Category Archives: impressions

On bringing King Yama to his knees in Spelunky

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Some 350+ deaths later, I did it–I beat King Yama in Spelunky. For those down with the lingo, you’ll understand that this is no easy thing to accomplish and is generally only the result of day after day after day of playing and learning how the game–and most importantly Hell–works. It’s also a result of extreme patience and determination and sticking with things, as each quick and sadistic death of your chosen spelunker is both painful and a lesson to learn.

I’ve gotten to King Yama three times now, dying twice before from stupid mistakes as I was just freaking out about reaching him and not paying attention to the bats above and the lava below. But on the third meeting, patience and power were on my side, as well as the shotgun/jetpack combo, and down he went.

Oh, and did I mention this was done on a Daily Challenge? It was:

For the PlayStation 3 Spelunky leaderboards on that day, at the very moment of beating King Yama, I was ranked in sixth place. I’ve not gone back to see how I’ve moved around since then based on others playing as I don’t want to destroy the magic of, well, being sixth. May the day live on untarnished forever in my mind, and if you ruin any bit of this, may you forever get trapped in Hell 5-3 with no bombs, the Ghost overhead, and a bunch of angry shopkeepers below.

Anyways, now that I’ve beaten Yama, I am feeling very much nearly done with Spelunky. According to the Trophies list, there’s only three more to unlock: beat the game in under 8 minutes with no shortcuts, fill the encyclopedia book thing 100%, and earn 500,000 gold in one run. Two of those seem impossible, though I did come close to that amount of gold after beating Yama; think my total was in the 400,000 range. I’m not sure what is left for the book though, as I’ve gone through the wormhole and secret castle levels, but have still not made it out alive in the alien mothership. Oh, and I just remembered, there’s an item in Hell that makes you invincible to the lava monsters that I’ve never grabbed, mostly due to trying to rush to the exits in Hell for fear of my spelunker’s life who, by the way, has always been the girl with the green bow. She’s just the best, even when I mess up and jump her into a pile of spikes.

I suspect I’ll continue to sporadically participate in Spelunky‘s Daily Challenges, as there’s always at least something to aim for in those runs–as much moolah as possible. But otherwise, with King Yama dead and done, I feel content enough to put Spelunky aside. The game’s been good to me–nay, great to me, providing more value for money than a hundred other downloadable titles could ever imagine. Sure, a lot of that has to do with its randomly generated content, but even learning how the mines, jungle, ice cave, and temple levels work is not enough to make it; you have to know how far you can fall without killing yourself, when to run and when to walk, how to use the shotgun and not get into trouble, when to make a beeline for the exit versus exploring more, and so on. Plus, the journey to King Yama is littered with so many chances for mistakes, such as dying in the Black Market or not getting the scepter from Anubis for the City of Gold. It’s a game of luck and skill, one constantly changing, but never not still relying on those two aspects.

If anyone has any great Spelunky speed-running tips, I’m all ears. Tentative ears, that is, though I’m willing to at least try a few times. I heard that the faster you complete a level, the higher chance you’ll get a “dark” level next, and those are the absolute worst. So, um, no thanks if that’s the case.

Guacamelee! follows Juan Aguacate’s luchador-focused plight from one world to the other

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I like a good Metroidvania just as much as the next person, but it needs to contain the right mix of visual and gameplay activity to keep me moving, searching for that next item that will unlock all those previously blocked paths I encountered earlier on in the journey. If that doesn’t happen quick enough, I kind of just lose interest and never go back, like in Celestial Mechanica and Lyle in Cube Sector. Thankfully, Guacamelee! is really hitting that sweet spot, and if I worked harder than I do at this amateurish swing at videogames journalism, I’d come up with some witty piñata metaphor here. Oh well, moving on.

Story stuff. Juan Aguacate is but a humble agave farmer living in a small village in Mexico. Oh, and he happens to be in love with El Presidente’s daughter, and no, I don’t recall if they ever said her name or not. An evil charro skeleton named Carlos Calaca attacks the village and kidnaps her, forcing Juan to go after them. Alas, he is killed–not a spoiler–and finds himself in the land of the dead. There, a mysterious luchador named Tostada grants him the power of luchador-ism via a glowing mask, as well as brings him back to the world of sunshine and rainbows. If you don’t know what happens next, well…it should be pretty obvious. Juan Aguacate goes on to film Nacho Libre II: Hay Mucho Diversión. No, no. He’s off to stop Carlos Calaca from sacrificing El Presidente’s daughter in a ritual that could potentially combine both the living and dead worlds.

