Category Archives: first impressions

Trying to thieve as a master thief in Thief

gd early impressions Thief xbox 360

The Xbox One recently rolled out its list of backwards-compatible games, and, no, Thief is not one of them. Not yet, at least. I’ll get to the connection shortly, I promise. I’m a big fan of this function, and it honestly was one of the attributes that resulted in me picking up this current-gen console over the other, despite all the hubbub around the possibility of PlayStation 2 emulation on the PlayStation 4. Anyways, with the fact that some of my Xbox 360 games are ready to be played on the newest console, this meant deletion and freeing up hard-drive space was imminent.

Once I deleted Just Cause 2 and moved my save game profile to the cloud–which is a technology that I’m still scared to trust–my Xbox 360 began downloading the next game in my queue, which turned out to be Square Enix’s Thief, released back in February 2014. It’s a stealthy game I’ve been eyeing for some time, though it was immediately strange and revealing going from sneaking around the Commonwealth in Fallout 4 to sneaking around the less-imaginative, ultra dark, Victorian-themed, plague-riddled City.

Here’s the story: master thief Garrett teams up with his former apprentice, Erin, on the same job from their contact Basso. It’s clear that Garrett and Erin differ on what it means to be a thief, with Erin happily murdering guards to ensure no one follows after them while Garrett would prefer to be less violent. Along the way, he steals her claw weapon. As they arrive at the Baron Northcrest’s manor, they discover some ritual taking place. Garrett calls off the job, but Erin refuses to listen, falling into the center of the ritual, which was nearing its completion, becoming engulfed by some mystical energy. Garrett is knocked out trying to save her, and only awakens from unconsciousness a year later.

It’s not a great story so far–I’m past the prologue and somewhere into the second chapter, after visiting a church–and a lot of that falls on Garrett’s cloak-covered shoulders. He comes across as a self-righteous do-gooder, stealing from the rich and keeping it for himself, but also always has a snarky one-liner to say for every situation, often to the point of mockery. I get the sense that he lacks empathy and could care less about what happened to his friend Erin, but we’ll see where things go. It’s hard to get a lot of story when your main character spends the majority of his time slinking around houses in the dark, half-listening to conversations through keyholes, not letting a single footstep be heard.

The focus of Thief is to use stealth in order to overcome a number of challenges, with violence often left as a last resort. I’m all about that. “The stealthier, the better” would make an excellent bumper sticker. Early on, I ran into the same problem that turned me off of Dishonored, in that once you are spotted, there is little chance of survival, which only makes me want to do perfect stealth runs, with no room for error. That said, I don’t think Thief plays or looks all that great; it’s sluggish and murky, with nothing distinctive-looking about it. So far, the coolest move, in my mind, Garrett can do is distinguish candles to darken a room, and I’m eagerly awaiting popping an Achievement somehow related to doing this.

Heads up: there’s also a lot of pressing X. You hit this button to pick up loot, of which there’s a ton. I think there was over 70 pieces to grab in the first chapter alone, and this loot translate into money, which you can later then spend on skill tree upgrades, weapons, and miscellaneous items. however, when it comes to desks and drawers, plan to press X a bunch and be disappointed when you find nothing. Also, I think I had a similar gripe with Batman: Arkham Asylum, but mashing a button to open a window or grate is beyond tedious, there only to pad out what little gameplay already exists.

I’d really like to see Thief become backwards-compatible on the Xbox One, but not because it is some much treasured entry in the series and fans are eagerly looking to play it right now. It’s more out of laziness. The further forward I go with my new current console, the less interested I am in switching on the 360, changing inputs on my TV, and plugging a controller into the system. Yes, I’m the same dude who is still working away at Final Fantasy IX, a PlayStation 1 RPG of old on my still-kicking PlayStation 2, but that’s on a different television in my bedroom. Okay, I have to get back now to looting dead bodies and hanging cat portraits on my settlement’s structures…oh wait, wrong game.

This Dragon Quest also requires keys to open doors

dragon quest armor games impressions capture

All right, a slice of honesty here: I didn’t play Dragon Quest the other day in what one might consider…a legal manner. I gave it a fair shake through browser-based emulation that I will not link to here. That said, while performing a Google search for this possibility, I stumbled across another game called Dragon Quest, playable over at the Armor Games website. Here, I’ll happily link to it. To me, it is a big and bold move to name your game the same title as that of a beloved franchise some nearly 30 years in the making. Either it’s a quick grab for knowledgeable gamers’ attention–hey, it worked on me–or there’s a specific and unchangeable detail to the plot that requires such titling.

Here’s the gist: in this Dragon Quest, one must explore a deadly castle on a mission to get back a stolen best friend who was kidnapped by a dragon. I mean, if that stolen friend was named Princess Gwaelin and change the dragon to the Dragonlord, then we’re one in the same with that other mega-popular Dragon Quest. Still, this isn’t an RPG where you have to select the stairs menu option to go up or down staircases, but both titles do have a fixation on finding keys to open locked doors. In fact, that’s the only way you’ll save your stolen friend here, as well as dodge that dragon’s attacks in three separate boss battles.

