Review — Thief Town

Thief Town is a fun little party game that is sort of obscure, both because how simple it is and the fact that it doesn’t have much replayability. It’s got a retro style and some unique gameplay, though, so I think it’s worth a real mention!

This is a four player retro-style arcade game. It comes complete with two buttons (aside from four-directional movement), and is purely an arena where you fight your friends. The way that the game works is you and everybody else are a bunch of thieves trying to stab each other. The only trouble is, you, your friends, and a bunch of added non-players all look exactly the same. The only way you can figure out which one is you is by correlating movement on the screen with the input you put in the controller. (Keep in mind, though, walking around in circles will make everybody notice you.) Everybody, including the AI, walk around until one of the players decides to stab. If an AI is stabbed, they fall down dead and nothing happens (except everyone can see who the murderer was, if you’re paying attention). If a player is stabbed, they bleed out and die. Last one standing wins the round, and the first to a set number of points wins.

I did say two buttons, though. Depending on the sort of game mode you’re playing, players can have access to random one-time use abilities, like smoke screen, trap, or gun. They all have various uses, such as the gun killing everybody in a straight line and the trap revealing any player that steps on it.

The game also has a few modes. You can play with or without the abilities I mentioned, you can do showdown, where there are no AIs and you just have to rely on more skillful stabbing (sometimes while the players are literally invisible!), or you can do Sheriff vs. robbers, where the Sheriff player has to shoot the thieves while they try to remain hidden and act like AIs.

There’s more, but that’s the brunt of the game. All the music is 8-bit and the game itself is very pixelated. It allows the focus of this game to be the gameplay–hiding and stabbing. You can stab everyone near you or lie in wait for people to reveal themselves by stabbing.

My favorite thing about this game is that there is an element of luck involved. The last time I played, I won two rounds in a row only to come out with exactly zero points the third game, and not from lack of trying either. Sometimes your friends just stab the instant the game starts, and they kill you. Sometimes they try to stab somebody else and they kill you instead (or also). Sometimes a giant tumbleweed rolls onto the stage and flattens you before you can get out of the way. Is it fair? Not exactly, but games happen so quickly and it can happen to anyone, so what does it matter?

I believe the game is going for $8 right now. Even with three other people to play it with (and it does have couch co-op, as is kind of necessary), it’s still a lot to ask for. This is sort of the game where you play it for a few hours and you’ve had your fill. I certainly wouldn’t pay $8 for it because I don’t think I’ve gotten 8 hours worth of entertainment out of it, maybe even combined with the people I’ve played it with. There simply isn’t that much to experience in the game.

But if you don’t mind that, it’s certainly an interesting game to pick up, and it is a lot of fun for a short period of time!

Review — Titanfall 2

Titanfall 2 isn’t a new game by any means, but I hadn’t played the campaign until recently. The production of the game went into the multiplayer, as that’s what it revolves around, but my brothers and I nagged me about playing the campaign until I finally sat down to do it. I’ll talk about the campaign first, then add a little bit at the end about the multiplayer and the new mode: Frontier Defense. There will be spoilers ahead, but they will be more about gameplay than story. Honestly though, this isn’t the sort of game you should care to have spoiled. The fun of the campaign isn’t the story, it’s the map design and gameplay mechanics.

That being said, the campaign wasn’t what I had anticipated in the slightest. With my brothers wanting me to play it so badly, I expected it to have an epic adventure with plot twists and awesome characters. But really, it doesn’t have that. There are no interesting twists, and you can guess what happens at the end of each mission if you have enough familiarity with the action genre in any form.

But the Titanfall 2 campaign is awesome. It’s simply awesome in a way I haven’t experienced. It wasn’t Halo, that had you jumping onto a Scarab or looking for Cortana on a Flood-infested ship. It didn’t have insane moments. But the map design took heavy advantage of Titanfall 2‘s gameplay, where you can double-jump and run on walls. This game is by far the most fluid and mobile FPS I’ve ever encountered, and the campaign matches it perfectly.

And then the game throws you for a loop and introduces time shenanigans. You find a device that warps you back in time, and then you have an entire level where you can go back or forward in time at will. There are obstacles that bar your way that may not be there in the past/future, or enemies trying to kill you that might be in both parts of the timeline simultaneously. For about half an hour the game almost stops being a first-person shooter and instead shifts into a puzzle platformer. Now, the puzzles aren’t complicated, but it does require you to think a bit. Not to mention the incredible aesthetic change of shifting back and forth between pristine science facility and apocalyptic rubble looks amazing.

This one level makes the campaign worth playing.

It actually makes me a little sad that that idea isn’t used more. There should be an entire game based on shifting back and forth on a timeline. It could easily be implemented into a multiplayer system, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it actually has been done before. In the campaign it made me feel like a superhero. Way more so than any actual superhero game I’ve ever played. So I think that’s saying something.

So, enough about the campaign. What does this game feel like? Well, I will admit that it is a lot like the less socially acceptable games like Call of Duty and, now, Halo. You’re in an arena with some teammates and some enemies, and you try to shoot them before they can shoot you.

