Resident Evil 4 – PS2, Game Cube, Wii

 

RE4 - Garrador

Unfortunately, he didn’t have the same talent for music as Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles

After nuking Raccoon City and moving Resident Evil games to exotic locales—like the frozen wastes of Antarctica—Capcom decided it needed to up the ante and asked themselves “What’s more disgusting and repulsive than a zombie caused by a virus?” Then, presumably after pulling a worm out of a dog, they had their answer: zombies caused by parasites.

RE4 - Chainsaw

I get that the parasites control their hosts to spread to more hosts, but why do they put sacks over their heads and reach for the chainsaws?

Resident Evil 4 takes place in a small Spanish village that unearthed some bad prehistoric sushi. Despite being locked in fossils since the time of the monsters from Tremors, one particular parasite has his sights on global domination. This granddaddy hookworm takes up residence—presumably evilly—in the brain of Osmund Saddler, and founds an oppressive hierarchical cult, complete with its own mindless followers, fanatical zealots, and a militant branch that would make even the strongest banana republic dictator shit his pants. You know: everything a good cult needs—assuming Jim Jones had mixed his kool aid with malaria instead of cyanide. Essentially, Capcom got tired of using a tyrant as the boss for every previous game and instead chose to make the boss of RE4 a tyrant.

RE4 - Ashley

Because we all want to play as a whiny, helpless teenage girl.

But they still spend the entire opening sequence recapping the events of the original game for us, even though it has about as much to do with the story as a solid understanding of offshore drilling safety regulations. I actually found this backstory narration hilarious, as they expect us to believe that the American government would even consider shutting down a major corporation for something as minor as a zombie apocalypse that resulted in the deaths of nearly 100,000 people and the complete obliteration of the city. Hell, realistically they’d let Umbrella write off the whole affair as a deduction on their taxes.

RE - Gun

Why get up when you still have a bullet in the chamber?

They seemed to get everything else right about America, though: our constant need to meddle in foreign affairs, the president’s potential for becoming a parasite who makes everything he touches feel like they need a long shower in hydrochloric acid, and even Leon’s preference for applying firearms to otherwise simple tasks, like pulling a necklace off a hook a half a meter in front of him.

RE4 - Ashley Armor

I don’t know…including this costume in the game seems like an admission of guilt to me.

I don’t actually have much else to say. It’s a famously good game, and I really have no comp—quick time events. FUCK quick time events! Oh, and constant baby-sitting missions. If they didn’t know that was obnoxious, why did they put an alternate costume for Ashley that stops bullets like a concrete wall and prevents crazy plagas monsters from carrying her off?–Anyway, like I was saying, it’s a great game and I have nothing to complain—actually, you know what? It’s a little too linear. Minor complaint, yes, but I’d like the option to return to old areas to look for items. But other than that, I have—actually, the unlockable weapons. I honestly don’t like how overpowered they are. You play through the game two or three times trying to purchase these things, and suddenly the game is boring.

But really, it’s a pretty good game.

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Resident Evil – Spin-offs, Sidequests, and Schlock

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Forget everything I’m about to write about. This is the most intriguing thing in any of these games. Ostrich Beer? Is it beer made from ostriches or for ostriches? How does one make a beer out of ostriches anyway? Or is it regular beer ingredients with ostrich flavoring? What does ostrich taste like? I need answers!

Resident Evil Outbreak, Resident Evil Survivor, and Resident Evil Gaiden

Resident Evil Gaiden (USA)-170622-182314

Jeez, it was just a request. I guess some people would rather fake their own deaths than play “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Having finished Code Veronica, I’ve come to an end–of sorts–for this series. There are no more games with creepy atmospheres and pre-rendered backgrounds that emphasize weapons and item management while searching for tools to open up branching paths ahead. Of course Resident Evil 4 was a groundbreaking change that invigorated the series, but with its run-and-gun focus on shooting enemies and exploiting boss weaknesses (not to mention a mad scientist named “Albert”), the second half of the series has more in common with Mega Man than with its own predecessors.

Screenshot from 2019-02-25 19-36-36

This would be a more horrific revelation were it not for the fact that THIS IS THE SCALPEL’S INTENDED PURPOSE. What other scary things are you going to tell us? That the bedpan is full of shit?

