Monday, October 31, 2011

Thieves Are Scum, and another Comics Rundown  


Misc: So last night I got home from work and I was putting my key in the door when I felt like something was a little off. I looked around the patio and it took a minute before I realized that my son’s wooden chair was gone. Stolen.

It wasn't a fancy thing, basically a handmade chair made to be just the right size for a child no more than five or six years old. It was originally made by my son's great grandfather, who is now deceased. He passed away before they ever had a chance to meet, but my mother-in-law had brought it as a gift when she came to stay with us, and my son was thrilled to have it. He sat in it nearly every day during the summer, blowing bubbles on the lawn or just chilling out when it got shady.

I never thought that it looked especially valuable, and we've had other things left out that have never been touched, so it didn't occur to us that someone would come by and steal it -- especially since it was made of real wood, it's much too heavy to just grab and go. If I had thought for a moment that someone would be tempted to take it, we would have taken some precautions, but it just didn't seem like a danger. That's what we get for being a little too trusting, I suppose.

The terrible thing is that it must've been stolen by someone who had walked by our place at least a few times. Someone casually driving by wouldn't have noticed it, and like I said, it was too heavy to be taken as a spur-of-the-moment snatch. The only thing that makes sense is someone saw it as they were passing our place on foot and then came back with a vehicle… I'd be willing to bet any amount of money the theft was premeditated. Even worse, thinking that someone with ill intent had been standing right outside our door gave my wife and I the chills, and made us both feel a little less secure in our own home.

Although it's a real loss, the chair can be replaced. That good, homey feeling that's now diminished? Maybe. Maybe not.


Comics: Now, time for another quick rundown of what I've been reading...

>Screamland, The Walking Dead and The Sixth Gun… All still great.

>Animal Man #2. Despite not having much experience with that character in the past, the recent first issue made a strong impression on me, and I'm quite happy to report that this one was just as good. The artwork by Travel Foreman is a great mix of mood and detail, and the plot by Jeff Lemire is still going strong. Although this particular issue moves perhaps a little too fast for my taste, the events reveal a new depth to the powers shared by Animal Man and his young daughter that are quite intriguing. So far, this is certainly one of the best of DC’s New 52.

>Deadman #1. Another DC character that I've heard of, yet have never read, I was quite pleased with this particular relaunch and immediately added it to my monthly list. It's a great first issue in that it clearly sets up the character in a very clear and concise way for those (like me) that have no knowledge of any backstory. Providing a good starting point seems to have been a problem for several of DC’s other new #1s, so I'm glad to see that this one knew what it was doing. In a nutshell, Deadman was a colossal jerk in life and now must atone for it by jumping into the bodies of people who need assistance. By helping them with their problems, he earns his way towards a more positive afterlife -- it seems to me a lot like Quantum Leap, with just a slightly different spin. Since I was a huge Quantum Leap fan, that's perfectly fine.

>Swamp Thing #2. I wasn't completely satisfied with Swamp Thing’s first issue of the reboot, and the second issue has flushed it even further down the crapper. Rather than giving the character a clean or mostly-clean slate to work from, the writer seems intent on keeping most of the character’s convoluted, multi-series backstory and retconning it to fit this new beginning. It's confusing, it's way too talky, and it comes off like utterly contrived stereotypical comic book crap. Throw in a standard ‘red rot monster vs. green plant life’ theme (YAWN) and I've seen all I want to see. I will not be picking up issue #3.

>I, Vampire #2. Another misfire. The first issue was very loose and impressionistic, but I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt in hopes that the story would start to make more sense, but that isn't the case. This second issue was even more abstract with scenes that make little sense, and a plot that appears to jump back and forth in time. As a reader, I have no idea who these characters are, exactly what they are about, or even what the setting is. It seems like the elements for something interesting are here, but it's been so poorly conceived that it's all a stinking mess. I’m qutting this one as well.

>Ghost Rider: Fear Itself #1,2,3,4. I used to be a huge Ghost Rider fan for many years, starting with the original Johnny Blaze stuff from back in the ‘70s, and I was pretty okay with the later reboot starring Danny Ketch, but things got too silly after a while and I had to bail. It seemed to me that the mythology was getting to complicated and too ridiculous, and I just couldn't swallow it anymore. I was really hoping that this new series would be a fresh start for the ol’ flaming skull, but despite the abilities transferring to a new female rider, it's still a pile of crap that needs to be blown up and rebuilt from scratch. I'm not even going to get into any of the details, except to say that Ghost Rider is now a joke to me, and I've got no patience for angels, devils, his personal crew of familiar faces, and a whole host of other elements that serve only to detract from what should be a fairly straightforward superhero. I bought all four issues to read at once, and after having done so, I realized that I only needed to buy one to find out that it still isn't any good.


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dark Souls is Finished (Thank God) and... Buffy the Vampire Slayer  


Games: So, after eighty-two hours with Dark Souls, I finally defeated the cheese-tastic final boss and completed the game.


