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!

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God of War 2 – PS2, PS3, PS Vita

Big things count for extra murder! Plenty of murder to go around, boys!

Big things count for extra murder! Plenty of murder to go around, boys!

As a guy who drives a bright yellow beetle, cooks his own bread, watches Sailor Moon, performs in musical theatre, and enjoys a rousing game of Magic: the Gathering, I sometimes find myself curious as to what manliness feels like. Fortunately, I can indulge that curiosity from a safe, hair-growth-free distance with the God of War series, which features Kratos, a character overdosing on testosterone so badly that he makes steroid addicts back away timidly. Not all that long ago, most video game enthusiasts belonged to a class of people that would shyly wander school playgrounds alone, or sit quietly apart from high school cliques for fear that their interests would bring them mockery and bullying. Having a video game star grouchy old Kratos feels like Derek from American History X burst in on a Dungeons and Dragons game, dropped a box of guns on the table and said, “Okay you pansies, let’s do this right. Combat to the death, and we play for keeps.” The sheer amount of rage that goes into God of War games matches the emotional level of filling out job applications while standing in line at the DMV listening to death metal as a nearby television plays a news report about politicians pulling education funding for the orphans of homeless veterans so they can pay for tax cuts for millionaires.

Does this series seem to have an obsessive preoccupation with size?

Does this series seem to have an obsessive preoccupation with size?

God of War II continues the story of Kratos, after defeating Ares and taking his place as the god of war. His first day on the job, the Colossus of Rhodes comes to life and embarks on a Godzilla-style quest to destroy Greece. Having not murdered anything for the better part of an hour, Kratos gleefully adopts the task of obliterating the Sixth Wonder of the World. Alas, though, it turns out Zeus, who likes Kratos apparently even less than Ares, didn’t approve of Olympus’ most recent hire, and apparently felt the best way to remove Kratos’ godhood involved a convoluted plot that required an action sequence convenient for the opening stage of a video game. Kratos, who includes both the Hydra and Ares on his resume of “things murdered without use of god powers,” finds himself utterly powerless against a hunk of metal, but Zeus offers him an out. By channeling all his power into a sword, Kratos can somehow defeat the statue that proved invulnerable to those exact same powers only moments ago. Then, when Kratos has sufficiently humanified himself and killed the statue, Zeus (Played by the voice of Dale from Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers) shows up, grabs the sword, and uses it to poke a hole in Kratos’ gut. While in the previous game, his escape from Hades required an extensive, tedious stage of platforming, this time he gets out through the sheer force of his angriness. Now properly reduced to a level-one character, Kratos then begins the quest to find the fates, which somehow will help him get revenge against Zeus. I don’t know.

Although I can’t understand why developers thought this cute little bundle of murderous rampage would appeal to the average video game connoisseur, I have to admit that it doesn’t entirely turn me off, either.  As a mythology teacher, I do enjoy the concept, and now that I’ve played all three of the main series games, I can say I prefer God of War II to the original or III, mainly because a three-minute cut scene explaining the story of Zeus defeating Cronus marks the longest uninterrupted period of accurate mythology in the series. Naturally, after a beautiful rendition of Zeus’ war with the Titans, they chucked all semblance of literary value into the fiery pits of Tartarus in favor of over-simplified scenarios that give Kratos an excuse to murder mythological figures. In an early stage, Kratos comes upon Prometheus–who shortly thereafter will beg Kratos to murder him–and asks “Prometheus! Who did this to you?” If that didn’t immediately make you shift in your seat and avert your eyes awkwardly, read this. Uh, Kratos…you did. In fact, the play makes you out as some kind of rage-filled dick. At least that qualifies as accurate.

kratos giantBeyond a vague influence from Greek mythology–much in the way that the dinosaur asteroid influenced the game Asteroids–the game really doesn’t offer much beyond an overdose of violence. Initially, making Kratos spin his chains holds a type of graceful enjoyment, but I quickly noticed that it dealt damage to enemies roughly equitable with the damage chopsticks would do to cast iron, and sitting in mandatory battles against hoards of monsters that require you to beat on them like you want to drill a hole through a glacier just makes it feel padded. I do enjoy playing a game, but I prefer stuff to actually happen, rather than fifteen minutes of cyclops murder only to get creamed by two more cyclopses using their combined power of depth perception to send you back to the beginning of the fight.

If you press square by mistake, Kratos pulls out a banjo and starts singing "Ain't Misbehavin'" And then the minotaur kills him.

If you press square by mistake, Kratos pulls out a banjo and starts singing “Ain’t Misbehavin'” And then the minotaur kills him.

And quick time events! Dear, Zeus, you have answered my prayers! I remember playing Resident Evil 4, just wishing I could mash X to run from even more boulders, or press L1 and R1 to dodge even more monster tentacles. Well, God of War uses quick time events for everything. Trouble with a cyclops? They’ll give you buttons to press instead of something more involved and fun! Want to kill that gorgon? Simply wiggle the analog stick in the indicated patterns! Have you always wanted to wear down the life of your controller simply by opening doors? Forget pressing circle; try mashing it fifty times per second! (I miss the good old days of pressing “up.”) Did I miss anything? Kratos looks like a guy with a high-meat, low-fiber diet; should we maybe add a bathroom scene, with Kratos on the toilet, mashing the circle button to empty his bowels?   Hera almighty!   Have people ever liked ignoring the actual action in favor of concentrating on the upcoming buttons to press? Ever? Well, maybe in the bathroom…

FIghting the Kraken in his natural habitat...the sky! Because Greek myth doesn't have flying monsters?

