Tales of Symphonia – Game Cube, PS2, PS3

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A game so bland the best screenshot is the box art.

Some games end not with a bang, but with a whimper. And then some games end with a string of texted excuses why I can’t play tonight, but I promise to turn it on in a few days if I find the time, until eventually it just stops calling to me and I can move on with my life. Such is the way with Tales of Symphonia. Honestly, I’ve heard so many great things about the Tales series, that I really wanted it to turn into a heated love affair, but I felt like I went in expecting a blind date with Natalie Portman and ended up with Dora the Explorer.

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Like many, I am often troubled by games that try to portray pertinent information in well-written moments within the story. Fortunately, Tales of Symphonia babbles on like a fucking schizophrenic on open mic night.

The story opens in the world of Sylvarant, a pleasant, green thriving fantasy world that apparently needs to be saved from wasting away. Colette is a young girl chosen to lead the quest to restore mana to the world, which will save it from a perilous lack of questing, if nothing else. But instead we’re going to follow her friend Lloyd, who has no major effect on the plot at least 75% of the way through the game, and doesn’t seem important in any way other than he’s voiced by the most recognizable actor. Together with a cast of characters too bland to be generic anime archetypes, Lloyd and Colette travel the world, fighting their way through…literal tourist destinations. (But don’t let that fool you. This is less “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Niagara Falls” and more “Visit the Mystery Spot: Exit 255 at Chernoble.”) Anyway, the whole quest turns out more sinister than the entire world believes and Lloyd, Colette, and company take steps to upend the whole thing. I have to be honest, I didn’t get to the end, but I’m willing to put good money on “the power of friendship” being a major theme at the end.

Yes, you heard me right. I couldn’t get through this game, even though it dangled enough potentially interesting plot lines to keep me invested like a Nigerian Prince asking for just one more good-faith payment. Unfortunately, the Chibi-anime art style makes even the adult characters look like ten-year-olds. Outside of pre-teen players, there’s a very special group of people who get invested in a cast like that, a group that includes Michael Jackson and Jared from the Subway commercials. One character I found particularly obnoxious, Raine, one of the few adults and Lloyd and Colette’s teacher. If you combine the worst qualities of a know-it-all pedant with the insufferable nature of someone who you know is just pulling things out of her ass, that’s Raine. Then make her a chronic child abuser who beats the shit out of her (actual) ten-year-old brother whenever he strings together enough words to best Groot in a verbal debate.

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So uh…we gonna do this or do I have to buy you dinner first?

Just when I thought I couldn’t despise Raine more, there was a scene that required the characters to approach a unicorn trapped in a lake. Now, having written my masters thesis on the significance of eviscerating a unicorn in T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” (no, I’m not joking. You can look up the article), I happen to know what the game refused to state outright lest it lose it’s G-rating: only virginal women can approach a unicorn. By this point, the party had three female characters, Raine, Colette, and Sheena. Sheena, one of the side characters who ends up being the most important character in the game (even though they never acknowledge it or treat her as such) just happens to be the only character with even a little bit of charm or enough cleavage to still have a good time when everything below the waist is off-limits. She had just joined our party, though, so Raine knew nothing about her except she was a summoner and prone to clumsiness, and yet she still had the nerve to say, “Well, I can’t approach the unicorn because I’m an adult, and Colette is certainly not going to approach the unicorn alone.” So yes, ladies and gentlemen, Raine, in this children’s game, is now slut-shaming strange teen girls, all the while claiming that premarital sex is her personal privilege.

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Sheena, the only character in two worlds to own breasts.

Tales of Symphonia wears its influences on its sleeve. By itself, that’s not a bad thing. I’m a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, and he basically wrote Medieval fan fiction. The problem is, like everything else in the game, it’s watered down for a pre-teen audience. The developers just took Final Fantasy IX, X, a dash of V, and Xenogears, chucked them in a blender, then filtered out everything that didn’t fit into their juvenile, young-adult novelization schema of a video game. That would be like doing a remake of Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal Lecter is in rehab for his Kit Kat addiction and Buffalo Bill is sneaking up on farms and shearing sheep in the middle of the night. Yes, it’s kid-friendly, but if it’s supposed to be “disturbing and horrifying,” it kind of misses the mark…then flies hundreds of meters past it, nearly misses “comical parody” and buries itself by pure accident between the ass cheeks of “hackneyed mess of writing” and “just did this for a paycheck.” Why would anyone care about Final Fantasy X if we never had to worry about the value of summoner’s lives? What use is Xenogears if they cut out the question of humanity’s struggles and desires versus God’s arbitrary plans for us?