It’s a pretty stereotypical “damsel in distress” story that we really need to get away from, but the world just oozes with flavor and fun that I have to ignore the game’s shortcomings. From the music to the cartoony, somewhat cel-shaded-like graphics, Guacamelee! makes up for its trite story and story progression–don’t be surprised when you have to take on all of the main villain’s sub-bosses one after the other before getting to the main event–with stunning visuals, Disney-of-yesteryear-like animation, and a sense of place and time. I’ve never been to Mexico. I think, at one time, I was in New Mexico while visiting my sister in Arizona, but that’s not the same. Still, this all feels right. Sounds right as well, given that the soundtrack is deeply rooted in Latin music and mariachi.

Gameplay is the standard mix of exploration and combat, except instead of blasting away undead critters with fancy guns, Juan puts his newfound wrestling powers to use, punching and grappling and doing pile-drivers from upon high. If you’re quick and careful enough, you can string together some length combos from one enemy to another. Perhaps my favorite part of combat is that, after landing a good number of punches on an enemy, you can then grab them and doing a special finishing move or throw them into other enemies. When there’s a bunch of enemies to deal with at once, tossing them into one other is the best tactic. Also, extremely gratifying, like bowling a strike and watching the pins fly off the ground.

For exploration purposes, well, it’s pretty linear in the beginning. Only so many places Juan can get to, but all those blocked paths are color-coded, with each color related to a specific ability to open then. Thankfully, the map also highlights the color coding, which will make it very easy to revisit some areas and finish up that map-clearing business. There’s a good amount of platforming to be done, too, with many jumps relying on quickly using your abilities to reach that platform just a centimeter too high or off to the right to get to normally. Some of these jumping puzzles are quite difficult, almost to the point of Super Meat Boy levels of frustration. It’s a good thing the game is constantly auto-saving your progress.

Evidently, Guacamelee! is littered with Internet memes and other kinds of meta jokes. Thankfully, I’m blind to most of them, though the really obvious references to Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise and Super Metroid with the ability-giving stone statues are…really obvious. Oh, and instead of rolling into a ball to reach hidden areas, Juan gains the power to morph into a teeny chicken that can peck enemies slowly to death. It’s amusing, if not very effective.

According to the map screen, I’ve completed about 25% of Guacamelee!, just finishing up the boss fight with…well, maybe I shouldn’t ixnay on the boss-say. Psst: that’s a clue. Anyways, I still have plenty of new abilities to earn for Juan and more sub-bosses to deal with before Carlos Calaca gets his just desserts, and I’m really looking forward to popping back into Drinkbox Studios’ colorfully cartoony world–both of them–to see what happens next. Until then.

The beauty is not in the walking in Dear Esther

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On a whim over the weekend, I loaded up Dear Esther. Besides my other plan to beat all those Metal Gear games in order of release, which is moving along swimmingly, thanks for asking, I am also trying to tackle many of the acclaimed indie games from years prior. Y’know, the big small games. The ones that generally feature some sort of unique gimmick and demand you think about things more than just swallow yet another tired, scripted action scene that is supposed to wow you with its bombastic approach at storytelling. So far, in 2014, I’ve experienced Gone Home, Journey, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and Thomas Was Alone. Many more to come.

Other than being set on an island, I knew very little about Dear Esther going into it, which is how I like my videogames to go these days. Alas, we live in a day and age where the Internet can ruin anything for you in half a second–that said, hope you all watched last night’s Game of Thrones episode, gotta get that purp. I do recall some heated arguments about whether or not this is a “game,” just like many rushed to do with Gone Home, mocking them both as nothing more than walking simulators, short films with little to no interaction. With that in mind, I went in expecting a pretty good story and little else–truthfully, that’s kind of what I got, and that’s all right.

In Dear Esther, the player starts off on a dimly lit shore of an uninhabited Hebridean island, surrounded by fog and mountains. Far off in the distance is a tall, metal tower, with a red light blinking every few seconds, the beacon beckoning you towards it. As you explore the island, you’ll listen to a series of voiced-over letter fragments to a woman named Esther, which are revealed in no set order. The narrator’s identity is not specified though it’s easy to figure out he is Esther’s husband or lover. Alas, she’s dead, and that’s not a spoiler, as it is something you learn very early on in the journey. Dear Esther, despite its namesake, is more about the narrator and the island’s former inhabitants than anybody else. To say any more of the story would ruin the experience, especially since that’s all there is here, a story; a good one, mind you, and one that can be seen performed in a number of different manners, but just that.

