sunnuntai 22. joulukuuta 2013

Collection 2013

It's time...

...But, instead of a LOOOOOOONG-ass, gigantic, tiring blog entry, I've decided to handle this year's collection differently. I recently registered with Giant Bomb, and that's one public site on the net that has a pretty complete list of video games available, and good, free customization for list entries, which makes it a perfectly good platform for my video game collection. But there are a few things you should know.

It's not exactly Collection 2013, it's my whole collection out there, presented just in the way the Collections of the past have been presented thus far. I've had some hardware problems recently, and not much time to write, so the descriptions of the games are still well under construction, but that construction is constant - I write whenever I have time. I add games in real time, so as soon as I have a new one, it'll be on the list, pronto, without further notice. Special editions of the games or other special notices are found within the descriptions.

The prices, especially for the digital releases, might not be 100% accurate. Mobile games are no longer noted in the actual collection, but I've listed them here this once. PC games are finally noted, due to my long-anticipated acquisition of Final Fantasy XI.

I think that's about it, so haul your virtual ass over here.

So that the original idea of this annual entry wouldn't go to complete waste, here's an alphabetical list of games I've bought or otherwise legally acquired this year, complete with the usual useless information I like to point out. ...And hey, before I forget: have an amazing Christmas!!

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag [Buccaneer Edition] (Xbox 360 / 2 x DVD-ROM (GameStop) / 129.90 €
Astérix (NES / Game Pak PAL-B (WOL Records) / 12.00 €)

Batman - The Video Game (NES / Game Pak PAL-B (WOL Records) / 10.00 €)
Batman: Arkham Origins [Collector's Edition] (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 99.90 €)
The Battle of Olympus (NES / Game Pak PAL-B (WOL Records) / 20.00 €)
Bayonetta (Xbox 360 / DVD-ROM (GameStop) / 19.90 €)
Bejeweled LIVE (WP7 / Digital (XBLA) / 4.99 €)
Bejeweled Live + (WP7 / Digital (XBLA) / 2.99 €)
Binary Domain [Limited Edition] (PS3 / Blu-Ray (Top Ten) / 9.95 €)
Braid (Xbox 360 / Digital (XBLA) / 4.79 €)
Brain Challenge HD (WP7 / Digital (XBLA) / 0.99 €)
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (PS2 / DVD-ROM (Private) / 12.00 €)

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (PS3 / Digital (PSN) / 14.95 €)
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate HD (Xbox 360 / Digital (XBLA) / 11.99 €)
Catherine (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 19.90 €)

Darksiders (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 14.95 €)
Darksiders II [Limited Edition] (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 14.95 €)
Dead Space 3 (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 29.90 €)
Devil May Cry HD Collection (PS3 / Digital (PSN) / 14.95 €)
Dirge of Cerberus - Final Fantasy VII (PS2 / DVD-ROM (Auction) / 17.00 €)
Dishonored (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 34.90 €)
DmC - Devil May Cry (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 19.90 €)
Doom 3 (Xbox / DVD-ROM (Gift) / 0 €)
Dota 2 (PC / Digital (Steam) / 0 €)
Double Dragon (NES / Game Pak USA (Auction) / 16.00 €)
Double Dribble (NES / Game Pak PAL-B (WOL Records) / 6.00 €)
DuckTales Remastered (PS3 / Digital (PSN) / 14.95 €)

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Xbox 360 / DVD-ROM (GameStop) / 24.90 €)
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 9.90 €)
Eternal Sonata (Xbox 360 / DVD-ROM (GameStop) / 9.90 €)

Fable II (Xbox 360 / DVD-ROM (GameStop) / 9.90 €)
Fable III (Xbox 360 / DVD-ROM (GameStop) / 7.90 €)
Final Fantasy III (NES / Repro Game Pak USA (Timewalk Games) / 60.00 €)
Final Fantasy Anthology - European Edition (PS1 / 2 x CD-ROM (Auction) / 49.00 €)
Final Fantasy XI Online - 2007 Edition (PC / DVD-ROM (Auction) / 4.90 €)
Final Fantasy Origins (PS1 / 2 x CD-ROM (Auction) / 32.00 €)

Gears of War 3 (Xbox 360 / DVD-ROM (GameStop) / 11.90 €)
God of War: Ascension [Special Edition] (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 79.90 €)
Grand Theft Auto V [Special Edition] (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 79.90 €)
Gremlins 2: The New Batch - The Videogame (NES / Game Pak PAL-A (WOL Records) / 12.00 €)
Gun Bros (WP7 / Digital (XBLA) / 0 €)

inFamous 2 (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 24.90 €)

The Last of Us [Joel Edition] (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 79.90 €)
Little Acorns (WP7 / Digital (XBLA) / 0.99 €)

Machinarium [Collector's Edition] (PC / Digital (GOG) / 0 €)
Max Payne 3 (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 29.90 €)
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 29.90 €)

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PS3 / Blu-Ray (Top Ten) / 34.90 €)

Ōkami HD (PS3 / Digital (PSN) / 9.90 €)

Prince of Persia Trilogy Classics HD (PS3 / Digital (PSN) / 14.95 €)

A Realm Reborn - Final Fantasy XIV (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 34.90 €)
Resident Evil: Revelations (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 34.90 €)

Saints Row (Xbox 360 / DVD-ROM (GameStop) / 3.90 €)
Shadow Warriors (NES / Game Pak PAL-B (Pelihuone Enter) / 29.30 €)
Shatter (PS3 / Digital (PSN) / 9.95 €)
Silent Hill: Homecoming (Xbox 360 / DVD-ROM (GameStop) / 16.90 €)
Skate or Die (NES / Game Pak PAL-B (Pelihuone Enter) / 9.90 €)
Soul Reaver 2 (PS2 / DVD-ROM (VPD) / 14.90 €)
Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions (Xbox 360 / DVD-ROM (GameStop) / 16.90 €)
Spyro the Dragon (PS1 / Digital (PSN) / 4.99 €)
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (Xbox 360 / DVD-ROM (GameStop) / 9.90 €)
StarTropics (NES / Game Pak PAL-B (WOL Records) / 25.00 €)
Super Mario Bros. 2 (NES / Game Pak USA (Auction) / 17.00 €)
Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES / Game Pak USA (Auction) / 17.00 €)
Super Meat Boy (Xbox 360 / Digital (XBLA) / 9.60 €)
Super Street Fighter IV (Xbox 360 / DVD-ROM (GameStop) / 14.90 €)

Tales of Xillia [Day One Edition] (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 69.90 €)
Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (NES / Game Pak PAL-A (Auction) / 10.00 €)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (Xbox 360 / Digital (XBLA) / 14.95 €)
Tekken Revolution (PS3 / Digital (PSN) / 0 €)
Tiny Toon Adventures (NES / Game Pak PAL-B (Auction) / 11.00 €)
Tomb Raider [Nordic Limited Edition] (Xbox 360 / DVD-ROM (GameStop) / 32.90 €)
Track & Field II (NES / Game Pak PAL-B (WOL Records) / 8.00 €)

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 16.90 €)
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 24.90 €)

The Walking Dead (Xbox 360 / Digital (XBLA) / 9.60 €)
The Walking Dead: Season Two (Xbox 360 / Digital (XBLA) / 19.80 €)
The Wolf Among Us (Xbox 360 / Digital (XBLA) / 19.80 €)
WWE 2K14 (PS3 / Blu-Ray (GameStop) / 39.90 €)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine - Uncaged Edition (Xbox 360 / DVD-ROM (GameStop) / 12.90 €)
Xbox LIVE Arcade Compilation Disc (Xbox 360 / DVD-ROM (Gift) / 0 €)

Zoda's Revenge - StarTropics II (NES / Game Pak USA (Auction) / 16.00 €)

perjantai 13. joulukuuta 2013

REVIEW - Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer | DS | 2007

GENRE(S): Action
RELEASED: June 17, 2007
AVAILABLE ON: DS
DEVELOPER(S): 7 Studios
PUBLISHER(S): 2K Games

The sequel to the 2005 box office success, but critical flop Fantastic 4 premiered on June 15th, 2007, co-starring and subtitled after one of Marvel's cult antiheroes. After Activision's failed video game adaptation of the previous movie and a Game Boy Advance-exclusive spin-off Fantastic 4: Flame On - which went largely unnoticed - 2K Games took the reins and delivered a video game adaptation of Rise of the Silver Surfer for all major systems on the very same day. A couple of days later, another version was released on the Nintendo DS. Long story short, it's a horrible waste of space, one of the worst games I've played in a while, and it could just as easily be a bad Game Boy Advance game.

Clobberin' time.

Reed predicted this game was going to suck.
An unidentified manifestation of energy enters Earth's atmosphere and the Fantastic Four is sent to investigate. It is identified as the Silver Surfer, an intergalactic traveller on a good will hunt for the "planet devourer" known as Galactus, but whose mere presence on Earth is a threat to the whole planet. While the Fantastic Four seeks to contain him and negotiate with him, a certain arch enemy of theirs is seeking to "align" with him and use him for his very own agenda.

I just read my review of the first Fantastic 4 movie license again; I told you that I couldn't bear to watch Rise of the Silver Surfer to the end 'cause it was so horrible, while I kinda liked the first one. I just remembered that I did watch it to the end, 'cause my ex-fiancée thought it was a lot better than the first one and wanted to watch it to the end. I remember being pretty hung over, so I probably watched the later half of it with one eye open. I remember parts of it, but not all of it. Ironically, the critics liked Rise of the Silver Surfer more than the first movie, too. It was probably the presence of the character of the Silver Surfer that cut the deal; after all, prior to the movie's release, one of my friends was hell bent on seeing it even if he hated the first one, "'cause it has the Silver Surfer in it". Back then, I had no fucking idea how popular this guy was, as I had not been a comic book buff in years. There was a vague childhood memory in the back of my head relating to the Silver Surfer, but he's the kind of character that can be confused with many other characters, especially in the Marvel Universe, if you're a child. So I just said, "yeah, umm... yeah, sure, great." The movie turned out a freakin' mess, the flaws in the original stood out even more and it was punched full of all-new holes right from the start. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is probably the worst Marvel movie in the last 15 years... and at least this Nintendo DS version of the video game is one of the worst Marvel games made, ever.

