First impressions: Demon’s Souls, Bastion, Half-Minute Hero

Here are some of the games I started recently in lieu of pressing on with The Witcher 2

 

Demon’s Souls (PS3) – The infamously difficult action-RPG. As at the end of the first level, it’s actually much less difficult than I was expecting – it’s certainly less  frustrating than the opening sections of God Hand or The Witcher 2. It helps that I’m using a walkthrough and playing as the easiest starting class, whose ranged magic attack can OHKO most of the first level’s enemies. This doesn’t mean it’s easy. My magic takes time to lock on and cast, which leaves me vulnerable to being swarmed in close quarters; if you let attacks get past your shield or fail to dodge, you can die in a few solid hits; and if that happens, there’s the loss of time from having to replay swathes of a stage*. The one boss fight that I did was actually really cool: I ran from cover to cover taking pot shots, realised my approach wasn’t working, then pulled my sword and CHARGED! – what a thrill that was.  The online aspects of the game are also nifty – you can see ghostly outlines of other players, which once alerted me to an ambush (the ghost ran past a corner, then raised its sword to attack a foe I hadn’t seen), and touching bloodstains will let you see others’ last moments. I’m not sure how much more time I can spare for this game, but the first few hours were worth it.

 

* You can unlock shortcuts that allow you to bypass chunks of a level if you have to restart; however, there will still be some need to clear out respawned foes.

 

Bastion (PC) – Indie isometric action-RPG. I estimate I’m around halfway through, and so far, I’d consider this good but unspectacular. The game’s world is imaginative, colourfully drawn and fleshed out by omnipresent narration. Each stage feels distinct, both from an art and a gameplay perspective – some will involve a fairly long Macguffin hunt, in some you’ll find your Macguffin early but then have to flee a gauntlet of foes, and others steadily ramp up to boss battles. The combat feels fluid, as you alternate use of your shield, your various weapons, and manoeuvre. The difficulty level feels right – the mandatory stages start out reasonably easy (you can up the difficulty if you choose – I haven’t done so) while the optional stages are geared towards players who want a challenge. Yet, and this is very subjective, nothing so far has stood out enough for to consider the game “great”. I’m probably going to reserve this for when I’m too tired to play more involved titles.

 

Half-Minute Hero (PSP) – Now this is a clever concept. The flagship gameplay mode, “Hero 30”, is an 8-bit RPG boiled down into 30-second stages – level up, shop for better gear, recruit NPC allies, and then head for the boss’s lair! In practice, you’ll need more time than that, which is where one of the game’s key mechanics, paying the Goddess of Time to reset the clock, comes into play. As such, the challenge in each stage revolves around finding the right balance (on the fly!) between grinding, tackling the stage-specific challenges, allocating money between the Goddess, equipment, or other NPCs, and leaving enough time to reach the boss. A few hours in, I like its fast pace, I like its sense of humour, and just as with Recettear and Frozen Synapse, I like its original premise, and I’m already looking forward to the sequel (coming to Europe in October).

 

Take to the skies with these upcoming indie games: AirMech and Guns of Icarus Online

Sometimes, sequels and remakes are exactly what the doctor ordered. In recent weeks, two upcoming air combat-themed indie games have caught my attention: AirMech and Guns of Icarus Online.

 

AirMech

 

The further advanced of the two is Carbon GamesAirMech. This is basically a modern remake of one of my childhood favourites, Herzog Zwei:

 

 

Never played Herzog Zwei or Brutal Legend, another game it inspired? AirMech is an action/RTS hybrid where you fly about in your plane, purchase units and then transport them to the front, and drop down into robot mode to engage enemies on the ground. But watch out for surface-to-air missiles! Up to four humans or AIs can play at a time, and victory goes to the player whose army can destroy the others’ starting strongholds.

 

I’ve spent about an hour with various alpha builds of the game, and from a presentation standpoint, it’s already impressively polished. I particularly like its bright, colourful and slightly stylised art – this is how an updated Herzog should  look! The gameplay and interface are still being tweaked – the latest build plays very differently to the one I tried just a couple of weeks ago – but based on what the developers have achieved so far, I’m optimistic that the game can reach its potential. This just cries out for a Stompers of Comps multiplayer AAR, so stay tuned post-release…

 

Guns of Icarus Online

 

The other title to catch my eye is Muse Games’ Guns of Icarus Online, a steampunk airship MMO shooter. No actual gameplay in the following trailer, but it does look cool:

 

 

Critics were unimpressed with the original Guns of Icarus (which I never played), but the developers have acknowledged that “our ambition outstripped our schedule” for the original game; for the sequel, Muse is apparently better resourced and has benefited from its experience developing other games. While there will be PVP, I’m more interested in the “exploration” promised for the cooperative mode. At this stage there isn’t enough information to judge whether the developers can execute on this vision, but if they can, this could just turn out to be the steampunk airship Pirates! that I’ve been calling for. Worth keeping an eye on.

Flower – The Verdict

One of the gameplay elements that made 2006’s Okami so special was its emphasis on healing the world. As creation goddess Amaterasu (incarnated as a wolf), smiting evildoers was only the beginning; as you restored sacred cherry blossoms, nature would spring back to life in a blaze of colour. It was beautiful, it was triumphant, and it fit the theme of the game.

