Fire Emblem Awakening – 3DS

FEA Marth

Doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Ishmael.” On the other hand, Moby Dick never inspired me to read anything Melville wrote, let alone play an entire series of games.

Oh god…this is what happens when you play too many games from the same franchise. Fire Emblem Awakening plays so much like a rough draft of Fire Emblem Fates, that I seriously considered just posting a draft for my article on Fates and calling it a day. Fortunately for you, I’m so lazy when it comes to blogging that I never revise, and therefore already posted my draft a few weeks back. Even more fortunately, I’m lazy enough to have written two paragraphs, put it aside for several months, and then just gave up when it came time to schedule the post. So here’s a mini-review, more to add a notch in my belt of games on this blog than to actually inform you of anything.

FEA Squares

It’s a good thing the natural world created so many zones of colored tiles for them to work with.

Awakening follows the exploits of the player’s avatar, defautly named Robin, and his/her own personal Batman, Chrom (possibly named after the personal god of Conan. The barbarian, that is, not O’Brien.). Chrom first encounters Robin passed out in a field, having blacked out most of his own personal history, save for his name, the ability to speak English, and a Ph.D.-level education in fantasy medieval tactics. Shortly afterward, an army of zombies from the future shows up. Even in a fantasy world, this is about as commonplace as, say, sentient carrots from outer space slaughtering our millionaire class for the purpose of overhauling our methods for packaging retail items, so their appearance coincidentally creates a job opening for a tactician in Chrom’s armies. Personally, I immediately felt a connection with Robin, not only because I personalized him as my avatar, but also because he set up realistic expectations of what has to happen before someone will fucking give me a job. The first battle with these future zombies, though, proves to be too much to handle even for Robin, and Chrom’s forces have to be bailed out by fucking Trunks from Dragonball Z. What follows is a wacky, zany tale filled with convoluted political intrigue, Dragonball time-travel rules, and an entire army fornicating on the job that doesn’t somehow turn out with more sexual harassment scandals than the American political/entertainment world.

FEA Harassment

That’s sexual harassment, and I don’t have to take it.

Later seen in Fates, Fire Emblem Awakening introduced the series to the philosophy that the family that slays together, stays together. Upon realizing just how many extra battles are available should I choose to play the game less like a military campaign and more like medieval Tinder (which, from experience, is no less brutal than feudal warfare), I decided to play matchmaker and pair up as many characters as possible. Also like Fates, each marriage between characters produces a child for you to press into service like your own personal Khmer Rouge. Still, even without the genocide, to say that marching into combat with an army of adolescents is a morally gray area is like saying we might want to consider the ramifications of exposing food to raw uranium before installing nuclear kitchens in every elementary school in the country. (And yes, I know that in the middle ages, the age of adulthood was 12 and that the leper king of Jerusalem had reached the pinnacle of his military career by 15.) Awakening solves this dilemma (…three years before Fates introduced it) by sending all your children back from the future as fully grown adults. Honestly, the only disappointing thing about this is that while Fates gave you the Lannister/Targaryen incest option to marry your siblings, Awakening passed up a perfectly good Back to the Future vibe by denying moms the chance to woo their sons.

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Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia – 3DS

FE Cover

The reason you don’t see more reviews on Mega Man games on this site is not because I don’t ever play the games. In fact, I’m a huge fan of Mega Man, especially in those earlier Marvel vs Capcom games. For all the complex combos that characters in fighting games can pull off, I often found it was better just to slide-kick opponents with Mega Man, thus ensuring they never stand long enough to pull off their own complex super-moves (and that my friends give me less social contact than your average plague victim). It’s a well-known (and rarely implemented) concept among game design that you have to make those difficult moves worth it, otherwise players will just do the simplest and easiest moves. On that note, it takes a certain masochistic spirit to keep writing completely new entries when the “find and replace” feature would work perfectly well. Writing new jokes is hard, and in the time I usually spend staring blankly at my computer screen, I could easily learn a new language, clean my house, conduct an extensive and painstaking research project to develop cold fusion and advance humanity to the next era, or—more likely—play another video game. But then I’d have to write about it. That all being said, here’s an entry on Fire Emblem, a game just like every other installment in the series!

FE Celica

There’s a dirty joke in here somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I’m too smitten to find it.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Fire Emblem: Echoes: Shadows of Valentia differs from its peers in that it has a title that sounds like someone pulled it from a flow chart. Aside from that, its pretty standard fare: a turn-based tactical strategy game that makes me feel just a little bit better for not being able to beat 6th-graders at chess. Play alternates between two characters: Alm and Celica, who are close childhood friends and totally not secret heirs to the thrones of Valentia’s two kingdoms, Rigel and Zofia. Alm’s story starts when Lucas comes to his village looking for recruits for “The Deliverance,” a band of rugged, backwater warriors who totally want to make their enemies squeal like a pig, even if not a damn one of them plays banjo. Alm and his friends sign up, free Zofia on their way to training, and discover that the Deliverance consists of pretty much just three guys, one of whom tenders his resignation after their leader’s decision to turn control of their entire forces over to this random kid who shows up claiming to be the main character. Celica, on the other hand, has a bad dream and decides to follow up on it in the morning, which serves as the impetus for eventually taking down a cult of religious fanatics hell-bent on spreading chaos. The last time I followed up on a bad dream, Anne grunted incoherently, then told me to go back to sleep.

