Miasmata review

The journal, a crucial tool in your quest for a cure.

The journal, a crucial tool in your quest for a cure.

The story of Miasmata is quite thin.  You play as Robert Hughes, a scientist who has found himself stranded on the island of Eden.  As he wakes up, he finds that he has been stricken with a devastating plague, a plague that he will die from if he doesn’t find a cure.  Lucky for him, the island he finds himself on was at one point home to a research team trying to find such a cure.  The player must explore the island and find the necessary elements to synthesize a cure before escaping and returning home.  At the same time, he or she must avoid the mysterious creature that constantly stalks around, looking for another meal.

What little story there actually is all comes from journals of the original scientists found in the various huts and tents around the island.  Many of these talk about the plague and their attempts to find a cure. Later, one of the scientists hallucinates and falls into the typical “I’m going insane and found blood on my hands” craziness that I’ve come to expect from games of this type.  I started out trying to care about the backstory, but I soon found myself not giving a damn.  This information is completely non-essential and can be safely ignored in favor of the meat of the game.

There are two unique gameplay elements at work in Miasmata: cartography and botany.  Unlike your typical game which fills in a map as you explore, this game expects you to make most of the map yourself.  You get a very small amount of given information from the few maps you find around the island, filling in small sections for you, but the rest is up to you through triangulation.  To find yourself on the map, you must have unimpaired eyeline to two “known” landmarks (meaning already present on your map); by noting both of these with your map open, you are able to trace the intersection of those sightlines and find out exactly where you are  This also expands the map by a very small amount.  Furthermore, you can also make “unknown” landmarks “known” by doing the same process in order to give yourself more landmarks to consult if you get lost..

It’s important to note that you have to do this CONSTANTLY.  Your location is not marked on the map, unless you reference it with landmarks.  If you don’t keep your reference landmarks up to date, you may find yourself lost with no idea where you are and no way to check.  The island is absolutely massive and losing the path and your way is more a guarantee than a possibility.  It’s a terrifying and thrilling prospect, one that demands you have a good sense of direction (with the help of your compass) and dedication to mapping your path.  Never before have I felt a video game location was so real, forcing me to explore and learn actual geography and scouting techniques in order to survive.  I actually enjoyed wandering around and finding new locations; it felt like I was discovering a whole new world all on my own.

A glimpse at the map, with lines for "unknown" landmarks.

A glimpse at the map, with lines for “unknown” landmarks.

The other unique gameplay element in Miasmata is the botany.  Scattered throughout the island are various plants with a multitude of effects.  You take these plants to a laboratory, several of which are located around the island, and examine them to learn their synthesizable effects.  Some can be distilled into medicine, a necessity when your plague symptoms flare up and make you feverish.  Others can make a variety of tonics or boosters to temporarily or permanently increase your stats.  Six plants are particularly important, as they are the ones you need to synthesize your cure.

You can figure these combinations out on your own, by gathering random plants and putting them together to see what happens.  It’s easier, however, to find various notes that give you hints as to what needs to combine for various effects.  Finding the notes tied to the various cure elements is your first goal, as it can take hours upon hours to stumble upon them yourself.  These notes also hint at locations for necessary plants, testing your mapping and exploring skills in order to find them.  I loved the thrill I felt when I finally tracked down that one plant I needed for something–and felt a slight chill when I remembered I would have to carry it all the way back.

The plague affecting your character makes exploration difficult, essentially acting as your health bar; a few tumbles and he is soon at risk of death.  Expect to fall down hills quite often, especially as you are getting used to the game’s realistic momentum.  If you start running, you move extremely fast. Stopping can take a few seconds, especially when at top speeds.  When hills are involved, this process can take even longer.  I can’t count the number of times I teetered over an edge and found myself rolling for several seconds, the darkness seeping into the corners of my vision as the plague worsened.  This momentum system was a bit frustrating at times, when I couldn’t get my character to stop and lost both health and progress, but I eventually came to appreciate the challenge it brought.

For the size of its development team, Miasmata has its pretty moments.

Miasmata has its pretty moments.

Miasmata can be quite a difficult game, especially if you aren’t careful.  You can only save at beds and light sources, most of which are found within outposts.  Also, you only have one save slot (per each of the three files, at least); saving in a bad spot can potentially ruin your game.  It is direly important that you keep medicine on hand at all times, because you never know when the next chance to synthesize some will come up.  I had one point in the game when I was afraid I was going to have to start over, as I was feverish and quite far from any outposts.  I had to reload several times, eventually finding the best path to make it just in time.  It was intense and invigorating, but I probably would have been heartbroken if it hadn’t worked out.  I advise extreme caution when exploring new areas.

The monster stalking you seems quite intimidating at first.  You can go over an hour (like I did) without ever encountering it, maybe not even knowing it exists if you haven’t done your research.  No matter what, it will eventually appear..  You can’t really run away, as it’s much faster than you are, and it doesn’t stop chasing you until you reach a light source.  It appears and disappears at random, making it hard to predict.  As I encountered it multiple times, the terror became non-existent.  If anything, the monster just became an annoyance, getting in my way while I was trying to get somewhere.  Since he pursues you so quickly, you are better off just waiting for him to kill you and loading another save, hoping he won’t be in your path the next time.  I understand what the developer was going for with this mechanic, but it ends up being a waste of the player’s time.

