Pokemon X/Y Review

I finally did it. After receiving Pokemon Y from my host family in Japan, having to buy a Japanese 3DS because the 3DS is region-locked, and a failed attempt at playing the game in Japanese, I beat it. I’ve been playing Pokemon since Gold/Silver when I was in 3rd grade, and I’ve been obsessed ever since. Pokemon is still my favorite video game franchise. Needless to say, each new game holds a special place in my heart. So let’s get right into it!

Continue reading Pokemon X/Y Review

Rayman Origins Review

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Rayman Origins kicked my ass. Again and again. And it was awesome.

This game is incredibly hard. Just beating the game is hard enough, and if you’re a completionist, getting all the Lums, Skull Teeth, Time Trial Trophies, Medals, and costumes is going to take you a long time. There is a ton of content, and you can choose if it’s worth pursuing. Me, I was happy unlocking and beating every level, including the last one, which is HARD.

But let’s start with the presentation. It’s gorgeous. The artwork looks hand-drawn, and apparently, that’s because the game uses Ubisoft’s “Ubi Art” framework, which supposedly allows artists to use concept art as real, in-game assets. Well, it paid off, because Rayman Origins looks unlike any other game out there. The characters, enemies, worlds, all look full of life and vibrant colors, making them pop. I would’ve spent more time looking at the game if it weren’t going by in a blur! The enemies are pretty weird and quirky, but I expect nothing less from a Rayman game.

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And the music. Oh, the music. It’s fantastic. The music has character. Cute voices sing along in weird, made-up languages to the catchy melodies. I even tried looking for a soundtrack online, since it was so good. The music helps alleviate the frustration of dying over and over.

And speaking of dying: you will die. A lot. If you’re the type of person who gets easily frustrated, and plays games mostly for the story, you should probably steer clear of this one. There’s not much of a story here anyway, but that doesn’t matter, because the gameplay is just so much fun. In fact, I completely forgot why Rayman was on this quest in the first place, and when I got to the final boss, I didn’t even know who it was. But it’s okay, because the gameplay more than makes up for it.

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Every time I died, I knew it was my fault, not the game’s. The controls are tight, pretty much as good as a Mario platformer, which is high praise. But it’s the level design where this game truly shines. Each level is designed to be difficult, but achievable, if you memorize the layout and how far you should jump here, whether you should hover there, things like that. The levels that stand out are the “chase” levels, where you chase a treasure chest through a level. You can’t stop at all—you’ve got to keep running the whole way. Every jump, every punch has to be perfect. You’ve got to learn the level by playing it over and over until you can beat it perfectly, and when you do, it’s immensely satisfying.

If you’re a fan of platformers, or Rayman, or are up for a challenge, than I highly recommend this game. I don’t think I’ve played a non-Mario platformer as good as this in a long time.

9.5 

Paper Mario: Sticker Star Review

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Wow, I’m glad I got a 3DS. Animal Crossing, Pokemon X&Y, Luigi’s Mansion…there are just too many great games. Having played all the other Paper Mario games, I figured this one would be good too. And it’s…well…it is good, just not that good. After the amazing The Thousand-Year Door, Super Paper Mario let me down, and I have to say, Sticker Star let me down again.

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It looks like Paper Mario, it sounds like Paper Mario, but…it just doesn’t feel like Paper Mario. It doesn’t have the charm and humor of its predecessors. What I loved about Thousand-Year Door was its relatively complex story (for a Mario game) and how different it was from any other Mario game. That, combined with colorful characters and epic battles, made it one of my favorite GameCube games. Sticker Star doesn’t really have any of that. The only other characters besides you, Princess Peach, and Bowser are Kersti (your talking sticker companion) and a bunch of Toads. That’s it.

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As a result, I didn’t really get invested in the game. Sure, most Mario games don’t have a compelling story or characters, and you could make the argument that that’s not what they’re about—it’s gameplay that really matters. And in the Super Mario Bros. series, you’d be right. But Paper Mario is a platformer/RPG hybrid, and in an RPG, I expect a good story/characters. I’ve come to expect that from past Paper Mario games, and sadly I just didn’t get it here.

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So when it came time to fight a boss or collect a Royal Sticker (this game’s important collectables) I found myself asking, Why? Why am I even doing this? I wanted epic boss battles, and instead, got bosses with little or no introduction. You just sort of start fighting. There’s no fanfare, nothing to excite you. 

