Should I Buy? – Super House of Dead Ninjas


Before Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure I was never a platforming fan, but I had to try that one out because, well, take a look for yourself:

So I gave Super House of Dead Ninjas a try on Steam when it was their Daily Deal and I am so very glad I did.

SHoDN is a retro throwback to 2d platformers full of fast paced ninj-ing where you die a lot A. Lot. It’s a quasi-sequel to the flash game House of Dead Ninjas, so if you liked that this is strictly an improvement.

The premise is simple. There’s a giant tower full of monsters which many people enter in hopes of finding great treasure, but never return from. You play as Ninjette, a female ninja not looking for fame or fortune but instead investigating the disappearance of the legendary One-Armed Ninja who previously entered the tower.

You progress down the 350 floors of the tower, fighting enemies and bosses, collecting powerups and trying not to die. Ninjette is certainly fleet of foot, and she needs to be as you’re on a timer that summons Death should you let it run out. This is where the principle difficulty of the game rears its head. Taken by themselves, the individual enemies and traps are really kinda easy and predictable. But you need to keep moving at high speed, meaning it’s your own damn fault if you forgot that enemy needs two hits, or you didn’t press the down attack in time, or you weren’t patient enough to wait that extra fraction of a second.

Luckily this isn’t a one-hit death sort of game. You get a large life bar and three continues, with no insta-deaths in the game. Though death is frequent, the fact that it stems from your own mistakes instead of some ridiculous challenge makes it that much less frustrating, and when you’re ‘in the zone’ and kicking ass, you’ll feel like an unstoppable badass.

But this alone isn’t enough to give SHoDN enough replay value to justify the purchase. That honour goes to the horde of unlockable weapons. Ninjette has a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, a bomb and a magic spell at her disposal. Each of these has a range of different weapons to unlock and experiment with.  Do you want to use the Katana of Miffed Barbarians for that extra attack power, or will the longer reach and speed of the Taming Whip of Many Nuns win you over?

Trying to unlock all the new toys to play with will give you a good few hours more play time. Some are easy, some very difficult. Combined with the other unlockables like greater ammo capacity and new powerups, SHoDN has a lot to find.

As for the graphics, they’re a kind of pseudo 8-bit that look pretty darn good. They are kinda completely cheating by doing things not possible with 8-bit hardware, but the game looks great and the soundtrack is atmospheric and enjoyable. A free copy of the soundtrack for download is also one of the unlockables, by the way.

The game isn’t really that long. The main tower can be completed in well under half an hour if you’re good at the game, and while there are two difficulty settings and a few bonus areas this game is all about the replay.

The hardware requirements for SHoDN are low enough that you won’t need a powerful machine to run it. Though if your machine is really low end, you may still get some lag. SHoDN is real cheap on Steam, and easily worth the low price for plans of platformers and of hard, retro games.

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Why Tidus Saves Final Fantasy X


SPOILER WARNING

Whether you like it or not, there’s no denying that Final Fantasy X is a sombre, dark game. The peoples of Spira have spent 1000 years living to a strict religious code under the very real threat of wide scale death and destruction by Sin; a creature that can only be destroyed by a Summoner who has completed their Pilgrimage and will always come back when it is killed. There have been four such Summoners in the past 1000 years. Most die on their journey. And when you add into that an evil religion and a genocidal maniac, things don’t get any happier.

A lot of criticism has fallen on the game’s lead character, Tidus. His detractors call him whiny, stupid, vapid and all round inferior to Yuna or Auron, the game’s other main characters. I say no. Tidus may not be a great character like FFIX‘s Vivi, but he is absolutely necessary to allowing a player to experience the world and story of FFX and without him, the plot as is would suffer heavily.

If you don’t have Tidus in there, you need to completely rewrite the script.