Is that Sue Storm or a bald, male Vault Dweller?
So first of all, the game is trying really hard to explain itself for being a Nintendo DS game, and fails miserably. The cutscenes and mission results span across both screens, and some levels are straightforward vertical 2D shoot 'em ups - the best this game has to offer, not much - but that's it for the usefulness of the DS palette. Power-ups are stored on the touchpad, just to come up with some excuse for it, and there's another very distracting problem: since there are no immediate power-ups, you'll have to halt all action every once in a while in a very dangerous game to use a power-up from the touchpad. As far as general graphics go, this could quite easily be a (bad) Game Boy Advance game. Same goes for the music - it's the same ambient boom you hear in every stock action title, especially the licensed ones.

The game is of the typical platformer variety, where you switch between all four members of the Fantastic Four at steady intervals and make good of their "special abilities". Which are everything you know they have - Reed has an elastic body, Sue has the abilities of invisibility and telekinesis, Johnny can set his body on fire at will, and Ben... well, Ben is Ben. A hulking monster with rock for skin. 'Nuff said. But, they also have some additional abilities to either spice up the game (tasteless, more salt please) or just to make SOME use of the Nintendo DS scheme. Or both. Don't know, and stopped caring two seconds into the game.

Yep... THIS is the game at its best.
The controls are HORRIBLE. Or rather, it isn't the controls that are horrible, how the characters respond to the controls is horrible. That might sound like the exact same thing, but actually it isn't. You see, very often when you have bad controls, your character just refuses to do things. It might be a slight error in programming which turns out a massive problem at some point during the game. For example, I recently replayed Star Wars: The Force Unleashed - the first one, I'm never touching the second one again - and as I said in the review, main character Starkiller kips up stylistically after he's struck down, and during that move, and for maybe a second after that, he isn't able to do anything. That can really break your momentum in such a fast-paced action game, that one second. Well, refusal is not the problem in this totally different game. The guys do everything you ask them to... but, that one second comes into play in the form of a delay. For every single action, whether it's just walking, jumping, or punching. Once again, at first it isn't such a problem, but you know it's going to be - and the breakpoint where it turns out a problem comes sooner than you might expect. It's just something you can't get used to - it's like you're shouting orders to some guy, who passes them over to another guy, who barks them out at the character a few short but felt moments late.

You start as Ben, and I thought the problem would go away once you switch characters 'cause just maybe Ben's size affects his speed, but it doesn't go away - it turns worse. With the lighter characters, the problem just grows with overshot jumps that usually lead to a one-hit kill from spikes or something worse, and these jumps aren't your fault - they're just inadjustable. Actually you don't need more than one misjudged (read: delayed) step, and it's back to the beginning of the level. That's right, no checkpoints. Also, the logic of the game can be questioned almost every passing moment. Like, why Ben's the physically weakest character of the bunch. Or why Reed's technical expertise is absolutely needed to PULL LEVERS. Like I said, Johnny's simple arcade-style shoot 'em up levels are the best this game has to offer - really easy, really dull, but at least controllable and entertaining on some extremely slight degree.

So, a new Fantastic Four movie's coming out, and I'm sure many of you have already made your reservations by the very tiny bits of leaked information, but I'm pretty sure it will be lightyears ahead of these two movies, and I hope it will spark game developers' interest to finally make a playable Fantastic Four game - no, I don't want a licensed product, I want an original game. There have been plenty of perfectly playable superhero games inspired by great movies - it can't be that hard to make a good Fantastic Four game. Although games like this might prove otherwise.

UPS
+ I really can't come up with anything; even the Game Card's not good for anything recreational

DOWNS
- Horrible, delayed controls
- Poor use of the device's capacity and features, stock music

< 2.1 >

maanantai 2. joulukuuta 2013

REVIEW - Captain America - Super Soldier | DS | 2011

GENRE(S): Action / Stealth
RELEASED: July 15, 2011
AVAILABLE ON: 3DS, DS, PS3, Wii, Xbox 360
DEVELOPER(S): Next Level Games, Griptonite Games (DS), High Voltage Software (Wii)
PUBLISHER(S): Sega

Captain America. The first Avenger. Or should I say, the WORST Avenger. Before the recent, overwhelming surge of Marvel superhero films capitalized by the phenomenal success of the all-star cavalcade The Avengers, Captain America was never the first Marvel superhero on any game developer's mind. Only one game exclusive to the Cap's name was made back in 1987, for a few choice home computers, named Captain America in the Doom Tube of Dr. Megalomann. What a mouthful. Then came the aforementioned surge, that started all the way back in 2000 with the theatrical release of X-Men. With almost everyone who ever was anyone in Marvel Comics getting their own movies, it was inevitable that Captain America would make his way back to the silver screen as well, even after 1990's miserable failure. He did so in the summer of 2011. Captain America - The First Avenger was a box office success... but let's rewind just a few days. A game called Captain America - Super Soldier was released on the PS3, Wii and Xbox 360, with a 3DS version on the way. Since a handheld version was developed in tandem with the major platform versions, it was kinda tested on the original DS, which had already been discontinued years back and the 3DS had been out for several months - so it's obvious this version of the game in particular didn't sell too well, and many have forgotten a DS version's existence. I don't forget, and I can't resist reviewing a potentially awful game that has an awful lead character. To my surprise, Captain America - Super Soldier ain't that bad, though. Bad, but not THAT bad.

A consistent series of almost-semi-pseudo-rights

In a game based on the middle part of the film Captain America - The First Avenger, the recently transformed super soldier Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, infiltrates a Nazi fortress commanded by the Red Skull, Adolf Hitler's most loyal henchman and the leader of HYDRA, a division devoted to the research of a powerful artifact called Tesseract, which the Nazis are planning to use for world domination. There - I explained it with one sentence. Random challenge from a Captain America fan accepted - and beaten.

I took another look at my last round with Cap U.S.A. to warm up a little, and found that I didn't explain my dislike for the character thoroughly enough. Well, it's like this: time has seriously forgotten Captain America. Time slipped by him, as well as his originally cool backstory a long, long time ago, long before I was even born. He was created during the war, FOR the war. Unlike other comic book superheroes who were created as inspired by soldiers, and to inspire soldiers in return, or those who appeared in many war-related stories during those times (including Batman), were interesting and exploitable for several other reasons than just the war. Captain America's success depended on the war, as cruel as that sounds. Even as he was named the new leader of the Avengers when he was brought back in the early 60's, almost two decades after his own comic book was discontinued, I think people were more fascinated with the group than its head. I can't really lay down facts and stats here. When the Marvel movies started to pour in, and especially when they kicked off the Avengers series with the amazing Iron Man in 2008, they just couldn't live without making a Captain America movie, since he was considered the "first Avenger" and the leader of the group for such a long while. But, how did Captain America do by himself in 2011?

There's a dude on that balcony and
no way to hit him. Oh hell, let's twist
logic and fuck him up with a space-time
ignoring supermove.
Critically, quite good. Through my eyes, not that good. The film had two top-class actors in Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving, but the plot that was sewn together from a couple of different popular storylines from the Cap's early days just didn't work. It was like watching The Rocketeer all over again - for the fourth or fifth time - with Chris Evans looking like Adam West as Batman whenever he had his helmet on. I also found it distracting to watch Johnny Storm from the Fantastic 4 film series - which was deemed a failure by critics back in its day - playing another Marvel superhero. It felt like they had consciously hired a leftover to portray a leftover, just to set up the final bridge they needed for the Avengers assembly. I had nothing against having Captain America in that movie - after all, it had Iron Man. And Thor. And the greatest presentation of Hulk ever. Just like in any Avengers story or game or cartoon, or whatever that was ever made, the "leader" was overshadowed by his cohorts. But as long as they were with him, he was nice to have along for the ride.

With this set of emotions to back me up, and the fact that the game was a very - VERY - late, virtually unknown entry to the original DS library, I can hardly be blamed for not giving the game too much credit in advance. It might seem that just by bringing this game up, or just its name, I'm hell bent on giving you another hateful lecture in the style of the "top" games on the Bottom 40 just for the fun of it - yeah, I guess that's what I do from time to time. Well, not this time. Captain America - Super Soldier starts off looking like it could be fun. It ultimately isn't that fun, but starting off like this is already a lot more effort than I expected from the developers. I know it's definitely not much, but Super Soldier is the best game starring Captain America I've played so far. There - something nice. Another random challenge accepted, and beaten.

Strap your headbelts, there's more niceties coming your way (!): for such a capitalist product, it looks very nice. It's got nicely rendered polygon sprites and 2.5D backgrounds with a lively camera. The heroic music is quite good, too, and it sounds massive through headphones. Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell and a couple of other actors reprise their roles from the film - the best ones don't, but their parts are taken over by experienced voice actors. It's a surprisingly flashy game by all accounts. That's the best part... and you can't get very far with that, but it helps.

The game comprises of objective screens, taking turns between an all-out beat 'em up, stealth (odd, but totally predictable in these times), and a mild puzzle, sometimes coupled with a touch pad minigame. None of the core gameplay elements work right. Beating Nazis up is quite fun at first, especially since Cap has such a wide variety of moves, unlocked at a tight pace. Perhaps too tight, and perhaps the variety is too wide since some of these moves have no use. You can place the blame on the flawed collision detection, or just the fact that once Cap lifts his feet off the ground, the game takes the majority of control. Aerial attacks are extremely difficult to pull off, and platforming is simply enfuriating due to inadjustable spring jumps. Wall jumping works surprisingly well, though. The easy combat turns into an all-out ass rape in record time, which is unnecessarily difficult to avoid even with your few kill 'em all supermoves in tow, due to these flaws in design I just mentioned.