I’m going to use quotation marks to highlight the descriptive text the creator of this Dragon Quest wrote when describing his or her creation. Basically, there are over 20 levels of “insane physics puzzles” that you need to solve using the “twitch reflexes of a platforming game.” I take issue with both of these claims. Insane is a descriptor better saved for puzzles like late-game Portal or Fez or Silent Hill‘s poetry riddles, not figuring out how to smush the skeleton to get a key to pop out; there’s only one way to do it in each level, and the solution is visually telegraphed based on whatever new elements are added each time. As for the twitch reflexes, you move no faster than Mario without the run button, with none of the momentum. You can jump and change direction in midair, which helps once or twice, but otherwise there is no need to keep your finger hovering over the keyboard for the swiftest of key presses.

For a soldier decked out in shiny armor and wielding a sword, the hero of Dragon Quest is quite the pacifist. He never directly kills a skeleton with his blade, often using the environment around him and the skeletons’ dim wits to do away with them. You use the sword to hit switches or cut ropes mainly. When it comes to battling the dragon, which you do thrice, the soldier must avoid the dragon’s fireballs and attacks, using them against him to deal damage. I’m not here to say I need man on dragon violence to satisfy me and my dark desires, but thought it was an unusual observation nonetheless. I wonder if it was a conscious choice or something that happened due to the nature of the puzzle mechanics.

In the end, Dragon Quest is a mediocre way to kill fifteen minutes and mildly flex your brain muscles, but it probably should’ve been called something more like Door Key Quest or The Mighty Quest to Smush All Skeletons. Here’s hoping that the next time I’m talking about Dragon Quest on this blog of mine, it’s related more to that Enix joint, even if I have to admit to being killed again and again by red slimes. I’m okay with violence against them.

Cthulhu Saves the World with an old-school parody RPG

Cthulhu saves the world screen gd impressions

A copy of Cthulhu Saves the World and Breath of Death VII: The Beginning have sat untouched, uninstalled in a folder on my laptop’s desktop, for a good long while now. I mean, the former came out in July 2011, and I guess I ended up getting a copy of it through some bundle promotion that I can no longer recall, but all I did was download it, not ever sure when it would be a good time to kickstart an old-school RPG adventure. Turns out, any time is good, and so I’ve been tinkering away at this pixelated 2D journey through labyrinthine dungeons brimming with treasure chests, a limited number of random encounters, and the moodiest soundtrack, with hard swings from cult-like chamber songs to a peppy, relaxing tune when exploring a village.

Now, technically, the game’s name on the title screen is as follows: Cthulhu Saves the World: Super Hyper Enhanced Championship Edition Alpha Diamond DX Plus Alpha FES HD – Premium Enhanced Game of the Year Collector’s Edition (without Avatars!). Oh boy. Quite a mouthful. We’ll just stick with the abbreviated title to save precious space, plus I have no idea how one even goes about abbreviating such a thing.

So, what’s the deal in Cthulhu Saves the World? Why would the lord of insanity want to save the world? Well, truthfully, Cthulhu was all set to plunge the world into madness and destruction, but his powers were suddenly sealed away by a mysterious sorcerer. Alas, the only way for Cthulhu to break the curse is to become…a true hero. Sometimes to save something, you have to destroy it at the same time. Everyone loves a good anti-hero in these days of Breaking Bad‘s Walter White and just about everyone from Game of Thrones.

I’d like to tell you that, as a writer, I’ve long delved into the works and demented mindset of H.P. Lovecraft, but the truth is, I really only became aware of the material due to the Munchkin Cthulhu card game from Steve Jackson Games many years ago. Still, I understand it on a surface level, and the game here seems to only demand you understand that Cthulhu is a monster forced to take on a heroic quest. At least so far. I haven’t really come across other cosmic entities yet.

Cthulhu Saves the World is a throwback to traditional 16-bit RPGs of yesterday, like Phantasy Star and Final Fantasy. You wander around towns full of houses and shops, buy potions, armor, and new weapons, and then traverse across an overworld to your next destination. That said, the battle system is a bit more unique here than your standard turn-based form, and this is what makes both playing the game and grinding for higher levels enjoyable. To start, enemies become 10% stronger for every turn they live through, feeding off of Cthulhu’s madness. This means you want to kill them as quickly as possible, as you’ll also regain more magic points the sooner the battle ends.

Here’s one of my favorite elements of Cthulhu Saves the World: random encounters are limited. When you arrive at a new zone, you can pop over to your status menu and see how many random encounters you will have to endure before they just stop popping up altogether. Praise the Great Old One! This means you can only grind for so long, though you can also start a battle if you want via a menu command. It’s both a nice and strange feeling to wipe an area clear of random fights, which makes going back for missed treasure chests less of a pain. When you level up, you have the option to pick between multiple spells or upgrades, and I’m focusing so far on Cthulhu doing big damage and Umi handling healing and attacking all enemies at once with her Flood spell.

I’m not terribly far into Cthulhu Saves the World, somewhere in Chapter 2, with both characters in my party–Cthulhu and Umi–at level 10. Like I mentioned at the top of this post, it’s a game I’ve been tinkering with over the last few months, playing it in short spouts, but always making progress. Its humor and engaging turn-based battles make it a joy to play, and, as always with old-school RPGs, I’m eager to see the next town and purchase better gear. That’s how you know you are getting somewhere, when a shop has more expensive items.

It is only through Motocross Madness that the soul is revealed

motocross madness early impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hatty Hattington is working for the cats in BattleBlock Theater

BattleBlock-Theater-1 early impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

puzzle agent first impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

koan capture

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

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

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

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

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