Category Archives: review

An outlandishly intriguing echo of Legendary Gary’s life

For many, videogames are not just a way to kill the hours, a delightful form of digital entertainment, but rather pure escapism. They are a doorway to elsewhere. I know that when I was going through my divorce a few years ago I leaped at the chance to lose myself in some other world than this, to worry instead about equipment, side quests, and skill points versus dividing up household items and signing papers full of legalese. I’m not ashamed to name some of them either, such as Remember Me, Transistor, Fantasy Life, and, uh, Disney Magical World. Sometimes avoidance is the easier path, though usually not the best one in retrospect.

Legendary Gary, made by Evan Rogers, who previously worked as a programmer on What Remains of Edith Finch and The Last of Us, is a literal take on escapism. It’s about a young man named Gary who lives in his mother’s basement and would never be described as legendary by those around him. He’s been recently fired from his job at the local supermarket, and he’s struggling to find motivation to do anything responsible-like. Thankfully, there’s Legend of the Spear, a turn-based strategy RPG that he can play on his computer, day and night. to keep adult-ing at bay. This game within the game stars Winkali, a heroic warrior who somewhat physically resembles our leading lad and must save his kingdom after his King mysteriously disappears during an attack. Eventually, Gary’s personal life and Winkali’s quest begin to share some similarities, and the line dividing them weakens, to the point where even Gary himself is questioning everything around him.

Gameplay in Legendary Gary is divided up into two beats. For normal, everyday slacker Gary, you’ll walk around small areas like his mom’s house and workplace, talk to friends, family, and co-workers, and tend to the garden, which basically involves planting some seeds and ensuring all the flowers are watered once a day. At first, I was worried I’d be falling deep into another farming-like simulator, but that was not the case; so long as the flowers are healthy and wet, you’ll gain extra abilities during fights. There’s also a “motivation” meter to be aware of, affected by Gary’s relationships and decisions and whether or not he gets a good night’s sleep, and this determines some dialogue choice options, but it never seemed to go further than that, so don’t get too upset as it climbs and dips as the story moves forward.

In Legend of the Spear, it’s all about the combat, with a couple of name-guessing puzzles to boot. Battles are predetermined and limited in number, taking place on a small hexagonal grid. Both the heroes and enemies attack in a turn-based fashion, except the wrinkle here is that everyone is technically moving on the same turn simultaneously. You kind of need to see it in action to grok it. This type of combat requires a different type of strategy and takes a few attempts before everything really begins clicking, but thankfully there are some helpful tools readily available from the start to get you up to speed. For instance, you can preview every single turn to see what your enemies are planning to do, determining your actions based on this bit of future sight. You can also rewind turns if things go sour quickly, and they will because if one character in your team dies, it’s over. If you’re successful, you’ll get to see an entire uncut replay of the fight, and it’s like watching a young child’s interpretation of a theatrical song and dance about good versus evil, sped up slightly.

So, the combat is probably the big seller for the game, the thing that makes this a narrative-driven RPG, and I found it initially underwhelming. However, with each fight, I felt like I was getting better and beginning to master how to move everyone around the field, conserving SP and using everyone’s abilities smartly. Your party, at most, is made up of three team members, but you’ll also have some solo fights to deal with. Still, some fights were absolutely brutal, like the one against Sintravos, which took me 70+ turns to see conclude. In retrospect, there were some abilities I never even used, and I found myself sticking to the same-old patterns and tricks to get the job done, such as having Winkali winding up for a stronger punch on the next turn. I initially assumed there would be grinding involved and leveling up via experience points, but each fight has been designed to teach and test you appropriately. In reality, they are more like combat puzzles.

Perhaps my favorite element of Legendary Gary is its soundtrack. It’s weird and weirdly mesmerizing. All the music is done by xXsickXx, and there’s a tribal, electronic pop tint to it all, like something you might imagine was born and bred in the 1980s, in a jungle, with a fever. Sometimes the disconnect between the songs and what is happening in the game is super strong–mostly because the soundtrack only veers its strange head during fights–but it never took me out of the experience completely. Also, you might be surprised to hear someone singing in a couple songs, as most soundtracks for games are instrumental only, but it does become an integral plot piece later in the game. The artwork in Legendary Gary is just as striking, reminding me of an illegal fusion of Squidbillies, Disney’s Pocahontas, and that 1982 Franco-Hungarian animated science fiction classic Time Masters, and it’s extra neat to see how people in Gary’s real life appear in Legend of the Spear. There’s a simplicity to the style and animations with bright, flat colors, but it works well and helps create a unified world.

