Kuon – PS2

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Hey! Eyes up here, mister!

Any connoisseur of horror might get the impression that the Japanese have as much variety a a nun’s sex life. It seems like everything coming out of Japan involves young girls, hair flipped forward, emaciated and wet like a St. Bernard that just jumped into the bathtub. This is the genre that gives us the Ring, the Grudge, and Silent Hill. Does nothing scare these people save for thought’s of Cousin It’s prepubescent daughter? As it turns out, yes. There’s a sub-genre of Japanese horror called Kwaidan, which as best I can describe is two parts fairy tale, two parts urban legend, and one part Weird Al Yankovic album. Roughly translating to “strange story,” kwaidan deals with the tough subjects that the faint of heart don’t have the guts to tackle, like flying heads that detach from their bodies, monsters who have re-purposed their anuses as eye sockets, and in the case of Kuon, evil incarnations of mulberry trees who use silkworms to practice human sacrifices.

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Forget Cousin It’s daughter. I’ve always had a huge crush on Cthulu’s little sister.

Kuon’s main storyline follows two characters. First, Utsuki is the disappointment child of Doman, a priest so cheerful and approachable that he looks on altar boy rape as being too kind-hearted. Doman gives Utsuki one job: take care of her sister Kureha, who hasn’t been feeling well on account of having died and begun to decompose. But Kureha runs off and, as luck would have it, darts straight into a haunted house like a bomb-sniffing dog navigating a field of land mines to get to a plate of snausages. Meanwhile, Doman sends the second character, Sukuya, into the manor with a team of paranormal investigators, most of whom meet the end we all hope for any time we see a team of paranormal investigators. Sukuya, however, keeps her wits about her and begins to piece together that Doman has taken a page from Albert Wesker’s playbook and sent them in as an unwitting buffet. Both Utsuki and Sukuya periodically run into the Japanese Shining Twins, inexplicably following the commands of these creepy little girls whose hands say, “Go investigate that room,” but whose eyes say, “We’re going to strip the flesh from your bones like a piranha with a tape worm.”

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Jinkies!

Kuon is neither a long game nor a difficult one. However, since each characters’ phase can be played in either order, they feel the need to run me through the tutorial twice. Sukuya’s tutorial was even delivered by one of the other investigators, a 13-year-old Buddhist monk who sounds like he studied in a remote mountaintop temple just outside of Houston. This boy has all the grace and poise we would expect from Feudal Japanese clergy, right down to his comment, “Can’t you just stick it in any old way?” when it comes to solving a puzzle. I presume. But the repetition doesn’t stop at the tutorial. The first have of both scenarios require the player to open the same locked doors, solve the same puzzles, and fight the same monsters. It’s as if taking priority over unique and thrilling game play, Kuon really wanted you to learn something, so it’s like an episode of Dora the Explorer. But with human sacrifice. (“House…underground…ritual chamber. House…underground…ritual chamber!”)

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Gakis be pimpin’

But that isn’t to say it’s a bad game. It does follow the pages of the survival horror playbook rather well, right up to scattering those pages halfway across the bloody country for you to find and assemble. Instead of zombies, you fight gaki. Instead of guns and bullets, you get cards that cast magic spells. And instead of keys you…wipe bloody rags on doors you want to open? I gotta be honest—that seems a little unsanitary. Not a lot of survival horror games culminate in an epic battle against hepatitis. It makes it all the worse by the seals on the doors being named after planets. I’m sorry, but nobody wants to carry around a bloody rag from Uranus, especially considering no one had yet discovered the planet during the story’s era, so the seal has to be either a butt joke or a reference to sailor scouts (none of which had been discovered yet either).

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Just casually wandering through the aftermath of a lynching.

Unfortunately, for all that Kuon gets right about the genre, it also suffers from the same tropes as every other survival horror game. “Oh no! There’s a corpse blocking my path? If only I could lift my feet up higher than ten centimeters! Between this and the paper screen in the other hallway, how will I ever progress?” Or even, “A silk web stretches across the tunnel? If only I had a tool to get rid of it, but all I have is a magic dagger and a collection of magical fireballs! I guess I have to go back and search!” It almost feels like the developers got lazy and skimped on certain key details. Characters don’t move their mouths to talk, but they still hear each other just fine, apparently communicating like animals in a Garfield strip. That and the inexplicable repetition of certain events but not others pulled me out of the story a bit. They obviously wanted some sort of Resident Evil 2 scenario mash-up, but pulled it off like a sixth grader giving a report on a book he hasn’t read, so he just copies the plot of another book and hope his teacher won’t notice.

