Saturday, February 4, 2012

Graphic Horror: Game Reviews

THE DARKNESS II, by Digital Extremes and 2K Games, Rated M, for PC, PS3, Xbox 360

This sequel to one of the first games for this generation of game consoles, which in turn was based on a dark, horror-tinged comic book, was a long time in coming. As in five years in coming. The first game was well received by most critics (myself included) but was only a cult classic, if that. So it was quite a surprise when this second game was announced. It was also a surprise, but not a good one, when it was revealed that the game makers who made the original title were not going to do this one. Thankfully the new developers, Digital Extremes, did an amazing job of not only retaining what made the first game so good, but they also improved on the gameplay and came up with quite a few of their own tricks too.

Once again you play as a mobster named Jackie, however after the bloody events of the first game, you are now the boss of the New York crime family. Jackie has even managed to keep the powerful, raging spirit of The Darkness that lives inside him in check for the last couple of years. But that was before a secret, cult-like organization called the Brotherhood shows up. This group of wackos wants the power of The Darkness (and you must always refer to it like that, with both words capitalized) for themselves and they are willing to kill anyone in the process. That includes Jackie, his friends, and what little of his family he has left. In order to fight them off, Jackie must once again let loose the caged power of The Darkness, much to the delight of fans of ultraviolent video games everywhere.

THE DARKNESS 2 is a first person shooter, but it has quite a bit more going for it that sets it apart from the glut of other shooters out there. First and foremost are the two trademark Darkness tentacles that grow out of the back of Jackie and slither over his shoulders to attack his foes. With these snake-like appendages you can grab up people, rip them in half lengthwise, sideways, tear their spins out of their ass, pop their heads off, tear (and eat) their hearts out of their chest, and all sorts of other groovy, overly gory ways to dispatch the bad guys. Furthermore, you can sew death with what they call quad-wielding; that is you can have a pistol or submachine gun in each of your normal, human hands, and simultaneously use your shoulder tentacles to pickup up shields for defense, chuck spears and heavy objects at distant targets, or just grab, slash, and eat any fool that gets close to you. This unique style of play is incredibly fun, viscerally satisfying, never gets old, and gives you a wealth of different options on how to mangle and mutilate.

In addition to the very satisfying gameplay, there are some great looking cell-shaded graphics very reminiscent of the comics the game is based off. This crisp, clear visual style really shows off the gore and splatter, so fans of such things, take note. There is also a lot of surprisingly good voice acting, with my favorite characters being a British soccer hooligan demon buddy and a twitchy, more than slightly insane occult expert. As for the story, it’s pretty good, but it honestly does nothing new and the “surprise” ending I saw coming from a mile away or more. Still, it’s not horrible, and it’s a testament to how good this game is that I didn’t mind the so-so story.

In the same vein, the worst thing about this game is how short it is, which means that I just wanted more of it. You can play through the single player campaign in around six hours, give or take. Sure there is a new game + mode, if you want to max your character out and find every hidden collectible (which here are relics with incredibly well written backgrounds, so I highly recommend finding them all) but that obviously adds nothing new to a pretty short experience. There is a pretty good multiplayer that allows up to four different Darkness-enhanced characters to battle together in a side-quest story that takes place concurrently with the main story. However, this adds perhaps two more hours to the game, but unlike other multiplayer games, the replayability of this one seems nonexistent. Still, if the worst thing I can say about the game is that I wished there was more of it, I guess that’s pretty damn good.

THE DARKNESS 2 is a really fun game that goes by too quickly. Here’s hoping they release some DLC for it, or at least make a DARKNESS 3 much quicker than it took them to release this sequel. Therefore it gets and easy, if somewhat bloody and sadly shirt, 4 spines ripped out of anuses out of 5.

ALAN WAKE’S AMERICAN NIGHMARE, by Remedy Entertainment and Microsoft Studios, Rated T, for Xbox 360

This is not a true sequel to the very good game (just called ALAN WAKE) from 2010. It is also not much like the one that came before it. As the developers have said numerous times themselves; the first ALAN WAKE was about two thirds story and one third combat, whereas this one is two thirds combat and one third story. They have even admitted that this small, downloadable game was original thought up as just an arcade combat-arena-type of thing. Then they remember that the combat in the first game, while serviceable, was not why anyone played or liked the it, so they put in a somewhat short story mode. So while I gave ALAN WAKE my horror game of the year nod in 2010, I was nonetheless apprehensive when I heard about this title. I mean, the story and all the little bits (like the ‘Night Springs’ television shows, the over-the-top dramatic narration, the weird TWIN PEAKS-like feel, and more) that came with it is what made the first game so good, so how would a game that left all that behind be?

