Cross Edge – PS3

Cross Edge

The only exciting thing about this game is the artwork on the box.

Video game boxes used to tell you something about the games. Flip it over and it’ll describe gameplay, give you a short synopsis of the story, or at the very least throw you a bone as to what genre the game belonged to. Now the boxes treat details about their content like I’ve tied them to a chair and I’m trying to torture military secrets out of them. When I heard that Cross Edge was an RPG, hard-to-find, and good, I pictured something like Lunar:The Silver Star Story Complete. So when the game’s opening cut scene played exciting music over what is, as best I can tell, a slide show of things they found on Deviant Art, the epic immensity of the game before me overwhelmed my tiny RPG-loving heart until I couldn’t contain myself, and I stared at the parade of character art and couldn’t help but shout out, “Who the hell are all these people?”

Stretching back to the days of the PS2, PS1 and even into the SNES, RPGs were a big affair. Games like Earthbound, Valkyrie Profile, and .hack 4 still sell, and I only have to skip heating my house for one month in the winter to afford them (one of them). Unfortunately, the same genre on the PS3 has become homogenized to the point where if a game wasn’t an anime RPG with a conglomeration of sexy characters with no distinguishing features on the box art, it would stand out like Snoop Dogg at a Bavarian polka fest. The only difference for Cross Edge is that by amassing 30 characters from a variety of different games, you couldn’t fit them all in a Japanese subway car, let alone a single piece of box art.

Yes, a crossover game that scoured the PS3 for enough playable characters to qualify for statehood, Cross Edge does so many things wrong that I want to send it to one of those prisons where they’ll chain it to a heavy iron ball and make it break rocks all day to think about what it did. The premise involves all these characters waking up with a severe case of CPDA (Cliched Plot-Device Amnesia) in a world full of monsters and pre-rendered backgrounds with not much else around except the existential question as to why anyone would want to play a game with less in it than the space between earth and Alpha Centauri. Occasionally, the player will find a story event or a “save point,” (which, because you can save anywhere outside a dungeon, actually has more in common with a standard RPG town, albeit occurring on a single screen with a generic pre-rendered background) but you must literally search for them, examining a small portion of the world map at a time, hoping something will appear. Because God knows I play video games because I have a penchant for pushing a button every five seconds for hours at a time.

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The RPG equivalent of the “Can you hear me now?” commercial.

The game tries to sell itself on having a cast that could easily be mistaken for an anime convention, but that turns out to be one of its largest flaws. With so many characters on screen competing for lines of dialogue, each scene plays out like the voice actors each picked out random lines from a drunken Sarah Palin rant, resulting in less coherency than a conversation between an alzheimer’s patient and a stroke victim. Even the gameplay mechanics suffer with such a large cast. Games like the PS1 Final Fantasies gave you 6 to 8 characters, and let you have half of them in your party at any given time. Imagine six people in a jacuzzi trying to level up the water. Even with a small bucket, you can fill that thing within a few hours. But when you need a pool large enough for 30 people and the game doles out exp with an eyedropper, you’re going to be filling it for weeks, and by the end someone is bound to have a yeast infection.

Cross Edge2

Compelling dialogue revealing information that is not at all superficial or irrelevant to the story!

Myriad flaws plague this game, such as the control scheme which is, as best I can describe, dyslexic button mapping. Nothing is intuitive. The triangle button opens the main menu unless in battle when you use the start button although if you select a healing spell a different menu will open up and you can find an abbreviated menu if you press up or down on the left control stick. In different places you can cycle through characters using the R and L buttons, the left and right D-pad buttons, or maybe the up and down D-pad. In those latter situations, the other buttons on the D-pad might cycle through menu options, or they may reset the digital clock by your bed.

Cross Edge3

Set your own formation in a crapshoot of targeting options!