But hey, good gameplay can make up for this second-hand, watered-down beer pissed out of a drunken game developer before passing out in his kid’s bedroom, right? Well, that’s true, but Tales of Symphonia doesn’t have any. Despite being an RPG, leveling up and equipment raise your offensive and defensive capabilities about the same as suddenly sprouting an eleventh fingernail in your armpit. At one point I realized I had been playing for three hours with a character who didn’t have any equipment, and I just couldn’t tell based on his performance in battle. The game throws a lot of information at you about combo attacks, techniques, cooking skills, switching active characters, etc, but skills and techniques take time to charge and cost tech points, so it’s literally always a better strategy to run straight at the monsters, mashing the basic attack like you’re trying to exact vengeance on the A button for murdering your family.

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And yeah…here’s another screenshot. Look, I gotta be somewhere. We done yet?

Even exploring the map is frustrating. The camera zooms in close enough to bill your insurance for a colonoscopy, making navigation a little challenging. And it isn’t an oversight, either, since they’ve added a function for zooming the camera out to see where you’re going, but only if you find a magic rock in each area of the map. I’m sorry, but that much dick move from developers who are obviously closet pedophiles makes me just a wee bit uncomfortable. It’s like going 75 on the freeway and suddenly you realize a nest of wolf spiders are crawling out of the defrost vent of your car, it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing, you really want out. Fortunately, Tales of Symphonia commits the cardinal sin of reminding me of a far superior game and makes me wonder why I don’t just go play that one…so in short, look out in the next few weeks for a review of Xenogears.

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Skyrim – PS3, XBox 360, PC

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One of countless beautiful images that aren’t actually taken from real gameplay.

Writing this about halfway through my hiatus, it’s probably a good idea to look back and see how productive my break has been. Let’s see…I sent out submissions for my novel and got about three form rejections and a bunch of non-answers…I got fifteen pages into a play and ran out of plot ideas…oh! This one is fun—I regularly spent my days having nine-year-old kids swearing at me like they’ve got one night of shore leave and want to get into a brawl before visiting the whorehouse. No, I wasn’t playing Call of Duty online. I was substitute teaching fourth grade. Yeah, take that, my parents’ generation; a lifetime of video games made me a pacifist, and one semester of being a responsible adult shepherding the minds of our nations future gave me fantasies of having the authority to draw and quarter children. So after a few weeks of “break,” I began slipping into an existential despair void of all meaning and purpose to the point where I imagined I might soon have to fight against the heroes of a Final Fantasy game. So I did the most reasonable thing I could think of; I played Skyrim.

Skyrim Bear

Fuck you, bear.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, saying, “I need to devote time to my writing” and then popping in The Elder Scrolls V is a lot like those girls in high school who told me, “I’m not ready for a relationship right now” before diving tits-first into bed with some douchebag who’s favorite brand of cigarettes are “found on the side of the roads.”

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Yep. A hundred plus hours of beautiful scenery, which sadly is more than we’ll ever see in the real world.

Skyrim expands on the world of Tamriel, taking players to the far northern province. The country is split into several holdings, each ruled by a jarl, proud, stately noblemen and women dedicated to preserving law and order in a bountiful world with a necromancer for every corpse and a clan of bandits for every shopkeeper, and where 95% of the castles, outposts and other government infrastructure have been abandoned and fallen into disrepair. Personally, it doesn’t seem like having such a large and thriving criminal population would work well in a feudalist, capitalist or communist society, but Skyrim operates on a quest-based economy where everyone has an item they need retrieved, a cavern they need explored, or a foe they need slaughtered. Hey, it’s not my place to ask why all these vindictive spelunkers have misplaced their shit. My biggest concern is whether or not the potions I found in these ancient tombs have passed their shelf-life. You know, considering the completely dysfunctional nature of my idealized fantasy worlds, it’s a wonder I don’t vote Republican. I mean, there are so many thousand-year-old monsters awakening from their slumber to unravel the fabric of existence that you’d think Skyrim was the United States Senate.

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Yeah, a flying mammoth looks weird, but I guarantee that at least two or three NPCs have a prophecy about it.

