Sunday, April 4, 2010

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

By Brian M. Sammons

FINAL FANTASY XIII, by Square Enix; 2010; Rated T; PS3, Xbox 360.

As this is my longest Graphic Horrors yet, it’s only fitting that I kick things off with a review of the newest game in one of the longest running game franchises ever. But before I get started lets deal with a few things first. Does FINAL FANTASY deserve to be on this list and not in the Genre Break section? While it doesn’t even have a touch of horror in it, it is chock full of sci-fi and fantasy and those things have always been to horror what beer is to Nascar. That is; different but somehow they go together so well. So yeah, I think its right where it should be. Another thing is how gamers seem to only love or hate the FINAL FANTASY games, like there’s no middle ground. You’re either part of the “it’s cool to make fun of the FF games” camp or you’re a member of the “FF are the best games ever and if you don’t like them then you just don’t ‘get’ them” cult. Well for the record I am part of neither party. I have played about half of the FINAL FANTASY games over the years. Of the ones I’ve played I’ve liked most, really loved a few, and didn’t care for some. So when I say that I’m neither a fanboy nor a hater, I hope you believe me.

Ok, enough of the preamble, lets get to it.

The latest FINAL FANTASY should really be called “Final Science Fiction” as the game is more robots and rockets than swords and sorcery. Is that a bad thing? No, in fact the FF games have been trending in the direction for quite a while, I just thought I would point it out. Other things I should call attention to are the many differences between this game and the others that came before it. For the first time ever the “main” character is a female. Now those are quotation marks around that word and they are there for good reason, but it’s a good thing. Unlike other FF games, for almost the first half of the game you continually swap between playing different characters in different parties. Also, whereas in other games of the series you had control of all the characters in you party during battle, this time out you only ever control the leader, leaving the other members of your group being controlled by the game’s AI. Do they do a good job while in autopilot? Yes, surprisingly well. But does that mean that only controlling one character in battle makes the game boring or repetitive? No, surprisingly it is very fun, fast, and addictive and that’s because of the Paradigm System.

What is that, you may ask? Well unlike most other role playing games where each character plays a single role or class, in FF XIII each character has multiple roles available to them, but they can only play one at a time. Each one of these classes, or paradigms, offers something new to combat. Some buff allies, other debuff enemies, there are also healers, damage soaking tanks, and damage dealing wizard types. Now where the strategy and fun comes from in this game is creating a well rounded party and a switching between classes quickly in the midst of real time battles as the need arises. Taking a beating? Quickly switch gears so some characters can heal and then as soon as your little warriors are feeling all better, snap back to you damage dealers to continue the fight, or jump over to a synergist class to enhance your defensive and offensive abilities when the opportunity arises. No longer are you just waiting your turn to have your warrior swing his sword, your white mage to cast healing, and your black mage to chuck fire spells. Combat is way more fast paced, fluid, and just plain fun than ever before. It is safe to say that the new Paradigm System is best thing about FINAL FANTASY XIII and it’s a new way of battle that I hope the game makers at Square Enix continue to explore and refine in future games in this series.

Ok, time to appease the FINAL FANTASY haters in the audience, let’s talk about what’s wrong with FF XIII. By and large it’s the beginning of the game; it is a very slow start. Now I am all for a game taking some time to explain the rules to new players. After all, too many games just drop the player in the middle of things and sort of say, “figure it out yourself.” And with a game as dense as this one you could imagine a lot of tutorials for all the new combat rules. However sweet baby chocobo does this game take a lllloooonnngggg time holding your hand. How long? About three hours exactly. Yes, for the first three hours of the game you just press one button in combat repeatedly. All the great things I just said about the Paradigm System the game keeps away from you until it thinks you are ready, and because they keep it from you for three hours, the game makers must have a pretty low opinion of the fans playing this game. Now is that the worst thing about this game? Yes easily, but then it’s only three hours of just plain bad game design, out of sixty plus hours of good to great game play. So you will have to decide for yourself if a bit of tedium is worth a lot of fun later on. For me it was.

