October – A month of (mostly) survival horror

In the month of October, I decided to play a bunch of horror games: what better way to celebrate the spookiest month of the year, after all?  My mix included both games I’ve finished previously and a sizeable number of games I’ve never played before.  Since I got the chance to experience so many new games, I figured I would put together this blog detailing my thoughts on each to give other people a chance to learn about games they might not have ever heard of.  What follows is a “brief” summarization of each game and how I liked or disliked it. Sorry about the length!

 

CLOCK TOWER (PS1)

 

The “first” Clock Tower is actually the second for non-Japanese gamers, a sequel to the original SNES Clock Tower that never released outside its home country.  The main character of that game, Jennifer, returns a shaken person after her experiences with the terrifying Scissorman.  She is finally learn to cope with things when he appears again, cutting down victims left and right.  All the players in the story desperately try to understand what the Scissorman really is and how to stop him.  The story is simple and predictable but does enough to keep you going from stage to stage, learning the mystery of the Scissorman.  You can actually play as one of two characters, Jennifer or her guardian Helen, and each character has a very different path through the game with different levels.  The endings also differ, with a shocking five per character that are all surprisingly different.  It gives great incentive to go back and try for another.

 

Gameplay-wise, Clock Tower is also quite intriguing.  It most resembles an adventure game from the 90s, with controls and that work shockingly well on a gamepad and a well-designed UI.  You click to move your characters around, grab objects from the environment, or use things from your inventory.  When Scissorman starts his hunt, you can’t really fight him; your only options are to either hide or use an environmental object to stun him temporarily.  For this reason, there is a decent amount of tension from his sudden appearances, particularly when all you can hear are those clanging scissors of his.  In certain areas, where you don’t know the hiding spots yet, it can be quite intense to try and get away before he catches you.  I was extremely impressed with Scissorman’s effectiveness, although the few times he is portrayed as silly did hurt my impressions of him a bit.  All in all, I recommend this game highly–it still plays quite well for its age.

 

CLOCK TOWER 3 (PS2)

 

Clock Tower 3 features a complete tonal shift from its predecessor, although maybe not intentionally.  You play as Alyssa, a girl who just returned home after a long absence to find her mother missing, and must travel through time (I’m not shitting you) to learn the truth behind her disappearance.  You also find out later that Alyssa is a Rooder, essentially a “magical girl” who can fight the evil creatures that she encounters throughout time.  The story is pretty absurd, as you can probably tell, but the cutscenes are by far the weirdest part of the game.  They have this frantic energy to them, characters running about in a panic and bumping into each other/anything in the area, that feels just so damn ridiculously slapstick.  I could not take it seriously for this reason, laughing my ass off every time a cutscene played and the characters went berserk.  Furthermore, it has some very strange ideas of what makes a spooky character, including reimagining Scissorman as a pair of Oriental twins with bizarre accents, something I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen it for myself.  These scenes have to be seen to be believed.

 

Gameplay is quite different from the original as well.  It takes a heavy note from games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill with that third-person exploration style (minus the fixed camera angles).  You wander about, finding items that are used to solve puzzles or help you deal with enemies.  The chase elements of prior games also factor in here, forcing you to run and hide to avoid death.  I really like the idea here, with your health instead being represented by a panic meter that forces you into a blind run, tripping all over your feet and having a hard time getting away, if it depletes.  It feels a bit clunky in certain areas, particularly those where you don’t have enough room to get away and hide safely before the enemy gets you, but is still quite interesting.  There is a second part to the gameplay, however, and this is where things get really bad.  These are forced combat sections (already a no-no, in my mind) that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the genre.  You have a bow and are forced to charge shots that will snare your foe, allowing you to pepper him with further shots or eventually use a huge power shot.  These sections are tedious, lengthy, and frustrating–particularly the final boss fight.  For as much as I enjoyed the main gameplay portions, these fight sequences ruined the experience for me.  Not worth a play, but I advise you check out some of these ridiculous cutscenes for yourself–they are the “best” part of Clock Tower 3.

 

NEVERENDING NIGHTMARES (PC)

 

Neverending Nightmares was one of the two newer games I played for October (the other being Alien: Isolation, discussed below) and easily the most atmospheric.  The setup is extremely simple: you play a guy who keeps waking up from a nightmare, slowly sinking deeper and deeper into his psychosis.  The thing that Neverending Nightmares absolutely nails is the presentation.  The handdrawn artstyle is striking and unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, giving the whole thing a very eerie feeling right off the bat.  Combine that with some very unsettling imagery–including a few moments that had my stomach turning quite literally–and an ominous soundtrack that sets the mood and I could not play this game for more than 20-30 minutes at a time without wanting to rip my headphones off and turn on a light.  It’s a great experience to just sit back and let sink in, even though you may not actually want to let it do so.

 

Unfortunately, it really flounders in the gameplay department.  You spend the entirety of your time wandering about these creepy locales, trying to figure out the way forward.  There are some very light puzzles, like needing a candle to progress through a dark area or learning how to avoid certain enemies, but you mostly just tread forward for minutes on end.  Things do happen on a regular basis, creeping you out, but there was never enough happening in most of the sections to keep me from feeling at least a bit of tedium.  Add in a short length and some reused design (understandable but still annoying) and it can be a bit hard to recommend Neverending Nightmares for most people; it’s a fantastic realization of the developer’s nightmares, but it’s likely that the eeriness or the tedious design will get to you before you can finish it.

 

THE SUFFERING (PS2)

 

The Suffering was a huge surprise for me.  I had heard about it for years but never actually seen it for myself.  I knew it was revered when it came out in 2004, but I didn’t think it would hold up.  For the most part, I was right; however, in the atmosphere and design department, it is still an astoundingly good game.  You play as Torque, a man on death row for killing his ex-wife and children.  As soon as he arrives, things go insane and creatures begin killing everyone in sight.  These creatures are fantastically designed, reflecting the ways that they were executed in grotesque manners that reminded me instantly of Silent Hill design.  There’s a great sense of atmosphere here too, with eerie sound effects, clever jump scares, smart twists on classic horror cliches, and the (now played out, but still well-executed) idea that maybe this is all in the protagonist’s head.  If the rest of the game were as sharp as the story and creature design, I would have been hooked.

 

Unfortunately, the gameplay just didn’t hold up.  This was the first game of the month that I didn’t actually play through, stopping after just a few hours.  The gameplay is your typical third-person melee + shooter game from the era, complete with annoying level design, hunting for keys, and awful platforming.  After just a short time, I couldn’t stand actually playing it anymore, the design much too dated for my tastes.  It would have been a hell of a slog to make it through, likely requiring me to consult a FAQ to avoid losing my sanity–thematic for the game in question, but not practical or time well spent.  Since I had so many other games to play, I opted to stop and keep my initial strong opinion of it alive..  Give it a try if you think you can handle the old-fashioned gameplay; there’s a lot to like here, especially for fans of psychological horror.

 

SILENT HILL 4: THE ROOM (PS2)

 

This was the last Silent Hill game I hadn’t played to completion, so I made sure to include it on my list for this year.  What I found was a very interesting, if flawed, game that was hard to compare favorably to amazing classics like SH2 and Shattered Memories.  Big surprise, I’m sure.  You play as Henry Townshend, a man who has been trapped in his apartment for several days.  That all changes when a mysterious hole appears in his bathroom wall.  He crawls through it, hoping to escape, and finds himself trapped in strange alternate dimensions where his fellow captives keep dying.  He must solve the mystery in order to finally escape and return to his life.  I was rather underwhelmed with the story at first and thought it just got worse as it went.  Like Silent Hill 3 before it, it relies too much on trying to tell a story about an old serial killer and a ritual to end the world instead of focusing more on the nature of its characters, something that has never been the series’ strength.  There are some good moments, particularly when the game fucks with you in the assumed “safe” place of the apartment, but I thought it was quite rough overall.

 

The gameplay is much what you would expect if you’ve played other games in the series, particularly SH3 which this game is most like.  You wander around various creepy environments, fighting enemies and finding key items for puzzles, before fighting the boss for the area and returning to your apartment.  The only major changes come in the combat, which includes charged attacks for more damage and certain unkillable enemies that must be impaled with special swords to truly “kill;” otherwise, it is nearly identical to past games in the series.  As I noted briefly above, the apartment stuff is some of the most interesting stuff in the game, transitioning to first-person and slowly trying to mess with player expectations later on.  I never felt like it went far enough, but it was certainly a great twist that should be utilized in more horror games.  In the end, I’m glad I played it and filled out the rest of my SH knowledgebase, but I would much rather suggest/play another SH game over this one if given the choice.