But before I move on, there’s a lot of schlock out there. And while I’m not really going to play every Resident Evil game–partially because I now live in New Zealand, which sells region-4 games for my region-1 systems, doesn’t seem to sell used games anywhere, and also has a tendency to censor things it thinks will hurt my delicate brain–I thought I should take at least a cursory look at some of the weird nonsense Capcom has chucked at its fan base over the years.

Resident Evil Outbreak doubles down on Capcom’s insistence that survival horror characters simply shouldn’t be alone. Although considering some of their partner mechanics and AI, it probably is scarier with some schizophrenic meat bag doing whatever the voices in their head tell them. Outbreak gives you all-new ways to be disappointed in your partner, by connecting you online with what I assume are children privately swearing at you like a sailor.

slus-20765-game-ss-36They also take out any pretense of plot, and instead of Leon, Jill, Chris or Claire, they cast everyone ever rejected from a George Romero film. Seriously, these characters are so mass-produced, I actually heard the first zombie victim shout out, “Hep me! Hep me! I was only three days from mah pension!” Jesus, do we want to black up our faces, bite into a watermelon and strum on de ol’ ban-jo while we’s at it? Whether they were woke to racism or just cliches, even RE2 knew enough not to kill the black guy first.

The first mission begins in a bar, and as such the controls feel half-in-the-bag, and the loading time between rooms is severely diminished. It’s a type of sluggish feeling that would make me say, “Give me your keys, Outbreak. You’re drunk,” but literally the only thing you do is find keys. Or so I thought. I made it to the end of the first mission only to find I needed to start a fire. That thing? I chucked it on the floor at the beginning of the level! Apparently the pocket technology of the Raccoon City Police hasn’t reached the general populace yet, so your pockets can fit a bag of M&Ms so long as you eat a handful first.

I couldn’t even attempt to light a fire with a bullet, since I was limping badly and these zombies are apparently afflicted with the Usain Bolt virus. So I had no choice but to die and restart, but even offering up my tender loins as a peace offering to the zombies ended up a sluggish, tedious affair. My character didn’t have the decency to die when he lost all his health. He just started crawling around like a roomba trailing a pile of cat puke until the viral infection took over and I enlisted in the ranks of cannibals, flesh-eating bacteria, and billionaire capitalists.

Next!

Screenshot from 2019-02-25 19-39-32

Did…did I just wander into Silent Hill?

Resident Evil Survivor, it turns out, isn’t the steaming tyrannical hell dump I was led to believe. It’s not good, but it isn’t awful. Mostly, it’s just boring. You enter a room, start spraying bullets like you’re auditioning for a Quentin Tarantino film, rinse and repeat. The game is in first person, which is odd for the series, but does make it a little more shocking when a dog takes a surprise bit out of your ass (And that’s when the attack comes—not from the front, but from the other two lickers you didn’t even know were there.) It’s a nice attempt, but the fact that the only limitation on combat is a short pause to breathe every now and then really detracts from any sense of anxiety we might get. Like Outbreak, it’s frustratingly linear, and Capcom has boiled away the intricate escape-room design until the only thing left was a pile of keys, most of which enable you to open doors to access the next key you need. All in all, I’ve had more memorable bowel movements.

Next!

Resident Evil Gaiden (USA)-170622-181332

We get it. You’re beautiful. I’d be to if I was scientifically created in a lab. Just put on some damn pants!

Sure, Resident Evil looks gorgeous and frightening with its beautifully rendered backgrounds powered by Sony’s hardware, but you know where it would really shine? A two-inch screen on an 8-bit system.” And, lo, by that conversation—most likely fueled by a combination of weed and NyQuil—Resident Evil Gaiden was born unto the Game Boy Color. I always forget that Game Boy technology is the Methuselah of video games.

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And I-EE-IIII will always love you–ooooo!

So honestly, I expected to play this game for less than an hour and tell you how bad it was in my usual style of strained similes…but I actually finished this one. Yeah. It turns out that this horribly ill-conceived notion of downgrading Resident Evil to processing power straight out of the 80s actually is surprisingly playable. Sure, you still end up unlocking enough keys to feel like you’re questing to become the world’s most powerful janitor, and the soundtrack sounds like a cat sharpening her claws on an old guitar, but the first-person combat system actually held my attention, and wandering around the undead cruise ship actually felt like exploring the Spencer Mansion or the Raccoon City Police Department. They’ve kept an emphasis on conserving bullets and trying to run past zombies without being eaten. The game was challenging without being frustrating, and I was almost all the way through it before I realized how far I’d gotten.