Now you may have noticed that so far I have yet to mention anything about the story of this game. Well I’m not going to. One of the best parts of FINAL FANTASY games have always been their rich story and well fleshed out characters and part XIII is no exception. Yet remember those two distinct groups of gamers I mentioned at the start of this review? Well some people love the FF stories and others hate them. If you already fall into one of those camps then this game will not change your mind. If you have never played a FINAL FANTASY game before then this is a good place to start. The stories are not connected so part XIII has nothing to do with part XII and so on. Also as mentioned before, this time around things are more sci-fi-ish then ever but there are still a lot of the trademarks that make a game a FINAL FANTASY game. It’s got simply beautiful cut scenes galore, epic summoning sequences, and lots of monsters to battle, many of which are familiar, such as flans and bombs, yet are given a more high-tech makeover. There is some fan service paid such as chocobos, a character named Cid, and even moogles make an appearance, although thankfully only in the form of stuffed animals. However these are minor things at best, a wink and a nod to old fans but nothing is used with too heavy a hand as to keep new players from enjoying the show.

Perhaps that is the best analogy for this game. FINAL FANTASY XIII keeps enough of the old that it feels familiar and inviting like an old friend yet it also does enough new to keep things fresh and exciting. I enjoyed this game a lot and can recommend it highly to anyone looking for a long, involved, fast and fun (after three hours that is) role playing game with a complex story and gorgeous graphics.

I give FINAL FANTASY XIII 4 cute baby chocobos out of 5.

CALLING, by Hudson entertainment; 2010; Rated T; Nintendo Wii

While I am not a huge fan of all Asian horror I do appreciate many of the better films from that side of the world. So when I heard of this game coming out I was very interested. It sounded like many of the plots of Eastern fright flicks rolled into one and that alone got my hopes up. So did this game have me singing “Turning Japanese” in a matter of moments or were my dreams of otaku horror dashed all too soon? Well grab your laptop, don’t answer the cell phone, and lets answer the CALLING together.

CALLING starts off with a group of people visiting a widely rumored to be haunted website called “The Black Page”. Most people who go to this site see nothing but a black screen, but a select few gain access to a secret chat room. Then those in the chat room get a call on their cell phones and upon answering it, the chatters are magically whisked away to a nightmarish world called the Mnemonic Abyss. In this shadowy spirit world where you will play four very different characters at different times as their paths cross and intertwine and the game begins as creepy good fun. You’ll start your journey wandering the dark halls of a deserted high school looking for a way out, or just for a flashlight to help you find your path. Along the way you’ll uncover notes left by other doomed souls, collect a few items needed to overcome specific situations and puzzles, and then before you know it; here comes the ghosts. The first few times these spooks pop out to say boo will have you jump. The shock moments are handled very well as ghost come at you through the walls and floor so you’ll never know when and where they’ll appear. However by the time the hundredth spirit makes a grab for you, which forces you to shake the Wiimote violently back and forth to free yourself, the novelty has worn off completely and it has been replaced only by dull repetition. Further this Wii-waggling mechanic can becomes incredibly frustrating when attacked by multiple ghosts or when trying to utilize the Wiimote for some other game task, like punching in a number on your character’s cell phone, only to get attacked repeatedly and having to start the process over and over again from the beginning.

Another example of good creepiness getting dull all too soon is the shadowy world of Mnemonic Abyss itself. At first the atmosphere is pretty high and the set locations; such as a hospital, an internet café, and some nerd’s bedroom are all well done. But by about the halfway mark even this starts to get old. The only thing I can attribute this to is lack of innovation. What tricks this game knows, it knows well, but unfortunately it knows nothing else so by the time this game ends instead of being frightened your just bored. Worse yet, you can’t even play through the entire game on your first play through. If you want the whole story you’ll have to play through the game a second time to gain access to “secret” chapters not available the first time around. Now if you were getting bored by the end of your first game of CALLING, just imagine your fun at starting all over from the beginning.

Yet not all is bad about this game. The animation is pretty sharp. The characters are well fleshed out and voiced competently. The atmosphere and lighting are done very well, at least in the beginning, and there are some good scares to be had. Also one of the neat things the CALLING does is to utilize the Wiimote as a cell phone, not only allowing you to dial the phone numbers of interesting people you meet in the game but using the tiny speaker inside the Wiimote to hear the voices of friends, and sometimes ghosts, that you can call. Finally I must say that the game controls are tight and responsive. The nunchuk handles your movement while the Wiimote points your flashlight and allows you to interact with the environment and both do their jobs well.

