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.

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.

Drakengard 3 (PS3) review

"I kill my sisters.  I take their men."

“I kill my sisters. I take their men.”

NOTE: Instead of the usual captions for my images, I decided to include some Zero quotes with each picture.  They were too good not to share!

Drakengard 3 takes place in a conflicted world, a land ruled by five separate warlords who each despotically govern their territories.  After many wars between the nations, these men were finally brought down by the five mysterious Intoners, sisters with the power of magical song.  Because of their heroism, each sister is worshipped in the land they freed and becomes the new ruler.  Several years of silence have passed when the lead sister, One, makes a bid for peace and unity between the various countries. You play as Zero, the sixth and eldest sister of the family.  She wishes to kill her five sisters and take their powers for herself.  After a disastrous first attempt that nearly destroys both her and her dragon, Zero recovers and heads back down the dark path of sororicide– killing anyone who gets in her way.

Zero is a fun, humorous character whom I really enjoyed playing as during my 15-ish hours with the game.  At first, she seems reminiscent of Kainé from the developer’s previous game, Nier–loud-mouthed, vulgar, and not willing to put up with anyone’s shit.  After a bit of time with her, it becomes clear that she is similar but ultimately is her own character.  Underneath the rough exterior, there is someone who is trying to do the right thing–even if it means killing her sisters to do so.  Her writing is excellent from top-to-bottom, fleshing out her characterization perfectly.  Zero is also remarkably good at saying just what I was thinking as events occurred throughout the game; more than once, she said EXACTLY what I was saying to myself just moments before (such as our shared distaste for the game’s iffy platforming sections).  For these reasons, I found her an exceptionally memorable and sympathetic character.

Furthermore, Zero is a brilliantly designed female character.  She is mature, fully-developed, and has complete sexual agency.  Sexuality is a huge part of this game’s story, and Zero is no slouch when it comes to her desires, willing to have sex whenever she wants and with whomever she wants.  It’s clear that she is never forced into anything she doesn’t want to do; in fact, she is always displayed as the dominant one in her relationships.  It’s refreshing to see a woman character who steals men away and beds them simply because she wants to, instead of the other way around.  On a smaller note, Zero even mentions having her period!  This may seem like an extremely minor thing (I can just see some of you shaking your heads and saying “So what?”), but it grounds her sexuality and womanhood as something that is relevant to her character, instead of simply being an afterthought.  I think Zero is an immense step forward for women characters, showing that it is possible to write a character that feels like an actual human being instead of what is expected of a female character.  I truly hope that future games learn from Zero’s design.

"I'll tear him a new asshole!  And then a third!"

“I’ll tear him a new asshole! And then a third!”

The other characters are unique in their own ways.  Zero’s various sisters (also named after numbers: One through Five) each have their own strange personalities, such as Three’s tastes for experimenting on the dead and walking around with a giant pair of scissors.  There isn’t much given about each of them, but what there is hints at detailed backgrounds that I would have loved to learn more about (which maybe the DLC does?).  You also recruit various disciples to your party, stealing them from your deceased sisters.  Each is entirely different from the rest with their own quirks and sexual fetishes.  Among these, Dito is probably the most memorable: a man who loves causing pain to others.  Some of the later story beats involving him actually get pretty intense and fucked-up, going much farther than I would have expected the game to go.  The final character is your dragon, Mikhail.  He is very hit-or-miss in my opinion, with a pretty annoying voice and some flat emotional moments.  There are moments of greatness from him on occasion, but he is easily the weakest character of the game.

As far as the story goes, it takes a fairly predictable but engaging path to the endgame and culminates in a distressing end to the state of the world.  Instead of ending on that note, however, the game then opens up a new branch.  These branches are essentially alternate timelines, smaller “what-if” stories that imagine events playing out in different ways.  Each of these branches goes to some neat places, especially the final one which contains TONS of relevant backstory and the “true” ending of the game.  Seeing them all is definitely worth the time investment, as many unanswered questions are solved in these branches.  Sadly, there is a minor annoyance of being forced to collect every weapon in the game before progressing to the final branch (similar to Nier’s final ending).  This is a bit of a grind, but one that gladly doesn’t get in the way for too long.

The game culminates in a special gameplay sequence that I won’t spoil here.  This part of the game is one of its most beautiful and creative moments; sadly, it is also one of the most frustrating, difficult things I’ve seen in a video game to date.  It drops you in without explaining a thing and expects you to figure it out.  You are tasked with the need for impeccable skill with gameplay that isn’t even similar to what you’ve been doing for all the hours leading up to it.  To top it all off, the sequence is a shocking six minutes long, requiring not one fuck-up to beat.  I am not joking when I say that it took me OVER FOUR HOURS to finish this one part of the game.  That was hundreds of attempts of varying success before I blissfully managed to succeed.  The one saving grace of this whole section is that the story bits that come after it aren’t really necessary to understanding the story; the important parts are from the level just before this.  If you get curious but don’t want to endure the frustration, looking the scene up on Youtube is simple and likely preferable.  The fact that the events following this annoyance aren’t vital to the story makes this section much less harmful to the game as a whole.

Drakengard 3 is a game with a very strange tone, one that bounces back and forth between maturity and slapstick in a matter of seconds.  At times, the story is very focused on sex and violence as Zero murders her sisters and their troops before taking the new disciples to her bed.  Much of the incidental dialogue between Zero and her disciples is very open discussion about sex, including the various fetishes of your party members (such as one member who groans pleasurably whenever receiving a verbal lashing from Zero).  It’s common to go from a boss level where you stab one of Zero’s sisters to death in a shockingly violent manner to a scene where your disciples are complaining about sand being stuck in their cracks.  It’s a strange tonal balance, one that nearly gave me whiplash at times, and it can be hard to get used to at first.  Still, by the end of the game, I managed to find this inconsistent tone quite endearing.