Controlling the player is as simple as using the [W] key to walk forward and the mouse to look around. You can click on either of the mouse buttons to zoom in a bit for a better look at things. That’s it. Those are all your actions. When you enter a dark room, a flashlight automatically comes on, and it also turns itself off when you go back into the light. After playing for about ten minutes, my finger grew tired of just pressing down the [W] key, and I knew I’d have to do this action all the way until the end credits, but thankfully Dear Esther comes prepared for controller support. I’d much rather hold up on a joystick than keeping a finger firmly pressed into a keyboard, and I suspect I’m not the only one. I do wish there was at least something else to do control-wise; perhaps actually collecting the letter scraps or being able to pick up and examine items on the island. Heck, even a jump button, to push exploration even more. I wanted a little more game in this game; yes, it’s still a game.

The writing ranges from mesmerizing to feverish to a bit overdone, but it’s all backed by a gorgeous, swooping orchestrated soundtrack composed by Jessica Curry that can make any scene, whether it’s looking out at the rough ocean waves that brought you to this seemingly metaphoric island or trapped inside a dark, fungi-lit cave, extremely powerful. There’s strings, there’s piano, and they never overtake a scene, simply raise it up. Crashing waves, rushing wind, and cawing gulls provide additional noise at times too.

Dear Esther is an audio/visual trip, a game bent on delivering those two aspects to you at full force. For some, that’s enough. For an hour and a half of simply walking, it’s just enough. I did want something else to do, another way to play in this gorgeously constructed world, to be part of the island, but no man’s an island. And so you keep walking, keep walking, keep walking, all the way to the end. The darkness that greets you is far from comforting, but there is a sense of completion nonetheless. Quitting to the desktop after too many minutes on a blank screen that screamed the end slightly ruined the effect.

Crackdown’s aimlessly emergent leap of faith

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Occasionally, I will pop into Crackdown, kick a few gang members in the gut, leap up like a European tree frog to the top of some buildings, and collect a couple of Agility Orbs. If I get lucky, I’ll also take out a gang leader or unlock another agency supply point, which acts as an ammo-refilling and fast-travel hotspot. Given the size of the map for Pacific City, these waypoints are vital to getting around quickly, in spite of the fact that, eventually, the agent you’re playing as should be able to leap over entire buildings. Until then, it’s a much slower-moving game, and I still find myself uninterested in driving any kind of car because of that, y’know, Doc Brown quote.

By far, the best thing about Crackdown, which came out in 2007 mind you, is that it drops you in its open world and immediately lets you do whatever you want. Sure, there’s some guidance with map icons and your commander giving you directives in your ear, but you can completely choose to ignore all that and go on a gang-related rampage, test your might in some land- and car-based races, or experience the dopamine release that comes with finding an orb that increases your skills at a molasses-like pace until you get enough to upgrade. This sort of “totes on your own” mentality can be good and bad; at first, it’s liberating, not having to worry about running over to start some trivial quest, just bounding from one area to another and seeing what unfolds. However, after some time, it becomes boring, especially now that I’ve collected about half of the Agility Orbs in the game, which just leaves behind an empty husk of a city.

Alas, that’s where I’m at now in Crackdown: a bit bored. When it comes to main missions and, uh, actually playing the game, you’re tasked with taking down three different criminal organizations each operating in a separate region of Pacific City. Each organization has multiple lieutenants and minor bosses that can be erased from digital life in any order. You can also eliminate the organization’s kingpin at any time, though those at the bottom of the ladder drastically lowers the firepower and abilities of the kingpin’s guards. Reaching some of these big bosses requires planning and the navigation of large buildings, so you’re better off waiting until your powers have grown, allowing you to jump higher and dish out more damage. I think at this point I’ve killed maybe three to five lieutenants, certainly no major crime-lords yet, and I don’t even know where I should be focusing my attention. Seems like everywhere I go in Pacific City, some bad guy/girl is up to no good and surrounded by goons with guns all aimed at me. Really, it’s just easier jumping from roof to roof.

Visually, Crackdown is no Saints Row: The Third or Grand Theft Auto V. I mean, how could it be? I ask thee again–how? The year 2007 did what it could, and the focus here was more on tall buildings and a sense of openness, a freedom to go left or right or even very high up. That means that when you’re running around on the streets below, everything is bland. Flat and lifeless. Cars are chunky and blocky, and these bounce off other vehicles like bumper cars at the summer festival, occasionally emitting some smoke. I’ve done only a handful of stunts with cars and don’t expect to do any more as they all handle like garbage, even the much-hyped “Super Car” from the Agency. Civilian life in Pacific City consists of groups of five to six people–most who are clones from other groups of people–walking around and running the second they see the Agent coming their way. But that’s all they do, is walk around, just walk, walk, walk. Strangely, and maybe this is the loner in me speaking, but life is better way up high, where silence lives.