First of all, the world of Spira contains a lot of key concepts like Summoners, Aeons, Yevon etc. that need explaining to us, the player. Yuna, Lulu, Wakka, Kinahri, Auron and Rikku already know this stuff ad verbatim and likely have done so since they were tiny children. Tidus serves as our viewpoint. The naive newcomer it’s justified to exposit to.

Imagine if, when setting out on her pilgrimage, Wakka said “So where we goin’, ya?” and Yuna followed up with “Well, you know how I’m a Summoner who is training to defeat that giant monster thingymabob Sin…”

Yeah. Wouldn’t work, would it? But Tidus does more than do the Luke Skywalker/Harry Potter uninformed newcomer role. He’s an important source of levity.

He has his moments of doubt and despair, relating to his personal story of being a stranger in an exotic land, his issues with Jecht and as reactions to Yuna’s Pilgrimage. But these are tempered by him being the only party member until Rikku to show enthusiasm and optimism as a rule rather than as an exceedingly rare exception.

Whether it’s cheering Yuna up with the oft-misunderstood and maligned laughing sequence (they’re meant to be laughing extremely forcedly, and at the end of the scene they break down into genuine laughter) or giving Aruon something to snark at, Tidus does a lot to offer a different emotional tone to a scene or plot point than weary resignation.

Also, without Tidus, how would we get anything out of Yuna? She does open up without Tidus instigating it a few times (notably in her “goodbye sphere” in which she leaves messages for her Guardians to find after her death) but for the most part the Guardians who aren’t Tidus or Rikku are just as resigned to Yuna’s upcoming sacrifice as she is.

Without Tidus they could have focused more on the emotional strain between old friends that this foreknowledge puts on her, but this would negate the emotional sucker punch of finding out about the fact that Yuna has to sacrifice herself earlier and would be a lot darker without as many of the light hearted moments the other, Tidus-oriented approach provides.

As Jim Sterling recently talked about on his web show The Jimquisition,  comedy is a very necessary element to tragedy. You need moments of levity and positivity in order to not become some dull depressing affair. He’s nowhere near as good a leading man as Zidane of FFIX, but he allows the tragedy to be stronger through his positive attitude.

Also consider this; Sin is a boring enemy. We don’t actually cares about the giant magic killer whale thingy blowing up towns, because it’s just a big whale monster. The investment comes from the characters, from Tidus’ relationship with Jecht and the corrupt church/crazy Seymour subplot. These are what keep our interest through the slog of going from temple to temple.

Seymour and the Yevon church are stories that operate entirely independent of Tidus, but they also both only engage for so long. The Seymour thread starts in Luca and is basically over by the time you leave Bevelle. Sure, he still turns up to be fought and kill off a shitload of Ronso, but he ceases to factor into the plot in any meaningful way.

This is a shame, as his “kill everybody” motivation could have been replaced by something deeper and he could have been a much more engaging villain with a greater longevity but alas, his potential does get rather squandered.

The other emotional journeys in the game are Tidus’ romantic attachment to Yuna and his relationship with his estranged father Jecht. The romance with Yuna is surprisingly out of focus, more a by-product of  his efforts to keep her spirits up than just him wanting to get his rocks off.

But the relationship he has with Jecht, who has since become Sin (or at least the power source for Sin) runs from roughly Besaid up until the penultimate boss battle. Jecht is a constant shadow over Tidus who has helped inform his entire character. While it may mean that Yuna doesn’t get much of a look in in the end-game emotional stakes, it does ensure that somebody does.

I will admit, you could have replaced Jecht as Sin’s heart with Yuna’s father Braska in order to create a a stronger emotional connection for Yuna at the endgame, though seeing as she only has love and not animosity for her father, I  feel the Jecht choice is superior as it’s not so emotionally one-note. Tidus’ final conflict with Jecht shows how Jecht has matured, accepted his wrongdoings and that he does love the son he mistreated, as well as allowing Tidues to vent his issues and come to accept his father. And tell me his “I hate you dad” line isn’t also saying “I love you” in the subtext.