Now that all’s been said and done, I am of the strong opinion that Dark is nowhere near as finely-crafted or as enjoyable as its predecessor, Demon’s Souls. It's just not.

You want me to give it a 10? Here's your 10!!
I've just submitted my review of the game, so look for that soon at GameCritics. At the moment, it’s easiest to just say that Dark doesn't do anything that Demon’s didn't already do better, and throws in a whole host of problems, to boot.

I find this entire situation particularly aggravating for a few reasons.

Primarily, Demon’s Souls is one of my favorite games of all time, and "fixing" something that wasn't broken and then breaking it further still doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

I also take issue with the fact that it was so long. Yes, I've heard of the 90-minute Dark Souls speedrun on YouTube, but that’s so far removed from the experience of the average player that it might as well not even exist.

Worst level in the game. It's an absurd joke.
As for me, I approached the game without using any hint guides or FAQs, and the only help I got were a few key pointers from fellow players. The game gives precious little assistance, so without outside help, I think it's realistic to expect most gamers to take at least as long as I took to finish, if not longer. Considering that my first FAQ-free run through Demon’s Souls was about 50 hours, doubling or near-doubling that playtime is a lot to ask.

There were also a number of technical issues I ran into (details in the review) but the thing that pissed me off the most was that the ending was such an insulting slap in the face that I literally stood up and started yelling at my TV. After pouring so much time and effort into the adventure (not to mention putting up with all the rough edges and cheap design decisions) I could not believe that FromSoft went with such a ridiculously poor way to tie things up.

It. Was. Unbelievably. Awful.

My take on the ending.
Is Dark Souls the worst game I've ever played? No, not at all. Not even close. Would I recommend it to anyone now that I've rolled credits? In a world where Demon’s Souls exists, no, I really wouldn't.


TV: I haven't had a lot of time for TV or movies lately, but when I do have time, the wife and I have been getting in episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Netflix instant-watch.

I'd never seen a single episode when the show was still running on television, but after having such a positive experience with Firefly (another Joss Whedon show) we decided to give Buffy a whirl, and we haven't been disappointed. At the moment, we are a little past the halfway point of Season Two, and it's going swimmingly.

The funny thing about watching the show is that even though I know the program has quite a large following, I've never spoken to anyone who ever made it sound appealing or fun. Every time I asked someone their opinion on it, it never remotely sounded like my cup of tea. Now that I'm actually watching it myself, I think it's pretty great. I'm not quite sure where the disconnect was there, but maybe I was just talking to the wrong people all this time?

Anyway, despite the fact that none of the "teenagers" on the show look like they’re actually high school students, the writing is sharp, the characters are likable, and there's a good balance between larger characterization and typical monster-of-the-week action.

So far, a big thumbs up.


Monday, October 24, 2011

Interview with: Samuli Viikinen, developer of PSN's Rochard  

Games: So, let me guess... You haven't played PSN’s Rochard yet. In fact, there's probably a pretty good chance you haven't even heard of it -- and that's a damned shame, since it's one of the best download-only titles I've played all year.

I talked about it quite a bit via Twitter and I covered it several times here at Coffeecola. Heck, I even gave it an absolutely glowing review over at GameCritics, but a game like this deserves more. So, in my pursuit of fighting the good fight, I'd like to present this brief interview I was fortunate enough to have with the Lead Level Designer of Rochard, Samuli Viikinen


So Samuli, Rochard is Recoil’s first title… What can you tell us about the team that put it together? Who are the people of Recoil Games?

Recoil Games is led by Samuli SyvƤhuoko, who in the past has been involved in creation of such companies as Remedy Entertainment, Futuremark and Fathammer. The Rochard project was directed by Kalle Kaivola, our producer who previously worked in press and TV, and Creative Director Burt Kane of Futuremark fame. Most of the remaining team members have backgrounds in many leading Finnish game development studios, including Remedy, Bugbear, Farmind, Housemarque and Frozenbyte.

Sony’s ads on PSN have described Rochard as an “anti-hero”. Personally, I don’t see how the term fits. He’s an unlikely hero perhaps, but not an anti-hero. How do you feel about this ad campaign?

We decided to play a bit with the words when making this ad. John Rochard is not your usual hero, he is your ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation. His daily work around anti-gravity machines oppose his down-to-earth character. Just like his appearance might oppose many people's perception of the mighty hero that sets out to face the gravest threats in order to protect the people he cares for.

In the gaming world of space marines and elite warriors, John represents very much the polar opposite by remaining a regular, chubby dude. He's the antithesis to pop culture's portrayal of heroism, hence his anti-hero title.

John Rochard seems to be a person of Southern US origin. How did your team come to choose this characterization, and how did you (since you’re based in Finland) characterize him in your own country? Is he still Southern to Finnish gamers?

Finland is such a northern country (no, there are no polar bears walking around) that we wanted to contradict that with something that is very far from us, but still similar in a sense. Only a few decades ago Finland was heavily dependent on agriculture just as the southern US states, and we wanted to pay homage to that.

Some people have described Rochard as being similar to Shadow Complex in some ways. Do you think that’s fair?