 

PROJECT ZERO 2: WII EDITION

 

As a huge fan of the Fatal Frame series, I also wanted to poke around the games I hadn’t played there: the never-released-in-the-U.S. Wii version of FF2 and Fatal Frame 3 (which I talk about in greater detail below).  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Fatal Frame 2 (or Project Zero 2 in Europe), it features two twin Japanese girls who find themselves trapped in a haunted Japanese village.  In this village, twins were tasked with a certain horrible ritual (which I don’t want to spoil here) in order to appease an evil spirit.  One of these rituals went horribly wrong and forever changed the village, trapping anyone who wandered past its gates.  You play as one of the twins, Mio, as you try to save your sister Mayu and escape the village.  To this day, many people still hold this game as one of the scariest games they’ve ever played.  I personally don’t think the creepiness holds up, as I can easily play it now with no fear, but it still commits to its intense themes in a way that few horror games manage to do.  There’s plenty to find creepy here–spirit stones featuring fairly well done imitations of the fear and terror various people felt when they died, recounting of the horrible things that happened in the village’s past, a GREAT section that forces you to explore without your camera to fight back–but I guess I’m just too familiar with it now (having finished it three times) to be scared by it anymore.  Even the new visuals don’t do much to help in that regard.  If you haven’t played it, however, you should definitely give it a shot.

 

The poor thing about this version of Fatal Frame 2 is all the gameplay changes made for the Wii version, which I noticed easily having played the original directly before playing this.  I hate pretty much of all of these changes and had to stop playing after just an hour as a result.  Let’s note the big ones to show what I mean.  The map features objective markers and very clear pointers as to where you need to go, removing much of the exploration and freedom I enjoyed in the original version.  Picking up items requires you to hold now a button for a set period of time, during which time ghost hands may suddenly grab at you and force you to let go or take damage.  The dialogue is all re-recorded by British voice actors, which I just couldn’t take seriously in this context.  Admittedly, this won’t be something that bothers everyone.  Finally, and most egregious of all, are the AWFUL controls this version has.  Instead of using the Wiimote to just point a cursor around the screen for aiming, it instead uses tilt of the controller.  This feels extremely inaccurate and I could never get used to it, getting my ass BEAT by even early enemies like the Drowned Woman.  All of this comes together to make a version of Fatal Frame 2 that looks better but is inferior in every other way.  Considering that the original is available on PSN as a Classic for just $10, you have no excuse for playing this version.

 

RULE OF ROSE (PS2)

 

Rule of Rose is a fairly obscure PS2 horror release, likely due to the fact that it wouldn’t have even come out here if not for Atlus picking it up and publishing it after Sony declined to do so.  It is one of the rarer horror games of this era; as such, I didn’t know much about it and knew I had to play it.  Rule of Rose has an interesting storybook style, textually narrating bits of the story as if they have happened in the past.  The actual plot deals with a young woman named Jennifer who somehow finds herself on a strange airship run by a group of devious young girls who have made their own club called the Red Crayon Aristocrats.  The story has a very Lord of the Flies feel, where kids have created their own idea of adult society, complete with class warfare and forced service.  It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in a game, focusing on the terrible things children might do without adult supervision.  Your character, even though she is much older than the children, still gets bullied and jerked around by the younger girl characters.  It’s a shockingly dark game at times, especially if you read between the lines and understand what is actually going on, with some very potent imagery and plot points to explore. It’s one of those games I want to play again just to get a deeper understanding of the intricacies of the story, something I wouldn’t have expected from this game I’ve never heard anyone talk about..

 

Where it falls apart, as horror games so often do, is in the gameplay.  There are some interesting ideas here, such as having any dropped items immediately return to your item box to be retrieved later.  The most notable of these ideas is your dog companion named Brown (complete with some adorable voice samples of your character calling his name) who can sniff any item in your inventory and find items related to it.  This is the crux of the exploration gameplay, letting you follow Brown as he finds the next important story item.  Unfortunately, this also makes the game very easy to progress through and extremely repetitive, following what is essentially a waypoint on your screen for minutes at a time.  The truly awful part, however, is the poor combat system.  It is extremely simplistic, hard to control, tedious, and frustrating as hell.  There isn’t much of it, but when the game forces it on you, it’s hard not to want to shut the game off in frustration.  The “boss” fights are pretty bad too, such as one in particular that took me nearly fifteen minutes of wondering if I was doing something wrong before I completed it.  Sadly, these gameplay quirks hinder what is otherwise a fantastically creepy story, one I would still recommend seeing even with these gameplay hindrances.  Good luck tracking down a cheap copy, though.

 

HAUNTING GROUND (PS2)

 

Haunting Ground is another relatively unknown survival horror game from the same late-PS2 era (2005-2006) as Rule of Rose.  In this game, you play as Fiona, a young woman who last remembers a car accident that killed her parents.  She wakes trapped in a cell in a strange place and quickly escapes, barely clothed, to find a strange mansion inhabited by even stranger characters.  She explores the mansion, slowly piecing together the mystery of her accident and why she has been brought here.  The story in Haunting Ground is all over the place, with each individual character having his or her own motivations that barely relate to the others’.  Some of these motivations are truly fucked up, such as a man who looks like Fiona’s father and wishes to use her womb in some ritual to be reborn as a powerful entity, while others are just nonsensical or ridiculous.  There were multiple characters I wanted to know more about and others that just felt like a waste of time, with the game focusing inconsistently on all of them and not really explaining anything.  On the whole, the story is quite forgettable with only a few standout moments.

 

What are the odds of two survival horror games on the same platform both having a dog partner with special mechanics?  Haunting Ground also features a dog (named Hewie, with similarly adorable voice samples for calling him) but entirely different mechanics.  The right stick essentially operates as a command stick for Hewie, telling him to attack or look for items in certain sequences or to follow or hide in others.  He’s also the best weapon to use against the various pursuers you encounter, as he can slow them down to give you time to hide.  Unfortunately, Hewie is extremely unreliable at first, as the developers put in a trust mechanic, where you praise him for doing good things and scold him for doing bad things, that they probably thought was amazing but is just frustrating.  It takes nearly half the game before he learns to do things reliably and even then, his AI gets stuck quite often.  Considering you need his help to progress several times in the game, this is unfortunate.  Those pursuers I mentioned above are also immensely frustrating throughout the game for one main reason–they never leave you the fuck alone.  Once one appears, you are forced to hide and wait for them to leave, as you cannot do any puzzles or major story beats until you are alone.  The ridiculous thing is that it can sometimes take several minutes (10+) for them to finally get tired of looking for you and actually walk away.  The game tries to fool you and make you think they are gone, having them leave the room when instead they just come right back and prolong things even further.  This part of the game made an otherwise decent Silent Hill/Resident Evil clone (in terms of gameplay) extremely frustrating and tedious.  For these reasons, I suggest reading about some of the story of Haunting Ground and not actually playing it.

 

ALIEN: ISOLATION (PS4)

 

Many of you might actually be familiar with this title, considering it released in the month of October.  I wasn’t originally planning to play it, expecting nothing special to come of another Alien game.  Boy, was I wrong.  For those of you who don’t know, Alien: Isolation places you into the shoes of Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, as she tries to discover what happens to her mother.  The flight recorder of the Nostromo, the ship from the original Alien film, has been recovered and she tags along to find out what it says about her mother’s disappearance.  As you might expect, this leads to another Xenomorph outbreak on the station that contains the flight recorder and all hell breaks loose.  The story is extremely basic, mostly serving to get Ripley to the station with the creature, and doesn’t do much throughout the game’s length.  It also ends in one of the worst endings I’ve seen in a game in quite some time, feeling like something the developers tacked on the day before shipping the disc out to consumers.  It doesn’t really matter that the story is so hackneyed, however, as it nails the atmosphere of the Alien universe.  The game really feels like the 70s view of science fiction, complete with big CRT monitors and dot-matrix displays everywhere.  This alone makes the game worth seeing.