Combat is no step up either. You can throw objects like cars or gas tanks, you can kick with your kicky stick (leg), or you can use one of two carried weapons to pierce flesh with bullets. The left trigger locks on (when it feels like working), and right trigger fires. Alas, the shooting feels light and ineffective, especially when up against bosses that have multiple health bars. It’s akin to shooting a bag of sand, except that bag of sand no longer remains unmoved, it’s also firing back your way. It gets even worse the farther away you are from the target, though the Agent’s shooting skills should advance at some point, so maybe it’ll be easer then. Oh, and you can toss grenades, which explode with the impact of a big fart that could no longer be held in. It’s not great, and my tactic involves shooting a guy until I start to reload and then running into them with a jump kick. Rinse and repeat, as well as run away when you lose too much health.

Like I said, I’m getting bored with Crackdown, so I’ll probably do another round or two of running and jumping around in hopes of nabbing some more Agility Orbs with the hope of stumbling upon a boss and, if the wind is blowing my way, putting him or her in the ground. I’d like to progress a bit more only to see the Agent grow in strength and ability, not because the story is some compelling piece of literature. This is truly the definition of a sandbox title, and I’m just about done playing.

Lara Croft and the lost artifact to lock away an evil entity

Lara Croft GOL early impressions

Little did y’all know, but while I was playing Tomb Raider, I was also playing Tomb Raider. Er, I mean…Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Which is not like Tomb Raider at all. Not that the newest Tomb Raider was very Tomb Raider-y either, in all meaning of the name. Wait, hold up. This is quickly getting confusing. Okay, let’s start again then.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a downloadable, top-down action game set in Central America that has Lara Croft on a quest for some lost artifact that potentially has the power to lock away an evil entity. Specifically, Xolotl, the Keeper of Darkness. Back in the day, Totec’s army was defeated when Xolotl used the mirror of smoke to unleash hordes of ghastly creatures. Totec survived and found a way to defeat Xolotl, imprisoning him in the mirror of smoke and becoming its immortal guardian in the form of a stone statue. In the present day, Lara reads of the legend and attempts to find it. After locating the mirror, a local warlord takes it from Lara and accidentally releases Xolotl. D’oh.

Rather than the series’ traditional third-person perspective, the camera is high overhead, like a bird, meaning Lara is maybe as tall as a toothpick now. Players control her by using the left thumbstick to move and the other thumbstick to point her equipped weapon in a specific direction, with right trigger to shoot. You can roll and drop bombs and jump and throw magical ropes that attach themselves to ceilings, and that’s kind of all the main moves you have at your disposal. Well, that is if you don’t have a friend to play with, as Guardian of Light is designed as a co-op experience, with a second player using Totec, the titular light-guardian voiced by Jim Cummings. Totec has a spear and shield, which play a big part in the platforming puzzles, but when you are going at it solo, Lara just has the spear itself. Despite Guardian of Light being given out for free to all Xbox Gold members, I was unable to find an online game to join and try out some co-op action.

Let’s talk about how the game actually feels when being played. Lara’s a speedy, gun-toting English archeologist. That’s one of the first things I noticed in Guardian of Light, that she’s extremely light on her feet, able to dive this way and that while still being able to shoot enemy spiders and demon-like creatures with deadly precision. Or as much as an Xbox 360 analog stick can give out. But still–she’s fast. Gone are the days of old, when running and jumping from platform to platform was like moving through water and you often spent more time lining up your jump than executing it. Jumping feels a bit clunky, and I never felt 100% confident when jumping from one platform to another. Same goes with using Lara’s rope to run up and along walls. Lastly, and this could just be my controller, but any time I had Lara running down the screen, like towards me, she would stutter and occasionally pause, which made this one puzzle involving spikes shooting up from the ground a real hassle. You gotta keep moving, Lara.

Right. Guardian of Light–I do like it. It’s certainly a different kind of game banking on the Tomb Raider namesake for interest. In truth, Lara could be replaced with anyone else, and that game would be just as good as it is now. Heck, put Indiana Jones in there, and you suddenly have a pretty good Indy game, not to be confused with a pretty good indie game.

However…I’m stuck. Sadly, it’s early on in Level 3: Spider Tomb. It’s just after that spike trap I mentioned two paragraphs up, with Lara stuck in a small room with, seemingly, nowhere to go. I tried throwing spears into the wall and jumping up, throwing her rope like a rabid cowgirl, but nothing worked. I just kept throwing her into a pit of death, lowering my score with each fall. I guess I’m going to have to grin and bear it and find a walkthrough, as there are still eleven more levels to go, and I do want to see more.

This is truly Hideo Kojima’s legendary Metal Gear

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Last year, I put myself to the task of completing five games that I’ve always wanted to see through to the end, but never did for a variety of reasons. I was able to beat three out of the five, and I still plan on at least giving Final Fantasy IX a solid go this summer, as that type of JRPG feels like the kind one plays piecemeal-like across some warm, sockless nights. I thought about doing another list like that again this year, but secretly I’ve had another idea in mind ever since I bought Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection 1987 – 2012 last fall and then never cracked its case.

