Grand Theft Auto III – PS2, XBox, PC

GTA3boxcoverBack in my undergraduate days, I worked at a Sam Goody. Never heard of it? Well, that just goes to show that charging $5 more per CD than anyone else selling music doesn’t constitute a particularly solid business strategy. But in trying to make up for dropping sales in overpriced music, they tried selling video games. Shortly after remodeling the store, adding the demo consoles, and gussying up the place all nice and pretty, I began to notice trending video games, two of which pop into mind as phenomenally stronger than anything else I sold to unsuspecting customers. One of these, Madden games, tricked people into buying the same shitty game year after year, only to disregard it as soon as the next installment came out. But even more popular than games doomed to life as a second-rate coaster, Grand Theft Auto III simply would not stay on our shelves.

Of course I took note. “Why does everyone want this game?” I asked. “Should I play it to find out?” Well, I didn’t. But I did hear about it. Open-world. Free-ranging. And prostitutes. Lots of prostitutes. Also, controversy. Controversy always makes for a good game, right? Well, I’d like to pose a question to any readers who may have played the game in the early 2000s–did you actually like Grand Theft Auto? Can you still pop in the disk and relive the good times? Or, like Goldeneye, do you look at it and puzzle over what the hell you ever saw in it?

Naturally, in a game revolving around car theft, you can never find one when you need it. I spent about 25% of my time running after cars like a dog.

Naturally, in a game revolving around car theft, you can never find one when you need it. I spent about 25% of my time running after cars like a dog.

Reading reviews, wikipedia articles, and the like make GTA III sound like the messiah of sandbox games. Freedom! Non-linear gameplay! Wide-open world! You can do anything you want! To a certain extent, I see how they can make those claims. GTA III gives the player complete freedom to steal any car and drive around any street and hit anyone you want! Some examples of the variety of things you can do here include: Steal a taxi and get paid to drive people to their destinations, steal an ambulance and get paid to drive people to the hospital, steal a police car and get paid to drive around looking for criminals, or steal a fire truck and get paid to drive around looking for fires. I don’t want to describe this game as stupid, but what it lacks in imagination, variety, and any enjoyment whatsoever, it more than makes up for in tedium, repetition, and boredom.

I know this looks bad...but this still turned out better than a lot of dates I went on in high school.

I know this looks bad…but this still turned out better than a lot of dates I went on in high school.

I went in expecting a crime spree game. Something like Scarface pointing Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels at the Godfather while Mr. Pink runs off with the diamonds, some L.A. Confidential, Pulp Fiction type stuff. Instead I get Cars, without the cute CGI or Pixar wit. GTA III basically reinvents the driving/racing genre. Imagine Mario Kart, if every so often Mario pulled Toad out of his car and stomped on his face. The game also uses the exact same driving physics and controls as every driving game ever. The challenge in driving under this system lies somewhere between “playing a 3D platformer while blindfolded” and “trying to steer a hockey puck with a leaf blower during a hurricane.” Despite the amount of time the game puts you in the driver’s seat, it does occasionally let you get out of the car and engage in a rudimentary form of good, old-fashioned gang violence, but the awkward interface makes aiming feel like target shooting during a grand mal seizure. Despite the contract you took out to assassinate…apparently a ramen vendor…the game’s target selection program generally assumes that the innocent bystanders pose a greater threat than the thugs charging at you with automatic rifles.

Cars, in this game, like this one, only slightly improve on the quality of car I can afford to drive in real life.

Cars, in this game, like this one, only slightly improve on the quality of car I can afford to drive in real life.

Odd as this may sound, GTA III feels less like a video game and more like a board game. I didn’t see much of a story line going on, other than the main character robbing a bank, his girlfriend shooting him, and then his friends busting him out of prison. From there, you look for work, and you visit certain bosses over and over, taking missions in a pre-determined, very non-non-linear fashion, until that boss has no work for you anymore. You can lose these missions in a number of ways, such as running out of time, getting shot, your car exploding, or getting caught by the police. These don’t really pose a threat so much as a minor inconvenience. Getting killed just makes you start over at the hospital, and despite your recent jailbreak, the police seem to have more of a catch-and-release program going on, and a string of murder, reckless driving and grand theft auto merit no more punishment than having to go slightly out of your way while running errands.

Yep...get used to this.

Yep…get used to this.

Also, veteran players may have noticed odd claims by now, so in full disclosure, I didn’t actually beat this game. In fact, I didn’t get very far in it at all, for a combination of two very good reasons. First of all, I didn’t find myself enjoying the game very much. Driving sims just don’t do it for me. I can barely stomach the thought of real driving. But I’ve finished boring games before. However, ramping up the difficulty to “harder than Charlie Sheen on a Viagra overdose” may not have endeared me to completion. After three days and roughly ten hours of gameplay, I had completed maybe seven or eight missions total. Maybe I just needed more practice, or more experience with driving games. Or maybe the damn game shouldn’t make you repeat absolutely everything every time something bad happens. Oh no! Ran out of time! Looks like I have to visit the boss again, watch the cut scene, go steal a car, look for the gun store, find a gun, look for the ramen stand, aim for the bad guys, shoot a few pedestrians by mistake, then get shot to death while the ramen noodle man hops in his car for a car chase that won’t happen. The sheer amount of time required for each individual mission, combined with the fact that I didn’t really enjoy the missions to begin with and the rage-inducing effect of the game’s shitty soundtrack of radio stations, indicated certain health benefits in walking away from this one.

And not even the good kind of wasted. Although both often require medical attention...

And not even the good kind of wasted. Although both often require medical attention…

Grand Theft Auto III which wins my coveted “Sarah Palin Award for Intelligence in Game Design,” cost me $2.99 at Savers. I think I paid too much. However, I also picked up a $2.99 copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. So…I at least have to make a perfunctory attempt at that one in order to clear off my shelf full of games I bought and haven’t yet played. Joy.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (part two) – PC, PS3, xBox 360

You will welcome this sight at first, before you have to finish twenty other stages with the exact same layout and objective.

You will welcome this sight at first, before you have to finish twenty other stages with the exact same layout and objective.

I’ll make this short. After two months of play, two or three dozen quests and an equal number of times accidentally nuking my vampire by taking her out in broad daylight, three or four times when an enemy disarmed me and I had to restart because I couldn’t find my sword on the ground, the most epic final boss battle a game has ever permitted me to watch without actually participating in, and one final bug that prevented me from receiving the prize for finishing the main storyline, I have finally finished Oblivion. And I find I have absolutely nothing to say about it. Having spent the final forty hours pretty much the same way as I spent the first sixty, with the notable exception of a nagging feeling of repetition, as though I’d traveled through the same dungeons killing the same monsters for the same meager handful of gold coins, armor too heavy to carry, and weapons too cheap to make it worth carrying them to the nearest shop to sell them for yet another shitty handful of gold coins. Congratulations, Bethesda, you took the time and care in making an RPG with a skillfully crafted world that still somehow feels like a randomized-dungeon crawler.

Once I discovered the Shivering Isles, I stayed there for the next fifteen hours just because it didn't look like the same old caves I'd explored thirty times in Cyrodil.

Once I discovered the Shivering Isles, I stayed there for the next fifteen hours just because it didn’t look like the same old caves I’d explored thirty times in Cyrodil.

As Anne has already suckered me into a good forty hours or so of Minecraft since I finished the Elder Scrolls, I have to admit that the open-world, free-form game play does offer something therapeutic compared to the shorter, more directed games….Don’t expect me to explain it, though, as I just spent about ten minutes avoiding that question hopping from link to link on Facebook. (By the way, no, internet, Haley Joel Osmont did not grow up and become “super attractive.” He looks like a potato swallowing someone’s face like an amoeba.) Games like that, though, don’t need to rely on a well-written story or intricate game play, but with that same logic I could also say that Mega Man doesn’t rely on deep, philosophical introspection and God of War doesn’t rely on an anti-violence message or anger management techniques. You see an enemy? Hack it with your sword until it dies! Or maybe cast a spell on it. Which spell? It doesn’t matter! They all do the same thing! Just pick out the one that does the same thing more powerfully than all the rest!

Yep. Sure looks pretty. Can we try a desert? Or a jungle? Maybe? Something a little new?

Yep. Sure looks pretty. Can we try a desert? Or a jungle? Maybe? Something a little new?

Bethesda, as I mentioned in part one of this series, has made a name for themselves by making the same game at least four times (I haven’t played Morrowind…maybe five). They’ve also made a name for themselves in expansive, open world, hiking simulators and pathetically lame boss fights. Yeah, by crawling through RPG Maker in what little spare time I have, I’ve learned the stool-hardening madness inspired by crafting bosses as interesting battles rather than simply a thirty-second-long random enemy encounter with special music. Still, could we at least ask for a boss with slightly higher stats than the average enemy? A specialized attack pattern that requires more than “run up, hack with sword, back off, repeat” to kill? At least with the Elder Scrolls games, you don’t have to worry about finishing off the battle with a quick glance at your V.A.T.S. system.