Despite all that, I still had some issues with Legendary Gary. The Augur egg puzzles, which basically require you to input a specific name, are at first unclear and ultimately not fun to do because you have to click left or right a bunch of times to find the correct letter, and it just slows everything down to a snail-like crawl. I’d have preferred using my keyboard to type in the specific name; I’m a fast typer. Pathfinding is problematic too, especially in the supermarket. Gary’s friend Dave is a sour note, relying on way too many jokes about having sex with Gary’s mom who you come to realize is degrading in mental health, and his gross humor just didn’t sit well with me. Lastly, and this is a big point for me, considering my day job is editing the heck of out other people’s grammar, there were several spelling mistakes throughout Gary’s journey, such as using “effected” instead of “affected” and “weilding” instead of “wielding”, and each instance of these broke my copy-editing heart.

In the end, I wanted more from Legendary Gary. I really enjoyed its look and sounds and felt ready by its credits to take on some even tougher battles, but by then it was over, and the story was told. Still, if you enjoy turn-based combat and want something a bit different than the standard stuff, along with a soundtrack that will have you bobbin’ your head from the very first beat, give this a try. It’s available on Steam.

A copy of Legendary Gary was provided to me by Evan Rogers for review. It took me about four to five hours to complete over a couple of sittings. At one point, during a battle, I closed my eyes and drifted away on a gloriously fluffy soundtrack cloud, returning several minutes later to, y’know, play the game proper. I don’t know if I grew every flower in the garden, and I’m still pretty upset about Gary’s mom, who reminded me way too much of Ellen Burstyn’s character from Requiem for a Dream. Anyways, pay them bills.

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In Even the Ocean, an unassuming power plant technician rises up

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Even the Ocean has a lot to say. Sometimes the game says it out loud, other times it’s in the silence, the awkwardness, the looming dread. To be honest, it wasn’t everything I thought it would be, but in 2016, in this age of Internet spoilbreathers and big budget over-promoting with trailers every odd week, that’s a welcomed surprised. For starters, I entered Even the Ocean‘s beautiful if troubled world without having touched Anodyne, the previous independent videogame from Sean Han-Tani-Chen-Hogan and Joni Kittaka, also known as Analgesic Productions. Seems like I’ll need to work backwards for now.

The easy, one-two punch is that Even the Ocean is a heavy on the narrative, puzzle platformer about balance, about balancing. Not just the light and dark energies that hold the world together and keep Aliph, our unassuming power plant technician of a protagonist, alive, but also the balance of work and free time, of not overdoing it, of dreams and demands. Basically, Whiteforge City goes from good to bad after a routine maintenance trip to a local power plant takes a wrong turn, leaving Aliph in a position to show what she can do. Mainly, maneuvering safely through dangerous puzzles and solving those light-bouncing conundrums we’re all familiar with after things like Beyond Good and Evil and every Professor Layton title. With Mayor Biggs backing her, she’ll travel the continent, moving from power plant to plant and elsewhere, to save the city she now calls home from total destruction.

Gameplay is structurally straightforward, possibly on purpose, a mix of puzzles, platforming, and chatting. Mayor Biggs will assign a number of downed power plants to Aliph to investigate, and then you can pick which one she’ll tackle first. Each plant (or location) is more or less a puzzle maze, with learning how to navigate rooms blocking your progress. These places have their own theme and teach you, the player, something new about Aliph’s abilities, something vital. One area focuses hard on her maintaining the right balance of energy as she moves between energy-sapping blocks of color, another is all about timing jumps on moving platforms, and one will have you carrying items while avoiding heat-seeking enemies. I personally liked the puzzles involving using her shield the most. There are also non-platforming sections, like in Whiteforge City, which has you exploring different areas via menu selections and speaking with locals to learn more about the world and your place in it.

Let me explain more about the energy system since it is Even the Ocean‘s big draw. Aliph has a shield and bar of energy, represented at the bottom of the screen as chunks of blue and purple. The energy bar greatly affects her maximum running speed and jump height. When the energy slants one way too much, she’ll either jump higher and run slower or vice versa. Sometimes this is inevitable, and other times you’ll need to drop or increase to a certain amount for puzzle reasons. Discovering the when and where for this is a lot of fun and extremely rewarding, though a part of me had a hard time trying to constantly keep the bar sitting pretty at 50/50. If you go too far in one direction, the energy will consume Aliph, reloading you at the last checkpoint, of which, thankfully, there are many.