There are some similarities, yes. Both games are basically sidescrollers in 3D environments and feature quite a bit of action and platforming. On the other hand there are major differences in gameplay, Shadow Complex emphasizes the exploration factor while Rochard is very puzzle oriented. Also the tone of the narration is very different between the two games, Rochard being much more lighthearted and comedic.

Most of the guards have a very effeminate voice, and talk about getting pedicures and such. What’s behind this, or where did these characterizations come from?

These guys are very passionate about their personal well being and care highly for their appearance, but have taken a bit of an over-the-top turn for the effeminate at that. It's a bit of a jab at the artificially caring environment instated in over-managed work environments. Another take on not creating the standard burly videogame characters, but trying to reach for something very different instead. Obviously they are a comic relief, and should be treated as such.

What’s next for Recoil Games? I’ve heard talk of Earth No More, and I’m sure Rochard 2 must be in the works… Please tell us what we can look forward to next!

We are not working on Earth No More at the moment, our main focus is on expanding Rochard intellectual property. Rochard's story was designed to span through multiple games right from the start, so a sequel is something we would very much like to create. We are also considering various completely new game franchises, so there are many exciting things coming from Recoil Games, stay tuned!

Open mic –Your chance to say anything you’d like to the people reading this interview. Go!

It has been really exciting and fun to work on Rochard, we are extremely pleased with the end result and really hope you enjoy it as well. Thank you for your time!


Infinite thanks to Samuli Viikinen,  Tommaso De Benetti (who helped facilitate the interview) and the rest of Recoil. For more information about the studio, you can check out their website right here. As for Rochard, it's available for download via PSN right now, so do yourself a favor, be one of the cool kids, and check it out!


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dark Souls, Batwoman, Animal Man and the Suicide Squad  


Games: I'm still putting a lot of time into Dark Souls. I decided to abandon my original Hunter and I've been focusing on my restart character, a Pyromancer. I've already surpassed the progress made on my first attempt, and it's only taken me about a third as long -- the game goes quite a bit quicker once you know what you're doing. That said, at this point I think I've put (total) a little over fifty hours into it, and I'm starting to feel as though a short break might be welcome.

When I had played Demon’s Souls, I had completed the game for the first time around the fifty hour mark. According to some people I've spoken with, my current position in Dark Souls (Anor Londo) is only halfway, or even a little bit less. I don't know if that's exactly true, but any way you slice it, that's a pretty huge increase in size, even taking into account the fact that I restarted with a new character. All of that content has come at a price, though.

The shift into open world design shown in Dark Souls certainly has value, but I miss the smaller, more focused levels in Demon’s Souls. In that game, it was more about smart combat and survival than it was about covering overly-labyrinthine areas and trying to find the correct path. There was definitely still a certain amount of exploration, but not nearly as much as is present in Dark. In exchange for smaller worlds, the developers did a fantastic job of pacing the action and guiding the adventure while never leading the player along by the nose. It all felt superbly crafted.

In Dark Souls, there are certainly some moments that call back to the greatness of Demon’s, but there were also plenty of times where I didn't know where to go or what to do, and the intensity of the game started to lag. I also think it's less exciting that the game now feels like the player is going to certain areas for no other purpose than to get a key or some item at the end in order to unlock the next area. The boss battles are still a rush for the most part and some sequences are great, but the filler/adrenaline ratio feels way off compared to the first game.

While what I've just described is certainly subject to debate, what's not is that Dark Souls has some technical issues that sully the experience. The framerate takes a dip in certain areas (especially those that have water) and most famously in the Blighttown area. I've also noticed other weird things like enemies falling through the floor and out of the world after they've been dispatched, and the most irritating thing is that there is often a brief delay between when I hit the attack button and when the attack executes. Half a second may not seem like a big deal, but when the enemies are so lethal and I'm aiming for a brief opening in their defenses, having my character sit there like a target dummy and taking hits I never should've taken rubs me the wrong way. Having less-than-total control over my character in a game such as this is flat-out not acceptable.

I'm not trying to tear the game down because I'm certainly enjoying it and I'm very grateful that a sequel to one of my favorite games of all time even exists, but I can't help but think that it needed a little more polish and a little more playtesting to really be what it should. It's really good, but it should be better.


Comics: I picked up a stack of stuff recently, and most of it was pretty good reading... Severed and Screamland (Image) continue to impress, as does Witch Doctor (Skybound).

Looking at other publishers, I've never been much of a DC Comics fan, but they caught my attention with their New 52 line and I've been giving many of them shot. I have to admit, though, I'm more than a little confused as to what the concept was.

Before the launch, I was under the impression that these 52 new #1s would be clean-slate starts, and the perfect place for new readers to jump on. While that seems to be true for some comics, I don't think it is for all… some of the books I picked up definitely build on old continuity that I am not familiar with, and I'm puzzled as to why. I mean, they caught my attention and I paid my money, but if the only thing going on is that an old series is now renumbered, I'm not going to stick around.