Yep. Just chillin in third person. Jake does that sometimes.

Yep. Just chillin in third person. Jake does that sometimes.

Cut out all the inventory maintenance, travel time, consulting the map every thirty seconds, and questionable emphasis on combat, and poorly written quests that generally amount to “go there, get stuff, come back,” and Oblivion boils down to a character void of any personality, exploring a huge open world of trees, caves, and other natural wonders, who enchants armor, brews potions, and carries a sword to fight off obnoxious skeleton archers. Congratulations, Bethesda, you made a high resolution version of Minecraft. Who would have thought that you could have made tons more money if you had only half-assed the graphics?

Fuck you, order! I fight for madness and chaos! Like the freaking Joker! Up yours, shiny metal Batman!

Fuck you, order! I fight for madness and chaos! Like the freaking Joker! Up yours, shiny metal Batman!

Again, not that a game that offers aimless exploration with a handful of fringe benefits has to suck goblin nuggets. Games strive for a simulated experience, and even living on the cusp of the wild, untamed glacier of Northern Minnesota, I often feel way too wrapped up in our modern urban world, yearning, like Tolkien before me, to go “back to trees.” I think that people who read Tolkien and don’t see anything in it beyond “people walking” might not get the value of taking in the world for its wonders, which I think captures the true meaning behind Oblivion. So Bethesda, if any of you read this, stop releasing DLC and get the licensing to do a game set in Middle Earth. And then someone needs to develop immersive virtual reality so you can release your next game on a VR console. And also VR Minecraft.

Hellooooo....imagine meeting a mod like you in a place like this.

Hellooooo….imagine meeting a mod like you in a place like this.

Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (part 1) – PC, PS3, xBox 360

Yep...I've discovered yet another Medieval-y looking town.

Yep…I’ve discovered yet another Medieval-y looking town.

Captain’s Log: Morndas, Morning Star 19. Sixty hours into Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, I can see no end in sight. I occasionally pass the time by wandering through caves and fortresses, but most often I manage inventory. Encountered a bug today. Had to restart. Cost me an elven helmet I found after saving. At one point, I dropped my sword in some grass. Couldn’t find it again, so I had to restart then, too. Maybe I’ll walk around the map for a few hours. Perhaps I’ll stand in one place and jump to raise my stats. I don’t know. One of these days, I will find a way out…

Bethesda Softworks built their name around Oblivion. Or maybe Skyrim. No, on second thought, I think one of the Fallout games…What about Morrowind? I never played that. Maybe they built their reputation on that. I don’t know. It might do more justice to say Bethesda has risen to fame by making the same game at least four or five times. Kind of like Madden or Fifa for sci-fi/fantasy nerds. So you know what to expect: long hours of exploring a highly detailed world, accepting quests from a civilization full of people who want some random object in a dungeon somewhere, an inventory frustratingly limited by weight, and more bugs than the Temple of Doom.

Oblivion tells the story of…someone…who gets sprung from prison by the lackluster Emperor Patrick Stewart as he flees a group of assassins. The secret passage out of the city happens to go through your jail cell, and Emperor Xavier’s guards verbally decide not to close the door behind them “because it doesn’t open from the other side.” Because apparently, turning around and running back to assassins remains a better option than hiding your escape route from your pursuers. After getting sprung free, Emperor Picard drops a heavy quest on you–find his lost son and stop hell from overtaking all the world. You then do exactly what one would expect in a Bethesda game: you begin wandering aimlessly, accepting odd jobs from people with bizarre requests while giving a slight passing interest to the whole end-of-the-world thing every so often when it might not take too long to complete an objective.

Patrick Stewart as Uriel Septem, also known as "Sir Not Appearing in this Game."

Patrick Stewart as Uriel Septem, also known as “Sir Not Appearing in this Game.”

Given the absolute freedom to roam around the medieval fantasy world of Cyrodil, I immediately took in the sights, killed a bunch of monsters, wandered through what I would eventually recognize as bland, generic ancient ruins, and of course, contracted a horrible and incurable disease. I can proudly say I wrote the draft of this section in REAL TIME, as I actually “played” the game! See, out of all the quests in the game, the longest and by far the most obnoxious tasks you with curing the vampirism of the Count of Skingrad. And, for unfortunate bastards like myself, who spent the better part of a half hour adjusting the perfect face for a character only to contract hemophiliac porphyria, and to have the generic ugly vampire’s head swapped in its place.

So how does one cure vampirism? Well, considering the severe sunlight allergy you develop, you start by waiting indoors until night and then making a mad dash for your next destination, occasionally taking refuge in a cave or a shop. Asking around to the handful of people willing to talk to you without fleeing in terror or reaching for their wooden stakes, you learn about the Count of Skingrad, a quaint little village where everyone lives in lovely stone houses with reinforced steel doors. The count assigns you to go look for a witch who can supposedly cure the disease. She lives, surprise, surprise, on the opposite side of the country. Lacking the gypsy resources of Count Dracula, you’d better invest in a good pair of Nikes. So the witch asks for payment, which of course involves locating five extremely rare items without giving any indication of where you might find them. Then when you’ve paid in full–and advance–she sends you on the mother of all fetch quests to locate more super rare items. Once you have literally gone to Hell and back for her…you find out that the Game of the Year edition has a bug in it that prevents her from accepting one of the items, thus condemning you to live as a vampire forever.

Spent a half hour tweaking facial characteristics like a plastic surgeon...end up so disgusted with vampire face that I cover up with a helmet.

Spent a half hour tweaking facial characteristics like a plastic surgeon…end up so disgusted with vampire face that I cover up with a helmet.

Turns out, you can manage your vampirism, much like diabetes. Regular feedings will keep your photo sensitivity at bay, and people will gladly tell you how sick you look to indicate when you should hunker down in the mage’s guild living quarters until everyone goes to sleep. The bit about writing in real time? I got stuck in the witch’s house one morning, after twelve hours of questing for nothing. She wouldn’t go to sleep so I could eat her, and another bug in the game considered me a trespasser, thus rendering the “wait” feature inaccessible, and I had to stand there as the game’s timer ticked away to 8:00 pm. Fuck you, Bethesda. The entirety of God of War took less time to complete than this one quest. But no. I would rather sneak into a castle to pickpocket a key, dive to the bottom of a lake, search for the hidden trapdoor, make my way through three connected dungeons, and look for a random table, after which I have to locate a quest which opens a quest which opens another dungeon…all to get the one fracking ingredient that the witch won’t accept.

"Very Easy" my ass! Subjects of Tamriel must make lock picks out of pretzles if they break after every failed attempt.

“Very Easy” my ass! Subjects of Tamriel must make lock picks out of pretzles if they break after every failed attempt.

Due to the massive size of the game (which estimates online place at about 1036 km squared), I thought I should split the post up into at least two sections. So in a few weeks I’ll post about the remainder of the game (if Anne doesn’t sucker me into playing Minecraft for the next week while I prepare for the beginning of the semester). In the meantime, look at my estimated breakdown of the first sixty hours of game play:

2 Hours: Awesome world! More colorful than Skyrim…but not quite as HD.
3 Hours: I like how Cyrodil residents didn’t build all their fortresses and caves in straight lines…like in Skyrim. And look how unique they look! Skyrim seemed to repeat the same dungeons over and over.
0.5 Hours: Wow…Oblivion just repeats the same dungeons over and over…
1.5 Hours: So…when will Patrick Stewart come back? Did they honestly just hire him for the first scene?
12 Hours: Fucking Vampire Quest! Just let me go out during the day!
5 Hours: Fucking Vampire Diabetes! Should I even keep playing?
0.5 Hours: Of course I’ll play…I have an addiction.
5 Hours: Go into the cave to collect the treasure to buy the house so I have somewhere to put the treasure that I pull out of the caves.
0.5 Hours: Maybe I should spend some time on the main quest.
1 Hour: Oblivion! Hell dimension! Awesome!
0.5 Hours: Holy shit! The Siege of Kvatch monsters just won’t take damage.
1.5 Hours: Holy shit! I hate all the stupid, angry people on the internet giving advice for the Siege of Kvatch.
6 Hours: Shivering Isles? Score! It feels like a whole new game!
1 Hour: Looking for lockpicks after I broke all mine trying to open a chest that had six gold pieces in it.
20 Hours: Managing Inventory

Soul Reaver 2 – PS2, PC

legacyofkainsoulreaver2-01
This link takes you to page one of Finnegan’s Wake, a 1939 work by James Joyce that demonstrates both the limits of beginning a story in media res, and a depressing vision of what literature looks like after it suffers a massive stroke. I hope by drawing a comparison between a book that uses the term “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!” and Soul Reaver 2: Legacy of Kain, I will make it very clear how I felt about this game. “But Jake,” you ask, “Why play through Soul Reaver 2 when only a few weeks ago, you clearly did not like or finish the original?” I have a very complex response to that, involving the tendency of video games to improve upon their originals, but really, Anne gave me the game as a gift, so I had to play it. Kind of like inscribing “Homer” on the disc. She wanted to see it, but didn’t actually want to play it herself. Now I understand why.