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…yeah, he’s definitely coming back.

Don’t get me wrong…it has some flaws. The story is basically a clip show of all the RE games up to that point: they rescue a young girl inexplicably linked with the boss monster, “Did Barry double-cross us? No! He actually triple-crossed Umbrella!”, “The boss just dissolved into a puddle? Obviously he’ll be back for more!”, and they even through in a cliched “Which one is the real Lucia?” scene at the very end of the game. After a few battles, the boss monster stops even pretending to die, and instead just backs away from you with a look on his face like he was trying to toss some spare change in your cup, but then realized you were some stark-raving-mad, diseased hobo.

Not to mention the twist ending, while befitting the horror genre, is inconsistent enough with the rest of the series that doubtless this moment will be debated indefinitely by obnoxious twats on the Internet who insist on hammering every detail of a fictional universe to fit some idea of what is canon. Is he dead? Is he alive? Who the hell cares?

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Forget the implications behind Leon having green blood…his lips look like someone kidnapped two earthworms, hog tied them, and threw them in the trunk of a car.

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The reputation of the sun deck is greatly exaggerated.

 

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…mostly just to chase those punk kids off his lawn.

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Barry is so hardcore paramilitary, this is how he has sex.

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And suddenly Cthulu bursts like a Xenomorph from the tyrant’s intestines.

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Any of you see that Venture Bros episode where they introduced Fat Chance?

Resident Evil: Code Veronica (X) – Game Cube, Dreamcast, PS2, PS3, Xbox 360

RE - Veronica

I’ve made it this far! Game number six of the classic Resident Evil games before the format went the way of the dinosaurs, whalebone corsets and Mega Man. After their crowning achievement that is Code Victoria, the traditional escape-room-with-monsters format went right back into the Capcom vault until, presumably, indie gamers crowdfund a shitty game preying on nostalgia and Capcom watches that Kickstarter counter climbing and showing them exactly how much money their fan base is still willing to give to them.

RE - Tyran

Early in the game, you’ll find BOW Grenade Rounds. If you don’t save them for this guy, you’ll end up living some horrible Groundhog Day life, trapped on this plane for eternity.

Resident Evil: Code Veronica (or Code Veronica X, depending on your console of choice) stars a smattering of Redfields (what is the collective noun for Redfields? Let’s see…a murder of crows, a pod of whales, a flight of dragons…I’m going with a magnum. Does that sound right? A magnum of Redfields?). Chris and Claire, the Redfield siblings, play against the Ashford twins, who are essentially Jamie and Cersei Lannister if they were raised by Norman Bates.

RE - Twins

These two look so inbred, they’re probably their own incestuous parents.

Also, taking cues from Nemesis, which gave Jill a sexy hispanic mercenary boyfriend, Code Veronica gives Claire Steve, an immature, unstable loon who is tempted to violate her personal space while she’s asleep. Eh. I suppose we can’t all strike gold. Fortunately, they finish him off within the story, which is code for, “No more major protagonists! We don’t want to do a Resident Evil Zero for every dipshit who spends three minutes as a playable character!” Still, after a quick tap dancing lesson and strapping a pair of high-quality Dutch clogs to their feet, they throw our protagonists into a situation where a poorly-timed noise means the difference between life and the retirement plan of the typical plate of sushi.

RE - Steve

Really? Capcom gave me this? …Fine. Are we doing this or what?

Reprising his role as Chris’ mentor and would-be murderer, Albert Wesker shows up every so often to do villain things in dark gasses and show us that a virus that turns everyone into mindless undead cannibals can somehow turn one guy into the next incarnation of Neo. Personally, he gives me hope that some day I’ll get a cold that gives me a raging case of pyrokinesis. Wesker appears on the back of the box over the blurb, “Discover key plot clues!” How bad did Capcom think this game was that they thought the most exciting, interactive thing players could do would be to understand the dialogue?

RE - Alexia

No, I won’t kill you. In order to make the point that Chris is the stronger character, we’re just going to pit you against my unstable brother Alfred.

