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Review: Alan Wake

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aw_boxPlatform: Xbox 360, PC (Windows only)
Released: 2010 (360), 2012 (PC)
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft
Digital Release? Yes, this game is available on all released platforms digitally
Price: $8.55 (disc only), $10.00 (complete) per Price Charting

The wind howled violently outside, coupling with the darkness to generate an atmosphere of dread.  Had it been raining the scene would be complete.  On the other side of the window, a reviewer sat down and began to play a new video game in the dark.  While the gentle glow of the television provided just enough light to see around him, it was as if he were transferred to the fictional location of Bright Falls along with the game’s protagonist Alan Wake.  What unfolded over the next dozen or so hours was impressive.  This game was not unlike others he had experienced in terms of what to do or how it looked and felt, however thanks to thoughtful plot progression and deep character development the reviewer was able to let other faults go.  He was repeating the same steps over and over again, the algorithmic nature of the confrontations were drowned out by the need to proceed forward and see where the story went.  He wasn’t even sure what was going on anymore because, in truth, the plot was convoluted.  It didn’t matter, the experience was begging him to move forward.  He hoped it would not end.  This was Alan Wake.

aw_02If you have a flair for the over dramatic then you will feel right at home with Remedy’s action thriller that was recently featured in our vaporware podcast.  So little was known about what to expect from Alan Wake that when everyone finally got their hands on it there was this mixed sense of familiarity with the type of game it was, coupled with intrigue to the way it handled being a video game.  At its core Alan Wake is nothing more than a third person shooter with a so-so dodge mechanic where you use a combination of light and gunfire to absolve a haunted world of enemies.  If that were all the game had to offer, you wouldn’t be reading this review.  No, the soul of Alan Wake is the unique storytelling style that merges metaphysical realities with an unreliable protagonist and keeps you guessing over the course of the game.  While Deadly Premonition ticked all the boxes to look and act like Twin PeaksAlan Wake uses a more subtle approach to feel like Twin Peaks.  It’s much closer to being a Max Payne game than the studio would care to admit – I wouldn’t be surprised if it started life as that – but much like those original titles its barrage of enemy encounters are just varied enough that the gameplay never gets tiresome.  Barring that, there’s a larger layer of tone and aesthetic that work together to transform the world of Alan Wake from being more than just a simple video game, it’s an entertainment production.

aw_1Your first episode in the game is Alan and his wife arriving in Bright Falls, simple as that.  It’s daytime, everyone is nice, everything is peaceful, and with the bright lights and vivid scenery there’s little pause as to what danger may be lurking.  If you were fortunate enough to know nothing more about the plot, you might not even know this game is slated as a thriller or horror game above everything else, so when it takes a drastic turn you’re caught off guard.  I referred to the game as an “entertainment production”, which trust me is not an attempt to oversell it.  What I mean by that is this game is trying to blend media at an aggregate rate: the storytelling is that of a book, character development of the cast has an arc like a movie, the level progression is separated by “episodes” that even feature a “previously on” like television, each episode ends with credits and an official song that together make up a soundtrack well worth the extra money I paid for, and your traditional linear action gameplay well represents a video game.  If you’re keeping track that means Alan Wake has hints of a book, movie, television show, audio album, and video game; something I felt could only be described as an entertainment production.  It works, too, which is what I never expected.

aw_04Keep in mind this is still a video game through and through, so no matter how good the graphics are, how well the storytelling subtly foreshadows or develops, and how great the soundtrack is, you still spend a majority of your time playing a video game.  That video game, while doing nothing really new, had the right mix of level design and encounter variety to keep me wanting to come back.  If you look at a barebones list of what happens in the game or view a handful of random clips taken from it, I can see how you would deduce that everything is the same as everything else, which is probably true.  Even the collectible pages come together to give more depth to events happening, it’s all part of the plan; well, except for those Twin Peak-esque thermoses that have no value to the game whatsoever, those should go.  It’s perhaps that fact as to why the game delves so deeply into other media and styles for its soul that it took so long to come out and tweak just right.  Whatever the reason, it’s a solid mix that fascinated me back then and continues to amuse me now.  Without giving away any spoilers I can just say that Alan Wake is a full experience that will have you on edge from the creepy beginning to the frantic ending.

Extra Episodes

At the time of its release, Alan Wake didn’t quite feel finished once you beat the game.  Some of the game’s stronger plot points get reconciled, but there’s no question that the most key concept was missing in action.  This all eventually wrapped up in two supplemental episodes: The Signal and The Writer.  While these episodes take a lot of time to wrap up a relatively basic concept, the gameplay of each drastically switches up the nature of how you had played the rest of the game.  This is why I feel that the story was already complete in an earlier version of the game, but they had no good way to integrate DLC with more of a story unless they just stripped the end of the story out of the main game and used it for the plot points of the extra episodes.  I only say this because the gameplay either gets harder or has you using styles or concepts absent from the main game that while the plot feels like it was stripped from the core product, the gameplay feels anything but.  If you grab this game on PC, both extra episodes are integrated into the game and you enter into them after beating the main story, but if you grab this on Xbox 360 (disc or digital) you will want to plunk down the extra money for this DLC because the game and plot won’t feel complete without them.  Kind of a cheap tactic if you ask me, but it’s a worthwhile amount of content for the price that I’m willing to let it go.