So as I mentioned, you select “start new game” from the option menu and the game immediately expects you to understand the names of the characters, their back stories and motivations, game mechanics, the history of Nosgoth, macroeconomics, the depths of human psychology, the meaning of life and the true nature of the universe. Also I suspect a few lines of dialogue from the end of the first game would have helped out a little. I suppose, however, the game doesn’t quite deserve the comparison to James Joyce I previously made–the characters use English words with proper sentence structure and grammar, but the content of the text sticks together with all the cohesiveness of a thin film of pond scum. Characters–usually Raziel–tell the story through extensive internal monologues in an accent as authentically British as french fries. The writing carries a very refined sense of self-importance, sounding very lofty, as though an E. coli patient swallowed the King James Bible.

These things. They matter. Apparently. Also, watch Raziel float like a plastic action figure! No Deku leaf required!

These things. They matter. Apparently. Also, watch Raziel float like a plastic action figure! No Deku leaf required!

Customarily, I give you a synopsis of the story, but honestly, I have no idea. Soul Reaver 2 breathes life into the term “convoluted.” It opens with a verbal spat between Raziel and Kain. Then comes Moebius, who I assume we met in the last game, and whose name in no way indicates the cyclical nature of the plot twist or time travel. Themes of the sword–the Soul Reaver–seemed to spring up time and time again. I also picked up that Raziel somehow longs for his pre-vampire human form because of his former goodness and nobility, but–spoilers–he becomes disillusioned with himself after…witnessing his human self kill a vampire? Even evil Raziel mentions early in the game that vampirism “is a plague and had to be wiped out,” but somehow felt morally opposed to the persecution of vampires. Also they talk about some pillars. Apparently somehow these pillars broke and it bummed everyone out. No one ever bothered explaining why. Kain, the ultimate evil upon whom Raziel swore vengeance, skulks around like Smeagol, having pleasant chats with Raziel instead of fighting to the death. Also the Elder God, apparently Cthulu’s estranged cousin or something, appears every so often to have no bearing on the plot whatsoever.

Gameplay involves Raziel running through the Nosgoth, a magical land where every location connects to exactly two other locations adjacent to it. Raziel runs from one end of this course to the other, backtracks, travels through time, then runs through Nosgoth again. Along the way he walks past enemies who would otherwise take too long to kill, recites bland, lengthy monologues, and occasionally pushes some blocks or flips some switches, all the while spending hours and hours lost. In pitch black environments. While people may enjoy video games with “dark atmosphere,” developer Crystal Dynamics may have taken that term a bit too literally. To quote writer Amy Henning’s wikipedia entry: “She also feels that focusing too much on graphics can inhibit a game, saying that once game writers focus on creative expression, video games will greatly improve.” I agree wholeheartedly. But could you at least focus enough on graphics to give us, say, a wall or a floor. Maybe a flashlight, at the very least? People don’t understand how to use darkness and light. In real life, darkness scares people. You don’t know what lurks in the shadows. You have to rely on other, lesser developed senses. However, darkness in a video game usually means tapping buttons unresponsively while staring at a black rectangle and wondering whether you should make ramen for dinner or order a pizza.

No did I just find a door, or the floor. Or the ceiling. Or did I visit the night side of Pluto? And get this--the section I described in the post, even darker than this one!

No did I just find a door, or the floor. Or the ceiling. Or did I visit the night side of Pluto? And get this–the section I described in the post, even darker than this one!

Even better, the game sends you through an underwater labyrinth of caves where the Elder God dwells, utilizing a swimming mechanic that works as well as folding laundry underwater. So in a pitch black environment (with a handful of glowing rocks every so often), you have to navigate through hidden tunnels with a “jump out of the water” button combination that will send you shooting downward (or sideways) if you nudge the control stick even a smidgen of its zeroed axis. And even better yet, the game makes you do this three damn times! I guess they really wanted you to talk to Squidworth. You know, some deep-sea creatures have bioluminescent qualities….

Who lives in a cesspool deep down in the ground? Who turned all the lights off and cannot be found?

Who lives in a cesspool deep down in the ground? Who turned all the lights off and cannot be found?

Crystal Dynamics deserves some credit for fixing a few of the more obnoxious features from the previous game. For instance, you can kill enemies on your own now, instead of hunting around for a boy scouts with some flint to finish them off. Puzzles have also improved, albeit only slightly. If the first game said, “We gave you some generic video game stuff. Do it,” Soul Reaver 2 says, “We finally figured out how other games use these generic video game things. Now do that.” Except do them right, because not only did we not focus on graphics, we also didn’t bother fixing glitches. The game has a number of them, usually the result of failing a puzzle. At one point, I had to float from one side of a cathedral to another without dousing a torch in the pool of blood filling the room. I made it across, but couldn’t figure out what to do with the torch in time. Then the blood rose so high that it covered up everything I needed for the puzzle. I finally figured out that the game had done something wrong–not me–when I swam from one room to the next and fell to the floor, looking back on a room full of blood polite enough to not cross the threshold unless invited.

A save point. The game generously gave you two or three of them. Don't start playing unless you definitely have three hours to kill at a time.

A save point. The game generously gave you two or three of them. Don’t start playing unless you definitely have three hours to kill at a time.

A further improvement, the soul reaver sword doesn’t vanish when you get hit–although that doesn’t exactly make combat smoother. If you kill an enemy who has a weapon, the reaver will automatically equip you with that weapon, which all invariably have far less strength than your reaver, and which Raziel can’t use quite as quickly as his opponents can. So combat often involved me dashing for cover, trying to put down weapons so I could use the useful attack again. The reaver does also inhale enemy souls before you can use them to refill your life, but considering the massive amounts of health I lost while whittling my enemies away with a weapon only slightly more powerful than a bronze toothpick, I never saw any reason to not use the reaver. Unlike in Onimusha, where souls come straight to you when you call, like a faithful and well-trained Labrador, when Raziel calls souls, they act like cats, fat and sluggish, interested in the treat you have, but kind of lazy after the big meal they just ate.

Unfortunately, small tweaks that bring the game up from “beginner’s effort” to “uninspired” don’t really make the game worth playing. I found it tedious and frustrating–like when I encountered enemies shorter than Raziel’s waist. He swings his sword in waist-high horizontal strokes. Only. So I’d always have to lure these monsters to a hill or incline because my character, named for the Hebrew Angel of All Knowledge, couldn’t figure out the first trick that Link learns in every game. Then by the end, approaching the nearest thing the game has to a boss fight, they hand me an upgraded soul reaver that makes Raziel invincible. Totally invulnerable to anything. For the rest of the game. Yeah, I suppose the plot twist after the final boss did entertain me for about ten seconds, but seriously…why even have a battle if you can’t die.

I spent a lot of time looking for this guy. Raziel felt very close to him during the three minutes of screentime he has. This is him wonder why.

I spent a lot of time looking for this guy. Raziel felt very close to him during the three minutes of screentime he has. This is him wonder why.

With writing full of cliches like “this opened my eyes!,” stupid puns like “feel the pull of history” as some mystical force drags me across the room, and human enemies lobbing taunts learned in a night-school course on one-liners for minor characters in fantasy games, I easily grew bored. The relentless monologues put me to sleep and the hoity-toity language just sounded like a sophomoric attempt to sound cultured. At one point Raziel shouts out the phrase, “Spare me your elaborate metaphors!” Please do, Soul Reaver 2. Please do.

Leisure Suit Larry: Land of the Lounge Lizards – DOS

Ah, the beautiful sanctity of marriage. Such an auspicious and respected tradition.

Ah, the beautiful sanctity of marriage. Such an auspicious and respected tradition.

