Sunday, February 26, 2012

REVIEW- Jamestown

We've always played a lot of cooperative games. In particular, Shoofle and I make it our goal to play as many co-op games together as we can find, and in particular we've played pretty much every single (modern-ish) shooter with local co-op that you can name. However, while we should eventually talk about what makes a good cooperative shooter and all, the games Shoofle and I play together tend to only ever have two player local co-op. What I want to talk about today (and for some of our next few posts) are games that support more than two player local co-op (typically up to four), and that we've found are vastly improved by the addition of more players. So without further ado, let's talk about Jamestown!
Jamestown is set in an alternate history, where the colonization of the New World occurred on Mars, rather than in the Americas. The story follows Sir Walter Raleigh fighting off Spanish conquistadors and uncovering dark secrets behind the disappearance of Roanoke colony. Honestly, we didn't pay much attention to the story while playing the game, choosing to skip ahead to the gameplay sections. There is also a 'farce' version of the story that can be unlocked, which is suitably comical (but we ended up skipping past that too).

At its core, Jamestown is a bullet hell. There are a variety of ships to pick from, and each ship has a standard attack and a special attack (there is no limit on the use of the special, though it is typically more situational), which varies widely in ease of use and strategic applications. For example, the most basic ship is the Beam, which has a spread shot as its standard attack, and a movement reducing powerful beam as its special attack, while one of the more complex ships is the Bomber, which shoots projectiles straight forwards for its standard attack, and detonates all on-screen projectiles with its special attack. There are four ships with the base game (Beam, Charge, Bomber, Gunner), and then another three ships included with the DLC pack (Treason, Powder, and Ghost), providing plenty of variety for players to fiddle with.
In addition to the standard and special attacks, each ship can also vaunt when enough coins are collected from fallen enemies. Vaunting creates a temporary shield that absorbs all enemy bullets, and grants players a score multiplier, making it critical to both survival and attaining the highest scores. Your character in Jamestown only dies if the very center of the ship is hit by an enemy projectile, but with four players and on the higher difficulties (playing on higher difficulty levels is required to access the later levels) it becomes brutally difficult to weave a ship through swarms of bullets.

In addition, with multiple players, the level keeps going as long as there is at least one player alive, and dead players respawn after some time (or when a teammate picks up a revive item). There are only two precious continues for when all players are taken out, so all players will inevitably face moments where the fate of the team rests on their ability to survive for an intense 5 seconds. It's crazy and stressful, but there is no real downside to failing (your teammates can't really get mad at you for dying when they died first) and the rush from successfully surviving is like none other.
Unfortunately, Jamestown doesn't support online play, but it has probably the best local support for any game I've ever played. The game very easily recognizes separate input devices, and I was pleasantly surprised when I found I could play on my laptop's keyboard, and a friend could use my wireless keyboard with absolutely no interference between the two keyboards. The initial levels are easy enough for anybody to jump in, and they will absolutely develop skills by the time it reaches the later more difficult levels. The game is ridiculously hard though, and the last level is especially difficult and unfortunately somewhat poorly designed. The final level is dark, a lot of walls are hard to see, and those that don't just block your way move to try and crush you. After hours of trying we were still unable to beat that last level, though we did manage to make it to the boss once or twice.

That's all I have to say about Jamestown. It's $10 on Steam, and definitely well worth the price if you've got the friends (and extra input devices) to have four players at once. Give it a shot, just be ready to die a lot!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

On Fighting Games

I am not a big fan of fighting games. Until recently, I'd pretty much only played the Super Smash Bros. games, and those are far less complex than pretty much any other game in the genre. However, recently a friend got Soul Calibur V, and after getting sucked into the character creator I've been slowly working out how to play the game. And now that I've figured out how to fight without button mashing, I actually quite enjoy the game. But before I get more into why I like the game, I want to talk about why I only ever liked Super Smash Bros.
I've only ever had minor exposure to 'real' fighting games before, and each time I was turned off by the steep learning curve. With only a brief exposure to the games, I was unable to learn the combos and button mashed my way to victory or defeat. Their complexity frustrated me and prevented me from ever really diving deeper into the games. Super Smash Bros. was the only exception because it felt much simpler. There were only two primary attack buttons, and different attacks were easily distinguished by a single directional input. There was no risk of inputting apparently the same buttons and getting a different result (which has happened for me even after taking some time to figure out Soul Calibur V). Combos were determined by the player figuring out how to successfully string these attacks together, rather than memorizing a long input chain. Characters felt faster and more fluid. Using the percentage system instead of health bars made me feel like I stood more of a chance as a beginner, since there was almost no way for me to be killed by somebody spamming weak and hard to block moves. And of course there were better multiplayer options, though that's not something I'm going to hold against more standard fighting games for not having.

But now I've been playing Soul Calibur V for a while. Using the character creation tool, I created a character vaguely resembling myself based off of the samurai Mitsurugi. And then I started playing with my character. I very quickly gave up on memorizing moves from the extremely long move list, and more or less went back to button mashing. However, since I had considerably more time to play around with Soul Calibur, I was more methodical with my button mashing, and slowly figured out what a few basic button inputs did. And as soon as I had figured out how to consistently pull out a small variety of moves, I discovered the more strategic aspects of the game. Even though I only knew a few moves, I was suddenly able to fight competently, because I now knew how to hit where my opponent wasn't guarding. And that was enough for me to become more interested in the game. Since I knew some basic attacks, I was more willing to experiment with some new combinations and work out more of the game's mechanics, and the things on the move list started to look less like gibberish.