For the size of its development team, Miasmata is an impressively atmospheric game.  The sounds of the island set the tone perfectly: light rainfall, the chirps of birds and other animals, and the startling growl of the monster.  While it is a bit flat in design, the vast scope of the island is astounding.  There are some rather good lighting effects in place, including a dark nighttime that is easily the darkest I have ever seen in a game by default.  I was truly frightened to step outside at night, both for fear of the creature and getting entirely lost. I highly recommend avoiding any exploration at night for all but the boldest of players.

Miasmata is an impressive game, especially considering it came from just two people: a pair of brothers who worked on it together.  Is it rough around the edges?  Yes, absolutely.  It is, however, a very unique vision that could only have come about from such a small developer.  The mapping and botany mechanics are uniquely fascinating gems that you would likely never find in a AAA-game.  The game’s island may not be as visually impressive as Skyrim, but I found it much more fun to explore and discover its many intricacies.  Unlike any game before it, I wanted to poke around and find everything on my own.  It is a wholly-unique experience, one that I suggest to anyone who thinks it might be up their alley.

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Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 (PC) review

Raziel, the main character.

Raziel, the main character.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 picks up immediately after the events of the original game.  Raziel, the player character, has chased his old master Kain through a time portal and finds himself in the distant past of Nosgoth, in a time before Kain’s actions doomed the land in the original Blood Omen.  As Raziel continues his quest to enact his vengeance on Kain, he learns more about his heritage and the many intricate details that make up Nosgoth.  Through his actions, Raziel hopes to learn the real truth of all the world’s mysteries.

In fact, Raziel’s main goals often take a backseat in Soul Reaver 2.  While the plot does keep moving forward and remains relevant until the very end, most of the voiceover and (long!) cutscenes focus on telling the story of Nosgoth.  Several cutscenes feature Raziel’s internal voice monologuing over a new area, describing what he sees and what it means in the context of the world.  It’s all done extremely well and helps to sell the world as a real place, but I often felt that the writers preferred to explore their creation instead of actually continuing the narrative.  This is a noble goal, but it is often at the cost of the main plot, which can be quite interesting on its own.

Once again, the main strength of the story is in its writing.  Few games pack in so many sharply written lines, dripping with subtext and emotion from the excellent voice cast.  Nosgoth is also a fleshed-out place, with a vast history that makes me excited to learn more about it in the future games of the series.  Unfortunately, Soul Reaver 2 stumbles in one of the same ways the first did: in its resolution.  Things are again left unanswered by the the conclusion and another cliffhanger bookends the final moments, albeit one that is slightly less egregious than before.  I found this frustrating, especially in a game that managed to handle everything so well up until the final hour or so.

Moebius is another major player in the game's story.

Moebius is another major player in the game’s story.

Gameplay in Soul Reaver 2 feels both similar to and different from the gameplay in the original game.  The same mix of platforming, combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving exists, but the amount of each has shuffled around.  Exploration has become much less important, for example.  The world is much larger in size but is now extremely linear in scope.  You are gated heavily from exploring by various doors which require special powers to open.  Several of the main areas even permanently close after you finish them, preventing you from returning.  Health upgrades and bonus powers are gone too, meaning there is absolutely no reason to explore the world..  On one hand, I really appreciate that I didn’t have to go and find a bunch of stupid crap; on the other hand, however, it made the entire game feel a bit constrained and short.

Like its predecessor, it can be a bit hard to figure out where to go in Soul Reaver 2.  While the original game featured absurd pitch-black areas and labyrinthine level design, most of the confusion in this game comes from figuring out what exactly it wants from you.  I had a few moments where I couldn’t even begin to make progress because I had no idea what I was capable of doing as the player.  For awhile, I had to push at the boundaries of the game and realize just what it would let me do.

Soul Reaver 2 also makes the assumption that you have played the original.  Aside from showing the final events of the Soul Reaver 1, it doesn’t give you any information.  This also applies to some important things like controls, how the puzzles work, and where you are expected to go.  For those who haven’t played the original, it may be a bit hard to find your way at first.  It’s also worth noting that it is VITALLY  important to pay attention to Raziel’s incidental dialogue at all times, as he often tells you where to head next.  This is often the only hint you get as to where to go.  Missing this information can have you lost for several minutes as you find the one place you can progress.  As the player, you must keep an ear out for this dialogue or be ready to consult a guide.

One of the game's four forges, imbuing the Reaver with elemental energy.

One of the game’s four forges, imbuing the Reaver with elemental energy.

Platforming and puzzle-solving have both seen major improvements.  The controls feel much tighter, and none of the absurdly-precise platforming sections return from the previous game; any of the platforming I was required to do (which is much less, in total) was no longer a massive headache.   In terms of the puzzles, there is very little of the block-pushing that dominated the original game.  Instead, the puzzles mix things up nicely, often introducing new elements to tinker with as you imbue your Soul Reaver with four elements, one from each of the game’s main dungeons.  I never got stuck for long but still managed to feel smart after I solved a puzzle, a nice and friendly balance I enjoyed.