Sometime early in college, my great Uncle Harold upgraded his computer.  Essentially my grandfather, Uncle Harold has some impressive traits for a senior citizen. One, as an early adopter of technology, he always has the latest gadgets (usually photography-related) well before anyone else in my family. Two, although he doesn’t flaunt it like a lot of old men, he has a vibrant, private dirty side to him. And while I may not yet have found his alleged hoard of Playboys, I did receive a pleasant surprise when he gave me his old Windows 95 computer (in 2002) and a box full of unmarked 3.5 inch floppy disks. Let me stress the term “unmarked.” While most of them had nothing of note on them, two of them caught my attention. On one, what I can best describe as an extended animated .gif, a woman having sex demonstrated the technological capacity for photo-realistic breast-bouncing. To put it mildly. On another, I found that for all of Uncle Harold’s subtle disapproval of my reading fiction and playing video games, he had indulged in a lively, lighthearted little legend among electronic gaming, Leisure Suit Larry and the Land of the Lounge Lizards.

You couldn't call a game about the quest for anonymous sex complete without a good, moral lesson about public exposure.

You couldn’t call a game about the quest for anonymous sex complete without a good, moral lesson about public exposure.

Sadly, for all my interest in classic SNES-era RPGs, I’ve found that entries with terms like breasts, penis, sex, bdsm, and any other of those erotic terms I can figure out how to squeeze into the text are really the entries that drive viewers to my blog. Since I’ve finished all the Mystique Swedish Erotica series, I had to look around for something new. Fortunately, I’ll have underground sex games aplenty should I ever need to up my viewership. For now, after spending about a week with Larry Laffer, I have, let’s say, “unlocked a new achievement”: Two in a row! I have just abandoned my second game in a row due to overpowering tedium!

Wait, let me get my calculator...sorry, I can't find the beer button.

Wait, let me get my calculator…sorry, I can’t find the beer button.

Let me get the background out of the way, first. Leisure Suit Larry tells the story of Larry Laffer, a 40-year-old version before Steve Carell made it cool, on a quest to get laid. I guess publisher Sierra had a different approach to the concept of “virtual reality.” I play games for something unusual and interesting! Not to relive ten years of frustration! Anyway, over the course of an evening in Las Vegas, Larry must go through all the proper steps of wooing women–boxes of candy, jewelery found in a men’s room, expensive wine, and other gestures that came off as hackneyed and cliched at a time when movie stars still rode off into sunsets and people wrote stories on papyrus. The game comes in two forms, the 1987 text parser adventure (type commands via keyboard) and the 1991 remake, which uses a point-and-click interface, and an upgraded resolution that can show more realistic looking anatomy, including shaded breasts and nipples–but chooses not to do so. Keepin’ it classy, eh, Larry? I hate to break it to you, Sierra, but your attempted humor has all the appeal of a Tuesday night strip club–a few drinks might make it interesting, but I’d still rather go home and sleep.

Because all adults can agree on the appropriate answer to this question, furthermore, without acting like children.

Because all adults can agree on the appropriate answer to this question, furthermore, without acting like children.

Stepping up to the plate for your first attempt at swinging, the game first pitches you a quiz. It asks you for your age, and if you answer in the range of 0-15 or over 100, the game automatically kicks you off.  Apparently seeing the hints of pixilated cleavage and a square representing an erect nipple through a dress might just cause centurions to have heart attacks, or send a 15-year-old boy spiraling into a den of sin from which he’ll never escape. No problem with 16-year-olds, though. Apparently, sex adventure games rate somewhere less than “R” and higher than “PG-13.“ Next problem I encountered, the game quizzed me to make sure I fell in the 21-39 range I claimed after I stopped trying to have fun by playing a game and fess up honestly. Apparently, Sierra has developed a crack formula for determining information that all adults know, but would mystify anyone younger than 16. Mainly that consists of knowing intimate details about the Nixon administration, including knowing all three vice-presidents from 1973-1974, the fact that Ford didn’t ever win a presidential election, and a running tab of U.S. attorney generals. Fortunately, I could guess the number of calories in a can of beer and look up the star of “Bedtime for Bonzo,” but I disagree vehemently with the game when it said that showing up to a party in your birthday suit would not “a: Help you make a lot of new friends.” I guess I could consider finding ways to age restrict what they perceived as a racy game as a noble attempt, but half that stuff I knew by the age of 12, and the other half I had to rev up my brain into GRE mode just to have a shot at answering. I’ll admit I don’t know what germ causes syphilis. I’ll wager a majority of the people with syphilis don’t even know the name of the germ, and the majority of them have a minimal knowledge of germs in general.

Losing all control when someone shows you porn seems like a bad quality in a man who sells naked women for a living.

Losing all control when someone shows you porn seems like a bad quality in a man who sells naked women for a living.

By the time I got to the actual game, I first took note of Larry, moving around the screen with all the vivacity of a sedated tortoise suffering from severe depression. After about an hour of playing, I noticed an option in the menu for increasing the game’s speed. It baffles me that anyone thought people would welcome this option. If you need five minutes to mentally adjust to the idea of crossing a room, you should avoid video games of any sort. Seriously, if you need to play LSL at anything less than the fastest setting, a rousing game of solitaire could trigger an epileptic fit, and something like Minesweeper could put you into anaphylactic shock. I also didn’t appreciate having to repeat commands, reading graffiti or flipping through TV channels ad infinitum just to read through every last pitch for a joke that went around the developer’s table. Comedy relies on speedy timing, and having jokes delivered on the backs of snails does tend to ruin the jokes. By the time I did figure out I needed to enter the command multiple times, I had enough time to notice that since the TV used a rabbit-ear antenna, I would not likely find the porn flick that eventually distracted the pimp on a broadcast station.

Finally, Larry, you've found some wholesome wife-material. Take this one home to meet mom!

Finally, Larry, you’ve found some wholesome wife-material. Take this one home to meet mom!

In addition to that, the game includes such interesting behavior as a) handing out booze like spare change, thus ensuring a speedy death via alcohol poisoning to any drunk who might have randomly useful shit in his pockets. b) A woman proposing to a complete stranger who gave her a diamond ring, then danced with her, because when it comes to the gray area of fucking a stranger, only marriage will somehow clear up any moral ambiguity. Because she shouldn’t worry at all about the syphilis germ. Or her potential death at the hands of a possible serial killer. And, of course, I have to mention the coup de grace, c) censored sex scenes. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, in a game preying on humans’ instinctive attraction to sex, a game involving a rigorous age filter, a game about a balding 38-year-old hobbit looking to score, every time the pants come off, the black “censored” bar goes on. Custer’s Revenge had more erotic moments than Leisure Suit Larry. Fuck it. Skip this game and just go to Red Tube.

What the fuck? Literally! Their parts may have the lowest resolution this side of the Atari 2600, but I think I deserve it for having slogged through the unintuitive muck of this game.

What the fuck? Literally! Their parts may have the lowest resolution this side of the Atari 2600, but I think I deserve it for having slogged through the unintuitive muck of this game.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver – PS1, Dreamcast, PC

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I knew it would come to this eventually. When I decided to play every game worth playing–and some not worth it, but nevertheless amusing–I made every effort to finish the game before I wrote about it. I couldn’t always keep that promise: some games have no real end, while games like Donkey Kong would require unemployment, a government grant, and ten years of having literally nothing better to do than jump over barrels in order to get to the kill screen. Also, Bubble Bobble kept crashing and Gauntlet just got boring after 64 virtually identical levels. But I knew eventually I’d find a game that would force me to quit just due to its sheer awfulness. A game with not only picture and sound, but a pungent aroma–probably of dead fish. As of tonight (and by “tonight” I mean November 5th when I actually wrote this), I have found that game. Ladies and gentlemen, if Satan himself handed me a clarinet carved from his own petrified shit using a reed soaked in Drano, I would rather play that then Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.

Yep...spectral realm here. Not too much going on. Nice and blue, though.

Yep…spectral realm here. Not too much going on. Nice and blue, though.

Soul Reaver draws inspiration from arcane Hebrew myth in a way that makes God of War look as canonically accurate as Bullfinch’s Mythology. You play as Raziel, named for the Jewish Angel of Knowledge, God’s own version of Astinus of Palanthas, who records all knowledge and delivered a book of magic to Adam and Eve with the instructions to help them return to Eden. Naturally, none of that interested the designers, so instead they give us an anthropomorphic hoover vacuum cleaner. A former servant of Kain, one day Raziel sprouts a pair of wings. Kain passes up the chance to found his own personal Luftwaffe, and interpreting these wings as an obvious threat to his manhood, rips them off with his bare hands, and to add more injury to injury, drops you into a swirling lake of fire to burn for eternity. Eventually, an Elder God revives Raziel and empowers him to take his vengeance upon Kain, entirely ignoring the fact that the past few thousand years has reduced the world to a post-apocalyptic shit hole with no one in it but a few monsters and nothing to do except writhe in the agony of boredom.

Here we see light. Not sure what it means, but it broke up the monotony.

Here we see light. Not sure what it means, but it broke up the monotony.