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And again, normally that’d be okay, but not in Paper Mario. I will say, though, that the gameplay is solid. I disliked the direction Super Paper Mario took in getting rid of nearly every RPG aspect, and I’m glad they brought back turn-based battles. Battling in Sticker Star goes like this: you select one of your stickers, like a Jump or Hammer sticker, and use it against your enemy. I liked the variety of different moves I could use, and timing button presses perfectly and learning enemy attack patterns was a lot of fun. However, I don’t like having a finite amount of stickers that you have to use sparingly. I learned later on in my playthrough that it is actually better to avoid enemies when you can, because you often end up using more stickers than you get out of battling them. And because there’s no XP or level-up, there’s really no reason to battle enemies, except to get coins or a sticker. This is unfortunate, because I have always enjoyed Paper Mario’s battle system. If they’d let me have a default Jump or Hammer without having to use a sticker, that would’ve been nice.

Another thing worth mentioning: the boss battles. They all have an insanely high amount of health, and each one basically requires a certain sticker to defeat. You don’t learn what it is until the second time you fight it, so basically you have to fight it three times to beat it, which is terrible design. Not to mention, many of these “Thing” stickers (stickers of everyday objects that do something special in combat or the overworld) are difficult to find, and you really aren’t given any hints about where they are, so you will likely get stuck in a level and have to comb the levels you’ve already beaten to find it. (Use a guide. It’s not worth it.)

Another change made to the Paper Mario formula is the world layout. It now looks more like Super Mario World, where you can select your level via an overworld map, without having to actually travel there. I actually like this, as it better suits play on-the-go, and lets me just sit down and beat one level in a relatively short time, if I don’t have much time.

Despite all my complaints, I did enjoy playing the game. It’s a good game—I never wanted to just stop playing altogether—but it falls short of the other Paper Mario games, making it (I think) the worst in the series. It just lacks the personality and charm of the other games, and by getting rid of leveling up and making you have a finite amount of attacks, it sort of discourages battling, which is one of its stronger aspects. It’s really too bad; I was looking forward to this game. Here’s hoping what they do on Wii U is better.

6.5

Pixel People Review

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Ever since the advent of social and casual games, I’ve been staunchly against them. I consider myself a hardcore gamer through and through, and told myself I would never play an iPhone game. Well, slowly I’ve warmed up to the idea of gaming in short bursts—in the bathroom, in the car, or if you just don’t have time to sit down for a long gaming sesh. It started with Temple Run, then Draw Something, then Flow, and now, Pixel People. I saw that it got a 9 on IGN, so basically I was obligated to check it out. Not to mention it’s free.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that this game ate (eats) up a lot of my time. A lot.

Here’s the premise: you are the mayor of the city of Utopia. Utopia exists in a vacuum—literally in space—and as mayor you are able to design it how you see fit. It shows you the city in an isometric grid, and you are given a certain amount of land to use for building whatever you want: roads, waterways, banks, universities, stadiums, whatever. Once you run out of land, you must pay a certain amount of coins (the in-game currency) to “level up” and get more land.

A city needs people, so to add people, you create clones. In an odd but straightforward method, you splice together different jobs to get new jobs. Each clone makes a certain amount of coins per second, and works in a certain type of building. The main “goal” is to get all the (currently 155) jobs. Pixel People doesn’t let you just sit on your ass and let the money roll in, however. A building will only make money for a certain amount of time before it needs to “recharge,” which you do by tapping it. However, the game accommodates your play style. Want to just sit down for a while and play? There’s plenty to do. Or, do something else for a while and the game continues on without you.

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Everything takes a certain amount of time, which you can speed up by spending “Utopium.” Utopium is rare, and you get it either from trees you’ve planted, or from gathering love from your people. Alternatively, you could pay real money to get more in-game coins or utopium, but if you don’t want to spend any, you can play just fine. I never spent any money and I’ve kept myself entertained the entire time I’ve played.

Pixel People may seem simple and straightforward, and for the most part, it is. However, it does have depth, more so than most other casual games (at least, the ones I’ve played). It will keep you busy, so if you’re already busy then maybe playing it isn’t the best idea (I probably should have been studying instead…probably should be studying right now actually). But if you’re looking to kill some time, Pixel People is an addicting and worthwhile way to do it.