Anyway, you play as the Dragonborn, the legendary warrior with the soul of a dragon who will save the world from a magical apocalypse caused by Alduin, the king of the dragons. At least, that’s what the game told me. Fulfilling my role as the archenemy of dragonkind, I once encountered a drake fighting two bears. I killed both bears to catch its attention, but the dragon immediately took off after a deer like a cat chasing a laser pointer. Not to be ignored, I chased down my ancient enemy, only to find him about five minutes later, a short distance from the deer corpse, completely absorbed in mortal combat with a mudcrab. But honestly, who hasn’t turned aside from their ultimate destiny in favor of a seafood buffet? Still, I have to wonder how many times I get ignored for something that crawled out from under a rock before the “it’s like dating in high school” joke gets old, and I have to ask some serious questions about my life.

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Me versus the true dragonborn.

The game follows Western RPG format, meaning it tries to simulate the experience of tabletop gaming without all the pesky social aspects and no way to interact with the game but for a selection of one to three dialogue options thus robbing you of any creative thought or character personality. But if you’re fine playing a character with a personality as vivid and dynamic as a bucket of rocks, there are plenty of skills to practice. In particular, I played as a mage this time, something I rarely do. I might advise against this in the future. I played through the game once as an archer and remember that around level 30 or so, my arrows could tear through bandits like hollow-point shots from a .50 caliber Desert Eagle punching through 2-ply toilet paper. As a mage, though, you’re given an arsenal of spells that do a pre-determined amount of damage despite your level, which is more like trying to punch through a concrete wall using nothing but your forehead and a jar of aspirin. I’m not saying you can’t get by using only the basic skills, but you don’t see a lot of fourth grade music students learn to play a diseased recorder that’s been inside more kids than the combined clergy of the Catholic Church and end up playing for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

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Wait…this isn’t a Skyrim screenshot. This is a picture of me cleaning out my basement here in Duluth.

I thought playing a mage might solve a few problems for me. Carrying around weapons and armor had always severely limited my inventory—a severe problem in a game full of more junk than an old lady’s attic. But not only did I still end up spending more time on inventory management than when I worked as a clerk at Sam Goody, I ended up repeating simple battles for hours on end because I came armed with what amounted to a taser with a dead battery and armor that wouldn’t protect me from a pan of bacon sizzling in the next room. But somehow, I still managed to work my way up to the Archmage of the College of Winterhold, a sweet package that gave me Indiana-Jones-amounts of time off for the purpose of adventuring, and absolutely no responsibilities to teach, help anyone, or maintain the day-to-day operations of the college (so basically, like a regular college administration job). Meh. It looks better on a resume than “substitute teacher” and “hobbyist video game writer with delusions that he’s funny.”

Shadow of Mordor -PS4, PS3, XBox One, XBox 360, PC

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Shadow of Mordor is, quite simply, an Assassin’s Creed clone. Forgive me for going straight for the punchline like I could only afford five minutes with a prostitute, but the fact that Monolith Productions spent ten minutes alone with the Xerox machine in Ubisoft’s office is actually more of a starting point than a final judgment. See, creating a clone of a well-known game tends to present a problem when that game already has a nasty habit of cloning itself. What exactly can you do when trying to emulate a game known for glitches, repetitive meaningless tasks, combat that ramps up the difficulty so slightly that old men race their wheelchairs across it, and a story that aspires to be the novelization of it’s own movie adaptation? Turns out, you can make a halfway decent game.

I say halfway, though because that’s about as far as they got. Monolith cleaned up a lot of the trash lying around Ubisoft’s apartment, but one can only do so much after the carpet has developed a healthy substrate of mycelium and the mushrooms just keep growing back. The story, for example, reads as eloquently as a Trump tweet and contains about as much Tolkien lore as one can glean from finding a copy of the Silmarillion during an especially problematic bowel movement. It opens on Talion, a ranger of Gondor (a job description about as endemic to Middle Earth as “LGBT Bible Salesman of Kansas”) who suffers the obligatory wife-and-child-murder scenario in the opening scene, thus absolving him of any pesky responsibility that would prevent him from romping through the Mordor countryside murdering orcs (because let’s be honest, the one thing we took from the Star Wars Holiday Special is that Chewie is a deadbeat dad who neglects his family as long as it’s not Life Day). He then gets himself possessed by an elven wraith whose true identity will both momentarily amaze die-hard Tolkien fans and confuse anyone who didn’t feel like reading the Bible of Middle Earth. Together they romp through the Mordor countryside, shoving Talion’s sword into so many Uruk-hai that if his blade doesn’t kill them, they’ll probably contract Uruk-HIV and die of Uruk-aids anyway. Rinse and repeat for thirty hours, then kill Sauron in a climactic boss battle that makes Inglorious Basterds look like an introduction to European History course.