"I welcome men to my side and then I bed them.  That's just how it works."

“I welcome men to my side and then I bed them. That’s just how it works.”

My enjoyment likely came from the fact that this game is surprisingly hilarious, making me laugh out loud for several seconds with some scenes.  The soldiers you murder are filled with various incidental dialogue that is both funny and oddly perfect in its subject matter and delivery.  Objectives like to display things like “Kill that fucking dragon,” breaking the fourth-wall with ease.  Zero is bleeped just one random time, something that shocked me into sudden giggles.  Probably my favorite example is one scene where Zero viciously scolds her disciples for their terrible abilities in the sack.  A lot of the humor tends to be juvenile (like an actual poop joke, sadly), but I still found it honest and sincere time and time again.  In fact, I might actually call this one of the funniest games I’ve ever played.

The majority of gameplay in Drakengard 3 has you fighting groups of enemies in a style of combat that most reminds me of Dynasty Warriors but with tighter control and more energy to the action.  You can mix light and heavy attacks together in predetermined combos, with heavy attacks dipping into a recharging stamina meter.  Zero has the ability to dodge or block attacks, something you’ll use frequently in later stages as enemies get more vicious.  On rare occasion, your dragon is available to be called in for a bombing run that deals heavy damage to all the enemies on screen.  Finally, when the going gets rough, you can activate Intoner mode–a meter that charges from either dealing or receiving damage–to become temporarily more powerful and invincible.

I found the action a bit simplistic at first, but this impression changed as I unlocked new weapons with longer combos and options.  New weapons feel really different from one another, each with unique heavy attacks and different attack speeds.  It all comes together into gameplay that is mindlessly enjoyable for the majority of the game.  I relished mowing down the waves of smaller enemies, foes that Zero can take out in just a few hits.  These guys are dumb and satisfying to tear through.  Eventually, bigger adversaries join the fray, forcing you to play more defensively and have a bit more perseverance.  Sadly, these beasts are often tedious to fight with their massive health pools that can have you hacking away for a couple minutes just to down one.  I rarely wanted to fight these bigger opponents, as they seemed like something the developers felt they had to include, albeit grudgingly.

The difficulty curve is rather severe too.  For the entirety of the first branch, I never came close to dying and was often bored with the simplicity of combat.  As soon as I made it to the second branch, however, the difficulty spiked heavily.  All of a sudden, I was forced to fight much larger groups of enemies that mixed some particularly nasty varieties together, such as the spirits that possess other guys and make them much stronger in order to bring me down.  They begin doing significantly more damage, making dodging much more important.  Sadly, the block ends up being mostly useless, due to its drain on your stamina.  In the later levels, your block gets shattered almost immediately, instead forcing you to dodge and jump around to avoid being hit.  This can lead to some pretty intense moments with low health and an enemy who can kill you in just one more hit.  It became quite frustrating at points, especially since it was so easy at first, but I managed to persevere with satisfaction in the end.

"Killing isn't work.  It's like taking a piss--it comes naturally."

“Killing isn’t work. It’s like taking a piss–it comes naturally.”

There were two big issues I had with the combat.  First, enemy types are reused constantly throughout the game.  Instead of encountering new foes, you will see a lot of reskinned but tougher versions of earlier monsters.  By the end of the game, I was exhausted with the lack of variety, especially the bigger enemies which get recycled much more heavily.  Second, the camera was exceedingly annoying to deal with.  It is VERY close to Zero, almost claustrophobically so. I got hit with countless attacks that I couldn’t see coming simply because of this camera angle.  An option to pull it back some would have been a nice choice.

On rare occasion, you get to control your dragon in combat.  These levels manifest in two different types.  The first is an open, free-roam type of mission that has you flying around manually and blowing stuff up.  I never really found any of these fun, as it was tedious having to constantly tap the X button to stay afloat and maneuvering to hit a target was often disorienting.  The other type of section, which is more enjoyable, most resembles something like Panzer Dragoon.  You fly automatically forward and shoot things as they appear on screen, complete with lock-on targeting for multiple enemies and bonuses for clearing a section perfectly..

Many of the boss fights are also fought on your dragon’s back.  Sadly, I didn’t really care for any of these.  You are often forced into a VERY small arena with not much room to maneuver, bumping into walls and the invisible barriers as you try to turn around for another pass.  Additionally, these fights are not very forthcoming about what exactly you need to do in order to damage the boss.  It takes a bit of experimentation, and maybe a life or two, to finally get it figured out.  On occasion, you do get to fight a boss on foot.  These aren’t really much different than fighting a bigger enemy in normal combat and were mostly disappointing to behold.

Every mission (or chests you can find in the missions) reward you with gold, experience, weapons, or weapon materials.  Experience levels you up and gives you a bit more health and stamina.  The gold is used to buy restorative items, new weapons, or weapon materials from the store.  Weapon materials, along with a bit of gold, are used to upgrade the weapons you obtain.  Every weapon goes up to Level 4 with this process, barring Zero’s main weapon which levels automatically during the story.  These upgrades are key as they significantly increase your damage potential and open new combo options with each new level.  Finally, you choose which weapons and disciples (who aren’t really that useful in combat, to be honest) you want to take into battle before jumping into the next mission.

"Stand still and fight me, shit-hog!"

“Stand still and fight me, shit-hog!”

There are also side missions you can undertake between main missions.  These open up slowly as you progress through the game and are always one of four types: collecting item drops from defeated enemies, collecting items from locked chests, hitting targets to collect gold in a time limit, and surviving several waves of combat back-to-back.  These missions repeat frequently and are extremely boring after just a few of each type.  Really, they are only good for grinding out gold for upgrades or for the rewards you get for completing each the first time.  Some of these side missions get EXTREMELY difficult to complete, with very strict time limits and requirements.  Completing them all is a challenge in and of itself, one that few people will probably manage to do.