That complaint aside, some of these books are definitely worth checking out. The best of the bunch (so far) has been Animal Man #1. I've only been vaguely aware of this character's existence over the years, but this new book starts strong by giving a brief overview of the character, giving a quick demonstration of the character in action, and then quickly layering in a larger plot line and intrigue involving his daughter. This was some pretty adroit writing, and I'm definitely going to be following this book for while.

Another pleasant surprise was Suicide Squad #1&2. Again, this is a book I've heard of off and on over the years, but have never really read. Basically, a group of super-villains are recorded by a government agency to go on (wait for it…) suicide missions, and their cooperation is ensured by a bomb planted in all their necks. Fail to follow orders and BOOM. There is definitely a harsh edge to the writing that I appreciate, and their first mission (eradicating every single person inside a football stadium) was pretty crazy stuff.

I, Vampire #1 is apparently about a couple of vampires who have a long-standing relationship. The female of the pair seems sort of "unleashed" and embracing her nature, while the male is apparently a vampire who hunts other vampires. The narrative wasn't quite as solid as I would have liked, but I think there is the spark of some potential here.

Finally, I also took a look at Batwoman #1&2. Although I have read several Batman graphic novels, I don't read his books regularly and I don't really have much idea of what's going on in Gotham city currently. Apparently, a lot.

Batwoman is a very interesting character (competent superhero, lesbian, strong personality and unafraid to stand up to Batman) but I don't know much about her, who she is, or how she got to be Batwoman. There are several things in the book that appear to be references to past events, and I just don't know the history there.

This book is also quite interesting because the art style jumps back and forth between different modes. The coloring, specifically, goes back and forth between pages and gives the book a bit of an erratic feeling. On one page, it's vaguely watercolor-ish, on the next it seems to be Miller-esque, while Batwoman herself often has echoes of Steve Rude. Layouts of the pages are often confused as well… panel placement could be clearer at times.

I'm quite puzzled by the visually schizophrenic presentation, but I am intrigued by the character herself and I'm definitely willing to go along for the next issues to see where it leads.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Interview with: Niv Fisher, of SpikySnail Games on "The Splatters"  


At the most recent PAX, one of the smaller indie-sized games that caught my eye was a strange, almost unclassifiable project called The Splatters, about shooting colored blobs around small arenas and exploding them at every opportunity. It was a blast to play even if it’s a bit difficult to describe, and I’m quite pleased to share a brief interview with one of the developers, Niv Fisher of SpikySnail Games.

Thanks so much for talking with me, Niv. So, what can you tell us about SpikySnail? Who are you, what are your backgrounds, and how did you come up with the name?

SpikySnail is a new independent development studio located in Israel. It was founded by Sagi Koren and myself, but since the beginning we also had Alon Shama help iterate on the design. We all know each other from childhood so it was really fun and easy getting immediately to work. Daniel Ridner recently joined to help with coding which brings us to a total of 4 developers.

Being such a small studio means everybody needs to wear many hats, but at the core I'm a programmer with over 12 years experience doing a variety of things. Sagi is a very creative graphics artist and totally set the tone of the game visually. We all have significant contributions to the game's design.

The name SpikySnail is just one of the names we threw around but really caught on quickly. It fits our culture very well, we'd like to be a little 'extraordinary' and we also tend to do things more slowly, not because we're lazy or don't work fast - just because a lot of times if you're in a hurry the results suffer. But honestly the main criteria was we thought it had a nice ring to it and is unique enough to build a brand around.

Your game is called The Splatters. From screenshots, it’s a little tough to tell what’s happening. What’s it all about?

Yes, it's hard to know from screenshots and it's also hard to explain in words. The Splatters is a physics based action/puzzle game where you play a group of semi-suicidal, liquid filled, creatures with one purpose in life - blow up with style. The objectives of the game are very simple, you must clear out all the bombs from each stage using the Splatters you're given to use by splatting them in various ways. When the Splatters explode their liquid internals are spread and when that liquid hits a bomb it ignites. It sounds simple enough but it really is a quite challenging game.

The uniqueness of the game comes from its use of physics. We took a fairly complicated elastic/liquid physics model and designed gameplay mechanics around that system. The idea was to create a really vast possibility space for things to happen. But instead of going towards a puzzle direction, where you try various shots and directions until the physics simulation does something that works (ala Angry Birds) we wanted it to be a skill game, so we added a lot of real-time controls that you can use to manipulate the simulation as it unfolds. Of course the player is not aware of the ways he's manipulating physics, he is playing The Splatters and hopefully gets really good at it too!

When you gain some confidence with controlling the splatters you can start injecting style into your act. See, splatters have a very short life expectancy and figured their true calling in life is to put on the most spectacular splatter shows. So instead of clearing the stage in the most 'safe' or 'straightforward' way you need to get creative in the way you use the environment and the controls your are given. There are over 10 different stunts you can pull with your splatters each one is unique and each one will boost your show and your score. I'll give you a few examples to understand: If you impale your Splatter onto some spikes he immediately splats and when the liquid drips from the spikes onto the bombs you'll get what we call the "Rainy Day" stunt. If you ride a curly slippery part of the stage you get a "Slide" stunt. Or if you launch your Splatter into mid air slam him from there you get the "Air Strike" stunt.