8/10

Botanicula Review

Botanicula is one of the most beautiful, quirky games I have ever played. A point-and-click adventure game by Amanita Design, Botanicula doesn’t last long, but it holds your attention the whole time.

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Amanita Design is known for its old-school, point-and-click adventure games—you may have heard of its other game, Machinarium. In a time filled with first-person-shooters, Botanicula is a breath of fresh air. The last point-and-click game I played was probably Pajama Sam or Putt-Putt. Botanicula brought me back to those much simpler games. The gameplay is slow and calculated, letting you take in the artwork and puzzles at your own pace. I spent several minutes just staring at the beautiful art design. That is Botanicula’s main thrust: its unique, quirky art design sets it apart from other games. It almost kind of reminded me of a stop-motion Tim Burton or Henry Selick film.

Not to mention the fantastic sound design. The art and sound design work together to give the game a wholesome, organic feel. It sounded like most of the sounds were made with human mouths and voices, which was really cool. The music is relaxing and ambient.

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The gameplay is pretty straight-forward: solve puzzles with your mouse, have the characters move from screen to screen. The puzzles are pretty easy, which I didn’t mind at all, aside from one tricky puzzle near the end that I had to look up. Each group of levels has you collect a certain number of somethings to proceed. There are also cards to unlock by interacting with certain characters or objects. The game doesn’t give much incentive to actually collect the cards, since all they are are cards featuring a character, but the reward is in the discovery itself. Setting off a cool animation, discovering secrets—this is all the incentive the player needs.

Needless to say, I loved this game, and at $5 on GOG.com, plus all the extra stuff they threw in (artwork, wallpaper, soundtrack, avatars—check out my Tumblr avatar) it was totally worth it. I definitely recommend this game to the gamer who likes to stop and smell the flowers.

9.0

Mass Effect/Mass Effect 2 Double Review

A couple nights ago I finally finished Mass Effect 2, right after I had beaten Mass Effect 1. (Yes I know I’m late to the party.) After hearing such great things about the franchise, my expectations were high. I was not disappointed. Since I played both games consecutively, I’m just going to review both of them here.

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Mass Effect is an RPG/third-person-shooter hybrid. Mass Effect 1 leans more towards RPG, while 2 leans closer to third-person-shooter. It might sound a bit awkward but it actually works quite well. The gameplay in 2 is better, however, because it is much more seamless and the action never gets interrupted like it does in 1. In 1, I was constantly comparing new weapons I obtained to see which one had higher stats, and I kept having to get rid of extra weapons when my inventory became full. This happened more often than it should have and interrupted the flow of gameplay. However, this problem is solved in 2, because your inventory is limitless, and all weapons and equipment are pretty balanced, and there are much fewer of them, making the decision process much simpler.

The main RPG aspect of the games is the level-up system: each time you level up, you gain points to spend on stats. I enjoyed this part of the game—being able to fully customize your character’s skills is very nice. It is even more streamlined in 2, which has fewer skills but bigger upgrades to them. 

The last aspect of the gameplay I would like to mention is more story-based: in Mass Effect, story is what really shines. Player choice is at the forefront—you are able to choose paragon (good), neutral, or renegade (bad) during any dialogue tree, and you can make lasting decisions that actually affect future events, EVEN IN FUTURE GAMES. This is freaking awesome and blew my mind. I’ve never played a game where I had to think carefully about how my decisions would affect my playthrough of the next game in the series. Huge respect for Bioware.

And this isn’t one of those games where they say that your decisions matter but in the end they really don’t. (Although I’ve heard some things about Mass Effect 3…) Your decisions can mean life or death for your crewmates, or even entire species. 

Mass Effect has one of the best narratives I have ever encountered in video games. The universe is just so detailed, it feels alive, breathing. Characters remember you and your actions, and they respond accordingly. The lore and background of each alien species is fascinating—you can read about the Mass Effect universe in your Codex if you’re intrigued. To me, it’s really the Star Wars of video games. This is the most realized sci-fi world I’ve experienced in a video game.

