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09 April 2016 @ 10:39 am
There's this sword-swinging college-age budding archaeologist in blue & black clothing with short, windswept brown hair and indistinct tribal accoutrements studying an ancient petroglyph in some abandoned ruins with his skeptical, sassy, diminutive tagalong buddy, all the while enthusing that he knew the ancient legends about the old heroes were true, even though no one else believes them. They travel further into the ruins; they stumble upon a secret chamber; and inside, they are confronted, to their shock, with an entity of myth, who has taken the form of a teenage girl...

I'm just wondering when Leo's gonna roll up in the Destiny and start asking about a Destroyer.

(I'm thinking here more of the manga intro than the game, but still.)

I didn't get very far in Tales of Zestiria - to test the waters, I started a new game with the English voices, and while the Hiro hero Sorey's voice was just fine, his friend Mikleo sounded a bit much like...well, "a snotty boy band member" sounds dismissive in an ugly way, but it's not an inaccurate description. And it's not an entirely out-of-place choice, maybe - I mean, they are going for that type of appeal with the character, to the same target demographic - but I like my game characters to fall more on the romanticized side rather than the prosaic. I was going to start over & check out the Japanese voices (you can't switch midgame), but then my hard drive not-problem occurred. From what I did play of Zestiria, though, I was struck by how the RPG gameplay seems to boil down to...clicking really fast during your turn in battle. Granted, there seem to be further nuances, but the game apparently throws all of them at you at once in the huge multi-screen text infodumps that serve as Zestiria's tutorial, and I wasn't really in the mood to commit the entire battle engine to memory in five minutes. The primary gameplay, though, appears to be shockingly simple, which really disappointed me. I requested a Steam refund, but I'll probably be back eventually - just not when the title is still $50. I think that my original plan of going back to the original Super Famicom Tales of Phantasia as my first real experience with the series is perhaps the best idea.
07 April 2016 @ 11:59 pm
I recently bought a new laptop. My primary machine was frequently refusing to turn on, a problem that Googling chalked up to a "hard to diagnose" and probably unrepairable electrical problem. I'd been using the computer for several years, and it'd developed numerous little issues over time - the graphics card had died; one of the arrow keys no longer worked; the backlight connection was unstable, so the screen appeared lit only in certain positions - and my backup laptop (the machine from which I'm writing this, for reasons that will become apparent) is a decade-old device with a whopping 100 GB hard drive. Now, I'm a translator, and I use my machine heavily for work, so normally, I'd just get a standard $400 office laptop. There were, however, several PC gaming experiences that I'd been wanting to try - D4, finally; Tales of Zestiria; and I definitely needed something for NightCry. So I toyed, for the first time, with the idea of spending a few hundred more and buying a basic gaming laptop. This was a not-insignificant expense, but, hey, how often do new Clock Tower games come out?

Using the minimum specs for D4 as my guide, I plunged into the market only to discover that shopping for a computer is much harder than it was the last time I'd done this. 1) Specs are utterly indecipherable now. It's no longer "whichever number is bigger." Overclocking with processors is now a feature instead of a warranty violation, so a processor's documented top speed is frequently not its actual top speed. Graphics cards are utterly incomprehensible - every manufacturer offers several lines with similar numbering that are nevertheless completely incomparable. Power doesn't even always go up in a series as the model number does. But worse is 2): laptop manufacturers put together some utterly incongruous assortments of hardware, making computers out of components from several different generations that don't support each other at all. This isn't an exception; this is standard practice. I was going by the minimum specifications of D4 as my guide, and there seemed to be no way to purchase a machine that gave me just enough power; I'd have to go way overboard in several specs just to meet the minimum in one.

I finally had the good fortune (so I thought) to come upon a Slickdeals promo for a Presidents' Day sale at the Dell store, featuring a laptop that seemed to meet all my requirements for $150 off. I pulled the trigger, got the shipment...and then was hit by my current tax debacle, which led me to drop everything - including testing out the new machine - to concentrate on scrounging together some cash. Perhaps I should have considered simply returning the laptop during the grace period right then, but, dammit, I splurge on myself so infrequently and it seemed so petty to be denied one of the few extravagances I allow myself that I decided to keep the thing out of spite.

OK, so I eventually got into D4, and everything seemed fine. During the game's QTEs, though, I noticed that the on-screen cursor was a little slow to react to my mouse movements - not prohibitively, like a half-second behind, but it was enough to impair my gameplay performance slightly. I got a little annoyed, and I investigated, turning off the VSYNC and fiddling with the settings as suggested to no avail. And then I made a discovery.