Hitler Kombat.
The stealth part is very simple as you have just one move in your stealth repertoire - silent takedown from behind - and Cap automatically crouches down and walks slower in these screens. The hard part is dodging the lines of enemy sight - the cameras are particularly annoying 'cause they move much faster than Cap does in these screens. Running past them isn't much of an option either, 'cause very often there's an enemy waiting just beyond the camera's furthest zone, and running's almost just as inadjustable as a standard jump or "flight", which you'll have to familiarize yourself with during the few gauntlet runs in the game. Well, there's a little bit of consolation in the fact that even if an enemy looks straight at you, you still have perhaps a second to escape from his sight - just a step back from the line is all it takes to fuck with the A.I.. How solid.

The puzzles start off by pointing out the obvious, either directly or indirectly, and unfortunately they keep doing that throughout the whole mudwalk, so there goes the third main element. They usually involve Cap's shield, and throwing it at an exact sweet spot to create a Domino effect; kind of like a poor man's round of The Incredible Machine. The couple of different touch pad minigames are pretty much the only way to translate Cap's superhuman strength and how he's still dealing with it to the physical properties of the Nintendo DS. There's one in which you need to use the stylus to lift by simply stroking it upwards on the touch pad, and one in which you have to deliver consecutive, epic punches to break a massive obstacle down by clicking at shield icons on the screen at the exact right time when they're lit up. They're quite fun, and there's no time limit to annoy you out of your already tested mind.

This still ain't as nice at is sounds, but Captain America - Super Soldier is a lot better than I expected, and if you're a total die-hard fan of everything related to Marvel, it's not a totally unworthy addition to your game collection; I could come up with several much worse games from better franchises in three seconds, if I found them worthy of another mention. I'm almost impressed.

UPS
+ Nice graphics and relatively massive sound
+ Utilization of the DS' physical properties shows promise

DOWNS
- Once the enemies start coming from every direction with unseen weapons firing at you at the same time, you'll start to see how bad the controls and general mechanics really are after that initial promise
- The stealth just doesn't belong, and it just doesn't work either
- Incredibly linear and repetitive level design with very limited exploration for collectibles
- My personal feelings towards the franchise and its main character do not help at all

< 6.2 >

sunnuntai 1. joulukuuta 2013

Marvellous December

I've spent most of the last month preparing for one of the most exciting and important nights of my life. Last night was furious; I succeeded in conquering one of my greatest fears, and at the same time one of my greatest ambitions since I was seven years old. I took the stage with Devastracktor, a local metal band I've genuinely liked for a few years, and this was like my baptism of fire since I was unofficially called in as their new lead vocalist back in April, following the friendly departure of their previous one. The gig went extremely well, a lot of my best friends including my girl were there to back me up, and I was well received by old fans as well, and most importantly, the band was satisfied with my performance. I also had the privilege of sharing the stage with my predecessor Jaakko during our "greatest hit" "Poser Disposer". It was simply awesome, every second of it. I'm going to remember last night for a long time, no matter how drunk I was by the end of it. I might post some pics later.

Still plenty to go.
Anyway, that's what I've been doing. Studying the art of thrash metal. Luckily I've been able to squeeze in a few game reviews and the way I see it, there's nothing standing in the way of the continuation of the Marvel marathon. Like I said earlier, it's not a direct continuation, it's a reboot, since there are a few games left over from previously handled Marvel franchises.

At the same time, I'm taking on Final Fantasy - as a long-anticipated whole; Lost Odyssey was kind of a warm-up for that. This week, I'm ordering a copy of Final Fantasy III for the NES from Timewalk, and when that one arrives, I will finally be the proud owner of every single main series game with the exception of the remade XIV. There are Final Fantasy games which I haven't reviewed yet, and this background marathon of mine includes other games besides the main series, so don't be surprised if you're going to see flashes of Final Fantasy in the midst of the Marvel marathon. Right now, the plan is to finish every Final Fantasy game which I have never finished before, and exclude the few games which I have... but I'm not sure if I can resist a round of Final Fantasy X, 'cause it's been a while. Maybe I'll wait for the HD version, I'm sure it'll be a blast.

The most important thing is, that doing Collection 2013 starts NOW. This summary of the ~70 games I've bought this year (considering today's date, that makes six games per month!) is going to be one gigantic article, once again split into several parts for an easier and lighter read. I was supposed to publish the Collection on Christmas or a little before Christmas, but now I think I'm going to wait right 'til the final day of the year before letting it out, and think of something else for a Christmas special.

perjantai 29. marraskuuta 2013

REVIEW - Lost Odyssey | Xbox 360 | 2007

GENRE(S): RPG
RELEASED: December 6, 2007
AVAILABLE ON: Xbox 360
DEVELOPER(S): Mistwalker, feelplus
PUBLISHER(S): Microsoft Game Studios

The last RPG Time! fell more than a little short of my ambition; I wanted to do at least one more game, and the Xbox 360 cult favourite Lost Odyssey's pretty much the perfect game for the spotlight. First of all, here we have a strict exclusive for the Xbox 360 - how many times have I scoffed at the term "Xbox 360 exclusive"? Browsing through my backlog indicates that Lost Odyssey is the only Xbox 360 exclusive I've ever taken on to review besides Gears of War 2. Secondly, it is about as traditional as a J-RPG could've been back at the time of its release - it was generally a bad time for traditional J-RPG, since the more open-ended Western RPG's had just recently made their way to consoles. Which is exactly why Lost Odyssey didn't fare that well and is more of a cult favourite than a genre milestone. However, thirdly - and this is why I consider it a must-play - it's Final Fantasy creator and Mistwalker founder Hironobu Sakaguchi's third post-Final Fantasy and post-Square project, and the music's written by Final Fantasy legend Nobuo Uematsu (all by) himself. Not only has Lost Odyssey all the potential to be my favourite Xbox 360 game, it was also the closest to real Final Fantasy you had seen in six years leading up to its release. It has potential, lots of it - and it certainly is a lot like a good old Final Fantasy game. But is Lost Odyssey my favourite Xbox 360 game? Not nearly.

A kind of magic

STARRING
Keith Ferguson : Kaim Argonar
Tara Strong : Seth Balmore
Salli Saffioti : Ming Numara
Michael McGaharn : Jansen Friedh
Jesse Corti : Gongora
Kath Soucie : Cooke
Nika Futterman : Mack
Chad Brandon : Tolten
Kim Mai Guest : Sarah Sisulart
Michael Bell : Sed

The first scene of the game. Not a bad start.
After a meteor strike nearly wipes out not one, but two powerful military nations, an immortal soldier named Kaim is sent from the kingdom of Uhra to investigate the cause and consequences of the disaster, along with a fellow immortal, former pirate named Seth, and a wise-cracking mage named Jansen. As suppressed memories of his past begin to re-emerge, Kaim finds a far more serious threat than the chance of another meteor strike, originating from surprisingly and devastatingly close to home.

I can tell you right now that even though playing Lost Odyssey can be painful at times, at its best it feels like the perfect sequel to Final Fantasy X that Final Fantasy X-2 never was. It lives on its production values; even though it could almost be categorized as an indie game, you can see almost immediately that it couldn't have been a cheap game to make. It's so different from Mistwalker's previous major platform endeavor Blue Dragon, it is much more cinematic and life-like. And when it comes to cinematics, and realistically measured human characters, one immediately thinks of Final Fantasy X and those slow, horribly acted localized scenes nowadays trashed on the YouTube. Well, a slow and sometimes awkward tempo is just the Japanese way to go and it's quite present in Lost Odyssey as well, but it has very few awkward or horribly acted scenes. The voice cast features a few bad apples, and sometimes it feels like they're showering us with cutscenes, taking us away from a smooth _gaming_ experience - but as you go on, I think you'll notice how cinematic storytelling truly is the game's forte, and how great the characters and voice actors are. Combined with how the game plays out most of the time, it's the next step from Final Fantasy X. It's just a step in the wrong direction and a few years late, for starters. To delve deeper into the ocean of ugly, from time to time it seems that Sakaguchi and his henchmen were so hell bent on writing a great story they forgot they were making a game.

Our heroes, for the most parts of Discs 1 and 2.
(The kids too.)
At first, both lead immortals might hit you like a pair of cold bricks - competent fighters, yet senseless and emotionless characters, and when Jansen comes along, he's like the epitome of awesome. He has a semi-ad-libbed crack for every possible situation and he always sees things just the way we players would, like if a tyrannosaur's head suddenly crashed through my living room window and I'd come to realize the whole town's overrun by dinosaurs, the next thing to come out of my mouth would probably be something Jansen would say under similar conditions. Yep, that was a little surreal... I had a rough night... anyway, Jansen's arrival is a blessing in many ways. Not only does he make the game better all by himself, he makes the other characters stronger. It's absolutely hilarious to watch how his relationships with the characters develop, especially with Seth who won't stand for his unique antics at all, and his romantic pursuit of yet another immortal who comes along a bit later. Lead character Kaim also has his share of Jansen's golden touch, but he isn't dependent on it. He develops from a stiff one-word-answer kind of guy into a very interesting, enchanting personality all by himself, as his 1000-year backstory unfolds, through twists in the story as well as through his dreams, one of Lost Odyssey's unique gimmicks; every self-respecting Sakaguchi game has at least one.