FE Tiles

Even the USMC is taught to distinguish blue tiles from red.

Also unique for a tactical game, players can explore three-dimensional dungeons, complete with RPG tropes like money falling out of grass, characters who feel its easier to obliterate boxes than to simply open the lids, and lots and lots of random enemy encounters. In games where single battles can run upwards of forty minutes, the idea of placing a string of fights between save points sounds about as enjoyable as masturbation with a box of sandpaper instead of tissues. But the game solves this potential tedium grind by nerfing the fuck out of all the enemies. While story battles retain some semblance of the challenge the series is known for, monsters in dungeon battles go down like termite-infested Jenga towers. I got through most battles within two rounds, and regularly finished without enemies having a chance to act at all. I’ve gotten more resistance from targets at archery ranges.

FE Celica 2

When on fire, wave your hands wildly in front of you like sparklers.

Combat does have some interesting mechanics, such as mages casting spells with HP instead of MP. It only makes sense, after all, that someone blasting a lightning bolt from the palm of their hand might inadvertently complete a circuit. This changes strategy more than you’d think. One nice by-product is that you don’t have to slaughter enemy mages—just whittle them down to less HP than it takes to cast their most basic spell. At that point, they’ll just stand on the field and put up less of a fuss than your average soccer fan. Of course, it often feels like enemies exploit this mechanic, supporting a few high-level magic users with a small fleet of high-level healers. But still, you’ll want to stock up on your own spell casters because finally the nerds are busting out of their lockers and coming for the jocks.

FE Dragon

Always be sure to clean out your fire breathing dragon after every use, or this may happen.

But if the mages are overpowered, it’s because they get to memorize a book of spells, while all characters in the game are limited to carrying one item. Oh, they’ll get a default weapon if they don’t have one equipped, but these basic armaments pack all the punch of that broken rock-em-sock-em robot that can’t quite knock the other one’s head off. So if they’ll have to chose between their high-level, blacksmith-modded lightning sword (if they want to stay alive in battle) or a hunk of stale, leftover bread (if they want to stay alive in general). And I’m not actually making that up—leftover bread is an item in the game, and it takes so much effort to carry that your seasoned warrior just doesn’t have the strength to strap on a sword to his belt.

FE Mycen

Sir Mycen. Last name, Men. Tactical genius, though his plans often go awry.

While a good game overall, one major frustration made its presence known from start to finish: extremely low accuracy and extremely high evasion rates. It was as if I recruited my soldiers, warriors or mages, right out of the post-op ward for cataract surgery, shoved them into the dark and had them all start swinging at enemy ninjas with whiffle bats. Personally, I’d rather an attack connect, but deal no damage, than to feel that all my actions are literally wasted…but that’s perhaps my own quirk from having sent out one too many job applications.

Fire Emblem: Fates – 3DS

Fates

Enemies on opposing sides of a bitter conflict take a moment to squeeze everyone in to the photo.

Chess is a great game for those of us who like strategy and medieval combat, simple and elegant like an inbred European princess, and as timeless as the practice of marrying cousins to keep the bloodlines pure. But as the Lannisters and the Targaryens have shown us, that kind of simplicity sometimes results in abstractions that, well, make the game kind of weird. And to those of you who resent me comparing chess to inbreeding…how else do you get bishops so cross-eyed that they can only see things at diagonal angles? Personally, I can think of few things more obtuse than chess strategy, and I am literally subbing for a high school geometry teacher as I write this. So chess is great, but do you know what would make it better? Arming your pieces and making them fight to the death, rather than just grabbing and capturing each other like a bunch of child molesters in the ball pit at McDonald’s.

Fortunately, there’s an entire genre of video games that did just that. Among that genre is Fire Emblem, my newfound favorite series. And if you’ve ever thought, “Chess is great, but I wish we could turn it into more realistic medieval combat while keeping the creepy Harvey Weinstein sex offender aspects,” you’re not alone. You’re a goddamn pervert, but fortunately for you, there’s Fire Emblem: Fates, best described as a combination tactical strategy game and dating simulator.

Fates 2

When your sister really wants a wedding ring…

So up front, Fire Emblem Fates is actually available as three separate games, two available as physical games for the 3DS with the third as DLC for either of them, or for the low-low price of at least $110 on eBay, you can buy the special edition that contains all three on the same game cartridge. Despite the fact that Fire Emblem has always produced high-quality-yet-low-quantity games, thus ensuring prices never drop, it almost feels like Nintendo is taking their business philosophy directly from Luigi’s Mansion, and their entire marketing department is now issued cash-sucking vacuum cleaners.