The idea is simple, but lengthy. Possibly even maddening. Basically, I’m going to play through every game in the collection in the order of release. That means like this:

  1. Metal Gear
  2. Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake
  3. Metal Gear Solid
  4. Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions
  5. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty HD Edition
  6. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater HD Edition
  7. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
  8. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker HD Edition

Woah. Talk about a plunge. Some quick history is that I’ve played Metal Gear Solid, Metal Gear Solid 2, and Metal Gear Solid 3, all of them at least once. I know for sure I’ve mucked around on several occasions with MGS2‘s opening tanker level, just to try things a few different ways. Other than that, everything else above has never been experienced. And it’s been many moons since I did play those previously checked titles, meaning I remember very little of the story, the gameplay, the secrets, and the surprises. I’m looking forward to revisiting and seeing these games for the first time, all of which is, I guess, fine preparation for Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

Anyways, I spent most of Sunday playing the original Metal Gear. I was confused, I was pleased, I was determined, and I befuddled from time to time. First off, to play Metal Gear in this collection, you have to load up MGS3‘s main menu and select it from there. Took me a bit to figure that out. Then, right from the get-go, I realized this was some different version, seeing at it starts you directly with Solid Snake swimming up to Building 1 instead of in the jungle. I know about the jungle level because of the Internet, and so I immediately went investigating. Evidently, there’s an NES version (jungle) and an MSX version (Building 1), and the NES release was produced without any involvement from series creator Hideo Kojima. In fact, Kojima has been quoted as calling the NES version “complete garbage” so I guess it’s better that the collection comes with the MSX edition instead.

Set in 1995, Metal Gear stars the newest FOXHOUND member, a rookie soldier codenamed Solid Snake. His mission is to infiltrate Outer Heaven, which is militaristic state founded by some “legendary mercenary,” and destroy Metal Gear, a mysterious weapon capable of mass nuclear destruction. That’s kind of it for story beats, and you’ll occasionally get some more info through Snake’s transceiver and meeting other people in the buildings, but it doesn’t add much detail to the overall plot. I do like that you eventually learn that Metal Gear is being built 100 floors below Building 3, but when you take an elevator to go fight it, you only descend like nine or ten floors. Close enough, I guess.

Right. Metal Gear. It’s a top-down action-adventure game that puts an emphasis on stealth–but not a requirement. Solid Snake can shoot guns as well as punch soldiers in the noggin, and these are his two offensive tactics through the whole game. He can also sneak past unalerted guards, which works too, until you get spotted, and then you have to fight or flee. You’ll explore buildings and floors, looking for clues and hostages to rescue; once you rescue enough hostages, your class star will increase, which allows Snake to have more health and hold more ammo. You’re always being steered in a specific direction, whether it is to find a certain level key card or an item to help you move to the next area, but I will admit I used a walkthrough in a few spots where I missed a certain item, like the enemy’s uniform.

Even here, in its earliest form, it is still quite rewarding to slip past guards or make it through an entire room unnoticed while still taking out every enemy soldier. This is only lessened by the fact that enemies respawn immediately after leaving and re-entering a room. All that work for naught. Or, if you really enjoyed it, well…do it again. Sometimes it was not worth the effort, and I found myself either running for the exit or punching every guard in the face with little care to alarms. The boss battles always appear intimidating, but there’s a pattern to look for, and they come with some killer chiptune tracks.

Alas, not all is amazing in Metal Gear, even in Kojima’s preferred version. Here’s the stuff I hated in list form:

  • For some reason, Solid Snake has to take his gas mask off in gas-filled rooms to use a key card because there’s only one accessory spot to use, and you lose a decent sliver of health in this process.
  • The portable transceiver is steamy trash. No one ever answers Snake when he calls, and if they do, they speak batshit or just repeat text even though I already found the item they told me to go find. What was the point of Diane?
  • The checkpoint system is bonkers. Basically, it checkpoints every time you enter an elevator, but that’s it. You can “save” your data at any time through the pause menu, but if you die, you can’t reload to this save spot. Only the checkpoint. Thus, I don’t understand what the point of “saving” is. Thankfully, I played the game in a single sitting, so no worries there.
  • I wouldn’t say I hated this as it helped me more often than not, but you can basically grind for ammo and rations by entering and exiting rooms over and over. Seemed like a silly oversight.
  • Not enough reasons to use many of the items outside of their required spots. Like the bomb-blast suit or the cardboard box.
  • There’s no way to know what key works on what door. You just have to keep switching between them until the door slides open. Not a problem early on, but later, after you have cards 1-7, it can be a nuisance.