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Just a scratch.

Gameplay closely resembles Assassin’s Creed, except Shadow of Mordor doesn’t need to dig up a steady supply of Borgias to assassinate—instead you declare genocidal war on all things green and smelly and you have no end to the supply of Uruks to break your falls from high places. Literally. There’s no end. Many of the monsters you kill come back to life, which gets frustrating when you’re trying to whittle Sauron’s army down to nothing, but to be fair, you come back when they kill you, so I’ll allow them the handicap. Shadow of Mordor also trashes the combat from Assassin’s Creed, so gone is the feeling of trying to beat your way out of a refrigerator with a tire iron, and instead you get more of a feel for how Batman would get on in Middle Earth—both combat and stealth seems to have been lifted straight out of Arkham Asylum. It skews the stealth unrealistically, to the vein of assuming Sauron’s entire army is recovering from Lasik surgery over the same two-day period. At times, Talion would run full-bent towards them, stab them in the face, and then sneak around behind the orc who just witnessed the death, only to hear that orc say, “What was that? Did something move over there?” Absurdly unrealistic as this may be, I wholeheartedly approve of the change. Assassin’s Creed went the route of realistic, which broke the mechanics—sitting on a bench or pushing your way into a gaggle of whores sounded like a really cool assassin stealth technique, but most guards were still smart enough to figure out that there weren’t too many giant hulking men in huge white cloaks carrying more cutlery than a Ginsu commercial through Renaissance Italy.

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The Force has a strong influence on the weak mind.

When you’re not punching holes in the Uruks like you expect to find a prize inside, you travel around the Mordor countryside picking up trash and cleaning up graffiti. These mini-quests do nothing other than give you minute amounts of experience points and, of course, to clean up the place a bit and make Mordor great again. While it sounds useless, again, it’s an improvement over Assassin’s creed where you chase after boxes of useless cash. At least the XP gives you access to new abilities, and while many games grant you abilities that end up being longer, more complicated ways of accomplishing what is easier gained by punching enemies in the face, I actually found myself using almost all of the skills I unlocked by the end.

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This is lame. Why am I not riding a fucking direwolf?

Mordor apparently isn’t big on diversity, and you only really fight four different monsters throughout the game. But that’s fine, right? After all, Tolkien used excruciating detail—sometimes so excruciating that his readers actually felt right there, suffering Gollum’s torture—but he didn’t invent more than a handful of species of monsters. So it’s okay if we only get to fight orcs and uruks, wargs, spiders, trolls, dragons and balrogs. Except we never fight anything nearly as interesting as a dragon or a balrog…the swarming, skittering monsters are zombie-like ghuls instead of spiders, the giant hulking monsters are called graugs, not trolls, the bipedal wolf-like monsters are carragors, not wargs, and the game doesn’t mention orcs other than to say, “these ain’t them.” But don’t worry…there’s literally no end to the supply of Uruk-hai willing to fight you, and each one of them has a nice little speech to deliver before you get to start the battle.

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Man-swine! Let me go into extended detail on my displeasure with our previous encounter, be it for my demise or your return from yours.

Apparently the version of the game I played is not the one I was supposed to. The PS3 and the Xbox 360 editions are, from what I read online, the PS4 edition after being dragged through a mud puddle and then stored for a week in the rotting carcass of a sperm whale. But what it lacks in aesthetic value, it more than makes up for in loading and saving times, making Shadow of Mordor a great game to play when you have a few dozen small chores around the house, but you’re only willing to use the time going in and out of menus to do them. When you account for menu transitions, listening to each uruk tell you its life story, reloading after it kills you, and watching the WWE of Mordor as the uruks kill each other and level-up during death transitions, a 40-hour game quickly turns into about eight or nine hours of gameplay.

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Tinder profiles in Mordor.

The game touts its Nemesis system, which as far as I can tell is a fancy way of saying “we randomly generate enemies, then assign them a name.” Although this feels to me like Monolith’s main selling point is something I did with Lego guys when I was six, the enemies do feel like they have a little more personality than the goons in other games, and the names sound Tolkien-esque (One notable uruk goes by “Ratbag,” clearly inspired by the orcs from the book, Shagrat and Gorbag), even if I have to ride whatever the hell a caragor is in order to kill them. Supposedly, the PS3 version’s Nemesis system functions about as well as a cassette tape in an MRI machine, but I suspect the nearly three-hour update required when I first booted the game fixed some of that. Just add that to the game’s non-play-time counter.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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!