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American Nightmare

This download-only title released in 2012 around the time of the PC port for both PC and Xbox 360 that serves as a spin-off tale of the original.  You can ditch everything you know about the plot, the characters, and to a certain extent even the gameplay rules of the original because despite being a shorter experience, American Nightmare is its own game.  Remedy replaces the isolated New England town of Bright Falls with the isolated and desolate environment of a roadside town in the Nevada desert.  If Alan Wake was Twin PeaksAmerican Nightmare is most definitely Stephen King.  All of the different things I loved about the experience of Alan Wake‘s multimedia experience make a return, but that’s about the only thing that carries over.  Whereas the original game was about a somewhat familiar setting that involved characters you didn’t know, American Nightmare takes a character and circumstance you are intimately familiar with and gives you a setting you don’t know.  This one isn’t just shadow people, it contains larger than life creatures, foreboding abandoned warehouses, and even monsters from other worlds.  They flip the unreliable protagonist nature of Alan Wake once again, but in a new way.  I also have to commend the use of the model for Alan Wake in now real full motion video for a lot of the cutscenes, which makes it all feel more “real” while the events continue to be more “surreal”.  It ends a bit too quickly, but I get the feeling Remedy was ready to put Alan Wake to rest for a while by the end.

aw_american_nightmare

If you decide to delve down the delightful rabbit hole that is Alan Wake, provided that you get intrigued by all of the unique things it does, you are in for a treat.  By the time I was half way through the first game I wanted (and purchased) the book, the soundtrack, and watched the Bright Falls mini-series that should still be available on the Zune Marketplace video store for free.  I wanted to become immersed in Alan Wake.  Returning to the game after a few years had passed and now for this third time I am pleased to say that it’s all familiar but still delightful.  It’s still a video game and you will find yourself having moments that come with any sort of challenge or annoyance that accompanies all video games, but it’s also unique enough that you will be glad you came.  Did I mention that the fantastic soundtrack that includes the likes of Poe and Roy Orbison blew my mind when I heard them return for this game?  When we look back at the wonderful games that defined the first HD generation of consoles, Alan Wake is going to be one of those fine examples that sadly seems to be locked in time and doomed to never return.

Final Score: 5 out of 5  (Review policy)

Written by Fred Rojas

November 20, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Posted in PC/Mac, Reviews, Xbox 360

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Retro Game Night: Night Slashers X

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This week, and for the first time ever, we are using emulation to capture a Beats of Rage engine remake, Night Slashers X. This was originally a 1994 Data East arcade beat-em-up that got ported over with extra violence on the open source brawler engine, Beats of Rage.  This also marks the first video in full 1080p HD!  Watch for more HD videos, most of which should be in 720p or 1080p in the future.

Written by Fred Rojas

November 16, 2014 at 10:15 am

Review: Bayonetta

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bayonetta_360_boxPlatform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii U
Released: 2010 (360/PS3), 2014 (Wii U)
Developer: Plantinum Games (360), Nex Entertainment (PS3 port), Bee Tribe (Wii U port)
Publisher: Sega (360/PS3), Nintendo (Wii U)
Digital Release? Yes, this game is available on all released platforms digitally
Price: $7.59 (disc only), $11.24 (complete), $14.99 (sealed) per Price Charting

Bayonetta is an anomaly.  It succeeds where many before it have failed.  Merging a Japanese style video game in every sense of the word, whimsical plot, a female sexually independent dominatrix lead, and incredible gameplay that attracts both Eastern and Western fans alike.  It is a true testament to the fact that if you bring a bunch of ideas together, no matter how outlandish, and they all remain consistent with an overall theme then more can definitely be better.  The first major release from Platinum Games knocks it out of the park, provided you don’t play the PS3 version.

Bayonetta_1Bayonetta opens in the fictional town of Vigrid where an endless battle is being fought between light and dark wages on.  Representing the light are the Lumen Sages and representing the dark are the Umbra Witches, and right off the bat this game turns the tables on you by revealing that your lead character, Bayonetta, is an Umbra Witch.  Not that the light is portrayed in a particularly positive way – all of these “angelic” creatures don halos as well as aggressive weapons, massive sizes, horrific appearances, and an affinity for causing death.  As Bayonetta you will trek across areas that vary from natural modern cities to metaphysical interpretations of heaven, purgatory, and hell, all with help from the game’s handful of unique characters that add some spark to Bayonetta’s lone wolf demeanor.  That’s not to say you’ll be swapping who you play as or that there’s a multiplayer component – because you won’t and there isn’t – nope, all of these cast members merely break up the monotony of the typical “hero on a quest” formula.  It’s all a good fit for an entertaining story, but that’s only the half of it because from both a plot and gameplay perspective Bayonetta herself has plenty of depth.

