Monthly Archives: November 2014

Ridding a lambent tree of every evil, parasitic creature

botanicula pc early impressions gd

Originally, despite having owned a copy of Botanicula for a good while now, I was planning to experience it firsthand raw, in the flesh, during my Extra Life stream in this past October. However, when I went to load it up, something turned wonky with my streaming program and was not able to capture footage despite being able to capture other windowed games prior. Instead of sitting there and pounding my head against a metaphoric wall, I moved on to another title to keep the action hot, but always planned to get back to Amanita Design’s bug-based point-and-click adventure game.

So, what’s the narrative all about? Botanicula centers around a rag-tag group of tree-dwelling creatures searching for the last seed of their home, a giant tree unfortunately infested by evil parasites. Sure, this excursion sounds ultra serious and something the U.S. EPA could get behind, but there’s a great deal of humor to eat up thanks to the game’s zany five heroes and creative critter designs. For the first half of the adventure, the game’s environments and clickable bugs are bright and amusing (for example, the tambourine bug above), though things get pretty dark by the end, both figuratively and literally. Either way, it’s a straightforward story with a lot of personality, but few surprises–and that’s okay. It’s good versus evil, life versus nature, cute bugs versus villainous spiders.

Gameplay-wise, Botanicula is a puzzle game, one that often asks the player to think outside the box. That said, many puzzles simply devolve down to clicking/tapping on the most obvious of things on the screen (the bugs themselves, large plants, strange items) and watching what happens; generally, something happens. There is no in-game hint system or even text-on-screen guide to point players in the right direction, but the puzzles never got to the place where progress felt unmovable. Every screen has a number of tiny secrets to discover, too. My favorite section was about midway through the journey, when the gang arrives in a large village of problematic onion houses, asked to gather a number of birds to help run a machine. The puzzles here were sometimes isolated to a single house, while others gave you items to use elsewhere. Still, this is more a point-and-click exploration romp than an adventure game.

Let’s pause and talk about Botanicula‘s soundtrack. Which is astounding. The constantly unpredictable and tinkling audio is supplied by the Czech band DVA and is peppered throughout the game in numerous ways. Some scenes are interactive, with you making the music by bouncing on mushrooms or clicking bugs in a certain order, while other tunes are rewards for solving a puzzle or making some insect happy. It’s all very pleasing, except when it is scary, and then it is terrifying.

Last year, I finally got around to playing–and completing–Machinarium, which is truthfully no easy task. Some of those puzzles were absolutely maddening, and yet I couldn’t not solve them. Amanita Design’s games brim with color and character, not to mention colorful characters, and the switch from robots to bugs in Botanicula does little to change that hard-earned fact. I think I ended up looking up a single puzzle solution this time around, and it turned out I was on the right track to solving it myself, but just didn’t take it all the way there. Your inventory never becomes bloated, and it is usually pretty clear where you need to go or what you need to collect to move forward.

In total, Botanicula took about three to four hours to get through, and I ate it up in a single sitting over the Thanksgiving break while enjoying some quiet time down at my father’s place in South Jersey. As you go along and encounter all the various friendly/non-friendly insects, you collect animated cards of them; if I had been playing a Steam version, I think those are all related to Achievements. Anyways, I didn’t collect them all by the time the credits rolled, but I got enough to open up two bonus menu items after completing the game. I might YouTube what you get for collecting all the cards. Either way, I’m so glad I finally got around to ridding this tree of evil bugs; it was an odd little trip, but without a doubt memorable.

Aimless and without answers, that’s Amihailu in Dreamland

amihailu in dreamland impressions gd

I…don’t really know what to make of Amihailu in Dreamland. That’s not just me being stumped criticually and creatively, but also intellectually. I put about fifty minutes into this exploration-based puzzle game, and I still have no idea what I was ultimately doing other than walking around, interacting with everything I could, and then backtracking to see if I missed something along the way. The game refuses to tell you what to do, where to go, what’s missing, and in this age of Dark Souls and Paper Mario: Sticker Star I applaud that; however, it has gotten to the point that, unless I want to watch a video of someone else playing, I can’t continue on into the darkness.

