Final Fantasy XII – International Zodiac Job System – PS2

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Cactoid dance!

It’s times like this that I have an entire novel to revise and just enough free time to glance at my work schedule that I think, “You know what I should do now? Play a 100+ hour game and then write about it. So I played Final Fantasy XII instead of doing anything useful or productive. I haven’t quite made it to the end, yet, but before you point out that judging something before you try it is only useful when hiring prostitutes and getting out of jury duty, I have played the game before. As such, I know that my characters are currently strong enough that if any of them have so much as an exceptionally strong bowel movement, the final boss will drop dead from the shock wave.

The point of playing through the game, though is to try the International Zodiac Job System, which is “international” in the same way that Dr. Pepper is medically qualified to treat your diabetes. Noting problems with the original release, such as the fact that each character can learn every skill in the game and still have enough skill points left over that they’d have to bury them in a hole somewhere in the desert just to be rid of them, the game underwent a few revisions. Then, presumably seeing how George Lucas went from God of Nerds to Discount Pauly Shore for doing just that, they hid their new Zodiac Job System from the rest of the world with an irony that would make a climate change denier’s head spin. Naming a Japan-exclusive release International is like naming a girl “Brandie Delight” and then shipping her off to a convent three states away from the nearest strip club.

Since Final Fantasy acts like the bastard love child of Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings, the story opens with the age-old “Empire-bad-kingdom-good scenario.” The Archadian Empire has been conquering the kingdoms like a 5-year-old diving into a pile of Christmas presents, and murdered the king of Dalmasca in a plot to seize power forcefully by interrupting a treaty signing that would give them that power peacefully, and then framing a Dalmascan captain by using his Archadian twin brother to do the actual killing. Then they blow the whole place up with the fantasy equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. Princess Ashe, who was announced dead but then got better, now leads a small resistance movement against the Empire who is now camped out in Dalmasca like the creepy college roommate who won’t ever leave the house.

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Final Fantasy’s bad-ass, revenge-seeking bride. I made her a samurai so she could kick Uma Thurman’s ass.

The story runs with a fascinating concept—a twist on the man-who-would-be-king archetype wherein the Empire freely offers Ashe her throne in exchange for her full cooperation. But it reads as though writers’ prescriptions of Adderall ran out the morning they started work. Early on, the game cycles through three potential protagonists, one supporting character who constantly calls himself the leading man, and a trusty hero who bravely faces the tutorial level only die as soon as he’s learned everything. Once the story finally settles on Ashe, a steep difficulty curve demands the story be broken up for more or less mandatory side-questing. But now that I’ve played through the game for the fourth or fifth time, I can appreciate Ashe’s dilemma, whether or not she’ll let herself be manipulated by the Empire or the Gods; serve her own Trumpish Id, throw a tantrum, and nuke the entire Empire because she’s mad; or throw out all ideas of revenge like a copy of Moby Dick, essentially un-invent the atomic bomb, and rescue her kingdom from the token villain who had to murder his own father (who was on his way out the door anyway) just so we’d know he was supposed to be evil.

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“And also, no wedding cakes for the gays!”

The combat system deviates from Final Fantasy’s traditional turn-based battles and instead plays like an introduction to computer programming course. After twenty years of publishing RPGs, someone at Square must have pointed out, “You know, all anyone ever does is use the basic attack.” So they finally programmed an AI that would pretty much just keep attacking unless you told it to stop. Each character has a programmable list of actions and conditions called gambits. From top to bottom, the game runs down each list of conditions until it finds one it can meet, then the character performs that specific action. This is a brilliant way to reshape the way we think about battle, save time inputting menu commands (not to mention there are no more random encounters), and to ensure that at some point you will cure an enemy, burn through all your MP by casting your highest spells on monsters with 10 HP, and beating the tar out of your allies until you learn exactly how to set up your gambits properly.

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Ashe and Co gang up on a defenseless tomato-monster.

This leads to the first glorious difference between the American release and the International version—the gambits are smarter. Somewhat. I always liked to set my characters to resurrect anyone who died, thus insuring the number one priority in battle was to prevent rigor mortis. However, with the necessity of setting everyone with the same gambit came the inevitable result that everyone else would immediately drop what they were doing and chuck every feather within eyesight at the fresh corpse as if someone had just declared a sorority slumber party pillow fight. Now I can equip the same gambits on everyone and my characters won’t set upon each other like medical zombies every time one of them stubs their toe. Not all gambits are smart, though. I found that I don’t need to set “Character Status: Blind – Esuna,” “Character Status: Petrify – Esuna” and “Character Status: Parkinson’s Syndrome – Esuna,” as “Any Ally – Esuna” will simply wait until the spell is needed before casting it. However, if I set a gambit for “Any Foe – Steal,” I’ll end up picking the enemy’s pocket, steal their pocket, take the rest of their clothes and a few layers of skin and my character will still try to pick through their bones trying to find one more potion.

The selling point for the international version, however, is as the title might suggest, the Zodiac Jobs System. All skills in the game, as well as the ability to equip weapons and armor, come from a license board, much like FFX’s sphere grid, except more rectangular and a little more free-flowing. However, it was rather small, and after building up license points for the first 30% of the game, after which, license points would just stack up uselessly–like Arby’s coupons, but without the impending threat of dysentery. By that point, each your characters have as much diversity as a box of Peeps, each one possessing both a trove of knowledge that would make Stephen Hawking obsolete and the physical prowess to win gold medals in the Olympic decathalon. When a fifteen-year-old girl can smash skulls with a war hammer and cause as much damage as the 30-year-old seasoned war veteran, the game tends to lose the element of strategy. All six characters equip an entire iron ore freighter, cast all the buffs on themselves, and simultaneously pulverize the monsters as though they were auditioning to be machinery at the Ocean Spray factory.