 

Get Ready!

Get Ready!

Developed by former Clover studio members(they made Viewtiful Joe and Okami for Capcom, among others), Bayonetta is one hell of an action beat-em-up title that feels like an alternative reality sequel to the original Devil May Cry (which creative director Hideki Kamiya is also responsible for).  Bayonetta  is a tall, slender character that has plenty of finesse and flexibility, which will be flaunted both for the benefit of battle and to flirt with the player.  The push and pull of combat is juggled by Bayonetta’s combos and a dodge mechanic that, when timed correctly, can give you an opportunity to dole out some massive hits on groups frozen in time.  This game is not about memorizing combos, despite the presence of a countless number of them, but rather responding with twitch reflexes to the actions of your opponents.  By the time you reach some of the later battles you will be required to anticipate the counter to an enemy’s action, thus making the final stages feel more like a dance or game of chess than a beat-em-up.  This might have been a setback were it not for how elegantly Bayonetta blends it all together and slowly builds to the point of some of those late encounters.  It also doesn’t mind making the most of Sega’s library as it taunts and emulates some of my favorite classics from the late 80s arcade era, complete with a surprising level that kept a smile on my face the whole time.

bayonetta_2In lieu of all the craziness, complex battles, and seemingly noble battle between two forever warring sides, Bayonetta is hardly a game to be appreciated by all gamers for a number of reasons.  First and foremost the game is definitely not for kids with consistent swearing, graphic violence, and lets not forget a cascade of sexual innuendos, suggestive poses (complete with camera flash), and the fact that Bayonetta’s finishing move involves her getting completely naked.  Yup, you read that right, she gets completely naked.  Before you worry too much about what type of game this is, for the most part the animation of these finishers is kept somewhat classy by covering up the lead lady’s naughty bits and never really having any true nudity, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t spend a significant amount of time in the buff.  It’s explained dutifully by the fact that all Umbra Witches have long hair that houses their powers and thus everything attached to Bayonetta, including her unique wardrobe, is actually her hair wrapped firmly around her body; when this power must be unleashed, all of her hair exits and generates various intriguing avatars for which to dispel the largest of her enemies.  So basically in order to kill a big monster she’s gotta have hear hair leave and that renders her naked for the moment.  I could also see how the consistent spread legs, bent over, and licking lollipop shots could be construed as distracting when you consider most of these shots occur at the end of a battle, but frankly it feels more like just an extension of the character.  Bayonetta is in control and she doesn’t care if you know it or not so when she teases you.  She poses in such a way as to get your attention and remind you that if anyone is being exploited here, it’s you the player.  I thought it was a great play on roles and a surprising way to break the fourth wall, but historically Bayonetta is viewed more as an oversexed male perspective of a character rather than the strong female lead she represents.  Perhaps this will have no bearing on your interest in the title, but it is a consistent and necessary theme.

While it’s a blast from start to finish, I have to admit that Bayonetta is not without flaws, and that’s assuming you dismiss the fact that the necessary 60 frames per second (fps) of the 360 and Wii U versions are throttled by poor porting on the PS3 and can be responsible for a drop to the lower 40s on Sony’s console.  This is critical in that the entire game depends on the flow of combat and literally five frames of animation can mark the difference between a perfectly executed dodge and a clunky late jam on the button that leaves you open for large combo damage.  This game is also difficult to play in long strides due to the 12-15 hour campaign being chock full of high tension and twitch reflex gameplay that make it far from a “sit back and unwind game”.  Fortunately each new encounter feels more like a new puzzle rather than a batch of throw away enemies and once the gameplay gets its hooks into you Bayonetta is addicting.  I could see many starting the game but eventually coming to a point where it’s too exhausting to continue to the end, not to mention some of the less than ideal checkpoints during boss battles.  If you stick with it, the accolade of completion and seeing the conclusion to the story are a fitting reward for your efforts.

bayonetta_3

Bayonetta is a game that skates the lines of many games I had enjoyed in the past but was one of the first to nail that overall hybrid.  With a playful Japanese style, larger than life opposition, and almost rhythmic combat style there’s a lot to love with this title.  It may have a few flaws and for those that never quite get down the timing, can seem like it starts to wear out its welcome, but I was always anticipating my next session from the first chapter to the large scale ending.  It takes a bit of time to sink in and you get bombarded by some jarring minutia at the onset, but in the end Bayonetta is a must play title for anyone who owns a 360 or Wii U.