Here’s how Noyemi K, the game’s creator, describes it:

Amihailu is a recent graduate of the Bromnian Military Academy. She recently came home from vacation with her friends and decides to take a rest because her parents are out. What follows is the strangest, most vivid dream she’s ever had! Amihailu and all her friends find themselves embarking on a strange and twisted adventure in a world where things aren’t at all what they seem and nothing makes any sense!

Yup, nothing makes any sense! That much I grokked. But when it comes to dreamlands, everything is meant to be interpretive and obtuse, so that comes with the territory. Do I really need to understand why touching a painting teleports Amihailu to another part of the map? Or why she keeps running into friends of hers that want nothing to do with her? I learned to not question much in Remember Me or Link’s Awakening, and so I have to do the same here, though without a dash of reality to reference it can be hard to separate the zany from the sane.

The main meat of Amihailu in Dreamland is puzzles and solving them yourself, whether through logic or the use of a specific item, but there’s also an RPG-esque stat screen for Amihailu with details for HP and strength, which initially gave me hope that there would be some turn-based combat. Alas, doesn’t look like it–unless it pops off later on–and I guess it is just part of the program used to create the game, that it has to be there. I keep expecting random battles in these retro-looking exploration tours, and they keep not happening. Good thing I’m still eating up Suikoden II at the moment.

There’s not much out there in terms of walkthroughs, but I tried to follow along with this “spoiler-free” guide, but couldn’t figure out step seven of the first section of the game where you have to find a tension wench from, and I quote, “the purple area.” And so, I wake up, back to the land of the living, to write about Amihailu in Dreamland here at Grinding Down and never to learn what that wood block (cedar) in my key items list was meant for. Oh well. Twas only a dream.

Five blue shards are at the heart of The Stoneville Mystery

the stoneville mystery overall impressions gd

It’s easy to compare the opening of The Stoneville Mystery to A Link to the Past‘s start, given that both occur on a dark, stormy night, with our leading lad waking up to investigate a disappearance. For Link, it was following after his uncle and listening to Princess Zelda’s telepathic call. In The Stoneville Mystery, young Johnny wakes up to find his father’s bed empty. Out he goes, into the rain, into the land of blue filters and loud crashes of thunder, to do some fetch quests, read a few books, and bring peace back to nature. All without a single sword swipe, too.

You control Johnny from a three-quarters overhead perspective with the [WASD] keys, using [Z] to interactive with anything he can press against. Most of the descriptions are fairly simplistic, but a few are humorous, and a couple of spots need to be interacted with to get a specific item to help you progress, so I then ended up examining everything to ensure I missed nothing. It’s a gamer’s problem, y’know. You do have an inventory (that is too large considering you never acquire more than two rows’ worth of items), as well as the power to save anytime, anywhere. As you explore the town and the western forest area, you’ll meet a handful of characters, all who seem to serve a purpose save for one pirate and the girl fishing in the middle of a thunderstorm. I liked the inclusion of the creepy witch, who went about her potion-brewing in very gray territory, but all good fairytales are brimming with darkness. Did you know that in the original version of Snow White, the Queen is forced to don hot iron shoes at the end and dance until she drops dead? Yeah, Disney altered that a smidge.

The Stoneville Mystery is a straightforward fairytale about angry woodland spirits. It eventually boils down to Johnny collecting five blue shards which can then be created into a hearthstone and returned to its proper place in the temple. Once you do that, the game ends abruptly, though it has a cute bit of credits to go through afterwards. I found the puzzles to be varied enough, but nothing too challenging. You have to avoid monsters, activate statues in a specific order, give people the item they most need, and acquire enough gold to buy that silver key from the lingering town merchant. You can’t get stuck or screw yourself out of moving forward. The game takes place over a couple of large areas, as well as indoors, and I really like hearing the thunderstorm muffled while inside the warm, well-lit inn. Just felt really good.

I enjoyed The Stoneville Mystery at a laidback pace, interacting with everything I could while drinking my evening fill of two cups of coffee. I saved three times total and saw the “game over” screen twice, once from a flame spirit and the second from an angry skeleton I was not prepared for. If you have around thirty minutes to kill and a fondness for sprite-based exploring, I recommend it. You can download a free copy of the game here.