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned the corrupt church of Yevon in the emotional stakes for this game. It does have some emotional relevance for Yuna, Auron and Wakka but Yuna puts it behind her before they reach the Calm Lands and never speaks of it again and Auron’s is more of a “now they finally know” vibe he gives off. Wakka is the only character to be really affected by this and it does serve as a nice little sub-plot for him, but ultimately doesn’t affect the emotional stakes of the game as a whole.

And that’s my thesis. You cannot have the story they told without Tidus, and without his kind of influence, you wouldn’t have a story as good and emotionally complex. I may still have problems with some his characterisation, but I find Tidus to be overall a good character.

Should I Buy? – LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes


Over the last nine years, the LEGO crossover games have slowly been refining their mechanics and it’s pretty obvious with LEGO Batman 2 that they’re still working on it. As fun as LEGO Batman 2 is, it’s pretty rough around the edges. In some places, it’s just a few niggling bugs that shouldn’t have made it through, in others its design choices that are confusing or questionable.

The LEGO Harry Potter and LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean  games experimented with a fairly limited sandbox as opposed to the traditional mission hubs that you can adventure through and explore to find secrets, and LEGO Batman 2 ups the ante by giving you all of Gotham when you’re not playing the story mode. There’s a wealth of content including villains to defeat, heroes to discover, citizens to save and more beside. It’s almost a shame that the weeks you could spend finding all this stuff can be muted to a couple of afternoons once you find the cheats that point out the locations of all these things.

Travelling around the map itself can be a bit of a headache. Of course running about is way too slow unless you’re The Flash, so you’ll want to rely on vehicles and the power of flight to get around. The actual unlockable vehicles like the Batmobile and Two-Face’s truck are really fast, to the point where trying to drive them in anything other than a straight line is a hassle. Flight itself works great for gross motor control, but when you try to make small movements to, say, land on a small roof, things get infuriatingly fiddly.

That said, flying is fun and fast and pretty widely available. Just in the course of playing through the story, you’ll unlock Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern as flying heroes so actual aircraft become rather pointless. Not quite as pointless as aquatic vehicles though, which have no use other than the Gold Brick containing driving courses. When you play one of the rare vehicle levels, you don’t even get the choice of your unlocked vehicles. It’s kind of a mystery why they bothered, and this is one of the areas where the game where things get questionable.

What about the story mode? Well, it’s the first fully voiced LEGO crossover game and the second to use an original story, so it’s a pretty big change from the standard format. The humour is much less slapstick this time around, but still has that same goofy, irreverent charm which is really helped by the healthy application of DCAU VAs reprising their roles and other experienced VAs  stepping into the empy slots. Christopher Corey Smith’s Joker is fine, but does lack the range and sheer insanity of Mark Hammil’s, Troy Baker makes for a good Batman, though I do miss Kevin Conroy. The real star of the show is Clancy Brown’s Lex Luthor, whose deep voice is equally adept at making Lex sinister and comedic.

The story itself is just as silly as you’d expect, with some pretty questionable logic on the villain’s part. Fifteen levels being pretty short as far as a LEGO crossover game goes and the story feels truncated and aguely unsatisfying for it. Any villain that isn’t the Joker or Luthor get the short end of the stick, basically being reduced to cameos. Still, the levels are fun and make good use of the character’s abilities.

Remember how in the original LEGO Batman the hero levels were the most boring because the limited number of abilities meant there were only so many ways you could be asked to solve a puzzle?  2 handles the situation a lot better, with the new Suits Batman and Robin wear each having two different abilities instead of just one and the design requiring a lot more cooperation than before. And when Superman comes on the scene, he’s just as powerful as you’d expect. He’s super strong, can fly, has heat vision, ice breath and is completely invulnerable to damage. However, he can’t demolish levels by himself and relies on Batman and Robin to fill in the gaps for him, meaning that the other two don’t turn into useless loads.