And that's more or less it. The realization that it's not actually about memorizing long combos (at least, not for Soul Calibur) has made me infinitely more interested in giving the genre another shot (I'm thinking about Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 next). That is, if I ever finish playing Soul Calibur V.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Let's talk about disappointment!
No, no, not Duke Nukem Forever. I didn't even play that game! I'm talking about El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron.

I saw El Shaddai at Otakon last summer, but I was too distracted to pay attention. It looked pretty. I finally got around to playing our copy of it a bit ago, and OH MY GOD IS IT GORGEOUS. This is honestly the prettiest game I have played since Shadow of the Colossus.
It has the dubious honor, however, of being one of the most disappointing games I've played in a long time. I guess I should back up.

In which the points in favor of El Shaddai are extolled

What did I really like about El Shaddai? There's several things. First and foremost on my list is the visual style. It's rare that I'll recommend a game purely for one facet of the experience - and here, I'm pretty much going to do just that. El Shaddai is probably the most visually exquisite game I have ever played. Each level has a totally different visual style - whether you're running around on cartoonish blocks, leaping from one platform to another among a floating world of blood-red spikes and glowing eyes, or battling amongst a grove of cloud-like trees, boiling and warping off into space... It's perfect.

Were it not for Blogger's clunky interface, I'd keep pasting pictures for hours. This game has beautiful artwork, styling, and animation. Enoch (the main character) really moves and fights like the angel he is - he doesn't just beat people up, he dances. He moves with incredible grace and fluidity in everything he does.
Okay. Sorry. The game's pretty, and I need to say that - but I also want to say this: It's not just that they made a pretty game. This game is about angels fighting for the human race, about choosing whether to flood the Earth. The world does not work how we expect - and that's where this game excels so very, very much. It expertly produces the atmosphere of a world that functions by entirely different rules, giving the sense of peeking at something much grander than what you can see on the screen. That's what makes this game so beautiful. The feeling that you are seeing the world as a higher being might see it.
Finally, the lack of a HUD was, I think, a good choice. I'm always in favor of less HUD on screen, and I was really confused by a review that thought this was a huge point against the game. I, in fact, really liked the decision not to give a health bar for the player or enemies. You can still read your health right off the character - as you get damaged, your heavenly armor breaks off piece by piece until you are left wearing only your jeans. I thought it was a perfectly seamless way to show the player's health. The same trick is duplicated for enemies, although some take a lot of hits before you see the cracks.

General theming! I liked (at first) the names and motifs and general themes - I don't really go for western religions all that much, but the names are pretty and I like a lot of the elements from Old Testament works (and those that I [probably unfairly] group with them). They just make for... Well, a very mystical feel, to make light of something sacred to a huge number of people. You can also find this in Evangelion - a bunch of nonsense references to Cabbalistic myths that don't really make sense. That whole feel really resonated with me. Of course, I also don't really like the messages those cultural elements originally tended to send - which I'll revisit later in the "gross disappointment" section of this review.

The gameplay... I liked it a lot. It felt smooth, and simple, and easy to pick up. It was a bit difficult to consistently do well, but I blame that more on myself than the game. The combos are nicely sticky - you continue doing attacks fairly quickly, but if you stop pressing and try to move, it takes a bit. This makes it much more attractive to use the long (and pretty!) combos rather than simply doing hit-and-runs, and it feels just sluggish enough to be powerful while being fast enough to retain the game's characteristic grace.

The story itself... Well, this is a tale of woe. I liked how it was told - in the beginning. It uses a very ascetic storytelling style, where it doesn't really tell you much, and what it does tell you barely makes sense. I like games that maintain mystery. This game did that perfectly - from Lucifel's bizarre cell phone conversations with God, to the complete lack of explanation for the landscapes... It just lets everything exist. A game that tells you the history and meaning of everything makes you feel like an outsider - someone who is visiting. I want to be someone who has always been there.

On Disappointment

Oh dear. Spoilers ahead, so, you know, page up and stop reading.

So I liked this game, I really did. I liked the story, too - Lucifel's vaguely nefarious voice and minimal instructions/explanations combined with your extremely destructive "angelic" mission was really building up. I thought that we were going to see the redemption of the Fallen Angels you were sent to destroy, and I thought that maybe the game would end with God as the enemy and the Fallen Angels as the ultimate protectors of humanity.
I would have sworn that all of this was building up to a great revelation that you were fighting on the wrong side, and it would be fantastic and cathartic and you would have a mission and the mystery would pay off... But it didn't. I swear to anything you want, the ending cutscene pretty much said "And so Enoch destroyed the tower and humanity was saved." SO GOD DAMNED BORING.
Bah. It was just such an incredibly simplistic plot in the end, but such a beautiful and complicated and mysterious world! It was a total waste. The thing that really bothers me, though, is that this echoes a message that I don't think the world needs to hear at this point - "Do not stray from authority." Bah. Bah. Bah.

And a final side note: I was actually really happy with Lucifel. Kind of. He was a genuinely good character in league with the "good" guys, who sounded kind of sketchy. I like that. Sometimes sketchy people should be the good guys.