Monthly Archives: September 2015

2015 Game Review Haiku, #46 – What in the World?

2015 gd games completed what-in-the-world

Study the picture
Guess what it is, or just look
Up answers online

From 2012 all through 2013, I wrote little haikus here at Grinding Down about every game I beat or completed, totaling 104 in the end. I took a break from this format last year in an attempt to get more artsy, only to realize that I missed doing it dearly. So, we’re back. Or rather, I am. Hope you enjoy my continued take on videogame-inspired Japanese poetry in three phases of 5, 7, and 5, respectively.

Sound Shapes begs you to relax against it

gd impressions sound shapes blasteriods level

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been chiseling away at Sound Shapes. Its campaign is not extremely long, consisting of 20 levels spread across a handful of themed worlds, dubbed “albums” here, that can be completed rather quickly if one just kept at it. That said, I was in no rush, and I didn’t actually want the levels to end, as I found myself shuffling over to the game in times of stress and panic, when I need a moment to calm my nerves or just forget about the drama of the world. Not every level helps in this fashion, but the majority of this rhythm-driven platformer forces the player to relax, to lose themselves in drum-beats and cartoonish side-scrolling goodness.

For those that know, I did the albums in order, level by level, every few days or so, finishing up with the one featuring music from Beck. Yup, that loser, baby. His first track level is amazing, and I found myself knocked back by how good it was, fusing platforming with both music and vocals, creating yet a still dangerous environment to roll and jump around in. The same can be said of the previous albums too, though they all feel different, and not just because of the visual style or drum beats, but some levels are more about timing-specific jumping while others have you avoiding rockets or enemies. A handful of earlier levels are happy to let you stroll through with no obstacles, and they are just as enjoyable. Before I discovered Beck’s album levels, I was madly in love with the album designed by Capybara Games, featuring music from Jim Guthrie. Y’know, the folks behind the fantastically moody and unnerving Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP.

Sound Shapes, from what I can tell, is twofold: basically, the straightforward campaign, and a level creator. Once you complete the game’s campaign, two other modes unlock, which play heavily into unlocking the majority of Trophies. That said, the “death mode” levels are extremely challenging, like late-game Super Meat Boy-esque, seeing as it took me upwards of thirty tries to beat the first take on this theme. I don’t know how many others I’ll go after, but I will try out “beat school” at some point, though I kind of feel like I got my fill of Sound Shapes. It sated, if you will.

Sound Shapes‘ gameplay is fairly straightforward. After all, this is a side-scrolling platformer, a genre that will never not be strong, where you can move your little eyeball critter and stick it to surfaces to climb or descend through the level. Each stage is packed with collectible circles that add musical components to the background soundtrack, such as an additional guitar lick or hi-hat tap. As you collect more, the level’s soundtrack evolves. Your goal is to get to the end and jump through the magical boombox. It’s pretty linear, but that doesn’t mean it is less magical as you watch a level’s geography twist and turn with the tunes, funneling you one way through its audio-video journey.

Unlike Super Mario Maker, which I have and have been tooling around with over the last week and will eventually do a post on, I have no interest in making levels for Sound Shapes. Zip, nada, none. Or playing others’ levels, if that is something you can do. I’m not sure, as I didn’t even dip into the level creator menu to find out. I’m not really sure why, but some games simply don’t entice me in the same way that Super Mario Maker has, or, if they do, they are a bit too complicated to figure out, like LittleBigPlanet 2 or any of the LEGO games. I’m sure there’s a ton of cool stuff being made–or was made–for Sound Shapes, as one can already tell from its mishmash of a campaign in terms of style and substance, but those twenty-some levels were all I needed. Truly, if I want more, I’ll just replay them.

Look, if you like music and games, you should play Sound Shapes. If you love music and games, boy oh boy, you should play Sound Shapes. If you’re a big fan of simplistic, forgiving platformer, at least until you clear the campaign, you should play Sound Shapes. That’s as best as I can sell it. I’m off now to listen to those three Beck tracks on loop, just because.