The very first thing you'll gawk at when you simply unwrap this game is that it comes on four discs. Your reaction will probably be at least something along the lines of mine: "FOUR DISCS? How many Xbox 360 games come on more than two? Man, this has got to be epic!" I find myself returning to the time when I first got Star Ocean: Till the End of Time for the PS2, which came on two discs, the first two-disc game I had seen on the PS2, and it had good reasons for that, audiovisual achievements which totally justified the second disc's existence. Dynamic camera and map systems, full-3D combat, top-of-the-bill graphics, full voice track and a relatively large world. If they made an HD version of Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, you probably wouldn't know the difference between the HD remaster and a standard PS3 game released about the same time as Lost Odyssey. Lost Odyssey on the other hand has text-based commands for traditionally linear combat with a 95% fixed camera, general graphics are probably not as good as you'd expect despite very good cinematic design, the voice track is far from "full", the world is small and extremely limited, and when it comes to any sort of dynamics, the game lags back for years. One disc contains about ten levels, and it's a constant back-and-forth run between similar layouts. It's not the size, it's not the graphics, it's not the sound, so what's left? Why are there four discs? I have no idea. I'll try to figure it out as I go - right now I'm smack on the starting line of Disc 3. I'll return to this by the end of the review, hoping to find a decent answer... but seriously doubting it judging by what I've seen so far.

What's good news is that the characters' facial expressions look great and the English lip sync is marvellous. When it comes to voiceover work, Lost Odyssey is far ahead its spiritual predecessor. Like I said, there are a few bad apples, but not bad enough to spoil the whole tree. Besides, there are some genuinely funny moments to be witnessed in this game, as particularly attractive to the Japanese sense of humour they are, and they're only made funnier by the spot-on voiceover work, especially that of Tara Strong (Seth) and Michael McGaharn (Jansen), and especially those two combined. Even the two kids of the squad manage not to annoy me at all (except for Mack in his most emotional fits from time to time), perhaps mainly because both are voiced by adults, and not just any adults, but voiceover veterans Kath Soucie and Nika Futterman.

There's no major Hironobu Sakaguchi project without Nobuo Uematsu, and the maestro crunches out one hell of a soundtrack which only gets better towards the end. You might not have seen this game's title on the top of Uematsu's resume, but personally I think Lost Odyssey is one of his best collections since the ultimate rise of the Final Fantasy series, and definitely a hundred times better than anything his successors involved with the Final Fantasy franchise have ever brewed up.

And here's our villain, Gongora; just like a
buzzcut version of Seymour from Final Fantasy X.
Lost Odyssey begins from a battle, so let's start with the combat system. Its basic setup brings us back to the time before Active Time Battle; you and your party (which you don't have at this point) get a turn, then it's the enemy group's turn. After both parties have set up a string of commands, each individual involved in the battle is placed in order determined by his/her speed. However, casting spells and using special skills takes casting time, which keeps these characters passive for several turns at worst - depending on their casting attributes. You can call off these time-consuming skills and spells at any passive turn, if need arises. You can even cancel them after giving 'em the green light to continue, as long as you haven't finished setting up commands for the entire party. It's all really, really strategic, and this old-school, pre-ATB system will surely please a lot of fans of really, really old Final Fantasy.

So here's the good news and the bad news. The good news is the very system itself. Unlike many critics who'd deem text-based commands and a fixed "battle cam" old and dated on first sight, I find 'em safe, familiar, and most of all in these times, cool. In other words, accessible and easy to adapt to. It's been recently proven that Lost Odyssey is the type of game you can stop playing for a whole year and never lose your touch along the way until you decide to play it again. Kind of a relief in this particular genre - it's more than kind of disheartening to have to start from scratch after 50 hours of playing time just because you don't get the game anymore. It's a problem with many Western RPG's and modern J-RPG's which have been influenced by Western games, including Final Fantasy XII. Even XIII, even if it is a semi-automatic mess of a game that can be successfully beaten while piss drunk and missing a right hand. It still demands a certain type of touch, I guess.

The bad news is that one battle in this game takes minutes. Any battle, for several reasons. First of all, you always have to set up commands for the whole party due to the absence of ATB. You have to use a lot of magic, because with just two physically adept people in your group for the longest time, you can't do shit in terms of crowd control. There are a few area-of-effect type of physical attacks, but the damage they do to one opponent in a row is but a fragment of your standard physical attack against a single opponent. Using a lot of magic consumes a lot of things, including casting time, and through that, eventually, your patience. Throughout the game, you are damn near forced to abuse your non-active party members to heal your party between each battle, 'cause as you will surely see, healing during battles takes a lot of precious time away from doing damage to the enemy. Especially in the beginning of the game, the battles feel like they take forever, but that's just because the game was specifically designed to be played with a party of five - doesn't mean having the whole party along makes 'em that much faster, though, as there are a lot of surplus enemies whose only intention is to slow the battle down and buff their much more useful and efficient companions. Usually these kinds of enemies have the tendency to flee at the brink of death to your further dismay; like it's not bad enough having to fight them, not gaining any EXP from showing these puny assholes what's what is something else. To return to the good news, the intervals between battles are moderately long as well; personally, I'm fine with even the most tedious battles as long as I've taken care of everything else in a dungeon first, if I'm in any mood for some grinding and if that particular dungeon doesn't have a whole set of purely annoying pricks to fight. Sadly there are just a few different groups of enemies to fight at each location.

When it comes to progress on the world map, the game is extremely similar to Final Fantasy X. You "move" on an invisible track through the world map, on a journey that's linear as an arrow up 'til a certain point and contains clear-cut levels instead of any type of open map exploration or free transition from one location to another. An hour or two into Disc 2, you get your first "boat", and as the game claims, you are now able to explore the wide open sea. Well, wide open sea is right, there's almost nothing besides it. There are only two places at that point you can travel to in addition to the one you're supposed to travel to: the place you just left, and a secret island that's filled with monsters you have absolutely no chance to beat at that point of the game. And when you go where you're supposed to, you lose your boat. Meh.

Exploring towns. Always my favourite part
about these games. What was the most
outstanding flaw in Final Fantasy XIII, again?
It's kinda funny that the masterpiece Final Fantasy X originally felt like somewhat of a letdown for me, for many reasons, and one of those reasons was the lack of a real world map. When you got the airship, the world map was revealed, but it was merely a list of locations; you just picked the destination and whoosh, you were there. The moment you realized there were secret destination coordinates to find on that map, that's where it got exciting and you realized how big the world actually was. Lost Odyssey doesn't have any substitute for that kind of excitement in store. Of course it has secret locations, they've been a Sakaguchi trademark since, well, Final Fantasy V, at least (which ironically was the last Final Fantasy game Sakaguchi actually directed), but you have to wait until the end of the game to even be able to travel to these locations. Besides those non-violent sidequests which take place within the limits of a city or village - most of which are ultra-boring, I might add - practically no sidestepping is allowed before you reach the very final disc.

The dreams, written by award-winning short story writer Kioyoshi Shigematsu, are some of Lost Odyssey's most praised features... but whether they're actually that praised anywhere else than Japan is questionable. The dreams, in other words the immortals' suppressed memories, are usually triggered by cutscene events or talking to certain NPC's, and they're presented to the player in the form of very well written, and scored visual novels. Actually reading through them sheds some extra light on the immortals' 1000-year past, but I can tell you that it's very hard. If they were actually cutscenes instead of just long-ass text on a fancy-looking background, then I would be more excited, and then I would probably also accept the need for a total of four discs. Every time you spend the night at an inn, you can pick a dream from a list of unlocked ones. You can also view these dreams from the menu, as well as the main menu instead of starting the game. If this sounds exciting to you, well then, good for you. If I wanted to read, I'd pick up a book instead of trying to play a game.

Back to the good news again with the acquisition of equipment. This game made shopping exciting again. One of my favourite things about old RPG's is getting to a new town, getting to know it inside out, its people and most of all its stores' variety of weapons. It's one of my favourite things about Lost Odyssey as well, as the towns can be quite interesting on the first visit, and the weapon shops have new stuff in stock almost each time, essential stuff. Many damn fine weapons are found from secure locations on the field as well, often accompanied by a ring or accessory of the same set.

About the rings... while the separately categorized accessories give you traditional defense perks such as an immunity to poison, the rings usually enhance your offense. The rings you get from stores ain't that good, as most of them have just one small perk that is of nearly no use to you. For example, anything that buffs a mage's physical offense in any way, whether it's a damage up or a status inflict; you just don't use these guys to attack, you don't have time for that. It doesn't pay either, not at all. The mages are not there to fight, they're there to help you fight. That's why it's amazing how many of them there are. One white mage, one black mage, perhaps one red mage, that's all we needed back in the day - and even that was too much. Here we have a white mage, a black mage, a "composite" mage (able to use area spells from the start), and finally, a black-white mage, which is this game's substitute for a red mage, someone who's specialized in both sides of magic. Unlike a traditional red mage however, even the black-white mage sucks dick when it comes to physical attacks. Anyway, there's an Aim Ring for each character's physical attack; holding the RT and releasing it at the exact right time results in a "critical hit". Damage does not increase by natural means, but the ring enhancement of that character is more likely to activate. For example, if you attack a robot with a character equipped with a ring that has the Machine Killer perk, you're bound to do a truckload of more damage on him than you usually do when you nail a critical hit.

So here's the most important thing about the rings. You can make 'em yourself - by scavenging all sorts of junk. You can only make basic rings with basic junk you find from plain sight, but explore a little and you'll find better junk, which results in a bigger chance to make a better ring. It's that simple, really. You can use excess rings to make better versions of them with some incentive junk, and when their usefulness runs its course, it's still advisable to keep them 'cause there's a ring maker in nearly every settlement who can use those rings (and a lil' bit of ultimate junk) to make you some AWESOME, complex rings, which grant you several perks instead of just one. Maybe, just maybe, your boatload of mages will become a bit more useful in terms of physical collision at some point along the way thanks to their finger wear.