Finally, the combat has managed to become even more simple, something I wouldn’t have thought possible.  While Soul Reaver 1 had you spearing enemies or throwing them into various hazards to finish them off, no such thing is required in Soul Reaver 2.  You simply lock onto an enemy, block their attacks, and hammer on the attack buttons until they die.  It’s also noteworthy to say that the way your main weapon, the Soul Reaver, works has changed: whereas before you could only use it at full health, it is now available whenever you like.  It has become vicious entity all its own, though, draining your health if you use it too often.  Even with this restriction, you can keep it on the majority of the time and lay waste to the game’s enemies.

Fighting is absurdly easy, at least until the very end of the game.  Frustrating block-heavy enemies begin to appear, which is made worse by the inability to perform any kind of guard break; I eventually resorted to running circles around enemies in order to down them.  For the most part, the fighting is completely pointless.  I safely ran past the vast majority of enemies, stopping to fight the ones who created barriers or the ones who got in the way of my puzzle-solving.  Even the final boss (who is the only boss, by the way) is a complete joke, posing absolutely no challenge for reasons I won’t reveal here.  It made me feel like the developers didn’t really want to have combat in their game but included it because it felt necessary.

The world is much bigger but also more linear.

The world is much bigger but also more linear.

Saving in Soul Reaver 2 has become much what you would expect from a game in its era: you find a save point and make a save.  It’s important to note, however, that these save points are quite infrequent.  I went over an hour without saving on multiple occasions simply because I didn’t encounter another save point.  Many of the dungeon areas don’t include a save point, meaning you have to clear the entire thing or leave the dungeon before saving again. This can prove to be disastrous if you experience a game crash or a power outage.

Like with the original, I had a few issues with the PC port of Soul Reaver 2.  I couldn’t use my gamepad without the use of a third-party keymapping program, due to the game’s inability to bind the movement or to use my controller’s triggers.  I also had some problems with audio quality: sometimes, it sounded as if everything had dropped to an extremely low bitrate before fixing itself.  Finally, the game crashed during the final cutscene, meaning I had to trek through a half-hour of the boring endgame in order to see how it all ended.  For the most part, it’s stable enough to play through, but I would be wary of any potential issues.  Save often and be prepared to maybe use a keyboard.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 is a strange game.  In equal parts, it feels like the developers better realized their ideas for the original game and took several steps back from those original designs.  While Soul Reaver 2 is more ambitious in several ways, it actually shrank in scope from its PS1 counterpart.  I think it’s a much sharper game, still quite playable for a modern player, but I do miss some of that ambition from Soul Reaver 1, no matter how rough that game was.  I enjoyed spending my eight hours with it, but I wish I had gotten to spend more, learning more about Nosgoth.  My hopes are that the final game in this saga (as I’ve already played Blood Omen 2, which technically comes next) manages to bring it all together into a perfect conclusion.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (PC) review

Raziel, after his transformation.

Raziel, after his transformation.

NOTE: I would like to note that I did not play this game when it was originally released.  As such, I decided to review this game as it stands today, for someone who doesn’t have any nostalgia for it.  I ask fans of the original to remove their rose-tinted glasses and think about the game from my point-of-view.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver places you into the role of Raziel, a former vampire who is forsaken by his master Kain at the beginning of the game.  He is cast into the Lake of the Dead and left to torment for all eternity.  Raziel is saved, however, by a mysterious wraith and given a chance for vengeance.  The former-vampire is now a new being, a soul sucking demon with changed powers.  Raziel returns to a world that has decayed in the hundreds of years since his demise and fights through his several brothers in order to reach Kain and claim his vengeance.

The writing of Soul Reaver is easily its strongest aspect.  Both Raziel and Kain are excellently voiced and speak in poetical, almost-Shakespearean dialogue that is always enjoyable to listen to.  When the two of them are together, the writing flows and the two bounce off each other superbly. Sadly, this doesn’t happen often enough, only twice in the entire game.  None of the other characters are as fun to listen to and instead just spout inane, evil dialogue before being killed by Raziel.

Kain in all his smugness.

Kain in all his smugness.

The rest of the game suffers from poor storytelling done mostly through boring, stale voiceover.  Occasionally, you’ll get a voiceover from either your wraith friend or Raziel explaining a piece of the world.  There is rarely any context to this information, instead feeling dumped in your lap.  You are learning about the world, surely, but in a manner that makes it hard to actually retain any of the information being given.  Worst of all is that the end of the game, just when the story starts to come together in a more cohesive way, is capped off with a massive cliffhanger, one of the worst I’ve ever seen in a game.

Finding your way forward is also a challenge, as you are never clearly told where to go.  You will get a general idea from the wraith who is helping you, but it is given in the context of the world.  How am I supposed to know what the Fortress is if there are no signs indications informing me thusly?  It necessitates wandering around aimlessly until you find the one path available to you with your current ability set.  When I did find myself in one of the main areas, I became even more lost.  Oftentimes, the way to progress was so hidden or abstract that I couldn’t find a way out for several minutes.  It’s poor level design at its worst, practically necessitating the usage of a guide to make it through–unless you like being frustrated for hours.