Wii U Extras

bayonetta_wiiu_costumesIn truth the more recent port of this title that accompanies its sequel in the states is almost indistinguishable from the 360 version, especially when the 360 upscale to 1080p is up for comparison.  Nintendo’s true stamp on the original comes in the form of various costumes of popular Nintendo franchises that make guest appearances in the Wii U version.  From the beginning you have the Peach, Daisy, Link, and Samus costumes at your disposal, which not only change Bayonetta’s aesthetics but also provide her with appropriate special abilities.  At first I was eager to try on each of these costumes and enjoy the gameplay benefits they bring, but after a short time I regretted their presence.  That’s not to say I don’t think they should be included, more optional content is better than no content in every case, but rather that I just didn’t find any value in them.  I can’t get over how goofy Bayonetta looks in all of the costumes and the fact that the game doesn’t acknowledge them – which I knew it wasn’t going to do because those cutscenes were created long before Nintendo costumes were considered – but in a title that thrives on ridiculous over-the-top circumstance it felt just a bit too far even for Bayonetta.  I also thought that complicating the gameplay with these seemingly super moves actually hindered my ability to effectively chain combos and thus acted as more of a handicap rather than a special benefit.  In the end, it’s up to you, but I played the game as if the costumes didn’t exist.

Final Score: 5 out of 5  (Review Policy)

Written by Fred Rojas

November 13, 2014 at 3:33 pm

Posted in PS3, Reviews, Wii U, Xbox 360

Tagged with , , ,

Podcast: Ah Ah Ahhhhh

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halo_post

This week Fred and Jam are discussing the misadventures of Master Chief, at least in terms of the Bungie developed ones.  What started out as a Real Time Strategy (RTS) title for the Mac ended up ironically being the launch title for the Microsoft Xbox that has withstood the test of time and is to this day one of the strongest properties in gaming.


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Written by Fred Rojas

November 12, 2014 at 11:00 am

Podcast: Ripto – Trilogy of the Dragon

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In a widely requested topic, this week Jam and Fred discuss the Spyro the Dragon trilogy on PS1.  After briefly telling the story of the origins of developer Insomniac, the guys delve deep into the young dragon that played one of the only open world 3D competitors to Nintendo’s Super Mario 64.


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Written by Fred Rojas

November 5, 2014 at 8:50 pm

Review: Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh

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phan2_boxAlso Known As: Phantasmagoria 2, Phantasmagoria II: Fatal Obsessions (European title)
Platform
: DOS/Windows PC
Released: 1996
Developer: Sierra
Publisher: Activision
Digital Release? Yes, on Good Old Games (gog.com) for $5.99 (compatible with Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8 only)
Price: $4.44 (5 discs only), $32.99 (complete), $69.00 (sealed) per Price Charting

Phantasmagoria, besides being a franchise with one of the most awesome names ever, is a psychological horror full motion video (FMV) game – a genre that was a hugely common in the 90′s thanks to the use of CD-ROMs as media. A Puzzle of Flesh is the sequel to the controversial original. Why was it controversial? Well, the original featured a crazy amount of graphic content including horrific death scenes for characters and adult scenes which caused quite the stir back in the day when it was released. This included sexual content and a rape scene, which is possibly not as controversial as the media makes it out to be. The sequel follows this trend, but on its own controversial level entirely. Being released just a year after the first game it was surprising to see this game did not receive the same attention as the original.

phant2_2You play Curtis Craig, a man who loves his pet rat ‘blob,’ his girlfriend Jocilyn, and his taste in grey pocket t-shirts because he never seems to change his grey pocket T throughout the entire game.  He’s living the American dream. Curtis has also been out of a mental hospital for a year and creepy things start to go down at his home and work at the suspicious WynTech Industries Corporation. Curtis very quickly starts to question his sanity, so it’s up to him to find out what’s going on or face another trip to the loony bin. It’s certainly a story I’ve not seen in a game before and contains a surprising amount of twists that most won’t see coming.


A Puzzle of Flesh
features point-and-click gameplay and the entire game consists of watching scenes and solving fairly simple puzzles. There really isn’t many opportunities to fail the game until later on where a wrong decision could lead to you dying in usually a rather entertaining scene.  Death carries very little consequence as continuing from a Game Over places you right back at the scene before you failed to try again. Puzzles are rarely challenging, save for one puzzle right at the end becomes quite the head-scratcher.  A Puzzle of Flesh feels more of an experience as opposed to a game with any form of challenge; your drive to continue will depend on how much you get sucked into the story.  If you dig the B movie horror scene this may be for you.  Additionally the point-and-click gameplay is not the most solid.  Sometimes you will reach areas of a game where you know how to progress but due to the games bizarre handling of combining items and how to use the inventory system the way forward may not be easily reached. I had to actually pull out a guide to figure out how to get through the game even though I knew the solution, only to find out the game wanted you to do some weird item combination that is far from clear both from an inherent and instructional perspective.

