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Observer Review

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The cyberpunk genre gets tossed around a lot these days.  As with many video games, experiences can quickly devolve into power fantasies and before you know it you’re more Matrix than Blade Runner.  This is not my definition of cyberpunk.  It’s a darker concept with the emotionless merging of man and machine out of necessity, poverty, and corporate societal takeover.  It was built around the concepts of Orwell’s novel 1984, evolved by Gibson’s Neuromancer, and made whole by Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? among others.  I can understand why many don’t walk this path: games are supposed to be fun and cyberpunk is rather bleak and depressing.  That’s why it is so refreshing to play Observer and experience a game that really gets the roots of traditional cyberpunk.  It’s an internal struggle, a socioeconomic dissection, and a disturbing dive into the human subconscious.

Normally I don’t pitch trailers in a review, but the E3 2016 trailer was so compelling that I figured linking it would be beneficial as well as jog some peoples’ memories.  Observer places you in the shoes of Daniel Lazarski, who lives in Poland in the year 2084.  After a digital plague involving bad cybernetic enhancements, mega corp Chiron has taken control of Poland and created the Fifth Polish Republic. Both the plague and the new Republic brought about a class-based society, war, drug addiction, and of course oppressive martial law.  Lazarski is an “observer,” a special police unit that has the authority to hack into people’s minds and access memories in a device called, get this, the “Dream Eater.”  The game opens with Lazarski receiving a call from his estranged son seeking help and asking him to meet in one of the rougher parts of lower class living.

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Written by Fred Rojas

August 24, 2017 at 11:00 am

Night Trap: 25th Anniversary Edition Analysis

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Night Trap holds odd significance to those that grew up with it.  It basically ushered in so-called “Full Motion Video” (FMV) games and in the process managed to snag some controversy, which only escalated its popularity in the early 90s.  The game itself and the storied tale of its development and release have already been covered here on Gaming History 101, so feel free to check out that retrospective for more information on the original game.  Since then the game has achieved cult status and despite being notoriously bad, you can’t help but talk about it.  Then in 2014, the creators attempted a failed Kickstarter that led to a random developer showing the game running on a cell phone, and eventually led to that developer creating the one-man studio Screaming Villains along with a re-release of Night Trap in 2017.  By bringing Night Trap 25th Anniversary to the masses, I fear that it won’t connect with most players that didn’t appreciate it before and it brings up some heavy realities for fans.  If you’re going to take the plunge, either as a longtime fan or for the first time, you’d best prepare for some unfortunate caveats that extend beyond the concept of the original.

When Night Trap premiered it was trying to fit approximately 90 minutes of footage onto CDs and compressing it in a way the Sega CD can show off.  That means a small resolution (168×104) and a limited color palette, which were just a reality back then and no one thought much about it.  Over the years and ports the resolution and quality were expanded to 272×104 and pretty much resembled MPEG1 or VCD standard.  This is nothing compared to the massive 1920×1080 (1080p) resolution we’re currently accustomed to, not to mention 4K, which is four times 1080p. When you look at the cleaned up version of Night Trap 25th Anniversary Edition on trailers, it appears that the game is amazingly crisp, but when you boot up the game proper it reveals itself to be more akin to a DVD than anything else.  For those that have played previous versions, that’s much cleaner than any version we’ve seen, but it doesn’t hold a candle to modern video.  Granted this footage is coming off of the master tape, which is most likely a broadcast standard betamax, and therefore can only be improved so much.  The reason movies can be magically upgraded to blu ray standards is because they are on film, but this wasn’t the case with Night Trap.  For that same reason the frame rate is counter to what you expect from movies as well.  Modern blu rays follow the film standard for frame rate of 24 frames per second (fps), whereas broadcast over the air is typically still 30 fps for the NTSC (US) standard.  Since the Night Trap masters were on tape, it’s captured at 30 fps.  Oddly enough, based on the player codecs of this game the PS4 version plays at only 24 fps so at times it can seem a bit jumpy.  On the PC the game runs at native 30 fps and the action appears smoother.  In both versions, however, you can sometimes experience odd glitches with the video where what’s happening on screen doesn’t match your control console.  Sometimes you trap an enemy that isn’t anywhere near the trap, but in doing so the footage will jump to capturing him and move forward.  Other times the audio will be behind the video, which seems only a bit annoying when watching a random scene, but if you’re trying to watch some plot points or God forbid listen for a code change it can be a game-ending bug.  Since this was pieced together from archival footage, there are extra scenes that were restored in the new “ReVamped” edition that can completely change some important outcomes and endanger characters that you never had to worry about before.   Hardcore fans can relax, you also have the option of playing the “Classic” version of Night Trap that appears identical to the original.  During some of the scenes there can be some tape damage that appears on the screen, certain scenes are pieced together and thus not edited very well, and you should expect a few jump cuts.  It’s nothing to write home about, but it is noticeable.