Lastly, for all you data nerds, my end game stats:

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As they say, it’s not a stealth game unless you kill 319 humans. Probably a dozen dogs, too, though that data wasn’t tracked. Okay, that’s it. On to Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake next!

The Half-hour Hitbox: March 2014

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Officially, March is the month that sees an end to winter…so why am I still so cold? Fact: I’m literally typing this intro text in front of a tiny space heater. Well, let’s not start deep-diving into things like polar vortexes and the death of the planet, but I’m really looking forward to spring becoming spring. For one, it means I’ll be able to play more console videogames since I won’t immediately crawl under the heated blanket every night after work just to stay warm. Two, well…um, I don’t know. I guess it just ultimately means I’ll have more time to play all them vidyagamez I have in my backlog.

Actually, there’s not too many games for this edition of Half-hour Hitbox. I’ve mostly written about the big games occupying my time this month–like Tomb Raider, Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy, and Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures–and I’ve only dipped my toes into a few other games over the last thirty-one days. This is me attempting to remain focused and dedicated to the task at hand, of beating more games than starting new ones.

Enough babbling, on with the list…

Hitman: Absolution

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Remember all the trouble I had with Hitman: Blood Money? Of course you do. Well, thankfully, Hitman: Absolution plays much more smoothly than its older brother, but I’ve only gotten through the tutorial level so far. Again, there’s a lot of systems to play with here: you can be sneaky, you can be aggressive, you can be both, and you can be creative in all your approaches. I like that; I’ve always liked that. So long as thinking of an idea and implementing it via action buttons is, more of less, easy to do. That’s the ticket. The next stage up is the Chinatown one from all them demo trailers, and I’m eager to see what trouble I can get Agent 47 into next.

Dungeon Defenders

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Well, it finally happened. I played Dungeon Defenders. See, I’ve had a copy on both Steam and PlayStation 3 for a long, long time now. Just sitting there, waiting. Making puppy eyes now and then as I’d skip past it to play something else. And then, this month on the Xbox 360, Gold users get a free copy of the game, meaning I now have three versions of it across all my current platforms. Alas, the game never looked too appealing to me, both visually and from a gameplay perspective, so I never made it a priority, but I figured enough was enough. I needed to know for sure.

Unfortunately, my gut instincts were right–this isn’t a game for me. It’s boring solo, consisting of just you setting up turrets and defenses, clicking start, and running around like a madman to keep on top of every situation. You do this for several waves until you win, and then you move on to a new area that, from what I can tell, while aesthetically different, plays just like everything else. Maybe I’ll try to see if I can join someone’s online game, but if not, I’ll probably end up deleting Dungeon Defenders. FROM ALL MY GAMING DEVICES.

Celestial Mechanica

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In this collaboration from Roger Hicks and Paul Veer (animator of Super Crate Box), Earth was saved by celestial beings known as mechanians from complete destruction. However, since then, these beings haven’t been seen in like a hundred years. Naturally, in Celestial Mechanica, you play as one of these beings, exiled and now booted all the way down to Earth. Your mission is to get back…as well as try to sell some indie game soundtracks.

Basically, we have a Metroidvania action-platformer here, that starts pretty slow. I mean, you can’t even jump at the very beginning. Gameplay involves exploring and solving large environmental puzzles, with checkpoints for deaths almost non-existent, making for frustrating rooms when spikes and lasers are the main adversary. I played for a little bit and got a few powers, but eventually closed the window to do something else. Perhaps I’ll return to this Earth some other time in the future…

Polar Escape

A very short “escape the room” adventure game, wherein you’re stuck somewhere cold–maybe Alaska given I saw a poster for The Thing above the bed–trapped inside a four-walled room. The puzzles are all extremely logical, like using a hose on a tank of gasoline to extract the gas to power the generator, and the only hiccup I ran into was figuring out the secret code that unlocked one of the lockers. Once I got through that, the rest of the items get used one after the other in the most obvious of ways. Wasn’t really expecting much here, but Polar Escape didn’t impress me at all in the end. Also: could use some editing.

2048

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Over the last few days, I’ve read a decent amount about the popular puzzle game Threes. As well as 2048, a clone that is also experiencing popularity. Alas, given my Windows 8 phone, I can’t play Threes, but I was able to download 2048 and see what all the fuss is about. You basically slide tiles around to combine numbers in hopes of reaching a big score and creating a tile with the number 2,048 in it. I’ve not done it yet, but it’s surprisingly addictive and easy to get into. I can only image what Threes is like then, being the original idea. We’ll just call this another good killer of five to ten minutes, something to play while waiting for the teapot water to boil.