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This one’s shaped like a bow and arrow. Obviously, this is the Insurance Adjuster job class.

The Zodiac Jobs System fixes that by introducing a complex bureaucracy to the game, delaying some licenses until much of the game has passed and denying many licenses altogether based on eligibility requirements. Unlike real bureaucracy, though, this surprisingly makes the game easier. Originally, any time a character developed a mild cough, the entire party would forget completely about the enemies to cure it, thus allowing the monsters free reign to beat them down, causing yet more memory loss. Now, it’s likely that at least one character will lack restorative powers altogether and continue to stab enemies if for no other reason than to fend off sheer boredom. I also noticed that mixing and matching different characters tended to produce different battle strategies, so beating a particularly difficult boss only required a small change to my starting lineup rather than half a week of punching bats in a mine.

Espers are…well, espers are still pretty fucking useless. The original release of the game gave you summoned monsters that died so quickly after summoning that they may as well have developed a DVT on the flight to the battlefield. Calling an esper never served as anything but a momentary diversion for people who feel the “menu” button takes all the challenge out of pausing a game. In IZJS, espers still enter the battlefield with all the vim and vigor of an asthmatic guinea pig, but now you get to control them in their few seconds of life on this plane of existence. Basically, that amounts to permission to pull off their major attack once, realizing it doesn’t have the strength to dent your car, and barely missing the opportunity to say goodbye to your esper, who takes off for the ICU as soon as he’s done.

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Looks almost dead, right? Guess again. See those dots below the health bar? Those are extra health bars. Or as I like to think of them, 1% of your total play time.

At the risk of running too long, the game is worth playing. More so than the original. In fact, not only do I feel like forever discarding the original release like last year’s iPhone, but I’m tempted to play through it a second time to use the six jobs I couldn’t use this time. Fortunately, that’s not out of the realm of possibility. Despite the fact that writing a weekly blog often rushes me through games, they’ve introduced what I call yakkety sax mode, which doubles the speed of traveling and battling. I managed to shave over thirty hours off the game. Round two, here I come!

Family Guy Video Game! – PS2, PSP, XBox

fg-coverIf you’re the type of person who likes to be more aware of your surroundings than your average rutabaga, you may have noticed I’m reviewing the Family Guy video game this week. “Great!” you’re thinking. “Now he’s going to lecture us on the evils of licensed games before telling us how much he likes this one, like some sort of congressman who rails on the importance of family values before being found with a dead Vietnamese transvestite hooker in the trunk of his car. The only thing more formulaic than his entries on licensed games are episodes of Family Guy!”

Family Guy and I have a very special history together. It’s like a supportive grandparent who helped me get through the tough times in life—reliable, always there to make me laugh and make me think, and kind of painful to watch now that its getting older and starting to have trouble putting a coherent thought together. It seems only natural, then, that they’d want to put together something to remember the good times, to recall all those fond interactions. And that’s just what they made. The game, while fun to play, has less the wit and unexpected humor of Seth MacFarlane and more the air of me and my friends mindlessly quoting episodes in lieu of conversation.

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Brian disguised as a lamp. His sections were clever and entertaining, mostly because I didn’t play long enough to remember why I hate stealth games.

We’ve seen that the Family Guy writers, at their peak, couldn’t produce a plot longer than about 17 minutes (a number that’s declined as a function of time) unless George Lucas wrote it for them. As such, Family Guy Video Game! Follows not one, but three storylines. Stewie squares off against Bertram, Peter’s sperm from Emission Impossible, now born to the lesbian gym teacher and reigning supreme over the neighborhood babies (which, I hear, is a common origin story for the world-domination types. Look up baby photos of Genghis Kahn. And Trump? His hair is simply hiding the fact that his head is shaped like a deflated football.). Brian, once more accused of impregnating Seabreeze (from the episode Screwed the Pooch), goes on a stealth mission to discover the real father in a Metal Gear Solid meets Jerry Springer sort of way. And Peter, in the only plotline that doesn’t hearken back to a wad of ejaculated semen from 2001, randomly decides that tv’s Mr. Belvedere has kidnapped his family, and the only way to rescue them is to kick the teeth out of every man woman and child (mostly child) in Quahog, and to knock the dentures out of anyone over the age of 65.

fg-electrocuteGameplay is simple, stemming from the TV show’s method of humor. Rather than reinvent video games, jokes are thrown in as nods to games from the 80s and 90s, such as the Simpsons arcade game or Galaga. Peter and Brian both control naturally and intuitively, and for the most part Stewie does, too, although aiming at enemies is a bit like being strapped to a tilt-a-whirl. Stewie’s levels are partly platforming, though, which has felt like blindfolded beer pong ever since the shift into three dimensions, but one particular section of extended vertical platforming escalates that to feel more like lobbing live chickens into oncoming go-karts…after a rousing match of beer pong.

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Most cut-away gags are played out as minigames and have about as much bearing on the plot as they do in the TV show. The manatees must have been having an off day.