FIghting the Kraken in his natural habitat…the sky! Because Greek myth doesn’t have flying monsters?

For that matter, what about puzzles? God of War seems to hit (hard) some of the biggest cliches available, including the sliding-blocks-into-place puzzle, the dropping-something-heavy-on-a-switch puzzle, and my personal favorite source of aneurysms, the pull a lever and beat the clock. Unfortunately, to overcome the challenges of using such a worn-out and hated method, God of War keeps it fresh and exciting by making it unintuitive and convoluted. How should I know if I have to race against the clock or find something to block the gate? Or which bosses I can actually damage and which ones require puzzle solutions? I don’t know if the game expects me to just *know* that the kraken’s tentacle hides a switch that I need to load down with a corpse when he lifts it slightly, or if it honestly thinks people still buy strategy guides rather than pop up Google and see what the Internet has to say.

The game works, I guess, as a time killer or a space filler. It has flaws, with convoluted puzzles, extended fight scenes, and a weapon upgrade system that has as much effect on combat as using a magnifying glass for shade on a hot day. But I played all three of them now (buying the collection used, apparently, does not give you access to the downloadable handheld games. Cheapskate jerks!). I’ve traveled to Hades and back three times, and carried several heads in my pockets. God of War has at least a novelty value to it. I just suggest playing it in small doses, and not during any stressful life events, such as, lets say, grading student papers while trying to buy a house and simultaneously waiting to hear back about acceptance into a phd program and alternatives. Adding God of War to that mix just focuses rage, down into one tiny bullet point of hate until it all bursts out of your forehead in a gory explosion of blood and brains. Fun and delicious!

Final Fantasy X-2 – PS2, PS Vita

yuna gun

Yesterday I discovered RPG Maker, and now I have to use all my focus and concentration to not trash all my reading and lesson planning in order to fulfill a long-time dream of mine: make an RPG that accurately follows the events in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Stop looking at me like that. As a reader of a retro video game blog, you tell me: would you rather read the books or play through it in game format? Yeah. I thought so. Anyway, I bring this up because both the Iliad and the Odyssey not only find their way into literature classes, but also in pop culture, what with movies and TV miniseries, references in songs and stories and even in video games. An early example of a sequel, the Odyssey proves that continued storytelling doesn’t have to suck Donkey Kong Jr, so long as you do it right. Hollywood sequels have a tendency just to shove the original stories into an industrial blender, pour the contents into a plastic bag, mark it with a two (or if the original had a number in the title, increase that number by one like they invented clever) and demand your money: Austin Powers: Goldmember, Batman Forever, and any horror movie with a number on it will fall into this category.

A picture of Lulu...nine months pregnant. Seriously, did you guys even try?

A picture of Lulu…nine months pregnant. Seriously, did you guys even try?

However, Final Fantasy X-2, despite having a sequential numbering problem worse than the Metroid franchise, took the story in a worthwhile direction. They didn’t try to reveal a bigger evil than Sin, or someone who had secretly controlled Yu Yevon the whole time, or make a brand new threat somehow more threatening than a 1000-year-old sea monster. They didn’t retcon character deaths, bringing back Auron or Blitzy McThunderpants. They didn’t even need to send Yuna on some new kind of pseudo-pilgrimage. Instead, they did what the original–er, tenth installment–did. They focused on character. Final Fantasy X told the story of an obnoxious, extroverted, meat-headed jock, who Square somehow thought would appeal to the crowd playing console games in 2001. Highly literary nevertheless, the dipshit protagonist, referred to as Tidus in all material relating to the games and not at all throughout two entire games, served as a catalyst for changes in the story’s characters as well as the traditions of Spira, especially showing us themes of sacrifice. Final Fantasy X-2 starts with the most interesting thing about him–his girlfriend–and asks some heavy-hitting questions about peace, recovery, and trying to fit back into a generally happy world after dramatically rescuing it from death while contracting probably a pretty severe case of PTSD in the process. But while it doesn’t take a genius to pick up on the metaphor in the original–“Let’s go on a quest to defeat Sin and confront our issues with our fathers!”–you might need a master’s degree in literature to figure out the sequel.

The story opens with a flashy pop-dance number that literally has no bearing on the game and serves no purpose other than to start the show with a bang and establish the possibility that maybe Yuna can sing like a pop diva. Two years after Yuna sent Sin to the Farplane in a burst of pyreflies that looked coincidentally like a celebratory fireworks display, Spira has discovered an interest in history. No longer under the oppressive rule of old white men whose hearts have long stopped beating (no, not the GOP), citizens find the freedom to hunt spheres. *Looks around at sphere-themed world: “Another job well done!”* No, specifically they want old spheres with recorded scenes, with a quality much like a crappy VHS tape left on a car dashboard for a year. These spheres have the storage capacity somewhere between a vine film and a youtube video. But, apparently people will pay big bucks for the historical data on them, even though we follow a team of sphere hunters who never once sells a sphere for profit.