But Titanfall has two unique things going for it. First, the mobility I’ve already mentioned has a perfection I’ve never seen before in a game like this. If you’ve seen professional gameplay of somebody running around in Pilot mode, you can really see how quickly you can move across the map just by the mechanics the game has provided to you.

The second is the game’s namesake, and that is Titans. It’s amazing how they can give a player a giant robot and have those robots feel powerful while also making them balanced gameplay wise. The game has two different modes: Pilot and Titan. You can shift back and forth several times in one game, but you can also perform just as well with no Titan.

The new game mode, Frontier Defense, is especially enjoyable for me for two reasons. One, playing against other players is stressful, and with this mode being co-op, it alleviates that. It also lets you pick a very specific style of play and stick to it. The enemy AI won’t really adapt to it, so it could be easy, but if you play on harder difficulties you better be really good with the gimmick you’re going with! Frontier Defense, surprisingly enough, also has progression! You can level up your specific Titan and unlock new abilities, and I love that sort of thing.

So, all-in-all, the game is awesome. The way I see it, it is objectively superior to a game like Call of Duty in virtually every way, and it’s a fun experience any way you play it. I would certainly recommend it if you’re into first-person shooters.

Review — Dragon Quest Heroes II (460)

With no computer, I recently bought a console game to occupy my free time. My favorite game of all time is Dragon Quest VIII, but it has remained virtually my only experience in the entire franchise (though I have played the original Dragon Warrior on the NES). Despite mediocre reviews, I decided to give this game a try for the change of pace. I do enjoy leveling and progression in any game, and the familiarity would ensure at least some enjoyment, so I got it.

And man, this game really does deserve its mediocre reviews. Don’t get me wrong: it’s fun. I’ve put over fifty hours into it so far, and I haven’t had my fill, but there are a lot of things that are weird about it.

First, the plot is pretty ho-hum. There’s a lot of things that happen, mostly misdirection, that happens simply to take you the player to new areas to fight new monsters. Kingdom A is in danger, so you have to go help them, only the danger comes from Kingdom B, who is bringing war due to a misunderstanding, meaning you have to go to Kingdom C, and so on. I’d say it’s derivative, but that’s not the right word. It’s more like the plot is used solely as a device for adventure, when this sort of game could really have worked with no plot at all. I will say, though, near the end there were a few plot twists I wasn’t expecting, so that was a nice little treat.

As far as game design goes, there’s a lot of odd things that are irking. There are mechanics that aren’t explained (getting the key that unlocks half the chests in the open-world is too convoluted for anyone to figure out on their own), and there are instances where you are punished for making the right play, or rewarded for making the wrong one. For example, there is a pitfall trap in a dungeon, and in that trap there are treasure chests. Why would you reward the player for making a mistake? That means anyone that was smart enough to avoid them would miss out on that treasure.

Despite all that, though, there really isn’t any glaring issues with the game. It’s problems are numerous, but small. My biggest grievance of all is that the two characters from DQ8 were turned into stereotypes. They didn’t feel like the people I had spent hundreds of hours adventuring with in the good old days. It makes me worry whether the characters from the other games were out of proportion as well.

This game does do a lot of cool things, though. The progression feels natural and rewarding, and it actually is challenging in a lot of parts! There were times where I had to restart the mission because it seemed super difficult, only to turn it around the second time because I had a better handle on what I should be doing. That sort of difficulty is the best!

And my favorite thing is that all the playable characters (a bit over a dozen) all have unique and fun playstyles. In a lot of hack and slash games I’m used to different characters having different combo attacks, and that’s about it, but in this game it’s way more than that. Like in Dragon Quest VIII, it’s important to have a well-rounded team filled with people who do different things. I have a mage that deals a ton of damage but has limited mana, a sword guy that does a lot of wide attacks to deal with large amounts of enemies, a healer to fix things when people get hurt or die, and a variable character depending on what you’re doing at the time. But the cool thing is that every character feels special, and even when the game sometimes forces you to select characters you may not like as much, you can still enjoy them. (As a side note, the particle effects in this game are top-notch in a lot of cases. There are some instances where the shading is off, but most of the fire, lightning, and ice attacks look awesome!)

So, is the game worth getting? Well, if you like hack-and-slash games, it’s fine. It’s story isn’t great, and it does get a bit repetitive, but if you’re fine with progression for it’s own sake, there is a lot of stuff to do even after you beat the game. There’s also a ‘New Game+’ mode I haven’t tried out yet. So there’s plenty of content to justify the value, if you’re not easily bored or frustrated, that is.

P.S. Playing a new game in the Dragon Quest franchise did get me super excited for Dragon Quest XI. Seeing all the old enemies in high resolution was nice, and I can’t wait for the upcoming release!

Review — Hammerwatch

As far as fun little couch co-op style games go, it can be hard to find ones that work these days. There’s a lot of choices, to be sure, but the abundance of choices can actually hinder the decision making process because while there are so many games, it isn’t easy to find the one that works for you and your friends.