 

Gameplay-wise, Alien: Isolation is shockingly strong as well.  It is very much a stealth game of the trial-and-error variety, as Ripley is very weak and not well-armed.  You get the iconic motion detector to help you track enemy movements, hiding in vents and lockers to avoid contact with your foes.  This kicks into high-gear once the Xenomorph comes into play and creates some of the best horror tension I’ve ever seen in a video game.  Stealth with the other enemies is rewarding as well, but it feels much more rote and standard when compared to sneaking around the titular Alien.  The developers nailed the feel of the creature, making it menacing and unpredictable in ways that feel unfair but necessarily so.  Some of these sections, lengthy and without a save point in the middle, took me nearly 30 minutes due to a mixture of fear for the creature and not wanting to make a mistake and start over.  It’s fantastic but definitely not for everyone, particularly those who don’t have patience for replaying sections over and over to find the correct way through.  It’s also worth noting the variety of minigames to open doors and hack terminals, featuring a great physicality that I would assume such actions would require.  My one complaint with the game was with its extreme length (15-20 hours), including a few sections that were very frustrating and/or poorly explained (but I can’t note without spoiling something).  Still, this is easily the best Alien game to date and is worth playing for any fans of tense horror games.

 

FATAL FRAME III: THE TORMENTED (PS2)

 

Fatal Frame III is the last of the series to come to the U.S. and Europe (at least, at the time of this writing).  I decided to play it to fill out my knowledge of the series, having completed both I and II previously.  Fatal Frame III puts players in the role of Rei, a woman whose fiance was killed in a car accident.  She is still trying to get over his death and takes a job (as a photographer, fittingly) at a creepy old manor.  During this trip, she sees what she think is her dead fiance and experiences a vision.  That night, she has a dream about the infamous Manor of Sleep and is touched by a tattooed woman, branding her with that same tattoo in real life.  Every night, the tattoo spreads, threatening to overtake both her body and her sanity.  The story here is much deeper than it was in past games, even referencing events and characters from both of those previous games.  It’s as creepy as I and II, at least I didn’t think so, but it still manages to pack in a lot of eerie moments and messed-up ideas.  There’s also an interesting theme of survivor’s guilt running throughout, with several characters losing themselves in their loss and longing for dead relatives and loved ones.  I wish they had focused on this more, as it could have given the story more of an thematic impact.  If you’ve played a Fatal Frame game before, you likely know where the story will end up, but there’s still a lot to find interesting about this game’s interweaved events.

 

In terms of the gameplay, Fatal Frame III makes a lot of changes to the formula.  Most notable are two big changes.  You alternate between waking reality and the dream world, giving you a bit of downtime in between chapters.  You can use this time to read books on events you encountered in the dream, have your assistant research various people and things, and develop special pictures you take while sleeping.  The game also does a bit of the Silent Hill 4 trick where it later messes with you by introducing creepy things into the reality sections, a neat trick that is much better executed here.  The other notable change is the three playable characters, each with their own strengths and skills.  I have a few huge problems with this.  One, the upgrades and items are separate for each character, meaning you must spread yourself quite thin to survive.  Two, the paths through the house are blocked at random for different characters, forcing you to take longer, dangerous paths.  This is just poor game design in my opinion, limiting the player’s ability to feel smart and clever for taking a good path.  Three, and most egregious, one of the characters is AWFUL at fighting ghosts, easily taking three-four times longer for each encounter.  To make things worse, he has some of the more combat-heavy chapters, which is so fucking frustrating that I nearly broke a controller.  For this reason, I couldn’t ever see myself playing through this a second time.  There are also some smaller changes to the gameplay, like the need to hold the camera over a ghost to charge a shot instead of just getting closer, that aren’t as noteworthy.  In terms of the story and characters, I think this game nails it best out of the whole series.  Sadly, it also bungles the gameplay so badly that I just can’t recommend it over the highly-enjoyable Fatal Frame 2.

 

SLENDER: THE ARRIVAL (PC)

 

This was the final game I played, saving it for Halloween night.  I wanted something quick, simple, and potent for the main event, and this game mostly delivered.  Slender: The Arrival has you trying to track down a woman named Kate who is having strange nightmares and paranoid feelings about the Slenderman.  You progress deeper and deeper into the wilderness, fleeing from the various horrors found there, in order to find Kate and save her.  There isn’t much story here, probably intentionally, but it does a decent job of setting up the uneasy tension needed for the character of Slenderman.  If you want to delve into the story, there is a small amount of putting pieces together that can be done, but I didn’t feel it was necessary to enjoy the game.

 

Slender: The Arrival is a pretty potent horror game.  Every chapter has you fleeing from some type of creature, sometimes multiple types, in an attempt to either do a certain number of something or escape.  It builds some good tension, features some great sound design (I love the Slenderman digital noise corruption–such a good harsh sound to make you jump), and some eerie atmosphere.  I do think that some sections, particularly one in a house on a stormy night that has you closing all the windows and doors before fleeing back to your room, are extremely well-done, while others are just boring and poorly executed.  The biggest knock I have against this game, though, is just how rough it looks.  Proportionally, everything looks like it is either too big or too small.  The models are a bit rough around the edges, and I think the game looks too washed-out in most of the sections.  It was harder for me to get immersed in such a rough game; however, I guess it does deserve credit for still managing to get me so many times even with these issues.  For a few bucks, Slender: The Arrival is a great jump-scare game.  If you’re looking for anything else, go elsewhere.

 

I also want to make a few brief notes on the few horror games I replayed in the month of October.  I highly recommend all three of these games.

  • Silent Hill 2:  This replay has made me realize that this is definitely one of the greatest horror games to date.  Its psychological story has so many levels to its characters and events that it must be one of the most analyzable video games to date.  It features perfect atmosphere, excellent sound design and music, and great exploration.  The combat is a bit janky, but serviceable and worth getting through for more story.  Anyone who is a fan of horror, particularly psychological horror, NEEDS to play this.
  • Silent Hill 3:  Not as strong as 2 but still a great game.  For fans of the original Silent Hill, it ties up the storyline of Alessa and the cult worshipping their demonic God.  The imagery is just as great as it is in 2, with memorable bits like the womb tunnel (no joke) and the haunted house section.  Combat is a bit more refined and playable, although still annoying for the most part.  Very enjoyable for fans of the Resident Evil exploration style, though..
  • Fatal Frame 2:  Silent Hill 2 may have the best horror story in a game, but I may contend that Fatal Frame 2 is the best overall survival horror game to date.  Everything about it, from the creepy story to the fantastic camera gameplay, is just a blast to experience.  It has some great pacing, always keeping things moving.  The voice performances are often rough but iconic and passionate.  It also features what I feel are the best exploration bits of any survival horror game of this type.  Top-to-bottom, Fatal Frame 2 is a treat, particularly for fans of the genre.  I can’t wait to play it again.

Well, that’s everything horror-themed that I played in October.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about so many different games from a variety of eras in gaming.  Please give some of them a shot and let me know if there’s anything I missed or if you agree/disagree with any of my thoughts on these games–I’d love to talk shop with fans of survival horror!

Drakengard 3’s DLC – Should you buy it?

The new "pop-up" style for cutscenes--likely cheaper and easier to render than the other ones.

The new “pop-up” style for cutscenes–likely cheaper and easier to render than the other ones.

I’m here yet again to talk about Drakengard 3–is anyone tired of it yet?  All humor aside, it’s a game I think has been tragically overlooked by many, even with its rough edges, and I can’t stop thinking about it for a variety of reasons.  The most recent reason?  Its DLC, which I bought a few months ago and just recently got around to finishing.  Since this DLC is quite expensive ($30 for 6 new chapters), and since Drakengard 3 is already a game not too many people have “got around” to playing yet, I thought it would be useful to some if I did a little overview/review of what the DLC entails, to help all of you decide whether or not to purchase them.

First off, let’s talk about what you get in the DLC chapters.  There is one for each of the sisters, One through Five, and a new prologue chapter for Zero.  Each of these chapters is four stages (with one of those being a dragon level) that take about an hour or so to complete in total.  You play as Zero’s sisters for the first time, but this isn’t much more than a model swap with many of the same animations.  Each of them also have their own weapon, one of the four types from the original game, with its own stats and attack patterns–these weapons also unlock for the main game after finishing each chapter.  You can level up each sister but on a much smaller scale that caps at 10.  There are a few cutscenes for each chapter, most of them in a new pop-up storybook style that works quite well if not appearing a bit cheaply made.  Every chapter also has TONS of in-game VO fleshing out the sister in question and her relationship with her Disciple (including One’s “new” Disciple).

The DLC handily contrives a reason for dragon levels by having One's dragon, Gabriella, aid each sister.

The DLC handily contrives a reason for dragon levels by having One’s dragon, Gabriella, aid each sister.