Even the Ocean is stylish as heck, both in its looks and sounds. The music is oftentimes soft, but moody, lingering behind every jump Aliph makes. It can get real pretty too, soothing, safe-sounding notes to provide comfort in dark times. I really liked a lot of the sound design too, from the noise the statue makes when saving your progress to Aliph pulling up her shield to even the simple pit-pit-pit of the dialogue boxes. The pixel art is…look, I love pixel art. I am never afraid to say pixel art is beautiful, is great, and Even the Ocean‘s art design is stellar. Commonplace locations, like a forest or beach, are enhanced with weird, unfamiliar flora. Many might see this whole thing as yet another 2D indie platformer with retro graphics, but it is more than that. The locations are unique and interesting, like Clearbreeze Island, home to a giant telepathic starfish. Also, every character portrait feels plucked from real life…though I have no way to prove that. Hmm, I wonder who Humus actually is.

Truth be told, not everything worked for me. I didn’t understand why there couldn’t be a single map or mini-map when traversing the overworld. Now, after exploring it fully, the world is not that big and it is impossible to get lost, but having to equip specific maps was a tad tedious to the point that I only relied on it for one puzzle-pertinent part. I also found the inclusion of an inventory misleading and unnecessary, as the number of items added to it over the adventure is slim, and it is as functional and as fun as reviewing your “key items” in any ol’ RPG. Y’know, the ones you can’t do anything with, but carry to the credits. Lastly, I was hoping to find more in the world, in the “dungeons”…some secrets or hidden doodads, but Even the Ocean isn’t about wasting time on inconsequential pick-ups to satisfy us collectible fanatics. At least you unlock some dev commentary buttons after completing the game to explore at your leisure.

At times, over my six hours with Even the Ocean, I was reminded strongly of other adventures, which shouldn’t be shocking. Everything is linked, in one way or another. As Aliph entered each new environment brimming with locked doors, unreachable floors, dangers, and offbeat characters, I thought of Knytt Underground. As Aliph jumped from wall to wall, shifting her energy balance to allow for extra speed, I thought of Super Meat Boy and Mega Man X. The game, at least on the normal playthrough setting, never becomes brutal or punishing, though a few puzzles did take a few tries until I learned the trick to making it through them alive, if leaning hard towards one color of energy. As Aliph took breaks after each plant to check in with Whiteforge City and her friend Yara, I thought of Persona 4 and schedules and the use of repetition. Of its story and conclusion, I couldn’t help but think of Shadow of the Colossus and The Last of Us, of our current political landscape and the hardships many face every day, of persevering against unlikely odds.

Here’s my suggestion: dip your toes into Even the Ocean. Wade in slowly, letting your skin become used to the temperature, to the ripples. When you are ready, comfortable enough, dive down. Submerge yourself. The flood is coming. Now it’s time to find out how well you can swim. Don’t worry–if the waves are too rough, too relentless, you can always play through it on Story Mode. In fact, I plan to do just that for my second go-around.

A review copy of the game was provided to me by Sean Han-Tani-Chen-Hogan and Joni Kittaka from Analgesic Productions LLC.

The Swapper believes strongly in a single soul inhabiting two bodies

the-swapper steam completed

This year has been many things. One of them has been me catching up on all the great titles that came out in 2013 and just whooshed past me due to my inability to keep up with modern gaming as it unfolds. At this point, I’ve now gotten to experience the exploratory coming-of-age walking simulator that is Gone Home, the somber journey of siblings in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, what it is like to kill both deer and humans with the same tone in Tomb Raider, quirky personality quizzes in Doki Doki Universe, removing and revisiting bad memories in Remember Me, and using clones unemotionally to make progress in The Swapper.

For some reason, I stopped playing The Swapper right before the last few puzzles and end sequence. My bad. I didn’t know how close I was to the end at the point, but I suspect I just got busy with some other games and planned to return to it later. Well, I have now, having finished it up over the weekend after getting the required 124 orbs to move on, much to my heart’s sadness, though probably to my brain’s happiness. My cups of coffee are also pleased with this news.