 

Well, Flower is that element turned into an entire, albeit short, game. In Flower, you control the wind, as it blows a petal across the landscape. Fly up to other flowers, and they’ll blossom, releasing petals to join you – soon, your one lonely petal will have turned into a flying trail of colour, almost like a prettier Katamari Damacy. Blossom all the flowers in an area, and you’ll revitalise the world. Withered fields will spring back to life, boulders will part, new flowers will sprout for you to collect, and new areas will unlock.

 

As far as game mechanics are concerned, that is pretty much it, although certain other features of the landscape will become important as you progress*. There are no enemies, no conflict, no timer, and no fail-state. A challenging test of skill this is not; if you play games solely for that reason, then Flower is not for you. What it is, instead, is one of the most unique, prettiest, and most relaxing titles I’ve played. Text-based descriptions of gameplay mechanics can’t do justice to what makes this game work – the combination of fluid controls (tilt the controller to steer, press any button to move ahead), unique premise, and art design.  The world in bloom is a glorious sight – but that art design can also turn far more ominous, effectively changing the mood without a word being said.  That makes it all the sweeter when you do restore the world.

 

All in all, I’d recommend Flower for any gamer after a simple, unique, pleasant experience. It’s particularly suitable to play while tired or stressed. The game isn’t long, but it ought to put a smile on your face while it lasts.

 

* I’m being vague here to avoid spoilers.

 

You can buy Flower via Amazon (warning – US PSN store only).

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

The basis of my review

 

Time spent with the game: A few hours.

 

What I have played: The entire game.

 

What I haven’t played: n/a

The Witcher 2: Strengths and weaknesses, so far

This is my second post on The Witcher 2.

 

1.  First impressions

2. Strengths and weaknesses (as of early Act 2)

 

I’ve now played a bit more of The Witcher 2 – I’m now up to early Act 2 – and I can elaborate on when it works best for me… and when it doesn’t.

 

My starting point is the familiar argument about whether games should focus on scripted storytelling or open-world gameplay. As an argument, this is silly – the only correct answer can be, “It depends” – but it provides a useful framework for thinking about the experience Witcher 2 offers, because the game’s strongest suit is its story. I like talking to NPCs, I like watching the more compelling NPCs in action, and I like finding out what happens next.

 

As such, the game’s prologue, steep learning curve aside, made a great first impression on me because it had such a high ratio of (quality) storytelling to gameplay: plenty of cutscenes, plenty of NPC interaction, and because it was so heavily scripted, every minute of gameplay pushed the story forward by directly advancing Geralt towards his goals.

 

In contrast, I didn’t enjoy Act 1 as much as I did the prologue because it reduced that storytelling : gameplay ratio. It did this in a couple of ways – first, the game opened up, but as a result, I spent much more time running around a town and surrounding environment that I didn’t care much for, and much less time actually progressing the story. In some games, such as Fallout 3, just wandering about in the open is a pleasure, but for me, Act 1 of The Witcher 2, with its narrow paths, was not. And crucially, the pacing of the story quests themselves sagged – while I disagree with Edge’s review of the game*, I do agree that much of Act 1 felt like a diversion. I realise these are very subjective complaints, and they carry a big disclaimer – I missed most of the side quests in Act 1, so quite possibly I made things worse for myself.

 

However, I will stand by my other bone of contention with Act 1: its difficulty spikes. By the middle of the chapter I could comfortably handle most battles, but the exceptions were still jarring. Even leaving aside boss fights, one sequence required me to fight a whole squad of guards in a little corridor – wide enough for them to swarm me, but not wide enough to take advantage of Geralt’s superior mobility. I reloaded again… and again… and again… and again… and this is where I’ll reiterate my comment from last week that the game needs a difficulty setting in between Easy and Normal, for action-challenged players like me. Outside of boss fights and other scripted sequences, it’s almost impossible to die on Easy (seriously, in that corridor fight I mentioned, on Easy Geralt could stand in the middle of five guys swinging their swords and still survive), and that reduces potentially epic moments to anticlimactic clickfests. On the other hand, on Normal, non-stop wiping at that same point wasn’t just annoying. It again negated potentially epic moments (instead of “oh, cool”, my reaction became “just get it over with!”), and it was immersion-breaking, which hurt a story-driven game such as this.

 

Now that I’m up to Act 2, I’m happy to report that the game has picked up again. Without spoiling anything, the scripted sequences that open the act are strong and even after getting past those, the story density remains high – I can find, and solve, a bunch of quests all in the main hub. Some of the side quests lead into cool fights that, while minor, help flesh out Geralt as a character (the fights became extremely easy once I realised how to cheese them, but that’s a story for another day). And I really like how Act 2 actually tries to justify the usual RPG “run around a new town, helping a bunch of complete strangers” trope. The Witcher 2 has returned to form, and I hope to play more soon.

 

* I consider the score too harsh based on what I’ve seen of the game; at least as of the latest patch, the combat system is much, much better than described; I actually like the prologue “fights and QTEs” that the reviewer pans; etc etc.

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