Drakengard 3 isn’t the most beautiful game, but it has its moments here and there, particularly with the character designs.  Instead of trying for high-fidelity graphics, the designers instead use some slick storytelling tricks to keep things interesting, such as split-screen cutscenes that show multiple people talking to each other.  Easily my favorite level design is a late-game one that takes place entirely in sepia tone, complete with muted sound effects.  The music in Drakengard 3, which is absolutely fantastic, is very reminiscent of tracks from Nier.  While I didn’t feel the soundtrack packed as much emotional reverence (to be fair, few soundtracks could match Nier’s power), it is still perfectly suited to the events of the game and wonderfully memorable.

Technically, there are a few problems.  The first chapter gives some really bad initial impressions in regards to the framerate–I’m talking frames in the single digits.  It does improve significantly after that point, but it is shocking to see right up front.  For the remainder of the game, it stays mostly consistent, aside from some high intensity moments involving the dragon or Intoner mode.  The load times can be ridiculously long, even in the middle of levels; in particular, waiting for doors to open after a locked combat room is quite intense.  Finally, the audio mixing is a bit strange in places.  Voices tend to overlap at times, drowning out certain bits in favor of others.  In boss fights, the (excellent!) music is mixed very low, sadly making it nearly impossible to hear.  I don’t think any of these issues ruin the game, but they are worth mentioning for potential buyers.

In terms of the gameplay, I would say that Drakengard 3 is below average.  The combat can be fun to mindlessly mash through, but it lacks depth and variety that can last for the entirety of the game’s length.  Many of its additional gameplay mechanics, such as the dragon sections, are pretty poor as well.  If it weren’t for the story, or more particularly the characters, I don’t think Drakengard 3 would be worth playing.  I find it impressive just how much Zero improved my impressions of this game.  She is easily one of the most important female characters ever put into a video game, and I truly adored spending the fifteen-ish hours getting to know her.  Add in the quirky, but shockingly mature and detailed, story and you get a game that is absolutely worth slogging through a bit of mediocre gameplay to see.  I highly recommend this game to anyone who wants to see something truly unique.

 

Legacy of Kain: Defiance (PC) review

The heroes (?) of the story.

The heroes (?) of the story.

Legacy of Kain: Defiance completely ignores the events of Blood Omen 2 and instead picks up just after Soul Reaver 2 via a time paradox.  Raziel has been sent back to the Spectral Realm after being absorbed by the Soul Reaver, while Kain searches for Moebius in the Physical Realm  to track down his former minion.  The two, each on their own, work to learn the truth about the prophecy that seems to regard them and the true history of where they came from.  Only by finding and aiding one another can Kain and Raziel finally fix the time paradoxes and return Nosgoth to its rightful state.

Things can be a bit confusing when first starting Defiance.  It’s not entirely clear where the game is picking up or how Kain and Raziel became separated (and as it never acknowledges the events of Blood Omen 2, I have no clue if they even consider it canon).  After an hour or two, though, it starts to make sense for those who have been with the story from the beginning.  The story treads water for a good while, focusing on those same events–Kain’s refusal to die for the Pillars, Raziel’s casting into the abyss, etc.– that have been talked about since the first Soul Reaver.  I found this a little tiresome at a point, even understanding how important these events are to the world of this series.

The plot, burdened by the inevitable confusion brought on by time travel, can seem a bit confusing at times.  It’s not always entirely clear why Kain or Raziel is doing what he is doing; hell, even they don’t seem have any idea, due to everyone they talk to being so damn cryptic.  Eventually, however, their intentions become clear and events start to move inexorably towards the conclusion.  Surprisingly, Defiance also manages to answer some long-standing questions I had about the series, such as the origins of the vampires and the true nature of the prophecies that have driven Kain through several games.  It didn’t answer all of my questions, but it certainly did more to explain itself than past games in the series.

The Pillars of Nosgoth, which keep the world in balance.

The Pillars of Nosgoth, which keep the world in balance.

I felt that the story, inconsistent as it has been throughout the Reaver games, manages to cohesively wrap things up in the end.  Even better, I think the way it wraps things up is quite smart and feels right in the context of the universe.  I obviously can’t explain why I feel this is the case without divulging massive spoilers about the game, but I really do believe that the way the events play out couldn’t have happened any other way.  The ending even manages to leave things in a satisfying place, with a bittersweet tinge of renewed hope.  It’s clear that there is more about Nosgoth and Kain to tell (which doesn’t get told, obviously, as this is the final game in the series to date), but I was perfectly fine with where things left off; as far as unfinished franchises go, this is easily one of the best resolutions a fan could hope for.

I also feel it is worth mentioning that both the sharp writing and excellent voice acting return.  I really can’t give enough credit to the writing, which brings a weight and gravitas to every cutscene.  The writers have truly crafted their own world with Nosgoth, one that I wish they had more time to explore.  All the key members return to reprise their roles and perform a remarkable job, giving intense and believable performances.  Listening to Kain and Raziel converse with one another is a true joy, one that is sadly brief and infrequent in Defiance; each scene with the two of them left me begging for more.  I would argue that this game features the series’ best work in terms of writing and voice acting; it was a constant treat to experience and had me riveted with every word.

In Defiance, you spend a good deal of time simply traversing the world.  The linear, level-based style from Blood Omen 2 has returned, switching back and forth between Kain and Raziel for each level.  These levels are quite straightforward, with only a few extra areas to poke into for stray collectibles which boost your stats or unlock concept art.  I also found that many of them were quite boring, filled with long, empty corridors of no consequence.  Even worse is that you visit several temples during the game (to unlock new powers for your Soul Reaver), each of which is nearly identical in design, with both Kain and Raziel.  I was extremely tired of the level design by the end of the game, especially after visiting many of the areas multiple times with each character.