The game certainly isn’t winning any awards, except maybe “rarest” and “most overpriced” PS2 game, but it’s worth playing. It’s short enough that the repetition isn’t tedious, the atmosphere perfectly captures the feeling of a kwaidan tale, and the story is unique and eerie. I’ll even give the game bonus points for voicing Doman with the same actor who played Mojo Jojo. I guess that makes you the Feudal Japanese Power Puff Girls.

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Evil Dead: Fistful of Boomstick – PS2, XBox

FFB1I have quit my job at the Red Cross, tired of explaining to aging, overweight women with creaky knees that no one will have the courtesy to try to die on a table so they don’t have to attempt CPR on the floor. Naturally, I won’t rest until my resume makes me look like a hard-core Looney Toon character, so I went and signed up something far more psychotic: substitute teaching. Today’s adventure: first grade. And by “adventure,” I mean I’m going to take a break from grotesque, high-strung demon-spawn that will devour your soul to talk about something relaxing: Evil Dead. And before you ask, let me point out that sometimes the only thing that held your substitute teachers back from a nice, therapeutic dismembering was that chainsaws are forbidden on school grounds. Likely, I’ll wager, for just that very reason.

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To Do: Clear street of deadites so Doc and Marty can travel back to 1955 and prevent Old Biff from giving the Necronomicon to himself, thus preventing Evil 1985 from ever happening.

The Evil Dead films tell the story of Ash, who from an ill-fated camping trip with his college friends, must constantly fight back legions of demons who possess the corpses of those around him. And much like its subject material, it comes back to life every time the filmmakers try to kill it, each time just a little campier, a little more bloated, a little more disgusting and unrecognizable than the time before. After people stopped funding the films, there’s been talk of an Evil Dead 4, with director Sam Raimi telling fans they’ll just have to satisfy themselves with the three films. And two video games. And the musical. And the Ash vs the Evil Dead tv series. And let’s not forget 2007’s My Name is Bruce. So despite the fact that there’s never going to be an Evil Dead 4, there’s no shortage of cocky, swaggering, gore-themed, dad-joke one-liners recorded by Bruce Campbell himself. And to prove it, you can hear one every time you hit the triangle button in Fistful of Boomstick.

2003’s Fistful of Boomstick pretty much set up Ash’s backstory, which has become more consistent and dependable as giant perky tits in Game of Thrones. Everyone perceives him a schizophrenic, alcoholic loser, until someone unleashes the evil dead and he rescues the world, earning everyone’s gratitude just shy of actually treating him like he’s not an alcoholic loser. In this instance, a reporter interviews a colleague of the late professor Knowby, and plays a recording of an incantation over live TV. This immediately fills Dearborn, Michigan with hoards of evil demons who possess everyone in their path, thus paving the way for the 2016 election outcome. Ash immediately sets upon his quest to slaughter his way through the deadites with nothing but a chainsaw, shotgun, and the complete wares of a combined gun shop and hardware store strapped to his back.

FFB2Evil Dead has always been rather loose with the bounds of the horror genre. So too has it treated survival horror like the woman willing to take him home ten minutes after the bar closes down. Fistful of Boomstick technically bears the telltale features of survival horror, in that it limits the number of saves, controls the amount of ammunition and healing items, becomes progressively darker as though the player is suffering a minor stroke, and scatters a small junkyard around the game while demanding you clean it up. However, as with the PS One game, Hail to the King, the game feels remiss if it doesn’t hurl enemies at you with the frightening urgency of your grandma trying to stuff every last serving of tater tot casserole down your throat lest she think you waste away and starve like a Somalian orphan. Ammunition is only rare compared to the monsters, but the plethora of melee weapons negates that effect (Ash with a sword. Enough said) Save tokens likewise have the scarcity of AOL disks in the late 90s.

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Coincidentally, this is also Sean Hannity’s to-do list.

In fact, the one survival horror target they hit more accurately than Bill Cosby playing beer pong with a handful of roofies is the black-on-black color palette. The game opens on a dark and murky Dearborn, and gets progressively darker, what I refer to as the “untreated diabetes” aesthetic. Praising complete and utter lack of any visual cues as a horror game staple always felt like praising rusty barbed wire and 10W-40 as a dietary staple. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this trend led to a game like Perception,, and it surprises me even less that players

Hidden in each level are permanent power-ups. Some raise Ash’s maximum mana, enabling the player to cast spells more often. Others increase his maximum health, enabling the player to stare longingly at one more permanently empty blip on the life gauge. It isn’t just the unbridled manliness, easy access to firearms, and the denizens of hell-spawn risen in legions that make Dearborn a Republican paradise. There’s also a dearth of healthcare, thus ensuring that if you want to refill your life, you have to work harder than a Mexican laborer for those elusive health drops and just hope that the work itself doesn’t eviscerate your bowels and swallow your soul in the meantime. Fuck that. I play video games to escape real life. This is worse than playing as the merchant in Dragon Quest.