phant2_1Graphics, well its FMV so it’s real actors doing some very bad acting which you will either adore because of its charm or just not feel very amused. Environments are fairly standard for a FMV game – some in an office, in a house, and later a secret lab and strange world. Unlike a lot of FMV games the scenes in this game were filmed on location which make the cost to create this game a lot more than its predecessor, which may also explain why a third game was never made. The game does handle the crazy very well specifically when Curtis trips out and goes all mental, locking in that B-movie feel.  The music is quite hilarious, very ninties especially when you enter a club later on in the game. During moments of fear and tension the sounds used are appropriate and add to the imerrsion. The voice acting feels over done by most of the cast, but it works. Many of the characters come out with the oddest one-liners that you won’t be forgetting in a hurry including the “My ass!!!” line from a police detective. Hardly an Oscar winning script but definitely a good laugh.

It won’t take you too long to get through the campaign – you’re probably looking at around the five hour mark for a first timer, but the master of FMV point-and-click games that time will be a lot less. There is little reason to revisit the game, however a small incentive is to go Easter egg hunting.  The game has various hidden scenes to find and if your hardcore enough to find all of them the game rewards you with a special congratulations.

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Overall Phantasmagoria: a Puzzle of Flesh is a memorable experience even if you only play through it once. For fans of FMV games this is a must play, but anyone new to this type of game should be cautious.  This game has mature adult content as well as graphic gore scenes (not for the squeamish) and is really only for those looking for a basic gameplay experience. At times the point-and-click controls will become a pain and the way ahead won’t be clear due to how the game handles its inventory system, you may have to seek help with an online guide. As a horror fan I really enjoyed this game and the story is nothing like anything I have seen before in game or film. Its one mental trip I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

Final Score: 3 out of 5  (Review Policy)

Written by jamalais

November 3, 2014 at 4:00 pm

Review: Phantasmagoria

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phant_boxPlatform: DOS/Windows PC, Sega Saturn (only in Japan as Phantasm with Japanese text/subtitles)
Released: 1995
Developer: Sierra
Publisher: Sierra
Digital Release? Yes, on Good Old Games (gog.com) for $9.99 (compatible with Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8 only)
Price: $7.50 (7 discs only), Complete not available, $20.49 (sealed) per Price Charting

phant_1In the mid 90s a change was afoot, especially on PCs: the compact disc (CD).  Once CD-ROM drives were introduced to gaming technology and the 1.44 MB floppy disk was replaced by the 650 MB CD, you could create massive experiences without so much as a care as to how big your code was.  In fact, developers cared so little that blatant wastes of space were created in the form of both full motion video (FMV) titles and multi-disc experiences that had voice integration and usually the first few hundred MB of each disc contained the same coding.  I can’t think of any bigger example of this than the point-and-click FMV title from Roberta Williams (she made King’s Quest), Phantasmagoria.  Weighing in at 7 full CDs (8 on the Japan-only Saturn version), you basically change discs at the end of each day in the game and the whole week tells a chilling tale not unlike Stephen King’s The Shining.  With full video laughably integrated into computer generated images, lackluster gameplay, and a the goriest scenes ever portrayed in a game at the time, Phantasmagoria is a sight to behold.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.  A young writer moves into a spooky house with their spouse where strange occurrences happened in the past and someone becomes possessed and slowly goes insane with homicidal outcomes.  Phantasmagoria is that tale with a twist.  You play as Adrienne Delaney, a female paperback writer who’s rented the 19th Century house of a fabled magician, Zoltan Carnovasch (awesome name), who was also noted to be a serial killer and eventually taken out by his wife’s lover.  Your husband, Don, is a photographer that must be so good at the profession he can sell images from just about anywhere and make a profit because this guy spends all day in his dark room and snapping photos around the New England-esque town without a care in the world.  Naturally, as Adrienne you go exploring and eventually release the ghost of Zoltan, who promptly takes over your husband.  From then on is a series of events that convey your husband partaking in acts of aggression, brutality, and even sexual assault against his wife before a concluding in a predictable ending riddled with gruesome death scene fail states that you owe it to yourself to experience.