This hilarious mechanic also returns from Blood Omen 2.

This hilarious mechanic also returns from Blood Omen 2.

Occasionally, you are tasked with some light platforming, such as navigating across some water by hopping from pillar to pillar.  For the most part, this platforming is simple and quick; certain sections, however, are absolutely frustrating.  In more than one level, you are asked to jump up some ledges via extremely small pillars, pillars that are hard to simply land on.  Your character also has a good bit of momentum on his movement, meaning that a simple nudge can cause you to slide off and start over again.  Certain jumps that require you to grab ledges to pull yourself up are a bit finicky.  I had my character refuse to grab a ledge more than once simply because I wasn’t at quite the right angle.  Thankfully, the platforming is rather uncommon throughout the game; prepare to pull your hair out when it pops up, though.

To make matters even worse, the camera in Defiance is absolutely atrocious.  Since you don’t actually control the camera directly due the game’s fixed camera angles (think God of War), you never know exactly what it will do.  It can point in entirely the wrong direction when you’re trying to navigate some platforms or get clipped into a corner as you’re trying to fight some enemies.  It also has a tendency to hide doors and pathways, making you fumble around looking for the way out of a room.  The worst example of the poor camera that I experienced was when the camera didn’t follow me into another room, instead staying locked to its previous fixed angle.  I had to navigate my invisible character until I found the door back into the previous room in order to get the camera to reset.  I’ve seen worse cameras in games but not by much.

Also noteworthy are the few sequences that are timed, such as activating a series of platforms to traverse.  Each of these is so ridiculously precise that any mistake whatsoever will have you doing them again.  You are given just enough time to do what you are asked and can’t waste a second of it.  These can be pretty damn frustrating, especially if something like the camera or touchy platforming also gets in the way.

Fluidity has finally come to the series' combat.

Fluidity has finally come to the series’ combat.

Combat has again changed to a slightly different system.  A lot of the clunkiness has finally been alleviated as Deception has adopted a style not entirely unlike the God of War series.  It is far from being as fluid as those games, but it is leaps and bounds above any of the other Legacy of Kain games.  You are no longer forced to lock-on to a foe before being able to attack him.  It’s easy to simply point in the direction of an enemy and attack, switching targets with ease.  Dealing with more than one foe is no longer the hassle that it once was.  There’s not really much too it, and it becomes unbearably repetitive by the end of the game, but I found it occasionally enjoyable.

Most of this enjoyment was derived from the telekinesis power that both protagonists have.  You can tap a button to fire a TK blast and knock an enemy flying, or you can hold that button and lift him up before throwing him in any direction (not unlike Psi-Ops, actually).  There are various hazards scattered around (fire, spikes, water) that enemies can be tossed into, but the tactic I enjoyed employing was actually throwing enemies into myself.  By doing so, they bounce off directly in front of you, leaving them open for a juggle combo.  In fact, Defiance has several opportunities for juggling enemies in the air thanks to a dedicated launcher button.  While the combat certainly isn’t as tight and fun as something like Devil May Cry, I couldn’t help but laugh as I juggled an enemy endlessly in the air as their health plummeted to zero.

As you progress through the game, you also unlock various elements for both Kain and Raziel’s Reavers.  These elements manifest in combat through a special attack, dictated by a meter that fills by attacking enemies.  Holding the attack button down with a full meter unleashes the attack attuned to the meter.  Nearly all of these either damage all nearby enemies or impair them in some way.  I didn’t really find these attacks all that effective, with even the weakest enemies able to sustain a couple of them without falling.  I actually preferred to leave my meter fully charged, as this kept the Reaver temporarily imbued with the corresponding element to buff my attacks.

Telekinesis gave me so many Psi-Ops flashbacks.

Telekinesis gave me so many Psi-Ops flashbacks.

Offensively, you don’t really ever have much trouble handling the enemies; your defense is where things start to falter.  There is no block button in the game, but this also applies to your enemies.  Your only option of avoiding damage is to use the dodge function to get out of the way.  Sadly, this dodge is extremely inconsistent, rarely seeming to work at all.  I couldn’t count the number of times I tried to avoid an enemy’s attack and didn’t move at all or still managed to get hit.  This dodge was so poor that I found myself ignoring it entirely, just taking the hits and soldiering onward.  For the most part, it worked out well, but a few of the longer fights got quite dicey as I took hit after hit with little chance of avoiding them.

I also hated how often you are forced into combat–get used to watching a barrier appear over the area’s doors so that you can’t leave until all enemies are defeated.  Some levels use this over and over and over again until I just wanted to shut the damn game off.  The combat doesn’t have enough depth or enjoyment to it to warrant being forced into so many encounters, especially against the frustrating and hard-to-kill late-game enemies.  It eventually became an exercise in patience, the tedium wearing me down until I couldn’t stand it anymore.  At this point, being done with the game, I’d be happy to never touch it again, even with its occasional bout of fun.

Puzzles in Defiance are as simple as ever, rarely stressing your puzzle-solving skills to overcome.  In fact, calling them puzzles seems a bit generous, as they often just have you doing the only available options to progress.  Many of these “puzzles” have to do with manipulating parts of the environment, such as braziers or orbs, to open doors and progress forward.  Your Reaver powers each do something unique that helps you to solve puzzles, such as freezing a waterfall to climb up a wall with the Water Reaver.  While I think using these powers in their unique ways has the potential to be an enjoyable mechanic, the puzzles never demanded enough from my attention to make them feel worth solving.  I never felt smart for solving a puzzle; instead, I just felt hindered on the way to my next story beat.