The story of each of these chapters is obviously tailored to the sister it stars, exploring part of their life before the events of Drakengard 3 occurred.  Because of this, the DLC does a much better job relating each of the sisters to the player than the main game ever did.  Also, many of the questions you would probably want to know after playing the main game are answered in these chapters, either indirectly or during the actual events of the gameplay. The most interesting of these in my opinion are easily Two’s chapter, where you learn how she became catatonic in the events of the main game, and Zero’s prologue chapter, which details how she met her original dragon Mikhail.  The rest vary in relevance, some focusing on humor instead of serious backstory, but they are all at least entertaining enough to experience once.

Furthering this backstory information are the Memoirs for each sister.  These Memoirs are a series of relatively short journal entries from that chapter’s sister that unlock as you level up the sister in question.  Many of these mimic the tone found in each sister’s chapter: for example, Five’s Memoirs are a series of orders she made to a speciality store for things like high-end cuisine, art she cares little about, and even a variety of sex toys.  These journal entries pack some of the funniest bits of the entire DLC.  Four’s journal, easily my favorite, contradicts her usual “holier-than-thou” tone of perfection with what essentially consists of a burn book towards everyone in her life, including herself.  It’s unfortunate that this entertaining writing is stuck behind an arbitrary leveling process, one that forces you to replay the smallish amount of content multiple times, but the Memoirs are easy enough to find online (link) if you’re curious.

Two's chapter is a tragic, yet well-told story of how she lost her mind.

Two’s chapter is a tragic, yet well-told story of how she lost her mind.

The strength of each of these DLC chapters varies greatly from one to the next, for various reasons.  You are locked into a certain weapon type for each sister, meaning that you may have to use spears or chakrams exclusively–even if you don’t much care for those types of weapons.  Some of the chapters throw a lot of rather difficult enemies at you, demanding excellent execution or a lot of health items (which gratefully carry over from the main game).  Most notably, however, is that some of the content just features poor design decisions.  Three’s chapter is easily the worst in this regard: it packs in wave-based encounters in each level, has the most horribly tedious dragon level of the bunch, and features an end “boss” encounter that is poorly explained and frustrating.  Sadly, her story is also one of the most terrifyingly fascinating, which made me gladly plow through to see how it ended.

There’s a few other problems I had with the DLC as a whole.  First, it only reuses levels from the main game in each chapter.  I wasn’t really expecting brand-new content, but it still makes the DLC a bit more tedious, especially considering how much the main game already recycled those same levels.  Second, there isn’t much replay value to any of the chapters.  Odds are, you won’t want to play through the levels more than once: unless you want those Memoirs, which force you to replay several levels to hit max rank and see them all, or a perfect set of Trophies.  Finally, the DLC reuses a lot of the humor tricks used in the original–bleeping out lines, breaking the fourth wall, making jokes about platforming sections–and saps them of all their remaining humor.  I know the dialog was written by the same people as the main game, but a bit more creativity and variety would have been nice–especially considering the price tag.

While I greatly enjoyed this content as a big fan of Drakengard 3, I do think it’s a bit overpriced for what you get–$30 for a bundle containing all the chapters or $6 a chapter (meaning don’t buy them all individually).  In the end, I can only really recommend the DLC to those who loved the original game and want to see more of the humor, characters, or storytelling.  The amount of content you get isn’t worth it otherwise, especially considering that the combat absolutely doesn’t hold up well for that much time.  I also recommend that you only buy all of the DLC or none of it whatsoever, unless you just really want to know more about a particular sister.  The DLC works better as a whole than as six individual pieces.

Hopefully, this closer look at the DLC of Drakengard 3 is enough to tell you whether or not it’s up your alley.  For those of you reading this who haven’t even played the original game, give it a try!  It’s still one of the funniest and most entertaining games I’ve played all year (link), even considering the often monotonous feel of the gameplay.

Bound by Flame (PC) review

One of the more ridiculously designed party members.

One of the more ridiculously designed party members.

Bound by Flame takes place in Vertiel, a world slowly falling to the evil of the Ice Lords.  Humankind and elfkind are both on the brink of extinction, with the last members of each race joining together to form a very rough, slipshod resistance (made up of elven royal guard, a mercenary group called the Free Blades, and a sect of mages with ulterior motives) in an attempt to fight back.  Every day, their numbers shrink and the undead armies of the Ice Lords grow.  It seems like an inexorable march towards death–that is until a member of the Free Blades named Vulcan (last name–think Shepard from the Mass Effect series) gets accidentally possessed by a flame demon in a magical ritual.  The power it gives him/her may just be enough to fight back the evil forces and save the world.

The setup is a potentially interesting one, with the last vestiges of society forced to work together in its final struggle before extinction.  Combine this with a demon possession that manages to avoid many of the typical pitfalls of such a tropey idea–silly evil voices, promises of world domination, etc–with a focus on co-existing with the demon and there is the potential for an interesting story here.  There are also a few fantastic party members you can recruit, such as a knight who only talks about himself in the third-person and an immortal spirit who hops from body to body as they decay, that give great flavor to the proceedings.  On the surface, there does seem to be some promise here.

Unfortunately, Bound by Flame doesn’t utilize these elements very well.  After a relatively strong opening and story setup, the events quickly become a little too flat and narrow.  Any sense of peril is practically nonexistent, as everyone around you is quite unfazed by the oncoming horde of undead troops ready to take over the world.  You and your party linger in one spot for much too long, which breaks the immersion a bit considering the vast inequality in the sizes of each opposing force.  Even the Ice Lords, the commanders of this vast army who are spoken about in reverent tones, barely even factor into the story: you only encounter one of them in the entire length of the game.  Because of this lack in scope and tension, I found it hard to feel any sense of dread or terror towards events that should have instead been horrifically dire.

An early action shot.  Notice how the enemies like to gang up on you.

An early action shot. Notice how the enemies like to gang up on you.

One of the few things I liked about the story was how you make the moral “choices” regarding your demon.  Just as in many RPGs of the modern era, you can either choose to be good or evil, but the nature of this choice is slightly different here.  Instead of simply having you decide to either help others or act selfishly, the moral choices all revolve around how much you are willing to allow the demon to fuse with your character.  This can have huge consequences, such as causing the death of party members who don’t agree with your decisions, but also gives you the ability to do (story-related) things you couldn’t otherwise.  It’s a unique twist on the idea–the thought of giving up one’s identity to gain power necessary for saving the world is an intriguing one–but it doesn’t ever become any less binary than these decisions in other games.

In terms of the gameplay, Bound by Flame feels much like The Witcher 2 in design.  You engage in melee combat with an (often) large number of foes; managing crowds is a huge part of the game.  There’s a block/counter system that feels rewarding to use, hacking off a huge chunk of an enemy’s life if successful.  A light stealth mechanic makes backstabs possible, but few situations give you a chance to use it well.  There’s also ranged weapons, spells, and traps that can be used from a radial menu–or bound to a few shortcuts–to better handle difficult situations.  Finally, your party members can be given basic commands, such as attack your target or use certain abilities, from that same radial menu.  It all comes together adequately, if not a bit clunkily at times, but without much variety.

Bound by Flame also emulates The Witcher 2 in the difficulty of its encounters.  Enemies are extremely resilient, come in great numbers, aren’t afraid to attack you while you are otherwise occupied, and can take you down in a matter of seconds if you aren’t careful.  Dealing with your foes necessitates frequent blocking/dodging and careful timing of when to open yourself up to push the attack.  For a time, this difficulty can be extremely rewarding.  Every fight feels like something you have to claw through, but each victory also feels that much sweeter.  Learning to be patient and expand your tactics to deal with the difficulty curve is fun at first.

Unfortunately, the way the difficulty curve ramps up makes the experience shift from rewarding to tedious.  Enemies, especially late-game ones, take an absurd amount of hits to go down, a trait that doesn’t extend to you and your party members.  As you progress, the number of enemies in each encounter also increase, as well as the variety of those enemies.  Some later encounters might feature a few archers that like to pelt you with slowing arrows from afar, a shielded warrior who can take a huge beating, large sword wielders who can pound you and steal your mana, and a large general with some scary area attacks.  As you can probably guess, fights quickly go from a challenge to a chore: trying to dart in and out to kill the weaker enemies, preventing you from getting hit in the back, before taking on the bigger ones.  It just loses any amount of that rewarding challenge it previously had, instead being replaced with frustrating fights that demand absolute perfection from the player.

The talent tree of Bound by Flame.  Anything past the first two rows is mostly useless.

The talent tree of Bound by Flame. Anything past the first two rows is mostly useless.