Like I said, before the purchase, I assiduously researched the mainstay specs that were mismatched in every laptop I'd looked at before the Dell machine. I made absolutely certain that it was more than adequate in terms of hard drive space, of CPU, of the graphics card, of resolution...

Reader, I did not know about VRAM. I was not even aware this was a concept. Apparently, VRAM is RAM set aside especially for the graphics operations, which makes no sense to me - what the hell is the computer doing with the rest of the RAM? Aren't the graphics the big horsepower expense here? Whatever the case, nonsensical comp builds are at fault again: for the amount of RAM in my machine, I should have 1 gig of VRAM, and I instead have half that. It is my lack of VRAM, I gather, that is causing the lag. VRAM issues also cause frame skipping, which I aggravatingly began noticing after becoming informed of this fact.

I was irritated at this, that my expensive new computer was not the complete gaming solution that I had hoped it to be - and though I thought I'd discovered this issue within the 30-day grace period for no-questions returns, I found out that the 30 days conveniently started from the day I was billed for the computer, not from the day I received it, so I was therefore out of luck. But the machine was still able to play the games on their highest settings, I did need a new laptop, and NightCry was just around the corner, so I ultimately, albeit begrudgingly, decided not to press the issue. In the meantime, I poked around the internet for possible solutions to my VRAM issues, and after discovering, then dismissing, a way to reallocate RAM to VRAM through the BIOS (disabled on my laptop; did you have to ask?), I contacted Dell on a whim. And I actually received a possible patch for the VRAM issue - but I have yet to put it into action.

See, about halfway through NightCry, I ran into a "hard drive not installed" error message when I attempted to boot up my machine. Thinking it a fluke, I manually shut down & restarted, only to get the same error. I checked the BIOS, ran Dell's built-in diagnostics, and - sure enough, no hard drive detected in either case. A search of the Dell boards mentioned that this might be due to the hard drive needing to be reseated, but the connections seem OK. I contacted Dell, and after a bit of waiting and a few misdirections, I was informed that either the drive itself or the motherboard had probably gone bad and would need to be replaced, which doesn't exactly inspire confidence in my new machine.

Now, the computer was so new that the only stuff I had on it was saves for D4 and NightCry. D4 is safe, through the wonderful magic of which I recently learned known as Steam cloud saves. NightCry isn't cloud-enabled, though, so, thanks to having to wait around to get the machine back from repair, not only am I going not to be able to play & discuss the game right when it's brand-new, I'm going to have to start all the way from the beginning when my comp finally comes home. The trouble is that I've been through the first chapter repeatedly due to a misunderstanding of the save system (which is not explained in-game; in the year of our Lord 2016, you have to read the manual to get the low-down), so I'm afraid yet another replay is going to make myself sick of long stretches of the game through overfamiliarity. Plus, I apparently, completely through my own initiative, had gotten myself on, and stayed on, the rather obtuse "good ending" path (NightCry comes with a surprisingly branchy Virtue's Last Reward-esque flowchart), which I considered a bit of an accomplishment. Sure, it's not a big deal simply to duplicate what I did I my first run-through when the laptop comes back, but...it's not the same, somehow. And it's 5.4 hours down the drain.

Yeah, it's a minor hassle in the grand scheme of things, but this wasn't an inexpensive purchase, and I'd put a lot of time into weighing the options before pulling the trigger on this particular machine. So, the lesson you should take from my experience is never to spend money on yourself ever.

ETA: As a last-ditch effort before shipping the laptop off, I tried reseating the hard drive myself (as opposed to just checking connections), and it actually did the job, and the computer works now. So I guess the real lesson you should take from my experience is that spending several paragraphs complaining about a problem will ensure that said problem, as well as the time and effort your spent complaining about it, will be promptly rendered moot.
28 March 2016 @ 04:33 pm
Around the end of last year, I became aware that as much as time as I spent thinking and reading about games, I wasn't really playing them that much - there are so many titles I've been wanting to get around to experiencing one day, but I've instead been opting to consume game content passively. So for 2016, I've decided to try playing one new game a week. Chronicling Retour cut into that goal a bit, but my recent purchase of Capcom Classics Collection Reloaded for $1.99 in a recent PSN sale has tipped the scales in the opposite direction. But it's no use playing games if I don't talk about them, so let's begin to address the review backlog.

