Tag Archives: Steam

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.

2014 Game Completed Comics, #21 – Thomas Was Alone

2014 games completed 21 - thomas was alone facebook

Every videogame that I complete in 2014 will now get its very own wee comic here on Grinding Down. It’s about time I fused my art with my unprofessional games journalism. I can’t guarantee that these comics will be funny or even attempt to be funny. Or look the same from one to another. Some might even aim for thoughtfulness. Comics are a versatile form, so expect the unexpected.

Ys I and its beautifully bodacious bump combat

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Let’s all laugh at the great irony that I can’t actually confidently pronounce my favorite JRPG franchise out loud. I mean, is it SOO-ECK-AH-DIN? SOO-EEK-ADIN? SUE-EE-KO-DEN? I dunno. Luckily enough, I’ve not had to talk about Suikoden too many times in public, and when I do, it’s usually with people who have no idea how it is supposed to be said and probably assume I know what I’m doing since, y’know, I’ve been playing games for all my life. Spoiler: I don’t. And now we can add the Ys franchise to my collection of games I will never be sure of, but I’m going to pronounce it like EASE and move on.

I’ve always been curious about the Ys games, but never enough to take the plunge. Heck, I even have a copy of Ys: The Ark of Napishtim in my collection, which I guess I forgot about immediately after purchasing. Anyways, there was a good deal on Ys I & II on Steam over the holidays, and so I entered my credit card info, clicked purchase, and actually installed and played a game I bought instead of just collecting stuff forever. I know, crazy talk. A little researching shows that Ys I & II are pretty old JRPGs, first releasing back in 1989 and eventually coming to all the following platforms in some form or another: PC, PlayStation 2, Virtual Console, Nintendo DS, and PSP. Ys I & II are actually enhanced remakes of the respective Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished and Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter, meant to be played one after the other. So far, I’ve completed Ys I and started the second half only a wee bit.

In both games, you play as a red-haired swordsman named Adol Christin, who, from what I can tell, is the main protagonist for every Ys game. That dude either really gets around or something else is afoot. For the first adventure, he has to collect the six Books of Ys, which contain the history of the ancient, vanished land of Ys and will give Adol the vital knowledge he needs to defeat the caped evilness sweeping the land of Esteria. This means you go from town to town and dungeon to dungeon, talking with villagers and fighting enemies, respectively, gaining clues as to where to find the next book. The last chunk of the game takes place in the astronomically tall and somewhat tedious Darm Tower, which has you ascending floor after floor of bad guys and mazes to eventually fight…um, I think people in Minea called him Dark Cape and complete the first fifty percent of Ys I & II.

If that sounds like your typical JRPG adventure, you’re right. The story and its characters are nothing to write home about, and that’s because the real charm of the Ys franchise is in its combat system. It’s called bumping, and basically, when out in the field, Adol can run into enemies to deal damage directly to them. There’s no attack button. You bump, they take damage, they explode, you gain XP. Rinse, lather, repeat until you hit the level cap and have enough gold to buy all the best armor/weapons. And yet, there’s still strategy to this, as you don’t ever want to attack anything head-on, so you must come at enemies at an angle or from behind, making you feel very ninja-like. It was definitely one of the more unique combat systems I’ve come across lately, and it, along with regenerating health, made for speedy grinding, something I always appreciate.

Despite the gloriously joyful and smile-creating combat, I still ran into some problems. Like, there’s a specific boss that transforms into a swarm of bats and then back to human form for a split second, and you have even less time than that to hit him, which made for a very frustrating boss battle. Later on, there’s a room in Darm Tower filled with poison-like music that drains Adol’s health fast, and the only way to clear out the room is by exiting, finding a specific pillar outside, and hitting it with a hammer you found a few levels down; the game does not really make this clear, and I had to look up the solution online. And speaking of not making a lot clear, I wasn’t sure what a lot of the items in my inventory did, so I mostly refrained from ever equipping any of them.

Glancing at the Steam Achievements for Ys II, I get the impression that the second part of this series is…a little weirder. Also, looks like there’s magic spells to be cast. I’m down with that, as well as some more bumping. Maybe I should change my blog’s name is Bumping Down? Maybe.