The interesting bit here is that stunts combine in any conceivable way, so if you find that a certain slide leads you to some spikes that happen to be above some bombs. You can slam into that slide doing a "Slide" + "Rainy Day" combo. If you have enough skill you can try to "Air Strike" into that slide and generate a 3-way combo. But it's totally up to you to figure out what combos work on any given stage and we hope players will find combos we never thought about (actually, that already happened at PAX).

At PAX, you mentioned that you had learned your programming skills making medical simulators. That’s pretty unusual… How did that inform your design of The Splatters?

Most of my previous experience programming was done at a company called Simbionix where we developed 3D realtime surgery simulations for physician training. Sounds a bit dull compared to video games but actually has a lot in common on the tech side of things. Some of the algorithms we used there were quite unique and not often found in video games, there are very few video games that use elastic physics (or liquid physics) as a core game mechanic. There is reason for that, those systems are hard to stabilize and therefor risky if you want to count on them for actual gameplay, as opposed to using them merely as a visual effect.

So given I had all that experience I thought we could design a really cool game with those types of systems. It took us over a full year of design and iteration just to figure out how to do that, we wanted to deliver a game that is both fun, challenging and interesting and that is no easy task!

I think the result is quite extraordinary, basically we wanted players to feel their playing something unlike anything else - and I think we achieved that. I only hope people also see how deep and interesting this game can get and not dismiss it as a 'casual-angry-birds-with-liquids', cuz it's definitely not that -- which is also why were putting this onto XBLA, we want those hardcore gamers that enjoy a good game of skill, like Trials HD or even Pinball FX. We like to call our genre "Casual Extreme", because it combines the accessibility and relative simplicity of so called 'casual games' with a mechanic that allows for very skillful play where you can keep getting better at the game even after 20 hours of playing it.


Infinte thanks to Niv Fisher and the rest of SpikySnail Games for taking the time to talk with me. For more info, check them out at THEIR WEBSITE, and be sure to keep an eye out for The Splatters, hitting XBLA in early 2012!


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Dark Souls - Hunter to Pyro  


Games: Just a quick Dark Souls check-in tonight.

With my Hunter character, I put about forty hours in and had just gotten to Sen’s Fortress before I decided that I wasn't happy with how my character was progressing. It wasn't terrible and it certainly wasn't awful to the point that I was unable to progress, but I just wasn't feeling great about the way I had built my character. I had a few regrets.

Starting a big, long-term RPG like this one (also see: Oblivion or Fallout 3) it's hard to know what your play style will eventually become, or what obstacles lay ahead. In fact, I've often thought that developers should give players at least one reallocation of skill points just because there are so many factors that you can't predict. Will there be a lot of locked doors, or won't there? Will I find many weapons that use STR, or is it wiser to invest in DEX? Should I take a chance on learning some Miracles, or would I be wiser to increase some other stat? Sometimes these things don't reveal themselves until several hours into an adventure, and at that point, it's entirely possible that a player has made decisions based on incomplete information that later turn out to be problematic.

Now don't get me wrong, I do think there is value in the permanence of some choices and I'm not asking for a constant do-over mode to erase every single mistake, but I think there's a difference between having good information and making an error, and having no information and making an error. With the reality being that I've got a job, a wife and family, responsibilities at GameCritics and a few other things going on, sometimes getting a little bit of respect from developers for the time I've put into their game is very appreciated.

Now, with all that stuff said, there is absolutely no re-spec option in Dark Souls that I know of. So, given that, my choices were to either stick it out or start over from scratch.

In most games, I think I would have chosen to stick it out until the end, put it on top of my ‘completed’ stack and move on, but since I'm such a huge Demon’s Souls fan and I've been looking forward to this game for quite a while, I didn't want to spend the rest of my play time with a character I wasn't 100% invested in... there is no sense in not enjoying the experience, and who knows if we'll get another sequel, so I decided to bite the bullet and start a new character just to see if that felt better.

(And just to be clear, I didn't erase my Hunter... that one is still available if I want to go back to it.)

I started a brand-new Pyromancer since I was curious about using magic, and I've been pretty happy with the choice so far. Apparently there are better spells that can be found later in the game, but at the moment, the stock fireball spell is close to what the firebomb item is. Essentially, it's a flaming grenade that you lob at an enemy for a pretty hefty chunk of damage and if any other enemies are very close by, there's a bit of splash. This ability has been very useful on the spear knights and the parrying knights, not to mention that it takes large bites out of bosses -- the first two demons went down like chumps, and most of the larger creatures are susceptible to it as well.