Like Alan Wake and Terraria, Bastion has become such a Steam staple that it seems redundant to recount the premise of this fantasy action RPG: you follow a survivor in the wake of an initially-unspecified world-shattering calamity as he finds his way to his culture's last refuge, the titular Bastion, and travels to hotspots among the ruins of the earth collecting power sources that will allow him and the scant other survivors to travel back in time and undo the damage. Besides the third-person narration by a Sam Elliott-alike that details your every move, Bastion distinguishes itself through its terrifically diverse range of weaponry. Your arsenal accommodates a huge number of different movement patterns and attack strategies: you can choose to take the time to draw a bead on your opponent for a devastating single attack, or lob explosives into crowds, or protect your personal space with a continuous trail of HP-eating flame, or - just tons more. Though there's ultimately too much choice for the length of the game and the limited range of situations it throws at you to support, combat is sprightly, you have a number of solid number of challenges to complete with your weapons, and experimenting with the different loadouts and customizable upgrades is addictively fun: I played Bastion all the way to completion over the course of three days, which is an accomplishment in the face of my work schedule and procrastination, let me tell you.

It's unfortunate, then, that the game feels ultimately disposable to me. For one, though the art design is kind of impressive in detail, Bastion in aggregate takes this cluttered rag-and-bone approach and adopts a muddied palette, both of which make its environments feel samey. (Their isometric, aggressively-quadrilateral grid-based design doesn't help; it makes the locales seem as organic and lived-in as graph paper.) The game really doesn't have enough story to support its omnipresent, legend-in-the-making narration, and telling the tale in third person puts you at an emotional remove from the characters, who generally do bupkis anyway. While the variety of enemies is refreshing in the different tactics each foe requires, there are no sweeping changes or unexpected twists in gameplay or the challenges you face, and as mentioned previously, the game's just such a slight, short thing. Bastion just doesn't make a lasting impact - except at the end, in a way it really shouldn't, due to a plot denouement whose implications were not considered by the writers in the slightest.

See, the story [Spoiler (click to open)]focuses on a conflict between the culture that built the Bastion and the Ura, a native people whose visual design is rooted in Japanese culture but who are blatantly modeled after American Indians. (There is pointed exposition about how the ruling powers stole the Ura's frontier land through dishonest treaties to build their railroads, etc.) Though the Ura have been conquered and subjugated, TPTB are antsy about lingering unrest among the Ura and the prospect of another war. So they devise a final solution: a weapon that will exterminate the Ura to prevent any further conflicts. The Ura scientist dragooned into creating the weapon, though, secretly rejiggers it to target the entire population instead of just the Ura - leading to the calamity that depopulated the world.

Eventually, one of the Ura survivors you pick up finds this out and reports back to his brethren, whereupon the rest of the surviving Ura declare war on the Bastion to prevent you from finishing the genocide. Just a big misunderstanding, huh? Later, however, you learn that - ha-ha - they're exactly right, as collecting the world's last power sources to fuel the Bastion is killing the Ura's remaining settlements. But you have to persist, as powering up the Bastion is the only way to go back in time, undo this whole horrible timeline, and save everybody, the Ura included.

OK, so you eventually do fully activate the Bastion, and you reach the end of the game - whereupon, to my puzzlement, it presents you with a choice. The cute female Ura survivor you picked up starts going on about how free & happy she's felt in humanity's sole refuge and how all the moments she really treasures have happened after the breaking of the world and the holocaust of her people - despite the fact that you haven't interacted much at all, and that most of the action in the story has been the player character fighting & Uras dying. Nonetheless, she urges you to forget all this "saving humanity" nonsense and just tool around the cursed earth in your awesome flying fortress with her for the rest of your days. And, instead of fulfilling your mission, you can actually choose to do this. Dumbfounded, I thought, well, no. I didn't commit genocide for nothing here. What are you even talking about?

It turns out, however, that saving the world and averting mass slaughter is the wrong decision. Choosing the "go back in time" ending will unlock the game's New Game Plus mode, whereupon you learn that, ha ha, the calamity can never be averted, just because you can go back in time doesn't mean you can change time, what were you even thinking, you dope. So why were the characters trying to activate the Bastion if they couldn't change anything? Your band includes the engineer who built the Bastion - he knows exactly how it works. The answer: Because the writers wanted to stack the deck toward a trite ending that espouses letting go of your past and FREEDOM - even if that ending inadvertently argues that the game's Native American genocide was totally cool, since it got you a sweet spaceship, so weren't you silly to be so concerned about that whole mass extinction of humanity thing the first time around?

Look, the gameplay's strong enough that I'll eventually check out the studio's follow-up effort, Transistor, but what I'm saying is: maybe you shouldn't draw such close real-life parallels with your genocide if you're arguing that it was really the best thing to have happened and totally sweet.