But playing Family Guy Video Game! For a well-crafted interactive experience is like watching porn for dynamic and intricate characters. What really matters is the humor, and whether or not it matches the quality of the show. In a way, it does…and that way is that they clearly only got Seth MacFarlane and one or two other actors to reprise their roles, so most of the quips and one-liners are lifted verbatim from the TV show. So on one hand, it’s exactly the same as the TV show, and yet it somehow translates about as well as if someone ran it through two dozen different languages on Google Translate. Wait, actually, that could be pretty funny…

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Picture of Joe in the back to remind you how this glitch will cripple you permanently.

So far, this has been a particularly difficult review for me to write. In part it’s because my attention is split between job hunting, a perpetually hungry cat, a polar vortex that’s freezing Duluth to the point where my car won’t start and every time I try the key shatters in the ignition, and the trauma and disbelief over the fact that a few paragraphs ago I used the phrase “Metal Gear Solid meets Jerry Springer.” However, the biggest challenge in reviewing the game is that apparently in Peter’s second level, if you are killed by one of two policemen after the midway checkpoint, they do what policemen do best after shooting a black man (Peter Griffin: Husband, Father…Brother?): they move on with their lives. They don’t come back after you respawn. And since, in true beat-em-up fashion, you can’t move on with the level until you kill all the enemies, so you end up wallowing in an existential crisis between a porta-potty and an ice cream truck, left with nothing to do but kick the shit out of some kids and their moms. After their corpses are dead and rotting, you might amuse yourself by head-butting the truck, but eventually all you are left with is a headache, a pile of useless iron, and a few square meters of Quahog where you can do nothing but wander in circles, contemplating the inevitable need to end it all and wonder if there’s a new game in your future.

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This section looks like fun. Too bad I can’t play it.

So I suggest turning auto-save off right before you go into the porta-potty, or you might be stuck with the constant reminder that the game is shit. Otherwise, it’s not bad.

Nightfire – PS2, XBox, Game Cube

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I’m currently having a bit of a Jonny Quest crisis when it comes to James Bond. In eighth grade, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest was the standard by which I set my life up for disappointment. My yard wasn’t big enough, my life wasn’t adventurous enough, my friends weren’t close enough, and instead of making daily trips to Gibson-esque cyber worlds, the most technical, scientific thing I could do was set people’s VCR clocks for them. However, about ten years back, untreated depression, a vicious break-up, career uncertainty, and the entire Bush administration had given me new standards for disappointment, so when I dug up some old episodes of Jonny Quest, I could finally watch them objectively. Even if I ignore the fact that I’ve seen McDonald’s wrappers with more entertaining writing and character development less natural than breast implants, the first time they busted out a “Sim-sim-sala-bim,” I began to edge cautiously away from the series like it was a family member who always refers to Asians as “those little yellow people.”

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Visit exotic locales. Meet the local population. Then shoot them.

Likewise, James Bond always held a certain allure for me throughout high school and early college, allowing me to vicariously experience the frustration of not living a life of exotic travel classy parties, and the luxury of not being rejected by girls who would prefer I sequester myself in a hole somewhere because I wasn’t exotic or classy enough for them. Fortunately, Goldeneye gave me something to do while cloistered like a frustrated adolescent monk, thus fueling my frustrated fantasies—kind of like putting out a kitchen fire with a bottle of bacon grease simply because you like the way it smells afterward. I wrote about that last week, though, about how the Wii remake was a disappointing, linear, first-person-shooter without any elements of the spy-thriller genre. It was only after playing Nightfire and watching Tomorrow Never Dies that I came to the realization, “Oh yeah. They’re all kind of bad.”

But if judged by 007 standards, Nighfire blew me away on its release. It had a story as original and strong as any of the films (even if the films are formulaic and convoluted), it’s own opening sequence (even if the song sounded like a monkey trying to crush a termite running across a piano) and an overall look and feel that completely outdid the previous game, Agent Under Fire (even if that game was only a mediocre effort at best). The story has Bond investigating the theft of a missile guidance chip as it is turned over in secret to Raphael Drake, a man who heads the Phoenix Corporation that specializes in decommission of nuclear weapons. Sounds to me like they’re throwing Bond softball missions in his old age. A man with dead nuclear weapons who runs a company named after a bird that comes back from the dead in a fiery blaze wants control of nuclear weapons? I’ve seen episodes of Blue’s Clues that were harder to crack. Mix in your standard cocktail of Bond villain motivations (Part Hugo Drax from both the Moonraker film and Novel with a spritz of Blofeld’s New World Order) and you have a pretty good story that almost certainly doesn’t sound completely ripped off from the main series.

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The game gives you constant access to night and heat vision, which you will probably only remember when you search for screen shots for your blog post.

If you read my Goldeneye Reloaded review from last week, I lamented the fact that modern Bond games are practically indistinguishable from your average Call of Duty. Nightfire, fortunately, had not yet fallen into that trap, and thus has objectives a little more complex than “Go that way. Don’t get shot.” Stages have some areas that, if you squint just right, might be forcing you into it’s own predetermined Macarena of fantasy espionage, but mostly, they’re free-roaming and engineered like real world locations: buildings naturally have hallways with doors and rooms off of them, outdoor locations are reasonably open and non-constricting, and roads, like always, are long corridors with very few forks which all link back up to the main road and have boxes of missiles and body armor lying around on the pavement. This gives the game an aspect of exploration absent from the hallway-of-bullets style games. The player can find extra body armor, ammunition caches, or even weapons stronger than the ones Bond loots off corpses. This creates one of my favorite scenarios for video games—options for the player. Each weapon has an alternate method of fire for when you want to be accurate with your shot or just hit everything in front of you, when you want to be silent and stealthy or if you don’t care who knows where you are, or when you think an enemy is best brought down with a hail of bullets or a grenade launched into their face. Also unlike modern games, you can carry as many weapons as you find. Yes, it might take Medieval torture equipment to stretch my imagination far enough to picture Bond lugging around enough firepower to be legally classified as either a small-scale civil war or an NRA gun show, but this is one case where verisimilitude takes a back seat to being fun to play, and I’d rather have a steady choice of weapons than leave a trail of deadly breadcrumbs behind me for my enemies to follow every time I stumble across a new gun.