There’s also quite a bit of backtracking in the various levels as you find a key or emblem you needed for a door earlier on.  Considering how dull the environments tend to be the first time, I really don’t think it was smart for the developers to focus so much backtracking; it either feels like a waste of time or an annoyance as you try to find the correct path back through the similar-looking hallways.

You light, and extinguish, a LOT of braziers in Defiance.

You light, and extinguish, a LOT of braziers in Defiance.

As someone who has just played through this entire series (well, nearly–the original Blood Omen is still on my list), I found it strange that Defiance actually changed some of the established rules from previous games.  Dying in the Physical Realm as Raziel no longer teleports you back to the Spiritual Realm, instead just giving you a game over.  Climbing walls as a spirit, previously impossible due to Raziel’s inability to interact with anything physical, is now not a problem (although you still can’t open doors, for some reason?).  You can even switch to the Physical Realm with full health.  While these are all small changes that don’t really affect anything about the game, I thought they were really weird changes to make nonetheless; why bother at this point?

I again played the PC version and was happy to finally find a stable game.  I only had one crash to desktop in my ten hours with the game, and no other problems materialized whatsoever.  I also think the game looks quite nice for its age and was happy to finally see the inclusion of subtitles as an option.  Once again, I had to use a third-party program to get my controller to work in the manner I wanted.  Trying to use the game’s built-in drivers made my triggers unusable and didn’t let me change the sensitivity of the movement, making it impossible to play without Joy2Key.  Even with this third-party program, I still felt the control was quite twitchy in the movement.  Not knowing how the original played, this may have just been my deadzone settings at work.  Finally, I thought that the sound mix seemed strangely off at times, as if channels were simply missing.  It’s also possible that this was a problem with my rig, but I have no way of knowing for sure.  On the whole, I feel I can recommend this port for anyone interested in giving it a try..

Legacy of Kain: Defiance is the game I’ve felt the most conflicted about in the entire series.  While I love the story’s conclusion and the characters who inhabit it, the gameplay nearly reaches Soul Reaver 1-levels of frustration and annoyance.  As much as the combat has improved, it still becomes unbearable by the end of the game.  Puzzles introduce some neat mechanics that are squandered and poorly used.  I really think the story in this series, particularly the way it ends here,  is something everyone should experience, but I have a hard time suggesting anyone play through the rocky ups-and-downs of the various games.  On the whole, I think Defiance is the strongest game in the series overall, but it still has several weaknesses that any potential player needs to watch out for.

Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen 2 (PC) review

Kain, the game's antihero. I greatly prefer this character model to the one in the Soul Reaver games.

Kain, the game’s antihero. I greatly prefer this character model to the one in the Soul Reaver games.

Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen places players back into the role of Kain, the vampire bent on conquering the world.  In what seems to be some sort of separate timeline, Kain has not yet attained control of the realm of Nosgoth.  His forces battle the Sarafan, a fanatical group dedicated to wiping out the vampire race forever, led by the mysterious Sarafan Lord.  Somehow, this being manages to best Kain in combat, stealing away the Soul Reaver and nearly killing him.  It takes 200 years for Kain to finally recover, nursed to health by a new vampire resistance.  The Sarafan has taken over in Kain’s absence and nearly wiped out the vampire race.  Kain vows to reclaim his lost powers, kill the Sarafan Lord and obtain his rightful place as ruler of Nosgoth.

For anyone who played Soul Reaver 2, this game’s events may seem out-of-place.  This game seems to take place in an alternate timeline, one that has little-to-no bearing on the rest of the series.  Having finished it, I’m under the assumption that if the events are completely superfluous, but I won’t actually know until I’ve played the next (and final) game in the series.  From my impressions, it feels like this game is completely non-essential in terms of the series’ story.  There is a bit of information about the precursor races of Nosgoth which may be interesting to learn, but the overarching story of the franchise doesn’t really go anywhere.

This isn’t the only problem.  It is immediately clear that Blood Omen 2 was not written by the same team as the previous two games.  Much of the speech lacks the eloquence and poetry that I loved in Soul Reaver 2.  The absence of Raziel is also sorely missed, as the other major players in the plot are dull and uninspired.  Even Kain seems worse off; for much of the game, he lets others walk all over him instead of taking charge as fits his character.  Multiple times, you reach a gate you can’t pass, guarded by a human, who won’t let him pass until he retrieves a passcode.  Instead of breaking the gate down and tearing out the asshole’s throat, Kain simply does as he is told.  It felt entirely out-of-character and made me lose all interest in the other events of the story pretty quickly.

Equal parts badass and hysterical.

Equal parts badass and hysterical.

Blood Omen 2 shares many of the same gameplay elements as Soul Reaver 2, but the game has become even more linear than its predecessor.  Instead of an open-world, you progress through straightforward levels with very little to explore in each.  Checkpoints are scattered throughout each level; dying returns you to the last one you found.  Unfortunately, these checkpoints are quite far apart, especially in the last few levels.  More than once, I died and had to redo about twenty-thirty minutes of progress.  More frequent checkpoints would have been greatly appreciated.

Kain is a vampire, so his strength comes from the blood of his fallen enemies.  He can drain blood from any dead body in a ridiculous stream that flies directly from the prone form to his mouth.  This was never not hilarious to witness.  Drinking blood restores Kain’s health and also fills his Lore meter.  By capping out this meter, you increase the size of your potential health bar and become stronger.  This meter can also be filled by finding special lore boxes scattered around the world.  It behooves you to look out for these boxes and to drain every dead body you come upon, whether you killed it or not.