The enemy design has Tetsuya Nomura written
all over it. He didn't design 'em, though.
Different spells from different spell categories are unlocked for each mage as you go, and even for your non-mage immortals. The immortals' development works very differently than the development of the other characters. You see, all the other characters' skills and perks are dependent on their current equipment and natural development. Let's take Jansen up for an example (I'll tell you again, that guy is magnificent!). Let's say Jansen has a ring that grants him total immunity to Seal, an accessory that allows him to use composite magic, and a natural knack for all sorts of black magic. Take the ring away, poof, his immunity to Seal is gone. Take the accessory away, no more composite spells from Jansen. But, you can't take away any of his skills that he's learned via leveling up, and you can't teach him any new, permanent skills outside of the game's plan. The immortals are the total opposite. Via a feature called Skill Link, they can learn any skill from any mortal character. Think Final Fantasy IX, and how each battle granted you AP, and through that AP, you permanently learned skills from different weapons, armour and accessories. This is basically the same thing, and you can actually teach the immortals skills with equipment as well. Once a skill is learned via any channel, it goes to the immortals' list of skills you can abuse in any way you want, even change the whole set at each save point to find what kind of setup suits you best. The warriors of the group are lousy mages, the way I see it, so I tend to invest in their offensive aptitude, vitality, and safety from all sorts of status ailments. The skill slots for each immortal are very limited in numbers, but you can get more slots via certain skills and a rare item called Slot Seed. You can't get more slots via leveling up like you could in Final Fantasy IX.

The immortals are also different in battle as they break just about every rule. Having such a wide array of skills at their disposal, they're automatically faster, stronger and better than any of their companions in everything they do. The most distinctive thing about 'em is that if they fall in battle, and you manage to survive a few turns, the immortals just might get back up. I almost shit my pants the first time this happened.

I promised early on I'd return to this subject by the end of the review - and the end of the game - and I must say... no. I didn't find a well-justified cause for four discs. Mistwalker says the game couldn't fit one disc. No, probably not, but even at its most advanced it wouldn't take more than two, I reckon, not with these qualities. I'm willing to bet it's just Sakaguchi's own personal "thing" to have as many or more discs as the most popular Final Fantasy games, to make the game look more epic on the outside than it actually is. What's funny, though, is that each disc could be reviewed separately, with greatly varying results. Discs one and two lay down the basics, disc three kinda tests you with extremely long cutscenes, set pieces and less members in your group almost throughout the disc, and disc four is the reward for all your time and patience, the true climax and closest to what you expected this whole game to be. It's funny 'cause usually J-RPG's have completely different progression in my opinion. Let's bring Final Fantasy IX up again as an example. Discs one and two were awesome, disc three took the awesomeness just one tiny step further, and disc four was a letdown (relatively speaking). These games tend to lose their attraction towards the end. Lost Odyssey is just the other way around, as it gets better towards the end... and then it just, well, ends. Just when you're finally getting into it.

Yep, it all looks extremely familiar. Just doesn't
play out as good.
Lost Odyssey is just as hard in the usual sense as any J-RPG; not very, but it has its difficulties, the most outstanding of which is the constantly inconvenient lack of save points. I usually play after work, which means I usually have just a couple of hours to spare before my inner clock shuts off and I fall asleep. There are many lengthy and puzzling dungeons - coupled with the long battles - that I have just quit halfway through, because I haven't found a save point and I just haven't been able to resist going to sleep anymore, and after that has happened in the same dungeon on many successive nights, it's a problem. There's a checkpoint system; a first for a J-RPG, and it shows. I beat one hard boss, and returned to the dungeon 'cause I knew there was a secret boss there; I wanted to try him. I just assumed that going to the world map and going back would raise the checkpoint to the start of my second trip to the dungeon, but no. I lost to the secret one and had to beat the previous boss to get to him again. These kind of difficulties are very common in this game, not much else if you're a veteran. The game was not made for Achievement hunters, either - it's extremely stingy with them. The most reckless and fastest players may even finish this game with under ten Achievements out of a total of 36.

Lost Odyssey is definitely not a failure, but despite having been built on some fantastic grounds, it's probably not the game you wanted it to be. Sakaguchi's brilliant, and surprisingly comprehensible story, and Uematsu's diverse, refreshing and awesome soundtrack are what make Lost Odyssey stand out - and as it happens, these guys' involvement is why you probably want to play this game in the first place. It's a collector's novelty for anyone who was ever into just one Final Fantasy game up 'til X or X-2, and I'll gladly tip you off that pre-owned copies easily go for under a ten. The overall score might not be that high, but I'd recommend this game for people within the margin.

UPS
+ Hironobu Sakaguchi's brilliant story and cinematic advisory
+ Nobuo Uematsu's energetic and diverse soundtrack with a couple of true classics (try the track "Escape!" or the Backyard theme, and feast on that guitar solo on the world map!)
+ Great characters; Jansen is one of the best J-RPG characters ever
+ Having immortals with completely different character development than their travel companions is neat, and plays out even more nicely
+ Ring Assembly can be a lot of fun, especially in the later parts of the game
+ Old-school shoppers and treasure hunters may rejoice, this game actually has decent stores and hidden treasures

DOWNS
- Nice in-game graphics to go with the amazing cinematics, but not nice enough to justify four discs; it's disappointing to see how poorly the epic capacity is ultimately utilized
- Small and constantly limited world
- A safe and familiar combat system, but the battles themselves can be very slow and tedious for many reasons, on top of all most of the playable cast comprising of mages who require a lot of precious casting time for the truly useful spells
- Streamlined and boring minigames
- Only a few different enemy groups to fight per location
- Lengthy periods of cutscene after cutscene
- Dreaming's a nice gimmick, but I don't know if the visual novel presentation was such a good idea
- One of the suckiest checkpoint systems ever seen

< 7.1 >

keskiviikko 13. marraskuuta 2013

2013 - The Nutshell Edition

I've clashed through the last. Rhyme time. I'm a poet and you know it.

The PlayStation 4 is coming out in North America in two days. The international (excluding the Japanese) release of Xbox One is nine days away. A total of 45 launch titles on the way, then, and a couple of other semi-interesting games for other platforms on the way before it's back to square one with the annual calendar for the 2015th time, but on my personal account, 2013 is a wrap. While I'm zapping through the remaining list of releases for 2013, a total of two games for existing platforms catch my attention: Super Mario 3D World and Gran Turismo 6. They catch my attention, but nothing more. A new Mario game that's not part of the Galaxy series always sounds interesting, but I don't have Wii U and I don't plan on getting it anytime EVER, so that's it. Gran Turismo 6 on the other hand is a racing game, and I'm not personally interested in it, then, it just comes out at a great niche to be considered as a Christmas gift to someone else. When it comes to the PS4 and XBO launch titles, I'm glad I decided to push my personal transition to the next console generation - with the PS4 - far along next year. Might even be getting Watch_Dogs and both parts of Metal Gear Solid V for the PS3 instead of the hi-fi freak's natural choice.

But, here's the subject I really wanted to talk about before trying to catch up to my annual quota. I realized one more thing while I was browsing through that list of releases. If PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are truly "leaving", they have sure as hell done it with style throughout the whole year. First, I thought, how about I make that Top 20 I was talking about earlier, and dish out my favourite video games from this whole generation? Well, this generation clearly ain't dead yet, and besides, I just did the favourite franchises schtick, it would be what I criticize many games for: needless repetition. I'm not doing any type of list, then. Instead I'll just flap my virtual gums for an extended while and simply recap what's been going on this year, ever since January. What's funny is that every single year, people tend to forget what came out in the early months of the year, because all the most anticipated (and usually multi-platform) releases are scheduled for the later months. That's why I think it's interesting and vital to remind everyone that not every great game came out on September 17th.

I haven't even played all of these games, and all of these games are not necessarily "great", not even to my personal liking, but games that were either highly anticipated, how that anticipation translated to perhaps the greatest media overkills in video game history, or otherwise notable titles, for example indie games that didn't have the bucks, but sure had the bang, or at least one exciting return to a stellar franchise that went horribly wrong... and stands as perhaps the otherwise magnificent year's biggest disappointment, by far. That's saved for later, let's go back to January... January 15th, to be precise.

The emo-hobo Dante you so hated.
Perhaps overshadowed by the other big action reboot of the early year, but surely important to a lot of folk (in better or worse) and a lot of newbies who appreciated PS3's less-heralded cult games Heavenly Sword and Enslaved, Hideki Kamiya's PS2 hack 'n' slash classic Devil May Cry made a return... as the British developer Ninja Theory's DmC. Initial media and fan response to taking the familiar basics and fitting them into a whole different story, with a whole different Western style, was overwhelmingly negative, but Ninja Theory stood their ground to the end, unleashed the game and enjoyed great response from just about everyone, from the media to even people who were involved with the original series. Especially Japanese fans of the series still weren't too excited, and the game somewhat failed to catch the attention of an essential amount of new fans. I never really liked the original Devil May Cry's style, and I never fully appreciated the series either, but I saw a lot of potential in the first game - I think that DmC might strike a better nerve, and that's why it's pretty close to the top of my current-gen wishlist. A week after DmC, came Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a true throwback to the golden era of Japanese role-playing games, decorated with beautiful hand-drawn graphics, and a beautiful soundtrack performed by a symphonic orchestra conducted by anime stalwart Joe Hisaishi. One more shining star to the long list of great PlayStation 3-exclusives; however, to be precise, this game was released in Japan as far back as 2011, and it's based on a Japanese Nintendo DS game released further back in 2010. Investigation to the issue revealed that problems with translating the game and its collector's paraphernalia caused the delay. However, unlike many long-delayed games, especially in this particular genre, Ni no Kuni came out not having aged a day, and totally rocked the world of J-RPG fans... yours truly included, and it even made me more receptive towards anime. Or if not receptive, at least more accepting.