Dakota Winchester’s Adventures are everything save adventurous

dakota winchest this doesn't work capture

Over the years, I’ve occasionally dabbled in a few “mouse only” point-and-click adventure games from the people at Carmel Games, namely Habla Kadabla and a few others that I never got around to writing about. They all share a very similar style, both in terms of art, humor, and puzzles, and while none so far have been anything to drop one’s jaw at, they can periodically be enjoyable and an okay way to kill thirty minutes. Not amazingly great, not terribly offensive–just these strange, small adventure titles that ask you only to click and exist in what I imagine as some kind of shared universe, where everyone stands stiffly forward, eyes wide open, voiced by one singular, ultimate power.

So, why’d I pick the subject of today’s blog post to experience? It had to be that Dakota Winchester is clearly trying to ape Indiana Jones, and any time that happens I just have to see how it goes. I mean, Indiana Jones, at least for me, made archeology exhilarating and cool, rife with danger and discovery. And before you weigh in on the current state of Doctor Jones, no, I’ve not seen (and probably won’t ever see) Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, though I did play the LEGO videogame based on the film, which wasn’t terrible. Mostly due to LEGO figs.

Anyways, in the first leg of this episodic journey, intrepid Dakota Winchester travels to some island via Gustavo Cruises in hope of solving the mystery behind Hilda’s box, which is rumored to contain the secret of eternal life. However, in order to open it, he first has to find three unique rubies scattered across the globe. To do this, you speak with people, collect items, and use items on other items/people to make things happen. The main goal here is that Winchester needs to find two rings to open up a temple door, and it’s all straightforward stuff until the final puzzle, where I wasted at least five minutes not realizing there were additional layers on the rotating ring that could be moved. The “To Be Continued…” screen popped up after 21 minutes.

The second episode has a much fuller title of Dakota Winchester’s Adventures Part 2: Cactus City. That means the first episode should probably have been called something like Part 1: Gustavo Cruises or Part 1: Temple of Ring Doom. I don’t know. I’m a stickler for consistency. Anyways, this one only took me 12 minutes to find the second of three plot-vital rubies, and the gameplay structure remains the same. However, there’s one part where you need to find a pickaxe through a bunch of steps to hit a rock in a mine, but if you look in the background art for that very same mine…you’ll see a pickaxe inside a cart. Naturally, you can’t simply click on that one; a strange shortcoming.

According to the credits, James Kaylor handled the voiceover work. All of it. Yes, even the female characters, which you can hear instantly as a man trying to pitch his voice higher to speak like one of those newfangled women in their super screechy tinny talk. I can understand the difficulties in finding additional actors to help record lines, but maybe the better idea is to have it be text-only, which could use a fair shake of copyediting. Sure, you can turn the audio off, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore the fact that it sounds extremely amateurish and is there from the start. Some of the music from the first two episodes comes from Kevin MacCleod–remember that awesome soundtrack from 400 Years?–so that’s at least pleasant to absorb. The background art is pretty good, too.

I have to assume there will be a third episode down the line to unearth the third ruby and see what’s ultimately inside Hilda’s box. I don’t suggest anyone play to see what happens, but I’m now at least curious enough to want to know. Maybe sooner than later I should actually play the Indiana Jones point-and-click adventure game in my collection. Y’know, the one called Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Hmm. We’ll see.

Careful cooking is love and a minigame in Suikoden II

suikoden 2 cooking minigame

They say that the loveliest thing you can do for someone is cook them a meal. Alas, I’ve never been a great chef. My culinary skills sit somewhere between a good bowl of ramen noodles and a tasty tofu stir-fry with diced up vegetables. Over the summer, I learned how to make a fantastic cucumber salad. But here’s a shocker; I’ve never baked anything in my thirty-one years of life–not a cookie, not a cupcake, not a pie. There’s too much exact science involved in baking, and that terrifies me. Plus, I’m always worried that because I have such low standards for food that what I might think is amazing someone else might view as disgusting, and then I’d hate for them to consume it. In short, this has resulted in an adult life where I do very little cooking for others.