(Also: Special mention must go to the love interest, who is one of the most token throwaway female game characters I've seen. She's a pretty singer! She cooks badly! She gets kidnapped! Wait, she didn't get kidnapped; she actually ran away so the male lead would come find her and prove how much he loves her! Did they glitch out the part where she says that "Math class is tough"?)

As I am the very last person on Earth to check out Plants vs. Zombies, you probably don't need me to tell you that it's a surprisingly robust tower-defense game where you landscape your gridded lawn with legume-spitting sweet peas, melon-launching catapult vines, and spore-breathing fungi to keep an army of increasingly resilient and mobile zombies from invading your home. Despite the fact that the zombie theme is played-out even beyond the limits of undeath, Plants vs. Zombies has an avuncular Zombies Ate My Neighbors sense of humor & retro aesthetic that, together with the shared emphasis on plants & greenery and the sunshiny art style, neutralizes the game's overdone subject matter - and there's no off-putting gore. I clicked on a Flash version of game for a lark, bought a Steam copy after getting drawn in for eight levels, and played it for 24 hours over the next week-plus. Turns out that as much as zombies love brains, they find your productivity even more delicious.

Despite its plaudits, you'll understand my trepidation toward purchasing Her Story when I learned that the scribe of Shattered Memories was behind the project. Thankfully, actual adults were involved in this production, leading to a considerably more tolerable game. You're set in front of a police database UI with a few interview videos loaded and the word "MURDER" helpfully inputted into the search engine. You're given no initial information beyond that: you have to watch the starting videos, identify possible lines of inquiry, and input keywords you think will be fruitful to bring up more videos and piece events together. It's Googling as a game, a totally unique, intuitive, and instantly engaging approach to gameplay. The hook of piecing together the events and players under investigation, as well as the gradual truth (or something like it), is strikingly compelling.

Now, while the story is indeed several steps up from Shattered Memories, it might not be for everyone, as per this review. (And it is indeed possible to figure out what you might call "the twist" relatively early on in the proceedings, as that couple did - though there's much more to uncover after that regarding whys & wherefores, as well as small character moments to appreciate; it's far from the endgame.) Granted, the more you think about the story after the fact, the dafter it becomes, but in the midst of the gameplay, told in the bits and pieces of the video clips, it's fascinating - and it's sold well in its telling, from a possibly unreliable narrator, by an actress who's just the right degree of authentic (you'll see what I mean) for the job. I hope the developers produce more stories in this vein.

(But, guys: Out of Loreena McKennitt's entire catalogue, you choose to copy her guro transformation filk?)

Unlike the saga of Henry Townshend, the PC puzzle title The Room is all about breaking in instead of breaking out. Namely, you're attempting to break into a series of nesting puzzle boxes inherited from your vanished grandfather that are said to hold at their core the end result of his Lovecraftian experiments into the nature of the universe.

It's very difficult for me to judge the technical performance of The Room, since I played the game on a laptop that's several years old - indeed, I'm grateful that the designers were considerate enough to include a vast variety of display settings to make the game playable on a wide range of machines. Still, I feel safe in saying that the PC controls can be a little finicky - with all the flicking, twisting, turning, and winding of the boxes' control mechanisms (all mimicking real actions with clicking & dragging; no simple button presses here unless there are on-box buttons to be pressed), it's clear this was designed for tablet touch controls. That's a minor drawback, though, one that doesn't significantly interfere with the real treat of The Room: exploring the smart Hepplewhite-come-steampunk design of the boxes, and how they unwind, unfold, and transform themselves to reveal more sinister surprises. The puzzles are good, mostly not too hard, but enough so to provide a sense of accomplishment when solved, and rewarding curiosity and thoroughness - they're at just the right difficulty, and in just the right amounts, to sustain a satisfying yet sprightly playtime. There's an unspoken tension throughout the experience, too: you know, despite your gog-eyed fascination with the parade of neato doohickeys you that unleash, that none of this is going to end well. But you just have to see.

Unfortunately, despite a few potently creepy moments that seem like they're really building to something, you have to reconcile with the fact that there's not any ultimate point or endgame here except "Ha ha, stay tuned for more Room, hombres!" - which you can't, actually, if you're on PC, as only the first game has been ported from mobile & tablet to that platform. Still: The Room has been crafted with as much diabolic care as its boxes and is clearly worth a look for puzzle fans.
21 March 2016 @ 10:57 am
As per an e-mail sent out to Kickstarter backers. In a little less than a week! The project was silent for a long time, and it was a bit delayed, but they snuck up on us and got the game together on the sly, pretty quickly. It's refreshing to see a video game Kickstarter deliver without drama.