February saw the sudden and odd Steam release of Tim Schafer's cult heavy metal adventure Brütal Legend, and the much-anticipated "Enhanced" re-release of BioWare's critically praised 1998 debut Baldur's Gate, with the add-on Tales of the Sword Coast slipstreamed into the game. Oh yes, and there was the case of two "huge" multi-platform games as well, a sequel and a spin-off, neither one of which no one in my immediate vicinity really wanted to see. First was Dead Space 3, that by its mainframe alone screamed out modern co-op-oriented Resident Evil meets Lost Planet, and not only was that exactly what it was, but it was once again a failure in an already degrading, initially super-promising and super-refreshing survival horror franchise. So, that one I've certainly played and I certainly have it on my shelf (as decoration...), because of a promise I made back when I finished Dead Space 2. With the second big game, I never promised anything except to think about it once it came out: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. To this day, every word about that game rings of uninterest. Yeah, sure, I'm a Metal Gear fan - I probably won't need to explain why I am so reluctant to play this game. Without stooping to the level of bashing Raiden, and confessing my love for Solid Snake (had to say that...), I'll just say what is a damn fact. Metal Gear Rising has NOTHING to do with Metal Gear. I'll buy the game once it's cheap enough, and I promise to try it out; liking it might take a little more trying, with the toughest part being forgetting the name.

Star of the bigger reboot of the year, this one
didn't sell as expected, either, though.
March: two reboots, a 3DS Castlevania game which has since been remastered for Sony and Microsoft's online services, a new Walking Dead game which "kinda" fell short of its "predecessor's" success, the final (?) add-on for the age-old MMO Final Fantasy XI, the latest and surprisingly poorly received Gears of War and God of War installments, and finally, the gamer's choice, and a formidable runner for game of the year (not on my personal account, though): BioShock Infinite. So, Castlevania came out first, and leaving my final opinion on the game's HD version hanging for now, I must say I at least somewhat pity those Lords of Shadow fans who went out and bought a Nintendo 3DS for the sake of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate. Just as the add-ons to the original Lords of Shadow taught us, we should've just waited for Lords of Shadow 2 to see how the Belmont clan's story takes form after one of the cliffhangers of the century. The two reboots were released on the exact same day, the 5th: SimCity, which was almost the first PC game I ever bought, let alone pre-ordered, but luckily I didn't do that since critical reception to the game was overwhelmingly, not to mention, unbelievably, bad. How could they possibly fuck up a brilliant, simple idea like SimCity? It's beyond me, and as time has passed and the reception gotten even worse, I don't plan to find out. Tomb Raider, on the other hand, got a fantastic makeover. As a fan of the original series, you can say what you will, but personally, I hated the emphasis on Lara Croft's sexual being, and as the reverse-progressive critical and commercial success of the series goes to prove, that concept got old in time. This game introduced a far more sensitive girl from next door, who really had to work on her crazy moves, and she was scared as shit while trying to pull them off. Yeah, I know you'd like me to note her smaller cups, too - when it comes down to something like that, I think she was more attractive and charismatic than her earlier incarnation, too. A great action-adventure, one of the best shooters in its recent history, and definitely my favourite Square Enix-produced game since Final Fantasy XII, at least. (Still working on my take on the latest Deus Ex, in case you're wondering.)

We're still in early March - the 12th day delivered my first pre-ordered SteelBook Special Edition of the year. Now as I just talked about DmC, it's a fine time to say that my friend Pekka is a huge fan of that franchise, and we've had many arguments where he has defended Devil May Cry, and I've tried to oppose him with something I love as dearly, which was admittedly influenced by Devil May Cry, and which he on the other hand at least dislikes very much: God of War. God of War: Ascension was... NOT a disappointment. I knew exactly what I was heading into, a God of War game that wouldn't be as good as the previous games, but would still be a God of War game and at least this far, I've been happy with that much. It was indeed an entertaining game, and I think the time is getting ripe to take it for another spin; now that I don't have to worry about reviewing the game, might even be that I'll enjoy it more than the last time around. Gears of War: Judgment came out less than a week later to a very disappointed audience; I was kinda expecting when people would finally recognize the series' faults and not just blindly rate every game to high heaven. For the record, I haven't tried the game and I haven't even finished Gears of War 3 yet. As much as I have enjoyed games 2 and 3, I will never count 'em among the Xbox's best offerings, unlike everyone else on this planet. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct was an FPS, riding on the wind of Telltale Games' great success with their point 'n' click masterpiece, and even though it featured high-profile voice actors including series stars Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker, and had great production values, the game failed miserably. On the 26th, Final Fantasy XI (presumably) got its final chapter in Seekers of Adoulin, but no one really noticed, as Irrational Games' BioShock spin-off BioShock Infinite came to collect the fruit of each commercially failed game of the year released that far. I've got to admit that with its great success, BioShock Infinite has stirred some guilt in me for being an FPS-hater. Then again, I have played BioShock 2, which is often mentioned as one of the greatest games of the generation, and it didn't impress me beyond its art style.

April was a quiet month, save for the Wii U-"exclusive" re-release of Ninja Gaiden 3, subtitled Razor's Edge, arriving to the PS3 and Xbox 360 to wipe the floor with the original version. Also, NetherRealm Studios unleashed their spiritual successor to Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, entitled Injustice: Gods Among Us, which fared quite well, with another surreal plot revolving around alternate dimensions and the end of the world, and simple rivalries fast evolving into an all-out fight to the death. May was an equally quiet month. FPS fans once again got their long-anticipated share with Metro: Last Light, and the 3DS game Resident Evil: Revelations was brought to the big boys - outshining its major predecessor (originally successor) Resident Evil 6 in every possible way, and definitely marking the return of some of that old atmosphere, but still being very far from what Resident Evil once was.

"Drugs. I sell hardcore drugs, dad." "Well, good. You can
start helping with the mortgage then." The moment I knew
I was going to like The Last of Us. Just ten minutes later,
I knew I was going to love it.
June disappointed more mature PC players with the strength of a (nominal) reboot and a remake of one of the most classic graphic adventures of all time. The MMO RPG Neverwinter actually had very little to do with BioWare's classic Neverwinter Nights, as well as the old DOS game of the same name, but when you put the words "dungeons", "dragons", and "Neverwinter" together, you'll be expected a standard, the ever-strong presence of World of Warcraft creates another standard, and apparently, Cryptic Studios failed to reach those standards. Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded is on my "to get" list, just because of every single one of those million times I've clashed through the original Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, and every enhanced version of it thus far in the last 19 years (24 minutes is my current record, with the original DOS version). Marvel fans finally got the game they expected for years... and didn't. As much as Deadpool deserved his namesake game, as well presented as it was, with Nolan North once again providing the voice of the merc with a mouth, the gameplay values were utterly panned. Nolan North... Nathan Drake... Uncharted... Naughty Dog... did I forget something? June 14th marked the arrival of The Last of Us, one of the greatest and most emotional stories ever told within the confines of one single action game - and one single game is all we'll probably going to have, since it really wasn't of the sequel material. But then again, it's quite enough. The Last of Us was expected to be the last true masterpiece of the generation (ahem...), and serve as a standard for the whole of the next one. If that's the case, The Last of Us truly restored my faith in modern third-person shooters, which will probably be the flagships of the next generation as well. But we'll see how it turns out.

July really didn't have anything I'd find worth mentioning in store, but August came with two critically acclaimed Japanese RPG's, new Saints Row and Splinter Cell games, three remakes and one "reboot". Disney's answer to collectible toys interspersed with video gaming, such as Pokémon and Skylanders came in the form of the highly acclaimed Disney Infinity, probably your best choice for a Christmas gift to your demanding child. A new J-RPG IP named Dragon's Crown and Namco's latest in their long series of "Tales", Tales of Xillia, came out to great response. However, Tales of Xillia got a few slashes from the axe, and it's completely understandable even if I still haven't tried the game, it's there on my shelf but I haven't had the time for it - like, it was delayed for years like Ni no Kuni but unlike that game, it had aged quite a bit (both games were published by Namco Bandai, interestingly, just developed by different groups). Also, it's a bit weird how each Tales game is released exclusively for a different system, making it impossible to collect the whole neat set for one single system - even if you have both of them. Nitpickers? Yep, and we love ourselves the way we are. I haven't much to say about Saints Row IV, except that when the game came out, I stumbled on a copy of the first game, sold at under 4 euros. Had to buy that one for curiosity's sake. Also, the only thing I've got to say about Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist, is that I'm still very interested in the franchise after initially giving it the boot at the time of Pandora Tomorrow, and that I think Tom Clancy was a great man. R.I.P.. Remakes: the first one was a remake of none other than one of the greatest 8-bit platformers ever made. DuckTales Remastered was a good platformer, but quite the disappointment for an old fan - of both the game and the show.

Now here's the funny thing, and I promise you I'm not shitting you in the slightest! On the morning of August 21st, I was sipping down a cup of coffee, searching my shelf for untouched games that I would finally like to try out, all proper-like, and one of the games that caught my eye was Prince of Persia, the 2008 reboot. Well, right now I'm playing The Sands of Time, for the first time in my life, and I'm kinda liking it, but just a few months ago, my knowledge of and experience with Prince of Persia was limited to the very original game, that fucking enfuriating, yet strangely addictive cinematic platformer. Not the console versions either, but the very original computer version. Then I started thinking of other similar games that were released on the SNES in the early 90's, and which eventually led to the creation of Oddworld for the PlayStation. Blackthorne was my favourite out of those games, but I never played it that much since it was so hard to find - I lived in a small town and the local video store extended their 8- and 16-bit stock by just a couple of games per year. Where is this long story going, you wonder? Well, the SNES versions of Out of This World (known as Another World around here) and Flashback were the games that were the most familiar to me from this genre. My brother had OoTW and my best friend had Flashback - and while these two games were so similar, I kinda liked Out of This World, and absolutely HATED Flashback. However, I had some sort of affection to the game, and even an obsession with its sequel Fade to Black back at the time (just because it was named "Fade to Black", like the Metallica song). I started thinking about Flashback (having flashbacks of Flashback) and thought that it was kinda weird there never was a third Flashback game, or that Flashback had never been taken up for a remake. Then, I logged on to Xbox LIVE, went to see the new stuff on Arcade, and what did I find? Flashback - the remake. ...And just to put a cap on this long story, it apparently sucks ass and I have no intention to get it. The end.