Code Veronica ups the usual stakes of Resident Evil by introducing not one, but two complexes with self-destruct mechanisms. Curiously enough, after a false ending halfway through the game, you actually get to return to the site and witness the aftermath of one of these explosions, which apparently have wrought all the devastation of a garbage truck driving past the building while the driver emits an especially prolific fart. Most of the elevators, equipment, and booby traps still work, and save for the occasional bit of rubble fallen across a door, the place seems pretty much intact.

E

10:28:10

38 saves 48 retries

Yeah, by now it’s probably no use hiding how bad I am at these games.

Tales of Symphonia – Game Cube, PS2, PS3

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

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

Sconversation

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

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

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

sheenaunicorn

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

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

Sheena

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

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

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

Stales

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

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

Mega Man X4 – Playstation, Sega Saturn (PS2 and Game Cube as part of Mega Man X Collection)

Mega Man X4 (USA)-180303-224651

Let’s add “fire-bot and ice-bot” in same lineup to the list of things Sigma probably should stop doing.

Mega Man X4 (USA)-180306-023434

Why, praytell, would a robot need shapely breasts? Unless that’s a special place to store her double-D cell batteries, I’d say the real drama behind the X series is the use of sexbots, hereafter known as “sexploids.”

I haven’t reviewed many Mega Man games, even though I talk about them I’m bringing up an old flame to make the games I do play frequently jealous. Truth is, they’re wonderful, but a little difficult to write about. For the purposes of a humor blog, the games are comic gold. Dr. Wiley, one of the most brilliant minds of all time, has a distinct recipe for his schemes—build a team of eight robots, each with a rock-paper-scissors Achilles heel that will rip each other open like a pinata in a batting cage—and he refuses to deviate from that plan for fear of breaking his streak of inevitable failure. A hundred years later, the ultimate reploid Sigma shows a sense of learning from history rivaled only by the United States Congress, and launches his wars against X using the exact same tactics. Still, writing these blog entries entirely with the copy-paste keyboard shortcut feels a bit like cheating, hence the reason I’ve avoided most Mega Man games.

Mega Man X4 (USA)-180303-233149

No, no. It’s totally reasonable that you want to build a ten-meter tall robot with giant hulk hands out of solid gold. Aren’t the practical applications obvious? Oh, wait! Let’s make him fly!

Mega Man X4 tackles the familiar formula with the free thought, creativity, and the deviance of an 80-year-old woman attending mass on a Tuesday morning. The game opens with a cut scene introducing Repliforce, an organized militia of Reploids designed to hunt Mavericks. Perhaps if you live in a world where reploids tend to turn maverick and become threats to humanity, it might not be wise to let them unionize. In the first stage, Sigma hijacks some Repliforce soldiers, pulls a false flag attack on the Sky Lagoon. Again, I have to question the wisdom of the people who welded a handful of battleships together and suspended them over an inhabited city like an anvil over Wile E. Coyote’s head, but perhaps in the future, Congress has passed some sort of MacGuffin Act to move plots along expediently. The Repliforce Colonel shows up in the wake of the attack and decides that rather than disarm and sort out the confusion with reason, diplomacy and grace, he’ll spit out some NRA “cold dead hands” vitriol, thus dooming the entire Repliforce to be branded as Mavericks. Even so, the General decides to peacefully take his army off-planet to found his own colony where they may live in peace, stressing that such an act is neither about rebellion nor insurrection against the humans. So naturally, the maverick hunters do the only logical thing and hunt them down to wreak bloody, bloody justice on their rusting corpses.

Mega Man X4 (USA)-180303-230501

X gets this weapon after beating Grady in the Overlook Hotel.

That is, for those of you keeping score, more story than in the entirety of the classic Mega Man series, and also a wonderful justification for never having attempted anything more in-depth than “mad scientist steals robots, programs for evil, hides in castle.” Fortunately, it doesn’t have to have a strong story; it has to be a good game. And Capcom sticks to its Mega Busters on this one, with the tried-and-true formula of an octet of rampaging robots running weaponry hardware that is 100% compatible with X’s systems. You’d think they’d learn and switch from Mac to Linux. It might run a little more successfully, cost less, and at the very least force X to program his own drivers. I suppose they could switch to Windows, but X would have to read the EULA before each boss fight, and they’d only get one or two good shots on him before crashing and needing a hard reboot.

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Zero got this technique after defeating my garage roof in February.