Anyways, how does all this relate to Suikoden II? Well, if you explore your castle headquarters enough you’ll eventually stumble across a man named Hai Yo, who is looking to open up his very own restaurant. Naturally, Hodor thought Dah Castle would be the best place for this because we obviously see so much foot traffic. With Hai Yo now an official member of the Dornish Army, the restaurant is magically put together instantly. Oh, and all those recipes you’ve been collecting so far and throwing in the warehouse for storage can finally be put to good use. As you visit him, you’ll kickoff a lengthy minigame-heavy side quest about Hai Yo and other touring chefs that want to compete against him. Don’t worry; Hodor is deeply involved as his sous chef.

Each cooking competition in the still-very-serious Suikoden II starts out the same way, with you visiting the restaurant to find Hai Yo in the midst of a confrontation. Almost resembles a playground fight, with a circle of people gawking. Hai Yo’s opponent will challenge him to a cooking contest. You then have the option to jump to it or delay while you search for more recipes/ingredients. At this point, I’ve only done one cook-off, but I was so excited to get to this moment and re-experience the wonder and weirdness of it all that I just can’t stop the words leaking from my fingertips.

Hai Yo’s first rival chef is the unfortunately named Yu Kum. There’s a little introductory scene wherein the chefs are announced in a boxing match manner, though Dah Castle’s cook gets some wicked strobe lights, and then the panel of judges is revealed. There are four of them, and they are randomly selected from your group of thus-far collected 108 Stars of Destiny. They are not simply pretty faces though, as each judge does have a food preference, which correlates to how they ultimately score everything. For the Hai Yo/Yu Kum fight, I think my judges were Gengen, Nina, Gilbert, and Ellie. This random element keeps each competition up in the air, so to speak, as you never know who will judge and what they prefer to eat.

After the judges are revealed, Hodor must select an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert from your growing collection of recipes. You can add spices to each recipe to turn them into something else. For example, a salad with salt turns into pickled cabbage. The true secret to winning is as so: first, pick dishes that have a high “deliciousness” rating, and second, remember that Suikoden II was written with the Japanese palate in mind. While a simple bowl of ice cream as a closer might make sense in an American mind-frame, it might not in Japanese culture.

Once you are done making your choices, sit back and watch Hai Yo and Hodor go to work. You can also watch the rival chefs too, but I prefer the former. There’s some really solid animation work here, much of which is particular to the dishes you selected. There are a few meters on the side of the screen showing you how long something is taking to cook, but you can’t interact at all. Then the judges taste the courses and score accordingly, with a final tally tossed up at the end of dessert. I beat Yu Kum by about eight points, earning me his trusted tomato soup recipe.

In spite of it really just being a bunch of menu selections and astute attention to detail, the cooking mini-game is not very interactive. Still, it is a ton of fun to go through, and I’m looking forward to the next competition, as well as gathering some more ingredients and recipes. You can even have Hai Yo make you dishes to use in battle, some with strong effects. I just don’t anticipate having to do that fishing mini-game again, but I know, at some point, I have to. Ugh. Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Disney Magical World have spoiled me on simple, satisfying fishing gameplay, and everything else is too archaic to grok. But how else will I make that delectable salmon dish glazed with soy sauce and brown sugar?

Rogue Legacy’s castle of chance keeps on giving

rogue legacy khidr boss beat

I don’t completely understand how this happened, but this is the first post I’ve dedicated to writing about Rogue Legacy, despite playing it off and on for the last few months. I mean, generally, save for some exceptions, I write about every game I’m playing–at least once. And yet, Rogue Legacy never really got in the spotlight despite accidentally eating up a few hours of my Extra Life stream; hey, it’s rather addicting. It’s also completely different than Rogue Galaxy, an awesome Level-5 JRPG for the PlayStation 2, but with both names being oh-so-similar I think I mixed them up a bunch when speaking. My bad. This post will now only be about the indie platform game with rogue-like elements, not the one starring a young, rebellious Jaster Rogue.