The biggest remake of the year is Square Enix's quest for salvation - once again I'd like to grab 'em by the throats and tell 'em what their true salvation would be, yet I digress - A Realm Reborn - Final Fantasy XIV, a project created from scratch with just the most important basics intact after the complete critical and commercial failure of the original Final Fantasy XIV MMO. I'm not a fan of MMO's, but as the most reckless and stubborn Final Fantasy collector in the world, I am going to get a copy at some point, just as I went to great lengths to finally secure TWO copies of Final Fantasy XI for the PC; actually playing them is not on my agenda. Besides, I've heard really good things about the game, things that please me as a fan - I'm happy that fans more open to massively multiplayer are finding it great, I'm still waiting for the next single-player experience, not to mention the next number... and I'm hoping the best, I truly am.

What happened to this fun-loving lot?
Last on the August list is the disappointment of the year. It's not Dead Space 3, it sure as hell ain't DuckTales Remastered, and it ain't even SimCity either. When I was in the 1st grade, I lived and breathed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I drove people crazy with my badly pronounced surf lingo, I really did. Now here's the thing: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II - The Arcade Game was, and still is, one of my all-time favourite NES games. No, the original arcade game released on Xbox LIVE some years ago did not change that, not one bit - actually, it just proved how great and superior the NES port was back in the day. It was kinda endearing, not disappointing. I heard from a friend on Facebook that this game called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows was coming out on Steam and Xbox LIVE, and he had been granted the privilege of testing the game. He said that if anyone ever loved the original comic books or even the very original cartoon, and the old games, he might add, they'd got to try out this game. OK, so I scooped up a couple of screenshots, and heard someone else comparing the combat system to that of the Arkham series. Hell, remember how excited I told you I was back when it was very loosely rumoured that Rocksteady was working on a TMNT game? Now there was an image in my head: this game would rock the shit out of every one of those stupid reboots of the franchise and return to the old-school glory of TMNT, and have destructively awesome gameplay. It was later I found out that it is actually based on the latest reboot, but that didn't matter - if the gameplay was as great as I imagined and the style was as good as I imagined, hell, maybe I would even find the new take on the franchise quite good. Well, again to put a short cap to a long story, the game sucks ass. I regret spending my well-earned money on it, even choosing it over a nice evening with my girl, and if I was just a little more agitated by the crappy gameplay and the sucky art, I'd fucking sue Activision for all things human. I at least hoped for a game that would finally spark my interest to do a TMNT marathon, but once again, it's put on indefinite hold.

And the Game of the Year undoubtedly goes to...
That shitstorm I just brewed up calls upon an even more epic turn of this year's events than it already is. September first brought us Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, a high-definition remake - and I do mean a total remake - of one of my favourite games on the Sega Genesis, one that's even better than the original article. On the same day, somewhat of a cultural mass took place as Diablo III finally made its way to consoles. Outlast was released on the PC to renew many gamers' faith in survival horror, Kingdom Hearts got its long-anticipated HD treatment, and of course, many sports fans of all ages got their game of the year in NHL 14. September 17th saw the release of MechWarrior Online... but no one cared, as Grand Theft Auto V was finally released, to overwhelming critical response and praises from even those fans who gave up on the series after Vice City (there are plenty). I've said quite enough about the game, and I think the game's achievements on this blog speak for themselves - not only did it wipe my franchise favourite San Andreas out of its way, it made all the way to the #1 spot on the Top 60. In October, its online servers were opened for some more Los Santos-sized mayhem - not without flaws, but apparently, GTA Online is up and running just fine at the moment. October was also the time for the three 2013 games I had true interest in. Beyond: Two Souls came out first, and as a Heavy Rain fan, I was intrigued, but after reading the average reviews, I decided that I should postpone the purchase. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag came to save a franchise that wasn't exactly dying, but tiring out, and Batman: Arkham Origins, despite being a good game, apparently came to do the complete opposite.

So, it's been an on/off year, but when it's been on, it has truly been on; two masterpieces, several good games, a few disappointments, but only a couple of games that aren't worth half of the benefit of the doubt and should be dumped in the trash on sight. When I think of this year as a whole, the one common thesis which comes to mind is that my faith in the future of video games is restored, in franchises, as well as whole genres. So, I'm expecting a good show from the next generation of consoles. Welcome to the world.

maanantai 11. marraskuuta 2013

REVIEW - Batman: Arkham Origins | PS3 | 2013

GENRE(S): Action / Stealth
RELEASED: October 25, 2013
AVAILABLE ON: PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360
DEVELOPER(S): Warner Bros. Games Montréal, Splash Damage
PUBLISHER(S): Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

In the summer of 2012, Warner Bros. hinted at another Batman game in the fabled Arkham series, this time a Silver Age prequel which would feature several members of the Justice League, and among its stories to tell would be Batman's first confrontation with his arch nemesis, the Joker. As more and more people dropped out of this project early on, including voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, writer Paul Dini, and finally, series creators Rocksteady Studios themselves, and as the game's title was unveiled to be something as typical as Batman: Arkham Origins, people's disbelief in the game kept on growing with each step until Warner Bros. had trailers to prove that they'd apparently adapted Rocksteady's methods quite faithfully, and that the new voice actors knew how to get the job done. Written by Corey May and Dooma Wendschuh of Assassin's Creed fame, the game might even finally have a solid story to it even if it was not what was originally promised, or even the supercavalcade of rogues the previous games were. In a nutshell, Batman: Arkham Origins is a good game - but there's no denying that with these couple of years in between, it could be much more.

I am the (rough) night!

STARRING
Roger Craig Smith : Bruce Wayne / Batman
Troy Baker : The Joker
Martin Jarvis : Alfred Pennyworth
Brian Bloom : Roman Sionis / Black Mask
JB Blanc : Bane
Michael Gough : GCPD Captain James Gordon
Nolan North : Oswald Cobblepot / The Penguin
Mark Rolston : Slade Wilson / Deathstroke
Steve Blum : Lester Buchinsky / Electrocutioner / Loose Lips
Wally Wingert : Edward Nashton / Enigma

Batman is in an early stage of his crimefighting career. The highly corrupt police force of Gotham City considers the Dark Knight a threat to both of their businesses, and his name is a terrible urban legend on the streets - no-one outside the Blackgate prison walls really believes in Batman's existence. Drug lord Black Mask finally has his fill of Batman and places a $50 million bounty on his head on Christmas Eve, drawing the attention of eight of the deadliest assassins in the world - Deadshot, Deathstroke, Copperhead, Firefly, Electrocutioner, Killer Croc, Shiva, and finally, the mental and physical powerhouse known only as Bane. In the thick of it all, Batman has to deal with the sudden appearance of a mysterious psychopath calling himself "The Joker", as well as a seriously self-absorbed hacker who is hell bent on collapsing the political climate of Gotham City, and a few more loose cannons. It's going to be a Christmas to remember.

Playing around with the Remote Claw. A bit
tacky, yet fun.
Late 1988 - the 60's Batman show premieres on Finnish TV. I never miss an episode - Batman's my new hero... and perhaps Batgirl and Catwoman teach me an important lesson or two about women. About the same season in 1989, the movie by Tim Burton comes out. I'm too young to go see it at the theater, but I have all the related merchandise you can muster up at that time. My mom buys me books to tide me over until the video release, including The Killing Joke and the whole of Ten Nights of the Beast serial - yeah, stuff you really shouldn't buy to a kid who has a certain goofy image of Batman and especially the Joker, it can be really scary... or REALLY COOL. Early 1991, me and my best friend curse at each other for not being able to defeat the Joker in Batman - The Video Game for the NES. We keep trying until we are both found passed out on the living room floor... both woken up by the sound of someone powering down the NES. "NOOOOOO!!!" 1992, Batman Returns. Some time after that, the animated series. Still going strong. Then, 1995... Batman Forever. Initially, I like the movie, but hey, at that age I like everything with Jim Carrey in it... and it has Tommy Lee Jones, too. It's not that I liked the movie which makes me think what mind-numbing drug I was on at that age, but the fact I liked the SNES game as well. Well, in 1997 Batman & Robin comes out, and that movie single-handedly destroys all my interest in Batman. I don't know if "single-handedly" is the correct term - I hold everyone involved with that movie responsible. Yes, even Schwarzenegger. Many years pass. Then, 2005; Batman Begins. My interest in the franchise is totally renewed, especially upon the arrival of the 2008 sequel The Dark Knight, but it seems that in the years I've missed, no-one has created the perfect Batman game. In 2009, British rookies Rocksteady Studios step up with an all-star Batman game starring 17-year veterans Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and Joker, Paul Dini works as the lead writer, and appearances from the Top 10 craziest bastards in the DC Universe, set within the walls of Arkham Asylum, now run by inmates. How could it go wrong? It doesn't - it's a magnificent game with shades of Metroid at its absolute best (note that I avoided the use of the word "prime"), an honest love letter to Batman fans. Next up, Batman: Arkham City in 2011... the same thing, but fitted into a city-wide sandbox, with double, if not triple, the amount of villains. 2012, The Dark Knight Rises ends the Christopher Nolan film trilogy with pure power.

This was my journey as a Bat-fan from the very beginning to this day. Judging by all this, you'd think that Batman: Arkham Origins was right up there with my most anticipated games of the year, but it really wasn't. Although I always knew it was going to be a good game - I mean, how could it go wrong with all the most important bases covered? - the truth is that Rocksteady's already done it all. Be it a sequel, interquel, prequel, whatever-quel, they can't possibly give us nothing as grand and especially as definitive as what we've already seen. That much has to be understood from the start. Instead of delivering with a non-stop thrill ride conducted by another fantastic collective of exciting rogue designs, the "new" developers (they made the Wii U version of Arkham City) focus a bit more on the integrity of the story, here, and although Batman: Arkham Origins is not really a cohesive origin story (Batman's origins are actually exploited less than in the previous games), it does explain many things, how things came to be as they are in the Arkham universe. It does that for quite some while and it's exciting to watch... right up until it stops explaining. As solid as the story is, it ultimately hits yet another brick wall, leaving many loose ends wide open, perhaps to pave way for another prequel. I hope for DLC instead of another full-length game, because I firmly believe the line can't be stretched any further than it already has been.