But that being said…the game just might be worth the price. You play as Generic Faceless Protagonist, or GFP for short, who due to character customization never appears in pre-rendered cutscenes or is mentioned by name in the voice acting, though this is not as conspicuous as in Final Fantasy X and X-2 where the protagonist is so off-puttingly jock-ish that the entire cast goes two full games without caring to ask for his name. Quite the contrary, actually, GFP begins the story on a battlefield surrounded by more people calling him “brother” than if he had joined a 13th-century English monastery populated by African American monks. (Or, if you choose to play as a female, let’s go with lesbian nuns at a women-only burning man festival.) It turns out that your character was abducted from one royal family into another, and is early on presented with the choice of which family to side with in the middle of a war between them (or the third scenario being to side with neither).

Fates 4

The smug satisfaction one only gets from knowing that the privilege of your birth gives you the funds, the training, and the equipment it takes to eviscerate peasants like you’re carving a pumpkin.

This is where the game splits off into some deep, Rick-and-Morty style discussion of alternate time lines based on a single split decision, albeit with not as many fart jokes. Without intending to, Fates follows in the grand tradition of Groundhog Day, that one episode of the X-Files where Mulder has to prevent a bank robbery from going sour, and one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where they make self-aware references to the previous two. Next to a literary cannon like that, it’s not likely we’ll be studying Fire Emblem Fates along side William Shakespeare anytime soon, but the three alternate realities all provide GFP with key aspects of characters and elements of plot that raise intriguing questions on their own, but viewed alongside each other, the three plots create one uniquely told story as a collection of alternate moments, and that’s some hardcore, Kurt Vonengut Slaughterhouse V stuff right there, and if a novel about toilet plunger aliens putting a PTSD soldier in a zoo with a porn star can make it into the ranks of fine literature, then…wait…forget Fire Emblem. Let’s talk about the porn star zoo in English class!

Fates 5

…is that a euphemism?

Okay okay…I’ll get back to the game so as not to sound like I have the attention span of a brain damaged goldfish. Fire Emblem Fates does very little to change the traditional grid-based tactical/strategy genre. Bam. Game described. Well, they did remove the concept of weapon degradation for non-healing equipment, but charging into battle with a sword made from candy glass and a lance stamped “Made in China” never seemed like a brilliant military tactic for anyone who wanted to win anything other than a battle with gangrene. But basically, you can expect almost the same game play as with any other Fire Emblem, Shining Force, or Age of Empires. Of course, in the world of video game criticism, statements like, “Didn’t change a thing” or “Completely different from its predecessors” tend to come off as ambiguous, and not even funny ambiguous like the websites for “Pen Island” and “Therapist Finder,” but frustratingly ambiguous like a politician who condemns an opponent’s marital infidelities while dodging questions about the dead hookers in their car.Think of it in terms of Mega Man: a series of awesome games each with the unique individuality of a box of 1040-EZ tax forms. Except they’re not really identical, are they? Mega Man can only really pull off using bubbles as a weapon once or twice before he starts to look like a tomboyish six-year-old at a birthday party. Fire Emblem knows how to pull it off. Gameplay is perfect. Hell, if we hadn’t perfected Medieval warfare by the battle of Agincourt, there weren’t a lot of knew ways to hit people with sharpened bits of metal left to discover. It’s the scenarios, the maps, and the individual quirks of each campaign that make the game interesting.

Fates 3

I did…but I have to say you’re doing a lot to…ahem…raise my accuracy.

Well, that and the added feature that allows you to invite your units to your tree fort for a booty call. Honestly, I’m not sure if I should suggest that’s a surprisingly lax policy that makes used-panty vending machines look like relics from a conservative past long dead (like segregation, cotton plantations and Pat Robertson), a likely attempt to recruit soldiers turned off by Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, or a symptom of the new wave of authoritarian sexual harassment culture. The game warned me that I’d be able to marry one of my units (hehe…units), but it didn’t quite prepare me for how to do that. Just be prepared guys, if a girl asks you if you want to “proceed to S rank” with her, apparently that’s the new slang for getting hitched. Fortunately, all three of my wives seemed to be fine with me continuing my booty call habit, and even seemed to like it when I’d invite others back to the tree fort for what I assume were tree-ways.

Ocarina of Time – N64, Game Cube, 3DS

OoT Shiek

Link rockin’ out with his total platonic effeminate ninja friend. Pretty soon they’ll be good enough to take their band on tour. We’re talking Ren Faire groupies, y’all!