2015 Game Review Haiku, #45 – Sound Shapes

2015 gd games completed sound shapes original

Musical platforms
Create, absorb every beat
Move a little, ahhhh

From 2012 all through 2013, I wrote little haikus here at Grinding Down about every game I beat or completed, totaling 104 in the end. I took a break from this format last year in an attempt to get more artsy, only to realize that I missed doing it dearly. So, we’re back. Or rather, I am. Hope you enjoy my continued take on videogame-inspired Japanese poetry in three phases of 5, 7, and 5, respectively.

2015 Game Review Haiku, #44 – The Stanley Parable

2015 gd games completed stanley parable

You play as Stanley
So alone at work, in life
Find all his endings

From 2012 all through 2013, I wrote little haikus here at Grinding Down about every game I beat or completed, totaling 104 in the end. I took a break from this format last year in an attempt to get more artsy, only to realize that I missed doing it dearly. So, we’re back. Or rather, I am. Hope you enjoy my continued take on videogame-inspired Japanese poetry in three phases of 5, 7, and 5, respectively.

CounterSpy-ing has always gone on since ancient times

gd impressions counterspy screenshot1

Well, I could only resist for so long. CounterSpy, thanks to its stylish look and sneaky-sneaky gameplay, has been calling out to me every time I scroll by it on my list of PlayStation 3 games, having downloaded it as a PlayStation Plus freebie back in March 2015. It’s just one of many stealth games in my collection I’m thirsty to drink, and while it wasn’t a very tall glass in the end, I still found the act of undermining both sides of an alternate Cold War era to be refreshing. Plus, I’ll never tire of tranquilizing dudes, watching a fellow soldier come over to investigate their sleeping buddy, and then tranquilizing them. I still think fondly back to that time I stuffed about eight or nine sleeping soldiers in a vent in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

CounterSpy ends up combining spy mythology with the colorful, striking aesthetics of the 1950s and 1960s, a time period for art that I will never not find fascinating. As previously mentioned, it’s set during the Cold War, though not exactly the one we experienced on this planet. You control an agent of C.O.U.N.T.E.R., a rogue agency that keeps–or at least attempts to–the world’s superpowers in peace. As each side of the ongoing conflict inches its way closer to seeing who can blow up the moon first, which seems like a terrible idea regardless of who does it, C.O.U.N.T.E.R. gets to work sabotaging their plans and maintaining peace.

You do this by sneaking around a left-to-right scrolling level, either for the Socialists or the Imperialists, depending on who is the current greater risk, and stealing launch plans, gathering intel, taking out soldiers, and so on. The levels themselves are randomly generated, though by the end of the game you begin, much like in Spelunky, to learn how several chunks fit together with one another. I always knew where the developers were trying to hide an accessible vent behind foreground elements. As you gather enough plans, you’ll learn about rocket launch codes and flight plans, knowing enough to intervene and stop those death-carrying rockets from lifting off–but the last level plays out in the same fashion as the previous levels, with only more soldiers to deal with; it was the most challenging part of my playthrough, but it only took another try to set the world’s superpowers straight.

As you play CounterSpy and do your counterspying thing, you’ll gather blueprints for both weapons and formulas, which act like purchasable perks before each mission. During my first playthrough, I only unlocked two formula, one which lessened the amount of damage to my agent and another that instantly lowered the threat level by a single amount, and I used these two each and every time, no matter how poor I was. For guns, I always carried a lethal rifle for when things went topsy-turvy, but mostly stuck with the silenced pistol and sleep tranquilizer gun, always trying for the quietest of approaches. That said, when things go bad–and they can go bad fast–I wasn’t afraid to unleash real bullets. It’s here often that you’ll wish the agent moved with more fluidity, that he could actually jump or that aiming on a 2.5D background was easier. There’s a lot of talk right now about how escaping heated moments of discovery in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is more fun than anything else, and that’s not the same case with CounterSpy.