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Written by Fred Rojas

August 17, 2017 at 11:00 am

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap Review

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I’ve been waiting for a Wonder Boy revival ever since I saw that dammed “to be continued…” message at the end of Wonder Boy in Monster World on the Mega Drive. I did get some relief when the Wonder Boy Collection was released in 2012 for Xbox 360 and PS3, however. This game featured the localized version of Monster World 4 which was the sequel to the beloved game from my childhood. Of course this was just an English translation of a Japanese game that had been around for years. Some would be happy with this but, I wanted more Wonder Boy darn it! Which was why, last year I came over as giddy as a school kid when I heard Wonder Boy would be making a return in not one, not two but three games. One of these three games, Wonder Boy: The Dragons Trap developed by Lizardcube, is a remaster of the 1989 Sega Master System game. While not exactly a new entry into the Wonder Boy series, Lizardcube have put a lot of care and attention into this title, reviving a classic forgotten game to showcase to old fans and a potential new audience.

The Dragons Trap is a beautiful remaster with hand drawn graphics, which brought Monster World to life by filling the 2D game with lots of detail in the backgrounds as well as the character sprites. The game allows you to instantly switch between the old and new graphics at the touch of a button. This simple effect doesn’t interrupt the gameplay and allows you to see just how much effort has been put into the remaster when held against the original. The soundtrack has also been updated this time with a full orchestra. The music is still reminiscent of the old 8 bit titles but has really been brought to life with the updated score. Just like the graphics you can also switch between the old and new soundtracks at the touch of a button.

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Written by jamalais

June 7, 2017 at 11:00 am

Seasons After Fall Review

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There is an undeniable attraction to Seasons After Fall.  In what I can best describe as a painting come to life, the striking graphical style draws your attention and the playful orchestral soundtrack keeps you interested.  The game presents a simple premise: a fox, a forest, and magic.  It’s a compelling argument, even before the first true moments of gameplay.  Things aren’t always as they seem with this title, however, as it doesn’t quite play as good as it looks.  Your tolerance to design quirks aside, the value of this title lands solely on the premise that it delivers on what I think games should do: take you to another world.

Seasons After Fall originally premiered on PC last fall during a time that seemed more riddled with open exploration puzzle platformers – I refuse to refer to this title as a “MetroidVania” – including Ori and the Blind Forest and Unravel.  Despite looking similar to these other titles, they are very distinct from one another, but somehow always seemed to be lumped together.  Seasons After Fall now comes to consoles in a direct port, but it’s successfully separated from these familiar looking games.  It’s a true puzzle platformer, best proven by the lack of combat in the game.  Yes, there’s absolutely no fighting, attacking, running from enemies, no enemies at all, and no boss battles.  Nope, this title is as a pacifist as they come.  There’s also no penalty for dying, if you can even call it that since falling into the rare pit results in you simply being brought back to the ledge you jumped off.  Despite these facts, don’t write off Seasons After Fall as a mindless stroll in the woods, because the challenge is in solving the puzzles and as the game progresses there’s a decent incline in difficulty.  It’s at this point you’ll either like how this title attempts to challenge you or hate it.  I might even say it’s impossible to describe your time with Seasons After Fall without mentioning at least a few moments where you are utterly stuck with no idea what to do.

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Written by Fred Rojas

May 15, 2017 at 11:00 am

Outlast 2 Review

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Outlast 2 is a truly unsettling game.  No matter what you are doing at any one moment, there is sure to be something unpleasant about the situation, even when it’s more game design than content.  The follow-up to Red Barrels’ 2013 take on the horror genre demonstrates what you want out of a sequel by taking everything up a notch.  Along your path you will be jarred, challenged, see things you wish you hadn’t, and even feel helpless.  It also improves upon the flaws of the original and provides countless visuals that I fear may have made me more desensitized to brutal violence than ever before.  If you want controversial topics, this game has it in stride from the inhuman, to unthinkable tortures, and even a strong anti-religious undertone.   Then again, making you flinch is the entire point, isn’t it?