South Park: The Stick of Truth – PS3, PS4, XBox 360, XBox One

Kupa Keep
The world of RPGs is in dire peril. The once-noble Square-Enix has abandoned its loyal subjects and now appeals to the lowest common denominator. Sacrificing gameplay, story and style, they have heaped enough muscles onto their protagonists that each one qualifies as its own Olympic wrestling team and armed them with enough firepower to give the NRA spontaneous orgasms. Meanwhile, Nippon-Ichi floods the market with games written as though someone had copy-pasted a bunch of fan fiction pdf files and didn’t notice that the formatting fucked up. These games consist of one bombardment of verbal diarrhea after another that connect repetitive and clunky battle systems that work as well as an NES with broken connector pins…after someone threw it into the Grand Canyon. Bethesda offers us reprieves with an occasional Fallout or Elder Scrolls title, but these come only slightly more frequently than a nun and have so many bugs that the games require heavy fumigation. But in our hour of need, two warriors emerge from the darkness, standing tall over everything we’ve lost. Armed with nothing but their wits, a love for RPGs, and a virtually unlimited amount of financial support based on the success of a major TV series running for nearly two decades, Trey Parker and Matt Stone stepped forward to give us their role-playing masterpiece, South Park: The Stick of Truth.

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Beat up the homeless so they leave town. If South Park doesn’t have homeless people, they’ll look more compassionate.

The game gives you control of The New Kid, also known as Douchebag, who arrives in South Park just in time to be swept up in a long-term game between Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman, that more resembles a minor gang war than a 4th grade playtime. Cartman leads the humans as the Grand Wizard of the Kingdom of Kupa Keep (KKK), who possess the Stick of Truth, the most macguffiny macguffin ever conceived for fiction. Whoever controls the Stick, they say, controls the universe. You’d think that control of the universe would include the power to keep the KKK’s rival faction, the Drow Elves, from stealing the Stick. But of course that’s the first thing that happens, giving Douchebag the impetus to begin his quest.

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The Grand Wizard of the KKK, using fire to smite his foes.

It’s sad for me to say this, but a game that lets you fart into your hand and throw it at enemies is better than anything that Square-Enix has put out in at least ten years. But it happens. Frequently, actually. Because parodies have to be so tuned into the tropes, characteristics, and weaknesses of their genre, they often become paragons of what they’re mocking. When I first saw the Venture Bros., I felt like re-watching Johnny Quest, only to find out the series developed plot less than an episode of Scooby Doo and oozed enough racial superiority to bleach the Klan’s linens. I’ve read that Parker and Stone are huge fans of classic RPGs, which goes a long way to explaining why so many elements that frustrate players don’t appear in Stick of Truth. Random battles happen only enough to stay interesting, and the type of enemies vary enough that you don’t get into the standard RPG pattern of taping down the X button and going outside to mow the lawn. Many games use backtracking like a bra—the padding makes it look bigger and better, but once you strip if off you’re left with a deep-seated disappointment. Stick of Truth, on the other hand, has a fast travel service, but I found myself opting to walk across the map because it had enough interesting things going on in the background. But this begs the question, if the South Park creators know what players want because they are fans of RPGs, what exactly do full-time game developers do for fun?

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The game focuses heavily on story and plays like an extended episode of South Park. Playing to their strengths as writers, Parker and Stone have found new and interesting ways to incorporate their brand of humor that should have gone stale in 1998. They do avoid their usual satirical style, most likely so that the game has a shelf life longer than grocery store sushi, but do rely heavily on social media trends like Facebook and Twitter. They also center a quest around Al Gore’s search for Manbearpig, their rather embarrassing comment on climate change denial, but I can forgive this. Like drunken antics at a college party, we can look back and admit something might not have been a good idea, but was still funny as hell.

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If there’s one complaint I have about the game—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—it’s the overly complicated fart mechanics. Trying to pass its gas off as a magic system, farting works more akin to Skyrim’s dragon shouts. Each of the four flatulent skills you learn requires a specific combination of inputs with the right and left control sticks. Holding the right stick in the down or up position allows you to change direction, tune a frequency, or steer with the left control stick, and you can let rip your attack, unleashing chemical warfare in the form of deadly gases, by changing direction with the right stick at the right moment. Farting in the Stick of Truth demands precision, the type you need to throw a hadouken fireball while tuning radio dials, adjusting rabbit ear antennas, and filing your taxes all at the same time. Fortunately, the game only requires you to fart in one or two battles, and it’s a lot easier to do it on the map, so I didn’t have to worry.