Hexic

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When I first got my Xbox 360, I only had two retail games for the longest while–Fable II and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I’d come home for lunch a lot and want to play, but didn’t have the allotted time for either of those two titles. Then I discovered that the Xbox 360 came with some arcade games pre-installed on it, with one of them being Hexic HD, a title-turning puzzle game that, despite its appearance, was deceptively difficult to master. And now you can play Hexic on your Windows 8 phone…for free. Uh oh. These last few months have shown us the truly nasty side of free-to-play games.

That said, I’m not even through the tutorial yet, so I have no idea if this game gets free-to-pay gross. It might, it might not at all. At this point, it’s just teaching me the basics that I already know while introducing special power-ups and moves to help clear the board faster. This reminds me greatly of what Tetris Blitz did, wherein you have Tetris, but also a handful of probably unnecessary and overpowering special items that, naturally, can be purchased with real money. I do like that there’s a tile with a single eye talking to you, calling you “a human”, and the presentation is quite nice, though some text can be a little small at times.

The Half-hour Hitbox is a new monthly feature for Grinding Down, covering a handful of videogames that I’ve only gotten to play for less than an hour so far. My hopes in doing this is to remind myself that I played a wee bit of these games at one time or another, and I should hop back into them, if I liked that first bite.

Vying for political control in Lords of Waterdeep

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Currently, I have a new favorite board game. For the longest time, it’s been Munchkin, and that’s not to say that Munchkin has lost any of its spontaneous, kooky fun, but Steve Jackson Games continues to churn out Munchkin-related product one after the other with no sign of slowing down in the future, and well…I just can’t keep up. Though I did get two new sets for Christmas–Munchkin Pathfinder and Munchkin Apocalypse–both of which are a lot of fun, but more or less the same ol’ backstabbin’, treasure-hoarding experience with a small twist or two, like Seals. There is strategy involved in every game of Munchkin, but also a lot of luck, like getting decent treasure early on to keep your character in the fight.

However, I’m always looking for more strategy elements over luck-based things–one big reason why I don’t play cards at the casino–and so we move on to Lords of Waterdeep from Wizards of the Coast, a fantastically unpredictable hour and change of planning, plotting, and plundering resources. It’s pretty much the best of both worlds.

Here’s how the publisher describes it: a strategy board game for 2-5 players, you take on the role of one of the masked Lords of Waterdeep, secret rulers of the city. Through your agents, you recruit adventurers to go on quests on your behalf, earning rewards and increasing your influence over the city. Expand the city by purchasing new buildings that open up new actions on the board, and hinder – or help – the other lords by playing Intrigue cards to enact your carefully laid plans. During the course of play, you acquire victory points or resources through completing quests, constructing buildings, playing intrigue cards, or having other players utilize the buildings you have constructed. At the end of eight rounds of play, the player who has accrued the most victory points wins the game.

That might not sound like a whole lot, but there’s actually a whole lot there to work with, seeing that you are limited in the number of choices you make. You have to start planning things out from your very first turn, as every turn taken should be to your advantage, whether it is playing a card against an opponent or visiting a specific building to get the right colored cubes you need to complete that secret quest in your hand. I find going to the harbor to play Intrigue spells very beneficial as, after everyone else has moved all their units, you get to move off the harbor to any free spaces left, basically giving you an extra turn. See? Strategy. You can also play Mandatory Quests on opponents to slow them down on their journey to the top, but other than that, it’s quite a civil game, much more than say Munchkin or Shadows Over Camelot.

Ironically, my favorite part of Lords of Waterdeep is when it ends. This is the moment when you get to reveal what lord you specifically are and how it affected your decisions, as well as add up how many units you have in your tavern, how much gold you have left, and so on. All of that basically turns into more victory points come the endgame, seeing everyone inch up further (or down further if corruption from the Scoundrels of Skullport expansion is a factor), and the best part is that, more often than not, it’s still anyone‘s game here at this point. Only once all the points are added up can you really see who is in the lead, the truest lord of the city.

Evidently, there’s an IOS version of Lords of Waterdeep, which is both awesome and not. Naturally, my Windows 8 phone swings and misses yet again. Oh well. Actually, no,  it’s okay. I’d much rather play a round of this game with my friends and food and the ability to watch their every move than tapping a phone’s screen on end until I win or lose. And just so it’s clear, I think I’ve only won once out of the handful of games my group has played since discovering the City of Splendors.

In search of imaginary elephants in Don’t Drink the Pink

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Don’t Drink the Pink doesn’t do much overall, but it’s still an effective slice of weird pointing and clicking, certainly inspired by that rather infamous intoxication sequence from 1941′s Dumbo, wherein Dumbo and Timothy accidentally drink from a bucket filled with champagne and then begin seeing dancing, singing pink elephants, a moment I’ve still not come to terms with some seventy-three years later. It was made for the January 2014 MAGS competition “Something Cold, Something Burrowed, Something Pink” and is self-described by its maker(s) as “a simple story about a man, few pints of pink and occasional elephants.” You still following?