Rogue Legacy from Cellar Door Games is an indie platform game heavy on giving you one chance to win. Its biggest hook is that you are constantly playing as the child of the character you last played as, often gaining some of the previous parent’s traits while showcasing new ones. These greatly affect how you explore the randomly generated castles, as some traits, like blurry vision, only let you see so far ahead, while others, like two left hands, change the direction you normally cast spells in. There are also many other traits that have little to no impact on gameplay, just there for decoration. My personal favorites are dwarfism and ADHD, meaning you are both small and fast. Couple that with a good spellcaster, and enemies drop like flies as you zip on through.

While the early deep-dives into Rogue Legacy feel a bit aimless, there is an overarching goal to achieve: defeat four bosses, which unlocks that large door at the start of the castle, wherein you’ll find the final boss. However, beating those four bosses is no easy task. At this point, I’ve taken down one, namely Khidr, the Gatekeeper, in the opening section of the randomly construed castle, and that was only after something like 50+ deaths and enough money to level up my heir to fighting status. Khidr is difficult because it has a projectile attack that spirals around its eyeball body, and there are spikes on the floor to avoid. I did encounter Ponce de Leon, the Sentinel, in the Maya zone, but got my assassin butt handed to me swiftly.

The truth of the matter is that every run is actually more about getting as much gold as possible rather than taking on bosses before you are ready for ’em. All upgrades cost gold, and usually it is a hefty amount–think 500 and higher, at least. Plus, as far as I can tell, the prices continue to increase as you grow in skill. Whatever gold you don’t spend on upgrading the castle can be spent before heading inside. There’s an armorer for weapons/gear and an enchantress for runes, as well as a dude that will lock the previous castle’s layout for you for a price, though it does repopulate with enemies. You have to give up the remainder of your gold before venturing into the castle, though there is an upgrade path to go down that lets you keep a small percentage of it. Regardless, get that gold and upgrade each and every time you die.

Not everything in Rogue Legacy is fascinating. The “story” is told through sporadic journal entries you randomly stumble across, and even then, they aren’t the most exciting or illuminating to read. You’ll occasionally come across a statue in the castle, which you can pray to for assistance, often giving you a bonus ability for that single run; however, unless you know what each power-up is already, there’s no way to know what you got. It’s kind of The Binding of Isaac in that respect. There are also Fairy Chest and special rooms that are purposely difficult or obtuse to solve. Still, even in light of that, it is an internal struggle to not keep playing, to not make one more attempt at that boss or get enough gold for that vampire-themed cape that restores HP with every enemy kill.

Strangely, Rogue Legacy is a game I can play for hours, but I actually load it up rather infrequently. Part of that might be my brain warning me not to lose an entire night to castle raiding, I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll get back to it soon enough, and each run is progress, whether it is getting a new weapon to buy or a permanent upgrade to your MP or actually killing a mini-boss. I’ll get through this in due time. Heck, that’s what genealogy is all about.

A missed opportunity known as Greenhill’s New Leaf Academy

Suikoden II greenhill academy thoughts

Between playing some more Assassin’s Creed II this weekend and something else I’m not yet ready to reveal, I put a couple more hours into Suikoden II. When last I wrote about Hodor and his friends, they had just gained control of Dah Castle, with plans to fill it with friendly, like-minded people to assist them in taking Luca Blight deep down to the underground. Alas, not much of that actually happened, as the towns I revisited were short of recruitable Stars of Destiny, and so I got back on the main story path, settling a dispute between humans, kobolds, and winged demons, before eventually making my way to Greenhill, the newest of the five city-states and a strong believer in higher education.

Why is our colorful gang of warriors and wizards going to a college town, you ask? Well, army strategist Shu has informed us that the Highland army has taken Greenhill. Unfortunately, the Dornish army is in no shape to re-take Greenhill, but Shu wants us to rescue Teresa Wisemail, the town’s mayor, as we could greatly use her on our side. Our best bet for sneaking in is to use a party of college-age Stars of Destiny, with Flik as a bodyguard. I went with Hodor, Nanami, Gengen, Millie, Chaco, and someone else that I’m blanking on now. Um, dang. No, no–wait. Flik was an actual party member too, with Pilika in the convoy to boot. Right. Okay, it’s off to Greenhill, to learn!