phant_2Honestly while Phantasmagoria has always received more praise and attention than it’s better sequel, it is a true testament to the time.  While Adrienne, Don, and the handful of other actors are live action, they are clearly captured on a green screen so everything looks like a bad SyFy channel movie.  You will never mistake the areas around the actors as anything but a computer image so the end result comes off a lot more Who Framed Roger Rabbit? than Jurassic Park - there’s this scene where Adrienne falls off a ledge, grabs the stones of the cliff, and lifts herself up and you won’t be able to contain yourself at how fake it looks to watch a live actress pretend she’s lifting herself when she’s really just dragging across a floor.  Not only do the graphics look like B-roll from Cool World but the point-and-click gameplay leaves much to be desired, especially when you consider this is part of one of the most hardcore genre’s that’s ever existed and led by one of the most notable progenitors of that genre.  You don’t get that degree of care that is custom of known Sierra titles of the time and instead receive puzzles that are either lazy or obtuse, none of which are fun to figure out.  There’s a Universal Hint System (UHS) that provides you with clues when you get stuck; on the first click it says something vague, on the second it gets rather specific, and on the third the skull flat out tells you what to do next with an annoyed voice.  This is a common system for point-and-click games and to be honest it’s rather effective for most titles, but Phantasmagoria is so bi-polar with the degree of its puzzles that it’s the “okay I give up” button you won’t soon forget to use on a regular basis.  Don’t get me wrong the puzzles aren’t very difficult but sometimes the manner in which you have to overcome them is, thus necessitating the UHS on a regular basis (feel free to just have a guide handy if you prefer).  By the end of the game you are trying to navigate the halls of the mansion in a chase scene, but the way it’s all presented is so disorienting that you’re basically guessing where to go next with a gruesome cutscene as your reward for the wrong answer.

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It’s really too bad because behind the hilarious visuals and wonky interface lies a compelling story.  The only thing that feels real about the entire game is Adrienne and Don, who appropriately make up a brunt of the content and come off as a believable couple.  This is core to buying into the scenario that someone you love and trust is changing before your very eyes and you are somewhat powerless to overcome it.  While it may be an off-color topic and hard for some to imagine being in a game, the rape scene is effective and justified on the basis that it unfolds exactly as it could in real life.  Don is the only person in the world to have Adrienne in the vulnerable position he does when it occurs and she is not denying of his physicality down to the fact that it begins as an apparent consensual lovemaking scene.  All off the awkward and aggressive interactions between the couple in this game are handled the same way, where it’s subtle but apparent behavior that doesn’t act like the person you love.  In addition there are scenarios that occur surrounding Adrienne’s investigation of Zoltan’s past that alert the audience to the presence of danger while Adrienne is left completely unaware.  The fact that we control her as she proceeds with her questioning only further enhances that dread that we know she’s in danger but are forced to play along as if we have no clue.  I also have to commend the bloody, brutal special effects that make up the later parts of the game and provide incredible rewards for splatter film fans that had never seen anything like that in a game before.  Night Trap may have been blamed for violent realistic content but it didn’t much exist before Phantasmagoria flat out nailed it a couple years later.

horror_adv_postPut it together and Phantasmagoriis an interesting story with the misfortune of being packaged as a game.  Most of your gameplay elements are obstacles that stand in the way of the progressing story, which has to be the carrot on the stick otherwise you have no reason to proceed forward.  Perhaps I am being a bit too harsh in that I don’t much care for classic point-and-click adventure, but those that do will be as turned off by the events and puzzles due to it trying too hard to play to the widest audience.  Still, I’m glad I can say I’ve played it before and although I consulted a guide more times than I care to admit, I equally enjoyed replaying it recently for this review.  There is something to be said and gained by the experience of Phantasmagoria, but don’t go in expecting it to live up to the hype because it’s nothing more than an interactive movie that disguises itself as a video game.

Final Score: 2 out of 5  (Review Policy)

Written by Fred Rojas

November 3, 2014 at 1:53 pm

Podcast: Silent Hill 3 Revisited

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Ever since the 10/01 episode “Silent 3vil” released, we felt one thing was severely missing: everyone’s impressions on Silent Hill 3.  In honor of Halloween Fred, Jam, and Vos all got together 30 days later and had a little round table discussion about what we appreciate about the third and final Team Silent installment in the series.

Please Note: This episode is a follow-up to an earlier episode this month (Silent 3vil).


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Written by Fred Rojas

October 31, 2014 at 2:18 pm

Posted in podcast, PS2

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Retro Game Night: New Ghostbusters II, DecapAttack, and Kid Dracula

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This week’s late Retro Game Night features the Famicom title New Ghostbusters II by HAL Laboratories (they made Kirby and Lolo), DecapAttack for the Genesis, and finally the Famicom version of Kid Dracula.

Written by Fred Rojas

October 30, 2014 at 10:00 pm

Review: Project Zero (Fatal Frame) 2: Crimson Butterfly

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pz2_boxff2_boxConsole: Playstation 2, Xbox, Wii
Released: 2003
Developer: Tecmo
Publisher: Tecmo
Digital Release? Yes, PSN version compatible with PS3 for $9.99
Price: $24.77 (disc only), $26.88 (complete), $56.88 (sealed) per Price Charting

Jam’s Take:

Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly is a sequel to the original horror PS2 hit that brings more of everything. More ghosts, more places to wander around and more pictures than a bachelors degree in photography. But is this game a picture worth hanging on your wall or maybe more suitable as a Christmas greeting card?