“Sweet, merciful lady of the tortilla,” you’re shouting as you look at the title of this week’s entry. “He’s ready to sully yet another beloved classic with his foul outlook!” As valuable as suspense is to a writer, and as much as I’d like to keep you on-edge and tense as a drug deal in a donut shop, I liked the game. So much for my attempt to finally elicit comments out of you by enraging you so much that Bruce Banner thinks you need anger management. No, Ocarina of Time succeeded when the move to 3D ruined a lot of other games—Mario 64 stripped out a lot of the charm of blazing through levels with the murderous glint of a colonial-era explorer, robbing the land of its power-ups, slaughtering native wildlife, toppling their existing governmental structure by sticking a flag in their castle, and then turning your back on it and never returning to your devastation, while the Metroid Prime games felt like leaping blindfolded from timber to timber on the rotted remains of a dock while trying to juggle chainsaws. Rather, the only way the first 3D Zelda game backfired was by making people completely forget about 2D Zelda games.

OoT Pedo Tree

Judging by the Deku Tree’s stache, this is the fantasy equivalent of “Free candy in the back of my windowless van.”

To recap for the newcomers, Ocarina of Time works as an origin story for the franchise, as opposed to Skyward Sword who draws a paycheck and has an official title as origin story, but who got the job because his uncle works for Nintendo and spends most of his day sleeping at his desk and playing minesweeper without actually getting any better at it. The game opens with the Deku Tree, all-powerful guardian deity of the forest, who has about the same temperament toward spiders as my ex-girlfriend; he sends his fairy servant, Navi, to wake up a ten-year-old boy to come kill the spider while he stands there unmoving, jaw agape in fear. Thus begins Link v1’s quest to go find a villain to slay to save Hyrule. And he finds one relatively early on in Gannondorf, who he finds bowing down and offering his service to the king, despite the only things on his resume being “Overbearing patriarch of criminal enterprise / harem” and “Murdered all-powerful guardian deity of the forest.” Fortunately, the king’s ten-year-old daughter isn’t as easily as fooled as the…man entrusted with the safety and prosperity of the realm…and she sends Link to retrieve some magical macguffins, which gives Gannondorf just enough times to murder the king and pull off a coup that would make Cersei Lannister sweat.

When Link accidentally leads Gannondorf to the ultimate macguffin, the Triforce, the powers that be decide, “This may not be the best time, Link,” and seal him away for seven years, forging the perfect hero: a seventeen-year-old adonis who wields the Master Sword, the Triforce of Courage, and the emotional and mental capabilities of a ten-year-old. As a bonus, Link can drop the Master Sword back into its pedestal and turn into his ten-year-old self again, setting up a defining feature of the game, which you use exactly twice (unless you want to go side-questing).

The game works because it retains everything fun about the 2D Zelda games, and it just changes the perspective. You still trek through underground labyrinths looking for buried junk, and each one offers more uses than a Swiss army knife, unlike later games where Link’s tools amount to nothing more than an exotic and unwieldy key chain to flip through every time you get stuck at a dead end. Nintendo decided to split adult Link’s and child Link’s inventories into two nearly separate collections, for no purpose that I can see other than teaching players the value of Venn diagrams. Once Link grows up, he no longer can throw a boomerang and finds the slingshot a bit childish…but that bottle of Lon-lon milk has at least reached a good vintage, looking awfully tasty after seven years in the fridge. At any rate, while this should add challenge and variety to the game play, it ultimately just gives adult Link a few weapons that have more-or-less the same use as the ones he used as a kid, so they feel almost like upgrades instead of new weapons. But bonus points to Nintendo for running out of ideas for items and making it look intentional.

OoT Fish

Because who wouldn’t want to virtually simulate sitting still for hours on end, doing nothing but staring at the water with wet socks?

You still explore an expansive world although there are some limitations. Hyrule doesn’t seem like an easily navigable country, considering anyone who wants to visit the desert has to first engage in some deep-sea spelunking in order to find the proper tool, or that anyone wishing to attend a Sunday mass at the Shadow Temple has to find an enchanted ocarina, play the proper melody to teleport to the graveyard, and then magically light about six dozen torches at once. The original Legend of Zelda and a Link to the Past had a good deal of replay value by giving the player a certain degree of freedom to roam wherever and tackle dungeons in a number of different orders. By cracking down on that freedom, forcing the player to take the standard tour to see what the game wants you to see when it wants you to see it, Hyrule feels less like a fairy tale kingdom and a little more like a dystopian communist police state.

OoT Shadow Link

Shadow Link. Boss of the second game in the series. Still a bitch after all these years.

Of course, not many police states will arrest your protagonist, then throw them in an easily escapable dungeon with all their tools and weapons, just for a forced stealth sequence. Even in Ocarina of Time, this doesn’t work very well, especially considering that after proving himself against the most vile abominations Hyrule has to offer, he just throws his hands up and goes along politely with the Gerudo guards every time they catch sight of him from a distance. I get he has to prove himself to them somehow in order for the story to work, but honestly, I think he’s had one too many swigs of fermented milk to be such a pushover. Also like its 2D predecessors, Ocarina of Time puts its secrets in plain view rather than sealing them away in concrete like nuclear waste and burying them so deep you need a walkthrough to even know they’re there. I generally enjoy seeing my goal and using my wits to attain it, rather than trying to look up answers in order to figure out the secret handshake.