X4 adds its own unique touch on the formula, though. Rather than having Zero make cameo appearances as a playable character, the player can choose to play through the whole game as either X or Zero. X does his normal routine, blasting his way through an army of small robots who, I don’t think we’ve ever established, may or may not be sentient, and also searching for the upgrade capsules that Dr. Light spread around the planet like his own Gap chain. Zero, however, functions differently. Rather than gaining mobility through capsules and weapons from enemies, each maverick defeated augments either abilities slightly through the use of special moves. It’s amazing how such a minor change can make it feel like X4 is essentially two games, with the same bosses requiring different weaknesses to beat, some becoming easier and others harder, and level order requiring new strategies and opening new possibilities. In this, X4 introduces a brilliant new feature to the series that cracks the series formula wide open, adding layers of depth to the old formula heading into the future! So naturally, Capcom never did this again.

Mega Man X4 (USA)-180306-022032

Dying reploids look an awful lot like a spyrograph design.

Lord of the Rings: The Third Age – PS2, Game Cube, XBox

LoTR Watcher

Batting cleanup for Gandalf, who really needs to employ the “double tap” philosophy. No use being stingy with ammo when fell beasts roam the land.

Movie licensed games are like hot dogs; absolutely fucking disgusting and probably lethal if you have more than two or three per year, but somehow they still sell enough that the industry thrives like cockroaches. And yes, in spite of my declared hatred toward them, a quick glance through the menu to the right reveals that I do, occasionally, indulge in these games myself (notably unlike hot dogs). So clearly, you can swallow gold dust and shit out something sparkly enough to catch my attention, but I’ve stepped in enough piles by now that it takes an exceptionally shiny dump to get me past the smell. Clearly I’m writing about a Lord of the Rings licensed game today, so something must have gotten me to stifle my gag reflex. Whatever could have inspired that, you ask? Turning the game into an RPG. But much like a Tide Pod, it turns out that swallowing a tasty-looking package might leave you with horrible, life-threatening internal chemical burns.

LoTR Balrog

My bet? Gandalf Plows past Balrog, but loses to M. Bison in the first two rounds.

So if the thought of liquefying your organs hasn’t dissuaded you from playing Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, let me explain the story, which as best I can describe, is the J.R.R. Tolkien equivalent to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Except with out the witty dialogue. Or compelling storyline. Or philosophical overtones. In fact, it’s less like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and more like you’re playing as Gandalf’s cleanup crew. The action opens just after the Council of Elrond names the members of the Fellowship of the Ring—not in the same place, of course. God forbid you have any outcome on the plot. After Gandalf gets a commitment out of the Fellowship and puts a ring on them, he immediately starts two-timing the party for Berethor, errant knight of Gondor, contacting him psychically, telling him to follow the Fellowship so the wizard might meet him on the side. And while he entrusts Frodo with no more than a single quest—save Middle Earth and the world of men from magical enslavement by destroying the final vestige of the Lieutenant of the evil god Morgoth—Berethor gets countless tasks such as “kill three wargs,” “find a dwarf,” “rescue five elves from Uruks.” Clearly, we know who the important party is here. Especially when Gandalf faces the balrog, the foe beyond the abilities of any of the indispensable fellowship, he beckons Berethor and company to stand beside him in slaying—and getting slain by—the ancient evil.

LoTR Drums

Berethor breaks up his neighbor’s cave troll drum circle, complaining of the noise, but we all know it’s just him being racist.

At the very least, Berethor and his lower-case-f fellowship are like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that they’re completely expendable and inconsequential to the main story. But Berethor doesn’t even seem to have a story of his own. The game forgoes traditional character conflict and development in exchange for Gandalf filling Berethor’s head with bad student films cut from the original film and dubbed with his own Tolkien-esque voice overs. Dude, even Michael Bay shows more generic diversity than you. If you’re going to do 108 short films, why not throw in a cut from Star Wars or Pulp Fiction or something? Or better yet, explain why the hell we care about the characters we’re playing as. If Frodo manages to get to Mt. Doom without his help, is there some reason to focus on Berethor? Was he pulling strings behind the scene? Did he struggle to find his purpose in a world torn by inter-species war? Did he adventure with the Eagles to the edge of Middle Earth to keep Voldemort from teaming up with Palpatine and George W Bush in order to invade the Shire while the hobbits were away? Nope. In fact, he seems to change tasks, warping from place to place like Doctor Who in Middle Earth.