Now, I’ve never played Persona 4, but I did watch the entire Endurance Run over at Giant Bomb, and my favorite parts generally involved Charlie going to school and actually participating in classes, quizzes, and socializing. There was also a good chunk of my life devoted to daily wizard lessons in Magician’s Quest: Mysterious Times. I don’t know. Maybe I just miss being in school, having that structure and chance to prove yourself, but I was hoping for a similar experience here in Suikoden II. Instead, it’s all fade-to-black summaries and talk of delicious cafeteria food instead of actually experiencing it. Let me explain.

Before you even truly enter Greenhill, Fitcher, who went ahead to scout the situation, recommends everyone come up with fake names to use while playing phony high school graduates. For Hodor, I went with Bubba. Nanami liked the name Beth, and Flik got Blue Thunder. No one else in the party was special enough to warrant a name change. Naturally, this is a callback to Suikoden when everyone picked new names while escaping Gregminster and crossing a guarded border, but a part of me actually hoped I would get to roleplay Bubba while I roleplayed Hodor in this Japanese roleplaying game. Considering that only a single scene later Nanami drops Flik’s real name out in the open for all to hear and the other fake names aren’t even brought up…well, no. It was just window dressing.

Once you’re inside New Leaf Academy, you’ll meet Emilia, who will review your group’s paperwork and show you around some of the classrooms. This equates to quickly walking around the school area and some light talk before a man named Shin interrupts everything. You are then free to explore on your own before returning to the dorms for the evening. There are a few items to find, namely Old Book Vol. 5 and Recipe #20, but little interaction. In fact, most of the classrooms are empty of professors, with kids simply sitting listlessly at desks. It’s easy to imagine them brimming with activity. It’s so easy.

Much to my dismay, you never actually attend a class or do anything school-like while you are pretending to be college freshmen and learning about what ultimately happened to Teresa and the townsfolk. Instead, you’ll do some investigation stuff while Flik is avoiding a young girl’s smooches and then retire to the dorms for the evening so that you can kickstart another day of plot-vital happenings. There’s even a warning about misbehaving and getting expelled, but there is nothing you can do to affect any kind of system. You can’t even behave. All I was hoping for was maybe an interactive class or two, a chance to earn a special item or learn a new recipe by listening to what the teacher said and selecting an appropriate response.

In summary, I think the idea of pretending to be students at New Leaf Academy is a missed opportunity for Suikoden II, one that can’t be undone as I’ve now left the school behind, eager to get back to Dah Castle and see what story beat is next. At least I know there’s still cooking competitions to look forward to.


games I regret vigilante 8

Internet, I’m disappointed in you. I spent at least a half hour scouring your image archives for one, just one, decent PlayStation 1 screenshot of Vigilante 8. Alas, none exist. At least none that suit my Grinding Down style, which is a large, clear picture with good spacing for my silly words on top of it. I’m not asking for much, really. Everything I saw was covered in ugly HUD elements or extremely grainy and whatever–I just grabbed a shot from Vigilante 8 Arcade and went forward, but do know that this post is all about the 1998 car combat release, not its 2008 remake, which I’ve never even touched.

Before I start in on all things alternative 1975, I had to make a decision here because, truthfully, I could’ve done a GAMES I REGRET PARTING WITH for the original Twisted Metal as well, but I felt a stronger connection–and honk in my heart–for Vigilante 8, which is a goofier, more cartoony car combat simulator than Dave Jaffe’s torment tournament featuring a murderous clown driving an ice cream truck. I don’t know. Both are over-the-top and a ton of fun, really, but they each occupy nearly the same space, and so I’d rather write about Activision’s take on vehicular violence. But I cannot deny regretting getting rid of both of these from my collection early on, as I do get that itch now and then to drive around in a non-racing environment and blow things up. At least I have Crash Team Racing?

Car combat games generally have paper-thin stories, and Vigilante 8 is no exception: A band of six desperadoes known as the Coyotes is wreaking havoc across the Southwest, and a band of vigilantes surprisingly called the Vigilantes is out to stop them. This leads to both groups mounting crazy government weaponry on their cars and driving into battle. That’s the quest mode, with levels designed around either blowing something up or protecting something from being exploded. Do that a few times, and then you’ll get a short cutscene specific to the character you picked. There’s also an arcade mode which is pick a car, pick a place, and go nuts.