I’ve played this game enough that I’d like to think that I can speak Chinese in an alternate reality where I’d never heard of Zelda, with almost every moment of that time spent on the N64 version. This time I opted for the 3DS. Personally, I find the graphical upgrade an oddly mixed blessing. They packed more detail into the textures and more stuff into houses and other locations to make Hyrule look like a well lived-in kingdom, and it really let me take my invasive need to snoop through other people’s homes to a new level. “Hey, listen! Go save Hyrule from evil!” “Can’t, Navi. There’s a banjo on this lady’s wall, and I want to see what’s in this box.” The great fairies’ breasts no longer look like someone carved them out of rock, with the indentation they left behind literally becoming the uncanny valley, but I’m still convinced they’ve probably had work done. On a similar note, Ruto no longer looks like she’s wandering around naked inside Jabu Jabu, but the fact that Nintendo successfully made me stare at fish tits for so long has left me feeling deeply confused…and oddly aroused…but definitely confused.

OoT Ruto

Still about as much fish as your average mermaid, but trading the tail for the head? Meh. I’m game. Let me dive into your water temple, o sage.

After beating the 3DS version, you unlock the master quest. I have never played this and will probably save it for another entry some day, but in short, this parallels the master quest of the original NES game, with new dungeon layouts and increased difficulty. One of the features, which I gather is unique to the 3DS, is that the overworld is, for whatever reason, completely mirrored, much like the Wii Twilight Princess. Since most Wii players are right-handed, this made sense for motion controls. However, since the only motion controls here involve a weird gyroscopic aiming option that just sends your arrows off into oblivion while inducing a mild sense of nausea, the only thing I can see is that this is to make the game more difficult. The concept of making a 20-year-old game harder is a good one, but there’s a difference between making enemies deal more damage and putting a virtual pair of beer goggles on the player.

Honestly, I liked what they did with the 3DS remake. More than the graphical update, they’ve also tweaked a few mechanics, such as making the boots usable items instead of demanding they be equipped and unequipped every few seconds—honestly, you’re supposed to be the Hero of Time, not an asthmatic knight gearing up for a joust. So worry not, readers, I still enjoy Ocarina of Time and will not malign it.

Even if Link to the Past was the better game.

OoT Zelda

Just tell me you didn’t love me when you thought I was a man and I’ll go.

Lego Lord of the Rings – Wii, 3DS, NDS, PS3, PS Vita, XBox 360

helms-deep

They’ve reigned in Legolas’ showboating. A little.

By now, these Lego game reviews are becoming somewhat of a crisis for me. What do I talk about? A licensed game? A corporate tie-in? A movie parody? A series of games so identical they make the Republican National Convention look like a celebration of diversity and globalism? A chance to play with Legos as a grown-up without having to worry about cleaning them up when I’m done? A series of relatively short games I can play when I need to write about something quickly? Probably a combination of all of those. The Lego Games are a lot like Will Ferrel DVDs in that respect—short, easy to get through, with a few humorous parts here and there, and something I’ll put on my shelf without looking at the extras and knowing that I’ll more likely than not never have the urge to come back to it.

rohirrim

Let’s mow down some motherfuckin’ orcs!

What then, if they adapted the best movie of all time? No, not Revenge of the Nerds IV. Not Ghostbusters either. Nope, not Cool Runnings. Or Back to the Future (although…). Or Star Wars…wait, yes on Star Wars, but no on this game. I’m talking about Peter Jackson’s epic take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings, the beautiful modern-Medieval epic metaphor about the loss of our relationship with the natural world due to the effects of ambition, politics, and the desire for control over others. Yeah, it turns out it makes a pretty good game about plastic toy blocks.

plastic-lave

So if the lava is 1300 degrees, how hot does the air have to be to melt plastic?

Lego games are starting to remind me of my time among in Korea. If you spend enough time with them and give them the proper attention, you start to wonder how people have trouble telling them apart. The earlier games were more combat-intensive, if you can consider a hunk of plastic the size of a ping-pong ball to be capable of combat. These games, most notably the Lego Star Wars games, had boss fights reminiscent of a poorly lubricated rock-em-sock-em robot set, whereas the boss fights became somewhat more complicated as the gameplay shifted more toward puzzle solving. At the extreme other end of the spectrum is Lego Jurassic World, a thrilling man-v-nature fight for survival against vicious predators in which the dinosaurs calmly stand by as you set up convoluted Rube Goldberg contraptions that will lead to their untimely re-extinction, sufficing to snarl kindly if you get off-track from your mission.

nazgul

No, I am your father.