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Wait, this isn’t a screenshot from Nightfire…this is a photograph from my driving test.

The other benefit to the exploration is that the player can potentially change how the level plays. An early stage tasked me with skirting a castle’s security system. Halfway through I stumbled across a panel that controlled the spot lights. There’s something about zapping a single wire with a watch laser and then waltzing right in through the front gates that makes me feel like…well, like James Bond, to be honest. The player can discover moves like this several times throughout each level, and each one jacks up their score (towards unlocking multiplayer features). The game calls these “Bond Moves,” described in the manual as “Moves that only Bond would think of.” Disregarding the fact that any action taken by the player is, by definition, no longer a Bond move, some of these are a little disappointing. Sure, it takes some skill to launch a car through a diner to evade enemies, but I’m pretty sure that’s in the standard Blues Brothers playbook as well. And maybe it takes the keen eyesight of a super-spy to spot a weak support beam that would bring down a bridge on top of a troop of soldiers, but it takes less wit to realize that an explosive barrel makes a better target than the enemy huddling for cover behind it. And if it doesn’t, well, I’m assuming the NSA is monitoring this post, so please consider this my application.

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The game forges emotional connections with the characters by killing you constantly so you have to stare at Alura McCall for a combined total of three hours.

And, of course, what Bond game would be complete without his legendary charm, beautiful women, and we can only assume the unholy stench every time he unzips his pants that derives from the conglomeration of sex diseases he’s accumulated over the years? Nightfire views women less like Bond’s companions and more like dialysis machines, which he can’t be separated from for more than an hour at a time. In addition to having three named women and at least two random girls lining up to perpetuate his addiction to carnal spelunking, one later stage murders a love interest at the top of Drake’s Tokyo tower and gives him a fresh girl by the time he makes it to the ground, as though he got them in a buy-two-get-one free sale and just had the third one laying around unopened in his glove box. I know Bond has become so flat and formulaic he looks like a Loony Toons algebra book, but we are still talking about the character who went on an angry, vengeful killing spree when his wife was murdered, so it might have been nice to give him more time to grieve than it takes to acquire PTSD.

While I realize my reviews have gotten progressively cloudier and can only really be called reviews in the sense that I’m looking at stuff again, I’d like to state clearly that I liked this game. It has the classic Bond feel. The gadgets are actual spyware (not the stuff that the Internet installs on your computer)–the day you can download a grapple beam from Google Play is the day the spy thriller genre dies. The difficulty curve works well, although it’s a little depressing to watch your scores progressively drop off until the game stops giving you gold medals and unlocked items and handing out participation awards instead. At the end of the game, especially, you notice that checkpoints are rarer than nuns in a brothel, but with unskippable cut scenes, I can probably recite Drake’s final monologue the next time I audition for a play.

Shadow of the Colossus – PS2

Shadow

Take it easy, buddy. Just put down the Washington Monument and no one will get hurt.

Shadow of the Colossus is one of the most beloved, well-developed and artistic games of all time. It tells a beautiful, somber story about one man’s fight against death, metaphorically represented by the hero, Wander, being dwarfed by the titanic proportions of his enemy. A vast, lonesome world provides a stark counterpoint to themes of companionship; Wander does not fear death like Gilgamesh—who is vaguely referenced in the name of the god whose help he seeks—nor does he attempt to cheat death. Rather, death has robbed him of companionship, and he will sacrifice health, life, or his soul for her resurrection, and the emptiness of the world emphasizes that Wander has little else to fill his life with other than the departed girl he lovingly places on the altar at the beginning of the game. It is touching, emotionally powerful and calls upon conflict the human race has suffered since its inception. The game is precisely controlled, strikingly detailed, and viscerally perfect. Shadow of the Colossus well deserves its reputation as one of the best games ever made.

That being said, let’s make fun of it!

Shadow Head

Shake it like a 100-meter tall Polaroid picture trying to make the photographer plummet to his death!

Shadow of the Colossus would best fall into the genre of puzzle-platformer where the platforms attempt to bring about your grizzly death. In order to free the essence of Dormin, the god who can resurrect the girl, you have to slay sixteen beasts ranging in size from a Volkswagen Beetle to New Hampshire. Mostly this involves discovering and exploiting the Colossi’s weaknesses and attack patterns to find a way to climb to the top, then stabbing them to death while they try to shake you off. It’s like trying to shave a cat (don’t ask…bad weekend), except if the cat shakes off the razor, you don’t usually need to hire a Sherpa to get back to work. Beyond that, it’s rather difficult to find a unifying thread for the game. There are no fights except the sixteen boss battles, and between each Colossus’ unique body design and interactions with the surrounding environment, you won’t reuse strategies other than “Stab it in the head!”

Shadow Sta

Do you mind explaining why you need to aim with a sword?