After surviving the mansion incident from the first game you find yourself now playing as a totally different character in a different setting. This time you play as a young girl called Mio Amakura and occasionally your messed up twin sister Mayu. After becoming lost in Minakami forest you stumble across a village. What could possibly go wrong here? Well it doesn’t take long for you to figure out that the place is haunted with the tortured souls of its dead inhabitants as well as that something weird is affecting your twin sister Mayo.  The plot is completely separate from the original Project Zero title. The only main link being that you find the Camera Obscura, which is the same device in the first game, as a weapon.  You use it to snap the things that go bump in the night – this time its an entire village as opposed to just a mansion.  The plot of this game is rather complicated and felt quite hard to follow. Like the first game, there are several documents littered around the place providing you with some background information on what happened to the village and its inhabitants.

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Project Zero 2 does make a couple of changes to the series as well. First off, the game now has a novice mode for those gamers who are just utterly terrified of the “brave” normal mode. Saying that, even normal mode comes across as significantly easier than the first game in the series.  The most significant gameplay adjustment is taking pictures of the ghosts. Like the first game you wander around in third person and when you want to take a picture you switch to a first person perspective. A small yellow bar will be highlighted indicating that your picture will damage the ghost. Items of interest can be photographed and highlighted in blue in the view finder, taking the picture will usually help unlock a door or solve a puzzle. In this game you are practically encouraged to get up close and personal to the ghouls to take damage from them, the closer you get the more the yellow bar fills. If your used to the charging mechanic of the first game, that mechanic may confuse you at first as it is not made entirely clear when taking a picture will damage the ghost. Similar to the first game there is an opportunity to take a picture at just the right point to do maximum damage, called a “Zero shot,” and your HUD bar will highlight totally red when you have this opportunity. Unlike the previous games ghost encounters may have more than one ghost, they may even last longer, which is saying a lot as ghosts encounters in the first game were not a short experience. Not only that, encounters can be random anywhere in the game, it is not advised to hang around in a room doing nothing for too long.

You can upgrade the camera, which has been made a lot easier from the first. You accumulate points to upgrade by snapping pictures of the ghoulies and you also find spirit stones for upgrade slots hidden around the game. To upgrade the camera you need to use a spirit stone first to activate the slot and then have enough points to solidify the upgrade. This unique way of upgrading seems to be a way of preventing the player upgrading the camera too quickly.  Just like the first game you can also load your camera with different types of film that will do different amounts of damage and specific effects. These are in limited supply and scattered across the village.

You will regularly encounter puzzles throughout the game and many of them involve you using the camera at a specific spot to unlock a door. The game will also give you logic puzzles to solve like rotating dials to match the colours.  A lot of the game feels like a giant Easter egg hunt where you wander around an area looking for key items to solve a bigger puzzle.  You can save your game as many times as you want at designated lamp points; however, if there is a ghost in the area the lamp will go out preventing you from saving. Taking a snap shot and vanquishing the spook will enable you to once again use the save point. This mechanic was in the original game as well and is a great way of making you feel that nowhere is safe.

ff2_3Graphically the game does an excellent job of recreating a spooky village. You really feel like you’re alone as you wander around this creepy place with the sense that something is watching you, and it usually is. Ghosts appear to look surprisingly solid, which I’m not entirely sure is a good thing. Ghosts take on the forms of members of the villagers who once lived there and there are a huge number of ghosts in comparison to the first game. You’ll encounter blind ghosts, priest ghosts, children ghosts, and my favourite the crazy suicide ghost who attack you by constantly falling from a high up altitude. Of course this ghost was not meant to be funny but it did make me laugh more than tremble with fear. There are of course a lot of ghosts which just seem to hang around in the village. They won’t attack you, they act as the collectables in the game. Taking images of ghosts in the game and saving them to a separate photo album file will unlock additional costumes for Mio and Mayu.

The question I just could not help asking in Project Zero 2 was: so when does this game get scary? To be fair this game has several eerie moments but I never particularly felt scared or in danger when playing this game. Once again I am comparing this to the original game which seemed to contain scenes I found very unsettling. Saying that the developers apparently toned the horror down for this game to encourage players to actually finish the experience.

Project Zero 2 is certainly easier than the first game and a lot more accessible to people new to the series. Ammo and health items are very easy to come by even on standard difficulty. Some may find the pace of the game a little slow and frustrating as you wander around the village looking where to go next, the game does have a handy map if you get completely stuck. Once you get over the first few hours of the game you should be able to finish between eight to ten hours the first time through. The game does have multiple endings to experience and you are encouraged to play through the game multiple times to unlock extra difficulties, costumes and collect a picture of every damn ghost in the game if your a hardcore collector.