They also charge enough to resurrect characters to make me ask about an in-game health insurance plan. If the game is stingy on exp, then the way it awards money might qualify it to be the protagonist of next year’s TV Christmas specials. But that’s fine, because the game will gladly let you go into debt to bring your characters back to life. I’ve never been worried about a video game coming to break my knees if I couldn’t pay it, but I guess it serves as a good lesson on economic oppression; if you couldn’t afford the weapons and armor to survive before, you sure as hell aren’t going to survive while in debt unless you go back to the beginning of the game (unless that’s where you’re dying) and work for less than minimum wage for longer than anyone should ever have to “play” a game. You heard it here first; Cross Edge is why we need Bernie Sanders.

But easily the biggest flaw with this coffee-table coaster reject is the battle system. [Deep breath] Where do I begin? In addition to all of those problems mentioned before, Cross Edge uses a battle system more difficult to understand than college physics–a claim easily supported by comparing the grades on my transcript with the grades the game assigns at the end of each fight. It requires learning a combination of a grid system, equipping and leveling up skills, juggling nearly a dozen different skill types, chaining attacks, learning which attacks ban be chained, finding the right combination of prerequisites to activate special attacks, following three different “break” gauges for all combatants, finding just the right place to stand on a grid system that will allow your character to use the attacks, dealing overkill damage to enemies to make them drop items, leveling up your equipment, and…I don’t know. Honestly, I think I missed some things in there.

Cross Edge 4

The visual assault of the interface is the only combat you’re likely to see.

It plays as though they took all the rejected features from all the games featured in Cross Edge and threw them together just for the sake of using them up, as if next year they wouldn’t get the same budget for combat ideas if they had too many lying around. The tutorial they give you for this mulligan stew of combat mechanics might make for a good fortune cookie message, and they throw it all at you at the beginning of the game without so much as saying, “Oh by the way, about three quarters of these features won’t be accessible until five hours or more into the game.” Combine that with the “cat jumped on the keyboard during button mapping” control schema, and I spent probably a total of an hour on menu screens thinking I was doing it wrong. I didn’t like Resonance of Fate, but to its credit it offered an in-game textbook for me to study up on. Cross Edge barely has anyone who can give a rough explanation on the entire fucking Internet.

I look at games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Valkyrie Profile and think, “The only reason I hated them the first time through was because I didn’t know how to play them correctly.” And ever since then I’ve insisted on finishing games, giving them the benefit of the doubt, shouldering all the blame myself like I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. And while I did like those two games, I really can’t say the same thing for anything else. I can excuse the PS1 level graphics that other critics have whined about. I don’t even mind the conversations being told via pre-drawn character art like an NDS game. But playing a game that makes me track more names than a George Martin novel, taking place in a large vacuous world with a story not even good enough to use as a sleep aid and requiring hours of study before I even can figure out how to play the game…let’s just say I have a shelf full of games vying for my attention, and I won’t deny them that out of a stubborn refusal to abandon this travesty.

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Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 – PS3, XBox 360, PC

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Trevor and Alucard claim to be the same person, but I distinctly remember seeing them both in the same room together in Castlevania III.

As much as I love the Castlevania games, the series feels like developing a relationship with a teenage boy with an identity crisis. Is it an action game? A horror game? Does it want to try adventuring, or whatever Simon’s Quest was supposed to be. Will it feature classic horror monsters, mythological creatures, or make up my own? I actually rather liked when it started dressing in black, wearing heavy eyeliner, and presented itself as an emo/goth version of Metroid. But it’s also tried on RPG clothing as well. So although I can still fault them for this, I suppose I ought to have expected the new development team would ask “What game do Castlevania fans want to play?” and answered not “Castlevania,” but “God of War and Assassin’s Creed.”

 

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If you’re old enough to get this reference, gently rap your cane against your walker.

In short, LoS2’s story puts you in control of Dracula, formerly Gabriel Belmont, the rebooted series’ patriarch (sorry, Leon) of a famous line of vampire hunters whose career objectives very much exclude “Become an undead demon prince and feed off the blood of the innocent.” However, suicidal games tend to send the wrong message (and really don’t put up much of a challenge), so the development team replaced the final boss with Satan, who apparently has spent the last few thousand years picking up every cliched, convoluted tantrum ever thrown by a Bond villain. Teaming up with his LoS1 enemy, Zobek, a monk who gives off an evil-Professor-Xavier vibe, Dracula wakes up in modern times and fights his way through a setting with very little Castle and practically zero Vania in order to bring down an evil pharmaceutical corporation, which I guess will lead him to the ultimate Evil.