Fart

Yup. This is happening. And it’s a GOOD game, remember.

There are other problems, to be sure. The game feels too short, and a little sparse on available quests. You have companion characters to use in battle, the four main stars, Butters and Jimmy, but halfway through the game, they kind of peter out and don’t help much in battle other than to use items. But that problem corrects itself by making the game progressively easier as you learn how to use the battle system, eliminating most of the challenge even on the highest difficulty setting. But still, I can’t praise this game highly enough. It shows us what PS3 era RPGs could have been, if only game developers weren’t sitting around like corporate monkeys, throwing their feces at traditional players in hopes of selling something to any moron with an xBox and a copy of FIFA 2013. The industry’s behavior almost sounds like an episode of South Park…

Summons

Lego Indiana Jones – PS2, PS3, Wii, XBox 360, NDS, PSP, PC

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I enjoy playing Lego games once in a while, but I could work with a metal detector, a team of bloodhounds, and ground-penetrating radar strong enough to take lewd photos of the earth’s core and I couldn’t find anything new to say about them. Indiana Jones would have trouble uncovering details that I’ve lost, and this review primarily focuses on him. Developer Traveler’s Tales found a formula that works. They recreate famous movie scenes with Legos. The player runs around collecting enough cash from dismantling the scenery to be dubbed “True something-or-other,” and throw in a fair dose of humor since they realize you can’t draw Picasso’s Guernica on a place mat with a box of Crayolas and expect art historians to publish articles about it for years to come. So for years they’ve been churning out the same products, a little bit stale, a little bit funny, but it’s something to do in the evening that hasn’t made me too sick yet. In that respect, the Lego series has much in common with McDonald’s.

Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures attempts to send the player through poverty-stricken areas of India, Somalia and Texas for a sobering look at the economic crimes of the rich. Just kidding! It lets you play through Indiana Jones’ original adventures! Although I don’t know why they have to specify “original” adventures as, thank Kali, they never made any more than the three. I suppose they could be comparing it with the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, but that pretty much faded into obscurity during the mid 90s, gone the way of Surge, Jncos, and those shoes with the lights that flashed every time you moved.

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To digress a bit, I’ve always wondered why, exactly, the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull failed badly enough that South Park accused George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg of raping Indy. It has pretty much the same formula as the other films. Indy’s on a search for a magical macguffin with some divine significance—yes, maybe with so many legitimate, respectable religions in the world, picking the gods of anal probes and hallucinating rednecks may have somewhat detracted from the air of importance—and there are bad guys to beat to the chase, slightly comical action scenes, and a girl to win over in a way that looks James Bond look as charming as the guy who waits until last call to pick up the women everyone else rejected over the night. But maybe it is about the air of importance. Most Americans will understand the Ark of the Covenant, even if they’re not Christian, and the Holy Grail has literally become synonymous with something you desperately want to find. Maybe we don’t really know what a Sankara stone is, but rescuing enslaved children makes sense. Plus as soon as you see the cult leader rip out that dude’s heart and hold it up high as it bursts into flames (…while blaspheming the name of one of those legitimate gods I mentioned earlier), I think we pretty much establish he’s the bad guy and we want to take him down. Same thing with Nazis. Indy hates Nazis. Jake and Elwood Blues hate Illinois Nazis. Pretty much any person with an ounce of decency hates Nazis, so you don’t have to explain anything to people. Soviets, on the other hand…not as evil in retrospect. At this point in Indy’s life, it makes more sense for him to be fighting arthritis. And the skull of Beldar Conehead doesn’t seem like something that matters whether or not it falls into the wrong hands. Also, we never got a movie about an aging James Bond reuniting with the mother of one of doubtless dozens of children he’s fathered along his swath of destruction through the Cold War.