Gameplay in Soul Reaver has you navigating a large world through a variety of platforming, puzzles, and combat.  You can go pretty much anywhere, your progress only being barred by various abilities you need to pass certain obstacles, Metroidvania-style.  Scattered around the world are various gates that allow you to teleport freely between them once discovered.  It’s also important to note that this is how you resume a saved game, as loading your progress always puts you back at the very beginning of the game, with your solved puzzles and defeated bosses remaining intact.  You can quickly move forward to the game’s first gate and warp back to where you were upon resuming.  It’s a strange choice, but it works rather well–as long as you make sure to find a gate before quitting the game.

Pushing a block, something you do a LOT of.

Pushing a block, something you do a LOT of.

There is quite a lot of platforming throughout Soul Reaver.  As you may expect from Playstation 1 era gameplay, this platforming is extremely touchy and unbearably frustrating at times.  Several of these sections are ridiculous, requiring a set of uncannily precise jumps in order to proceed.  The game’s keyboard controls (gamepad support isn’t available natively for the X360 controller) are imprecise and never seemed to do what I wanted during these segments, overstepping just enough to plummet me back to the bottom of a particularly hard section.  To make matters even worse, the camera is absolutely atrocious.  It gets stuck on corners regularly and has a tendency of auto-adjusting at just the wrong moment to mess up one of your jumps.  By the end of the game, I absolutely HATED the game’s platforming and never wanted to do it again.

Puzzles are also a common occurrence in Soul Reaver, particularly block puzzles.  I hope you enjoy pushing blocks around for several minutes at a time, because many of this game’s block puzzles get quite intense and complicated.  There is a veritable cornucopia of these puzzles in the game, sometimes in quick succession.  At the very least, the controls for pushing the blocks are excellently implemented, allowing you to move the blocks in any direction once grabbed (somewhat of a rarity in the genre, actually) and the ability to flip blocks over to fit them into place.  These puzzles were diverse and well-designed, but I grew tired of the sheer number of them eventually.

The other type of puzzle is figuring out how to progress through certain obstacles.  You obtain new powers from the infrequent boss encounters, as you absorb the soul of one of Raziel’s brothers.  These give you abilities such as being able to pass through gates or swim through previously-deadly water.  The boss fights themselves are quite creative in what you are asked to do to succeed, more like puzzles than actual fights.  I especially liked one that has me kite the boss back through the level to a furnace before torching him to death instead of actively fighting him in combat.  However, these fights are all extremely easy, once figured out, and somewhat anticlimactic.  The final boss fight (a repeat of a fight you’ve already done, in fact) is an absolute joke and feels very lazy in design.

An enemy thrown into sunlight, one of the few ways you can truly kill them.

An enemy thrown into sunlight, one of the few ways you can truly kill them.

The final part of gameplay in Soul Reaver is combat.  Raziel is always equipped with his claws, able to do short combos to assault his foes.  Most of these enemies, however, won’t die normally.  You have to use the grapple button to pick them up and throw them into water, fire, or spikes to finish them off.  It’s also possible to obtain weapons that can execute spearing finishes and eventually your Soul Reaver blade.  On some base level, I enjoyed the simplicity of the combat, as long as there wasn’t more than a single enemy.  Combat never becomes difficult–mashing the attack button works for every enemy in the game.  Enemies serve more as annoyances, getting in the way of your puzzle-solving or traversal.

In an interesting mechanic, Raziel can switch between the physical and the spiritual worlds, often to solve puzzles and progress forward.  This mechanic is dictated by Raziel’s spirit energy (or health, essentially), which he builds by eating the souls of his fallen foes  Raziel’s abilities are different in both worlds: for example, he can’t move blocks in as a spirit and he can’t phase through gates physically.  I also thought it was neat how the developers handle death with this mechanic, as dying in the physical world simply sends you back to the spiritual world.  Gathering a bit of energy and finding a portal lets you shift right back to try again, with only a small amount of lost time.  It makes death a lot less frustrating.

I came to Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver because of the overwhelming nostalgia that fans of the series seem to have.  For years, I have heard that this series has one of the best stories in gaming and knew that I would have to check it out eventually.  When I finally did, I just didn’t feel this reverence in my time with the game.  Maybe the story picks up in the sequel, but I didn’t really care much about the events of Soul Reaver–aside from the fascinating relationship between Kain and Raziel.  Considering the quality of the gameplay (by modern standards), I feel like I wasted my time by playing through this game.  I suffered confusing level design, unbearable platforming, and far too many block puzzles to count in order to finally know what this game was–and it wasn’t worth it.

Dysfunctional Systems: How to Manage Chaos Episode 1 (PC) review

Winter punching her uncooperative instructor, Cyrus.

Winter punching her uncooperative instructor, Cyrus.

The first episode of Dysfunctional Systems: How to Manage Chaos puts you in shoes of 14-year old Winter Harrison.  Winter is training to be a mediator, a job that has her travel to different worlds in secret to maintain and possibly influence the balance of order and chaos found there.  After an off-screen, successful (but short and easy) first mission, she is sent to the world of Sule and paired up with the infamous Cyrus Addington, a mediator known for his controversial tactics in getting the job done.  It all seems to be going well, until events suddenly change for the worse.  Both of the mediators are quickly in danger, and the planet of Sule threatens to break out in civil war.  The player must navigate the events as they unfold and try to minimize the damage that occurs.