 

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Gabriel Belmont, meet your descendant, Ezio Belmont.

When Kratos–sorry, I mean Gabriel–doesn’t romp through stages filled with mythical monsters, tearing through anyone and everyone he meets and wearing their internal organs as costume jewelry, Ezio–sorry, I mean Gabriel again–plays itsy-bitsy-spider in extended climbing sections that derive player enjoyment from pushing the directional stick in the direction you want to go, then watching Gabriel swing over to the next conveniently placed handhold, completely forgetting that vampires–even in the Castlevania series–have the ability to turn into a bat and fly. Like Kratos and Ezio, Gabriel lumbers along in a hulking slouch, doubled over from the body suit of extraneous muscles he totes around. This sack-of-testosterone design seems to have taken over character design, presumably to appeal to the modern breed of misogynistic he-man wannabe gamers, but belonging to the old school breed of nerdy, sports-hating 1990s gamers, I find it hard to control someone like Ezio Auditore and not picture a guy in a big white hoodie trying to waddle around in Jncos.

 

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Play that funky music, Goat boy!

Out of all the game comparisons I could make, God of War and Assassin’s Creed aren’t exactly the equivalent of calling LoS2 “an overcooked casserole of coding leftovers baked from meats that were rancid the first time around.” For the game to deserve an insult like that, it would have to merit a special level of bad comparison. Like to the stealth sections of Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. While most players find gimmicks like quick time events as pretentious bribes to make people think they can interact with the game, forced stealth sections such as in Phantom Hourglass and LoS2 actually blow holes in the plot so wide you could actually build the next Castlevania game inside of it. The idea of an enemy that can’t be fought ever takes a lot of the luster out of Satan. If, by the end of the game, you can kill the King of Hell, the Prince of Lies, and the source of all wickedness and Temptation this side of Oz, but still can’t risk being seen by a low-level goon for fear of a flash-boiling from their flame throwers, why aren’t the goons in charge? Or at the very least, why wouldn’t Satan force you to fight them? Yes, it would ruin the game and render it unbeatable, but maybe the developers should consider that for a good long while. And I can’t even decide if that actually improves on the extended stealth section in a garden full of crunchy leaves, after which you do fight and destroy the boss who was hunting you. I guess Konami really loved its sadistic idea to put bells in the fight, like the Garradors in Resident Evil 4. I shot a projectile to ring a bell, darted the other direction, and had a brief vision of a giant hoof in my face before having to restart the level.

 

Projectile

It looks bad, but he actually just won the pie-eating contest from “Stand By Me.”

While I always wondered why Bowser didn’t simply dig an uncrossable pit of lava with no platforms, Castlevania places Dracula partly in his own castle, explaining how he can traverse some of the more convoluted architectural choices, such as every door, monument, mechanism, and hidden bonus requiring his personal blood sacrifice to activate. Once, however, I got turned around, and had to cross the same bridge three times in five minutes. As it required a blood sacrifice each time, I can’t help but think that even a vampire might get a little dizzy. I would have to imagine Dracula has a pretty dangerous morning routine, gnawing open his wrist to flush his toilet, then trying to make toast, but needing to squeeze out a few extra drops when the toast comes out black the first time. The fact that he could easily fall into a river of fire if he gets a little woozy makes me think there could have been a simpler design for his home. Still, it almost feels like a reasonable option in this world, since characters constantly projectile vomit enough blood to put out a burning building faster than the New York City Fire Department during a tsunami.

Alucard

Alucard, who reversed his father’s name in order to oppose all that Dracula does, turns out to be more helpful than a boy scout.