Lego Lord of the Rings meets these halfway, with perhaps a bit more emphasis on puzzle-solving than is healthy for a story that lists “Medieval Combat” at the top of its resume. Characters have skills and abilities which help you solve logical, intuitive puzzles such as catch-a-fish-to-throw-at-the-bird-to-distract-the-nazgul, catch-fish-to-throw-at-gollum-so-Sam-can-tie-the-rope-around-his-neck-so-Frodo-can-stab-him-with-Sting, and gather-fish-to-throw-at-the-wall-to-open-the-gate. And if you’re not into piscine-themed puzzles, enjoy such classics from the movie like Galadriel’s gift to Frodo. “I give you the light of Earendil, our most beloved star. May it be a light to you when quest items are hidden where other characters cannot access and need your help to get to.”

mt-doom

You know what protects your ring better than a smooth, unguarded pathway leading to a ledge over the only thing hot enough to destroy the One Ring? ANYTHING!

One think I thought novel of this game was that it told a more fluid rendition of its source material, rather than the Greatest Hits parade of other Lego games. You begin in the prologue, fighting against a Sauron that makes 300’s Xerxes look like a member of the Lollipop Guild. Once completed, you begin a long, arduous climb up Mt. Doom realizing that Sauron, the Ancient and Most Powerful of the Maiar, Lieutenant to Morgoth the Valar of All Things Corrupt, Fell or otherwise Evil, Etc, actually did very little to protect the One Weapon of All-Power and item that housed his mortal essence, and was easily outdone for security by a Dutch toy company. From there, each film seems to play about six levels to the usual five, and the traditional hub world for Lego games is replaced by a completely open map of Middle Earth that the player can travel to go from level to level, receive side quests, buy characters and items, and get completely turned around in despite the trail of phantom Lego studs leading you to your next destination. Levels are segmented and shorter than in other games, and often give you the choice between groups of characters, offering a timeline with a little more control and reason than the books give you.

mumak

That still only counts as one!

Puzzle-solving aspects alternate between the overly simplistic “stand here and push Z” (and during a handful of boss battles, just “stand here”) and “Throw fish at the wall to move forward,” which is about as intuitive as scraping a hedgehog across your keyboard to restart your computer. For those of you hoping for clunky, plastic Medieval warfare, there’s still a fair amount of that in the game, although it handles like old men swinging their walkers at each other, Legolas’ arrows have all the force behind them of an old Nerf dart blown out of the end of a wrapping-paper tube, and most of the battles come down to puzzle solving anyway. The humor starts out strong, but withers up like a dead orc near the end, and the game is riddled with glitches. So what reason, if any, remains to play the game?

It’s a scenery smasher. And in the end, don’t we all just want to hulk out and take revenge against all those Legos that refused to separate, even when we had the special separator tool? Take that, Lego environment! When I’m finished with you, you’re going to wish Climate Change had gotten to you first!

Xenoblade Chronicles – Wii, 3DS

xenobladeFrom Monolith Soft, the team that brought us Xenogears and Xenosaga, we get Xenoblade Chronicles, yet one more story about human beings questioning the rights of gods and breaking free from the shackles of predestined fate. Generally, I like this idea. Xenogears is my favorite game of all time, and I put Xenosaga high on my list even if Episode I plays like a ten-season anime series that periodically gives you quizzes to make sure you’re paying attention. Still, the theme of rising up to challenge the will of God might ring a bit more inspiring if we weren’t constantly given characters with superhuman qualities who are powerful enough to be gods in their own right. Yes, I know this is a game and it has to be engaging and challenging without being impossible, but there’s still an element of fantasy in playing as characters who can shrug off a napalm shower by chugging a few bottles of Mr. Pibb and recover from mortal wounds with a good night’s sleep and have no lasting effects. As much as I want to identify with game protagonists, I know it’s because I have as many heroic qualities as a bald hedgehog with lymphoma. My personality isn’t quite forceful enough to let me confidently stroll into the Vatican with a buster sword and demand to “speak with the manager.”

Xenoblade Chronicles sets up a scenario in which two ancient gods fought a battle in an endless ocean and just sort of simultaneously zoned out long enough for entire species to evolve and develop civilizations on their bodies. The flesh and blood inhabitants of the Bionis are locked in an eternal struggle with the Mechon, the residents of the other titan, Mechonis. As such we set up an interesting and unique Man versus Machine scenario that has never been done before. Except in the Matrix, Terminator, Blade Runner, I Robot, the Paul Bunyan myth, the John Henry folk song and about six thousand other things over the last thousand years. In a Mechon attack early in the game, protagonist Shulk sees his will-they-won’t-they girlfriend, Fiora, murdered by a machine, setting the pace for what ends up a 70-hour string of cliches (Including, “The girl is at the fortress. Come and get her,” a villain with the courtesy to get himself killed right after the protagonist takes the high road by sparing his life, and a system of quests wherein everyone in the world only wants things that require combat with monsters to obtain). Shulk vows revenge, and fortunately discovers he’s the Chosen One who can control the legendary sword of the Bionis, the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monad_(philosophy)”>Monado, because what Xeno game would be complete without a dense basis in graduate-level philosophy that will sail over the heads of nearly everyone who plays?