Every so often, you are tasked with solving a puzzle to open the way forward.  These puzzles are some the simplest puzzles I’ve ever seen in an adventure game, most of them completely mindless.  You can push boxes around (extremely clunkily, mind you) to access new areas or weigh down boxes.  Oftentimes, you are tasked with routing Glyph energy through pipes to power doors or switches.  As you unlock various vampiric powers (super jumps, mind control, telekinesis), they are also worked into the puzzles in various ways.  Until the very last level, which has one or two tricky puzzles, I had no trouble figuring them out immediately.  I’d almost call them hindrances instead of puzzles, just making me run around and do busy work until the way forward was open.

There's also a light stealth element, anywhere there is mist on the ground.

There’s also a light stealth element, anywhere there is mist on the ground.

Combat in Blood Omen 2 is probably the sharpest it’s ever been in the series;  You lock-on to an enemy, block their attacks, and respond with your own.  There are various weapons you can pick up, which do a small (almost worthless, since they break) increase in damage.  As the game progresses, you unlock new combat powers which charge as you block enemy attacks.  Unleashing one of these attacks does a great deal of damage, with the final power (Immolation) outright killing any enemy you use it on.  The combat has a decent rhythm, trading blows back and forth until one of you falls over.  Blocking can also be fun, as there is a “skillful” blocking option (turned on in the options) that forces you time every block perfectly.  I enjoyed keeping this rhythm going, blocking a long string of attacks before retailiating.

Just because the combat is sharp, however, doesn’t mean it is perfect.  The problem with the combat comes from how hard it is to fight enemies without your combat powers.  Later enemies block nearly everything you throw at them; getting a hit in is nearly impossible.  It makes more sense to tediously block their attacks until ready to unleash a power move and use that instead.  Repeat this pattern ad infinitum for the entirety of the game.  As much as I enjoyed the active blocking, I was ready to switch the option back by the end of the game’s twelve hours.  There are a ridiculous amount of enemies and each takes so much time to fight that it eventually becomes an exercise in patience.

Boss fights have returned and resemble the puzzle style of Soul Reaver 2.  None of these fights are just a straightforward tussle with your foe; you are asked to use your powers in creative ways to overcome a particular challenge.  I enjoyed puzzling these fights out, although some of them can feel very trial-and-error until you alight on the right combination.  The one bad thing about these fights is that dying resets you all the way to the beginning, which can be a big pain in some of the later, longer encounters.  Still, I loved seeing these puzzle boss fights return and hope they remain in the final game.

Some early combat with a Sarafan soldier.

Some early combat with a Sarafan soldier.

Many of the problems I’ve been having with this series’ PC ports continued in Blood Omen 2.  This time, my controller did actually work by default.  My options for customization were limited, set up in a way that I didn’t like and couldn’t really change within the game.  I was forced to again use a third-party software in order to get the controls how I wanted them.  This is a small annoyance but one to keep in mind.  I also wanted to note that this game locked up on me no fewer than five times in my twelve hours of play, forcing me to end the process to escape the lock.  Considering how far apart the checkpoints can be, this has the potential to be disastrous.  I recommend saving often and being prepared to redo some content.

Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen 2 was a sad game to play through.  I actually was quite fond of this game back around its release.  It has been one of my better-remembered nostalgic games for many years, but replaying it has highlighted its many rough edges.  As much as I wanted to love it again, I just couldn’t get over the simplistic puzzles and laborious combat.  It didn’t help that the story, which was supposed to continue the cliffhanger of Soul Reaver 2, also seemed to go absolutely nowhere.  This is a hard game to recommend to anyone but those who need to play every game in the Soul Reaver series; everyone else is safe to avoid this dated, clunky mess.

Transistor (PS4) review

The playable character, Red.

The playable character, Red.

Transistor takes place in the city of Cloudbank, a futuristic utopia that is ever-changing due to the whims of its people.  Each person has a say in everything from future public works to the color of the sky–and of course, popular opinion rules the day.  For most residents, this is the perfect life, one where the city takes care of all their needs and everything is decided for them.  For others, it is an eternal hell devoid of individuality.  This group believes the old world must come to an end before all traces of originality die out.

You play as Red, a famous singer who dazzles the city with her compositions.  She is one of those contented citizens of Cloudbank, going about her life happily with her unnamed lover.  That all changes one night when she is attacked in her dressing room after a show by a mysterious group called the Camerata.  In the chaos that follows, she manages to escape–but not without consequence: Red’s lover is killed with a strange sword and her voice has been stolen away.  In return, however, she has claimed control of the Transistor, a blade which is now imbued with the voice and soul of her lover.  With it, she can find the Camerata and obtain the answers she seeks.

Transistor dumps you into its world with just a small amount of information,  expecting you to mostly figure things out for yourself from that point forward.  Other than a basic idea of what you’re trying to do, there is very little context for anything around you.  You will be bombarded with terms like the Process, Traces, and the Country with next-to-no idea what the hell they even mean.  Characters seem to do things almost without motivation.  The game really doesn’t want to just outright tell you anything about the world; instead, it forces you to pay attention to everything you find in order to figure it all out.

I found this a fascinating storytelling technique.  As refreshing as it is to play a game that doesn’t heap a bunch of backstory into your face from minute one, Transistor was a bit overwhelming for me at first.  I struggled to relate to anything and was constantly confused.  Still, there was something there that intrigued me.  I pushed forward and forced my brain to make the connections between characters, to infer what certain terms meant, to grasp the subtext of a conversation.  This struggle could have been frustrating, but I found it endlessly endearing.  It made me feel crazy smart when I managed to put everything together.  By the end of my second playthrough, I felt like I understood the world entirely; better yet, I felt like I had earned this understanding.