On the RPG side of things, you can find and purchase a variety of gear to equip your character with.  Weaponry is nicely diverse, both in types of weapons and visual style, but there isn’t much variety in the armor.  Sadly, none of this gear feels very meaningful.  Even a few more points of attack power or a higher percentage to crit feels like it has little to no impact on the actual combat.  Your gear can also be upgraded with various materials, but these upgrades suffer from mostly the same problem: only the more noticeable changes, like more health or faster attack speed, are worth anything.  I do like how you can break down old gear and recycle materials, though, as it made me feel like I could never mess up and pick the wrong upgrades.  Finally, there are some other craftable items as well–traps, potions, crossbow bolts–but you find plenty of these items during your explanation, enough so to make this feature rather pointless on anything but the hardest difficulty.

There are also side quests, but these are as plain as they can be, sending you around the area to fetch things for various members of your camp.  All of these consist of following the waypoint until you reach the area, gathering something or killing some foes, and running all the way back to turn it in.  By the time I cleared an area in one of the game’s four acts, I was completely tired of this cyclical process.  The developers try to mix things up with quests given by your party members, reminiscent of games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, but these are just as boring as the rest.  Combine this boredom with my previously stated point that new gear (as quest rewards) is mostly useless and there isn’t much reason to chase these quests down, aside from a few more experience points.

As you level up, you earn talent points and feat points.  Unlike the gear, the talent tree and feat system do have some meaningful impact on your character’s growth.  The early stages of the talent tree give you things like the ability to block from any side or a larger window to counter enemy attacks, benefits that will aid you for your entire quest.  As you move up the tree, however, these useful abilities vanish entirely; I found most of the late-game abilities to be next to useless.  One example of this is the final talent in the warrior tree, a buff that boosts your attack power and potential to interrupt, which has an absurd mana cost (I couldn’t even cast it at full mana when I first unlocked it) and a short length that barely makes it worth using.  As a result, I spread my points around each of the three trees–warrior, ranger, and mage–to try and collect all of the great early-game buffs.

The in-game map, which you can overlay.  Notice the narrow corridors.

The in-game map, which you can overlay. Notice the narrow corridors.

Feats are small perks that unlock as you perform tasks, such as killing 50 enemies or crafting 10 potions.  You can then spend your feat points on thematic rewards; using the given examples, you could then unlock more experience from foes or cheaper crafting requirements for potions.  These rewards can actually make a pretty big difference, giving you a bigger health pool or a significant damage boost, but are fairly limited in scope: odds are, you’ll have all the ones you want by the end of the game.  Overall, the leveling system gives good incentive to gain experience at first, but those incentives become meaningless as you progress.

Bound by Flame is a game I consider to be plagued with genericness.  Many of the character designs are absolutely terrible, either relying on tropes or trying something new that just doesn’t work visually with the rest of the game.  Each new zone seems large but is actually a few “larger” areas connected by ridiculously narrow “corridors” that hinder your traversal. The voice acting is low in quality and has very few stand-out moments (your spirit companion mentioned above isn’t terrible).  Most tragic is probably the soundtrack, which I just shockingly learned was done by Olivier Derivière, most famous for his excellent work on the Remember Me soundtrack.  For someone who did such a unique soundtrack, I can’t believe the bland nature of his  extremely standard and repetitive soundtrack here.  All in all, I would consider this game’s genericness to be its biggest weakness.

To your average person, Bound by Flame may just look like a bad Witcher 2 clone.  After all, it has a similar fantasy setting, isn’t afraid to (poorly) emulate that game’s tone, and features some fairly identical combat–aside from polish.  For people like me, those who played this developer’s previous game (Mars: War Logs), Bound by Flame looks like a more ambitious version of that game.  While it manages to add depth, length, and some interesting new ideas, I still find myself liking it less than Mars: War Logs.  That game managed to have its own very unique identity, one that managed to grab me even when the rest of the experience was rough around the edges.  Bound by Flame may be a better game, but I still found it too generic to enjoy my time with it.  If it can be gotten cheaply, it may be worth a quick romp.  At its current $40 price tag?  I suggest Mars: War Logs instead–or The Witcher 2, if you want a fantasy game.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (PS4) review

Snake/Big Boss himself.

Snake/Big Boss himself.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes takes place just a few months after the events of Peace Walker, the last previously released game in the series.  Two characters prevalent in that game’s events, Paz (presumed dead) and Chico, have been captured and taken to an off-the-books American prison site called Camp Omega.  Snake (really Big Boss, since this takes place in the older fiction) receives a distress call from Chico and plans to infiltrate the base, determined to rescue both Paz and Chico.  Due to an important nuclear inspection of Mother Base, Snake must undertake this mission quickly and quietly, with no backup or further support.

There really isn’t a lot to the story in Ground Zeroes: in fact, there’s shockingly little.  Aside from the beginning and end cutscenes, all the “plot” in the game just serves to tell you where to go and what to do on the base.  Just as things start to get interesting at the tail end, it’s already over.  It’s extremely thin, serving only to bridge the rather small gap between events in Peace Walker and those upcoming in Phantom Pain.  I was reminded of an old shareware game or those demos that would play a trailer after you finished it (which Ground Zeroes also does, funny enough), trying to get you to buy the full game.  It feels like the small story was just an excuse to make the game in the first place, trying to hook players before releasing the actual game later on.

The choice of characters, particularly the two from the previous game, used in the story also seems a bit strange.  I feel it’s safe to say that a large portion of fairly diehard fans of the MGS series (myself included) didn’t bother to play Peace Walker, likely due to the fact that it was on the PSP originally and because it never sounded crucial to the fiction.  Paz and Chico aren’t really that important to the series–at least at this point in time–so it makes me wonder why they needed to be included at all.  It seems like nothing would have been lost in just making a couple throwaway, nondescript characters as prisoners with necessary information to push these events forward.  As it stands in the game, it’s a very small callback with a poor resolution for fans of those characters: a lose-lose scenario.

It’s also worth noting that there is a bit of unpleasant material found in Ground Zeroes.  Both Paz and Chico are tortured before Snake can come to rescue them, and there are multiple points where you can hear some of this for yourself.  Very little of this is actually found in the main story; instead, it is relegated to the optional bits of story, found in various cassette tapes recorded by Chico during his imprisonment.  Since these are all audio with no visuals, you can only infer what is happening.  Still, it’s plain to hear that there is beating, intense mutilation, and even sexual abuse happening in these scenes.

It's hard to tell here, but this is a shot of the slowdown effect.

It’s hard to tell here, but this is a shot of the slowdown effect.

For some people, this may go a bit too far, prompting the question of why the inclusion of these scenes is even necessary: isn’t knowing that Paz and Chico were tortured enough?  I can, however, see potential value in this information, particularly in regards to the new villain introduced here, Skull Face.  Knowing the distance he will go in his torture shows just how determined, or fucked-up, he really is.  It could be a really important character-building moment that has relevance later on in Phantom Pain–or it could just be a shocking moment included to titillate.  I feel an argument can be made for it either way but dismissing it outright for its shocking nature is a bit too kneejerk.  It doesn’t really bother me, although I could see it being pointless in the long run.  In the end, of course, your opinion of these scenes will come down to how they impact you in the moment.  For those squeamish, however, I advise avoiding the tapes entirely.

Whereas the story doesn’t do much to impress, the gameplay of Ground Zeroes is remarkably solid, especially for a game series that has always felt a bit clunky.  Finally, modern controls have come to the series and it feels fantastic.  It operates much like you would expect a typical third-person shooter, removing all of the finger-acrobatics that the old systems required.  Two new additions that are particularly noteworthy are the binoculars that allow you to mark enemies for easy tracking and a moment of slowdown that occurs if you are spotted, allowing you quickly down the enemy who just spotted you to prevent him from sounding an alert.

I had a blast playing this game, no matter how I tackled a situation.  Sneaking around is made easy thanks to the great accuracy of the guns over range, the aforementioned slowdown feature to prevent instant alerts from unseen enemies, the ability to run while crouching (finally!), and increased speed in moving/hiding downed enemies.  When a firefight breaks out, dealing with the vast number of enemies is easy thanks to tight aiming controls and a smart cover system.  It just feels good to play, in that way that’s hard to describe but you understand the second you sit down and play it for yourself.  Knowing that Phantom Pain will play just like this makes me that much more excited to play it next year.

I could say "Skull Face" is the dumbest name for a villain in an MGS game yet--but I'd be lying. Sigh.

I could say “Skull Face” is the dumbest name for a villain in an MGS game yet–but I’d be lying. Sigh.

