October – A month of (mostly) survival horror

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

 

CLOCK TOWER (PS1)

 

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

 

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

 

CLOCK TOWER 3 (PS2)

 

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

 

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

 

NEVERENDING NIGHTMARES (PC)

 

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

 

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

 

THE SUFFERING (PS2)

 

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

 

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

 

SILENT HILL 4: THE ROOM (PS2)

 

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

 

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

 

PROJECT ZERO 2: WII EDITION

 

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

 

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

 

RULE OF ROSE (PS2)

 

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

 

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

 

HAUNTING GROUND (PS2)

 

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

 

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

 

ALIEN: ISOLATION (PS4)

 

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

 

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

 

FATAL FRAME III: THE TORMENTED (PS2)

 

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

 

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

 

SLENDER: THE ARRIVAL (PC)

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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The end of Drakengard 3 – beautiful and broken

Zero, the "hero" of the game.

Zero, the “hero” of the game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It gets worse.

Images don't really do this scene justice.

Images don’t really do this scene justice.

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

It gets worse.

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

It gets worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Top 10 Games of 2013

Another year, another batch of games for a top ten list.  While this year had some stellar releases, I had a hard time crafting this list.  There were a lot of good games that I enjoyed a great deal but not a lot of great games that really meant something to me.  Odds are, the shift to a new console generation is to blame.  Still, I can’t deny that some truly amazing games came out this year.  Here’s what I enjoyed the most:

10.  Cook, Serve, Delicious (Android version)

CSD

I played a bit of Cook, Serve, Delicious back on the PC but didn’t enjoy playing it on the keyboard.  It was a game I knew would be better served on a tablet; unfortunately, all I had at the time was a Nexus 7.  Anxiously, I waited for it to be ported.  The day it was released, I downloaded it and finally understood.  I spent hours and hours clearing all the objectives and unlocking the final restaurant.  There’s something so satisfying about filling the orders quickly and keeping everyone happy.  It was a simple experience but one of pure enjoyment.

9.  Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

Dragon's Dogma

I don’t care what people say: Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen counts as a 2013 release for me.  My brief time with the original was met with disdain and boredom.  On a whim, I picked it up again to give it a second shot.  After some 100 hours sunk into the title, I realized what everyone had loved about it.  While it does have its problems, particularly in the boring world and uninspired characters, the combat is easily some of the best the genre has seen.  There are so many options to choose from, with each of them being fun in their own way.  I can’t wait to see what a sequel to this can pull off—maybe on next-gen hardware?

8.  Super Mario 3D World

Super Mario 3D World

Pure enjoyment in video game form, Super Mario 3D World reminds me why I love these games.  Made by the team who crafted the superb Galaxy titles, this game drips with creativity and unabashed joy in every moment.  The new power-ups are adorable, the levels are interesting and fun, and the music is extraordinarily catchy.  The only issue I have with it is the clear design for multiplayer in the levels; I would love to see a game focused more on a tight, refined single-player experience.  Still, I had a blast with this title.

7.  DmC: Devil May Cry

DmC

I feel bad for Ninja Theory and all the shit they got for DmC.  All those diehard fans of previous games in the series turned their noses up at it just because it was different and not as refined.  While I can understand those frustrated with the simpler combat, this game is still a magnificent action game.  Every environment, cutscene, and even boss battle drips with style and attitude.  This world is creative in a way that few games manage to pull off.  The combat may not be as diverse, but it’s still great fun to execute and looks flashy as hell.  It’s sad to think that a sequel to this game is never going to happen.

6.  Papers, Please

Papers, Please

Papers, Please is a very depressing game, which I actually enjoy.  Too many games focus on upbeat moments and eventual victory; this game choose to show you how fucked its world is and never lets up.  It made me think about what I was doing in ways that I have never thought about my actions in a game before.  Was it morally right to full-body scan these people to check for explosives?  Do I put the needs of my family above the pleas of those just trying to reach family across the border?  What really made this game stick on my list, however, was the gameplay.  It may be monotonous and secretarial, but I find it oddly satisfying.  There’s a rhythm to it that is unlike anything else.

5.  Remember Me

Remember Me

Some people are going to wonder how I put Remember Me on my list.  It’s a rough game filled with terrible voice acting, sketchy combat, and glitch moments.  I can agree on those counts, but I still loved this game.  More than any game this year, the visual style and design grabbed me with its fantastic rendering of a futuristic, computerized Paris.  The world that was presented is fascinating and had me digging for as much information about it that I could.  Its score was intense and electronic, rising and falling with the combat and plot moments.  I even think the combat had some potential, with a bit more work.  As someone who often ignores visual elements in games, I knew this was special when I couldn’t look away.