Again, I dig Vigilante 8‘s aesthetic waaaaay more than Twisted Metal 2‘s, and it really shines in the characters, car selection, and special moves for each vehicle. The leader of the Vigilantes is Convoy, an old cowboy driving a semi-truck. There’s Chassey Blue, an FBI on an investigation who drives a 1967 Rattler armed with a missile rack. I’m also a big fan of Molo, who drove a massive 1966 school bus capable of emitting a dangerous smog cloud. The variety of time-appropriate cars really runs the gamut, and there’s even a special unlockable character that is simply out of this world; spoilers, it’s an alien spaceship. Naturally, each car handles differently and is outfitted with its own special weapon, generally themed with the personality of the car and its driver. For example, Beezwax, the Arizona beekeeper furious at the government for irradiating and mutating his bees with nuclear tests, uses his insect friends in a nasty bee swarm projectile.

To accompany the eclectic mix of cars and drivers, Vigilante 8‘s soundtrack is equally as diverse. Not Chrono Cross, but really–what is? It starts with a pumping disco track that features some very catchy whoop whoops. A couple other tracks sound a bit more rock-n-rollish, heavy on the distortion pedal. There’s one track that would make any of those 80s hair-band ballads proud, though I find it a little too cheesy for my ears. Regardless, the majority of the beats are steady enough to bob your head to while driving around, launching missiles at enemy cars.

While I had a good amount of two-player games as a young high school videogamer, I didn’t actually end up playing many with a second player. Friends were limited, see, and when people got together, we ended up playing more Magic: The Gathering than anything else. That said, just like with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, I remember putting in a lot of solo time with Vigilante 8, definitely seeing all the endings, but also just free-wheelin’ it in arcade mode, figuring out what buildings could be interacted with or practicing how to launch special projectiles. I never got to play its sequel Vigilante 8: 2nd Offense, though my best friend’s little brother had it on the Dreamcast and I watched him goof around in it now and then, but maybe, just maybe, I could see if the Xbox 360 remake Vigilante 8 Arcade is any good. Can you dig it?

GAMES I REGRET PARTING WITH is a regular feature here at Grinding Down where I reminisce about videogames I either sold or traded in when I was young and dumb. To read up on other games I parted with, follow the tag.

Murder is an endless loop of murder

murder impressions capture

Keeping with the theme of stabbing dudes in the back thanks to me finally getting around to playing Assassin’s Creed II, I figured a free little Flash game about stabbing a king in the back–and then foiling all future attempts–was rather apropos. I don’t know. I had some time to kill on my lunch-break (pun intended), and this took up a few minutes, made me smile, and gave me something to write about here on Grinding Down; I say that like I don’t have ten-plus drafts of other posts already in the works, but whatever. You can’t stifle inspiration.

Exot Working’s Murder only uses the spacebar key, but puts it work. The deadly stroll opens with you, a dastardly looking prince all in purple, carrying a dagger and tiptoeing behind the king. You hold down the spacebar key to charge up your dagger strike, but must left go if the king turns around before you are ready to strike; if you don’t, you’re caught by guards and tossed in a cell to rot to your bones. Once you kill the king, it becomes your turn to be paranoid, now donning his clothes and using the spacebar key to catch potential murderers in their tracks. You’ll do this enough to eventually fill up your prison with skeletons, but time is passing all the while, and you’ll ultimately succumb to nature’s cruel call. Then the loop begins anew.

That’s it. One button, one goal. On my first run, I got to be king once, but got stabbed in the back by some javelin-wielding jester before old age could claim me. The second run saw me live out the entire lives of two kings, though it ended after that. I wonder if that’s as far as you can go. Alas, not much changes the further you progress, and I’d have liked to see an aging king’s reflexes factor into pressing the spacebar key. Obviously, he should not be as swift as his younger self. Also, though I never saw if they do murder you or not, I feel bad about tossing all those wrinkly butlers into prison; I have to assume it was poison in their bottles, but it also totally could’ve been a vintage Shiraz, my favorite.