 

Because I enjoyed playing the game so much, it’s really a bummer that the content in Ground Zeroes is so thin.  There’s a decent amount to do–the main mission, a handful of side missions with new objectives, and two silly bonus missions–but it all feels a bit repetitive.  Part of this likely stems from it all taking place on the same sizeable but limited landmass, while part of it stems from the very meager amount of story included throughout.  Once you complete a mission, there isn’t much incentive to go back.  Both a harder difficulty and trials, challenges that have you doing things like marking all the enemies in the base as quickly as you can, unlock once you finish a mission once, but these still have you playing the same handful of missions again and again.  Furthermore, you don’t unlock anything of value for completing these extra bits, making them rather pointless.  Even for how much I enjoyed the act of playing Ground Zeroes, I couldn’t help but get bored after just a handful of hours.

There are, however, a few collectibles found around the base to stretch the game’s length.  These come in the form of XOF patches, which unlock the bonus missions after finding all 9, and the cassette tapes I mentioned above, which include some additional story information.  These are remarkably hard to find, due to their tiny appearance in-game and the size of the base, and are scattered throughout the various missions; collecting them all without a guide was a bit too much of a chore for me.  These can add a few hours to your playtime but can also be a bit annoying to track down.  I do recommend at least finding the patches, since the bonus missions are quite enjoyable to see at least once.

Finally, I don’t think I can end this review without talking a bit about the new voice for Big Boss, Kiefer Sutherland.  I will say that the voice seemed rather inoffensive–different, of course, but inoffensive–in my time with the game, perfectly suited to the character of Big Boss.  Personally, I always found it a bit weird that they didn’t change the voice in MGS3, instead opting to use David Hayter’s iconic voice even though it was a different character.  This new voice does feel a bit more natural for Big Boss; however, there really isn’t enough here to make a final verdict.  Sutherland doesn’t have a ton of speaking lines, and I couldn’t really get a handle on how exactly I felt about it.  We’ll have to wait and see how it turns out in Phantom Pain.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a weird game.  It feels like a tech demo being sold to fans, getting them used to the new systems and making the small bridge in story needed to set up the next game.  While I think the gameplay is absolutely fantastic and can’t wait to spend more time controlling it, I was a little bummed at just how thin the content is in scope.  It doesn’t feel worth it, at least not for the full price tag.  I paid under $20 for it, which I feel is the sweet spot for this product.  If you want just a taste of the MGS craziness, and aren’t annoyed by the whole thing just being setup for the actual game, give it a shot.  Just don’t pay $30 for it.

The end of Drakengard 3 – beautiful and broken

Zero, the "hero" of the game.

Zero, the “hero” of the game.

NOTE:  I will be talking extensively about the very end of Drakengard 3.  I won’t get into too many of the greater story details, but the final sequence will be discussed at length.  If you want to be surprised by it (and it can be quite surprising), you may not want to read any further.  Also, be wary of the images used on this post, as I have included a few from this sequence.

I really enjoyed Drakengard 3.  While it had some repetitive gameplay and quite a bit of jank, it also featured a very unique story, one that felt very much like it came from that team behind Nier.  It wasn’t so much the story beats, although those had their moments, but the characters that made it great.  Zero is a fantastic character, maybe one of the best female characters I’ve seen, who feels very realistic and beholden to only her own desires and demands.  The rest of the cast is delightfully quirky, with some dialogue that may make those with Puritan sensibilities cringe in distaste.  This quirkiness can seem a bit crass at times, but it also manages to be exceptionally funny from top to bottom.  It all comes together to make a game that is truly unlike anything else I’ve played.

Drakengard 3 is also capped off with a singular experience, a last-minute shift in gameplay style that is unlike anything I’ve seen before.  The final chapter changes from a character-action game, complete with combo trees and lots of murdering, to what is essentially a rhythm-based minigame.  You play as Mikhail, Zero’s dragon, and have to time button presses to music in order to succeed, essentially shielding him from attacks by a giant creature.  The section quickly builds in intensity, requiring quicker button presses and better timing, until it reaches a crescendo and ends with the final cutscene.

A typical section with Mikhail, not at all like the end game sequence.

A typical section with Mikhail, not at all like the end game sequence.

This sequence is the most striking thing I’ve seen in a game this year.  The color palette shifts to a gorgeous black-and-white, the camera maneuvers wildly to capture the intriguing imagery, and the fantastic music begins to play over it all.  It’s a heavy tonal shift from the intense action and alternating mature/immature antics of the characters found in the rest of the game.  I was immediately reminded of Nier, particularly the way that everything had a very dream-like and ethereal feel that made it almost seem like it wasn’t really happening.  I don’t have nearly the writing skill to describe this in the detail it deserve, so I highly recommend tracking down a video and seeing it for yourself (or playing it for yourself, of course).  What is truly interesting about this sequence, however, is the way it drops the player in.

The player is given very little warning as to what he/she is expected to do, if anything.  The chapter selection screen, which usually labels sections as “Cutscene” or “Game,” doesn’t provide any help to the player–it labels this chapter as “Game?,” giving only the smallest hint that something different is coming.  Music begins to play, the camera zooms in on Mikhail, and the timed rings fly towards him; failure to hit a button, or at the correct time, will result in a harsh noise and a game over screen.  The one concession the developers made for this sequence is that nearly any button on the controller will work, giving those who fumble at their controllers in blind panic a chance of figuring things out on the first try.  Most players, however, will likely mess up a few times before understanding what exactly is going on.  Part of me really loves this concept–there is something brilliant about throwing a player into new gameplay without giving them any idea what they’re expected to do first.

Unfortunately, this mysterious feeling of not knowing what’s to come also makes this section quite frustrating.  While it is immediately striking and unique, it also does very little to prepare players for what is to come, something that will likely annoy modern gamers who have come to expect tutorials and waypoint arrows telling them exactly what to do.  I can’t really blame them in this case: being expected to figure out how to play a game, especially an endgame section that mixes things up at the last possible moment, is crazy to comprehend in a modern video game.  To be fair, however, this isn’t really that big of a deal–a few attempts will probably be enough for most people to figure it out and eliminate all traces of the unknown from this part of the game.

It gets worse.

Images don't really do this scene justice.

Images don’t really do this scene justice.

This section also features some very particular timing, timing that almost seems to mimic original Playstation-era rhythm games in its strict windows for hitting a note.  This rigidity is bad enough, but there also seems to be a bit of inconsistency in the timing, making it even harder to predict when the button needs to be pressed.  There are visual cues along with the musical cues, which can aid players, but the timing of these can be tricky as well–the button has to be pressed right before the ring hits Mikhail instead of as it hits him.  Furthermore, these cues are quickly stripped away as the sequence becomes crazier.  The developers also enjoy fucking with the player, moving the camera in some really deceptive ways that basically force players to rely on the music itself to succeed.  Combine this with the inconsistent feeling of the timing and you are already looking at a hair-pulling section.

It gets worse.

The final level is about seven minutes long.  Any single mistake sends you back to the beginning.  There is roughly a minute’s worth of slow setup before the playable portion begins, setup you are forced to watch without skipping each time you fail before getting back to business.  The beginning of the song is actually quite easy, but you’ll still see it dozens of times as you mess up later on and are forced to replay the whole thing.  I can’t even describe the despair and frustration I felt when I made a mistake five minutes in–for the twentieth time, mind you–and had to do the whole thing AGAIN.  It is a massive exercise in patience, making even a simple error in timing extremely punishing..

It gets worse.

The final few notes actually come after the screen fades to black and players assume they are finished.  In fact, the final cutscene dialogue begins to play right before the final note, further tricking players into thinking they are done.  Those who don’t know these notes are coming, which is probably the vast majority of players who go into this sight unseen, can expect a massive amount of rage when they seemingly fail out of nowhere.  The final note is the most egregious of all.  It is a very slow note, with nearly ten seconds between it starting and the need to hit the button.  Without the visual cues, as players are then looking at a black screen, it can be nearly impossible to time without practice–practice which takes a full seven minutes of prior gameplay to obtain.

It took me nearly five hours of attempts on this sequence before I finally managed to overcome it.  Even spending that much time, I never felt like I had the timing or the rhythm down.  Instead of persevering (or going mad–whichever came first), I eventually went online for some assistance and found a Youtube video that helped.  It has you line up the game to the video and provides Rock Band-esque note markers to help with the timing.  Even with this video, it still took me several attempts to correctly line up the audio and deal with the inconsistent timing of when the game wanted my button presses.

A screencap of that Youtube video.  The flowers go right to left and indicate when to hit the button.

A screencap of that Youtube video. The flowers go right to left and indicate when to hit the button.