This Christmas, Gotham gets a dose of Anarky.
Another game, another set of influences - what I noted immediately about one of the trailers was how much the character of Bane is actually influenced by Tom Hardy's interpretation of the character in the movie The Dark Knight Rises, which felt odd since in the previous games, he was more influenced by his comic book counterpart. Thanks to some really good writing - at least I think so - the subject of Bane should no longer be questionable by the end of the game. One more important thing that causes concern for the integrity of the characters of Batman: Arkham Origins, is of course the set of major changes in the voiceover cast. Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker take over for Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, respectively - as much as I've appreciated both actors' previous works such as Smith's long tenure as both Chris Redfield in Resident Evil and Ezio Auditore in Assassin's Creed, and Baker's voiceover presentation of the year as Joel in The Last of Us, I've got to admit I was a bit worried they wouldn't really know what they had gotten themselves into, here. Well, Smith sounds the same as always and he does a fine job at it, and Baker steals the show just like any good Joker, perhaps repeating Hamill's formula, but ain't that pretty much the idea? After all, this is supposed to be a prequel, not a reboot.

Of course you can be the mean critic and say it looks like a prequel, too - something dug up from the drawer from somewhere between Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. As blunt as it is: Arkham Origins is not a step forward in any sense, except maybe for once again slightly enhanced combat mechanics. Luckily it's not much of a step back, either - if you loved Arkham City, you're going to like Arkham Origins. Whether you treat it as a new game or a gigantic add-on to its predecessor is up to you - after all, it does look exactly the same and half of Gotham City does comprise of what "became known" as Arkham City. That's the most boring part, I think, re-gliding through an already fine-sized map you've had plenty of time to scout through and through dozens of times. Also, I find it more than a bit illogical that "Arkham City" is actually the same size as the rest of Gotham - in other words, the world map is almost exactly twice the size of the one in the last game. So what, the government spent all those resources on splitting the greatest metropolis in the world in an exact half and giving one half of it to criminals? Doubtful. The level design is OK for the most part, but I'm really annoyed that almost all of the story levels consist of climbing upwards and maze-like corridors, points which make a post-story hunt for the last remaining collectibles really tedious, and perhaps the greatest disappointment of all was the mandatory hallucination segment - should come as no spoiler - which was, yes, predictable by all accounts, and not too fun to play either. I miss Scarecrow's nightmare segments. (Where did the guy disappear to, anyway?)

The soundtrack is composed by Christopher Drake, who's worked on several animated films based on DC characters, including last year's film adaptation of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, and also the video game Injustice: Gods Among Us. Amazing work, once again, by a different composer - although once again you can play the part of the mean critic and say how it doesn't take a musical genius to figure out what sort of compositions Batman fans like. Yeah, it's traditional Batman fare - mixed with a little bit of the darker side of Christmas carols. So, again, amazing.

Showstealer No. 1: Deathstroke, making his
major platform debut in the series.
When you finally get over how kinda old-fashioned the game feels, you'll start to enjoy the story, and see how much strength lies in its greatest weakness. Let's start with the few things that are new in Batman: Arkham Origins. You finally get to visit the Batcave, the real one - and yes, Alfred is there, monitoring your progress every step of the way. Remember how I pointed out that Bane's character is very influenced by Tom Hardy's interpretation of him on film? Well, check out Alfred and correct me for a false statement if there's not a hint of Michael Caine's interpretation in him - not necessarily the emotional wreck he was in The Dark Knight Rises, but the doubtful, yet loyal servant he was in the first Nolan film. You still can't fool around with the Batcomputer any more than the story allows you to, which was a slight letdown, but you can change your suit to one that pleases you - if you have Adam West's 60's suit via DLC, you can even use that one (lol) - and take on increasingly tough combat challenges in the training "lounge", unlocked on the go, to gain hefty amounts of EXP. The Freeflow and Predator challenges are still in categories of their own; you can take these on as well from here, or from the main menu. You can use the Batwing to get around - it seems that the Batmobile is still under construction. No, you can't fly the thing - there's just a Batwing drop point in each major district of Gotham for you to unlock for fast travel; as a matter of fact, it seems the game can hardly manage the fast travel animation (read: poorly disguised loading screen).

Most gadgets are unlocked from the beginning, but you can't use them for all of their several purposes before unlocking upgrades to 'em by making progress in the main story, and taking care of some particular side missions. Almost all of them are either exactly the same as your Bat-gadgets in previous games, or modified versions of them, but there are two completely new ones. The Remote Claw allows you to, not just somewhat illogically, secure a tight rope between two anchor points you don't have to be in any direct contact with. Via a few upgrades, you can also shoot it at an enemy to hang 'em upside down from afar or smash a projectile into 'em, and do takedowns while balancing on the rope. Illogical... yet quite neat. What's even more neat is the pair of Shock Gloves, which you can use to manipulate electrical equipment, and even gain a huge advantage in overwhelming combat situations; not only does high voltage deal a lot of damage to even armored enemies without any special attacks, each freeflow hit counts as two, allowing more takedowns for starters. Could be quite useful, since there are a lot of annoying bastards in this game. And a lot of fights, at that.

Showstealer No. 2: Bane, looking more "hardy"
than ever.
You can't go anywhere in this game without running into someone itchy for a nosebleed or cracked ribs. Combat, as strong as it has always been in this series of games, can get quite tiring when there's a gang of enemies in every damn street corner while you're hunting for collectibles, and a gang of enemies in each damn room when you're simply trying to get on with the story. The side missions are no different; just beat up a group of guys and you've won, nothing more to it besides a semi-scripted sequence in which you catch the bad guy. Even some boss fights are enforced by a group of standard enemies who pose the actual threat instead of the boss character him- or herself. The boss fights are of the quite standard fare here, no Mr. Freeze or Ra's al Ghul, or any of the like to be fought - a couple of nice surprises, Deathstroke seems to be a common favourite, but ultimately, I'm disappointed with how most of these depend on skill of mashing one single button, the one which signals for attack, and even sheer luck at times.

The Predator rooms haven't changed one bit, despite the Remote Claw's presence. The enemies are just as stupid as they ever were, speak as stupid as they ever did, and fall for the same stupid stunts as they ever did. The rooms are maybe a little tougher to completely scout out and navigate especially while under fire, but I don't think they'll pose much of a challenge to someone who has already survived the worst places and the worst stipulations in the past.

Stipulations remind me of the challenge tracker, tied to your Freeflow and Predator skills, as well as your knack for finding secrets. This tracker would make the game much more entertaining... but what's totally wrong about it is that you have to do its challenges in a specific order. For example, if you manage to survive a Predator room without switching the ever-so-useful Detective Vision on once during the whole sequence... good for you. It won't make a stinking difference until you've cleared the previous challenge on the list. And no, it doesn't clear out automatically if you've done it long before - you'll have to pull the same stunt off AGAIN to nail the challenge. The best thing for you to do here is stop trying early on. Ironically, you'll clear much more challenges that way.

The last thing on the list is the puzzles - where do they fit in? Are there any? Sure there are, but not those question mark challenges and spotting challenges we so loved, although there are tags hidden around the city which poorly reflect on those. The actual puzzles are of the exact same variety as they were in Arkham City, nothing more and nothing less... and nothing as clever, but a nice change of pace anyway. Some tricky gliding challenges between two or more particular spots, heavy use of the Remote Batarang and Cryptographic Sequencer, exploring the full potential of all your gadgetry basically... nothing to really twist your brain in a cramp, except maybe finding the right source of an obvious map marker every once in a while. This game is too vertical for its own good.

Showstealer No. 3 needs no introductions.
The story is short, but it's filled with sweet spots. It's not until the very end that you'll realize how many points it missed out on, and how anti-climactic it was in certain ways... and again, the worst part is that it feels like it might serve as the first part of a two-part story; perhaps the cow wasn't milked quite as dry in Arkham City as I thought, but after this game, Batman needs a fresh start. The side missions, puzzles and challenges will keep you occupied for at least a few extra hours, and there's not one, but two harder game modes. And oh yeah, the challenge maps - no Arkham fan ever said no to those. And a multiplayer mode too. There's content here, alright, if you're fan enough to take it.

Batman: Arkham Origins is a good game, but while other huge video game franchises of the stealth action and/or sandbox genres keep developing - mostly referring to the nice surprise the other big October release delivered, and the game of the year which was released in September - time has stood still for Batsy. You'll play it. You'll like it. But after that, I wouldn't be surprised if you went back to the old ones for even better time. Actually, this might be a good place for newbies to start dissecting the Arkham series - if you haven't played the previous games, you just might look upon Arkham Origins as a masterpiece, and unlike many prequels, it won't spoil anything for you.

UPS
+ A solid story with delicious twists - total integrity is lost towards the end, though
+ Awesome cast of characters; The Joker, Bane and Deathstroke steal the show
+ Fantastic music
+ Actually being able to visit the Batcave and meet Alfred adds to the experience
+ About half of the boss fights
+ Challenge maps from both sides of the coin are always fun
+ Combat mechanics are once again upgraded...

DOWNS
- ...That's pretty much it; time has stood still
- A little too much of that initially fun combat, found in every story and side mission
- Half of the map is literally Arkham City all over again
- About the other half of the boss fights
- Dumb challenge tracker
- A patch suggestion rather than a down: a deadly audiovisual lag and other buzz killing glitches in the PS3 version, especially after the story is completed

< 7.9 >