When all is said and done, CALLING isn’t a bad game; it’s just a boring and repetitive one. It starts off with a lot of promise but sadly fails to live up to its potential. If just a little variety and excitement were added to the mix the game would have been much better for it. If you are a fan of such films as THE RING, THE GRUDGE, ONE MISSED CALL, and others then give this game a try. If you are not a diehard J-horror fan then you might not want to answer this call.

I give CALLING 2 spooky ghost “boo” moments out of 5.


RESIDENT EVIL 5 came out last year and oddly, just now has Capcom decided to release some DLC (Down Loadable Content) for it other than a somewhat stiff and unsatisfying multiplayer mode. Two new expansions packs, one a prequel and one sort of a sequel, are now available for download from Xbox Live. Additionally the two expansions can be found in the new release of RESIDENT EVIL 5: GOLD EDITION for those with a PlayStation 3.

The First expansion is LOST IN NIGHTMARES and it is a return to the series’ classic roots. Once again Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine go to the eerie mansion made famous in the first RE game. They are there looking for lost teammates and to bring a bad man to justice. Of course things don’t go as planed and along the way they run into some old friends. However the best thing about this prequel to the events that take place in RESIDENT EVIL 5 is its pacing. Some horror fans thought the last RE lost its way a bit by focusing too much on run and gun combat and not enough on chills and tension. NIGHTMARES is a return to form with the vast majority of the game consisting of exploration, puzzle solving, death trap escaping, not to mention wandering around, expecting something to come smashing through a window at any moment. In fact, for a horror game, I will go so far as to say that the leisurely pacing is perfect for fans who prefer tension to shock. There is even some great fan service for those that played the original game. Examples of this would be Jill’s master of unlocking, some familiar journal entries, doors that the in-game camera zooms in on and then passes through when they are opened, and a certain infamous hallway known for its fragile windows. When combat does happen it very fun and at higher levels of difficulty, very challenging as the bad guys seem to be able to soak up truckloads of bullets without slowing down a bit. In every way LOST IN NIGHTMARES was a great addition to RE 5.

The second expansion pack is not as good and is in every way just more of what made RE 5, well RE 5. That’s not to say that it’s bad, just not as unique as NIGHTMARES. This game, called DESPERATE ESCAPE, is a concurrent side adventure that takes place at the same time part 5 is wrapping up. After a dramatic reunion between Chris and Jill the pair goes their separate ways and in this expansion you once again play as Jill, this time teaming up with a relative newcomer to the series, Josh. You mission is to escape, desperately I guess, from the zombie hoards. And when I say zombie hoards, I mean HOARDS! Tons and tons of new age zombies, of the infected, non-undead kind, swarm Jill and Josh from start to finish. The action is fast, furious, and relentless. Sadly, that’s all this add on adds; lots and lots of guns blazing goodness. But again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I Give LOST IN NIGHTMARES 5 creepy rooms to explore out of 5. DESPERATE ESCAPE gets 4 shotgun blasts to the head out of 5.

BORDERLANDS: THE SECRET ARMORY OF GENERAL KNOXX, by 2K Games & Gearbox Studios; 2010; Rated M; PC, PS3, Xbox 360.

If you are a long time reader of this column…then I love you, but besides that, you’ll no doubt recall how much I also loved the game BORDERLANDS, and it’s first DLC; THE ZOMBIE ISLAND OF DR. NED. Unfortunately you’ll also remember how disappointed I was with their last release of MAD MOXXIE’S UNDERDOME RIOT. So with only an even money shot of their latest offering being awful, I was understandably pessimistic when I started playing KNOXX, but within a few moments the geniuses at Gearbox had once again stolen my heart with their fun, and very funny, multiplayer gunfest. How? Well let’s count the ways.