Line up, guys...each girl has her own unique set. Of costumes. A unique set of breasts. Costumes!

Line up, guys…each girl has her own unique set. Of costumes. A unique set of breasts. Costumes!

Enter Yuna and the Gullwings. Spira no longer needs summoners, as they don’t have to worry about Sin and apparently choose not to worry about the need to send their deceased to the farplane lest they turn into monsters, and Yuna has teamed up with Rikku to hunt spheres with the Gullwings. Led by Rikku’s brother, Brother, the team tools around Spira in an airship tricked out to resemble something of a cross between a low-rider, a muscle car, and a Freudian compensation for a small penis. Yuna and Rikku have tuned up their appearance as well. Rikku has stripped down to a bikini top and hot pants, and now sports a Jack Sparrow hairstyle (because nothing makes a 17-year-old girl more attractive than looking vaguely like Johnny Depp). Yuna’s costume, while it doesn’t scream “conservative apparel” any more than Rikku’s, hints at her character’s hang ups over losing Tidus Androgynous: she wears a hoodie, her warrior costume uses his sword, and the piece of bling holding the two halves of her top together look an awful lot like…uh…Jecht’s chest hair pattern. …Yuna, I love you, but you just ruined it. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go shave my eyes. The two of them picked up a new friend, Paine, a taciturn, gothic warrior with the personality of a girl Auron may have dated in high school. She has a mysterious history that would have made an interesting story, but with all the focus on Yuna and characterization, Square sort of forgot to develop a plot, so Paine and the new leaders of Spira fit into the story about as well as Sin would fit into Rikku’s hot pants.

Apparently people love the HD re-release on the PS-Vita. Go figure. Also, send me cash so I can buy one.

Apparently people love the HD re-release on the PS-Vita. Go figure. Also, send me cash so I can buy one.

The battle system relies on dresspheres, special items that allow Yuna, Rikku and Paine to adopt job classes from classic Final Fantasy games. Jobs learn abilities, much in the same way as in Final Fantasy V or Tactics. For the most part, this works well. Abilities make characters stronger more than leveling up, which gives the player a more active control over the game. They even encourage job changing in battle, including some…tantalizing, let’s say…animations of the girls changing costumes. Battles adopt a faster pace than previous games, which almost makes up for a random enemy encounter rate higher than Willie Nelson. Unfortunately, as the game progresses, the job system fizzles out. You don’t find too many dresspheres, and the classes the game offers seem left over from the jobs no one used in other games–bard, blue mage, whatever “Lady Luck” does. I used white and black mages frequently. The physical classes–gunner, warrior, samurai, berserker, dark knight–all had slightly different stats for when, as usual for an RPG, I spammed the basic attack during regular battles.

Ripped off from IGN, but hey...I can't take screenshots on my PS2, and don't you feel better for having seen this?

Ripped off from IGN, but hey…I can’t take screenshots on my PS2, and don’t you feel better for having seen this?

Game play follows a non-linear pattern, in theory. You’ll still have to progress from chapter 1 to 5 in the usual order, but you can tackle any events in those chapters in whatever order you feel like. Really, I’d describe it as more of a rectangle than a line. Many of the missions–surprise!–find excuses to send Yuna through areas with random enemy encounters–because why wouldn’t your rival sphere hunter have wild, electric tigers roaming free in her booby-trapped home? I personally keep a few bears in my living room in case any upstart fantasy protagonists stumble through here (they have a weakness to fire…as does my living room in general). Some of the missions involve mini-games, like “Gunner’s Gauntlet,” which lets Yuna pop caps in fantasy monster asses (fucking tonberries!) to her little heart’s content. The game takes place during the blitzball off-season (praise Yevon!), so they’ve replaced it with a game called sphere break; what can give you more hours of fun than blitzball? A math game with an extremely long tutorial! Oh, how I wish I could say that with sarcasm!

I feel better for having seen this.

I feel better for having seen this.

The main events of the story when Yuna discovers one of her dresspheres has a 1000-year-old consciousness attached to it–yup, apparently dresspheres can do that, but only this one and only when Yuna uses it–belonging to a girl in love with a guy who looks like Loudmouth J. Ballkicker. And somehow that guy–Shuyin–has come to life on the farplane. And somehow the new leaders of Spira fit into that. I don’t know. The game has a lot of goofy moments, Charlie’s Angels poses, and a tall, slant-eyed Alan Rickman impersonator, but I like to tell myself that all this absurdity belies Yuna’s insecurities about her role in the new–yet still endangered–world she helped create. And then I google Rikku cosplayers and forget my school work, lesson planning, and RPG Maker for a good solid afternoon.

Really? People want to marginalize women who play video games? ...assholes! (ripped off from deviantart)

Really? People want to marginalize women who play video games? …assholes! (ripped off from deviantart)