One thing I can say about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is that it has boss fights. Lots of boss fights. I can’t really say whether this improves the game or not. Some of them have a really inspired design to them, such as the obligatory end-game fight with Death. Others just feel like “press square until the monster dies.” During one fight, the boss encased herself in a hamster ball, which I had to pound mercilessly with a weapon slower than a tortoise with down syndrome, without pausing, while she and her two minions pressed their attacks. Even when I turned down the difficulty to “easy,” I could only beat this one by getting lucky. Early in the game, I spent over an hour fighting the gorgons, trying to figure out the convoluted button combinations required to throw an ice bomb. As a result, I have a few suggestions for any would-be game designers in my audience: the option to shut off the QTEs? Brilliant. Shutting off stealth sections would have been preferable. Even more so, not programming stealth sections in the first place. But one thing you really need to stop doing? Having bosses repeat phrases during battle like Dora the Explorer’s map.

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Quack, quack, quack!

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Shortly after this, his father Darth Belmont comes to his aid.

Lego Jurassic World – 3DS, PS3, PS4, XBox 360, XBox One, PC

Clever meme...

Clever meme…

We here at RetroCookie pride ourselves in our preservation of vintage games, which compels us to give credit to game makers who do the same (although don’t ask us what compels us to speak in the Royal We, as we still have much evidence to support the idea that we only have one body and very little control over household pets, let alone entire nations). To that end, I’ve covered modern 3DS games such as the Majora’s Mask remake, the Ulitmate NES remix, and even newer games based around the charm of the classics, such as the Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. With that spirit at heart, I’d like to introduce a new 3DS game to the notches on my belt, Lego Jurassic World, which falls under the retro gaming category for reasons I will expound upon now.

A needlessly huge cast of characters in which more than one person will routinely dive up to their ankles in shit deeper than Spielberg's first plan for Jurassic Park 4!

A needlessly huge cast of characters in which more than one person will routinely dive up to their ankles in shit deeper than Spielberg’s first plan for Jurassic Park 4!

(Don’t rush me! I’m still thinking!)

Okay, you caught me. I just don’t have a PS4 or a WiiU. But with games like Bravely Default and Link Between Worlds on the horizon, and all my other NDSs worn almost to the breaking point, I figured a 3DS would be a wise purchase. Plus it doesn’t have creepy, voyeuristic tendencies like the XBox One. So to tell the truth, I own that one modern game system, and I do occasionally play it, and I struggle to get through games quickly enough to write a weekly entry with enough time left over that I don’t have to give my students lessons on metaphor and character development in Bubble Bobble. So this week, I give you Lego Jurassic Park, a coincidentally perfect game for playing in the ten minute breaks between classes.

...whassaaaa!!

…whassaaaa!!

If you read my review on the Lego Star Wars games, you’ll know the series has one or two issues with originality in game play. Inevitably, the games degrade into a process of collecting studs to purchase unlockable characters which help you collect more studs, and I strain to think of anything that such a cyclical experience might augment other than a walk down a moebius strip or a finely tuned, professional relationship with a prostitute. However, like the prostitute, Lego games may need to offer something other than a sense of humor and playing fast and easy if they want to keep my interest and coax me out of 20 bucks for cab fare. (Ah, comparing Legos to professional sex workers. It’s times like this that I wish anyone actually read this blog.)

I want a good clean fight. No bites below the...uh...belt?

I want a good clean fight. No bites below the…uh…belt?

Don’t get me wrong, though, there is something very zen about the act of romping through tropical environments, smashing everything into a zillion tiny lego bricks at the slightest touch, especially considering that realistically your characters would spend five minutes prying each piece loose with a butter knife that won’t fit into the crack and walking away with sore hands. Lego Jurassic World takes this stud collection (and as I say that I resist the urge to continue making sex worker jokes) very seriously. Traveller’s Tales games has always treated combat in their Lego series as more of an irritating formality, like renewing your driver’s license, waiting for a waiter before eating at Old Country Buffet, or telling your friends that their newborn babies don’t look at all like someone dipped George W. Bush in a bathtub full of Nair. In Lego Jurassic World, though, they have almost eliminated combat entirely, save for a few levels in Jurassic Park II and III where you punch a few compies and trample a few InGen workers with a stegosaurus.

Goin' down to Nublar, gonna eat a lot of people.