If nothing else, LEGO Batman 2 is a great representation of why Batman and Superman make such a good team. Unfortunately, there’s no villain levels this time around to counterbalance the hero ones which might leave you feeling short changed, given how the original game had twice the levels.

The much vaunted inclusion of characters from across the DCU doesn’t really make itself apparent until the end of the game. Apart from Cyborg, they’re not high on the versatility scale so you probably won’t be using them much unless you’re a real fan. Green Lantern and Flash do have unique abilities, but it’s pretty rare that you’ll need them. Actually, Aquaman is more useful than they are in the grand scheme of things. Aquaman! Among the Batman villains, there’s also a few from other heroes like General Zodd, Brainiac and Sinestro. Though this leads me to one of the design choices that annoys me most. Sinestro can’t build Green bricks like Green Lantern, but there are no Yellow bricks for him to use, and neither of them get a ranged attack, so Sinestro only gets to fly and Green Lantern’s one special trick is very situational.

But that’s a minor complaint. And those are all I can really muster. It looks great, it’s funny, the soundtrack mixes Superman and Batman music together well, there’s plenty of content for the explorers to find and hey, where else can you play as Huntress, Hawkgirl, Ra’s Al Ghul or Captain Boomerang? Also, whenever you take to the skies of Gotham as Superman, that music plays.

In Which I Don’t Review Persona 3


WARNING – MILD SPOILERS FOR PERSONA 3 & 4 IMMINENT

I frikkin’ love Persona 4. It stands as one of my favourite games of all time and every few months I get pangs to go back and spend time with those characters again. So I was really excited to crack open Persona 3 FES and experience another such game.

I didn’t get it.

Let me just say that if you’re a fan of the game that’s great. It just wasn’t for me.

Setting aside the slightly differing mechanics and the darker tone, the real difference between and 4 is in its narrative railroading. One could quite reasonably argue that 4‘s gigantanormously long introduction and fairly frequent and lengthy cutscenes are too much and there’s not enough time spend playing the game as opposed watching it, but in my opinion it used that time to make me care for the characters and set up clear goals and conflicts.

Persona 3 was, for the twelve hours I logged on it, a hell of a lot more vague about what was happening or why I should care. I hadn’t met any characters that I *really* liked or was interested in and I had no idea what the overarching plot was. But in about four hours of cutscenes and exposition at the start of Persona 4, I knew very clearly the personalities of each of the characters I’d been introduced to. I had favourites and quotable lines and despite being more than a little fatigued at all the cutscenes, I knew where I stood, what I was doing and why I was doing it.

The third playable character in is introduced a little over half an hour in and becomes playable at about the four and a half hour mark, by this point I know her hobbies, mannerisms, relationships with other characters and why she’s with the team. The third playable character in 3 is just brought to the dorm one day with Akihiko informing us he’s a Persona User and part of the team now. Sure, he was in one cutscene or so before where I learnt he knows Yukari and she doesn’t like him very much (very, very understandable). That’s it. We don’t even get to see his “awakening” to his powers.

I get the 3 is meant to be more of a slow-burner, plot wise, but in not yanking me by the leash and giving me a reason to care like 4 did, I didn’t form any attachments to it. It’s kind of like how I feel about sandbox games and games with customisable protagonists. If I’m not given a narrative or mechanical ‘hook’ early on and have to find my own somewhere down the line, I’m likely to just not find one at all and if that happens, I won’t care and I won’t play.

Sometimes a game needs that freedom. It took me quite a while to ‘get’ Fallout 3, but I love that game. But then again I spent about three or four hours wandering around the countryside in Oblivion with no idea what I was doing, how anything worked or why I sould care and, well, I didn’t care. I turned it off and never a backwards glance did I throw it.

And that’s why Persona 3 disappointed me so. It didn’t give me enough of a reason to care. Seeing as I was renting it and therefore paying to be unimpressed with it, twelve hours is all it got from me. Sorry Persona 3. Maybe you got really good at the thirteen hour mark, but I’m not willing to search any further to find the brilliance in you.