Anyways…man. What a game. For those that don’t remember what’s going on here, you control an astronaut with a mysterious gun-like device called the Swapper, which allows her to make clones and swap between them. You’ll use this device to solve puzzles, collect orbs, and make your way further through and discover what ultimately happened to the crew of Theseus, a space station in great distress after taking highly complex rock formations of unknown origin on board. Most of the story details surface in computer data logs, but you will eventually meet a character or two that speak, as well as a bunch of rocks with too much time on their minds.

Look, I’m not gonna lie. A few of The Swapper‘s puzzles nearly broke my brain. Generally, they involved platforms and being down one clone. I’d say I had to look up the solutions to five or six of them in total, but only after I banged my head against the wall for at least fifteen or twenty minutes. I tried, I really did. But I didn’t want one puzzle stopping all my progress in this gorgeous and deeply dark tale of identity, so some “cheating” had to occur. Otherwise, I figured out the rest on my own, and many of the puzzles are really satisfying to unravel. I also enjoyed how you have to use the Swapper device to sometimes navigate from room to room, just to get to the next puzzle. It’s quite exhilarating to hit a gravity switch and go zooming up to the ceiling, only to make a clone a second before you make contact and swap to them; also, pretty disturbing.

Evidently, there are Achievements for The Swapper, but none of them relate to the main path. In fact, after making my final choice (I swapped, for those that are curious) and watching the credits roll, I had to do some light Google research to make sure my copy wasn’t glitched or something. We’re so engrained this day and age to get some kind of pop-up when you do something cool or momentous, but that’s not the case here. Fine, fine. The Achievements are for finding secret, hidden consoles throughout the map that contain special messages; I discovered zero during my entire six or seven hours. Oh well.

But let’s end with this, because it’s really all I want anyone reading to take away from this post: y’all need to play The Swapper.

Telltale’s season 2 of The Walking Dead bites off a new adventure

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Despite there only being a couple days gap, it feels a little weird writing about a 2013 game in 2014, especially now that I’m doing comics for each one that I complete. Sorry, episode 1 of Telltale’s The Walking Dead; all you got was a stinky ol’ haiku. But I’m sure you’ll get at least four comics out of me this year, since I bought the season pass and am already hungry for more since the beginning of the second season, much like the appetizer that 400 Days turned out to be, doesn’t really satisfy one’s hunger, only starts to fill you up with characters and places and problems to be. Y’know, for down the line.

Some quick catch-up, and I’ll do my best to be as unspoilery as possible for those that have not yet experienced the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. But really now, shame on you. Just do it. I think the first episode is constantly being thrown out there for no cost, so snatch it up, love it, and burn through the remainder eps one after the other like I did, without having to wait months between story breaks. Anyways, by the very end of the Savannah storyline, Clementine is all by herself in the zombie-infested wild, eventually taking notice of two people in the distance. Flash-forward several months, and Clem is now travelling with Omid and a visibly pregnant Christa in search of…well, somewhere safe. We pick up as the three reach a gas station to scavenge for supplies and rest before getting back on the road.

Naturally, as things tend to do in zombie anything–films, books, TV shows, games–things quickly take a turn for the worse, but thanks to everything that Lee taught Clementine in the previous season–well, my Lee taught her, but your mileage may vary–she can mostly handle herself just fine. Alas, there’s a tragic encounter with a stray dog that really puts Clem in a dangerous spot, and a big portion of episode 1’s latter half is righting this error. Medically speaking, that is. She eventually becomes part of a new group, though they don’t trust her, and the best sequence has Clem sneaking into their safehouse to steal enough vital supplies to heal her own wounds, since the others are waiting for her to turn into a walking dead girl. This shows off just how brave and independent she’s become over the past several months, now a young woman of action and not hesitation. So far, there’s no real clear objective like season one’s “find a boat,” but I guess staying alive–and keeping those we like alive, too–is game enough for some, though I’d like to see Clem eventually have some kind of concrete plan.

Not much has changed in terms of how The Walking Dead plays from the previous episodes, and that’s fine. Always a mix of adventuring and stay alive moments, with enough of both to keep me satisfied. You still look around for items, talk to people and make choices, and explore confined locations for clues or bits that flesh out the story. I did notice that Clem now has an inventory sub-menu, where she can grab items to use on other items, making this a bit more like a point-and-click adventure game than it probably wanted to be at the beginning of its creation. Action scenes are still, more or less, dominated by quick time button prompts, but now with the added innovation of swiping left or right, using the analog stick on the controller, which leads me to think that some of these scenarios were designed with tablet and iPhone users in mind.

