzzle Agent did more like them. For starters, often, the text for the rules or question you are trying to solve is found in a sub-menu, meaning you have to constantly keep clicking back over to remember what your goal is, whereas the Professor Layton games, mind you, they are on a system designed with dual screens, keeps the information right in front of you at all times so you can read and solve in unison. Secondly, the game will not auto-complete a puzzle if you find the right solution; you have to hit submit to see it through, which has already lead to me second-guessing a few choices here and there.

Alas, I kind of spoiled a little bit of the game as I went searching for a good image to use on this blog post, but regardless, I’m still excited to see how everything plays out in Scoggins, Minnesota. I don’t think it’s a very long game, so maybe I’ll finish it over another sitting or two. What’s even better is that I apparently also have a copy of Puzzle Agent 2 on Steam, waiting for me immediately after. I guess I got both of these through a bundle at some point, but have no memory of such a purchase. Or maybe I bought them in a fever-driven state of consciousness. Hmm. Let’s just end on another Marge quote: “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou.”

There’s nothing zen about Koan’s keys, spikes, and fall damage

koan capture

In Koan, you play as a rather impatient disciple that only wants to climb higher up the mountain and become stronger. The passive ways of your master are bewildering, especially all that sitting and meditating and thought-inducing speeches about patience and looking within one’s self. And that’s it for the story here, though I think there are hints of other stuff, like that off-handed comment from your master about…uh, killing Buddha if you see him. Yeah, no idea if that is going anywhere, seeing as I got as far as “The Dream of Effectiveness” level before my lunch-break ended.

At first, Koan seems like a simple puzzle platformer, but then you learn the power of meditation. Through it, after collecting little spinning circles of energy, you can create blocks in the level to act as platforms or climbing points. The trick is that they only last for so long, then returning to their energy form to be collected and used again. You use WASD (or the arrow keys) to move around and jump, but pressing S or down has the disciple sit. From here, you can use your mouse cursor to select where you want to place an energy-based platform, depending on the number you have collected so far. And thus, your goal in each stage becomes using these temporary platforms to make your way to the exit, without falling to your death or landing on spikes. Oh, and sometimes you gotta collect a key or not get shot by projectiles.

Initially, I found the controls to be pretty stiff and jittery. Unfortunately, that feeling never let up, with the discipline occasionally moving forward too much too quickly…or not at all, despite buttons being pushed. Thankfully, for the most part, you’re never in a rush, and the mellow atmosphere and soothing pluck of strings in the background encourages you to take the time to take in your surroundings and plan your course accordingly. A couple levels involve grabbing a key before it falls off into nothingness, and those prove the most troublesome. I’m not also convinced I grok the hitboxes for the disciple and things like spikes, as a few times I died though it didn’t appear like I had stepped on something bad just yet.

Visually, Koan is pretty despite occasionally looking a bit too…videogamey. Yeah, I couldn’t think of a better descriptor. I mean, the backgrounds look like pieces of traditional art, depicting city structures and natural scenes…but just that. Art. The watercolor backdrops clash with the rather obvious climbing blocks and shiny golden keys and doors though I do like the minimalist look to the discipline and master.

Maybe I’ll go back later to Koan and see if I can get past “The Dream of Effectiveness” level. Until then, I’ll just meditate on the key-falling-through-shot-glass puzzle’s solution and hope the answer appears before me like a puff of cloud, voiced by Morgan Freeman, guiding me onwards.

Must repair the Thievius Raccoonus in Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time

sly 4 early impressions woo

When I got my PlayStation 3 earlier this year, it was mostly because of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a game I’ve dabbled in here and there, but just don’t have the time to commit to properly. However, all along, I’ve had my sights on Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, the long-awaited fourth game in the comically colorful sneakfest franchise that I’ve ate up since the PS2 days. Well, it took me some time, but I finally ended up nabbing a copy, along with Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection, several weeks back for a pretty good deal from GameStop, but I told myself I couldn’t play until I at least put Primal to bed. And lo, that also finally happened.

Right, okay. Thieves in Time picks up immediately after the final events of 2005’s Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves, so you best brush up on that game’s story details or you’ll be a bit confused as to why Penelope is not hanging out with her new boyfriend Bentley. Anyways, something is wrong with the Thievius Raccoonus, a book containing all Cooper history and secrets; words are just vanishing from its pages, forcing Bentley to get the gang back together and uncover who is behind the wrongdoing. This eventually leads to them using their iconic van, which can now travel through time thanks to some nifty enhancements by Bentley and Penelope, going back to different specific periods to rescue some of Cooper’s ancestors.