First, for those of you that like a substantial amount of game play time and new content for your hard earned cash, KNOXX delivers. This is easily the largest DLC yet and offers many expansive new areas to explore, introduces several characters like the hilarious Gen. Knoxx, further develops previous characters (while I hated UNDERDOME RIOT, I liked the character of Moxxie and was happy to see more of her here), and breaks out a few new monsters and baddies to battle. That not enough? Well how about guns, guns, and more guns? One of the selling points of BORDERLADS has always been the epic phat loot! Yet with very few exceptions the loot you got was neither phat nor epic. Well KNOXX goes a long way to change that. Weapons in this DLC have several new effects, are more powerful than ever before, and there’s even a new ultra rare gun category, pearl, and those babies really pack a punch. Oh, then there’s the addition of vehicles that actually aren’t half bad. One thing about BORDERLANDS I never like was the cars. They had paper thin armor and underpowered weapons. Well KNOXX gives you two new hoopties to ride around in, one can even hold four people for when you have a full crew playing together. What, still not convinced that you should run out and get this thing right now? Well then don’t worry, you don’t have to run anywhere, you can download it, but besides that here’s the capper; KNOXX raised the level cap to 61. That’s an increase of eleven because the guys and gals over at Gearbox are the Spinal Tap of game designers.

Oh, and one last thing; you can get all this for ten bucks. Yes, TEN BUCKS! Now that’s a sweet steal of a deal.

Now not everything is rosy with KNOXX. First, there’s no fast travel allowed in it so I hope you like those cool new cars, you’ll be using them a lot. Also the AI at times seemed even wankier in this DLC than in any of the previous game content. Third, I encountered numerous terrain errors and glitches. Case in point, trying to cross a flat bridge and having to jump to do so because of a low, invisible wall stopping you. Now that’s not a big thing most of the time, but when you are running back to escape overwhelming fire and die because you stand there, unable to move, I grantee it will piss you off. Or as the berserker, when you are chasing people down to bash their heads into grey goo and your victims get away because you suddenly stop moving, yeah that’s a bit frustrating too. However these minor quibbles cannot overshadow the fact that KNOXX is a great addition to the BORDERLANDS game.

I give BORDERLANDS: THE SECRET ARMORY OF GENERAL KNOXX 4 berserker fists smashing into the faces of psychotic midgets our of 5.


Keeping with the “bigger is better” motto for this month, this Genre Break will be divided between several pretty cool games that fall outside of the realms of horror, sci-fi, or fantasy but still deserve a look. The first games I’ll tackle are a few small titles released by Microsoft for their Xbox 360 as part of their Xbox Live Block Party. The XLBP is three games and a new service called Game Room. Now the Game Room will allow 360 owners to play classic arcade games like CENTIPEDE and ASTEROIDS. Because Game Room just offers lots and lots of other, old games, we’ll skip that part of the Block Party, but as for the other three games they’re a mixed bag. So let’s dive in and separate the digital wheat from the cyber chaff.

TOY SOLDIERS, by Signal Studios; 2010; Rated T; Xbox 360.

This game is the best of the three. It’s a tower defense game with a couple of neat twists. First, it’s set in World War One, a setting all but ignored by most games. Second, the combatants are not the typical green and grey plastic army men all boys played with, they more closely resemble metal miniatures that a serious collector would carefully paint and put on display. Third the battles take place on detailed dioramas complete with trenches, burnt out towns, and all the horrors of no man’s land. Forth, and the most important difference between this game and other tower defense titles, you can jump into and take direct control of any vehicle or defensive position in the game. From the deadly machine-gun nest, to a windup tank, from the evil flamethrower, to the soaring biplane, if you spend the cash to build a unit you can control it. Assuming control gives you a few benefits such as doing more damage, firing more accurately, and the ability to rack up cash multipliers for chaining kills in rapid succession. The extra bucks this makes you is very helpful for bringing out new defenses quickly or upgrading your existing gun emplacements to help fend off the ever increasing waves of enemies.

TOY SOLDIERS offers fun and fast game play and at times presents a real challenge. Fail to upgrade your defenders quick enough or bring out the wrong defenses and your toy box, the goal of your relentless advisory, will be overrun and destroyed before you know it. The game is also rather lengthy for its reasonable price tag of 1200 Microsoft Points (or fifteen dollars of real world money). You get a complete campaign playing as the British and when that’s done you can play all new missions as the Germans. Add to that several challenges that are actually challenging and those striving for completing the game 100% will have many reasons to keep coming back to the toy box for many hours.