Should I Buy? – El Shaddai


OK, I have no idea what is happening most of the time in this game. All I know is that my eyes did not want it to stop. Just, just look at this trailer.

That doesn’t even do it proper justice. If nothing else, it’s worth checking out El Shaddai on a big telly just to marvel at the visuals. Though any one of the myriad styles this game adopts over the course of its story could hold a game, it never sticks with any one of them for too long.

I could relate a plot summary but 1) the trailer already does that and 2) going in completely ignorant and getting confused by this game is a  marvellous way to experience it. That and…beyond the basics, I spent most of the time not knowing what was going on. Of course, this isn’t indicative of an intricate and gripping story but it does mean that I get to endlessly reply “How the El Shaddai know?” when people ask me what’s happening.

Truth be told the very archetypal and somewhat neglected narrative isn’t a real weakness. In its own way it’s actually a strange strength. It gives the game a feeling of bigness that nicely matches the visuals and general ethereal feel of the design and execution.

But OK, enough dilly-dallying with the artsy visuals and narrative, what’s El Shaddai like to play? Pretty fun. It’s not too long, 6-10 hours depending on how good you are and pretty bare bones. For the most part it switches between 2D & 3D platforming and third person combat that has more than a smidge of Devil May Cry about it.

The biggest barrier to success in platforming is that the visuals and camera angles can make distances and timing hard to judge, though the 2D sections mix it up with elements that appear to be part of the background actually being foreground elements that you need to interact with. It’s not Mario Bros., but it gets the job done.

The combat takes a while to really get the hang of. You, as Enoch, are able to wield three different weapons by taking them from the enemies you fight, and each one has its own properties, special moves, strengths, weaknesses and all that stuff. Even if you’re playing on Easy, you’ll still be challenged pretty much constantly and punished for your mistakes. The jeopardy isn’t too great however, as you get a free extra life in every fight. This’ll be pretty much necessary for when you reach El Shaddai‘s bosses.

They all hit like a demonic truck full of TNT, but it’s like a more complex form of the old platformer bosses where each attack had a specific tell and there was a counter to each of their techniques. Learning and mastering all this is pretty damn tricky, however. This is a game in which there is no shame in bumping down the difficulty.

All in all El Shaddai is an experience in the good sense of the phrase. It won’t change your life, but it will challenge you and enchant you with its beauty. If you’re the type of gamer that likes a challenge, you’ll probably get some life out of replaying on higher difficulties when you’re done. And if you’re a lover of great visuals, you might want to keep the game and occasionally replay it. But if none of these an hold a game for you, it’s probably just a rental rather than a full on purchase.

Either way, this is one of, if not the premier current gen Japanese action-platformer based on Biblical apocrypha you should play.

In Which I Don’t Review Suikoden V


So I rented Suikoden V recently cause it’s Goddamn Suikoden and has a pretty impressive pedigree behind it. I didn’t really like it. The beginning was way too slow (after twelve hours of gameplay I’d barely gotten to the actual meat of the game) and left so many parts of its mechanics unexplained that even though I had a fleeting knowledge because of my time with Suikoden IV I just couldn’t get into it.

But I’m not here to review it. Instead, I want to talk about something that puzzled me.

See, the nation of Falena from which the hero hails is a Queendom. I’m all for gender diversity and alternative socio-political-economic-cultural structures in videogames but nothing’s ever done with it.

Well, OK, spoiler warning for the first 12 or so hours of the game. So you’re the Prince of Falena but in the Queendom, obviously only women can inherit the throne so it falls to your younger sister, Lymsleia, to inherit the throne.  This seems like it’d be setting up a female dominated society, which could let us see men undergoing gender based assumptions and persecutions, but instead it’s just a place with a queen. Sure, the people and her knights are loyal to her, and nobody questions her executive power, but in the hierarchy of Falena she’s the only woman (bar two others) of high office we ever get to meet.