That strategy, however, raises one point of contention I have with the game. Stabbing the Colossi requires two separate actions: first, pressing the button to raise the sword over the monster’s vital spot, then pressing the button again to stab once a strength gauge has charged. However, since they try to throw you off like they’re twerking with Parkinson’s, you spend a good deal of time flopping around like a carp. All you need to do is hold R1 and not run out of strength—although later bosses challenge this with their prolonged bouts of epilepsy—but during that time Wander will not perform any sword related action. Really dude? It only takes one arm to stab. You really can’t use any of that wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man momentum to get a hit or two off while you’re waiting for Clifford to dry himself off?

Shadow Horse

Having no way to tell Agro to stop, I had to improvise.

I get why the game controls are a little on the convoluted side. While they’re difficult to master, it helps to know exactly what will happen when you use a specific button combination. In other games, merely shifting the camera angle can confuse the mechanics, as if you spoke a phrase it didn’t learn in the first two chapters of Introduction to Spanish, so it just started talking louder and adding “o” to the end of each word. The weak point in this scheme, though, is Wander’s horse, Agro. Required for traveling and for fighting a few battles, Agro handle’s like Link’s Epona, if she had shown up for her driver’s exam after half a bottle of Smirnoff. With broken glasses. And a hairline fracture in her foot. Only a few weeks out of playing Haunting Ground, I’m not sure I like game animals who realistically ignore commands. Realism is a wonderful thing—to a point. But we need to sacrifice a certain amount of it in order to make games fun. In the 35 square km world, we have mountains, forests, lakes, valleys, deserts and grassy plains. If they had scaled this realistically, the game would have a much larger map and we’d be measuring play time in weeks and months instead of hours and minutes. I’d rather an unrealistic horse that obeys commands and doesn’t try to reenact Thelma and Louise into nearby canyons when I give him a slight nudge to follow the path. After eight hours of gameplay—spoiler alert—I was not sorry to Yoshi him into a canyon on my way to the final Colossus. Not that Wander always controls much better. Half the time I tried to mount Agro I wound up hopping up and down like I was showing off my new pair of moon shoes. Even worse, when Wander takes hits, he stays down for eight full seconds. That doesn’t sound like much in writing, but in the middle of a fight that feels like slipping into a minor coma.

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This colossus could easily ride an elevator.

While it deserves its reputation, most of what people had told me about the game turned out not to be true. I did fight a lot of monsters large enough to have their own climate systems and geological patterns, but at least half of them were less than colossal, about four or five didn’t have much in the way of shadows, and at least two of them probably get pissed off at SUV drivers who pull up next to them at stop lights. People had also told me the twist ending revealed the peaceful, gentle nature of the colossi you slaughter throughout the game. Personally, I don’t find a lot of kittens in animal shelters who carry school bus sized cutlery, and I’m pretty sure that petting zoos tend to avoid the llamas who fire lasers out of their eyes.

Shadow Bow

Judging whether the attack will do more damage against the stone, or the shag carpet it wears like a burka

I felt pretty good about making it through this game—for the most part—without needing a walkthrough. The puzzle-solving aspect really pressed me, but most of them could easily be solved by wits alone. While it rarely happens, I like buying games that don’t try to sell me a strategy guide, although sometimes the game isn’t as helpful as it thinks it is. Dormin often gives you hints if you don’t make any progress for a while, but one time I desperately needed help, I sat on a rock out of reach of a graboid for ten minutes and he didn’t say anything. Later, in another fight, he told me, “Find the hidden vital spot.” Great job, sensei! You’ve just given me a clue so vague it sounded like the entire premise of the game! I’ve seen better education coming from South Park’s Mr. Garrison. I eventually figured out what he meant, but solving the puzzle involved exploiting an attack the colossus hadn’t ever used against me, not exactly the epitome of intuitive. Elsewhere, apparently you can increase your stats by attacking the lizards that roam the lands or finding fruit trees throughout the world. Which I figured out after only…the entire game. Do I get hard mode points for finishing the game without them?

But meh. I’ve yet to find a game good enough that I can’t mock, and I sort of have an obligation to do so. But go play it anyway.

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Note: If you were wondering about my reference to Gilgamesh, the game’s god, Dormin, is Nimrod spelled backwards. Nimrod was the biblical name of Gilgamesh, the 4500-year-old Sumerian King who attempted to cheat death and receive immortality. Obviously, he failed.

We Love Katamari – PS2

Katamari - TitleWhenever some self-described family values advocate implies that merely standing in close proximity with a video game will turn someone into a bloodthirsty, gun-toting, murder factory, I generally have two reactions. First, I wonder why they’d find that a problem as the bloodthirsty, gun-toting murder factories tend to vote for family values candidates. Second, I want to give them a Katamari game and challenge them to hate anything after playing one of the best video games of all times. But I don’t do that. Why? Well, as bright, colorful and happy as the game may be, I’ve never heard anyone scream with as much sheer terror as a cubic representation of a Japanese citizen as they’re crushed under the weight of the continents rolled up and shot out into space.

Normally when I come to the part where I describe the game, I do my best to use colorful similes and goofy language to come up with a sort of police sketch of what you should keep away from. I suppose that may work with Katamari, if you first understand that the police artist and the witness are both drunk, and the witness is trying to describe someone he saw on an acid trip while watching Sesame Street. There are just too many layers of weird to do anything except talk about the game exactly as it is. More or less.