Overall, Project Zero 2 is a solid game but as you could tell from this review I could not help constantly comparing it to the original. The game changes the gameplay mechanics for the camera in a way I don’t think is as enjoyable by timing the right shot as opposed to charging it up. The story didn’t really draw me into the world or care as much for the main characters. When the game was finished I was quite surprised as it just seemed to abruptly end. Saying that, the game is a lot easier and more appealing to people new to the series. Unfortunately the game will still only appeal to a niche audience. If you want to try a horror game that tries things different from the typical survival horror experience I recommend giving this a try. If you liked the original I’m pretty sure you’ll find this game enjoyable. For everyone else this is a tough game to recommend. Though I had fun with the game I favour the original more, but felt compelled enough to look at the sequel.

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Fred’s Take:

Unlike Jam, I have not played the first and thus do not have to worry about comparing the two.  What I have a harder time with is wrapping my head around why this game is so popular in US horror gaming circles.  I get what appeals in other Japan-centric games like Silent Hill or even potentially Resident Evil - disturbing images and big squishy monsters – but I never understood that supernatural appeal vibrant in Japanese ghost stories.  These stories in visual media always break the universal rules of good horror: they are complicated tales instead of a simple plot, you see the danger in full view instead of off screen or lingering in the shadows, and they don’t clearly end.  Fatal Frame II is all of these things and I just don’t understand the appeal.

ff2_4Despite this fact, it is a decent game that encompasses solid mechanics and a great world to explore.  Whereas many found it to be an unsettling attack to the senses, I found to it to be a great exploratory simulation of events and locations I’d never have to the guts to tread in real life.  I always talk about games being haunted house simulations, which is more of an American view in that I’m expecting big gory beasts and graphic violence, whereas Fatal Frame II is literally a series of haunted houses you have to reconcile.  The village is flooded with souls that are both at peace and tortured, but you may never know who these people are or why they fit in either camp (except for whether or not you can damage them with the camera) thanks to the brunt of the plot being in collectible books.  Reading those books isn’t the issue, its knowing whether or not you have found all of them and the game’s complete lack of care whether you did or not, that I start having issues with.  When unraveled the tale is quite simple, but far be it for the developers to present it that way and instead you end up circling the same concepts and stories a few dozen times before you can comprehend what even happened by the time the credits roll.  Fatal Frame II does effectively capture the strongest sense from Japanese ghost stories, which is to screw with your perspective and corrupt something you love.  It’s very good at that.  It messes with you.

Combat is consistent, although figuring out the inner workings of how that all comes to pass takes time.  Just when you think you’ve figured out a mechanic, the game allows other ghosts you encounter to change or break the rules you just figured out.  Perhaps you could always snap a shot of a ghost coming out of invisibility the last time but this time the ghost’s ability is to disappear when it’s fully visible and you have to hit it at a different time or distance.  Maybe the ghost is in plain view but because the camera doesn’t turn yellow/red you can’t snap a photo for damage.  Maybe a girl is literally falling out of the sky to her death and although she’s invisible has the ability to hurt you when she lands even though other ghosts walk right through you.  It’s a bit irritating at first until you realize you have plenty of health and healing items for trial and error, but when faced with a ghost that can’t be exorcised or one that kills you in a single touch (or both) the annoyance of the battle system can get the best of you.  I just had a hard time being threatened by enemies that I can walk through, in many points of animation can’t harm me, and consistently go invisible.  Then again, I was scared to death and on the edge of my seat as I navigated a room plagued by a one-hit death ghost.

With all the focus on exploration – whether it’s fighting a new enemy, looking for something specific, or trying to find out where your half-goofballs sister is gallivanting to next – I was hoping I’d be looking for more interesting items.  The random unnecessary books that document the past, present, and potential future of The Lost Village and your place in it are fascinating little tidbits of lore, but those are completely optional as are the content spirits lingering about.  What is necessary is annoying fetch quests that have you finding stupid little stones in the ground with fragments of a key, assembling a doll from six or seven different parts strewn about, or traversing an entire house only to find the item you need was in the first room you entered and having to re-trace your steps twice while you fetch and return with that item.  It makes the relatively short game a bit long in the tooth.

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In the end I guess I just wasn’t in the mood for a traditional, non-violent, complicated ghost story about fetching things while your sister goes crazy.  I did, however, have a good time getting through the game’s 6-8 hour initial campaign and appreciating the moments, stories, and enemies that did make me smile and nod.  Fatal Frame II is different from other games and it’s well executed in what that specific game is, which is perhaps why it stands as such a pivotal title in the genre.  Everything you experience, down to the final moments and multiple endings, assure you that if you’re a fan of the likes of Ringu (The Ring) or Ju-On (The Grudge) that you’ll be right at home with the eerie atmosphere Fatal Frame II has to offer.  For me, this was nothing more than a unique style to a niche genre that, while well executed, just wasn’t that much up my ally.  Still, if you feel at home with a good old fashioned Japanese ghost story, complete with cryptic outcome, this may just be the game you’ve always been looking for.

Final Scores   Jam: 2 out of 5  -  Fred: 3 out of 5    (Review Policy)

Written by jamalais

October 30, 2014 at 2:01 pm

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