2014 Game Completed Comics, #4 – Ys I

2014 games completed 04 - ys I facebook

Every videogame that I complete in 2014 will now get its very own wee comic here on Grinding Down. It’s about time I fused my art with my unprofessional games journalism. I can’t guarantee that these comics will be funny or even attempt to be funny. Or look the same from one to another. Some might even aim for thoughtfulness. Comics are a versatile form, so expect the unexpected.

Gone Home to mysteries, answers, and everything 1990s

gone home overall thoughts

Breaking news: I’ve decided to do away with my gaming haikus, at least for 2014. Chin up, Mr. Sadface. It’s going to be okay. Really. I had a lot of fun writing them, but after two consecutive years of dipping my toes in Japanese poetry–well, if you can call 104 haikus a dip–I’m ready to try something else. Gotta keep things fresh. If you’ve been keeping up with Grinding Down over the weekend, then you’ll know what the long and short of it all is: comics. Yes, yes. Actual comics about the games I’ve played, and I really don’t know why it took me so long to combine these two passions of mine together.

Anyways, Gone Home gets the special honor of being my first completed game for 2014. Compare that with Yoshi’s Island from last year. That’s right. Go on. I dare you to compare the two. One looks like a drawing, and the other has you occasionally looking at drawings. Hmm. If you’ll recall, Gone Home was also my number one pick for the top 10 videogames I missed out on in 2013, but thanks to a recently good deal via the Humble Bundle store I was able to pick up The Fullbright Company’s debut for a sweet price, one that wouldn’t make me terribly irate if I discovered that the game didn’t work on my ASUS laptop. The good news is that, obviously, it ran just fine, even though it defaulted to the lowest of settings to do so and some of the textures looked a wee flat. Small quibbles aside, I absolutely loved it.

Gone Home‘s plot itself is pretty straightforward: it is June 1995, and Kaitlin Greenbriar is returning home to her parents’ new house in the Pacific Northwest after traveling abroad. She gets in very late on a rainy, thunder-laden night only to discover the house is completely empty, with a strange note on the front door from her sister, urging Kaitlin to not go digging around for clues as to what happened. Naturally, though, that’s exactly what you do, and the whole game is built around exploration and piecing together where Sam and Kaitlin’s parents went to. If I’m being honest and a little spoilery, that’s not at all what the plot is really about; in truth, this is actually Sam’s story, not Kaitlin’s, and there’s stuff about her parents to unravel, as well as what went wrong with the previous owners of the house to have it now deemed the Psycho House by other students at Sam’s school. Kaitlin is just a means to see all this unfold, and she is mostly non-reactive, save for a few text-only comments when finding items related to her parents’ sex life.

The game itself takes around two to three hours to complete, depending how thorough you search each and every room in the larger-than-life mansion-like new Greenbriar home. That said, Gone Home never wastes a single second though or pads out rooms with nothing that isn’t vital or important to the story-telling, and so you are constantly advancing, learning more and more. I found all this beyond exhilarating and couldn’t wait to see what was behind that closed door over there or what hid in the third drawer from the top, but only after I clicked open the first two drawers. You move with WASD, and zoom in for a closer look and pick up items using the mouse. Oh, and you can also fully twirl items around in your hand, to check out all sides, and you’d think there would have been more puzzles built around this mechanic, but Gone Home is actually not about puzzles–save for the few combination locks–and this mechanic exists more so to keep you in the world, prove that these rolls of tissue paper and printed books are real, that everything has a front and back and can be examined properly.

Anyone that actually grew up in the 1990s is clearly going to sink into Gone Home a bit deeper than those that didn’t. The game oozes with the era, from magazines wreathed in pop culture icons to board games and mounds of VHS tapes of your favorite Saturday afternoon couch-flicks, like Blade Runner and just about every episode of The X-Files. In fact, Super Nintendo plays a wee part in the events that transpire in Sam’s young, blossoming life, and you can find various fictional cartridges around the house, some goofier than others. Regardless, the attention to detail is astounding and appreciated, especially for a game that’s all about looking and listening. I couldn’t listen to too many of Lonnie’s musical recordings though, sorry.