For “All That Remains,” there’s a couple of somewhat minor decisions to make along the way, as well as a number of unavoidable deaths. That’s right. Try as you all might, you can’t save that certain four-legged critter from its depressingly authentic conclusion. I only know this because Tara checked online. She had to. Come the very end of the episode, like it’s last two minutes, you do get to save someone’s life over another’s, and that decision will most certainly play a part in the events to come, but again, this is only the beginning, a nibble, and I’m hoping we get the second episode sometime early in February. Still also waiting for a connection, big or small, to 400 Days; that better not had been all for naught.

Not eliminating the memories of loss in Eternally Us

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Grief is natural; we’ve all experienced the emotional suffering one feels when something or someone truly cherished is taken away, and if for some reason you haven’t, bless your lucky, cold-as-steel soul. No, really. I hope you never have to feel the lingering twist of a broken heart, but I kind of doubt you’ll avoid it in one form or another. It’s dark subject matter, sure, but worth exploring just as much as any other adventure game plot based around escapism, making a name for yourself, and standing up against persecution.

Eternally Us is about grieving. I didn’t know this immediately going into it, but by the end, all is made explicitly clear. It’s self-described as a tale of love, life, and friendship. Created for the April 2010 MAGS competition by Infinite Grace Games, this somber story from Steven Poulton (writer, programmer, scorer) and Ben Chandler (designer, artist) starts innocently enough, with two young girls sitting on a park bench. Amber and Fio, short for Fionna, are feeding the pigeons, enjoying the nice weather as friends are wont to do. Alas, just as Fio is about to hit her childhood best friend with some very bad news, a magical door appears and opens, revealing some monstrous zombie-like being. And then, just like that…Fio is gone.

Amber now has to travel across five strikingly different locations in search of her stolen friend, solving puzzles and speaking her mind to any that will listen. The scenes are diverse, with one set in a dark, marshy swamp and another in the quiet snow and the final one in the middle of some tranquil, autumnal woods. Chandler’s colorful art makes each place highly expressive and detailed, with the supernatural mixing with the natural in a fairy tale way that had me immediately thinking of The Neverending Story. It’s amazing what adding glowing eyes can do to personalizing bark and branches, but it’s extremely effective here. There’s also a weather effect on top of the painted backgrounds in every scene, with my favorites being the rain and falling leaves. Small details, but they matter. They help you–and maybe even Amber too–forget that this place is not real, that you are traveling through portals and doorways, trapped in the otherworld, looking for someone you actually lost long ago.

Sound-wise, there’s falling rain and peaceful bird-chirping, as well as some surprisingly strong voice acting. Naturally, Amber is the one voice we hear the most, and her voice actress Miranda Gauvin does a fine job of playing someone that is unable to cope, that is begging for answers, but would also rather not hear them. The more inhuman characters dance the line between creepy and ridiculous, but again, I like them talkative trees. A soft, unobtrusive melody plays on a few of the scenes, too.

It’s a point-and-click game, and fairly limited in what you can actually do. The left mouse button lets Amber use items, and the right button examines things, which is the standard we’ve all come to know these days. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Two of a Kind. Found items immediately go to her inventory, which can be accessed by moving the mouse cursor to the top of the screen. Any items you find relate to that scene only and vanish when you move on to the next area, so if you get stuck, just keep trying every possible combination/tactic. I only ran into problems with the squirrel at the end, and that was more of technical issues than not understanding what I was supposed to do. I did not see a strong connection in some of the puzzles to what was happening in Amber’s mind, but maybe others will.

Eternally Us is ultimately a downer, but a fantastic way to fall. The puzzles are not terribly difficult and contained to a single scene to make things easier, but it’s the dialogue that you want to hear and the way Amber grows over the course of the short game. There’s also some cleverness afoot, such as how Amber “sinks” through the swamp to the depression area. Basically, you should play this short adventure game to put her and her friend at peace–and maybe find some solace yourself. It’s free and can be downloaded here.

2013 Game Review Haiku, #23 – Attack of the Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale

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Monsters, aliens
And kids with card games, a lost
Charming childhood

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

2013 Game Review Haiku, #22 – Mario VS. Donkey Kong

2013 games completed mario vs donkey kong

Collect the gold key
Save mini Mario toy
Give Donkey Kong his

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