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That poor car can’t even get a break in a video game.

On that line, the game seems just a little too hard, and sadly, not in a way that the developers likely intended. Imagine, if you will, two high school history teachers. The first teacher runs a challenging class because he expects you to understand the past, but also the cause and effect of various historical events. That teacher, let’s say, is Final Fantasy Tactics; difficult, but rewarding when you figure it out. The second teacher is also difficult because after giving you an assignment, he jets off to the local titty bar leaving nothing but a Magic 8-Ball for you to check your answers. That teacher is difficult because his priorities are more in line with machismo than balancing the class properly. But hey, repetition is the key to education, right? Thanks to several conveniently placed unskippable cut scenes, you’ll never have any doubt about the plot in those moments right before a difficult boss fight! Now if you’ll excuse me, the school day is almost over and I have a stack of singles burning a hole in my pocket.

Final Fantasy XII – Costume Analysis

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Curiosity has done to my free time what it did to the cat, that sadistic, felicidal bastard. After my last round of Final Fantasy XII, playing for the first time the International edition, I began to do what billions of people worldwide do on a daily basis—fantasize about the jobs I didn’t pick, wondering if they were any better than the career paths I had forced upon my characters like a militant tiger mom. Should any of you take interest in my research, leave a comment and we can discuss the best team choices. However, playing through the game twice in close succession has made me notice a few things more closely—namely, how little other work I get done around the house when playing 200 hours worth of one game. But also that the characters in this highly literary political drama on war and the nature of power possess sensibilities straight out of a Monty Python sketch.

See, the entire game takes place in a typical fantasy world. There are castles, remote villages, people who carry swords and bows while fighting monsters. You sneak through dungeons and traverse through temples and shrines. I can only assume, as I always have, that the typical trappings of a medieval world apply: the dysentery, the dirty water, the lack of indoor plumbing that makes the city river waft like a shit-scented candle, not to mention the complete absence of video games. When the typical medical practices involve treating combat wounds with a potion, you have to expect that plague and pestilence make more frequent door-to-door visits than the post office. Personally, as much as I love the fantasy genre, I don’t know if I want to live in a world where acupuncture and reflexology are considered cutting-edge medicine.

But as a player, I just sort of take that for granted. That’s how they things are. At least until I infiltrate the Archadian Empire and see the myriad horrors the land of the enemy has in store: well-maintained cities, tall buildings, and citizens so comfortable in their own physical securities that they spend vast amounts of leisure time chasing after luxuries, or trying to gain social status by being nice to people (Which, as an American, outrages me! The only proper way to raise one’s social status is by demeaning others, either through gossip or racial demoniztion!) Archadia has fucking flying cars! Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for those in real life? (I suppose, though, this is fantasy…) Archadia has strong government funding for the sciences, and an Emperor who truly values the advice of the senate. We don’t even have that in the U.S. anymore.

I get that the idea behind fantasy is that progress is a myth, and that technology shrivels our souls like fruit at the back of the refrigerator, but Ashe, you live in the desert, and there’s a diseased esper living in your water supply. You may just want to take one for the team here and fill out the Archadian membership paperwork. It’s got great benefits.

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Yet another problem I can no longer ignore is the costuming. The characters were designed either by an artist with a vendetta against cosplayers or a fashion designer who was fired for thinking that decorative pockets were too functional. Take stripper boy here. Vaan’s design comes from Square thinking Disney’s Aladdin just wasn’t white enough, and then trying to cross him with Chip ‘n Dale…wait, no sorry…I meant Chippendale. But it’s one thing to take a whiny orphan who compulsively wipes his nose with his finger and stick him in a pose like he should be sitting on top of a Ferrari during June. It’s another thing to dress him in steel-plated greaves and Crocs, the style for the warrior who wants to inspire fear in the hearts of his enemies, but still wants to give them a good laugh. After all, combat is a pretty dismal thing. Why not lighten the mood by showing up with big rubber shoes or at least a tacky tie. However, we can’t credit him with being too concerned about his own safety, as that vest of his couldn’t protect him from sunburn, much less the fangs of a vicious monster. I can only assume that the bands of fabric constantly draped over his shoulders are naught but spare laces, should those that strap his pants and cummerbund together ever snap.