Visually, CounterSpy is a delight, and it shows that indie studio Dynamighty is founded by LucasArts and Pixar veterans. I see a lot of The Incredibles‘ influence here with the bold colors and larger-than-life propaganda, but I wish the writing between missions was either super serious or entirely goofy; as it stands, it’s both, which can be confusing when you are talking about blowing up Earth’s moon. Plus, and this is a terribly small issue to bring up, but there’s an inconsistent use of a period at the end of C.O.U.N.T.E.R., which drives me batty. Regardless, it’s not really the story that shines here, but seeing how far you can get through a highly patrolled base before getting spotted.

One could probably get through CounterSpy in a single sitting, but I liked to space it out over a few nights. Undermine the Imperialists, then take a break and see what the Socialists are up to. Get some new weapons and read a few dossiers while enjoying a cup of java. Either way, I’ve started a new campaign on the next higher difficulty and am not finding it as fun to slog through once more. I might continue on to get a few more Trophies before diffusing this operation entirely from my list of need-to-play-soon games.

Hitting reset repeatedly in Skipping Stones to Lonely Homes

stones

Once, when I was younger and spending the early hours of the morning crabbing off a pier overlooking the Atlantic Ocean with my father, I took a walk while the traps soaked, found a small, isolated cut of shore, and started skipping stones. At first, I was rubbish, getting only two skips or ker-plunking the rock on the first toss, but after enough practice and searching for the smoothest, most flat rocks this side of New Jersey, I was hitting bounce streaks of five or more. Which, if you didn’t know, is extremely satisfying. There’s something magical about seeing such a heavy thing dance across the water like it’s flying with the wind before it loses steam and descends into the watery unknown.

Skipping Stones to Lonely Homes is not actually a stone-skipping simulator, though somebody out there should totally make that game. Actually, I think there was one mini-game in Wii Sports Resort that had you side-slicing rocks (or discs?) across a lake or through rings for points, but even with the updated Wii MotionPlus controller it was still tricky, and I had to constantly remind myself to not let go of the controller when performing the throwing motion. Instead, Alan Hazelden‘s on-the-surface simple puzzle game is about a sailor who has washed ashore and needs materials to fix his ship. In order to find these essentials, you’ll need to skip stones (or push rocks as I saw it) across the water to manipulate lily pads and reach other chunks of land. Sounds easy, but let me assure you it is not; I got no further than the fourth screen before my brain hurt.

Skipping Stones to Lonely Homes did not magically appear out of thin air. Hazelden appears to be a rather prolific independent developer, and an earlier game of his called Mirror Isles looks nearly identical to his latest creation. Except there’s a hypnotic looping soundtrack and has you swapping places with a second character via teleporting mirrors to maneuver around the various islands. It seems just as deceptively difficult. The minimalist graphics vibe is fine, as it is really the puzzles that stand out as the things to pay attention to. You can hit “Z” to undo your last step or “R” to reset to the last checkpoint, and I hit these keys a great number of times.

Give it a go. Maybe you’ll get farther then the fourth screen. Perhaps the fifth screen is the last and where all the ship materials are, or maybe it just gets more punishing from there. At the very least, open Skipping Stones to Lonely Homes in your browser and tab away to do whatever it is you actually do during your time in front of the computer, that way you can work, but listen to the soothing, calming tones of ocean waves lapping at sandy shores. I’ve had it going the entire time I wrote this blog post.

2015 Game Review Haiku, #43 – CounterSpy

2015 games completed gd counterspy game

Infiltrate bases
Both sides of Cold War, stop plans
To blow up the Moon

From 2012 all through 2013, I wrote little haikus here at Grinding Down about every game I beat or completed, totaling 104 in the end. I took a break from this format last year in an attempt to get more artsy, only to realize that I missed doing it dearly. So, we’re back. Or rather, I am. Hope you enjoy my continued take on videogame-inspired Japanese poetry in three phases of 5, 7, and 5, respectively.