I give TOY SOLDIERS 4 poor soldiers caught in barbed wire and slowing dying to mustard gas out of 5.

SCRAP METAL, by Slick Entertainment; 2010; Rated E; Xbox 360.

This game is a cart-style combat racer. That means you get in wild vehicles armed with various weapons and you race through a series of tracks, all the while trying to come in first and blasting anyone that gets in your way. The game really is as simple as that and does nothing new, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. What it does it does well and it can be fun if played in small chunks. However the game is best played with friends over Xbox Live. Racing against and shooting real life buddies is also great fun in games like these. However if you play it with friends sitting next to you on the same system then the screen gets split multiple times and it gets pretty hard to see what’s going on and trying to keep track of your specific racer becomes a real chore. That is because the camera is always looking down at your cars as opposed to having the camera behind your racer like in most other games. This presents no problem when you have the whole screen to yourself, but once you cut that screen into four pieces, well good luck with that.

You can get SCRAP METAL also for 1200 Microsoft Points, but at that price it doesn’t offer the same value as the previous TOY SOLDIERS does. It is a perfectly fine game, albeit one that gets repetitive fast if played for a long period of time, and is a fun party game but it’s not a must have title. That is, unless you’re a fiend for top down cart racers, then by all means give it a shot.

I give SCRAP METAL 3 missile-packing tow trucks with tricked out paint jobs out of 5.

PERFECT DARK, by Rare & 4J Studios; 2000; Rated M; Xbox 360.

This game is inarguable the best known title of the Xbox Block Party. First released in 2000 for the Nintendo 64, PERFECT DARK is a highly regarded sci-fi first person shooter. Perhaps the best reason it is so fondly remembered is because unlike many FPS of the time, DARK had you do more than just run from point A to point B, shooting anything and everything along the way. It was a far more nuanced experience than that. Sure there was gunplay, but there were also clever tasks you had to perform in order to progress. For example on one board you had to reprogram a cleaning robot so that it would deactivate a series of laser fences blocking your path. Another mission had you plant explosives on a wall so that in the following mission you would have a way to escape a fortified complex once the lead started flying. That sort of out of the box and forward thinking, combined with solid writing and well crafted characters, won this game many accolades when it came out. However that was ten years ago and games have changed a lot since then. So did PERFECT DARK age well?

In a word; no. While the graphics have been updated for the XBLA release they still look very dated. But that can be forgiven; it is an old game after all. However other game mechanics have been left unchanged and they are frustrating to say the least. First and foremost there is no “checkpoint” save system. That means if you die half way through a mission then you’ll have to start it all over again from the beginning. Ok, so play better and don’t die, you may say. Well then there’s the stuff you can’t control that will end your game and those are the really annoying bits. Example, in one mission in Chicago I had to reprogram a robocab to use it for a task. As I was walking to the cab someone came around the corner and shot at me, missed me, but blew up the cab. Therefore I couldn’t reprogram it and since I guess it was the only cab in the entire city of Chicago I couldn’t complete the mission. Another time I entered a room and there was a guy in a hidden alcove next to an alarm button that once triggered permanently locked the elevator that I needed to take up to the next level. That forced me to restart and remember that the guy was there so the next time around I quickly turned the corner and shot him in the face. Yay, winning through repetition is fun! Another time it was me shooting at a bad guy and some stupid civilian with horrible AI controls ran into my line fire and his death caused me to once again to get locked out of building I needed to go into. What’s really funny, in an “I want to punch someone in the face” kind of way, is that all three of these examples happened in the same mission. Believe me when I say that all of the missions in this game have their share of janky controls and mission ending boo-boos. The real sad thing is that just a few save points sprinkled throughout a level, while not eliminating the aggravation of failing a mission for stupid reasons, would have greatly dampened the anger because at least then you wouldn’t have to start the whole thing over from the start of the mission.