Murder is darkly humorous, but Saturday morning cartoon fun. Er, wait. Maybe not Saturday morning exactly, but of the Ren & Stimpy time slot. Entertaining, but with a seedier slant. I found the artwork to be cute, the animation to be better–especially when the guards come to haul you away and kick you into a skeleton-infested dungeon cell–and the looping drumbeat to be in line with a good march down a royal hallway. This will not blow you away or even take up more than ten minutes of your existence, but it’ll at least give you some training in not getting stabbed in the back by those closest to you.

Doing the assassin thing during the Italian Renaissance

Assassin's Creed 2 early impressions

Yesterday, everyone was all atwitter over Assassin’s Creed: Unity–though not really over Assassin’s Creed: Rogue–mostly due to Ubisoft’s strange limitations on its review embargoes, as well as the resounding conclusion that the newest stabby-stab title for new consoles in the age-ol’ franchise from a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs is nothing more than mediocre. Naturally, I got the itch to run around rooftops and pierce jerks with hidden blades, so I finally loaded up Assassin’s Creed II for the first time, which Xbox gave out for free many moons ago. Please remember that I played the original Assassin’s Creed and then followed it up with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, so I’m jumping to the middle chapter mega-late, but that’s all right.

What is Assassin’s Creed II all about? Well, the outside-the-Animus narrative is set in the 21st century and follows Desmond Miles after he escapes Abstergo Industries and relives the genetic memories of his ancestor Ezio Auditore da Firenze. The main narrative takes place at the height of the Italian Renaissance during the 15th and early 16th century. Ezio, a young, charming fellow very much in love with the ladies, is on a vengeance quest against those responsible for betraying his family. That’s all I know so far, having completed everything in sequence 1 and now just running around the map in search of treasure boxes and feathers (when I hear them twinkling).

The game came out in 2009, and it still looks really good, just not in cutscenes. Moving around the world still feels mightily impressive, with a good number of people roaming the streets below, though it is more fun to leap around on the rooftops. However, cutscenes show a lot of dead-eye stares and flat expressions, but it’s not a deal-breaker. I remember Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood fixing a lot of gameplay problems I had with the original title, and I suspect those changes actually started here. Looks like the side missions mostly consist of beating up faithless husbands/boyfriends, racing thieves across rooftops, and killing targets for money, and then there’s the collectibles: hundreds of treasure chests, eagle feathers, semi-mystical glyphs, and statuettes hidden throughout the world. The fact that some of these collectibles appear on the mini-map (after you buy a treasure map) is truly all I needed.

There’s still some open-world jank and lousy platforming to wrangle with, but that’s kind of the same ol’ baggage every Assassin’s Creed carries with it, and the good generally outweighs the bad. However, I do not like trying to climb a building only to accidentally cause Ezio to leap from a window off to the street below and his synchronization death. It’s happened a few times. The combat is not as refined or fluid as Brotherhood‘s was, but still enjoyable to counter a soldier’s sword swipe and knee them in the gut. I’m still early into the adventure, so I don’t have any other fun combat tools at my disposal, but hopefully Leonardo da Vinci can help freshen up the fights.

People are all up in arms over Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare‘s “Press X to pay respects” prompt, but maybe many have forgotten how, early on here, you press buttons to make baby Ezio move his limbs. I’ve also run into a few strange QTE-like moments in Assassin’s Creed II that leave me feeling very uninspired. Every now and then, during a cutscene, there’s a button prompt to do something, like show off your newly acquired hidden blade, but these button prompts are on the screen for less than a second. Generally, I put the controller down during a cutscene, not expecting to be asked to remain involved, and so I’ve missed every single one of these moments. Even when I suspected one might be incoming, I still missed it, being too slow and distracted by my kitty cat. I don’t know, they are strange additions.

I wonder if Assassin’s Creed II will sustain my open-world, rooftop-running itch for a while or if I’ll need to acquire another title down the line. If so, I think everyone likes Black Flag the most currently. Until then, may no one see you stab someone in the neck.