But back to the game…you punch things. As usual, the real objective in the game is to collect enough money to unlock characters to help find all the hidden items that, quite honestly, I stop caring about once the movie plots end. To be fair, you can punch them or whip them. Either way, when the scenery explodes and all that cash falls out, it feels pretty good. Not to mention the explosion sound it makes pretty much sums up the force required to separate Lego bricks. Other Lego games give certain characters innate abilities that help them progress through levels. While to some extent this game does that as well, you also have the option of picking up tools, like shovels, wrenches, guns, or books, and using them to interact with the environment. Or to launch a rocket at a Nazi. The problem in this mechanic lies in the fact that the button to pick up these items is the same as the one to use innate abilities. And Willie Scott’s innate ability is screaming to shatter glass. Often during The Temple of Doom, I found I simply had to switch characters if I needed to grab something or else I’d have to listen to Willie shrieking like a 12-year-old girl at a Justing Bieber concert while she ran around looking for just the right spot to pick up the item.

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Boss fights, as usual for Lego games, are so lame I feel comfortable diagnosing the game with advanced stages of muscular dystrophy. Since Lego combat tends to be as threatening and authentic as a trip to Taco Bell, nearly every major villain in the game seems to have attended the Monty Python school of battle. So each fight plays out like any girl I asked out in high school; they run safely out of reach, leaving me nothing to interact with but the room around me. Since most of the game consists of finding pieces and building things to progress, boss fights don’t really change up game play. The only difference is you have some prick standing by to laugh at you when you screw up. So yeah, exactly like dating in high school.

But really, whatever. It’s a Lego game. If you like Indiana Jones and other Lego games, you’ll get pretty much the same experience here. It’s fun. It’s cute. There are also a number of Star Wars cameos hidden throughout the game, including Luke frozen upside down in a wampa cave in Nepal. Which is good. Like I said before, you don’t want to take yourself too seriously

Hyperdimension Neptunia – PS3

Dungeon

Mmmm…gameplay.

Long time readers know I generally regard licensed games like an extremely loud party in the neighbor’s apartment; I never asked for it, don’t really want it, and when I’m confronted by one I end up spending hours of my life thinking, “Isn’t there something I’d much rather be doing with my life?” We all know what’s wrong with them: low-effort design that replicates popular games that have preceded it while simultaneously stripping away all the best parts. They’re rushed jobs with very little thought or care into making them fun, selling themselves solely on the idea that people will pay $50 to have a plastic disc or cartridge with the same name as that movie they saw last summer. But honestly, why even wait for a movie or TV show to come along that needs to be licensed before? Couldn’t we develop a game with the same lack of effort, without the need to pay expensive licensing costs?

Hyperdimension Neptunia answers that question with a resounding, triumphant, “Meh.” This PS3 RPG offers overly simplistic design and gameplay that make NDS games look like virtual reality. The story, which I can only describe as “The 50 Shades of Grey to Sailor Moon’s Twilight,” is so shallow you couldn’t drown a hamster in it. The opening scene establishes four goddesses have spent the last few aeons fighting each other in “The Console War,” a conflict explained with all the clarity of a Loch Ness Monster photo. After a fiercely intense battle, three of the goddesses descend to the human realm of “Gamindustri,” while Neptune, the fourth goddess, plummets head-first into the ground, inflicting her with a pretty severe case of Writers’ Convenience Amnesia.  Neptune, named for the canceled Sega Neptune console, bears a striking resemblance to another air-headed, ditzy, immature, meatball-haired young girl named for a heavenly body. She soon begins to collect a posse: Compa, named for the game’s partner developer Compile Heart; IF, named for another developer, Idea Factory; Gust, another developer; and Nisa, named for Nippon Ichi Software of America–who all follow Sailor Moon archetypes: Compa, the demure smart one; IF, the strong-willed, competent yet independent one; Gust, the weird one of notably unusual stature; and Nisa, the exuberant, capable heroine who has been fighting crime since long before Neptune’s quest began. Together, they travel through the four nations of Planeptunia (Sega Neptune), Lastation (Playstation), Leanbox (XBox) and Lowee (Wii). I honestly don’t know whether to chalk this game up to Sailor Moon Fan-Fiction or Sega misconstruing the audience who would enjoy such a grandiose inside joke.

Neptunia Transform

In the name of the moon, I’ll punish you…for churning out thinly-veiled intellectual property theft disguised as bad fanfiction.