If we can describe games like Resident Evil 4, 5, and 6 as “action packed” and Metroid or the Legend of Zelda as “adventure packed,” then Soul Reaver proudly sports the label of “unpacked.” Critics in the late 90s may have praised the game for its dark, gloomy atmosphere. Perhaps they wouldn’t have focused on the atmosphere so much if the game didn’t had any other aspects to it. Raziel runs through a sparse, open world much like a hamster dropped into a brand new maze. Everything looks the same; kind of a dull brownish-green, a lot of rocks, stones, dark sky and murky water. Large portals connect various parts of the game, but labels each one with an complex symbol and no text, handing you about half a dozen of these things straight off with no context for why any of these locations matter. Raziel could pull out a GPS unit, input a location, and the thing would shoot back, “Sorry dude. Even I can’t find this one.” I spent most of the game just looking for the next important location, running through a big empty world, trying to avoid the random enemy the game so graciously bestows upon us every so often. And to make matters worse, upon loading a previously saved game, you get to start from the beginning! Of the entire game! Good luck finding where you left off! I’ve come to grips with the fact that even accomplished players often have to consult a walkthrough, but when my time playing versus time reading ratio reaches 1 to 9, I figure I might as well go all out on the walkthrough and save myself some money on the electric bill.

Use this portal to exchange the green filter for a blue one, but blue filters make you too weak to turn a door knob.

Use this portal to exchange the green filter for a blue one, but blue filters make you too weak to turn a door knob.

The game’s core feature lets players shift between two parallel realities, the spectral plane and the material plane, kind of like the light world and dark world from A Link to the Past, if you never picked up the moon pearl and had to play as the bunny while in the dark world. In the spectral realm, Raziel can’t alter or interact with anything physical. He can’t carry weapons, open doors, push blocks, but he can walk on rickety platforms and survive underwater. Don’t get too excited about that, though; they rarely do anything with this. I imagine Soul Reaver’s developers as the kind of people who could stumble upon a huge supply of gold and use it to weigh down a handful of papers in their office so they wouldn’t blow around when they chucked the rest of the gold into the alley behind the building.

As if sliding blocks didn't insult us enough, they actually managed to make it more infantile by putting it on a track.

As if sliding blocks didn’t insult us enough, they actually managed to make it more infantile by putting it on a track.

Rather than use this shifting-between-planes bit in a way that made the game creative and fun, you get to…wait for it…push blocks around rooms to solve puzzles! Yes, apparently the dark ancient god has resurrected Raziel in order to perform the most nonsensical overused cliche in all of gaming. He will extract his vengeance upon Kain by…slightly reorganizing all his stuff. “Ha ha,” says Raziel. “Now you will come through here at night and probably stub your toe because I put this block in a different place!” Gloomy atmosphere aside, the game sounds like an Eddie Izzard routine. I’ll put up with sliding block puzzles once in a while. The Legend of Zelda often uses them quite well, forcing you to think, “Now why did they put this sliding block here? What can I do with it?” In Soul Reaver, I’d often find a block, and way on the other side of the room you’ll see a block-shaped hole. “Oh no!” I say. “How ever will I slide this block all the way across the room!” Unique to Soul Reaver, Raziel has a mechanic that lets him flip blocks over, which as usual utterly disappointed me in its failure to incorporate this in any way that actually makes this fossilized corpse of an idea fun.

Because apparently the developers forgot to make the game fun. Usually in a game that installed the crap filter backwards, a modicum of fun will occasionally slip past the net to break up the time consuming tedium of wandering around lost and rearranging the furniture, but even Soul Reaver’s combat refuses to relent. Apparently on his checklist of “bad ideas for vengeance on Kain,” the elder god also included, “not giving my emissary the power to actually kill anything.” Sure, you can poke the monsters with your claws or occasionally whack them with junk you find lying about, but that only stuns them momentarily. You can’t reave their souls unless you happen to find a staff to impale them with or a handy campfire to chuck them into. And no, the game does not provide you with them; after all, such entitlement programming might make you dependent on killing enemies. You can’t even damage the first boss: you kill him by running away and luring him into places to drop gates on him Rancor-style.

I need to take vengeance upon this guy? He looks like he should be trying to gasp out the phrase, "Kill me, please!"

I need to take vengeance upon this guy? He looks like he should be trying to gasp out the phrase, “Kill me, please!”

After the second boss, Kain, you get a sword, coincidentally named Soul Reaver–which leads me to think the developers built the entire game around a really cool sounding name, and then spent most of the project bickering over whether it would describe the protagonist or the weapon. You can kill things with the sword, but unfortunately it only appears when you have full health. Eventually I found myself unable to attempt a sliding block puzzle because of two monsters tag-teaming me. With no fire or sticks about, I could only switch into the spectral plane, reave some energy to fill my life and charge my sword, then return to the physical plane just to get whacked before I could deliver my own whacking. After repeating this cycle about ten times, I finally stunned a single monster; however, Raziel prefers a wind-up to the finishing blow that could fill the plot of two solid Dragonball Z episodes, giving the other enemy ample time to knock my health down, or if I targeted that one, it the stunned enemy had plenty of time to recover. After another twenty or thirty rounds of this, I threw down my controller shouting, “Fuck it! I will not play this game!”

And I finished Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So that should tell you something.

Dead Rising 2 – PS3, XBox 360, PC

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Does anyone else think the zombie craze may have overstayed its welcome? Once hailed as a symbol of our fears of a conformist “other” waiting in the shadows trying to strip us of our thought, reason and individuality, and later re-imagined as commentary on our culture of needless consumerism, the effectiveness of everyone’s favorite decomposing, foot-dragging, moaning monsters on a quest for brains–despite the fact that they only ever really quested for brains in one movie in the mid-1980s and a handful of zombie spoofs–may have hit its zenith with the Dawn of the Dead remake, World War Z, and Shaun of the Dead.  Considering that the most recent of those came out eight years ago, the intervening time has just mocked us, creating a widespread conformity to the idea of shelling out as much money as we can for the latest zombie movies, games, or merchandise. Enter Dead Rising, a fairly new series by Capcom set in a world that has the zombie apocalypse under control–mostly–and has learned how to exploit them for fun and for profit. After I learned that players saved their games by using the restrooms, I made an offhanded remark that “I may need to play this game,” after which I could not convince Anne that no, I didn’t really want to play a game solely on the basis of a witty save point. She insisted on buying Dead Rising 2 and forcing me to play it so she could watch it. She got bored and lost interest after the first hour or two.

...dead God, please let me hold the camera.

…dead God, please let me hold the camera.

Dead Rising 2 follows Chuck Greene, our low-browed, sloping-foreheaded motocross hero who keeps his young daughter, Katey, in the most luxurious of anti-zombie medications and portable Mega Man games by appearing on the reality TV show, Terror is Reality.  Contestants on this motocross competition rig their bikes with chainsaws, and then plough through an arena full of zombies to score points. Naturally, this draws the ire of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Zombies, and their leader, Stacy Forsythe arrives in town to protest. However, when an unexpected outbreak occurs, Chuck, Katey, and Stacy find themselves in a safe house together…at which point Stacy forgets her anger with Chuck, her desire not to kill zombies, and any character points which might make her at all relevant to the story.  Some obligatory arguments occur in the safe house, then they task Chuck with venturing out into the mall–apparently all this has happened in a mall–to search for survivors and Zombrex for Katey. Stacey stays at the safe house, scanning for survivors on the mall security cameras, and every five minutes or so she’ll call Chuck on a two-way radio–usually when zombies have him pinned down and he can’t answer, or when he wants to quietly sneak by them–to tell him about another survivor.

If it sounds a bit muddled, then I’ve described the game well enough. The story starts off weak. It has some interesting points, such as discovering who framed Chuck for causing the outbreak, but it doesn’t really become coherent until near the end.  The inventory management feels a lot like digging through an overstuffed pocket looking for a dime, and the controls take some getting used to. Still, the story eventually comes together, I did eventually master the controls, and I even leveled up enough that the bosses didn’t completely rip me open and use my squishy carcass as their own personal sandbox. One thing, though, ruins this game like nothing else: the timer.  Adding a limit to every event in an otherwise sandbox-ish game had about the same effect as adding a third Austin Powers movie, two Matrix sequels, and a Star Wars Holiday special to their respective series; nobody wants to give their time and money to induce an aneurysm.

Look at those! Knife gloves. Pretty cool, huh? I couldn't ever find the parts to make them.

Look at those! Knife gloves. Pretty cool, huh? I couldn’t ever find the parts to make them.