LoTR Bow Legged

I’m not sure this is what they mean by “bow legged.”

It turns out there’s a reason the story sucks more than a battle between a hoover and truck stop whore, as EA Games did not hold the legal rights to use anything from Tolkien’s books that were not explicitly part of the films. And since fans’ idea of “enforcing the canon” means they feel that any deviation from the story means they get to shoot you with a canon, this story was received about as well as a gay nephew coming out at an Alabama Thanksgiving dinner. But hey, lousy stories can easily be overcome by good gameplay, right? Spoiler alert: not in this case.

LoTR Discount Characters

Discount Aragorn talks to second-rate Boromir, while shoddy immitation Arwen looks on.

For a company so worried about copyright infringement that they’d crap out a story like this, it’s surprising that they lifted the battle system so blatantly from Final Fantasy X that it’s a wonder they didn’t name the characters Yunalas, Kimharimir, Gimlulu and Wakkagorn. On the surface, I’m fine with that. Final Fantasy X was an awesome game and the combat was part of the reason for that. But while battles in FFX were fast-paced and zippy, Third Age animations are reminiscent of yoga instructors on Ambien. Characters are sluggish, skill points are awarded like birthday money from your grandma who hasn’t adjusted for inflation since 1953, and attacks connect with the striking accuracy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra keeping time using an incoming Morse code signal.

LoTR - MoreLembasAnd…that’s it. That’s all there is to the game. There are no towns. No NPCs to talk to. No shops to buy items or equipment. I’d say there are no safe zones at all, but the game has a method for random encounters that feels like you can’t bribe enemies to attack you if you waved a raw, juicy shank of man flesh under their noses. So the game gives you a series of disjointed locales with the occasional story battle that takes place in a pool of clam chowder. The lack of shops means treasure chests inundate you with basic healing items, but since leveling up and saving both restore full HP and AP, you end up with a backpack full of lembas bread in full fungal bloom. There’s also a crafting system wherein you can make items—but only in battle. Personally, I’d like to tell my dwarf that facing down a hoard of murderous Uruk-hai may not be the best time to knead your dough and wait for the loaf to rise, but the game tells me I have to bake 125 loaves of lembas bread in order to gain the eloquently named “elf medicine,” then I’m just going to have to take out Saruman’s hoards with delicious bread smells. I haven’t been this bored since role-playing as the merchant in Dragon Quest IV. But maybe that’s it…maybe The Third Age wants you to role-play as a baker. God knows that’s exactly why I’ve always wanted to live in Middle Earth.

Okami – PS2, Wii, PS4

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Sweet Jesus’ dildo, do you know how exhausting it is to write about every damn game I play? Here’s my latest: Okami. The story of how the great Shinto goddess, Amaterasu, transcends to the corporeal plane to cleanse the evil plaguing us, and chooses a form that immediately gets scolded for dragging her butt across the carpet. Okay, okay. I get that Okami is a pun that both means “great god” and “wolf” in Japanese, and I also get that I’m coming at the game from the perspective of someone who is so much a cat person that you might expect my closet to be lined with white linen hoods with whiskers and double peaks for ears, but still, in a game renowned for it’s beautiful art style, why would Capcom so prominently animate Amaterasu’s sphincter? I guess the trail of flowers that bloom in her wake sprout up less as a result of her divinity and more from the constant spray of Miracle Grow, warning you to watch where you step as you traverse the fields of Nippon.

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The first step to solving your drinking problem is for all eight of your heads to admit they have a drinking problem.

The game opens in the most engaging way possible; a 30-minute long epic showdown between the great hero, Nagi, his lupine astral companion, Shiranui, and their arch-nemesis, the octocephaline serpent, Orochi. It’s such an exciting scene that my only real complaint with it is that instead of thrusting the player into a high-stakes tutorial level, they decide to narrate it with still-images in the style of traditional Japanese sumi-e and text that crawls slow enough that even Dick and Jane would get bored, read something else to pass the time, and learn how to discuss the finer points of Herman Melville by the time the cut scene ends. In all fairness, though, by the end of the game the last thing I wanted was yet one more identical boss fight with Orochi. Okami knows it has excellent boss fights and forces you to replay them over and over, much in the same way that the pretty girl who knows she’s pretty will constantly throw you into picking a fight with the manager of the restaurant; in both cases, they know if you leave, you’re not likely to get something quite as attractive on the rebound.