The fact that you control the story’s outcome every step of the way means that every player is going to have a different experience. One of my favorite things to do while playing was to talk to my friend about the choices he made, and how our stories diverged. It is incredible that Bioware was able to make the story come together so well. It also means that it has great replay value. If you start a new game, you can play a different class, a different gender, make different decisions, and you will have a completely new experience. 

Graphics-wise, Mass Effect 2 is a huge step-up from 1, and it looked and ran beautifully on my PC. 2 did have a few annoying glitches that forced me to quit, and 1’s gameplay mechanics were pretty inferior compared to 2 (I hated the freaking Mako’s controls). But these complaints are minor compared to the incredible experience these games provided. They are seriously like nothing else I have ever played. If you haven’t played them yet, there’s no time like the present. Now I wait patiently for Mass Effect 3 to drop in price…

Mass Effect: 9.0

Mass Effect 2: 9.5

Braid Review

This is the second time I’ve played Braid. I wasn’t able to solve all the puzzles without a guide either time. Braid is not a game I would call “accessible.” However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Braid’s gameplay forces you to think in ways you don’t normally, in ways you thought you never would. Jonathan Blow, the creator, said he hoped it would be “mind-expanding,” and it certainly was for me. It simultaneously pays homage to and deconstructs platform games and how we approach them as gamers.

The classic platform games of the NES and SNES eras are often celebrated for how difficult they were. They required pinpoint accuracy and razor-sharp reflexes. Braid is difficult for very different reasons. Wrapping your brain around each new mechanic is incredibly hard, and once you feel you’ve mastered the concept, putting it into practice is an entirely different story. This translates to the narrative as well—it is very deep and whenever I thought I had a piece of the puzzle, something else comes up and I don’t know what to make of it. An interesting thing to note is that you can actually blow through the game without collecting all the puzzle pieces, but you won’t see the ending, which is really the crux of the narrative, unless you do. Blow rewards players for engaging with the game and understanding its systems.

In many ways, Braid is a critique of modern gaming trends. Its references to Super Mario Bros. and its very different take on the “save the princess” motif are particularly striking, but something else I noticed is that you really aren’t given very much choice. Each puzzle has exactly one way to solve it. It is very deliberate, almost scientific puzzle design. A trend in modern games is giving the player more choice, and making those choices have impacts on the game world. “Open-world” is the name of the game; “linear” is almost a bad word. Since you can’t really die in Braid, it’s kind of like a sandbox for the player to experiment in, which could have lent well to having more player choice, but Blow’s decision to make the game without choice provides a very different experience. Since the gameplay is so scientific and exact, it makes me think that the narrative is similar, in that there may be only one way you are supposed to interpret it. In his interview with the AV Club, Blow seems to suggest that some people get it and others just don’t. I think he intended for there really to be only one interpretation of the work. “Braid isn’t a subjective work of creativity: it’s a system, meticulously designed to convey a meaning that really isn’t up to broad interpretation. If you think the puzzles are too rigid, or you hate the text – maybe it’s because you don’t understand the point. If you pull an interpretation out of thin air, it’s probably wrong.”

Aside from gameplay and narrative, Braid features beautiful, painstakingly crafted graphics. The backgrounds look as if they are alive, using particles and other effects to give the illusion that they are moving. But they don’t distract from the gameplay, because everything in the foreground is sharper and more focused. The music is also very beautiful, and works well with the time-rewinding mechanic, playing backwards when you reverse time. A particularly cool instance of this is in one world where time is mapped to left and right movement—that is, moving left rewinds time, and moving right moves time forward—and a lullaby is played, forwards and backwards in time with your character.

Everything in Braid is there for a reason. There are no random platforms, no random enemies. Everything is very deliberate, everything has a purpose. The same goes for the narrative. It is clear that a ton of work went into making the game as polished as possible. The puzzle and platform design is very tight. My only complaints are that the game is unnecessarily frustrating at times, and I don’t see how anyone could solve some of the puzzles without using a guide. There is no mistaking it—Braid is a hard game. But it is so worth playing. If the ending doesn’t blow your mind, I’d be very surprised.

9/10

The Path Review

I just recently played The Path by indie developer Tale of Tales. I had to play it for my media studies class. I don’t think a video game has ever evoked as many emotions in me as this game. 