Katamari - King

Figures that a man the size of a small moon would find a girl with breasts like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

We Love Katamari follows the original Katamari Damacy, and while the plot isn’t exactly the second incarnation of Donnie Darko, you need a little of the original story to understand the plot. The King of All Cosmos, a high ranking celestial warden and clear product of the Burger King fucking the Statue of Liberty on top of a gay pride parade, had destroyed the stars. He then heaved the burden of fixing the sky onto the Katamari Prince, a sentient Tic Tac with a torso. Stars, as the creationists will ruin their pants when they hear, do not come from gravity pressurizing nebula gases until a fusion reaction occurs, but instead from rolling up piles of junk with a sticky tennis ball (sorry to ruin your post-orgasm delight, creationists) starting with small items and working your way through to larger ones.

Katamari - Fireflies

Gathering fireflies for the stupid SOB trying to read in the woods at night.

Apparently, something about amassing a collection of spherical garbage really resonated with people’s souls, though. It spoke to them on a personal level that other lesser complex games simply couldn’t. And the players demanded a sequel. The developers, caught by surprise, decided to work We Love Katamari around a similar presence, assuming that the humans who populate the world in the game want to be crushed under the weight of a planet full of junk and then shot out into space just as much as the players wanted to crush them and then deprive them of the only known habitable speck of rock in the universe. And so We Love Katamari gives them the horrible deaths they so desire, as the King demands the prince perform tricks and feats in exchange for the ego-stroking adoration of the common, little folk, and also making the planets he forgot about in the last game. Just picture Donald Trump, but without the malice, and with a more natural skin tone.

katamari_damacy_2_60

Wait ’till Cletus and Bobby-Jo get a load of my haul! We’re gonna need a bigger yard!

While the original focused on rolling up as many objects as possible to create a star that satisfies the male size obsession of a 10,000 km tall man with a David-Bowie-Labyrinth bulge and facial hair that makes his chin look like two pair of testicles facing off in an Old West gunfight, the sequel…pretty much does the same thing. But it dresses it up differently, so you don’t have to roll around the same levels doing the same thing. You still collect enough junk to fill thousands of rednecks’ lawns, but with each request from a fan, the game adds a challenge to keep it interesting. One level asks you to keep a fire burning on your katamari, while another asks you to look for valuable objects instead of progressively larger ones. Another task replaces your katamari with a skinny sumo wrestler and makes you look for food, force feeding him until he’s big enough to fight the yokozuna (and athersclerosis). The assignments sometimes feel too easy, but Katamari isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about that obsessive-compulsive need to pick up every item in sight, growing larger and larger and listening to the satisfying pop of ordinary objects suddenly joining the mass and the screams of terror as dozens of innocent people are crushed into oblivion. And then you get to ride a rainbow! But hey, if you still feel the game is easy, the King will gladly mock and belittle your katamari at the end of each level unless it’s large enough for his liking. But as a man with a package large enough to be granted a name by the International Astronomical Union, he’s tough to impress.

Katamari - Plants

Plants: the one thing not found on redneck lawns.

I have yet to play a bad Katamari game. The series is like masturbation; yeah, there will be some people who don’t like it, but you can safely assume those people either have no hands or have actually, legitimately gone blind (as opposed to, I suppose, illegitimate blindness?). We Love Katamari adds a wider variety of levels, tasks, and cousins to the original game, multiplying the pleasure of wandering like a tourist through contemporary Japan, picking up any random objects and marveling at them like you’ve never seen a toilet before.

Katamari - Toilet

When you don’t just want to poop, but rather convert your feces to a high quality carbon gem and use it to focus a laser.

Haunting Ground – PS2

HauntingGround_NA_PS2cover

Rest of the Herd

Gary Larson cartoons are not easy to come by online.

I don’t understand horror. Don’t get me wrong, I like it well enough, but when a zombie punches through an oak door that would have shattered a karate master’s arm to the elbow and the people watching the movie with me engage in a spontaneous spelunking into the depths of the couch cushions, I don’t really get the panic. Ghost movies, too. They all use the same, cliched haunting tricks. The room is empty, and the chair moves by itself. Terrifying! Based on popular movies—strike that—based on the crap that Netflix posts because every college student with a camera is so desperate for their homemade found footage film to be seen that they practically give away the rights, you’d wonder why ghosts go through all the effort of returning from the dead to wreak bloody revenge and do nothing more than mess up the living’s feng shui. But then, maybe it’s the rest of the herd that’s gone insane. I remember a creative writing assignment in eighth grade that focused on horror. After a dozen stories about ghosts and monsters and people screaming and running, the teacher read my story—narrated in the second person (“You” instead of “I” or “He/She”)–where the readers find themselves jumping at shadows, alone in the woods. When we finally coaxed the other students to come out of their backpacks, I realized maybe I actually did understand horror.

Breast2

Breast physics courtesy of CG Animators who have never actually seen a naked girl before.

That issue came up for me again as I tried to justify the $80 price tag of “Haunting Ground.” The game’s pacing ripped along at glacial speeds, the combat is as thrilling as a Gus Van Sant film, and 36-Ds describes both the protagonists breasts and last three years of high school. But at the same time, there’s something unsettling enough about this game about castles, alchemy, cloning, and Frankenstein monsters. I think it’s because it feels like it could really happen.

Breasts

Normally when someone’s scared, they only lift their eyebrows.

Maybe I should explain. The story follows Fiona Belli, a young girl with a heart of gold, the breasts of a goddess, and the brain of a sea cucumber, who wakes up after a car crash to find out she’s inherited a big, gloomy castle with a definite Luigi’s Mansion vibe. While first wandering the castle, Fiona encounters two things. One, a white German shepherd named Hewie, who takes an immediate liking to the girl, follows her around, and obeys her every…fifth or sixth…command. Second, she runs into a man with the body of Hodor and the face of Smeagol, who looks between her and the doll he’s holding, chucks the doll aside, and with an excited look, grabs his crotch. When a grown man reaches for his junk with a childlike gleam in his eye, you know only two things can come next. Either he’s about to vigorously molest and/or rape you, or he’s about to perform “Smooth Criminal”…and then vigorously molest and/or rape you. Much like in the Clock Tower games that came before Haunting Grounds, Fiona has the combat prowess of Winnie the Pooh, and so the true challenge of the game is not to fight and defeat enemies, but to flee and evade them.