Alas, a JRPG is still a JRPG in Like Clockwork

like clockwork final impressions gd ArXigN

Look, I’m well aware of the numerous shortcomings when it comes to Japanese role-playing games. If for some reason you don’t know about any of them, allow me to recommend The Grand List of Console Roleplaying Game Clichés, which does not specifically target Japanese-only RPGS, but many of the elements on the list do overlap. Also, if you ever want to lose yourself in the Internet for a couple hours, check out the trope pages simply for Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire, or Final Fantasy VII. You’re welcome, and I’m sorry.

Like Clockwork is a comedy RPG that likes to take these well-known tropes, bash them in the face repeatedly, wave them around victoriously for all to see, and then do things differently. It opens with the Sleepyhead Rule, wherein the main character is awoken by his mother to start his quest. However, he is quickly killed in a freak accident involving a police car, resulting in his female companion taking up the flag to finish the hero’s quest. Yup, instead of playing as the brooding, sulking introvert that everyone loves and champions because whatever, you instead play as a young woman who happened to be in the right place at the right time. And she wears actual battle armor, not a metal bikini. This is just the start of spinning those known tropes on their heads.

Made for Fuck this Jam 2014 by John Roberts and created in RPGMaker, which also birthed such interesting things like Starbot and The Stoneville Mystery, Like Clockwork looks exactly as you imagined it might, compiled of a number of recognizable sprites and shapes. To the point that uncommon elements, like a cop car or massively large troll, look instantly out of place. Either way, it’s a bright, colorful RPG world spread across a handful of screens, though more time was obviously spent on the opening town area than anywhere else. Similar to other games created in RPGMaker, you can access a pause menu for stats, skills, and other things that might not even matter, though it does make more sense in this type of environment.

As you go through the early motions of Like Clockwork, your cop car companion Tam McGleish, a rather angry Scottish Detective Inspector, will complain with every breath he takes about JRPG trope after trope, calling them out right on the spot. Eventually, he even breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the developer–and, on one occasion, cause him physical harm–in order to see things change for the better. Like when the random encounters become too much. Also, in good ol’ silly fashion, the main heroine passes out when having to make a moral choice, as if the decision is too much to handle for her frail frame. There are several other fun moments to discover that I will spill now.

All that said, it’s still a JRPG, just one that points out all the annoying bits. You must go through the annoying bits, at least once, for them to get taken away and changed into something more streamlined, modern. I found Like Clockwork to be lightly amusing, though I guess I’m not used to reading the c-word so many times, as it’s been a bit since I reread my A Song of Ice and Fire books. In actuality, I would’ve liked to play more, to get into a few more battles and level up my party, but that’s not the point here–it’s not a full game, just a snapshot of the tiresome elements of the genre. A riff. It works fine enough, but now I want to load up my years-old save data for Eternal Sonata and get my true JRPG-ing on.

2015 Game Review Haiku, #42 – Like Clockwork

2015 games completed gd like clockwork

Don’t be the hero
You start as, twist this genre
Fear the angry Scot

From 2012 all through 2013, I wrote little haikus here at Grinding Down about every game I beat or completed, totaling 104 in the end. I took a break from this format last year in an attempt to get more artsy, only to realize that I missed doing it dearly. So, we’re back. Or rather, I am. Hope you enjoy my continued take on videogame-inspired Japanese poetry in three phases of 5, 7, and 5, respectively.

Second-guessing all my choices in The Novelist

gd impressions the novelist screen2

I myself am not a novelist, though I’ve taken a stab at completing several books, one of which still lingers in the back of my mind as something decent or, at the very least, worth finishing off. That said, I have had some short stories published over these past years of my capricious life–hey, check out “Opportune” in the Triangulation: Lost Voices anthology, being sold over at that Amazon dot com site–and do grok a bit of the internal struggles that come with balancing time with creativity and drive, in terms of producing something.