Goin’ down to Nublar, gonna eat a lot of people.

That last bit, though, adds a much needed touch of originality to the series. In addition to wandering around as your choice of any of a million worthless characters (When the novelty of playing as Dino Handler Bob loses its lustre, spice it up by having an affair with Dino Handler Vic!) , the game also lets you control most of the movies’ animals. Furthermore, you can unlock access to the Hammond Creation Lab, where you can play with genetic coding to mix and match different features into custom dinosaurs, thus proving that Traveller’s Tales missed the point of all four movies about as much as those people who think Harry Potter promotes devil worship. Certain secrets actually require this genetic Frankensteinery, as do two bonus areas that allow players to take full control of hungry dinosaurs as they eat, trample, gore, or hawk poisonous loogies at unsuspecting park staff.

Must drive faster...must escape terrible addition to poorly adapted Michael Crichton novel...

Must drive faster…must escape terrible addition to poorly adapted Michael Crichton novel…

Lego Jurassic World has more of a puzzle-oriented design than other Lego games. Normally, puzzles would earn the game a black mark by its name, followed by a swift hammer blow to the cartridge and, if I feel especially generous that day, a steady stream of urine. However, puzzles in this game simply means picking the right character to activate whatever interactive element might block your path at any moment, more of a formality than a puzzle: “Hello, there, Jake. Do you have a character willing to dive head first into this steaming pile of triceratops shit? Oh, I’m sorry. Here, fill out these forms and pay a small fee to unlock a character with a severe hygiene deficiency, then come back on a later playthrough.” Now, my regular readers (almost typed that with a straight face) might remember my Twilight Princess review where I described such mechanics as needlessly enforcing a developer mandated sequence of events without actually giving the player anything fun to do. Well…okay, so I have a point, and that point still stands here.

LEGO-JURASSIC-WORLDHowever, I played this game through to completion, so it must have some strong points. Earlier, though, I mentioned that Traveller’s Tales previously treated (and other companies still do) combat as a requirement for games, as though making a game without some type of fighting would create a vacuum that would implode, sucking the console, player, and northern hemisphere into oblivion. And since there’s no combat in oblivion, they’d like to avoid that. But as it turns out, games don’t need violence (I know…crushing news to all those bloodthirsty Tetris fans.), and Lego Jurassic World seems to have figured out how to replace that. Stud collecting, for one–simple, yet fun, and for whatever reason human beings have brain signals that light up on hearing a pleasing sound and watching dozens of small objects transmogrify into a score total ratcheting ever upwards. The humor, of course, makes us wait for the next cheeky thing the game will do–I’d recommend the game entirely based on the talking raptor scene from JP3. Also, did I mention you get to rampage as dinosaurs? Those segments might feel short and underdeveloped, but it does include a minigame that lets you target-spit at Newman from Seinfeld.

Hello, Newman!

Hello, Newman!

Heavy Rain – PS3

heavy-rain-ethan Fun fact: Occasionally, literature professors will pick up some medium of story after throwing tantrums about its inherent shittiness and realize they actually kind of like it. When this happens, they invent terms like “graphic novel” and “electronic narrative” to avoid that awkward moment where they have to fess up to reading comic books and playing video games. Everything eventually gains respect, even if only in a historical context–I personally hope to have fully decomposed and fertilized a nice, tall tree by the time music historians begin to discuss the Bieberesque Period. While “electronic narrative” may carefully disguise the term video game, those who discuss Heavy Rain tend to employ a second layer of euphemism, listed on Wikipedia as “Interactive Drama,” or in plain English, “Choose your own adventure.”

heavy-rain-playstation-3-ps3-407 Heavy Rain, belonging to the serial-killer noir thriller genre, immediately you choose such adventurous things as taking a shower versus taking a piss, wandering around your kitchen like an idiot versus wandering around the backyard like an Alzheimer’s patient, or turning on the radio and finding the music obnoxious versus just leaving it off to save time. I suppose not every story has to begin in media res, but the opening to Heavy Rain just feels like someone wanted to apply an onslaught of quick time events to their daily routine. You might describe it as God of War without the emotional intensity, mythologically inspired story line, and fast-paced fight scenes, but I prefer to think of it as Goat Simulator without the goats. For the first few hours of the game, the most fun I had was while the game installed on my PS3, and the install screen said, “Psst. Look in the game box. I put some paper in it. Let’s do some crafts!” And by the time the game began, I had successfully made a macabre little origami…penguin? Seal? Something.