See, people like the idea of having free run of a mall, and Capcom designed this interactive environment using notes stolen from Katamari Damacy.  Rewards for leveling up or rescuing survivors include combo cards, blueprints for combining items into eclectic weapons. Unfortunately, none of that matters because of the timer. With Stacy hounding you every five minutes to rescue someone else at the opposite end of the mall, I didn’t have any time to fight zombies on my way from place to place, let alone explore the game’s environment and look for items. If I built weapons, I usually made the first combo I earned because I could find the items in the safe house, and then I’d immediately race against the clock to get to some jerk who would ultimately make me pay for the privilege of rescuing them, or to watch their crazy cabaret show, or to give them something they could easily pick up off the ground themselves.

The game theoretically encouraged combo weapons, but mostly in the way that my Sunday school teachers encouraged me to pray–they couldn’t give a reason, admitted a lack of visible benefits, but I simply needed to do it anyway.  Likewise, Dead Rising 2 offers extra experience from zombies killed with combo weapons, but the difference between the normal 10 points and the combo 200 doesn’t add up all that fast when rescuing survivors gives you 12,000 points at minimum.  Plus, the combo weapons don’t last all that much longer than regular items.  While item degradation usually only forces me to muck up my Fallout inventory to carry dead weight, I must concede that I can see how bashing countless zombies with a golf club might cause some damage to the club, or how a gun that runs out of ammo might only weigh you down, but I draw the line at thinking that hacking through a few monsters with a sword would result in total disintegration of the steel. Considering that, when I found the broadsword, I stocked up because they understandably dealt more damage than pummeling someone with a power drill (no matter how many you attach to a bucket), and lasted just as long as any other weapon.

People? Can I guess people? Did you make people for dinner? Of course you did.

People? Can I guess people? Did you make people for dinner? Of course you did.

So that pretty much describes the game. You charge through the mall at breakneck speeds, hacking through crowds of zombies that never seem to get any smaller despite having no visible entrances or exits to the mall, rescuing survivors steadily over the course of three days. Most of these people, naturally, come out of nowhere (re: nonexistant entrances to the mall) and don’t seem to even notice the endless undead closing in around them. About a third of these people have snapped and will immediately try to kill you–apparently the game means to imply a higher density of psychopaths during zombie outbreaks.  These bosses take virtually no damage until Chuck reaches about level 20 or so. Or maybe I just hadn’t found the sword yet.  I don’t know.  One weird quirk offers you the chance to restart the entire game with all your experience and combo cards, and between the time limit and nearly impossible pyschopath fights, I got the impression that it wanted me to take this option. Let that indicate what level of quality to expect–lacking confidence that people will find value in replaying their game, Capcom tries to force them to replay it.

Yep. Somehow a tiger has lived in the mall for at least a day and no one has seen it. And if it doesn't join you, you never see it again.

Yep. Somehow a tiger has lived in the mall for at least a day and no one has seen it. And if it doesn’t join you, you never see it again.

Setting the game in a mall seemed a little weird, and the group of rednecks who show up to bitch about socialism felt a bit hackneyed too. Congratulations, Capcom, you figured out themes that Romero used decades ago.  Care to make them any more relevant? Well, as soon as I wondered that I began to think–yes, these redneck, Tea Party, Ayn Rand fanboys might ironically feel threatened by the brainless masses, but rather than picking off the obvious symbol of left-wing extremism infesting the mall, they shoot survivors, indicating they have no clue how to identify socialism or how to properly solve their political problems. The plot twist clearly shifts the focus of evil from consumerism to corporate greed, and the mall itself replaces anchor stores with casinos, which considering modern fears of class warfare, getting rich versus going broke, and the pure chance involved behind any of that, Capcom may just know how to use zombies properly after all.

Given interpretive value, the literature teacher in me says this game actually needs to exist. The gamer in me wants to hack the game and remove the time limits and any babysitting components, and possibly to tone down two or three of the early psychopath battles, but otherwise, the game doesn’t suck.
snowflake dead rising 2 tiger

Darkened Skye – Game Cube, PC

Taste the half-assed advertising campaign. I mean rainbow. Also, give us money.

Taste the half-assed advertising campaign. I mean rainbow. Also, give us money.

Everywhere I go, I hear people lament the loss of good advertising. “Oh why can’t we get a few billboards put up in school hallways?” or “For God’s sake, I don’t have nearly enough time to take dump in the middle of my TV show. Couldn’t we make the breaks longer?” or “These webpages load way too fast! I might have a seizure. If only we could fill it with dead weight to slow it down.”  Fortunately, Corporate America has devised a clever new way of treating us like morons in hopes of us giving them money: product placement in video games! And thus, with a heavy heart, I introduce Darkened Skye, a high fantasy epic action adventure platformer about a young sorceress heroine who unlocks her hidden magical potential…with Skittles. Yes. Those Skittles.

Skye, a young twentle herder with a sort of Christina Hendricks vibe opens the story with an onslaught of unsolicited exposition about not knowing her father, wanting to find her mother, hoping to live to a higher destiny than herding twentle, and other such topics that don’t really segue into one another, but would still help us understand everything about the story without having to subtly reveal this all piece by piece throughout the course of the game. Then, chasing after a twentle that suddenly blitzes a technicolor path away from the herd, she finds an orange skittle, magical things start to happen, and suddenly the game’s great evil puts her on his hit list.  The game reveals very early on that it doesn’t take itself very seriously and adopts an irreverent tone. They even give you a wisecracking gargoyle sidekick. Or, rather, a cracking gargoyle sidekick. His jokes don’t display a whole lot of wisdom or wit.

Trust me. You'll enjoy this picture more than his joke.

Trust me. You’ll enjoy this picture more than his joke.

See, if you want to make a game that mocks the tropes and cliches of mill fantasy stories, first you have to have the talent to actually write a better story. Darkened Skye wants to toy with these tropes, but sometimes makes fun of minor ones while oblivious to the extremely worn out plot devices. Early on, Skye discovers a secret message–which the player never sees themselves–and declares sarcastically, “How will I ever decode this? They wrote it in backwards writing!” Congratulations. You figured out the Mirror of Erised as fast as a borderline-aspergers case who used to read things backwards everywhere I went.  Now would you please throw in some snappy witticism about revealing that the villain’s right-hand man who’s plagued you throughout the game dramatically reveals himself as your father? Please? Even a short remark indicating that you know how often this happens in science fiction and fantasy?  No? We just want to look the other way on this one? Nah, that doesn’t embarrass you in the least, does it?

I have to go where? Do these pillows at least have a railing?

I have to go where? Do these pillows at least have a railing?

Before I continue…Fuck you Mario! Damn you to Hel! You heard me…the Norse Hel. Where a dragon will gnaw on your corpse for eternity.  You save one measly video game industry from collapsing, and now everyone assumes that nothing pleases players as much as hopping from tiny ledges over gaping chasms.  Seriously, though; Super Mario Bros. didn’t even focus on that. Why does everyone who wants to throw together a game without any inspiration whatsoever automatically drain their environments of anything interesting, fill it with water or lava or just take away the ground, and assume that will sell? The early stages of Darkened Skye reveal the heroine’s complete inability to swim just before taking her to an archipelago for the first 30% of the game. And of course, if you so much as get your toe wet, you have to restart the level. Does no one understand that people naturally float? No one should die that easily in water unless their body consists of pure potassium.

Shit! I missed. Would you mind waiting for my candy to recharge?

Shit! I missed. Would you mind waiting for my candy to recharge?

But when not hopping over obnoxious gameplay cliches, Skye has to fight monsters. She begins the game with a staff that she can bash over the skulls of her foes with all the might of a pile of overcooked spaghetti, but eventually starts accumulating offensive magic, which fire different types of missiles at her foes with all the might of a pile of overcooked spaghetti. I can’t tell whether the designers wanted tedious combat or frustrating combat. Either way, you’ll run through a lot of life potions while fighting, and often–especially early on–you’ll lose less life just by turning the other cheek and performing your work as though you didn’t have evil lizard-frogs shooting two or three fireballs at you every second.  Later in the game, this evens out a little, although I can’t tell if that happened because I got better, my spells got stronger, or that I didn’t have to worry about falling off as many precarious precipices. Still, the lack of an aiming mechanic makes fighting enemies at a distance a pain, and even using the staff melee attack, Skye just swings it around ostentatiously with no real regard for the thing directly in front of her that the player wants to kill. Combat takes time, saps life, and I couldn’t have gotten through the game if it hadn’t essentially let me use save states.

Found this long before I got the shrink spell. Had to go through long after I got it. I didn't figure this out immediately.

Found this long before I got the shrink spell. Had to go through long after I got it. I didn’t figure this out immediately.