Minimizing the damage is about all you can do in Dysfunctional Systems.  There isn’t really a “good” ending and a “bad” ending; no matter which choices you pick, something is going to go wrong.  It’s clear that developer wanted to focus on the particular actions you choose to take instead of making the correct choices.  Sadly, this leaves this first episode on something of a cliffhanger, promising bigger things for the future of the (relatively few) choices you made.  It feels like a tease, giving you just enough of a taste to pull you in before stopping abruptly.

As far as gameplay goes, Dysfunctional Systems is your typical visual novel: you read a lot of text, accompanied by still images of characters and the area you are in, and make a few simple choices when given the chance.  There is also an inessential codex, with some information on the world you are mediating, that doesn’t fill out that much.  The writing isn’t terrible, but it doesn’t really do anything memorable.  If it weren’t for the interesting setup and world, I probably wouldn’t have cared at all about the story.  Winter does at least have some promise as an interesting character, but I would really need to see more of her before I could care about her.

It’s sad that there isn’t more to it, because Winter’s life seems quite interesting.  I like the idea of people being sent to other worlds sneakily in order to subtly tweak the balance of order and chaos.  In a deeper game, I could seem some great opportunities where you are forced to learn about the society in order to make the correct choices in how to best influence them for the better.  There is also a lot of future tech that is only hinted at, which made me wonder what other cool toys this society had.  It’s a world I want to explore more thoroughly, something that the developer has promised for the next episode in the series.

A bit of dialogue, the majority of the game's content.

A bit of dialogue, the majority of the game’s content.

There are also a few odd moments here and there.  At the beginning, your mentor drags you into a bar reluctantly and tasks you with having a drink.  Considering your character is 14 years old, I felt this was a bit squeamish morally, especially since she really doesn’t want to at first.  Winter’s age is also somewhat suspect to me.  Why would they send a 14-year old to potentially dangerous situations such as these?  Shouldn’t she do a bit more learning first, before getting hands-on experience?  Finally,  there are a few minor characters that appear near the end that seem unbearably annoying.  Distressingly, the developer has promised more of these characters for the next episode.

The other big problem with Dysfunctional Systems is that it is short.  I mean, really short.  As a fast reader, I maybe cleared it a bit quicker than the average person, but my first playthrough was still only 45 minutes long.  Even for the genre, this is not very long.  The game is only $5, which lessens the blow slightly, but it still annoyed me that it was over so fast.  This first episode mostly feels like it’s laying the groundwork for future episodes, setting up the systems and characters before diving in more fully.  It’s like reading the first few chapters in a good book and having to wait several months for the rest–disappointing and agonizing.

As much as I liked the world of Dysfunctional Systems, I can’t really recommend it to anyone.  Even for just $5, the length is just too short to justify spending the money, especially considering the cliffhanger-y nature of the story.  I suggest waiting until the next episode comes out (due later this year) before diving into this world.  Otherwise, you’ll be stuck like I am, waiting impatiently for more to do and see in Winter’s world.

Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure (PC) review

Trane "getting up" on a wall.

Trane “getting up” on a wall.

Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure features a young-blood named Trane, a graffiti artist who wants to get his name out there and become famous.  After an early game beat-down, Trane rebuilds his image and forms the Stay Free Crew, a group dedicated to “getting up” (slang for painting graffiti) at any cost.  The city is ruled by the CCK, a police force tasked with stopping taggers by any means necessary.  Trane soon gets in over his head with rival gangs, the CCK, and even the mayor and must fight in order to survive.

I ended up being really torn on the story in Getting Up.  On the one hand, it takes a ridiculous amount of time to get started and features some poorly shot cutscenes and some hit-or-miss voice acting.  On the other hand, the events go to some truly insane places and everything is so bombastically serious that I couldn’t help but love it.  I didn’t particularly think it was a good story, but it was at least different and obviously something the developer (and Marc Ecko, who worked on the project) cared a lot about.  There’s a certain enthusiasm to the whole thing that made me respect it in a way I wasn’t expecting.  Throw in a couple of pretty slick CG scenes (even for today) and I at least think that the story of Getting Up is worth seeing once.

The actual meat of the game is a mish-mash of various game types: navigation, combat, stealth, and tagging.  Navigation mostly resembles something like Tomb Raider or Uncharted, as you climb pipes and ledges to reach the best places to bomb with your work.  Unlike those games, however, the controls for this feel clunky and imprecise.  Oftentimes, I would attempt to make a jump and watch in horror as my character didn’t even grab the ledge, plummeting to his death.  Even worse is that, several times, I had trouble determining where to go.  The camera rarely shows the correct angle, and the way forward is often extremely hard to see.  I never enjoyed this aspect of the game, but it was at least tolerable.

You tag some pretty insane places over the course of the game.

You tag some pretty insane places over the course of the game.