Thankfully, I didn’t have to find out. While the story element of this outing is very short (you can zip through it in maybe three or four hours, with parts of it being recycled thrice over) it is quite a bit of fun and doesn’t stray too far from the trail the first game blazed. Once again you play as famous author, Alan Wake, doing battle with the literal forces of darkness and his own fictitious creations brought to horrible life. However this time you have a dark doppelganger called Mr. Scratch running around with your name and face, doing very bad things to people. It’s up to you to stop Scratch, and to do so, you’ll travel to three spooky locations; a lonely motel, an isolated mountaintop observatory, and a rundown drive-in. All three are set in the American southwest, which moves the action out of the soggy TWIN PEAKS territory. This was a good thing, in my opinion, as a little variety is always welcome. Sadly, that’s where the variety ends, as like I hinted at before, you will return, and have to run through again, these same three areas no less than three times to complete this game. There is a pretty good story related reason for this, but honestly it was done so that the developers could make the game as quickly, easily, and no doubt as cheaply as possible. Now that’s not a horrible thing, and on your third return trip to the same location, the game makers at least had the good sense to not make you play through the whole thing from start to finish. But it must be said that no matter how cool the creepy motel looked, by the third time you visit it, it gets pretty damn old.

As for the other part of this game, it’s your standard ‘hoard mode’ survival game, where Alan must survive wave after wave of darkness-clad baddies. The monsters increase in number and get tougher as the thing progresses, but you’ve just got a ten minute time limit to make it through, so it never gets all that tough. And while you are given a handful of ‘arenas’ to do battle in, like a graveyard, ghost town, etc., this is the very definition of repetitive gameplay. If you can play through it more than a couple of times without completely becoming board by it, then you’re a more diehard gamer that I am. It’s not really bad, it’s just not a ton of fun, either. And remember, this is how this whole game was at first meant to be. Thank god someone came to their senses.

ALAN WAKE’S AMERICAN NIGHMARE is a very short, sort of fun expansion on the original game. There are a bunch new weapons to shoot shadowy baddies with, some very cool Rod Serling-like narration and fun FMV (Full Motion Video) parts in the story-centric side to the game, a way-too-catchy song about psychos, and a rather forgettable hoard mode. It’s a mixed bag of bad dreams, and very small one to be sure, but there is still enough good to be found in this game to give it 3 demonic psychopaths dancing in a motel room while killing people, out of 5.

NEVERDEAD, by Rebellion and Konami Corporation, Rated M, for the PS3 and Xbox 360

This is an example of a great idea, but a very flawed execution. The idea was this; you play as a demon hunter (ok, nothing new there) named Bryce who was cursed with immortality by a demon lord (and even that has been done before). The new wrinkle is that although you can’t die, you can be ripped apart to the extent that all your limbs, and even your head, fall off. When that happens you don’t die, but must gather up your errant appendages to rebuild yourself to continue your fight against the demons. This also gives you some neat things to do with your detached body parts, or at least they seem neat the first few times you do them. They’re really not so neat come the twentieth time or so you do them, but I’m getting ahead (ha, get it) of myself. Such activities include throwing your severed arm, still holding a gun, at an enemy so you can keep shooting it, while you battle other monsters with the majority of your body somewhere else. You can also toss your detached head into small or out of the way areas to unlock things and solve puzzles. All this gory, goofy goodness sounds great on paper, however when it actually came to making it work in the context of a video game is where things start to fall apart (ha, get it).

This third person shooter-slasher (as you also get a sword) gameplay is old and tired pretty much from the start and it only gets worse. Other than the severed parts angle, there’s nothing new here. The same can be said for the creature design, they all feel like you’ve seen them and fought them all before in countless other video games. The same can be said of the tropes, from the monster belching cocoons that keep pooping out critters until you destroy them, to the energy walls that pop up, sealing you in a room until you kill all the minions in that room. The combat is clunky and poorly designed and lacking of anything remotely resembling fun. The cool sounding ‘body falls apart so you’ve got to collect it’ mechanic is also broken half the time. First off, it happens way too often. You fall to pieces if a demon so much as looks at you harshly. Secondly, and worst of all, sometimes your body with ragdoll in a position or area that, for whatever the reason, you can get to or just can’t put back together. In a game where that is it’s only gimmick, it’s inexcusable that it doesn’t work all the time.

Then there are the boss battles, which are exercises in frustration and tedium all in one. They’re all variants on the old ‘shoot them in the glowing weak spot’ formula. That’s the tedium part, as they’re long and boring. The frustration comes from the aforementioned falling apart too easily mechanic, which means that most of the time you’ll spend the battle as a useless head, rolling around, looking for your body to put back together. That in turn leads to the boss fights being way too long, which brings us back to the tedium. It really is a vicious little circle.

Oh, but wait, there’s more not to like about this one. How about the horrible voice acting and dialog of everyone involved, but especially for the main character? Bryce has a handful of quips that are supposed to be edgy and funny in a snarky, hardcore kind of way, but they’re mostly just annoying and repeated far too often. It’s lazy, it’s not funny, and it’s all kinds of repetitive. None of the characters in this game are original, likeable, or even enjoyable. The story is weak and pedestrian. At best it’s serviceable, if only just. Hell, I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

NEVERDEAD had a good idea, but it just dropped the ball (or would that be its head) far too often. Because it tired something new in this age of same old military first person shooters, I give it 2 severed legs lying uselessly on the ground, out of 5.