The others are Raja, the Falenan Admiral who worked her way up from commoner status during the last civil war. But she runs the nomadic boat-based town of Raftfleet and seems to hold no sway in the kingdom except as the leader of Raftfleet. During the second civil war – the focus of this game – the Godwins have their own loyal contingent of the navy led by a man. Then there’s Lady Haswar, the Queen’s cousin and the Oracle of Falena. Despite it being an important religious role, she lives in a tiny mountain village and only ever seems to play a ceremonial role in proceedings.

All the members of the Senate we meet are men. The commander of the Queen’s Knights and, by extension, the entire Falenan army, has always been the Queen’s husband, the King. And he’s not selected by the Queen choosing a suitor, instead there’s a giant gladitorial tournament called the Sacred Games which determines the winner.

Even among the Queen’s Knights there’s only one woman and one young woman as an apprentice, and we never see any female guards or more than a handful of women in all of Falena who have jobs that weren’t traditionally associated with men. Those who do have what would be considered atypical jobs based on old fashioned gender assumptions, like doctors, are almost always one of the 108 recruitable Stars of Destiny or turn out to be a plot important NPC.

It’s also made clear that the Queen’s rule is not absolute. The Senate members have their own lands and loyal soldiers and citizens and so the Queen must play politics herself  to skirt around them in order to get things done.

What I’m really bemoaning here is the missed opportunity. I have a few theories about why the writers settled on having a Queendom but I’m not actually sure. It’s never explained. I’m not saying that I buy into Rune Magic and Dragon steeds but I can’t buy a woman being in charge. I’m saying that it strikes me as lazy to give no explanation as to how this socio-political structure (unique to Suikoden as far as I know) works and functions. The writers could at least follow through on the whole “women in charge” angle to gender-flip the traditional power structures. Like, it was the foundation for a great story with facets the series hasn’t really delved into before but instead we got the bog standard Suikoden plot.

Am I asking too much? Back in the PS2 era we hadn’t really started asking “Big Questions” as a community, so perhaps taking a series so grounded in tradition and making a radical shift in its gender policies would be too mu-no, wait, that’s stupid. Persona 4 gave us the stories of Kanji Tatsumi and his struggles against society’s perceptions and his possible homosexuality as just *one* of its character studies and that was a PS2 game.

Persona may well be “about” people, but Suikoden isn’t a game with a completely traditional take on gender politics. Since Suikoden I there’s been a healthy array of female fighters and not just in a “rebellious tomboy fighting even though she’s not meant to” kind of way. We’ve seen mercenaries, knights, magicians, strategists, explorers, heroes, villains; it’s had them all.

I don’t think the inclusion of a Queendom was meant to be a lip service to feminism (and if it was, it was pretty piss poor). It was probably because this game being set before all the other Suikoden games that Falena was mentioned to be a Queendom and they had to run with it.

Either that or it was an attempt at narrative convenience. They want you to play as a prince because “girl protagonists don’t sell videogames”, isn’t that right Samus Aran and Lara Croft (how sad is it that they were the only two consistently appearing, long running, mass recognised videogame heroines I could name)? And introducing a female lead to a long running franchise never works, does it Terra Brandford and Lightning? Also, the heir to the throne has to be a princess because no *woman* could manipulate a prince into being a figurehead, right?

There are arguments and counter-arguments to be made how necessary a Queendom is to the plot but it quickly gets convoluted. To reiterate, I am not attacking women in positions of power, or gender equality. I just really feel like Suikoden V missed a trick. With so many different ways they could have played it, it’s almost a shame they chose to tell the story they did with the world they’d created.

And here’s the really…heavy? important? controversial? whatever. Here’s That Part. As horrible as it is to admit, humankind has in 99.9% of cases created patriarchal societies with the role and power of women either never present or squashed as the patriarchal power structure became more entrenched. And we still don’t have true gender equality anywhere in the world.