Except for aforementioned offensive spells, Skye’s magic performs effects. True Sight lets her see invisible things, Firewalk lets her cross lava on foot, and Diminish lets her briefly shrink to a tiny size–an interesting feat when you realize the people playing the game use Skittles to magically increase their size. I’d describe it as a refreshing concept had they actually done it well. They don’t always make it obvious when a new spell becomes available, and oftentimes when you do get one, you don’t yet have enough of the right color of Skittles to perform it. So I ran into a lot of puzzles that confused me to no end, only to find the solution in my magic menu a half hour later.  Or even better, sometimes I’d run into puzzles after forgetting about a spell I used once or twice at the beginning of the game, a problem compounded by the fact that the only person who published a complete walkthrough online seems to consider punctuation pretentious.  The entire guide contains about three sentences and cuts out some important information; at one point it told me to follow a set of human footprints instead of gargoyle footprints, but didn’t bother to mention that without the spell that I literally only used in the first level I couldn’t see either of them.

I wanted to hate this game. I really did. Honest. But despite obnoxious boss battles, lame attempts at humor, endless combat, reloading the game every twelve seconds, at a series of bugs and glitches, one of which makes Skye move through the level like her puppeteer had tangled up her strings, I actually caught myself enjoying it.  Sure they pour inept jokes into the game like a leaky septic tank, but every so often they pull off something genuinely amusing–likely by accident, but still funny.  The stages have no relation to each other, but after about six or so, they start to make the world feel flushed out and complete.  Also I didn’t mind the busty orange-haired heroine with the voice of Princess Jasmine (almost the only acting job she’s taken other than the Aladdin franchise). I actually liked it in a never-going-to-play-this-again sort of way.

If I could take screenshots with my Game Cube, I'd show you the marionette glitch. But I can't. So here's a Chinese-looking guy instead.

If I could take screenshots with my Game Cube, I’d show you the marionette glitch. But I can’t. So here’s a Chinese-looking guy instead.

The length, however, holds the game back more than anything else. While I beat the game with the clock under eight hours, it probably took me four or five times that much what with all the falling into holes and getting killed by monsters and solving convoluted puzzles and looking stuff up in the walkthrough. Thirty hours feels like ages for a simple game like this, and I can honestly say I’ve never given that much attention to a commercial before. I actually don’t mind advertising.  I don’t really want to think about the day when they start casting big-name celebrities just to endorse products–David Duchovney breaking up the conspiracy in XIII with his trusty Ruger Firearms, or Liam Neeson in Fallout suggesting you raid the old Dunham’s store for top-quality protective gear–but I can recognize that I get some good stuff out of it. Namely, I don’t have to fund Futurama’s animation staff out of my own pocket. But even Burger King and Taco Bell can recognize what Darkened Skye can’t; if you want us to sit through a 30-hour commercial, you have to make the game free.

Age of Empires II: Age of Kings – PC

Don't let the Asian guy on the right fool you: you have to get the expansion if you don't want a completely Euro-centric game.

Don’t let the Asian guy on the right fool you: you have to get the expansion if you don’t want a completely Euro-centric game.

I don’t play computer games. Yes, I know I have a catch-all category for any non-console based game off to the right, and obviously I do indulge in them every so often, slipping from my healthy diet of games that don’t lag, crash, freeze or glitch in favor of a doughy, glazed-over donut of wonder built strictly for computers, but it takes a mighty powerful game to push me over that edge. And yes, maybe I only say that because for the second day in a row, Anne went to work without bringing in the tray full of delicious brownies caked in cookies and cream frosting that I know I can’t eat, but my point still stands; it takes an impressively good game for the voices in my head to overpower me and get me to break. (Maybe I’ll just go look at the brownies for a minute…) Maybe I just don’t play them, though, because I grew up with an NES, SNES and a PC that predated windows and had a 5.25“ floppy disk drive, and when a friend introduced me to Warcraft, I had to learn the hard way that it would take a few hundred of those suckers to fit all the data from the game CD.

I loved Warcraft. I liked anything with a fantasy setting, and I probably had never played a strategy game–now my favorite genre–prior to that. Plus it didn’t hurt that the summoned scorpions looked more like lobsters, appealing to that little insane voice in my head (which, by the way, still wants me to devour all the sugar in my kitchen). Unfortunately, I wouldn’t get my own computer with a CD drive until long past when Windows would let people see it out in public with Warcraft, and Blizzard dropped out of college and started hitting the gym because using words like “grind” and “crawl” made it more popular than if it challenged people to think. But on the upside, in a move proving that nerds will inherit the Earth if we believe in the power of extended metaphors, Microsoft moved in to take over the spot vacated by Blizzard, releasing their Age of Empires strategy games in the late nineties.

For some reason, you can't build fire ships. The game just likes to watch you burn, I guess.

For some reason, you can’t build fire ships. The game just likes to watch you burn, I guess.

After finding a collection of the first two games along with their expansions hiding unappreciated in a Goodwill, I jumped immediately to Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. Having played the NDS spin-off already, I knew I wanted the version which, presumably, had a little more gusto. And, see, that might have ruined the game for me. The Age of Kings scored ungodly high marks in reviews, averaging about a 9.2 out of 10. It does have a lot going for it, but comparing it to the DS version, it had the organization of a bathtub full of Legos.

Maybe I should start with its better qualities, though. The game basically operates like the original Warcraft games; you use peasants to farm, mine for gold, and build military buildings and defenses. These support your war effort, allowing you to train different types of soldiers, which all have unique stats that make them more or less effective depending on enemy soldiers. From there, you have to interact with the terrain to accomplish goals, usually which involve not a small amount of murder and/or mayhem. Think urban planning with medieval combat. You know–if Sim City let you pillage other players’ towns.

Quoting Star Wars eight centuries before it became cool.

Quoting Star Wars eight centuries before it became cool.

The major addition, though, that Microsoft made when stripping away any potential copyright infringement, gives the series its name. Sort of. Battles progress through a sort of time. You start off most battles in the Dark Ages, and as you build your society, each building lets you research technology that will help your marauding. With enough advancement–and a hefty down payment of food and gold, you can “age up” to the next period in time, which will make new construction and research options available for your disposal, as well as giving you the option to beef up your current forces. Flawless system. Pure genius. Well, it does stretch the imagination a bit. Yes, we know that between games, Link, Samus, et al. have to get stripped of all their equipment, forget all adventuring know-how and sit on the couch eating Doritos until they can no longer perform even the simplest of sword-thrusts or beam-blasts. But that all happens on a personal level, between adventures–half the time this happens between consoles. Yet somehow, Saladin, Islam’s greatest military mind, can conquer Jerusalem, then happens to forget that his soldiers can sit on a horse? Eh. Whatever. Game mechanics. Suspension of disbelief.

Look carefully and you'll see a well-placed sheep contributing to the demise of this building.

Look carefully and you’ll see a well-placed sheep contributing to the demise of this building.

But that brings up one of my major beefs in transitioning from the DS AoE to the Windows version. The DS filled you in on historical notes, putting you into the context of history and flushing out the moves of some pretty big names from history–not to mention giving you that character for use in each campaign. The Windows version…not so much. Not only does this make the game less interesting, but in order to let the player win, they kind of had to rewrite history. Joan of Arc didn’t succeed quite as much as AoE lets you believe, but no one wants to take an arrow to the eye for the sake of reenacting history–just ask anyone wearing a Confederate Army uniform in the 21st century. While the DS game will fill you in on these details after the battle, the Windows version lets you remain in a blissful state of believing whatever you want, enforcing yet another generation of people who think climate change is a myth, George W Bush attacked the World Trade Center, and that Barack Obama forged his birth certificate and wants to take away our guns to declare himself king. But as most political turmoil caused by William Wallace or Genghis Kahn has more or less petered out, that remains an irritation easily overlooked.

I did struggle with the difficulty. I started the game on the easy setting and it coddled me with the tenderness of an angry dominatrix with nipple clips, a bull whip, and a large supply of hot wax. I didn’t want to crank it down to “easiest,” but it felt excessively time-consuming and replaced free-thinking strategy with a puzzle–“How does the game expect me to turn back this onslaught without winding up as a puddle of goo on these rocks?” The difficulty ramps up even more since rather than handling the traditional two resources that Warcraft, Starcraft, and the DS AoE requires, they expect you to juggle food, gold, wood and stone like you want to join the Cirque du Soleil of feudal combat. Harvesting each resource permanently ties up a peasant, which wouldn’t complicate things all that much, but the resources don’t last forever, and the peasants don’t quite have the brainpower to plant new turnips after eating the old ones, so they require constant attention in order to prevent any slacking off in your ranks. The game includes a button that will jump the screen immediately to the next idle villager, a gesture about as welcome as a hooker who gives you a bottle of penicillin and a warning that you might want to get checked out. I found myself waiting for them to introduce an idle soldier button or an idle siege unit button, but apparently they didn’t think the player would want to find these things quite as much as lazy farmers.