heavy-rain-madison-paige In the game’s defense–sort of–you really need to spend the first few hours of the game figuring out how to walk. Apparently, to make up for the lack of any real gameplay, the developer, Quantic Dream, decided to challenge the players by fucking with any sense of intuition in moving the character. Rather than the time-honored-and-beloved “tilt stick to move in that direction,” or even the eventually-tolerable-once-you’ve-played-every-Resident-Evil-game “press up to go forward and left and right to turn,” Heavy Rain opted for an original “tilt the stick to move character’s head in a seemingly random direction, then press and hold R2 to have their legs lurch forward in that direction without giving their torso any warning.” And if unintentionally spinning circles like a dog with Alzheimer’s who keeps forgetting that he wanted to chase his tail doesn’t sound like a stellar game, opening the menu to try to change the control scheme revealed both the helpful suggestion and the developers’ literary limits by suggesting I tilt the left analog stick to “orientate” my character.

heavy_rain-1113074 Now that I’ve quickly scanned everything I’ve written, worried that I, too, threw in some boneheaded non-word somewhere, I can say that the story does get better later on, although I very nearly didn’t make it after the game glitched out three minutes in, removing any option to do anything except walk in circles. The opening half hour or so exudes such a stench of happy-perfect-American-family-dream that I might have fumigated my Playstation if the absurd cesspool of bliss didn’t telegraph the inevitable death like the Bat Signal in a subway tunnel. For a game that sells itself on its emotional impact, they may want to rethink the appropriateness of making their audience react to tragedy with relief and excitement for things to come.

heavy-rain-screenshotAs the player, you alternate control of four characters involved in the investigation of a child’s disappearance presumably at the hands of the origami killer, following each one as they do random, daily tasks like handing someone a business card, buckling their seat belt, helping their kids with homework, and changing diapers. Each character has their own stake in the plot. Ethan Mars has to sit through a series of discount Saw puzzles, Norman Jayden investigates for the FBI while struggling with some sort of drug addiction, and Scott Shelby follows his own P.I. instinct while presumably struggling with a donut addiction. Occasionally, they’ll follow leads and learn clues as to the identity of the killer or the location of the abducted kid. But more often, they’ll engage in high-stakes QTE fights with people that have no bearing on the plot other than to make you think the pacing has picked up. However, just as often they’ll fail to find any excuse for an action sequence, so to make up for that they’ll play tense, dramatic music. In every scene.

heavy_rain_52 Having said that, I actually really liked the game. Despite stemming from the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure family, the choices run the plot together seamlessly. Walking toward a character might trigger a cut scene, while picking up an object you hadn’t noticed and then walking toward the character might have triggered something else. Often times, consequences make themselves immediately visible. Shoving the crime lord to the right versus to the left has the consequence of what side of the room he’ll fall. Some, like the diaper simulator, may have no apparent consequence. But whatever happens, you just have to live with that, which critics have reviewed as an innovative, yet unforgiving system. I wish more games would operate this way. “Slippy crashed on Titania? Well, we’ve got a job to do. Maybe we’ll pick him up later.” “Ouromov shot Natalya? Well, I guess I can hack Boris’ password myself.” “The giant angler fish ate Tidus? Good! Let’s move on to the tolerable characters now.” Heavy Rain’s decision-consequence system effectively means you can’t get stuck. Having spent an hour last night working on a boss fight in Resonance of Fate, giving up in anger well past my bed time, I can honestly say more games need this sort of system.