It opens with you passed out in the snow. After you’ve awoken and prayed to the god of forgiveness that you didn’t do anything stupid during your time of unmemorable drunkenness, you begin exploring the world. Alas, it’s pretty much Hoth. Or the planet Winter from Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Y’know, cold and white and not brimming with signs of life. That is until you come across a simple hatch, which brings you to a small bar selling Pink, a mysteriously powerful drink. The bar itself is not too lively; besides the bartender, there’s two other patrons, one of whom is passed out as well. It’s up to you to mingle and find out what happened last night and why you were outside, all alone in this snow. Naturally, this leads to you on the hunt for a pink elephant.

As you get one step closer to answers, your Pink-O-Meter also increases with each drink of Pink you acquire and down. This means the character is getting drunker, sloppier as he plays, forcing you to second guess every word and action that unfolds. Thankfully, you who is playing the game can solve many of the puzzles in a sober state through simple deduction, as there are only a few areas to explore, a handful of items to use, and so many characters to interact with. That said, the puzzles are still pretty clever for how quickly the game was put together, accompanied by jaunty blips in the limited soundtrack that feel like tiny rewards all on their own.

Again, there’s not much to Don’t Drink the Pink, but it’s still a solid, fun fifteen or twenty minutes of clicking around and discovery. I’d have like to have seen more detailed environments and dialogue trees, but there’s still enough here to sell the story and get the job done. Kind of like of Scaling the Sky ends, everything comes full circle in Don’t Drink the Pink, meaning you could potentially play it on end eternally, but you really need only one go to see everything here. Besides, clearly, too much Pink is not good for you.

Problem after problem in Wallace and Gromit’s new indoor holiday resort

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I don’t know how to get into this post without spoiling the ending to the first episode of Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures, so if you are interested in seeing how Wallace and Gromit solve the problem of giant bees invading the neighborhood…well, don’t read any further. No joke. The next paragraph is going to lay it all out. Stop now, if you are behind the times like I am, catching up on these jaunty, whimsical 2009 point-and-click adventure games from Telltale Games. All right, here we go.

So, at the end of “Fright of the Bumblebees,” Wallace comes up with a way to counteract the hyper-powerful growth formula he fed to his flowers to make the bees happier, but resulted in them also growing to extreme and deadly sizes. You don’t play an active part in this puzzle solution after taking down the large Queen Bee, just see the outcome, which has Wallace coming up out of the basement beaming with excitement over his discovery. Unfortunately, in his journey to make the bees smaller, he has also shrunk himself down in size. Immediately cut to some bouncy, knee-slappy music and then the credits.

In my mind, since Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures is billed as an episodic adventure series, I figured that the second episode “The Last Resort” would pick up on this zany plot twist and steer the story in its respective direction. Nope. It’s a whole separate story, and the second episode opens some time after Wallace shrunk himself, now back at his normal size with no comments on the matter. Huh. I found this really strange, and I guess we can blame The Walking Dead for its dedication to keeping everything connected from one episode to another. Granted, there’s still a loose connection to the previous events.

In “The Last Resort,” using the profits from their now-saved honey business, Wallace prepares to take Gromit to Blackpool for a little vacation time. Alas, the stormy weather both spoils their plans to hit the beach and creates a small flood in the cellar. Wallace comes up with the idea of converting the water-logged cellar into an indoor holiday resort for the rest of the townsfolk. If you build it, they will show up, and they do, but many are unhappy for various reasons, and Wallace makes it his personal mission to make everyone’s stay at West Wallaby Waterworld the most pleasant ever. Later, Ms. Flitt’s maybe-boyfriend Duncan McBiscuit is mysteriously injured, and no one is allowed to leave the house until the culprit is caught.

Gameplay-wise, nothing has changed from “Fright of the Bumblebees” in that you still both control Wallace and Gromit at different parts, walking around the environment with WASD or arrow keys and clicking on items to pick up/examine. There’s no item-combining; you just select an item from the inventory and use it on what or who you want. Something I never did in the previous episode that I discovered this time around was hitting the tab button, which highlights everything on a screen that can be interacted with. That’s neat, though it’s pretty obvious what items and people can be interacted with within a single scene.

I’m nearly done naming Duncan McBiscuit’s attacker(s) and proving it with hard-steel proof, but at least I know that episode three “Muzzled!” will only be loosely connected to whatever unfolds from here onwards. Regardless of that, I’m still enjoying the bombastic stories and silly character motivations and plan to see this whole series to the end. Truthfully, I just can’t get enough of Gromit staring into the camera, shaking his head.