So other than the unique perspective of titanic bodily parasites, what does Xenoblade have to offer? At first, it doesn’t seem like much. The first two or three hours of gameplay give the impression that the writers intended the story to be verbal diarrhea of cliches, tropes, and characters with no apparent ability to engage in inner monologue, all acted out with the pacing of Speed Racer dialogue by voice actors who sound like refugees from a Monty Python sketch. I thought the game had topped itself when the characters stumbled across an ATV spewing black smoke like it was trying to provoke a Prius into a fistfight, and Shulk said, “Who would abandon a buggy in such good condition?” Fortunately, that served as more of a turning point than a sign of things to come. The dialogue slowed down, edited itself—mostly—for redundancy, and while the story still meandered lazily, following around its older brother’s and sister’s shadow, the recycled ideas from Xenogears and Xenosaga still kind of work.
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Combat suffers from the same standard RPG combat issues: long repetitive battles, a cast of seven playable characters of which you can only use three at a time, and such a painful awareness that most of the time we’re just going to use the basic attack that they’ve taken away the option and just make your characters attack if they’re not doing anything else. Plus the game throws junk at you like it’s in the middle of a fierce domestic dispute, so 99% of the items, weapons, and armor you receive have less of an impact on your stats than bringing an angry duck into battle to bite your enemies. At the beginning of the game, I thought it was amusing that even the level 1 grasshoppers lugged around 18th century style wooden treasure chests filled with junk, but by the end of the game I understood that anyone living in this universe is, by default, a chronic hoarder who would need several shipping crates to store there crap were it not for the miracle of hammerspace. There’s also a weird quirk I’ve noticed on the few good modern RPGs I’ve played wherein the emphasis is shifted to an action format, thereby sacrificing control of all but one player. Based on some of the character’s unique fighting styles, certain combinations of characters can’t be used because whichever one you aren’t controlling will stand around like an idiot doing whatever will most likely destroy themselves and everyone around them.
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But it isn’t terrible. Characters have a selection of skills that take focus over auto-attacking, and each one has a unique set, and with that comes strategy. Shulk is the only one regularly capable of attacking mechon. One characters has defensive stats and the ability to draw enemy attention, contrasting with another who has high HP, but stealth attacks and minor healing skills. Since you can only control a single character, battle strategies mostly rely on the characters you choose to use, and different monsters call for different combinations.

Suffering from another RPG trope, most characters remain relevant to the story just long enough to prove their worth and be handed a membership card into the Rag-tag Band of Adventurer’s Club. Afterwards, they fade into the background except to call out the occasional platitude of inspiration about teamwork and/or friendship during a particularly emotional cut scene. Xenoblade takes this one step farther, creating battle music out of the wall of sound emanating from characters slurring out battle cries and announcing their attacks like three marching bands placed back-to-back in the same parade. This leads to some amusing mispronunciations, such as Thunder Buddy, Aflack!, Jail Slash and my personal favorite, Electric Dustbuster.

riki_swagBut for all the tropes and sins it commits, one character steals the show. As soon as you get control of Heropon Riki, the bureaucratically appointed hero of the Nopon tribe, all the focus shifts onto this obese chinchilla with the appetite of a garbage disposal. It’s worth playing the game just for him.

Shovel Knight – Computer, 3DS, PS Vita, PS3, PS4, XBox One, WiiU

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Shortly, all games will legally require artwork wherein all the game’s characters stampede outwards from the box in dramatic recreation of either the Big Bang or a Kool Aid commercial.

Shovel Knight? Meh. Might as well see what all the fuss is about.

If you haven’t heard of Shovel Knight by now, then congratulations for having successfully avoided the wave of fan-made, kickstarted indie games that constantly threaten to take the game industry by storm and put an end to the soulless vacuum of triple-A games developed by people who know what they’re doing. Okay, so that’s a bit harsh, and I’ve said before I’m convinced that Shigeru Miyamoto is the only one who actually knows how to make a game, and anyone else with a modicum of success has just blundered upon it accidentally, enabling them to go on to make other games that have a chance of being good. Sort of a video game evolution, like a dolphin who manages to survive global warming because some random mutation made it enjoy swimming around in boiling Coke. While the indie movement is praised as revolutionary, I suspect it’s simply spreading out funds, talent and attention and it won’t stop until every game out there is as bland as Call of Duty, Madden and Rock Band. (At that point, no doubt, developers will want to capitalize on the craze of blandness and come up with games that creatively put instruments in the hands of football teams and make them go out and fight brown people.) Don’t believe me? Ask yourself why we have a thousand TV channels that all show reality TV, or why we have hundreds of musical genres that all suck.