Getting Up’s combat predates the Batman era of video games, so it isn’t as smooth and simple as you might like.  You can punch and kick, grapple, dodge, and block.  Holding the attack buttons at the end of a combo does a power move (dictated by a meter) that often knocks enemies down.  It all feels okay and even manages to be enjoyable on some of the early enemies, as you knock them down over and over again with jump kicks and overhand punches.  Later enemies, however, become unbearably frustrating.  The way they are designed almost feels like it was meant to be irritating, such as how they attack so fast and so often (and also drain a fifth of your health bar) that you can’t even get a single hit in.  If you get into group conflicts with enemies at this point in the game, you may as well just start over, as winning takes far too much time and effort to be worth it.  I understand the need to make your foes get tougher as you progress, but Getting Up goes much too far with this concept.

Even more frustrating is when the game tries to impose stealth on you.  There are few instances where getting discovered is an automatic failure, but many of the longer stealth areas feature respawning enemies whose job it is to ensure you can’t do your tagging objectives.  You have a method of knocking out enemies instantly by sneaking up behind them, but I found this attack to be very inconsistent.  Several times, I hit the buttons required for the attack and instead found myself attacking the enemy normally, causing a massive fight that I didn’t want to engage with.  Guards also seem to be amazingly prescient when it comes to your tagging, aggroing from impossible distances and bringing friends.  These sections are easily the worst part of the game and made me want to stop playing more than once.

Finally, the highlight of Getting Up is the graffiti system, a clever and well-implemented style of gameplay that I couldn’t get enough of.  At various predetermined spots, you can paint one of four images (which you pick before starting the mission) with a variety of tools like spray cans and paint rollers.  Each of these tools operates slightly differently: spray cans have you fill in the area with paint while posters require glue before pasting on the image.  Every spot gives you Rep (a currency that unlocks more graffiti and fight moves) based on how quickly you painted, if you dripped any paint (which happens if you hold in one spot too long), and the difficulty of the location.

One of the sillier pieces of graff.

One of the sillier pieces of graff.

I had a great deal of fun with this part of the game.  Each chapter unlocks new graffiti and I was always eager to see what the next image would look like.  It’s clear that they were all designed by actual graffiti artists, packed with color and interesting imagery that is beautiful to behold.  I loved climbing up to a dangerous ledge, painting a fantastic image, and being scored on how well I did.  It’s a fantastic feedback loop that kept me coming back for more.  As the game goes on, there are several of these spots in every level.  At a point, it does become a little tedious to hit them all, especially since you can only take four different images into one level.  You will probably be better off leaving some of the optional objectives alone, especially in the harder levels near the end.  Even with this eventual tedium, this is a mechanic that I would love to see in another game.

It’s worth noting that the PC version of this game is a little busted.  Since it predates the days of good console-to-PC ports, there are several annoyances to deal with.  My Xbox 360 controller was mapped incorrectly at first, with no in-game way of changing the controls.  However, there is a file to be edited in the game’s directory that can fix these problems with a bit of work.  I also observed several graphical glitches, likely from running the game at such a high resolution, and a few game-breaking bugs that forced me to restart.  It is far from an unplayable mess, but you should anticipate running into some issues if you play this on the PC.

Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure is a unique game.  Unlike any other high-profile game I’ve seen, it felt like someone’s unique vision.  The story may become crazy and disjointed, but it is still earnest in a way that felt very real to me.  There were some rough edges in the gameplay, but the creative graffiti system managed to smooth most of them out for me.  It’s a game I can’t help but like more than I want to: intriguing ideas packed into a dated gameplay experience.  Even with its clunky gameplay and awkward story-telling, I still think that Getting Up is something everyone should see at least once.

Bravely Default (3DS) review

BD Map

Exploring the overworld.

Bravely Default takes place in the realm of Luxendarc, a fantasy world very typical of the JRPG genre  The peace in the land is governed by four crystals, each watched over by a Vestal.  For hundreds of years, the belief in Crystalism has been an accepted norm for most of the population.  When the game starts, however, many forces are beginning to rebel against these ideas.  Key among these forces is the Duchy of Eternia, lead by the shadowy Council of Six.  Eternia seeks to eliminate all of the Vestals and forever seal away the crystals from the world, fearing that their power is too great.

At around the same time, the crystals begin to mysteriously fail.  This shift in energy causes a terrible chasm to open up under the village of Norende, killing all of its residents save one: a young man named Tiz.  Tiz soon meets the Vestal of Wind, Agnés, and asks to help her in her quest to save the crystals, believing that helping her will also mend the chasm that destroyed his village.  The pair quickly encounter Ringabel, an amnesiac Casanova, and a defector from the Eternian forces named Edea.  Together, the party travels the world and seeks to reenergize the crystals and save the world.

This is a story filled with plot elements and characters that any fan of JRPGs will recognize immediately.  While I originally thought this would be a bad thing, I ended up being surprised at the skill that the writers handled this story.  It may be a very predictable story, but it manages to be charming and intriguing at the same time.  Key plot moments come about at just the right rate, each of the areas is unique and diverse, and even the annoying characters (Ringabel) come to be interesting and fully fleshed-out by the end.  I was never shocked by anything that happened, but it was such a pleasing ride that I didn’t mind in the slightest.