Interestingly, between the direct damage available from the fireball, better weapon choices and stat allocation, and my previous knowledge of the levels I've already been through with my Hunter, I was able to make it to the first Bell in about an hour -- and that was including some time to grind for souls. By way of comparison, the same journey took me about ten hours the first time due to dying, searching, exploring, and so on. I don't know that the rest of the game will continue at such a speedy pace, but I have no doubt that it will go by a lot quicker…


If you're not sick of hearing about this game and you'd like a little more, you can check out the most recent GameCritics Podcast HERE. We talk about our most secret videogame confessions, a couple of XBLI titles (Wizorb and Robotriot) and quite a bit about Dark Souls.

In addition, my good friend Sinan Kubba (@shoinan) is streaming a 24-hour playthrough of Dark Souls in an attempt to raise money for charity. You can click HERE and watch him get taken down by all sorts of creepy creatures in real-time. Better hurry, though… he's only doing it for a day.

By the way, Sinan also did our main review of Dark Souls as well. For a full review of the game from someone who's completed it, click HERE.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dark Souls Tips, Shadow Hunters, Two DL Shows, and Occupy Wall Street  


Games: Still playing Dark Souls. I plan on doing the Second Opinion review at GameCritics so I'm trying not to say a whole lot about it here on the blog, but I have been putting quite a bit of time into it and I do think it's a pretty superb game. Is it better than Demon’s Souls? That's hard to say. If nothing else, I feel comfortable stating that the two are similar, yet neither one seems head-and-shoulders above the other. At least, not yet...

A couple of quick Dark Souls helpful tidbits:

- if you’re lost and you don't know where to go, open up your menu and start reading the descriptions of the keys in your inventory. Most of them give a general location, and if you are remember which you've used and which you haven't, they end up being pretty good clues as to where you should be heading to next.

- always carry a remove curse item.

- always carry a Homeward Bone (or two or three) since they can get you back to the most recent campfire instantly. If you are rich with souls and you're afraid you're about to get picked off by something lurking in the dark, use this item, level up, and then head back to where you were. The sting of death is a lot less painful if you just used up all your souls gaining a few levels.

- if you accidentally hit an NPC and they become hostile, you can leave the area without killing them and pay a certain character to turn them friendly again.

- in the Blighttown area, there are actually two campfires that can be activated. The second one is hard to spot if you're not looking in the right direction, but if you make it there and get the fire going, the area is much, much, much easier to finish since it acts as a checkpoint about half or two thirds of the way through. This particular part of the game suffers from a poor frame rate and there are lots of areas where it's quite easy to fall to your death, so save yourself some frustration and search out at second campfire.


The Instantly Twisted Shadow Planet DLC add-on called Shadow Hunters should be available on Xbox Live for 400 MSP by the time you read this. I covered it in depth HERE, so if you're a fan of this game (and really, who isn't?) make sure you check it out.


TV: I had no idea it was in the works, but apparently there is a Persona 4 anime that's pretty good. You can check out the first episode HERE for free.

I've also just discovered that the complete Torchwood: Miracle Day series is now available on Netflix for instant download. Looks like I know what I'll be doing this weekend...


Politics: I rarely, rarely talk about politics here at the blog, but @Kweenie posted this link today or two ago, and I found it a worthwhile read if for no other reason than I appreciated how clearly and distinctly the author talks about the current problem of a plutocracy ruining the United States for everyone else.

I don't have any problem with people being rich, but when small number of rich people arrange things so that they get richer while everyone else gets poorer, that's when the trouble starts. The way I see it, every empire eventually crumbles due to corruption at the top, and there's no reason in the world why our own country will be any different if the 'haves' can't rein in their greed and let other people have a chance to enjoy a decent quality of life.


Friday, October 7, 2011

Dark Souls, Rochard, The Walking Dead and Comics!  


Games: So after a wait that felt like forever, I finally got my hands on a copy of Dark Souls. I was waffling for a long time between the 360/PS3 versions, but after hearing framerate complaints from a few reviewers with 360 pre-release copies, I went PS3.

I'm about six hours into the game or so, and progress is relatively slow although it's been a very rich experience so far.Interestingly (and granted, I'm still quite early) it doesn't seem so much like a true sequel to Demon’s Souls, so much as it feels like a modified and expanded reboot.

Although there have been several changes to the formula, players already familiar with Demon’s will recognize several areas and situations that are extremely familiar. That's not to say it's a bad thing at all, since Demon’s Souls is one of my favorite games of all time, but I am a little surprised at how much seems lifted straight from the first game.

In any event, here’s a quick list of things that are different for those of you who haven't jumped into Dark Souls yet:

>The game’s sections have been redesigned to be one huge, interconnected world. Although there is a "starting point", there is no more hub and each level must be traveled to -- there are no warp-enabled Archstones from which to select.

>players can carry infinite items, level up and repair weapons at the campfires scattered throughout the world -- since there’s no Nexus to return to, all of those functions have been redesigned to be utilized on the go.

>Players come equipped with an “Estus Flask” that's used to restore life as needed, and it's refilled every time the player returns to a campfire.

>One semi-spoilery difference that was quite a surprise to me was that boss-level monsters often drop special weapons and/or armor depending on whether or not the player hits them in a certain area. I won't say any more than that, but be aware that it's a thing to consider when taking on the bigger bad guys.