Let me start this by saying that I don’t even know if The Path should be considered a game. In fact, the developers often call it an “anti-game.” It is more of an interactive art piece, which is why I won’t be attaching a score to this review. However, it does have a few game-y elements, like collectibles and a map and goals. Nevertheless, this game is not for everyone. But if you open your mind, and let this game take you away, you will likely find it very rewarding.

The Path has you playing as six different girls, each representing a different stage of a girl’s life between 9-19. (The developers talked about this and other aspects of the game in a post-mortem essay here) It is basically a retelling of the old fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood. You start on the path, and text appearing on screen tells you to go to your grandmother’s house, and stay on the path. So, that’s what I did the first time. However, staying on the path actually results in a failure, and you are forced to start over. I was so confused. Years of playing video games has taught me to always obey instructions. Am I supposed to deliberately disobey? So during my second attempt, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a girl in a white dress running in the woods. I went off the path and followed her. The colors began fading and everything turned greyscale. The atmosphere is incredibly dim and foreboding.

I followed the girl into a graveyard, where my character made some morbid remarks. You can interact with certain objects to add memories to your basket (inventory), such as the skull that my character buried in the ground.

With no onscreen instructions and no map, I was left to wander aimlessly through the forest. I tried to get back to the path, but to my horror, I discovered that once you leave the path, it is impossible to get back. If you just keep walking, you will eventually loop around again, which I could see from the map of your trail which flashes on screen every 100 meters. 

Every girl has her “wolf,” which apparently is supposed to be like each of one of the developer’s ex-boyfriends. They are archetypes for men. One is a lumberjack who spends all day chopping at trees and drinking beer. Another is the “cool guy” who is smooth and wears a leather jacket. These aren’t your typical “wolves” and took me by surprise. I didn’t know they were the wolves until I completed the first chapter and it said “Wolf encountered: yes!” Wolf? I don’t remember seeing a wolf…was the wolf…WATCHING ME?

These wolves are pretty much ordinary people on the surface (except for the werewolf) but your character often talks about the romance or fascination with giving in and submitting. A sort of perverse enjoyment out of not being in control. 

And to relate this to the actual mechanics of the game, you don’t have much control as a player. You can walk, run, or interact with objects, but you don’t decide how your character interacts with the objects—she does. And maybe you wanted to be a good girl and just stay on the path, but you’re penalized for it. You are essentially forced to get yourself lost. Never before have I played a video game where I was actually encouraged to get lost—and never have I been more enticed by it.

After you meet your wolf, you black out, and wake up lying in front of your grandmother’s house in the rain. You walk very slowly, almost in a trance, into the house, where you go on an on-rails, first-person journey through it. This is definitely the weirdest part of the game, and I can barely begin to interpret it. And it is up to you to interpret what happened during the blackout. I have heard people say that you were raped, but I don’t think that’s what the designers intended. I think it is your character coming to a sudden realization, perhaps the loss of her innocence, snatched away by her wolf. When she goes into grandmother’s house, everything is chaos, and not the way it used to be. I have heard that you are murdered in the house, but really it’s open to interpretation.

That’s what I love about games like this. You are completely free to interpret them in the way you want to. That’s what makes this game art—it evokes different responses, and means something different, to each individual. The soundtrack, the art design, all contribute to making The Path a truly beautiful game. 

My only complaint might be that this game is far too slow. I understand that it is a stop-and-smell-the-flowers kind of game, where you are supposed to take in all the sights and explore everything, but the walking speed is much slower than it needs to be, and frustrated me. You can run, but I stopped running early on because I realized that it actually makes things worse. The camera lifts up and gives an overhead view, with your character at the top of the screen, making it impossible to see what’s in front of you, and it gets much darker on top of that. Also, the coin flowers that you are supposed to collect (there are 144 of them, for symbolic reasons that won’t really make sense unless you read the developer’s blog) disappear when you begin running. So the game basically encourages you to walk the whole time. I’d rather you be able to run, without the negative side-effects.

This game divided people into two camps: the more hardcore gamers who criticized it for not even really being a game, and the more casual ones who loved everything about it. But what’s important is that more games like this need to be made, or the video game industry will never evolve. We have enough Call of Duty’s; we need more games like this that push intellectual boundaries and actually stimulate us, the way literature and cinema have for decades. This is as “art game” as it gets, and I loved it. If you open your mind and give it a chance, I think you will too.