Many have complained about the bait-and-switch trick in Gone Home. It’s initially set up to seem like your typical ghost story: girl comes home on a rainy night to find her house completely empty of life. For most of the early rooms, you expect something spooky to happen. The TV to randomly flip on? A door to slowly creak open itself? The sound of footsteps overhead? But no, nothing like that happens ever, save for a single moment of pure genius that is logically explained so long as you found the correct paperwork earlier in the house. This is not a ghost story. This is a human story, and it is remarkable in its dedication to remain rooted in reality, one I think many can relate to on some level, whether it is with teenage romance, a failed marriage, not being good enough for your father, and so on.

I think Gone Home is both a great game and a very important one. If you haven’t played it yet, I highly recommend you do so as soon as possible. Videogame story-telling has a new measuring stick.

2014 Game Completed Comics, #1 – Gone Home

2014 games completed 01 - gone home facebook

Every videogame that I complete in 2014 will now get its very own wee comic here on Grinding Down. It’s about time I fused my art with my unprofessional games journalism. I can’t guarantee that these comics will be funny or even attempt to be funny. Or look the same from one to another. Some might even attempt to be thoughtful. Comics are a versatile form, so expect the unexpected.

2013 Game Review Haiku, #46 – Deponia

2013 games completed Deponia

Want off trash planet
Solve some tricky puzzles first
Hope you hate English

These little haikus proved to be quite popular in 2012, so I’m gonna keep them going for another year. Or until I get bored with them. Whatever comes first. If you want to read more words about these games that I’m beating, just search around on Grinding Down. I’m sure I’ve talked about them here or there at some point. Anyways, enjoy my videogamey take on Japanese poetry.

Might & Magic: Duel of Champions battles for my attention

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Readers of this blog should know that I love just about any and every CCG I can get my hands on, whether or not I actually have someone to play against. Part of it is the collecting aspect, the fantasy that if I get this card or that card or three of that card then I can really build something special and unique to my playing style. It’s all about dreams, and this definitely started with Pokemon, Magic the Gathering, and Lord of the Rings, which I played with a small circle of flesh-and-blood friends. I also have some other card games in stuffed away in a box in my studio space that I’ve never played with anyone, such as The Simpsons TCG, Gloom, and Wyvern; I just have ‘em to have ‘em.

However, over the years, my gaming circle has diminished, though there are the occasional spouts of Munchkin and Lords of Waterdeep with friends, which are board games with some card-based elements, but not enough to get my palms sweating. Alas, I’m pretty much alone nowadays in my affection for CCGs and TCGs, and since I have no one else to share that love with, I must resist and sit on my hands. Even when it comes to digital card games. Sorry, Cardhunter. Bummer, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. Too bad, SolForge. My apologies–argggh, fuck it.

I can’t hold out forever.

I guess there was a beta for Might & Magic: Duel of Champions a couple months ago, but I only ever first heard of the game when it released–for free–on Steam recently. You can mostly thank Penny Arcade for tweeting about it, but I decided enough was enough, clicked “play,” and waited for the game to finish up its installation thing, which did not take very long. However, before I could partake in any collectible carding, I first had to create a Uplay account, much to my disliking–a minor annoyance at best. But then it’s right into the action of this fantasy-themed strategic online CCG where you choose a hero, build an army of creatures, cast spells and fortunes, and defeat your opponent as swiftly as possible. Basically, Magic: The Gathering, but a teensy bit different in a few areas, just enough so that Wizards of the Coast does not come armed with lawyers and paperwork and turn one Lightning Bolts.

Duel of Champions opens with a faction selection: Haven (protection and healing), Inferno (attack damage), or Necropolis (infecting and stealing life). Depending which one you align with, you’ll see a different story and deck of cards to muck around with. I went with Haven as it reminded me the most of white weenie MTG decks, where it is all about small creatures and protecting yourself with spells. The campaign starts with a lengthy, but vital tutorial that teaches you all the basics before padding off main story missions. Each encounter has some–well, to me–throwaway dialogue at the beginning that ties into the plot, and you battle with cards to earn XP, gold, and seals. To win, you have to damage your opponent’s hero until he or she has no more health.