Modern expectations for thrillers demand a shocking twist ending, and while I’d much rather have dramatic tension than some schmuck introduced at the last minute, Heavy Rain tries too hard to impress you. Naturally, you meet the killer early in the game, introduced as just another character. Mystery writers have used that technique for a hundred years. But in a desperate effort to prevent you from guessing his identity, the character performs a number of tasks that–without revealing too much–make as much sense for a killer to perform as for a lion to hire a contractor to repair the fence at the zoo. The game even goes so far as to show you a scene that, in the dramatic reveal at the end, turns out to have played out completely different, despite having no reason for the player not to trust the narration. They even try to play up cliches, such as making you think Ethan kidnapped his own kid as though he had always wanted an odd number of fingers, but had to give himself a good excuse to hack it off.

504300-heavy-rain-playstation-3-screenshot-squeezing-the-answers Boiled down to essentials, Heavy Rain tells a good story, and the QTEs don’t get in the way too much, but in the end it feels like a handjob from a prostitute–sure, the resolution satisfies you, but you could have had more. And even if you like getting jerked around at the end, you know you have to wait a while before going back to try out the other endings.

God of War 2 – PS2, PS3, PS Vita

Big things count for extra murder! Plenty of murder to go around, boys!

Big things count for extra murder! Plenty of murder to go around, boys!

As a guy who drives a bright yellow beetle, cooks his own bread, watches Sailor Moon, performs in musical theatre, and enjoys a rousing game of Magic: the Gathering, I sometimes find myself curious as to what manliness feels like. Fortunately, I can indulge that curiosity from a safe, hair-growth-free distance with the God of War series, which features Kratos, a character overdosing on testosterone so badly that he makes steroid addicts back away timidly. Not all that long ago, most video game enthusiasts belonged to a class of people that would shyly wander school playgrounds alone, or sit quietly apart from high school cliques for fear that their interests would bring them mockery and bullying. Having a video game star grouchy old Kratos feels like Derek from American History X burst in on a Dungeons and Dragons game, dropped a box of guns on the table and said, “Okay you pansies, let’s do this right. Combat to the death, and we play for keeps.” The sheer amount of rage that goes into God of War games matches the emotional level of filling out job applications while standing in line at the DMV listening to death metal as a nearby television plays a news report about politicians pulling education funding for the orphans of homeless veterans so they can pay for tax cuts for millionaires.

Does this series seem to have an obsessive preoccupation with size?

Does this series seem to have an obsessive preoccupation with size?

God of War II continues the story of Kratos, after defeating Ares and taking his place as the god of war. His first day on the job, the Colossus of Rhodes comes to life and embarks on a Godzilla-style quest to destroy Greece. Having not murdered anything for the better part of an hour, Kratos gleefully adopts the task of obliterating the Sixth Wonder of the World. Alas, though, it turns out Zeus, who likes Kratos apparently even less than Ares, didn’t approve of Olympus’ most recent hire, and apparently felt the best way to remove Kratos’ godhood involved a convoluted plot that required an action sequence convenient for the opening stage of a video game. Kratos, who includes both the Hydra and Ares on his resume of “things murdered without use of god powers,” finds himself utterly powerless against a hunk of metal, but Zeus offers him an out. By channeling all his power into a sword, Kratos can somehow defeat the statue that proved invulnerable to those exact same powers only moments ago. Then, when Kratos has sufficiently humanified himself and killed the statue, Zeus (Played by the voice of Dale from Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers) shows up, grabs the sword, and uses it to poke a hole in Kratos’ gut. While in the previous game, his escape from Hades required an extensive, tedious stage of platforming, this time he gets out through the sheer force of his angriness. Now properly reduced to a level-one character, Kratos then begins the quest to find the fates, which somehow will help him get revenge against Zeus. I don’t know.