That’s what’s at the heart of The Novelist–balance. This 2013 game about life, family, and the choices we make comes from Kent Hudson and Orthogonal Games and packs quite a wallop. Maybe not for everyone, but certainly for me, an introvert who spends far too much time worrying about decisions, both past and those still to happen, and whether anything could have been or be different. I will most likely only ever play this game once, and so the decisions I made for the Kaplans are final and finite, never to play out differently. Let me set up the plot for y’all…well, at least how it starts.

The Kaplans are on vacation in an isolated house on the coast. Novelist Dan Kaplan hopes the time away will not only reconnect them all, but also defeat his crippling writer’s block, which is stopping progress on his next book. Dan’s wife Linda wants to work on their failing marriage, as well as develop a career as a painter. Their son Tommy is incredibly lonely here and desperate to gain his father’s attention. Also, the house is haunted, and you play as this spiritual incarnate, listening to the family’s thoughts and influencing the decisions the family makes over the course of the summer. More on that last bit…in a bit.

The Novelist has two styles of play: stealth or storytelling mode. I went with the former, since it seemed to add more to the gameplay, wherein you actually have to be careful not to make yourself known to the house’s inhabitants, otherwise you can’t read their thoughts and help influence them in a certain direction. As a ghost, you can travel–and safely hide–in lights, but you can also exit light fixtures to move around the home, and this is when you need to be aware of where Dan, Linda, and Tommy are at all times. If they see you, they’ll become suspicious, and if you can’t hide fast enough, they’ll eventually be spooked to the point of no return. Without this element, I feel like The Novelist would simply be an interactive story, which is not a deal-breaker at all, but trying to remain hidden at least adds some tension while searching the home for clues.

The Novelist is separated into chapters, and in each one, you must gather clues and listen to the family’s thoughts to learn about their lives and true desires. Once you are ready, you must make a decision, which means selecting one person’s desire over the other two, which often leads to disappointment on their parts. If you found enough clues, you can make a single compromise, which means it’s only half disappointing and probably better than nothing. For one chapter, I forgot to make a compromise before whispering my ghostly choices into Dan’s ear as he slept, and I’ve felt horrible ever since–someone else could have at least be minutely happier, if not happy, and I funked it up.

Anyways, your decisions then affect the next chapter and how the characters feel and move on with their days. You’ll read letters and notes that give you a glimpse of the repercussions you’ve created, as well as feel like a sad sack of slop every time you spy one of Tommy’s crayon drawings. At night, after you found all the clues and selected your decision, you get to wander the house freely as everyone sleeps, coming across spiritual journal entries of people that once lived in the house; I found this to be the least interesting aspect of The Novelist, and it felt like a forced way to explain how the home became haunted by a spirit. All I was concerned about was the here and now, the current happenings.

Ultimately, from The Novelist I learned that I’m probably going to be a terrible parent. Many of Tommy’s issues, such as wanting to build a toy car or look for arrowheads in the woods, seemed trivial when compared to fixing Dan and Linda’s marriage or Dan making progress on his next novel, which, as an author, is his job and future income and security. So Tommy got left out for a lot of the game, except later when I did make his education a top priority for the family. Still, there were ups and downs across the whole summer, and while things turned out okay-ish for everyone involved, I still wonder if I could have done a better job of manipulating them towards happiness.

The Novelist will not blow anyone away with its visuals, but the writing and solid voice acting really help bring the Kaplans to life, in a way that makes their dreams and desires feel tangible–and thus more heartbreaking when you steer them off the path. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in choice, as this is basically those big moments in Mass Effect and Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but from beginning to end, and much more mundane. It’s all the more believable despite the magic whispering ghost zipping from lamp to lamp and hiding in bathrooms, which never seemed to get visited, to not get spotted.