That’s not to say I didn’t have a few issues with Transistor’s story.  Red is a pretty bland and uninteresting character, mostly due to the fact that you never get a good sense of who she really is.  Obviously, she never talks during the game since she’s lost her voice.  Other than a small bio, all you get from her is the slightly snarky things she types into the game’s various terminals.  Even these can be hard to read as her tone seems wildly inconsistent, ranging from sarcastic to timid.

The Turn system at work.

The Turn system at work.

The bigger problem is the game’s ending.  For an otherwise sharply written game, it feels unbelievably cliched and foolish.  It left me slightly pissed off that there wasn’t more to it, an unsightly blemish in an otherwise creative narrative.  This ending reinforced my notion that Transistor is captivated with the world it builds, perfectly willing to let the plot be simple and a bit clunky.  In the end, I found myself agreeing: the world is infinitely more interesting than the plot.

In Transistor, you get to explore the city of Cloudbank as you attempt to accomplish various objectives.  The game is fairly linear, leading you by the hand down smallish areas one-by-one until the game’s conclusion.  Once or twice, I felt that the way forward was hard to discern, partially due to the game’s art style where layers often overlap one another and can obscure certain paths.  There are a few things to find scattered about, mostly objects to inspect (with some VO from your sword pal) or terminals that give a bit of flavor to the world.  For the most part, it’s extremely straightforward.

The meat of the game is the combat.  Red often must fight the Process, a robotic force that has been corrupted by the Camerata, in order to progress forward.  You can do this in real-time if you like, but nearly every ability you acquire has some kind of delay between pressing the button and actually coming out.  You are also quite vulnerable, much squishier than the enemies; a straight brawl will rarely end in your favor, especially at first.  Instead, it is preferable to use the Turn system, a skill that pauses the action and allows you to plan out your moves in a strategic manner.  You can move around and queue up a few abilities before unpausing the action and performing it all at once.  Most of your fights will, and should, be fought in this way.

Any time outside of Turn will have you avoiding enemy attacks before you can get into position for another volley of attacks.  These foes are aggressive and dangerous when you aren’t in Turn, as many of them are faster and stronger than you are.  At times, playing keepaway with a particularly rough enemy can be frustrating, desperately waiting out the clock to use Turn again.  Certain battle arenas lack good cover which adds to the frustration.  Thankfully, this difficulty does slowly even out as the game progresses, since you become tougher and have additional combat options.

Pausing time doesn’t make every encounter a breeze.  The Turn meter is limited, meaning you can only do so much with it at once, and it has a slight cooldown before becoming useable again.  Also, enemies aren’t entirely defenseless.  Some can cloak, making them impossible to attack until they reappear.  Others can dodge an attack or teleport away when in danger.  It’s possible to accidentally knock enemies out of the way of further attacks, if you aren’t careful.  Successful encounters rely on your ability to strategically balance this information and attack as effectively as possible.  Poor planning will make your fights a lot more difficult in the long run.

The completed Function screen.  Note the Memory meter on the left, gauging how many Functions you can use.

The completed Function screen. Note the Memory meter on the left, gauging how many Functions you can use.

After a fight is finished, you earn a bit of XP, eventually gaining a new level.  Leveling up gives you a few choices.  Nearly every level will earn you a new Function, the abilities that make up your attack options.  Every so often, you will additionally earn secondary bonuses, such as new passive slots for your abilities or extra memory so you can use even more Functions.  It’s a very light leveling system, but it provides you with options that can make the combat potentially easier.  Enemies level up too as you progress through the game, gaining new abilities to better fight you.

You also eventually unlock Limiters, which make the game harder in exchange for an experience bonus.  Some of these are extremely mean-spirited, such as one that temporarily hinders your ability to alter your build, and increase the challenge substantially.  I turned on all ten for the required trophy and took nearly an hour and a half to make it through the five fights it asks you to complete.  Afterwards, when I turned them off, I found myself laughing at how much easier the normal game felt.  It’s a substantial difference, one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. These Limiters are absolutely optional (unless you are an achievement hunter) but can be a good way to increase the difficulty if you want additional challenge

Once you have some new Functions, you can find an Access Point and play around with your build.  There are four active skill slots, each of which come with two upgrade slots, and four passive slots.  Every Function has different effects when put into any of these slots.  Your first ability, Crash, is a debilitating, stunning strike when placed into an active slot but changes to an armor-increasing buff when placed in a passive slot.  Every Function costs a set amount of memory, which you have to balance with your total amount (which increases as you level).  There is an astounding amount of depth in combining these various abilities with one another; it’s likely that your preferred builds will be very different from the ones I used in my playthroughs.

Similar to the way the story works, Transistor dumps you into this Function system without explaining much.  It’s a lot to take in at first, numbers and stats packed onto the screen in a way that doesn’t make much sense.  It encourages you to read the effects and play around with different combinations to figure things out on your own.  Again, this can be a bit annoying at first, but I actually found it to be rather smart.  I felt much more badass coming up with a devastating combo because I knew I puzzled it out on my own.

There’s another good reason to play around with your build.  Every Function represents an individual, part of their Trace (essentially their soul, in the game’s parlance).  All the main players in the story, including Red, are represented by a Function, with the rest being minor characters whose inclusion makes sense later on.  By using their Function in all of the three slot types (active, upgrade, and passive), you fill out a bio that gives you a bit of (mostly non-essential, but interesting) information about them.  Similarly, all of the Limiters represent one of the game’s enemies and using them gives you a bit of info about what exactly their nature is.  All of this information only requires one successful battle with the requisite ability in place to unlock, but it can take some time to do so with all sixteen of the Functions and all ten of the Limiters.  Still, these bios can be very interesting, especially if you are fully engaged in the world.

Your little getaway, where the challenge rooms are found.

Your little getaway, where the challenge rooms are found.