There are a few other questionable things to this game, like a truly horrible aiming system, mind numbingly repetitively sound bites when you cap a fool (if I hear “why me?” as a guy topples over one more time, I swear I’ll scream), and the aforementioned awful computer controlled characters. However again I must stress that I could forgive the game those minor failings, but the mission ending f-ups that occur all too frequently which cause you to start all over from the beginning…well no, I can’t forgive that.

For that reason alone, I give PERFECT DARK 2 idiotic civilians running into the path of my blazing guns out of 5.

TALES OF MONKEY ISLAND, by Telltale games; 2009; Rated E; PC, Wii.

There are few games so beloved and fondly remembered from the golden yesteryear of PC gaming as the MONKEY ISLAND series. They were the games that put Lucas Arts on the map and were point and click adventures of the highest caliber filled with devious puzzles, quirky humor, memorable characters, and enjoyable story telling. However in today’s world of FPS, RPG, cover based, open world, motion controlled, multiplayer twitch games, the classic point and click puzzle genre that the MI games helped create is thought of by many as hopelessly out of date. Well to quote one Mr. T; “I pity them fools.” While it’s true that you can never really go home again, the fine minds at Telltale games, many of whom had their fingerprints all over the original MONKEY games back in the day, have decided to renovate “home” and bring it up to code for the modern day while keeping much of its original charm in a brand new set of adventures called the TALES OF MONKEY ISLAND. Is the new game a seaworthy vessel bound for silly pirate goodness, or is it a leaky tub that will sink as soon as she casts off? Well hop aboard, matey and let’s find out.

One of the cool things about TALES is the way you can go about purchasing and playing it. If you know you are already a MONKEY fan then you can get the whole story as one very reasonably priced DVD. However if you are new to these types of games and would like to test the water before diving in, then you can download the game piecemeal as it was originally put out as an episodic game. That is, it is divided UP between five chapters that while linked, do play as complete little games in their own right. A lot of game companies talk about episodic gaming, Telltale is one of the very few that figured out how to do it right.

Starting with the first chapter, LAUNCH OF THE SCREAMING NARLWHALE and concluding with RISE OF THE PIRATE GOD, the length of all five chapters combined is roughly twenty or so hours. During this time you play as the famous and legendary (in his own mind, at least) pirate Guybrush Threepwood, a good-natured adventurer as he once again tries to save his wife, Elaine, from his ever reoccurring nemesis; a zombie, ghost, pirate named LeChuck. The game stays true to its roots with plenty of puzzles that usually rely on combining two odd items in your inventory to produce an unusual, but often strangely logical, result. Guy’s movement around his richly colored Caribbean environments has been updated somewhat as you can now control the buckler of swash with the keyboard. This makes things a lot easier than having to point and click on everything, although you will still use the mouse plenty. Lastly the famous MONKEY ISLAND humor also remains intact and it ranges from smirk-worthy, to giggle-inducing, to downright tee-hee-titillating. That is but a part of the greatest strength to this new pirate packed outing; the writing. The characters start off well developed with years of history already invested in them and they simply get better as the game goes on. LeChick in particular goes through quite an evolution. Even side characters that only show up briefly get painted with the fine detail brush and are memorable in many ways, but usually because of their oddness. The jokes are pretty solid. The puzzles are puzzling yet solvable without too much brain strain, although there is a handy hint system in the game for those that do get stuck. And as stated before, each chapter is self contained for the most part, set in different locations with different mysteries, characters, and stories to uncover, but there is an over-arching plot connecting them all together.

If you have never play the old style point and click adventures, do yourself a favor and download the first chapter, LAUNCH OF THE SCREAMING NARLWHALE, at the very least and give it a shot. Chances are you’ll like it and want to get the others to see what other mischief and strange predicaments Guybrush Threepwood gets himself into. If you are one of the old guard of PC gamers and often find yourself saying, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” then this is the game you’ve been waiting for. Even if you don’t fall into either of these catagories and just want to play a lighthearted and often very funny adventure game, then your ship has just came it and it’s called TALES OF MONKEY ISLAND. Those so interested can find more info on this game, not to mention the five episodes of the game all ready to be downloaded, here:

I give TALES OF MONKEY ISLAND 4 rubber chickens with a pulley in its middle (that one’s for the old school gamers) out of 5.

--Brian M. Sammons