Daniella

The maid, Daniella, tries to kill Fiona. Hewie Lewis tries to save her with the Power of Love.

Fiona has several options, most of which give way to “run like hell,” which can take anywhere from a minute or two to a half an hour or more. She can order Hewie to attack, which if successful will buy her a few moments to put distance between her and her pursuer, but will more often simply alert her to the fact that the dog has wandered off and is likely halfway across the castle rolling in something interesting that he smelled. (This gets especially frustrating about halfway through the game when, in a cut scene, Fiona manages to get Hewie to leap up a statue and place a key item in a dragon’s mouth, but the fucking dog still won’t come when you call it.) You can kneel down to all the effect that kneeling would help you escape from a real-life stalker in a parking deck, or if you have a good head start and know where you’re headed, you can dive into one of the castle’s…four or five…hiding spots. Each of which you can only use once. If you’re lucky, you’ll manage to shake your stalker, after which you can go back to whichever puzzle you were trying to solve when you were interrupted (Note to contractors: If you ever get a request to build a room that only appears when you insert a statue into a model, or a door that won’t open without three crests, a diamond key, and the death of your trusty henchman, call the cops. Ain’t no one wants that shit unless its for some evil, H.H. Holmes crap.), at which point you’ll likely get interrupted again before you can figure out the solution.

Smeagol

Smeagol, after discovering that Pizza Hut not only delivers, but tastes better than raw fish.

The game is frustrating, time-consuming, and a bit slow paced, but definitely worth playing for the unique and subtle story. I can’t think of another title that doesn’t salt its gameplay with jump scares like it were preparing it for a year-long sea voyage, and none of the villains parade around in viscera like a burlesque dancer from a Saw movie. Haunting Ground relies on a more organic sense of horror generated from tense, creepy situations and semi-realistic villain motives. Your first adversary chases you with an adolescent lust and a poor understanding of personal boundaries. After dealing with him, you find yourself stalked by an older woman who is literally jealous of your womb and feels incomplete because she’s not as young, healthy and fertile as Fiona. Next comes two much older—several hundred years older—men who want to make her pregnant and expect her simply to, well, lie down and take it without putting up any complaint or personal choice in the matter. For one reason or another, every enemy in the game wants you for your womb and doesn’t care what you think. It doesn’t take much in the way of imaginative gymnastics to look at Fiona as the poster child for modern feminism and the pro-choice movement, not for any personal inner-strength she portrays (I’ve seen graham crackers hold together under more pressure than this girl), but for presenting realistic concerns in a way that is understandably scary.

Debilitas

Dog leaps in to save Fiona, who stands there like a confused cheerleader. Meanwhile, Dog comes down with a case of athlete’s tongue.

And it’s all presented subtly. The game gives you a handful of cut scenes, but none of them are as frightening as crawling under a bed and hearing someone walk around the room, only able to glimpse occasional looks at their feet from a limited field of vision. Or hearing sounds off-screen and trying to interpret them—depending on who catches you, the sounds overlaid on the game-over screen can sound like a brutal rape, or an insane woman removing your reproductive system with all the care of a loose tooth tied to a door knob. Items and journals you find, as is common in survival horror, give you some back story, but it doesn’t unnerve you the way that hearing Hewie growl at something in the next room does. Throughout the game you have to keep yourself from losing both stamina and composure, but they’re almost superfluous when the player actually starts to become unhinged while sitting on the safe side of the screen. (Although I did rather enjoy the boss fight where Fiona, Hewie, and the enemy had all lost stamina and spent a good five minutes chasing each other around the room as though they had just been released from the ICU.)

Yes, the game has flaws. No, as far as video games go it’ll probably never rank up with Chrono Trigger, Resident Evil or…I don’t know, what the hell do people like these days? Let’s go with Nintendogs. (Hah. Recycled Family Guy joke.) Fiona is terribly frustrating to control—dear God, woman! Just stomp on his head a few times while he’s pinned to the ground! Or take the maid’s weapon from her! Don’t just stand there wallowing in your own cowardice and likely a few bodily fluids! (Hah. Recycled Futurama joke.) And the dog is even worse, obeying all your commands like an angry teenager just an MIP-scolding away from joining the French Foreign Legion. Probably the most frustrating aspect is the system for crafting items and equipment, in which you essentially have to line up a ten-part slot machine in order to get anything good. (Naturally, the one time I actually crafted a protective necklace, I died and lost the progress)

Cheap Death

Oh yeah! I forgot to mention…sometimes the castle just kills you without warning. Save often.

But for the most part, the game is unlike other video game experiences, and the $80 price might actually reflect the quality of story, rather than just Capcom’s lack of foresight and failure to make enough copies for people who would want it.

Michigan: Report from Hell – PS2 (Europe)

Loved

I loved you, but if you can’t prioritize me over that big gaping hole in your abdomen, I don’t think this relationship is going to work.