Still, in spite of the musical smegma and TV programming that will shortly be replaced by high-definition mirrors, every so often we get something good. Likewise, in the world where everyone with a “Unity for Dummies” book is trying to publish a reinvigorated spiritual successor to what they view as the under-appreciated adaptation of Where’s Waldo for the NES, sometimes a game comes along that shines so brightly in the sunrise that the world stops and turns in unison to gaze on the wonders that private developers have wrought into being.

Shovel Knight is not that game.

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Honestly, I’m not even sure if this is a screenshot from the game or if there’s been some expansion released.

Let’s start with the formalities. Shovel Knight takes place in a world where brutal violence by an elite aristocracy is looked on as cute and quirky, so long as the knights are paired up with mundane objects or themed personae rejected by the worst of indie comic book villains. Fresh off a marathon of indie horror movies, Shovel Knight fights with a sharp wit and an undeserved feeling of righteousness and indignation for those who lead a morally inferior lifestyle. Just kidding! He bludgeons his enemies on the head with a shovel. Having shoveled on my own once or twice, I can say those things don’t like to cut through grass roots without the weight of an obese manatee pushing down on them. A knight fighting with a shovel may sound cute, but we’re talking about a painful and slow death here. At least with a razor-sharp broadsword, your enemies will suffer clean deaths, bleeding out in moments. Anyway, Shovel Knight has a friend named Shield Knight. Shield Knight, presumably pissed off that she got saddled with the same character class as Goofy from Kingdom hearts, ditches the loser who would swagger onto the battlefield with a paintbrush after watching The Karate Kid. Then a bunch of other knights appear and…something. I guess Shovel Knight feels the need to prove the tactical superiority of yard work.

Okay, on the surface, I’ll give it this much; Shovel Knight is brilliantly conceived, well-executed, and hits on most of the right retro qualities to potentially make it a fun game. The game feels like Capcom’s Duck Tales more than anything else, although the stage layouts feel more like Mega Man, the overworld map is in the style of Mario 3, and there’s a town with simple quests Shovel Knight can accept, kind of like…Wikipedia goes with The Adventure of Link. Why not? Sounds good. I admit that during the first stage, I had a lot of fun learning the ropes, digging crap out of the ground, and hopping around on my pogo-shovel without questioning it any more than I did the fact that Scrooge McDuck apparently uses a pogo-stick as a cane. After the tutorial stage, I moved onto the town, thinking it could be really fun trying to collect special items in each stage and trade them for equipment and upgrades. Brilliant! Finding a way to expand on retro games without losing the 8-bit feel!

Then I spent an hour and a half trying to get through the next stage without snapping my 3DS in half.

The other trend spreading like gonorrhea through the fan-rom-hack and indie-game community is to make games hard. Really hard. Like, hard enough that when you beat them you feel a wave of remorse for working on the game with a dedicated passion that you could have used to cure cancer or reverse climate change. After all, the harder the game, the better, right? Why can’t every game be Kaizo Mario?

Let’s talk. Hard games aren’t inherently good games. Some good games are hard. Some hard games are good. The reason people make hard games isn’t because they’re more fun to play, it’s because they’re easier to make. I always questioned why Bowser didn’t knock down some of the platforms over his lava pits, or why he didn’t just build a wall around the first level to prevent Mario from reaching the flagpole. (Although, economic experts in the Mushroom Kingdom suggest the wall would cost billions of dollars to build, staff and maintain, and it wouldn’t stop Mario from entering level 1-2 on a legal visa and overstaying his visit) These things would have been really easy to do and they would have made the game impossible—which means best game ever, right?

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This looks exciting. Too bad I couldn’t make it that far.

No. See, it takes nothing to hack Castlevania to put a boss rush in level one. But does the player have the skill right off the bat (heh, heh) to deal with five bosses at once? Do they have the equipment and power-ups necessary? How many paths can the player take to avoid damage—too many and the game is boring, too few and they won’t be able to progress, get frustrated, and stop playing the game. Making a game hard is easy. Making a game difficult and playable takes skill and effort. Shovel Knight? It’s fun, has game play about as challenging as Duck Tales, and seems well-designed. And if you die, there are no checkpoints. If you spend ten minutes on a level and fail, you have to spend another ten minutes just to get another chance to practice what you screwed up. And this breaks the game, raising it to frustration-level hard. I’ve had this complaint before. After proving to the game that you can accomplish something, you shouldn’t have to keep doing it. If Shovel Knight were math, you could get a problem on your differential calculus homework wrong and it would send you back to Kindergarten to teach you how to count to ten.

If you want a good example of a game that is so hard it is literally impossible, but done so well that people can’t get enough of it, I’m sure whatever device you’re reading this article on has some version of Tetris.

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Gladly.