I’m actually burning through Thieves in Time as I’m wont to do with these types of mission-based collectathon sneak-platformers, now just starting in the third world, which is stuck in the cold, frigid Ice Age. There’s dinosaurs and penguins, so it’s pretty much like Pennsylvania right now. The previous two worlds were set in the Wild West and Feudal Japan, and you are basically given a large hub world to run around, collect things like bottles and Sly masks, return treasures to your HQ, and pick up missions. Or you can also just kind of run around and explore, which I like to do for a little bit before starting the first mission. Get a lay of the land, y’know. Find as many clinking bottles as I can because I must have all the bottles.

The original PS2 games were developed by Sucker Punch Productions, but the company eventually moved away from the master raccoon thief to shooting aliens with guns and men with superpowers. Thieves in Time was developed by Sanzaru Games, the same company that previously ported the original games into HD versions for a special PlayStation 3 collection. I might have to get those one day, despite already having all the games. Grrr, but Trophies. Hmm. Anyways, Sanzaru Games seems to have the right touch, as one might not even realize the switch in developers, as Sly Cooper runs, talks, and plays just like he always has, with a bombastic story, zany, anthropomorphic characters, and goofy one-liners and puns that many might sigh at, but I enjoy greatly.

Other than lengthy load times, I’m loving everything Thieves in Time is throwing at me. Well, maybe not the Grizz, just yet. But the missions are varied and short enough to gobble up quickly, and I can’t truly express the joy I feel when Sly jumps in the air and I press the O button and he instantly lands on a roof edge or wire or pointy thing. Sneaking is fun, as is pick-pocketing. You can go out into the hub world as Sly, Bentley, Murray, Carmelita, and one of the Cooper ancestors, regardless if they have a mission to attend to, and they all play very differently. Maybe, if anything, there are too many different special moves to remember across the slew of playable characters, plus Sly can put on time period costumes to perform additional actions. I like the jailbird outfit, because he can roll around on the ball and chain.

My plan is to get all the way to the final world and its final boss mission, and then go back to all the previous worlds to collect the remaining treasure, bottles, Sly masks, and locked safes. I collected all the stuff in the previous games despite not having Trophies to prove it, but I swear I did, and this one must follow suit. Perfect for putting on a podcast and just collecting leisurely. I suspect I’ll get there soon enough, as Thieves in Time does not appear to be very long considering I’m already halfway through it, but that’s okay. Quality over quantity, really. And the quality here is strong.

Doritos Crash Course 2, now with free-to-play gimmicks

doritos-crash-course-2-screenshot_1000.0_cinema_640.0

Over the years, I’ve stepped away from Doritos. It all really started when I got seriously ill the day Obama was first sworn into office–not because, just using that day in history to place you in the moment–and ended up vomiting a lot back in my teeny, tiny studio apartment before passing out for hours in bed while FX continuously played Troy for like six to eight hours. It was a nightmare. And I had eaten some Doritos Cool Ranch chips earlier for lunch that day, and well…they weren’t any better coming up. Ever since then, I’ve fully stayed away from all things Cool Ranch–called Cool American in Sweden, something I learned recently from Giant Bomb–but have, on occasion, enjoyed a Nacho Cheese chip now and then.

But I’m not here to just talk about chips. Doritos does other stuff, too. Like videogames. Well, they support folks making games and use their name to brand it. If you’ll recall with me, back in late 2010, a game called Doritos Crash Course was released for free on the Xbox 360. It was surprising, for sure, an energetic mix of timed platforming and region-related spectacle, but fun all around. As well as free. It’s now been a couple years, and we’re getting the sequel for free too, though it has changed quite dramatically, even if it looks and–for the most part–tastes the same.

Instead of having levels based around specific regions like the United States or Japan, they are now built thematically. The first one is a jungle, maybe Mayan-based. And the second one appears to be snowy. Don’t know what the other two look like. Originally, your goal was simply to get to the end of the course in the best time, avoiding pitfalls along the way; now, as you run left to right, you can collect Stars, tackle secondary objectives, and use alternate paths to get to the end faster and much more successfully. Stars are used to purchase things outside of the level–these can be Avatar accessories, which do come with a stat and flavor text, or additional levels, side paths, and jinxes. And then this is where Doritos Crash Course 2 shows its free-to-play side, with you being able to buy additional Stars with real money. Well, real money that you turn into Microsoft Points. But still: microtransactions.