They released an alpha demo a month or two ago; I was pretty pleased with what I saw. (My reactions, as well as those of some other Clock Tower fans, are here; I'm Synonymous.) There are a few things presentation-wise that look rough, like a mispunctuated script and some awkward peripheral voice acting (including an odd use of Kalas's English VA), but the lead, game systems, and atmosphere all seem solid. Here's hoping this makes for a strong horror experience!
14 March 2016 @ 01:10 am
I have more to post about Retour, but I'm afraid I've hit a bit of a delay: namely, I did my taxes, and I discovered that I had gotten myself into a higher tax bracket last year and now owe the IRS far more than I had expected. I'm currently scrambling to take on extra work and try to make up the difference. I'll be posting an update as soon as possible, but I've got a bit on my plate right now. I'll shoot for the next few days.

In the meantime, enjoy the work of these two folks:

- Motoki Yoshihara posts watercolor portraits of fighting game characters on his Twitter. The expressiveness and subdued palettes, which go more for a classical realism in a Katsuya Terada-like style rather than the larger-than-life cartooniness that typically defines the genre, are captivating even for a non-fighting game fan like me. Just gorgeous stuff.

- The misnomered SNES Drunk posts short but very informative & friendly reviews of the SNES library (plus some Sega & Steam games). He covers everything from honest takes on the classics to examinations of more obscure titles to highlighting import & fan-translated stuff. Pulls off the welcome combination of being both down-to-earth and knowledgeable. Even if you've already beaten a given title, it's great to hear him talk about it - and you can discover some neat new stuff to put on your to-play list.
OK: What follows is a diary of my activities in Retour. Quick recap of our game objectives for those not in the know: both Angelique and Rosalia have been given a continent to run. They are to "cultivate" their respective continents by directing the Guardians to send their powers over the elements of the universe (Wind, Earth, Green for vegetation, etc.) to make their lands more habitable, thus encouraging the development of settlements. You can ask a Guardian to send only so much power per day, though - you can either ask one Guardian to send a lot of his power, or two to send a little respectively. When one candidate fully develops her continent, the test is over.

...That candidate may not necessarily have won, however, since the winner is determined by a vote of the Guardians - and they vote completely at their own discretion. You may find favor with some just because you're doing well on the exam - but many will simply throw in with whomever they like better, making Angelique, depressingly, perhaps the most accurate workplace sim ever produced. Therefore, the real key to success is finding favor among the Guardians - by asking for their power and thereby flattering them; by chatting them up in their offices (which consumes the "action points" you would normally expend on cultivation); and by arranging to meet them in personal circumstances i.e., by going out on dates. If a Guardian becomes excessively fond of you, however, he may fall in love with you and suggest you get together with him instead of becoming Queen - which, this being in great part a dating sim, is of course another way to end the game.

Oh, and you can also blow your cultivation "action points" on other non-cultivation activities like getting early stat reports or casting spells to improve the relationships between certain characters, but we'll get into those later.

Since I am deeply invested in the welfare of little virtual people, I will not be using obstruction (where you use a Guardian's Sacrea powers to destroy your opponent's settlements instead of cultivating your own). This is a 100% pacifist run! Here we go:CutCollapse )
Before we dive in here, a caveat. I bought the PSP version of Retour; I don't have a Vita, and there's literally nothing exclusive to the Vita library that interests me. I had planned for a slew of screenshots to accompany my reflections here, but upon reading through the manual, I discovered...that the PSP version of Retour doesn't have a screenshot function. I'd thought that this was now a standard feature with visual novels (which Retour is, basically), considering that Maren included it four years ago, but apparently not! Built-in screenshot functions on platforms like the Vita have led to the phasing out of game-internal screenshot functions, it seems. The lack of accompanying screenshot doesn't matter as much with Retour, I suppose, as this is largely a story with which the audience for Retour thoughts is going to be familiar, and promo screens showing expressions, environments, etc. have been all over the place. Still, it's a disappointment.

Also, I believe I've been spoiled in regards to the truth about Brian. There was a screenshot collection on Tumblr that incidentally mentioned a small but crucial piece of information - just one word, and it's a very deep cut; the OP may not have even realized the significance of the term. But the picture it paints, let us say, seems to fit with the info that's already been leaked about Brian and make it make sense. I'm actually quite interested in how they're gonna do Brian's story if what's being indicated here is correct. (I'm still gritting my teeth a little about being probably spoiled, though. It wasn't as if that post needed that information, dang it.)Read more...Collapse )