One of the game's in-engine cutscenes.

One of the game’s in-engine cutscenes.

Sadly, everything falls apart in an utterly atrocious fashion as the game nears its end.  After saving the four crystals, you are forced to do so again.  At first, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing: events change enough to make things interesting again, and the world scales up to a higher level to compensate for your increased skills.  Then you’re forced to activate the four crystals again.  And again.  AND AGAIN.  Five times you are asked to visit the four crystals, a task that quickly becomes tedious and unbearable.There is a plot-based reason why you are asked to do this, but it just feels like lazy padding.

Looking back at the game, I can easily see how they could have cut three of the crystal trips with barely any effect to the game’s plot.  To make matters even worse, the characters seem to lose their ability to think smartly at this point of the game.  You learn some key information on your second trip to the crystals, information that you will likely expect your characters to act on at some point.  They never do, instead sitting on these revelations until the end of the game.  What’s even crazier is that when those end events begin to happen, they act utterly shocked–even though they should have been expecting what was to come.  This part of the game is repetitive game design and its worst and was almost enough to make me want to stop playing entirely.

It’s unfortunate because the rest of the game is quite intelligently designed.  In terms of gameplay, Bravely Default is most similar to JRPGs from the NES/SNES era.  You walk (or fly airships) from town to dungeon, fighting random encounters as you explore.  There are plenty of people to talk to and items to buy in each of the various towns.  When you engage in combat, you’ll find that the combat system is pretty typical for the genre: you can attack, use skills and items, and eventually use special weapon-based attacks that charge up as you fight.

The combat screen in Bravely Default

The combat screen in Bravely Default

There is one significant difference from your typical JRPG combat: the Brave and Default systems for which the game is named.  Every character, both friendly and enemy, has a counter called BP.  Every turn, this counter increments by one.  If a character Defaults (which is just a way to say defend), that character doesn’t spend their BP and instead builds up an extra BP.  This gauge can build all the way up to +3.  The interesting part is that by using Brave, a character can act up to four turns at a time.  If that character has extra BP, they can take those turns freely; if they don’t, however, they go into deficit and must sit out turns until reaching 0 again.

These systems come together to make a fun, exciting, and well-paced combat system.  I thought the Brave/Default system strange and useless at first but quickly realized its potential.  It’s a system that gives a great deal of tactical possibilities that aren’t doable in other games.  For example, you can Default on all your characters to build up a bunch of BP and attack all at once with little risk.  Or, in what is probably my favorite way to use the system, you can spend all of every character’s BP and wipe out the enemy before they get to react.  I actually never grew tired of the combat, something that rarely happens for me in JRPGs.  Battles move quickly and fluidly (especially thanks to the ability to greatly speed up combat) and pose plenty of options for a variety of strategies.

Aiding in this potential for strategy is the Job system.  There are 24 different jobs to unlock for your characters, ranging from the defensive Templar to the counter-heavy Swordmaster.  Each of them is earned from a special encounter with a master of the job, most of them optional sidequests.  You can switch your characters to these jobs at any point outside of battle, with each of them leveling independently and unlocking various passive and active abilities for use.  It’s a pretty standard execution of the idea, but it adds a great deal of tactical potential.  I found several different great job combinations that trivialized various boss encounters or let me grind all of my jobs to max level in just three short hours. It’s a fantastic system for those who like to tinker with their party compositions and create the best strategies for any situation.

A look at the Job screen.

A look at the Job screen.

There are a couple more things to note about the gameplay in Bravely Default.  First, there is a strange form of microtransaction in the game.  During combat, you have a special currency that lets you immediately take action on any character, no matter whose turn it currently is or what their BP count is.  This currency runs out quickly (capping at 3) and can be refilled in one of two ways: leaving your 3DS in Sleep Mode for eight hours per spent point or paying $1.99 for 3 more points.  You can safely make it through the game without using this feature once, but it can help in a sticky situation.  I would advise using Sleep Mode to recharge these points if you want more, instead of wasting a few bucks on something unnecessary.

The other thing I wanted to mention is what is easily my favorite feature in a JRPG in the last decade: at any point, you can turn the encounter rate down to zero or up to double.  Stuck in a dungeon at low health with no way out?  Just turn down the encounter rate and walk back to town safely.  Need to grind up some more levels?  Bump up the rate and find a battle every two steps.  I can’t count how many times I used this feature, usually to grind up at a new part of the game before then turning off the random encounters for the rest of the area to walk through in peace.  It lets you scale the game to the encounter level you want instead of being frustrated with too many or too few encounters.  I can’t rave enough about this feature. and I praise the developers for including it.  If scaling encounter rates don’t appear in future RPGs, I will be sorely disappointed.

One of the game's gorgeously realized towns.

One of the game’s gorgeously realized towns.

Graphically, Bravely Default may not appeal to some.  The childish proportions of the characters are adorable to me, but they may seem too kiddy to some.  I was often surprised by how much emotion and character the developers were able to pack into these tiny models.  More than once, I laughed out loud at a particularly funny reaction from one of the characters.  I also have to give kudos for the varied designs for the various job costumes.  Each is instantly recognizable and completely different from the others.