If you want to take a break from the story, you can hope into one of Transistor’s challenge rooms to test your combat skills.  There are five types of tests to choose from, with further instances of each opening up as you both complete them and progress through the game.  My favorite were easily the Planning tests, which force you to kill all the given enemies with a pre-determined skill set and one single use of Turn.  These challenges felt the most creative and made my mind work the hardest.  Sadly, this type is also the one with the fewest number of challenges and doesn’t get as crazy as I would have liked.  I could see the potential for some devious puzzles, possibly in some DLC?

My least favorite were the Performance tests, which task you with fighting several waves of enemies by steadily giving you more Functions and memory to work with.  The worst part about these tests is that which Functions you are given is entirely random; a string of bad luck can leave you with some less than optimal choices, forcing a restart.  These tests are also the longest, the final one being fifteen waves of combat back-to-back.  Failing in the final wave means doing all of them over again.  I enjoyed these challenges every so often, as they were a nice break from the story.  Doing them all back-to-back, however, is not recommended; it might take you quite some time to do so.

Once you complete the game, you are given the option to initiate Recursion, which is just a fancy way of saying New Game Plus.  It drops you back at the beginning but with your level and unlocked Functions carrying over.  The enemies likewise scale up in difficulty, gaining new abilities and strategies to test your skills.  If you wish to hit max level or unlock all the challenges, you will have to experience most of this second playthrough.  If you finish the game again, you can Recurse even further.  I personally chose to stop at this point, so I don’t actually know if the enemies continue to grow in power.

I enjoyed the mix of real-time and strategic combat in Transistor.  It inspired me to experiment with my builds and really learn the ins-and-outs of both the Turn system and the enemies behaviors.  There were a few problems I had, though.  Some enemies felt inconsistent, dodging some attacks on cue and failing to do so on others.  I could never discern what variables were at work.  There is also a bit of information about the game’s systems that is a bit too cryptic.  For example, I don’t think it ever notes that your highest memory function is overloaded first when you fall in combat.  This is one area where I felt that the game should have been a little more forthcoming.  Finally, there is no way to access the Function menu outside of an Access Point.  For the most part, this didn’t bother me.  During certain challenges that give you preset abilities, however, I would have liked to actually inspect what I had equipped.  These are all rather small, nitpicky complaints, but they were frustrating to deal with as I learned to play the game.

Transistor is an absolutely gorgeous game, dripping with atmosphere at every turn.  I fell in love with every part of it, everything from the style of the architecture to the chosen color palettes in various areas.  Every character is sharply drawn and perfectly unique; especially Red, who has become one of my favorite character designs to date.  Each level looks quite different from the last, a visual treat to snack on while fighting the Process.  Even the designs of the enemies is fascinating, representing various facets of their true nature.  I loved how everything was so dedicated to the computer theme, like the fact that your abilities are called Functions or how the enemies increase in version number as they grow stronger in power.  It is all so breathtakingly presented that I was utterly enthralled by every visual detail.

I love everything about how Transistor looks.

I love everything about how Transistor looks.

Even more squee-worthy were all the little details that are packed into the game.  There is tons of filler text on examinable objects that just say things like how many people have viewed a painting or the average number of occupants in a rooftop bath.  It doesn’t have much point, but it makes the world feel like a real place.  I found it amusing that all the enemies have cheeky little names like Jerk or Creep, as if Red was annoyed with them and named each herself.  There’s a needless flourish button–pressing it makes Red leap gracefully through the air–which has no function other than to look badass.  I can name tons of these great little touches: the adorable character idle animations, the sparks on the ground from where Red drags the sword, or even the way she will hug the sword during certain cutscenes.  It all gives the world a liveliness that I feel is rarely matched.

I can’t review Transistor without mentioning the soundtrack.  Holy shit, this soundtrack.  It is easily the best game soundtrack I’ve heard in years.  Each track is beautifully composed and perfectly suited for the situation or scene.  Impressively, the soundtrack’s varied tunes still manage a unified tone, with its ever-present tinges of electronic strings and beats.  I often found myself hanging around for a minute just to listen to the current track, a large grin on my face.  It’s the type of soundtrack that makes me want to rush out and buy it immediately.  I highly recommend at least listening a few of the tracks if you don’t play the game–although forgoing either would be criminal, in my opinion.

Sadly, the voice work isn’t quite as on the mark.  A lot of the VO, even some of the lines from the excellent Logan Cunningham (who voices your sword), feels flat and devoid of emotion.  I had a hard time believing anyone actually felt the things they were saying, due to the often uninspired delivery.  The worst offender is the game’s main villain, who kept reminding me of the halting tones commonly spoken by Jeff Goldblum–a funny comparison but one that made it hard to take him seriously.  Since most of the story is through text and subtext, I was able to deal with it.  It would have been nice to have a few more voiced characters, but it all manages to work well enough.

Transistor builds a world that I just wanted to fall completely head-over-heels into.  Everything about the city of Cloudbank was enthralling and fascinating, compelling me to dig deeper to learn its secrets.  I was sad when the game was over so soon, if only because I wanted to keep spending time inside its aesthetically-pleasing walls.  Even something as simple as the noise terminals make when they boot up (which is GREAT) or the adorable little grunts and moans Red makes in place of speech gave me a tingly feeling of joy.

This unabashed pleasure for the world was something I never felt with Bastion.  While Transistor is nowhere near as tight or pure in its storytelling as Bastion, I appreciated that it went for something ambitious instead of retreading old ground.  Personally, I adored the change in style and enjoyed myself immensely.  The narrative is certainly weaker, but I still had a great deal of fun figuring out the puzzling world of Cloudbank.  I know that not everyone will agree with me, but I hope that those naysayers will at least appreciate the strength of what was done here.  Bastion is a hell of an act to follow, but I think that Supergiant Games nailed it with Transistor.