Just like in Happy Wars, I can easily ignore all the FTP gimmicks until it gets in my way of actually playing the game. So far, that hasn’t happened, though it looks like I’ve have to return to previously completed courses to find hidden stars if I want enough to unlock more levels. No big deal. I just don’t want to have to pay for power-ups or extra Stars in hope of progressing forward. The game suffers from tiny text syndrome, which makes reading some of the level requirements and secondary objectives dang difficult, but when in full screen, the game is pretty and runs smoothly. You can now run up walls, too, which I don’t remember being in the original, and it can be tricky, though Tara found a way to squirrel hop from wall to wall which is pretty effective. Hey, we also played some local multiplayer, too, which zooms out extremely far, but we were still able to run and climb with the best of ‘em.

Looking forward to checking out more. Oh, and it is still a ton of fun to slide down a slope, jump to a trampoline, and fly over some deadly obstacle to finish in first place. Mostly because my Avatar whips out an electric guitar and jams.

Save your daughter and as many flashlight batteries as possible in Ascension

ascension impressions

Bundles, bundles, bundles–you can’t turn right without walking into one these days. That can be, at times, a bit annoying, especially when one has wallet issues or an ever-growing backlog, but the latest bundle shouldn’t be a problem for anyone with a working computer: The Free Bundle. Yup, that’s right. Free. No minimum, no “beat the average price” tier rewards. Just a list of some indie games and the buttons to download them. Currently up are six games, of which I’ve downloaded the four I’m most interested in: Ascension, Celestial Mechanica, Abobo Big’s Adventure, and Treasure Adventure Game.

For today’s post, I’ll be talking about the first one mentioned there. Before I begin, I have to state that I think it has an unfortunately generic name, as Googling “Ascension” brings up a rather popular CCG or talk of the forthcoming God of War: Ascension. Nothing for the indie game comes up on the first page of results certainly. Oh, and there’s totally an XBLA indie game of the same name out there. Ultimately, I think Atticus Ascends would have been a better title, but that’s just me. Otherwise, it’s hard to track anything down about the little indie horror stab in the dark. To get the screenshot above, I had to navigate to the developer’s website, and even then there was not much in the form of media, but that’s just a small gripe from my perspective. If I was to ever do a second post on the game, I’d have to take screenshots as I played for myself–the true horror!

Ascension is surprisingly good. Well, at least I was surprised at the quality of the gameplay, the look, the controls. Just about everything, except the story, which is kind of by-the-books. It’s a psychological horror game where you play as groundskeeper Atticus, who has brought his sick daughter Viola (or is it Violet?) to work on the day of a terrible accident. Separated from her, he must find his way back before something else reaches her first–dun dun dunnn. You control Atticus, wandering floors of some building, reading notes left by others, searching for items, like flashlight batteries and key cards, and avoiding zombie-like monsters by sneaking past them in the darkness. Or maybe killing them with an axe; I’ve not yet figured that part out.

The game has a really nice look to it. Cartoonish, painterly at times, but capable of style, with great lighting effects from your flashlight, especially when it begins to dim and weaken from low batteries. A nice touch. All text is dished out in a lackluster typewriter font, with the typewriter sounds to boot, which leads me to question who is telling the story here: Atticus or an unknown author. Some scenes, like saving your game or speaking with your daughter, are presented in a larger shot than traditional gameplay. These are nicely done and help give more dimension to the characters. In the end, I just wish there was a map. Lone Survivor had one, even if it was a riff on Silent Hill 2‘s apartment building maps. It helped nonetheless.

I played up to the part where Atticus has to navigate through the Cold Storage area. Without a map, I quickly became lost after so many hallways and doors, and then the monsters kept killing me despite the ax I was wielding. Holding your breath only works if they haven’t seen you, so the moment you are spotted, it’s kind of over. Death isn’t a complete end, but it does throw you out of the loop for a bit. I might hop back into it again and try once more; I don’t expect it to be a very long game, but I might need to read up some more on how the combat works because I don’t think I have it down well enough to survive. Anyways, again, Ascension is good and free, so go download it from the Free Bundle (31 days to go!) or the developer’s website. And conserve your batteries; I mean it.