If Outlast was a haunted house, Outlast 2 is the spook walk.  The setting changes drastically, moving away from the confines of a lowly asylum and into Arizona’s Sonoran desert, where a married couple are investigating the mysterious murder of a young pregnant woman.  Things quickly escalate when their helicopter crashes and the wife, Lynn, goes missing and you take control of husband Jacob in search of her.  Where the original Outlast tended to use confined spaces to build tension, Outlast 2 thrives in large, open environments where you could find anything among the foliage from intense danger to nothing at all.  It truly becomes more of a stealth title than anything else and dare I say reminded me more of the first half of Call of Cthulhu Dark Corners of the Earth than anything else.  Rarely do you see the same scare or scenario play out, which is a welcome change from the redundancies I experienced in the original and kept me far more in focus.  The storyline baits you to keep moving forward more than anything else and your handy camera is no longer simply night vision but also a journal that documents the plot points along the way, which can be reviewed at any time.

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Written by Fred Rojas

April 24, 2017 at 2:00 pm

Perspective of a Retro Gamer: Resident Evil 7

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This series is basically a review of a modern game but with the context of a retro gamer visiting the present.  As such it does not contain a review score and often speaks to concepts and franchises from the past.  This article is spoiler free outside of what is revealed in trailers and public demos, which is why the screen shots are so vague.

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Resident Evil has had a rocky journey over the last five years, up to and including the “Beginning Hour” demo for this very title.  The comparison to P.T., Hideo Kojima’s “playable trailer” for Silent Hills that has since been canceled by Konami, is unmistakable.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t want my Silent Hill getting mixed into my Resident Evil, the two should remain mutually exclusive.  Couple that with the recent missteps of Resident Evil 6, my personal distaste for Revelations 2, and whatever goal Umbrella Corps. had, it wasn’t looking good.  I for one was also a bit worried about the hodgepodge of features thrown at this title including support for 4K resolution, PS4 Pro support, Playstation VR support, and HDR support on all platforms.  To my shock and awe, every bad indicator going into the release was without merit as Resident Evil 7: Biohazard demonstrates a return to form I have not felt since the remake of the original on GameCube in 2002.

resident_evil_7_eerieSet in an old farm house in Louisiana, you play as main protagonist Ethan in search of your girlfriend Mia, who went missing years ago.  Those that played through the “Beginning Hour” demo, especially if you caught the final “midnight edition” will find the opening scenes to be familiar but clearly re-engineered.  I like this touch and I feel it was necessary for how many times Capcom made us play that thing in hopes to figuring out what was with the dummy finger and several other mysteries from the last six months.  While it’s interesting to play through – not to mention the reward you receive for completing it with the good ending and the on-edge “kitchen” demo on Playstation VR – none of this is required if you’re just jumping into the main game.  It reminds me why I’ve always appreciated the original work Capcom did on the Resident Evil series.  Whether it was “arrange mode” in the original, the way the mansion was reworked in the remake, or even the drastic differences between the shack in the demo and the main game of Resident Evil 7, you won’t be able to guess what’s coming.  After that opening sequence you will descend into a literal house of horrors and beyond that kept me on the edge of my seat and thoroughly creeped out for a majority of the game’s 8-12 hour campaign.

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Written by Fred Rojas

February 7, 2017 at 3:00 pm

Perspective of a Retro Gamer: The Last Guardian

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Perspective of a Retro Gamer was formerly known as “cross talk” when I was actively involved in the B-Team Podcast.  Since I’m on a hiatus, this is the same context in that it’s a largely old school gamer playing a modern game.  Think of it as a review that’s more about my perspective as opposed to that now “traditional” definition of a product review fused with a content review.  As such, no scores are part of this series.