I get the want to make our fictional worlds into utopias, like how the Federation of Star Trek was basically a socialist conclave of races based entirely around the promotion of peace and knowledge, and as Star Trek proved those settings can still give us amazing stories.

But as much as fiction is about escaping the unfairness of life, it’s also about dealing with it. Whether it’s speculative sci-fi or fantasy trying to understand how and why humanity could be changed by our advancement as a species, post-colonial literature bridging the gap between the cultures we destroyed and the ones we imposed on other people, romance novels letting us fulfill our unmet desires, adventure stories giving us the pulse-pounding thrill we crave or maybe we’re just empathising with how alone and under pressure Harry Potter feels as he struggles against the world around him.

And so too our fiction should meet matters of gender equality and other Serious Issues head on and tackle them. Of course, there’s places for fiction that does that and fiction that doesn’t. I don’t ‘hate’ Suikoden V for not tackling these issues, and I don’t feel that whenever we see women with power in fiction it ‘needs’ an explanation.

But I do feel that whenever we get ‘feminism-but-not-really’ in our fiction, like a woman stated to be all kinds of badass but really does nothing like Kate from the BBC Robin Hood series that it kind of demeans the fight for women’s rights that are still being fought for today.

I just feel that Suikoden V had a chance to do something really interesting with its setup of a Queendom, and if it had done any of the things mentioned above I would probably have stuck it out just to see what they did.

Suikoden V isn’t bad. In the end, it just wasn’t for me, even though I can see it’s what a Suikoden game is meant to be and competently pulled off. But it was like seeing an advert for some “All new Big Mac! Like nothing you’ve ever tasted before!” and getting yourself worked up, only to find it’s no different than before.

Should I Buy? – Catherine


For some people, just hearing that this game was made by Atlus is reason enough to buy this game. See, the developers have a certain reputation. They’re known for making very difficult JRPGs, specifically two series. Megami Tensei and Persona. Both are different flavours of weird and are known for different things, but this time around instead Atlus have switched genres to bring up Catherine, which in terms of narrative structure more closely follows the standard set by the Persona franchise.

But instead of JRPG this time around we have a puzzle platformer with sheep as its main motif. Yeah.

Also this is the first time I’ve noticed the constant reuse of voice actors between projects. Apparently it was quite deliberate this time around, as the actors were chosen because their previous roles suited these ones. Which is why it’s pretty easy to hear who’s who. There’s a galumphingly large couple of paragraph at the end about which game I found out these people are also from if you care to read that kind of thing.

OK, so Vincent Brooks is a 30 something slacker dating Katherine, his slightly bossy girlfriend of some years. He spends most of his nights drinking with his friends and tends to blow his excess cash on junk he doesn’t need, and hasn’t got round to making a commitment yet when the wild, flirty young Catherine walks into his life and he starts an affair in his drunken stupor.

In his everyday life, Vincent has to deal with multiple problems, like the guilt of his affair, whether or not he wants to commit to Katherine and the various other problems this all throws up, while at night he has this bizarre dream of having to climb a tower with a bunch of sheep or die. All while a mysterious affliction is killing off men who cheat.

The story takes place over a week in which you, as Vincent must decide the course his life will take. This is done not only by surviving the nightmares but also in the responses you give to the various things Vincent gets asked, which are tracked in a little bar on the screen.

Structurally, it’s about as linear as you can get. Each day plays out the same way, you have some cutscenes, you hang out at the bar, talking to the patrons, getting drunk and texting both C and K, then you go home and get to the real meat of the game. The nightmares.

Even on Easy Mode they’re tough. Using the unique physics of blocks comprising the towers and the various special properties you must ascend to the top. Each night has multiple towers to ascend, and each night ends with a Boss encounter, who will try to disrupt your climb with various hazards  and in the grand old Persona tradition represents various anxieties in Vincent’s life that he has to overcome in order to not only survive but grow as a person.