Because ha-ha! Isn’t it funny that we’re talking about corporate competition satirically–except without the wit, humor, or even enough subtlety to catch a dead cow unaware. Hyperdimension Neptunia clearly wants to be funny, but resorts to humor that wouldn’t meet the standards of a 10th-season episode of the Big Bang Theory. If one of the easiest ways video games introduce levity is by breaking the fourth wall; Neptunia treats the line between game and audience like a piñata filled with wine glasses. Cut scenes are almost as lazy as the humor, consisting of character art over dialogue boxes, much like common fare in a DS game. At first, I thought something seemed off about this, but then I realized that the artwork was moving, although after finishing the game I still can’t be sure if they meant to give the illusion that their game was animated, or if they just wanted to see the girls’ breasts jiggle; however, far from wiggling like appealing sacks of jello, the animation swells and fades slowly. Far from coming off as sexualized or even resembling a character’s chest rising and falling as they breath, the sprite animation moves slowly and subtly enough to induce a faint sense of nausea, perhaps in attempt to sicken any players not yet turned off by the story or gameplay.

The game itself follows the trope of “Heroes traveling the world to help people, who all coincidentally have problems that require monsters at the center of dungeons to be slain.” Honestly, RPG worlds must be wonderful places, where no one ever needs a ride to the airport, someone to feed their cat while on vacation, or their grandchildren to figure out how to get their computer’s display right-side-up again. If a problem can’t be solved with excessive amounts of fantasy violence, then damn it, it isn’t a problem! Unless, in this case, it’s something easily resolved in a cut scene. Furthermore, if the quest doesn’t involve a crystal cave, chances are there’s nothing worthwhile inside it, as at least 25% of the dungeons visited are modestly labyrinthine crystal caves.

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Known affectionately by her friends as Nep-nep, Neptune travels the world on wacky adventures, experiencing zany antics with her best friends, Compa and Iffy.

And it’s not just dungeons that suffer from less diversity than the NHL; if the player isn’t selecting quests and cutscenes on the world map or navigating miniature labyrinths, then you’re in battle. Unlike Cross Edge, Neptunia’s battle system isn’t quite plagued with enough problems to make the Black Death look like a mild pollen allergy, but it’s easy to tell that the same team of developers had a hand in both games. The most notable problem is that depending on what phase of attack you’re in, the cancel and attack keys can switch between the circle and square buttons. These are never things you want to get confused. I have a black belt in Korean kendo, and I never once learned that the best way to sheathe my sword was to embed it in the nearest esophagus, nor has anyone suggested that the best way to ward off murderous samurai is to sheathe my sword and toss it to the bottom of a lake. What’s worse, those are pretty much the only options for action in battle. Yes, you can change the technique used for each attack in the menu, but you can’t cast magic or use items. Healing and support effects are limited, and require possession of a certain amount of any number of four distinct items, and every effect uses a combination of the same four items, which not only requires a huge supply, but makes as much sense as using Windex for glass, counter tops, floors, strep throat, gasoline, cat food and geometry homework. But assuming you have stocked your bomb shelter with enough of the stuff to last a nuclear winter, you still have a certain number of points you use to raise the percentage of time each skill is used, and then only if a certain condition–like taking damage or defending–is met. In short, combat is dull and repetitive, and has pretty much the same result as a chemistry field trip to a casino to learn about limiting reagents. The cherry on top of this sundae of bland is the option to skip attack animations. While some of them are fun to watch once or twice, specific battle timers still run through the animations, including the length of time before an enemy restores defenses. While skipping the animations saved me from playing this game well into the summer of 2017, I don’t think battles where numbers magically fall away from combatants’ life totals would entertain me if I had a a briefcase full of pot.

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Neptune wakes up next to a note. Never a good sign.

Let’s see…what else can I complain about? Because both battle and the story give you fewer options than your average presidential election, most items you collect do little more than make your inventory look like the floor of a nine-year-old’s bedroom. Except for Neptune, Compa, and IF, you have to purchase the right to use additional characters as DLC, along with costume items and probably a handful of weapons and accessories. The bosses are as boring, simplistic, and repetitive as an Earth Wind and Fire album. Except for the playable characters and literally only two others, all other dialogue is spoken by generic silhouettes. Oh, and the five or sicks music tracks repeated through the game generally make as much sense as syncing up the Ride of the Rohirrim and the Battle of Pelennor fields with the Benny Hill theme. Except, unlike Hyperdimension Neptunia, I’d probably play it more than once.

What the hell does hyperdimension mean, anyway? They use the term in Disgaea, too…

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Is that a metaphor for this game?

(Sorry guys, but I’m going back to posting every other week for a while. In addition to being swamped with work, I’ve also taken on a stage manager position for 42nd Street, which will take up the next six weeks of my life…also, I’ve started playing Disgaea, which could easily take up the next six months.)