Although I can’t understand why developers thought this cute little bundle of murderous rampage would appeal to the average video game connoisseur, I have to admit that it doesn’t entirely turn me off, either.  As a mythology teacher, I do enjoy the concept, and now that I’ve played all three of the main series games, I can say I prefer God of War II to the original or III, mainly because a three-minute cut scene explaining the story of Zeus defeating Cronus marks the longest uninterrupted period of accurate mythology in the series. Naturally, after a beautiful rendition of Zeus’ war with the Titans, they chucked all semblance of literary value into the fiery pits of Tartarus in favor of over-simplified scenarios that give Kratos an excuse to murder mythological figures. In an early stage, Kratos comes upon Prometheus–who shortly thereafter will beg Kratos to murder him–and asks “Prometheus! Who did this to you?” If that didn’t immediately make you shift in your seat and avert your eyes awkwardly, read this. Uh, Kratos…you did. In fact, the play makes you out as some kind of rage-filled dick. At least that qualifies as accurate.

kratos giantBeyond a vague influence from Greek mythology–much in the way that the dinosaur asteroid influenced the game Asteroids–the game really doesn’t offer much beyond an overdose of violence. Initially, making Kratos spin his chains holds a type of graceful enjoyment, but I quickly noticed that it dealt damage to enemies roughly equitable with the damage chopsticks would do to cast iron, and sitting in mandatory battles against hoards of monsters that require you to beat on them like you want to drill a hole through a glacier just makes it feel padded. I do enjoy playing a game, but I prefer stuff to actually happen, rather than fifteen minutes of cyclops murder only to get creamed by two more cyclopses using their combined power of depth perception to send you back to the beginning of the fight.

If you press square by mistake, Kratos pulls out a banjo and starts singing "Ain't Misbehavin'" And then the minotaur kills him.

If you press square by mistake, Kratos pulls out a banjo and starts singing “Ain’t Misbehavin'” And then the minotaur kills him.

And quick time events! Dear, Zeus, you have answered my prayers! I remember playing Resident Evil 4, just wishing I could mash X to run from even more boulders, or press L1 and R1 to dodge even more monster tentacles. Well, God of War uses quick time events for everything. Trouble with a cyclops? They’ll give you buttons to press instead of something more involved and fun! Want to kill that gorgon? Simply wiggle the analog stick in the indicated patterns! Have you always wanted to wear down the life of your controller simply by opening doors? Forget pressing circle; try mashing it fifty times per second! (I miss the good old days of pressing “up.”) Did I miss anything? Kratos looks like a guy with a high-meat, low-fiber diet; should we maybe add a bathroom scene, with Kratos on the toilet, mashing the circle button to empty his bowels?   Hera almighty!   Have people ever liked ignoring the actual action in favor of concentrating on the upcoming buttons to press? Ever? Well, maybe in the bathroom…

FIghting the Kraken in his natural habitat...the sky! Because Greek myth doesn't have flying monsters?

FIghting the Kraken in his natural habitat…the sky! Because Greek myth doesn’t have flying monsters?

For that matter, what about puzzles? God of War seems to hit (hard) some of the biggest cliches available, including the sliding-blocks-into-place puzzle, the dropping-something-heavy-on-a-switch puzzle, and my personal favorite source of aneurysms, the pull a lever and beat the clock. Unfortunately, to overcome the challenges of using such a worn-out and hated method, God of War keeps it fresh and exciting by making it unintuitive and convoluted. How should I know if I have to race against the clock or find something to block the gate? Or which bosses I can actually damage and which ones require puzzle solutions? I don’t know if the game expects me to just *know* that the kraken’s tentacle hides a switch that I need to load down with a corpse when he lifts it slightly, or if it honestly thinks people still buy strategy guides rather than pop up Google and see what the Internet has to say.

The game works, I guess, as a time killer or a space filler. It has flaws, with convoluted puzzles, extended fight scenes, and a weapon upgrade system that has as much effect on combat as using a magnifying glass for shade on a hot day. But I played all three of them now (buying the collection used, apparently, does not give you access to the downloadable handheld games. Cheapskate jerks!). I’ve traveled to Hades and back three times, and carried several heads in my pockets. God of War has at least a novelty value to it. I just suggest playing it in small doses, and not during any stressful life events, such as, lets say, grading student papers while trying to buy a house and simultaneously waiting to hear back about acceptance into a phd program and alternatives. Adding God of War to that mix just focuses rage, down into one tiny bullet point of hate until it all bursts out of your forehead in a gory explosion of blood and brains. Fun and delicious!