Penelo.pngMoving down the line, we have Penelo, sporting what appears to be a rubber onesie with built in panties—on the outside, in true superhero fashion. Naturally, everyone in the desert wears dark, form-fitting bodysuits because heat stroke is pretty much the only entertainment they have. Her suit is of the high-waisted variety, as it buckles around her collar bone. That might explain the fabric stretching down to her garters. As Mitch Hedberg famously said, “My belt holds my pants up, but the belt loops hold the belt up, so who’s the real hero?” However, it seems she may not need the extra support in light of the sea horses she murdered hollowed out to use as knee socks like an adolescent female Buffalo Bill.

While Vaan’s look in Revenant Wings has changed only enough that he no longer looks like a lumbering eight-year-old with inexplicably well-toned abs, Penelo has shed the body suit for something a little more easy access. Swinging to the opposite extreme from skin-tight body suit that shows more camel toe than an Arabian veterinarian pedicurist (yeah, even I think that one’s a bit of a stretch), she now has wrapped the curtain from a theatre around her legs in vague imitation of parachute pants, however leaving well enough revealed around the waist to earn her a free day from school for grievous dress code violation. Much like the bracers in her original design, her pants seem suspended upon her body with no visible means of support, leading me to the conclusion that if they haven’t been surgically attached to her skin, then every time the camera pans away she has to hike them back up like a disobedient tube top.

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Fran.pngOf all the characters in the game, Fran is likely the most ready for action, as evident by her countless straps, high heels, and corset that if fully tightened would make her look like a botched attempt at a balloon rabbit. Sadly, I think only Balthier might see the kind of action she’s dressed for. I especially love the loin cloth, draping down with all the opaqueness of a freshly Windexed camera lens. That garment is what even lingerie looks at and calls, “skank,” under their breath.

Basch.pngBasch is one of my favorites. The stoic knight, honorable even in disgrace, who speaks with poise and propriety, looks as though he literally ripped his shirt off of the drum major of a marching band. Together with his hair, which looks like he stepped out into a Minnesota winter after a long shower, Basch appears as though he ended up in Final Fantasy XII after getting lost on his way to a Billy Idol concert. While traditionally, knights would ride into tournaments wearing the favor of their courtly loves (like a girlfriend who won’t take her clothes off), this hero seems to be wearing his lady’s entire slip, belted tight around his waist lest it fall to the ground and reveal his knightly nethers. And yet, what’s more, he appears to be wearing his grandma’s favor as well, in the form of a miniature patchwork quilt tucked ever so carefully beside his heart—unless, of course, I am mistaken and he is actually a member of the Ivalice Rubik’s Cube Guild.

Ashe_Alt_RenderAs I breeze by Balthier, who doesn’t merit a picture on account of wearing very little of any note save for an unwound spool of embroidery thread wrapped around him like a shirt, I’ll slide on in to Ashe, an action no doubt made easier by the pink napkin she’s trying to pass off as hot pants. Because, honestly, could we ever take a stern, iron-willed warrior hellbent on power and revenge seriously if we couldn’t also imagine her as a demure sex-kitten ready to fulfill our every desire? Personally, while penetration is definitely on her mind, more likely you’ll wind up impaled upon her blade rather than the other way around, but I guess that’s why they call it final fantasy. Still, the princess here looks as though she assembled her clothing from scraps she salvaged from the floor of the costume shop. Case-in-point: her top appears to be little more than a bikini with a veil and tuxedo tails. Perfect for lounging on the beach with a 120-piece orchestra at your beck-and-call. But one can’t blame a girl rendered completely from computer graphics for being beautiful (despite the fact we can blame the artists for giving her legs so long it looks like she mugged a giraffe for its prosthesis). A real girl might have to worry about her weight and the problems associated with wearing a spare tire around the gut. Ashe, on the other hand, appears to be wearing a literal spare tire around her gut, presumably one she found shredded on the side of the road. That’ll keep you cool in the hot, Dalmascan desert!

And before we close, let’s give a shout out to the judges, who spend about as much time in the court room as Dr. Dre spent in medical school. One can forgive them for that, though, since who would expect anyone to find the courtroom wearing more metal over their eyes than a Jeep Grand Cherokee? I shouldn’t jest too much, though, as Judge Drace looks rather proud of his Armored Admiral Ackbar cosplay. Much more pleased with himself than Bergan, who seems rather upset that he got stuck with the bin where you store the toilet brush as a helmet. Still, he looks more pleased than Zargabaath, who might have longer spikes than Gabranth, but assured the photographer just before the shoot that, “This has never happened before.” I wouldn’t worry too much, were I in his place. His long, flaccid helmet spikes would likely ground him like a lightning rod should the weather take a turn for the worse. Perhaps the fear of storms could explain why Ghis shunned the fashion of his peers in favor of strapping a rug around his waist.

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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…

fg-glitch

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.

fg-too-bad

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.”

japan

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.

driving

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.

Shadow pig

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.