In order to play cards, you not only have to use stored resources (like mana, but not), but also a combination of three different tracked elements: Might, Magic, and Destiny. Each turn, the player can increase one of these stats or their hero can use a special ability to do something else. I think the Haven hero lets you draw an extra card? Sorry, I don’t remember. Also, each player has eight event cards on the side, which are shuffled together and brought out in twos. These rotate around with each use and can only be activated once a turn if you can pay for the cost, with effects that generally target all players, negative and positive. They remind me of portals/dungeons from Munchkin and planes in MTG, in that they often are the vital game-changers in any round.

After all that, there are three main types of main cards found in every hero’s deck: creatures, spells, and fortunes. Data printed on creature cards correspond to an attack score, a retaliation score (damage dealt back to an attacking creature), and its overall health points. Health does not regenerate at the end of the turn like in MTG, meaning you have to be always aware of who is hurt the most. Spell, so far, are rather straightforward, such as raising the strength of a creature or healing its wounds. Fortune cards are like mini-event card that seem to only effect you and play around with the rules of the game.

And so it goes: you play cards, perform your actions, attack, and prepare, and then the other player goes. An opponent’s turn can sometimes go by in a blink of an eye, so you have to be paying attention, but truthfully…it’s a bit lifeless against artificial intelligence, but it’s all I have currently. Not terrible, mind you; just void of something. I suspect once I’m further along I can do a little online multiplayer and see what that’s like, but for a free card game riffing on what MTG created, it’s pretty good and has enough tweaks to make it a wee bit more interesting than a blatant clone. I certainly am playing it more than I did that other Might & Magic title. And if you read through all this with wild, excited eyes and totally grokked all that I wrote, please come over and play card games with me on the weekend. I have plenty to try. Any time is fine.

Simple polygon shapes become more in Thomas Was Alone

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A small spoiler right up front, but Thomas is actually not alone for very long in Thomas Was Alone. Sorry, I know. You probably didn’t see that coming, and now your world is crumbling down. Wait, here’s a few more juicy tidbits:  his full name is Thomas-AT-23-6-12, he is a red rectangle, and he is searching for companionship. Just dropping knowledge bombs over here like boom, boom, boom.

As a puzzle platformer, Thomas Was Alone is pretty standard stuff. Maybe even a bit basic in the early levels. Despite being a simple geometric shape, you can jump to climb up and across platforms, with the end goal always trying to reach a shape-specific door somewhere near the end of the level. As you progress, Thomas meets some other shapely friends, like Chris, an cynical orange square, and John, a tall yellow stick-shape. I’ve met a couple more shapes too, but I won’t spoil them all, especially if there are more to come. Basically, the different shapes can jump at varying levels of height, and you have to use Thomas and his friends cooperatively to get over some platforms and hit those doors up. That seems to be the meat the puzzles, unfortunately, and the early levels are beyond easy, finishable in mere seconds.

What takes Thomas Was Alone above its lackluster gameplay mechanics is Danny Wallace, the game’s narrator. He also helped the game earn a BAFTA Games Award. He tells the story of each shape created by a company called Artificial Life Solutions, which experiments on artificial intelligences, and really gives them life, despite them being, without a doubt, geometric shapes with the ability to jump. It also helps that his British accent is calm and commanding, reminding me of the narrator in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It really does help make the somewhat mindless, at times, platforming all the more enjoyable.

All that said, I’ve run into a hardware problem, one that is growing more frustrating every day. I prefer to play platformers with a controller; hush now, it’s how I grew up with them, bouncing Bubsy, Mario, and Sonic to and fro with the push of a button rather than the click of the mouse. I also find using a d-pad or analog stick provides better precision when timing jumps and landings. Your mileage may vary. However, when I plug in my Xbox 360 controller into my laptop to play some Thomas Was Alone, the controller only seems to work 20% of the time. I’ve found restarting the game with the controller still plugged in to work every now and then. But not consistently. And I refuse to play any other way. I do not believe my controller is on the fritz, as it works fine on the Xbox 360, and I was able to load up Super Meat Boy through Steam and start jumping from wall to wall with no problems. Not sure what the deal is, and the game does support controllers, but it’s been touch and go.

I hope I can get this controller stuff figured out, as I’d like to see Thomas Was Alone to the end. Not to see if the puzzles change much, but I want to know what becomes of these shapes. These square and rectangles that have opinions and qualities and desires. That probably sounds crazy, I know, but that’s just how good of a job Wallace does narrating them. Oh, and I do wish the game had Steam trading cards.