The music in Bravely Default is quite excellent.  The battle theme stays interesting even after 40+ hours, and I absolutely loved one of the main dungeon themes from the first time I heard it.  My one complaint is that the music tends to repeat a bit too much, appearing in multiple dungeons, but it’s hard to be too mad when the quality of the tracks is taken into account.  I also wanted to note that the voice acting is quite good.  A few of the major characters can be a bit annoying (Agnés suffers from breathy anime character voice), but the cast on the whole is very strong.  If you don’t like the English voice cast, there is also the option to play the entire game in Japanese instead.

I didn’t think I would like Bravely Default as much as I ended up liking it.  It seemed to be just another JRPG, but once I started playing it, I noticed the craft and skill with which the game was made.  I think it’s clear that Bravely Default was made by a developer who both really knows the genre and really cared about making a good game.  Everything from the combat system to the story stays interesting for dozens of hours.  Unfortunately, all of this goodwill gets stripped away by the severe downturn in quality after the halfway point.  Being forced to replay the game’s main dungeons four additional times is just ridiculous, even if the story tries (and fails) to justify it.  It hurts what is otherwise a fantastic game and makes it harder to recommend, even with the strengths of the rest of the game.  If you intend to play Bravely Default, just be aware that you may come to dislike it by the end.

Lucius (PC) review

lucius1

Lucius and Daddy.

Lucius features a plot that will seem very familiar if you’ve seen The Omen: a young boy, who turns out the be the Antichrist, uses his demonic powers to kill those around him to satisfy his father, Lucifer.  You play as Lucius, awakening to your heritage on your sixth birthday (obviously) and starting your rampage.  As you kill more and more people, a detective named McGuffin (I’m not shitting you) starts to get suspicious and investigates the “accidents” more intently.  Sadly, the quality of voice acting and animation is terrible enough to make you want to skip them entirely.  Feel free to do so, as they really don’t add anything to the game.  The story never goes anywhere interesting and squanders its few potentially intriguing moments.

Gameplay in Lucius is most similar to the Hitman series.  You walk around the house, interacting with various objects and household devices, and figure out how to kill your family members and housestaff in grisly ways without arousing suspicion.  Each level gives you fairly free reign about the house, allowing you to explore and find helpful items or information that tells you how to perform your next task.  As you progress, you also unlock powers like telekinesis and mind control to help you murder more easily.  Obviously, you can’t just whip out these powers in view of your family members, which means you often have to find place to hide out-of-sight as you set up a death trap.

I really wanted to like Lucius.  It’s a very cool idea that could have potentially made an entertaining and creative game.  Unfortunately, just about everything about the gameplay is rough and unclear.  Most levels start you off with no idea of what you’re supposed to do or who you are supposed to kill.  You can usually follow your map to find a starting point-of-interest, but these points often don’t give you much to go on.  I quickly learned that hanging around my target would reveal helpful information; sadly, this information was rarely enough to give me much idea what to do.  Some items you need in later levels are nowhere near where you need to use them–finding some of these can take several confusing minutes and a bit of guesswork.

This means that you are forced to explore the rather boring mansion in order to find clues, hidden rooms, and items you may need at some point in the future.  There is no way of knowing what you may actually need, and some items that sound useful never play a role in the game’s murders.  By the time I was done, I knew the layout of the mansion fairly well, but I still had trouble finding a few of the necessary objects without several hints from the game.  While it is kind of neat Lucius forces you to explore and plan your kills, the puzzles were often too strange in their logic for me to figure out naturally.

lucius_september_press_screenshots_1

Straight out of a Looney Tunes cartoon.

More problems come into play when you are expected to use your powers, especially with the telekinesis.  You can move objects in any direction when you have it held with your mind, but this is frustratingly touchy.  This makes it very easy to get the object stuck on a piece of the environment or drop it behind a drawer or bed where you can’t get to it.  Your energy meter for using these powers is also shockingly small, requiring some deft work with the not-great controls to pull off certain kills.  More than once, I had to restart a section when some object bugged out or the AI decided to get stuck on the environment.

Most disappointing of all is that every kill has exactly ONE way to perform it.  Unlike something like Hitman: Blood Money, where you could potentially make a hit in a variety of creative ways, you are locked into a very particular manner of death for each of your victims.  While these kills are often creative and bloody, I didn’t feel as much joy as I would have planning out the traps myself.  How could you make a game emulating the Hitman series without also emulating its best quality–choice in how you kill?

I was really bummed after I finished Lucius.  All throughout the game, I was hoping it would get better and be the game I wanted from such a premise.  Sadly, aside from a few bright moments, the whole experience was not something worth seeing.  The whole thing is a clunky, head-scratching mess that nearly doubles its length through its failures.  Boo to the developers for also failing to capitalize on a potentially cool story, instead relying on lazy tropes to keep the player “motivated.”  I still think there is potential in this idea and gameplay (like in Blood Money, for example), but Lucius squanders nearly all of it.

I wouldn’t advise anyone playing all the way through this, unless you want to blow through it with a FAQ.  Even still, your time is probably better spent elsewhere.