I won't say any more for the moment, but from most accounts, the game is somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-70 hours... I'm sure I'll be mentioning it again here before long.


Games: A quick shout-out for PSN’s Rochard. I've written the review and I'm planning to try and get an interview with the development team, but in the meantime, do yourself a favor and just buy it... it's a 2D platformer using physics and gravity effects, and it's really, really well-done.

In fact, some of the puzzles are just perfect -- they definitely make you think, but none are so hard that you'll go running to GameFAQs, which for me, is just the way they should be. It's certainly one of the best download games I've spent time with this year and Sony is doing an awful job of PR with it. I'll post links to my coverage when it goes up, but trust me when I say that it is well worth the $10 asking price.


TV: If you're a Walking Dead fan (and really, who’s not?) pop on over to AMC’s website and watch the brand new six-episode web-only series.

This quickie tells the backstory of the crawling torso-only zombie that Rick goes out of his way to lay to rest way back in episode one. It's a neat callback and it's free, so when you've got twenty minutes or so, it's a good fix until the season starts.


Comics: I've been meaning to post more about comics, but it's been one thing after another and I’ve been putting it off for far too long. So, as a way of re-kick-starting my comics coverage, I've got guest blogger @Nightdreamer (a GameCritics regular for many years) covering three of the recent DC reboot titles.

@Nightdreamer sez…

Swamp Thing #1 -- Here’s one that I just could not get into.

Scott Snyder's 10-issue run in Detective Comics 871-881 -- which I recommend -- reveals his writing chops for evoking terrifying imagery. Having read Swamp Thing's legendary Alan Moore run, I was led to think that a good Swamp Thing story has to be creepy, surrealist, and full of symbolism. So, the logical conclusion is that horror-writer Snyder should fit Swamp Thing perfectly. He might, and maybe I'm just not seeing things clearly, but I could not read Swamp Thing 1 without feeling befuddled.

So let me see if I'm getting this right: Swamp Thing (originally) was a metamorphosis of the scientist Alec Holland, but Alan Moore rewrote him as a botanical creature imbued with a dead Alec Holland's memory. Then during (the excruciatingly awful) Brightest Day event, Alec Holland was revived and became one and the same with Swamp Thing. Now with the 52 relaunch, Scott Snyder has Alec Holland as independent from Swamp Thing, but they share memories?!

Sorry, but as competently done as Swamp Thing 1 is for an introduction, I don't think I have the mental capacity or the willingness to digest Swamp Thing's super-convoluted lore.

Batgirl #1

When word came out that DC Comics was reverting Barbara Gordon from Oracle to Batgirl, comic fans on the Internet went wild. So DC managed to placate the Internet - no small feat, that - by tying the Internet's favorite author, Gail Simone, to Batgirl's solo title.

This was DC's big misstep. DC has a pattern of creating diverse characters, and then removing them and/or losing whatever made them progressive. Cases in point: Ryan Choi (Asian, dead), Cassandra Cain (Asian, replaced by white Stephanie Brown), and Amanda Waller, a tough-as-nails character who lost her distinction as the rare overweight female in comics.

Babs Gordon is among the latest victims. As Oracle, the hacker and information broker vital to many other superheroes from DC, she was a prominent disabled character in comics. Having returned as Batgirl, she became another chatty female crimefighter following the same character archetype as the previous Batgirl, Stephanie Brown. While DC's reasoning for Babs regaining her role is due to her version of Batgirl being the most recognizable, why did they put her in an ugly, changed version of her iconic costume? And if DC was really trying to draw in new readers, why isn't Batgirl 1 an origin story like Batgirl: Year One?

All controversies aside, Batgirl 1 is remarkably awful.

The first error is DC's attempt to reconcile Babs' history as Oracle to the new continuity. In Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke", the Joker shot Babs and paralyzed her from the waist down. According to Batgirl 1, all that still happened, but Babs did not become Oracle due to her determination to make a difference despite her paraplegia.

What we have now is Babs restoring the use of her legs because three months after the hit, because MIRACLES! Comics are rife with them! MIRACLES are so common, in fact, that they don't even warrant a ridiculous explanation anymore! We don't see otherworldly forces interfering with history, or Bruce Wayne bargaining with the devil to get Babs to walk again. She just regains the use of her legs through positive thinking and we're expected to go along with it, because that is the power of MIRACLES!

Beyond this, Batgirl 1 is just a generic story about a new foe in Gotham. Excessively chatty Batgirl excessively chats to the readers about her self-confidence, until she freezes up when the new foe aims his gun where Joker previously shot her. While she’s shocked, the new foe tosses a different person out of the window. A policeman standing besides Babs (aiming a gun at the foe a moment ago) now aims at Babs and blames her for the murder of the newly defenestrated! Instead of, you know, shooting the bad guy!

Make sense of that if you can!

Batwing #1

Batwing first emerged from the pages of Batman Inc. #5, a comic series where Bruce Wayne expands his Bat franchise.