In the Firefly episode, The Train Job, they pull out a map of the route the train takes. From west to east, it runs from Hancock to Paradise City. This was a big hit in Northern Michigan, where it takes roughly five hours to drive from Hancock in the west to Paradise in the East. Michigan, you see, has a bit of a geographical identity crisis. Not only can you visit paradise, but its only a ten-minute drive from Florida to Alberta, and if you’d like you can stop at Phoenix on the way. We have a small town, Sault Ste. Marie, that’s named itself after the thriving Canadian city just across the water. It also has Christmas 364 days a year, and nowhere is happier than the Gay Bar…in the town of Gay. And that’s all just in Northern Michigan. Down in the Lower Peninsula, where the people don’t realize we call them trolls (because they live below the Mackinaw Bridge), things aren’t quite as nice, but not only did they christen a town named Hell, but it regularly freezes over. So naturally when I found out about the Europe-exclusive game, Michigan: Report from Hell, I thought it deserved at least an hour of my time. And as luck would have it, it deserved two.

HELLFirst of all, let me say that setting Michigan: Report from Hell in Chicago borders on dishonest. It’s like opening a bottle of Mountain Dew and tasting Diet Coke. Or flipping open a Pizza Hut box to find a hubcap from a Winnebago. I think we can take legal action against Europe for wasting a title like that. Second, I don’t usually believe that something can be “So bad it’s good,” but if this unique piece of…survival horror was trying to elicit a strong emotional reaction from me, it succeeded beyond any horror game I’ve ever played. If it was trying for fear, though, then it may have better luck selling football equipment at an ICU.

You play as a cameraman for a Chicago news team. You also apparently have no arms and have grafted the camera onto your forehead because you can’t actually interact with anything other than to ram them with the camera, a move that takes more time to charge than a super kamehameha. Instead, you zoom in on objects to examine them or to tell your reporter to do something for you, like opening doors. The goal is allegedly to alert the reporter to the right objects, puzzles and monsters to keep them from stepping into, let’s assume, a portal to Hell. In reality, these reporters are more fragile than a Christian girl’s hymen on prom night. One of the first reporters I had to babysit saw a spider and literally died. I hadn’t even made it to hell.

Escape

He’ll never think to look for us on the other side of that line!

The story opens in a thick fog. Apparently Chicago is known for its warm, sunny climate and perpetually mild weather because the government has ordered an evacuation. The game says this is because they don’t know the cause of the fog. Apparently no one ever told them how water condenses out of humid air as the temperature drops, or that such a thing happens rather frequently along Lake Michigan (Oh, hey! That explains the title!…poorly.) On your first assignment, a bloodied woman staggers out of the mist and into an interview with a reporter who had, in the tutorial only moments before, suggested that you stop and help people if they clearly needed it. (You know, sometimes I truly envy youtubers who can actually show you this shit) The girl decides she’d rather be devoured by a monster, frightening the reporter so much she turns around and high-tails it to safety nearly ten whole meters down an unobstructed road to her news van. Then, naturally, the monster eats her too. Ah, the wonders of natural selection.

Action

Now let’s re-hash this several times before you bleed to death.

Technically, the first level starts with your next reporter. Standing in a ruined hotel room, she receives a phone call from a panicking girl. “It’s okay,” she tells the girl in a calm, unhurried tone. “Stay where you are. We’re coming to help you. You’ll be safe. I promise. We’re on our way to rescue you.” Because the speediest rescuers often get stuck on one thought like an autistic myna bird. And if responding to her panic like Ferris Bueller’s econ teacher accidentally instilled too much confidence in her, she immediately rushes downstairs to give a ten-minute pep talk to the sound guy, who’s dramatically torn up over the death of the first reporter. Apparently, though, reporter #1 “knew the risks” when she signed on to the job. I’d like to see my local news station’s liability form for “may get devoured by hell spawn.” And then she runs over to a fountain machine, can’t pour herself a Pepsi, sees a spider, and if you don’t squish it on the camera lens, she dies. No health bar, no second chances, thankfully no restarting the level and sitting through the inane, repetitive dialogue. She just dies and the game dispenses the next reporter like the next pinball on your quarter.

Brisco

The sound guy turning into Gene Simmons would have been very exciting…if I had actually seen it while playing the game.

And that pretty much sums up my major complaint with the game. The concept is interesting, but when the phone rings and the game feels I need a character to explain, “Hey, that’s the telephone,” I start to think I may find better things to do with my time. After getting a reporter who doesn’t have the survival instinct of a lemming, I got to wander around a nursing home for a bit. That’s when I noticed that while you can use the camera to get the reporter to open doors and search for things, she’ll only open whatever door she’s standing by and will only search for items within her reach. This means the game offers only slightly more challenge than playing I Spy while treading water in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Erotic

Rendered by someone who clearly has never had sex with a woman before. Aren’t you turned on by women who store cherry popsicles between their legs?

I didn’t stick with the game long. I encountered a woman who I assume is Reporter #4, strapped to a pool table in such a way that I felt like I had interrupted something way more interesting than Report from Hell. She asked Reporter #3 to set her loose, and rather than cutting the straps, we had to comb the area for missing pool balls, then rack them up with no more hints than a supposed poster on the wall darker than Dick Cheney’s soul. That’s about when I had had enough.

Softball

This is either erotic, or a dolphin who swallowed two softballs and then died.

It’s a great concept, I’ll give it that much. You’re sufficiently disempowered to make a great horror protagonist. There are moral choices, and even the option of scoring “erotic” points for filming compromising shots of the reporters. Unfortunately in two hours of gameplay I encountered absolutely none of that. Personally, the only thing this game is good for is an episode of JonTron.