The Last Guardian has become synonymous with retro gaming, most likely because the design is as aged as the development itself: over 10 years old.  So while many contemporary players are walking into the title wondering if it will appeal to them, it seems like the retro crowd such as myself are expected to take to it naturally.  Couple that with the assumption that if you like previous games by Team Ico, especially the studio’s initial title Ico, you should enjoy this as well because it is similar in gameplay and design.  I’m here to say that after a wonderful initial three hours and a painstaking three more that followed, this is simply not the case.  I like old games, I like old game design, and I really like Ico, but I think I’m done with The Last Guardian.  Not only that, I find the claim that this title shares much in common with old game design or Ico to be as inaccurate as those that compared Prototype to inFamous back in 2009.  For me this is heartbreaking because the game leads you down a path with such wonder, grace, and promise that when it all gets taken away it seems cruel.

the_last_guardian_1Your journey begins as a young boy protagonist – nothing new for Team Ico games there – awakening in a room.  The first thing you will notice is the hulking body of your soon-to-be companion, Trico, fast asleep in the room with you.  This introduction was abrupt and unexpected, which was magical, as was the reality that you are stuck in a room with a creature you don’t understand yet.  There’s no prompt to do something outside of a bit of narrated exposition seemingly told to the player by a future self as well as a handful of prompts on what buttons do without a hint as to your goal.  Shortly after Trico wakes up, doesn’t do a great job of telling you what’s expected, and you have to figure it all out.  Your journey begins, you go exploring, it’s all basically self explanatory.  It’s also stunning to look at.  I will admit that the textures are stretched in areas, the shading on the game is an obvious attempt to make it look better than it should, and a vast majority of the whole art direction screams Playstation 2 game.  That said Trico is crafted to near perfection.  The way the fur or feathers all move as Trico walks or part away like blades of grass as you maneuver its body make the whole thing seem so real.  Its eyes, those Trico eyes, are a glance so lifelike that any dog or cat owner can appreciate.  Perhaps most convincing was that its movements were so familiar even though no creature like Trico has ever existed.   I loved this opening.

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Written by Fred Rojas

January 23, 2017 at 11:00 am

Posted in Blog, PS4, Reviews

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Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition Review

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2016s Game Club selection may as well be renamed “Jam’s gaming bucket list” as the vast majority of the games we have played this year are titles I’ve been wanting to play for sometime but just haven’t got around to. I could use the easy excuse where I say I’m too lazy or too busy but I choose to go with the excuse that I was on a long and arduous quest to find twelve jade statues in order to prevent the end of the world by new year. Fortunately for myself and humanity I completed that quest, surprisingly in Sleeping Dogs as well and I’m able to finish off 2016 with my review of the game. All in a days work I guess.

sleeping_dogs_definitive_edition_1Sleeping Dogs is an open world game set in Hong Kong where you play as Wei Shen an undercover cop who is attempting to take down the Triads from the inside. Of course its not that easy for Wei. He soon becomes close with the gangs leading you as the player to question who Wei is truly loyal to. While the story is certainly serviceable and well acted by the voice cast I never felt completely invested. There are some emotional moments in the plot with key characters but the ultimate pay off seemed somewhat lackluster. With the game ending open ended and setting up for a sequel, is disappointing since United Front Games has now closed and the chances of seeing this sequel are very slim.

As with most sandbox games there is a mix of various gameplay styles. Sleeping Dogs main stand out feature is the hand to hand fighting system. Wei Shen is well versed in martial arts as is every bad guy in this game who you’ll usually take on in large groups. You can attack and counter in a system very similar to the infamous Batman Arkham games, although Sleeping Dogs appears to have its own rhythm to its fighting system. I found that you had to be very careful with your button presses to begin with. Once you got the games own rhythm down, I was quite capable even with the odds stacked largely against me, once I got to this stage I felt like Bruce Lee (insert broken table). You can also grapple enemies and maneuver them to create devastating environmental kills such as impaling guys on sword fish or smashing someone’s head into a urinal which reminds me of a fond scene from the film True Lies with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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Written by jamalais