Among the members of the (terribly written, incidentally) Batman Inc. is an African Batman, named Batwing. DC decided to star Batwing in his own solo title, probably because he’s a perfect clean slate character -- there really is no slate to clean! Batwing exists to protect a real-world country that’s more corrupt than a fictitious Gotham City, and Gotham City's corruption is confined only by imagination. (Meaning: Africa's corruption exceeds your imagination!)

The disappointment with Batwing is its predictability. Think of stories or movies purposefully set in Africa to portray its poverty, and you'd have a good chance of predicting what you'll see in Batwing. That predictability extends to Batwing's alter ego, David Zamvimbi -- the lone person of integrity in a landscape of corruption.

Also to be expected is the uncompromising depiction of violence, and Batwing shows severed limbs and heads. Despite that, though, I liked Batwing's concept because it draws parallels between Gotham City and Africa. As a lone, incorrigible figure of authority, Batwing is a combination of Batman and Commissioner Gordon, which is interesting.

While nothing I read in Batwing blew me away (and I'm not really anxious for #2) at least it's one of DC's new 52 that shows enough promise to get me to stick to it until it starts to suck!


That’s it for tonight. Mega-thanks to @Nightdreamer for contributing!


Thursday, October 6, 2011

No update tonight...  

...I FINALLY got my hands on a copy of Dark Souls.  Check back tomorrow.  ^_^

Monday, October 3, 2011

Hands-On Preview - Containment: the Zombie Puzzler (iPad/Mac/PC)  


Games: A while ago, I covered the Seattle Indie Expo (you can read about it here, in case you missed it) and I was blown away by the quality of the games being shown. Every one looked fantastic, but one that really caught my attention was Containment: the Zombie Puzzler.

Developed by my hometown neighbors Bootsnake Games, the good people of that studio were kind enough to invite me and several other members of PNWJournos down to their offices for an up-close-and-personal session with the title. Our verdict after two hours? Loved it. (By the way, there's a great trailer for the game on the Bootsnake site, BUT the graphics look much better now -- that's an earlier version shown.)

If you haven't heard the details yet, Containment is a brilliant new puzzler with a very unique slant: in addition to being an unusual match-type game, it's also about surviving the zombie apocalypse.

Here's how it works...

Each board in Containment takes place in a particular environment. Rather than having a standard static playfield, matches happen in the street, near gas stations, between wrecked cars, and a number of other locations.

on the roof...
Every round starts with a large group of people and zombies mixed together. The goal of the game is to eliminate all zombies from the playfield (naturally.) This is done by surrounding them on all sides with people of the same type -- effectively, “containing" them. The game offers Scientists, Policeman, Anarchists, and Military characters, each with their respective colors. When enough people of the same type make a circle around the undead, they unleash an attack and annihilate them with extreme prejudice.

This by itself would be more than enough for the average puzzle game, but Bootsnake has really gone above and beyond in adding elements that make the game stand out.

For example, each group of characters award special power-up items when they're used to make a match. Kill some zombies with the Police, and players can call in a sniper to eliminate any one zombie from the board. Eliminate the undead with the Anarchists and Molotov Cocktails are produced, exploding with flame and burning in a random pattern.

...and down below.
Further sweetening the experience are the environmental interactions that take place in each area. The player can knock over garbage cans or open dumpsters for random rewards, and there are often explosive canisters or damaged signs hanging overhead that can be knocked down into the playfield to crush zombies. Even better, the developers say that there are multiple pathways through the game depending on what action the player takes in the world. In one level I had the option to blow up a building’s structural support -- if I demolished it, no further zombies would be able to enter the playfield, but no human reinforcements would be able to arrive either. I decided to go for it, and found out that my route to the end of the level had changed since that road was now effectively "closed" due to the damage.

Another way that the game reinforces the concept of being "in" a world is at zombies will often wander into the playfield from other parts of the level. If the current puzzle is set in the street, the undead can come from any direction that a path is open. They also sometimes drop into the playfield from the rooftops above, and if zombies are left on the board for too long, they’ll attack nearby characters and turn them undead as well. Having to contend with several real-time elements in addition to the concentration that’s needed to match correct characters on the board gives the game to feel that much more intense than the average puzzler. It's almost like combat.

Although details are not final, Containment: the Zombie Puzzler is slated for release before the end of 2011 on iPad, Mac and PC, and will cost approximately $5. Players taking the plunge can expect a story-based campaign running for approximately 6 hours, including several different locations to play through and a number of boss-class zombie battles to survive. There will also be a more traditional "survival" mode for those who just want to puzzle without going through the campaign again.

at the renfaire!
If you ask me, truly unique puzzle games are few and far between, but Containment: the Zombie Puzzler caught my attention from the first time I laid eyes on it, and after getting two solid hours to put it through its paces, I can honestly say that I was not disappointed. If you read this blog with any regularity, you probably know that I'm not the biggest fan of PC gaming for a number of reasons, but I have been known to do so for special titles that shouldn't be missed. Containment: the Zombie Puzzler is absolutely on my radar, and I'm going to be there on day one.

If you read all the way to the bottom of this preview? You should be too.