It’s certainly possible that many players could attempt this section and have no trouble with it whatsoever.  It feels like one of those things that some people will have a lot of difficulty getting perfect and others do easily in just a few attempts.  I will note, however, that I have spent a lot of time with rhythm games in the past and have some decent skill timing things like this (I know how pretentious this sounds, but I needed to relate my relative skill to give you some idea here).  Even with all that previous experience, this section of Drakengard 3 still gave me a ridiculous amount of trouble.  There is very little to do with reflexes or quick button presses–it all comes down to the timing of the notes, something that always felt extremely hit-or-miss for me.  For that reason, I feel like this is a rather flawed section of an otherwise…well, flawed game.

I could easily see this section being the end of the line for many people, those who just can’t finish it for anything.  Sadly, this sequence is right before the very last cutscene of the game.  Those who have put the (roughly) 20 hours into Drakengard 3 to get to this point, including grinding out weapons to unlock the bonus chapters, may not get the closure they deserve depending on their skill with an entirely different kind of game.  This is a huge bummer, but I can at least say that that final cutscene is more of a fun extra.  It doesn’t really divulge any extra information about the world and is instead a goofy and inadequate reward for the difficult section preceding it.  It would be easy to avoid the hassle of this section and instead just watch the scene on Youtube, if one were so inclined.

With this post, I really just wanted to talk about this end sequence of Drakengard 3 at length, especially considering not many people have probably seen it.  I don’t know where my feelings actually come out on this section.  On one hand, I really think it is one of the coolest and most unique sections in a game this year: it is visually striking, features a breathtaking (but now somewhat traumatizing to hear) song, and is shocking in its nonchalant change of gameplay genre.  On the other hand, it can become unbearably frustrating and is somewhat archaic in its timing windows on the notes.  It’s a bit of a mess, a section that feels like more time was given to making it look amazing then making it play well.  Even with all its problems, I still think this part of Drakengard 3 is worth seeing–just don’t try and play it yourself, okay?

Why don’t all dubbed Japanese games credit the English voice actors?

Lightning Returns is a recent game that credits its English voice cast.

Lightning Returns is a recent game that credits its English voice cast.

Japanese games are some of my favorites, time and time again.  Many of them feature kooky characters, creative storylines, and clunky yet interesting gameplay mechanics.  This year alone has brought Lightning Returns and Drakengard 3, two games I enjoyed immensely for their unique worlds and bold experimentation within their respective genres.  As such a big fan, I spend a lot of time with these games and come to understand some of the commonalities they share.  One such commonality that constantly confuses me is a simple question: why is the English voice cast so often left out of the credits in these games?

From what I’ve noticed, there are three potential outcomes for Japanese games translated into English.  First are the games like Persona 4, games that are entirely in English, yet still don’t bother to credit the English voice actors.  Second, there are games such as Drakengard 3 that do have both vocal tracks (in Drakengard 3’s case, the Japanese track is DLC) but only include the Japanese voice cast in the credits.  For both these types of games, the developer only credits the voice actors who aren’t even present in that version of the game, a mind-boggling fact that still shocks the hell out of me.

There are some games which actually do give proper credit to the English voice cast, such as the aforementioned Lightning Returns–all the credited VAs are replaced with their English counterparts.  From my experience, it does seem like this third case is the most common with Japanese games, just not by much.  I really don’t understand why so many translated games neglect to include the English voice cast.  What possible value is there in noting actors from other versions of the game when you could instead credit the actual voice actor for that version?  This is something that really irks me.

Sometimes, I really enjoy a particular voice performance and would love to look up more of that voice actor’s work.  If the credits don’t actually say who did that performance, it can be quite difficult to figure it out, depending on how skilled the voice actor is at changing his/her voice and how prolific the actor is in the industry.  Visit a forum for a newly-released game with no English voice credits and I guarantee you’ll find a topic or two where a bunch of people try to guess who the actors are.  It’s distressing to think that such guesswork has to be employed instead of just being able to read the damn credits.

Naoto: a fantastic voice performance that is still uncredited (or at least credit has been unconfirmed) to this day.

Naoto: a fantastic voice performance that is still uncredited (or at least credit has been unconfirmed) to this day.

A rather prominent example of this is the voice actor/actress for Naoto in both Persona 4 games (a different voice actress is used for the anime series and Arena).  To my knowledge, we still don’t actually know who voices this character, due to no credit for her voice actor.  Similarly, a large chunk of the voice cast in Drakengard 3 is unknown, aside from a few well-known actors who are easy to recognize (Tara Platt as Zero, Yuri Lowenthal as Dito, etc.).  Even characters who sound like prominent voice actors may not actually be those voice actors, due to a bit of vocal homogenization in this type of game.  How could we know for sure, after all, since these games don’t give proper credit to those actors?  It’s absolutely absurd.

In any other medium, this would be grounds for complete outrage.  Why isn’t this the case for these games!?  We just wave off the lack of a properly-credited English voice cast, not worrying that we may never know who voiced some of our favorite characters.  Is it because these games are so niche?  They really aren’t anymore, to be honest.  Dozens, if not hundreds, of games get brought over from Japan by companies like XSeed and NiS every year, many of which feature new voiceover and many of which fail to credit the new cast.  This is something we NEED to get angry about–but who is to blame?

The localization team is the group who changes the credits and works with the new voice cast.  It can’t be that they don’t have the resources or time to change the names to the correct ones.  They are already translating the entirety of the credits from kanji to Roman characters AND usually inserting the names of the localization team; how much more work could it be to just edit a few extra lines of text?  I can only think of one reason why these companies may leave out the English voice actors: the new voice actors just don’t have the authority to get their names into the credits.  This is really only educated guesswork on my part, but I can’t think of any other reason why so many of these games would disregard the actual voice actors.

You may not know this (I didn’t until just recently) but video game voice actors are commonly represented by the Screen Actors Guild.  SAG rules state that a member cannot work on any project that is not in agreement with the guild first and that members must be given standard working conditions and proper credit on the project.  Furthermore, looking at the SAG website reveals that quite a few hoops must be jumped through in order to work with SAG voice actors, including loads of paperwork and verification needed to move forward with the project.  Also, any non-SAG members also working on the project are required to be noted in separate paperwork.

This all sounds like a major pain in the neck.  If this is the reason why many smaller localization teams instead choose to work with non-SAG voice actors, I can understand why they do so.  In addition, I’m willing to bet that these SAG actors cost a good deal more money to hire, due to their standardized expectations of pay.  It’s likely that most games which neglect to credit their voice cast are using these non-SAG actors (or SAG actors using a pseudonym).  Since credit isn’t necessarily required to be given, many of these localization teams just don’t do so when it comes time to make the credits for a particular game.

Danganronpa: another game with no credited English cast. In fact, the Wikipedia entry is filled with footnotes of people having to ask the voice actors personally on Twitter if a role was theirs.

Danganronpa: another game with no credited English cast. In fact, the Wikipedia entry is filled with footnotes of people having to ask the voice actors personally on Twitter if a role was theirs.

I don’t agree with this.  Even if the voice actors are perfectly happy not being credited for their work, they should appear in the game’s credits.  What harm does it do to the final project?  It’s not like actors earn residuals for simply appearing in the game’s credits–it is merely an acknowledgment of their time and effort spent on the game, just like any other member of the team.  It takes a measly few seconds to change the name from the Japanese VA to the English VA.  There is no logical reason I can see that explains why these hardworking individuals don’t deserve to get credit–SAG status or not.

No matter the reasons, all games that record new English voiceover for an American/Europe release should credit the new voice actors.  This is a trend in gaming that needs to change NOW.  It feels very slimy on the part of the companies who omit the English voice actors and completely ignores the point of what credits are supposed to do: credit the damn people who worked on the game.  While it’s true that these companies aren’t legally doing anything wrong by not crediting those who aren’t a part of SAG projects, it is still a despicable and shady practice.  As fans of a game, we shouldn’t have to be left wondering who actually voiced a particular character.

Parasite Eve (PS1) review

Parasite Eve's heroine, Aya Brea.

Parasite Eve’s heroine, Aya Brea.

Parasite Eve takes place in New York City, circa-1997.  NYPD officer Aya Brea decides to visit the opera on Christmas Eve, pulled there by some desire she can’t explain.  Partway through the show, everyone in the theater begins to spontaneously combust–save for Aya and the lead actress.  Aya chases after the mysterious woman, now calling herself Eve, and watches in terror as she changes before her eyes.  Eve speaks of mitochondria, a part of human biology that allows her to morph and control humanity.  She notes that Aya is special as well, her own mitochondria giving her special powers.  Using these powers, and her trusty sidearm, Aya fights to stop Eve and save the city.