Uhh...well, Wine gets all weird when I try to take screenshots, but they all look alike anyway, so what does it matter?

Uhh…well, Wine gets all weird when I try to take screenshots, but they all look alike anyway, so what does it matter?

On the easiest setting, I still wasted countless hours upon each campaign, but I felt like I got to be creative with my strategy, play off the terrain, and solve problems in more than the single method Microsoft had envisioned. It usually ended up as some sort of variation of: 1) Build to Imperial Age, 2) Build trebuchets, 3) Move trebuchets forward slowly using other units to protect it. The trebuchets, while having the largest range and destructive force of any unit in the game, had a tendency to behave like frightened puppies. “Go over there,” I’d tell them. “Attack that castle.” Then I’d come back after slapping some sense into a peasant standing in the middle of an empty farm and find the trebuchet moving slowly, but confidently in the other direction.

Despite its immaculate ratings, the game suffers in comparison to the DS version, which lets you play with the heroes, focus on strategy instead of urban planning, and take your time to set your pieces into place–yes, I know most real wars happen in real time, but most real generals don’t have to issue individual commands to each soldier at all times. I like the turn-based features. Age of Kings might gray your hair with its difficulty, but I have to remind myself that all good strategy games do that at first, so you may want to put up with sleepless nights and clenched teeth for a little while, if you like this sort of thing.

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire – N64, PC

6157-1-star-wars-shadows-of-theI’ve spent well over a year writing about games from all sorts of origins, but this entry will mark only the second time I’ve written about an N64 game. The deadbeat of the console family, the 64 had all attention diverted from it in its toddler stage for the newborn baby Playstation, which we all soon realized came out with dozens–and eventually hundreds–of good games. (I figured I’d pass on the chance to make an amniotic fluid joke in there) And of course, this problem plagued Nintendo through the Game Cube and even a little into the Wii era. Fortunately by that time, they’d noticed the DS. “Oh, really? Players enjoy a wide array of fun games, along with backwards compatibility so they can still play all those old games floating around?” See, it turns out that selling a system on the tech alone just doesn’t cut it. But sadly, the N64 hadn’t quite read that memo yet, and millions of people decided to bypass its wonderful new 3-D environments in favor of the 3-D environments that Playstation developers made fun and exciting to play in.

So, hunt down about twenty of these guys and kill them. Oh, and you don't have lasers or missiles. Oh, and crashing into anything kills you instantly.

So, hunt down about twenty of these guys and kill them. Oh, and you don’t have lasers or missiles. Oh, and crashing into anything kills you instantly.

Still, while terms like “amass” feel too grand for what happened, I did accumulate a modest collection of cartridges for the system, about three or four of which I actually enjoyed playing. Of the handful of these I have, I probably encountered Shadows of the Empire before anything else. It impressed me. It hooked me on the system, like a free shot of heroin that would eventually lead to an unsatisfying and expensive habit. But hey, Star Wars! In 3-D! The ability to walk around in the Rebel base on Hoth amazed me. Wandering in and out of my star ship…yeah, it sounds stupid now, but at the time it felt like strapping on a virtual reality suit and logging into Quest World (speaking of nostalgic disappointments). Still, I while I do have a tendency to overlook my N64 games in favor of a towering mass of Playstation discs, I recently began to wonder why I had ignored Shadows of the Empire for so long. So I pulled it out, dusted it off, jammed it in the slot and turned it on…then turned it off, pulled out the cartridge, blew the dust out of the game, blew dust out of the N64, put it back in, and sat back in amazement as I realized “Oh yeah, it doesn’t actually have much to offer.”

Hello Mr. Chicken Walker, you have some explaining to do. Seriously...how did you get in here? Look at the size of those doors.

Hello Mr. Chicken Walker, you have some explaining to do. Seriously…how did you get in here? Look at the size of those doors.

Shadows of the Empire owes a lot to two things. The first, in a move surprising both for the game industry–in basing a game adaptation off something other than a movie–and for Hollywood–to resist hacking and slashing an obvious cash cow of a book into bloody pulped mash of beef and bone–they took inspiration from a Star Wars expanded universe novel. The book focuses on the period of time between Empire and Jedi, while the film’s heroes search for Leia’s hunk of a carbonite boyfriend, matching wits against a crime syndicate lord jealous of all the attention Palpatine gives to Vader. The crime lord hatches a plot to bump off Vader, thus endearing himself to the Emperor (a plan which would make no sense with anyone other than Palpatine) and becoming his new green-guy Friday. So the novel ends up looking at how Luke and Leia get by without the disarming wit and street-smarts of Han Solo, pushing them to their limits to test their mettle. Just kidding. They introduce Dash Rendar, a character exactly like Han, who fills his function just long enough to get them through to Jabba’s palace. Dash, a relatively minor character from the novel, becomes the central figure of the game, driving much of the action.

The rebels may have fared better on Hoth had they filled their prisons with Imperials rather than the indiginous fauna.

The rebels may have fared better on Hoth had they filled their prisons with Imperials rather than the indiginous fauna.

Second, the Super Star Wars SNES games clearly influenced Shadows of the Empire’s creation. It retains the same semi-animation style of cut scenes, at least one secondary blaster power-up, and even some of the slightly nonsensical premises for dashing through a gauntlet of stormtroopers, droids and wampas rather than just landing your ship in a better location; it also makes sure you destroy your quota of tie fighters before jumping into hyperspace. The vehicle levels also feel lifted straight out of Super Star Wars, especially the one level they literally just took from Super Empire Strikes Back, spruced it up a bit, and used to open their game; you fly a snowspeeder at the Battle of Hoth, slaying progressively larger and more dangerous enemies that didn’t actually fight at the Battle of Hoth (we all see you, Probe Droid!) until you have to harpoon a handful of AT-ATs and bring them down in what always feels like the sci-fi video game equivalent of walking heel-to-toe while saying the alphabet backwards.

Wait...platforming? Does the game think we'd rather play Mario than shoot storm troopers?

Wait…platforming? Does the game think we’d rather play Mario than shoot storm troopers?

That sort of drunken play control really marks the game, unfortunately. As an early N64 title, it almost feels like a demo they decided to market. I could almost feel the separate layers of the graphics, with Dash responding to the controls on top and an environment doing the same on a layer beneath. The amazing 3-D environments in retrospect come off as simple and non-interactive, with only a handful of objects that do anything more than just sit there, not letting you walk through them and looking all Star-Warsy. Each level jumps up and down like a 3-year old desperately trying to show you what it can do, especially in the various vehicle levels and the one moving-along-the-train level designed by a programmer who apparently slept through high school physics. While Dash has all the equilibrium of Mario in an ice world, once you get the jet pack the game really starts to handle as well as reading a newspaper in a gale force wind.

Flying like a drunk with a pilot light hanging over his ass, Dash Rendar never lacked popularity with his frat brothers.

Flying like a drunk with a pilot light hanging over his ass, Dash Rendar never lacked popularity with his frat brothers.

But I’ve safely navigated through Mario games before, so I can forgive that. I can even forgive the rarity of blaster power-ups effectively classifying them as too-awesome-to-use items. The save feature, though, pisses me off to the point where I’d gladly strangle a Lieutenant if one made itself available. And I had Force powers. Not yet reaching modern times, Shadows of the Empire uses lives. But still in love with itself over 3-D capabilities, it also uses enormous levels that can take upwards of 30 minutes to an hour to complete. If you don’t get to the boss and die. Like I did. Numerous times. On the medium difficulty setting. A setting which otherwise offered the perfect balance of challenge without frustration, yet still allowing adjustment for veteran players. The game only saves at the ends of levels, meaning any mistake and you get to play through everything again! Better pick something good to watch on TV while you do it. (I recommend Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse”) For extra challenge, each level contains either hidden or difficult-to-reach challenge points. Collecting enough of these will grant you bonus lives which become part of the save data, carrying over into the next level (meaning you can play through old levels again to potentially increase your life total for the next). While discovering these trinkets gives the same rush as finding a twenty dollar bill in a parking lot, the bonus lives don’t add to the minimum–if you have one life left and get three bonus lives from challenge points, the game feels that raising you back up to the minimum lives ought to reward you enough.

Shadows of the Empire has all the nostalgic appeal of Johnny Quest–something you loved as a kid, but then you go back and catch the disturbing racial overtones and shallow plots. The game doesn’t come off as racist (well, unless you count casting green aliens as villains and white humans as heroes), but does kind of flop as a retro hit. For all the frustrations, I’d definitely put it in the top…let’s say fifteen N64 games. Maybe even top ten. But let’s face it; it didn’t exactly have fierce competition.