4.  The Last of Us

The Last of Us

The Last of Us is an intense ride with some of the greatest video game characters I’ve ever seen and heard.  Joel is the most realistic protagonist in a video game to date, able to break from the dissonance usually found between a character’s cutscene presence and in-game presence.  Troy Baker’s performance (which I didn’t even realize was him at first), paired with Ashley’s Johnson’s superb Ellie, crafted a very real relationship, something you don’t see in games that often.  Best of all, the ending feels like it came out of a movie: not final or plain in any way but open to interpretation and meaning.  While I really didn’t enjoy playing it, the experience was still memorable.

3.  The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Legend of Zelda

I was as skeptical as everyone about The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.  Why was Nintendo crafting an actual sequel to one of the most beloved games of all time?  It sounded like a terrible idea.  The final product not only exceeded my expectations, but it gave me great hope for future titles and the possibility for vast changes in the Zelda franchise.  This game is just enjoyable to play, hands-down.  I had a blast running around Hyrule and Lorule, chopping away at enemies and discovering the game’s many secrets.  It also features some of the best dungeon designs in the series and some fantastic boss fights.  And that music!  So great.

2.  Saints Row IV

Saints Row IV

I enjoyed Saints Row the Third as much as everyone else, but it didn’t hit me as hard as I thought it would.  It may have been the fact that I knew most of the surprises before I played it, robbing them of their impact.  For this reason, I played Saints Row IV entirely blind; finally, I had the experience I had wanted with the last game.  No game this year made me laugh as hard, or as loud, as this game did.  Surprisingly, Volition also managed to have some interesting character moments that I wasn’t expecting, giving them meaning where they previously had little.  Best of all, I loved flying around the city with my crazy superpowers; it was the most fun I’ve had with traversal since InFamous.  The gunplay and setting are a little stale, but I played through the entire twenty hours with a voracious hunger that rarely afflicts me.

1.  Gone Home

Gone Home

There was no way in hell that anything but Gone Home could have topped my list.  No other game this year hit me as hard as it did, sticking in my mind and forcing me to think about it for days after completing it.  I love games that do something different, and this is a perfect example of how amazing a game can be if it is willing to experiment.  While the gameplay is simple, it just serves to keep you engaged with the simple story that unfolds in a very natural way.  The game also features what is easily the best voice acting performance of the year, a fact made even more impressive by the knowledge that the voice actress was the only one in the entire game.  Games like this are the ones that excite me the most with hopes of forward progress in the stories and characters of video games, finally turning the medium into a mature one after all these years.  I hope that something from 2014 can be even half as defining to me as Gone Home.

Nintendo 3DS spinoff, the 2DS, announced

As many of you may have already heard, Nintendo has made some interesting announcements this morning.  Most interesting to me (and probably most others) is a new spinoff handheld called the Nintendo 2DS that will be released in the near future.  This device features the same functionality as the 3DS–analog disc, two touch screens, cameras–and can play all 3DS and original DS games, just as the original device could, but strips the 3D feature out of the device in order to cut costs.  This means that Nintendo can finally hit that sweet spot price point of $129.99.

I find this a very interesting move on Nintendo’s part.  It’s smart of them to find a way such as this to cut the production costs on the 3DS, easily their most profitable device right now, and get more of them into the hands of kids and adults around the world in order to sell more games (and in turn make more money on that).  Cutting the 3D may seem like it removes the original point of the device, but it seems like few people even use the function more than a few minutes (my usage of it varies from game to game, but it’s usually off).  Whether this means that 3DS developers will no longer bother to code for 3D screens at this point remains to be seen; perhaps Nintendo will still recommend developers work on the feature (and I’m sure that they as a company will still use it too).  The lower price point coupled with the pretty exceptional library that the 3DS now has makes it a pretty good deal for those wanting to get into the handheld space again.

The only real problem I have with the 2DS is its look.  I attached an image of it above, and it doesn’t look great.  Many have joked that it looks very Fisher Price-esque, a fact I can’t help but agree with.  Most distressing to me is that this redesign ruins what I see one of the biggest pluses for Nintendo handhelds–its portability.  There is no longer a hinge in the center, meaning the device cannot be closed for easier transport.  From the pictures, the 2DS looks to be about as big as the 3DSXL when opened, a size that is fairly large.  The lower price point and no 3D may better sell the device to younger children, but I wouldn’t want to carry around something so large if I was a kid.  Maybe I’m underestimating how much it costs to build in a hinge, but I still think that Nintendo would have been better off just stripping the 3D functionality but making the device still fold (and differentiating the device through a stylistic choice instead).

Even with my distaste for the design of the 2DS, these are some of the smartest business decisions that Nintendo has made in months.

Sorry for the lack of posts!

I know it’s no excuse, but I’ve been a little busy lately.  The new release of Bioshock: Infinite (review coming soon!) and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate (my first Monster Hunter game – will probably write something about this at some point too!) have been taking all my free time after homework and studying.  Within the next few days, I should have a new, substantive post.