The story is a bit rough overall, for several reasons.  None of the dialogue is voiced, and several scenes with just dialogue are eerily quiet; this isn’t uncommon for the era, but it feels strangely out-of-place here.  Without the voices, the story seems oddly quiet and empty.  The writing is a bit shaky as well, with loads of melodrama and lines bordering on mistranslation scattered throughout the game’s eight-or-so hours.  The story also feels very clearly Japanese in origin, thoughtful and reflective on humanity–just a little too stargazing for my tastes.  The concepts of mitochondria and human evolution are creative ones, if a bit hard to believe, but there just isn’t a lot of substance to any of the characters or plot points.  For these reasons, Parasite Eve’s story was easily the part of the game I cared least about, just serving as a small thread to follow until the end.

Aya is a pretty damn good character though, especially for the era.  The fact that she is a woman is never mentioned, either explicitly or subtly, and she kicks a whole lot of ass.  I’m sure that Aya was a great role model for the era, up there with greats like Lara Croft and April Ryan.  The one complaint I have with her is that she suffers a bit of that mopiness that plagued the protagonists of nearly every Square Enix title from this era.  It’s much more subdued, however, and doesn’t get in the way of an otherwise awesome character.  The whole story is actually quite pro-female in nature, as the game mentions several times that the male mitochondria are weak and not able to evolve like female mitochondria.  It’s a fascinating distinction to see in a late-90s game, let alone one from a Japanese company.

What a typical battle arena looks like.

What a typical battle arena looks like.

Until I started doing a bit of research for this review, I actually had no idea that Parasite Eve’s story is actually based on a novel of the same name written by a Japanese author.  In fact, the past events that the characters in the game constantly reference are actually the events from this book, albeit a bit edited to fit into the story more neatly.  I found this quite interesting, seeing as how very few games are actually based off books (Metro 2033 is the only one that comes to mind).  While I don’t think it is necessary for understanding the story, I would very much like to eventually track down the original and read it for myself after seeing this game’s story..

Beating the game gives you the option of saving a clear game save and starting Ex Game mode.  This is essentially New Game +, complete with your stats and items carrying over and a bonus dungeon filled with challenging monsters and new items.  While I didn’t bother to go through the game a second time, I will note that bits of the story–including the “true” ending–are found at the end of this dungeon.  For those players who wish to see every last bit of the game’s events (which the second game apparently follows, actually), it will probably be worth playing through this bonus dungeon.

Where I think Parasite Eve really shines is in the design of its combat.  Instead of making yet another turn-based JRPG, Square Enix made something that mashes active combat and turn-based combat into something new.  Any random encounter places you into a small arena that encompasses the size of the screen, with varying levels of camera zoom.  You can walk around freely, dodging enemy attacks and positioning yourself for a counterattack.  Once your turn gauge fills, you are able to queue up an attack (or item, weapon change, or escape) whenever you are ready.

The in-combat menu, used to change weapons/armor, use items, or cast spells.

The in-combat menu, used to change weapons/armor, use items, or cast spells.

Aya can attack with any variety of weapons, most of them firearms.  Each weapon type comes with different typical shot styles: pistols are quick to fire, machine guns spray bullets across the battlefield, shotguns fire in large cones, etc.  There are a few melee weapons as well, but these are generally reserved for times when you are out of ammo, something I never had to deal with.  Aya also has a variety of spells that unlock as she levels up.  These range from heals of varying amounts to a haste buff that increases both the turn gauge speed and her movement speed, making it easier to dodge attacks.  Using too many of these abilities in one battle, however, slows down the recovery of the gauge to the point of uselessness; this means you cannot just rely on it for heals in the longer battles.

I really enjoyed my time with the combat in Parasite Eve.  There was just enough skill in dodging enemy attacks to make me feel rewarded for doing so, and the combat moves with a skillful pace that make battles fun.  Boss fights are frequent and do a good job of mixing things up with tricky attack patterns.  I only really had two complaints with the combat systems.  First, Aya’s default movement speed is terrible, making it quite hard to dodge some of the faster enemies.  Pair this with a smaller arena and sometimes enemies will get what feels like several free attacks on you.  Second, I think the combat can get a little tedious, just in sheer amount of encounters.  Once you learn how to fight a particular enemy type, they are pretty damn easy to fight again and again.  Sadly, some of these enemy types are a bit bullet-spongey and pop up much too frequently.  These are small complaints that only barely got in the way of my enjoyment with battling..

When you aren’t in combat, Parasite Eve resembles a Resident Evil game in design.  You wander around large “dungeons,” looking for the way forward.  Occasionally, you are tasked with finding keys or other special items in order to progress.  It never gets puzzle-y, like the Resident Evil series, but it still feels like the best analog.  One annoyance is that some of these areas can be tricky to navigate, with the fixed camera angles and low resolution hiding the way to progress.  It can take a bit of poking around to figure out where to go at times.

Get used to this message--you'll be seeing it a lot.

Get used to this message–you’ll be seeing it a lot.

You can find chests scattered around with new weapons and armor, ammo, and medicine to help you fight through the various random encounters.  It’s quite crucial to track these items down, as new weapons and armor make HUGE differences and constant encounters will eat voraciously into your medicine and ammo reserves.  I liked that random encounters aren’t exactly random, as they always take place in the same locations but not every single time you walk through.  All in all, Parasite Eve was a game I enjoyed exploring–every new hallway led to fun fights and tasty loot.

All these items, and a limited amount of spaces to store them in, makes inventory management a bit of a pain.  You get TONS of items and can only dump them off in one discreet location, a place that can nearly always be visited but only with a bit of travel time and annoyance.  Also, several key items that are only used once aren’t discarded automatically from your inventory after you use them.  Strangely, some of the later key items DO automatically disappear from your inventory, a fact that seems rather inconsistent.  Ammo is the one blissful exception, stacking infinitely and being shared between weapons, a very nice consideration on the part of the developer.  The inventory amount does increase as you level up, finally settling at a reasonable number, but early going can be quite rough as you try to decide what to keep and what to toss.

Parasite Eve wouldn’t be an RPG without some stats to manage.  Aya gains stats automatically as she levels, such as her base health pool and inventory spaces, without any input from the player.  She does, however, accumulate bonus points from her fights.  Bonus points are generated in greater quantities if you manage to finish a fight without taking damage or in a certain amount of time, incentivizing you to avoid playing sloppily.  These bonus points can be used in a variety of ways, from increasing the inventory limit to actually buffing Aya’s various weapons and armor.  This is a nice way to “fix” some of the issues you’re having with the game, boosting the things that you feel you need without wasting points on other things.

An image from one of the game's intense creature transformations.

An image from one of the game’s intense creature transformations.

Special care should be taken with your guns and armor too.  Equipment often comes with various helpful abilities, like the ability to take two actions in one turn (gun) or immunity to poison (armor).  Equipment also comes with bonus stats, special +1s or +2s that are transferable (along with those passive abilities) with the use of tools.  It’s actually quite important to move these bonus stats and abilities between gear as you obtain better stuff later on, as each point or ability can really make a difference in the endgame.  Proper management of these stats is quite crucial for making the final bosses manageable.   I think this is a smart system, one that lets you easily move to a new piece of gear by transferring all the bonus stats to it with no lost progress–something other RPGs could learn from.

While it may look just as rough as any Playstation game, Parasite Eve features some pretty amazing creativity in its CG.  Some of the cutscenes feature some dated but still shockingly grotesque transformation scenes as creatures mutate into monsters.  Furthermore, much of the imagery throughout the game can be pretty damn fucked up, actually: people melting into goo and even a creepy baby monster complete with realistic crying.  I was impressed at how well this stuff still held up, unsettling me several times throughout the game.  The music was done by famous composer Yoko Shimomura (most likely known for the Kingdom Hearts series), but I just didn’t enjoy it that much.  It fit the scenes relatively well, but none of it is memorable enough that I would recognize it again.

Parasite Eve is a sharp, entertaining, and condensed JRPG.  The story is silly but somewhat enjoyable in its over-the-top melodrama.  Aya is a fantastically noteworthy character for the era.  The combat is well-designed and has great potential with just a few refinements (which maybe the sequel brings?).  I also love how it only took me around eight hours to finish, the perfect length for the systems in place to keep me going with minimal annoyance.  It was shocking to see how well this game holds up, even for someone who had never played it before 2014.  I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a different Square JRPG, something that isn’t afraid to try something new.