January 5, 2017 at 11:00 am

The Big PS4 Pro Analysis Post

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Despite being a retro enthusiast, I’m also a massive tech fan as my side project has suggested. As such I recently picked up a Playstation 4 Pro and ran it thoroughly through its paces.  I tested most things I could think of: different games, different hard drives, different TVs (yes, 1080p and 4K HDR), and I kept my launch PS4 to compare with everything.  With that in mind, I think we should open with getting the simple decision out of the way for those that apply, because a majority of this post is about changes and upgrades for existing owners – which Sony is hesitant to admit is the true target for the Pro.  If you do not own a Playstation 4 and want to purchase one this holiday season, the decision is really up to you.  A slim is a rock solid purchase for anyone who doesn’t own a 4K TV (and possibly even for those that do) and it’s completely serviceable.  I was pleased with my vanilla PS4.  If you want to upgrade to Pro you simply need to consider how much that $100 is of value to you for potential future proofing (although Sony has vehemently sworn to not allow Pro exclusive games), the prospect of better performance with VR, support for 4K and HDR, and games can run/look better if support is added.  Games press likes to pretend this is a no-brainer, but frankly $100 is almost two games (possibly 3 around the holiday season) and if you don’t plan on upgrading to 4K or VR, there’s little reason to pick the Pro if saving money or getting more games is your priority.  I’d also like to interject that articles comparing the Xbox One S and Playstation 4 Pro are completely without value.  I have both and they should not be compared.  The Xbox One S upscales to 4K (but at no visual difference to games), adds HDR (and I have yet to see anything too impressive), and supports 4K Blu Ray, so in truth it’s an Xbox One that adds 4K Blu Ray support and HDR.  The Pro is a hardware boost that makes games either run faster or look better (or both), improves resolution beyond 1080p before upscaling to 4K (more on that later), and adds a much more substantial HDR in games that have supported it.  Astoundingly, however, the PS4 Pro does not support 4K Blu Ray movie playback.   For that reason it’s not apples to apples, that comes next year with Scorpio.  It’s also a weird time for PC gaming because not only is HDR almost devoid of this conversation on PC (4K PC monitors don’t currently support HDR), but I feel important factors for myself like surround sound and even quality of the port are a consistent issue on PC whereas this is much less the case on current consoles.  With all that in mind, here’s my analysis of the Playstation 4 Pro.

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Written by Fred Rojas

November 15, 2016 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Blog, PS4

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The Technomancer Review

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The Technomancer reminds me of one of those relationships before I got married.  It’s dynamic and I enjoyed it, but ultimately I got to this point where I knew our time would have to end.  Much like those relationships, it probably lasted a bit longer than it should have, but that doesn’t mean that it was a waste of time.  Far from it.  Regardless of your opinion of nitpicks like whether or not the faces compete with modern powerhouse franchises or exactly what genre it should be labeled as, The Technomancer is offering a throwback to the complete package of RPG we saw often last generation.  That wouldn’t have made it stand out were it not for the fact that a title like this is somewhat rare these days.  Sure, everything is going open world, but releases of RPGs that heavily integrate decision and story are somewhat scarce and especially if you’re looking for sci-fi or cyberpunk.  So despite its flaws and not necessarily being able to keep up with its more established peers, The Technomancer is a worthwhile experience.

technomancer_1I’m guessing not many played developer Spiders’ first title Mars: War Logs, which you may be surprised to know is now available on PC and even Xbox One thanks to 360 backward compatibility (also on PS3).  It really is the early version of what would eventually become this title and established the lore of human colonization on Mars and the core of what the technomancers are.  That title was short, the combat was harshly integrated (especially for gamepads), and while I liked what it was doing I couldn’t get too invested.  Having played Mars: War Logs did allow me to appreciate how far Spiders has come in its sophomore effort on the concept, but it’s in no way necessary as a buffer for this title.  Newcomers and veterans alike will be introduced to Zachariah, a graduating technomancer that is coming to terms with his newfound powers and prepared to utilize them in an effort to keep the peace and eventually find a way back to Earth.  He’s not unique, many technomancers work for Abundance, a mega-corp that provides security on Mars and all technomancers are to guard the order’s secrets in an attempt to discover a way back home to Earth.  Beyond that you are free to hit the ground running in an open-world chock full of icons that represent main and side quests.  Along the way you will inevitably face combat, both in and out of hub locations, where your action fighting skills will be tested from start to finish.  I’ll return to the combat in a minute, but it’s important to note that the separation between non-combat zones and combat zones is blurred here, which I don’t often see in the modern world of RPGs that includes MMOs.  It may not be much of a change, but it struck me as somewhat unique.

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Written by Fred Rojas

July 11, 2016 at 11:00 am