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Yeah, it’s a beautiful game, but it KNOWS it’s beautiful. Just look at that dog sitting there, watching it.

At the very least, Okami can pacify some of the hardcore jackassery that associates video games with violence. Amaterasu doesn’t level up by fighting monsters. Instead, she earns experience by feeding animals, doing favors for people, and bringing dead things back to life. Pretty much the only thing fighting monsters is good for is looting their corpses for spare change, and since money in Okami is as useful as the brown chunks of ice you kick off your tire wells in the winter, enemies are little more than minor obstacles to dodge as you rocket through the world map. Combat is relatively simple—no matter your level of experience or the amount of skills you purchased, half the time all you have to do is waggle the Wii-mote until carpal tunnel sets in and the battle is as good as won. Most of the weapons and items I collected along the way went unused, and are now probably just gathering dust in the sun goddess’s basement, along with a dozen boxes of ammo from Silent Hill, a small habitat of jinjos from Banjo Kazooie, and an old Triforce that I lost the instruction book for and can’t figure out how it works.

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Amaterasu teams up with Japanese Popeye

Funny though that I should bring up Zelda, as the game feels very much like a unique take on Nintendo’s tired old formula. Instead of Hyrule, it’s set in a fairy-tale version of Japan. Instead of a Peter Pan cosplayer, it stars a dog that moves forward via the power of foliage flatulence, and instead of collecting a small hardware store full of junk, you carry a magical paintbrush and work on becoming the Van Gough of cell-shaded canines. Before I continue, you may have noted that I played the Wii port of the game, not the original PS2 version. Makes sense, right? A game with a painting mechanic should let you take full control of those natural brush strokes, only possible through the Wii’s motion control. Now let’s just take this game that requires precision technique and put it on a system that emulates the feel of being an epileptic toddler in a 7.2 earthquake.

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Just your average sun goddess dog flying around on a sword to fight an evil nine-tailed fox. God, I don’t know what they smoke in Japan but I want some.

The celestial brush techniques take the place of Zelda’s items, and had the potential to make the game great, but as it turns out, most of the thirteen techniques you learn are some form of draw-a-circle-around-a-thing or connect-the-thing-to-the-thing. It’s a bit of a letdown to realize you’re going to be granted lightning power, to hope that you’ll get to draw a zig-zag to rain down the wrath of Raijen upon your unsuspecting demon foes, only to realize that all you do is find a source of electricity, then draw a line to what needs to be powered like some sort of divine Shinto electrician. The fact that this is exactly the same as your water power (divine Shinto plumbing) your earth power (Shinto gardening) and your fire power (apparently Amaterasu moonlights in arson), kind of gives the impression that you’re less of a holy being and more of a hardcore DIY-er on a fixer-upper spree through feudal Japan.

After a while I did figure out a few tricks for brush techniques (draw spirals to activate the wind, rather than loops, and the Z-button helps drawing straight lines, albeit with the practiced grace of a seasoned drunk driver), and the game actually became pretty fun. Boss fights used techniques well, and didn’t hold you to repeating a technique ad nauseum once you’d figured out the trick, even if it did somehow ask you to repeat entire boss fights as though Amaterasu was a transfer student whose transcripts got lost in the mail and had to repeat entire grades on a technicality. The final boss, I though, was exceptionally brilliant, in that it asked me to utilize every single technique I picked up throughout the game, while still giving me a few options to feel like I was fighting creatively. Granted, this doesn’t mean I want to get to the end of a Zelda game and have Gannon checking off my report card to make sure I can bludgeon him just right with my boomerang, fishing pole, and spinner, and to make sure I’m not blowing any flat notes on my spirit flute.

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Dog.

I enjoyed Okami. Maybe not to the point where I think it deserves to be polished by critics until its steaming dog droppings sparkle like a pearl, but it was pretty good. The game did suffer from pacing, most notably the text speed which said “I have a five-year-old reading level” even while the sexual overtones said “I have a seventeen-year-old’s hormonal lust” to the point where the comically cartoonish women said “I’d jack off to a mannequin I found in the dumpster behind the Gap if one were available.” However, the more people I meet, the more I suspect Okami may have finally nailed the U.S.A. as a target audience.