You’ll die a lot. I suggest finding an easy place to grind lives early on.  But as this is Atlus, the difficulty isn’t ever too high to deter you so long as you select the appropriate difficulty (which will probably be easy mode). Instead, it’s actually quite addicting and as you continue to play you’ll realise you continue to learn, devise and use more and more advanced ways of solving problems.

The difficulty isn’t so much a curve as a collection of jagged peaks and harsh drops. This generally depends on whether the level in question is meant to be a puzzle or a quick dash to the top, because the various hazards are pretty easy to learn to circumvent making dashes simple whereas the puzzles will always stump you.

Luckily, the game keeps the formula fresh with new hazards on pretty much every stage, even up to the very end.

There’s even a game within the game, an arcade cabinet called “Rapunzel” in the Stray Sheep (name of the pub) which has its own huge collection of tower climbing puzzles.

Apart from that, the other ‘sidequest’ as it were is trying to save the other men in the shared nightmare. Various sheep in the in-betweeny bits of the nightmare have distinguishing features like wearing a tie or a cop hat that helps you recognise who they are in the real world.

By speaking to them in the nightmares and when they enter the Stray Sheep, you can help talk them through their problems and give them the strength to overcome the nightmares too.  This is just an optional thing, and doesn’t affect the ending you receive.

So, with a game so focused on the story and characters, how well does it work? Pretty well, actually. Despite Vincent’s inability to say any of the things he needs to say to either woman, it’s nice to see him making his emotional journey and how it’s not just “things go from bad to great”. As a character arc it really lets us see him grow as a person and learn to appreciate him as a character.

The two -atherines don’t get as much growth or screen time, but both work as foils to each other and there are valid reasons why a person would want to pursue a relationship with both of them, as well as why a person wouldn’t want to.

Vincent’s friends are a fun bunch, each one have a particular viewpoint that means that whenever Vincent talks his troubles through with them, you get an array of advice. Luckily, they’re not just strawmen there to illustrate different viewpoints, they’re people with problems of their own going who’ve been shaped by their pasts. They’re not as complex or interesting as the main three, but they’re still pretty darned good.

The other characters that inhabit the Stray Sheep also have their own particular reasons for appearing in the nightmares built out of their own neuroses which come out of sympathetic backstories, but they’re a lot more expository about everything. I’d still put them slightly above average, but they’re really not great.

The story as a whole is a nice interplay of themes with some interesting characters and doesn’t artificially stretch itself to accommodate extra gameplay but as a game it’s pretty short. Depending on how fast you can go through the puzzles, there’s two to four days in the main story.

As for extra play value? Well, there’s a multiplayer mode that I didn’t play because multiplayer and a challenge mode called Babel with its own ending that requires high score to be attained in the Story Mode which I didn’t play because bugger going through Clock Tower on Normal mode.

While I would have had trouble justifying this purchase when it was at full price other than it being an Atlus game and we should buy every damn one of them so they keep releasing them outside of Japan, now that you can buy it cheaper I’d say it’s worth the investment if you like tough puzzles or good stories.

Vincent is Kanji Tatsumi of Persona 4 fame and Snow from Final Fantasy XIII, Catherine is Dissidia‘s Cloud of DarknessFinal Fantasy XIII’s Serah, Persona 4‘s Rise Kujikawa and Street Fighter‘s Chun Li. Katherine is Street Fighter‘s Crimson Viper (Chun Li’s rival, natch) and Dynasty Warrior‘s Sun Shang Xiang.

Orlando in Final Fantasy‘s Kain HighwindToby is Persona 4‘s Yosuke Hanamura (he’s even doing the exact same voice).   Johnny is Dynasty Warrior‘s Zhou Tai and Street Fighter‘s Guile,  Boss is Dynasty Warrior‘s Xiahou Dun and Erica will be the new VA for Chie Satonaka in Persona 4 The Arena (which is totally getting a Japanese and European release! Also why the hell are they changing Chie’s VA!?)

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