FINAL FANTASY XIII-2, by Square Enix, Rated T, for PS3 and Xbox 360

This is only the second direct sequel to a previous FINAL FANTASY game that Square Enix ever did, and I think they did it largely to silence the critics of their last game; FF 13. That game was widely lambasted by critics and even some of the most faithful FF fans, and to their credit, it appears that Square Enix actually listened to the fans and took that criticism to heart. Pretty much all of the problems that fans had with the last game are address here, and the fixes are implemented well. Unfortunately, the game makers also added some new things, I think in an attempt to make the game more ‘hip and today’, that utterly failed. And then there are the parts of the FINAL FANTASY milieu that I really, really wish they would change, and yet they seem hell bent on keeping.

The old things they did right that they brought back: the incredibly enjoyable, tactical, and fast paced combat from FF 13 is back, and it’s even been slightly improved on. That is the heart of this game, and as such it’s beating loud and strong. The quick changing paradigm system is so damn good that it almost eclipses all the other parts of this game that fall flat…almost. It is very satisfying and light years more quick and energetic than anything any western RPG game maker has every tried to implement. This is easily the best thing about FF 13-2 and it’s worth playing the game just for it alone.

The new things they did right: they get rid of the linear gameplay that angered so many about the last game. Square Enix did this in the most nonlinear fashion possible; time travel. In this game you travel to a number of different locations at different points in time. Some are mandatory to progress the story, but the majority are completely optionally. Furthermore, most of the different places and time you can access any time (ha, get it) you want. Also, it actually has tangible payoffs that few time traveling games ever do. For example, in one area and in one time there is a big boss monster. Now you can just walk up to the monster, throw down as usual and hope for the best. Or you can avoid the big boss for now, travel to another time and find another boss that’s less big and bad and is somehow powering the other monster in the future, and kill that one first. Then go back to the first boss and find it a much more beatable foe. That stuff is brilliant and not only well done, but allows total player freedom that few, if any, other games offer.

Another new bright spot is that you get to collect monsters, POKEMON style. In FF 13-2 you only have two characters, one is the sister of the girl on the cover of the box (yes, you don’t play as the character on the box of the game – wtf were they thinking?) named Serah. The other is a time traveling amnesiac named Noel. As for the rest of your party, you can collect the monsters that you beat in your random battles. Each monster has a specific role and you can train each and pick three of them at a time as the third, changeable position in your party. Some monsters are better than others, each has a special ‘limit break’ attack, and you can dress them up in silly costumes *squee*. This adds a lot of variety to the game and scratches the OCD, got to collect everything itch that many gamers seem to have now.

The new things they didn’t do well: first and foremost is a shoehorned dialog system that seems so out of place in a FINAL FANTASY game as to be jarring. I think this was a case of Square Enix looking at big selling RPGs from BioWare and Bethesda and saying, ‘well that’s what gamers in the west want, so let’s give it to them’. But while such dialog is at the heart of the games from those other two developers, here the dialog options seem silly and completely superfluous at best. No one was asking for this to become part of FF games, so its addition here seems like a big misstep.

Another new boo-boo is the quick time events that happen at the end of the big boss battles. While not bad, again they seem slapped on and totally unnecessarily to the game. They’re not exciting, they’re not engaging, and all they serve to do is distract the player from watching the incredibly well animated cut scenes. You know, one of the things all the FF games have been known and lauded for. So again, their inclusion here seems like a wrong call.

Lastly, old things they really need to change: in a word; style. I am an old school FINAL FANTASY fan, and I’ve stayed with the series where as many others wrote them off long ago. I do so because at their heat they’re still good games. That said, maybe I’ve grown up (at last) in my late thirties, or maybe the times have changed, or maybe the makers of the FF games have done neither, but this game really brought home to me just how sick I am of the art style and many of the creative decisions behind FINAL FANTASY. Now I’m not going to go into great detail about this because thousands, if not millions, of words have already been written about the FINAL FANTASY style and how it needs to change or just grow up. From the emo, androgynous, spiky-haired characters that dress like fashion victim clowns, to the overly cutesiness of everything (dear god, the moogle in this game made me want to put my fist through my TV every time it uttered a single, squeaky, adult-trying-to-speak-like-a-child word). There the overly convoluted to the point of being nonsensical plot, and the uber emo villains who always seem to want to destroy the world because life’s not fair and there’s suffering in the world and blah, blah, blah, you don’t know my pain. Seriously, can no FINAL FANTASY game ever do anything new story or style wise? While the game designers love to change the actual game and combat mechanics from one FF game to another, they seem to be stuck in a creative morass when it comes to anything else. Come on guys, try something new, it won’t hurt, I promise.

FINAL FANTASY XIII-2 is still a fun game, mostly due to its addictive and fact combat system. While a lot of the other elements are starting to get threadbare and are in desperate need of replacement, the game as a whole is still worth a play through. Therefore it gets 3 annoying as hell moogles out of 5 from me.

--Brian Sammons