For me, Hammerwatch is a great example of a retro dungeon crawler. It is a Gauntlet style co-op hack and slash. You each have a different class with different abilities, and you run through dungeons killing all manner of little monsters, solving puzzles and finding secrets. If you’re not careful, however, you can die instantly, so there is a risk factor.

My favorite thing about the game is how unforgiving it can be. There are different sources of threats that are more or less difficult for certain classes. There are challenging monsters that run fast and deal insane amounts of damage. Ranged classes deal with these best, usually, because they don’t have to get close. There are also swarms of enemies that shoot from a distance which are also hard for melee classes to deal with because at that point the game is a bullet hell. But the melee guys excel at dealing lots of damage to nearby enemies, so if it’s relatively safe, they can delete swarms of enemies in one blow if you time it right. Of course, there’s also traps. Spike traps kill you instantly in this game, and for whatever reason, I am really bad at maneuvering around them. They kill me a lot because I’m an idiot.

The levels aren’t random, but there are so many secrets it lends itself well to replay-ability simply because there’s bound to be loads of stuff you missed last time. The more you play, the better you’ll get, naturally. But there are also plenty of difficulty modifiers. There is the basic “Easy, Medium, Hard” settings, but you can also adjust more specific settings. You can make mana regenerate faster, or make health naturally regenerate slowly, for example. You can also make it harder, adding a shared health pool or setting everybody’s health to a maximum of one, meaning taking any damage at all will always kill you (or everybody, if you have shared health!)

My favorite thing about this game is the upgrades. As you go higher up the tower, you collect money and find stronger vendors that sell upgrades such as increased armor, increased damage, or increased life pool and movement speed. There are lots of things you can buy, and finding more secrets can make upgrades cost less in addition to giving you more money to pay for them, so its incredibly rewarding. (You can also unlock new abilities for your specific class as you get further into the game!)

As usual, I do have issues with this game, but they are sort of nit-picky. The first is that there is no random generation. I get that it’s difficult to implement secrets if the map is always different, but it feels like the sort of game that would have randomly generated levels and enemies, so the replay-ability is less in the novelty of the experience and more for the personal challenge of increasing the difficulty. As an unrelated side note, it can be almost impossible to tell what secrets do sometimes. You can press a secret button that says “A passageway has been revealed!” but there is no indication of where that might be, which will force you to backtrack all across the map in the hopes that you discover some new place. That part is a little frustrating.

My second real frustration with the game is that the “good” ending is reserved for people that know all the secrets. In order to escape the tower once you beat the final boss, you have to use “strange plank” items that you found in various places in the tower, which at first serve no discernible purpose. But, if you find all of them (you have to find all of them, too,) you can escape the castle and beat the game. And as far as I know, there’s no indication of how many there are in the dungeon in the first place. There’s twelve one for each floor of the castle.

Is the game worth it? Certainly. Full price, it’s currently worth $10, and a successful run-through of the first campaign will take over three hours, though it’ll probably take you a few tries to even get that far int he first place. I recommend it for anyone that likes hardcore games that try to kill you and your friends. It isn’t the most insanely difficult game, once you get the hang of it, but you can certainly modify it to be.

Story — Warp Drift

The Starseeker lurched as it halted its warp. The view from the pilot’s chair shifted from streaming lines of stars to a huge red landscape–a new planet. Undocumented and, likely, uninhabited. Just like all the rest.

There was no time for rest, however. The malfunctioning warp drive brought the Starseeker into the planet’s atmosphere, and already it was plummeting. It’s momentum and aerodynamic hull made its descent little more comforting than a nose dive.

With a curse, the pilot thrust back the throttle, trying to slow its descent, but it was no use: the thrusters were already off. “This ship can’t take another hit like last time,” he thought. Where was the damn parachute button?

He found it, breathing a sigh of relief, and the last emergency chutes the ship were deployed. Immediately the Starseeker leveled out, and though the jagged slopes and fissures of the planet’s surface were still magnifying at an alarming rate, at least its descent was more tangential. A rough landing was better than a fatal one.

No time for anything else. He cursed his lack of knowledge of the controls. A true pilot could properly land this ship. But then, a true pilot would never be in this situation in the first place. He squeezed his eyes shut and braced for impact.

The Starseeker landed with a horrible crunch, followed by a screeching slide as the ground ate at the ship’s plating. She was durable, but every dent and scratch was one he couldn’t repair without the right materials. In fact, with his benightedness, that might not even matter. Every piece of the ship was an asset he couldn’t afford to waste.

This was the third uncharted planet he had warped to. With a damaged warp drive, the Starseeker would warp continuously without any input or any way to deactivate it. The particular malfunction was referred to as “warp drift”, if he recalled correctly. A common problem with this model. Often a fatal one for any pilot, eventually. Even experienced ones.

The ship was the only constant these days. He could leave it behind, of course. Grab his gear and set up a camp outside, trying to tame the wilds of whatever unknown world he was on now. But before long, the ship would go, whether he was on it or not. The broken and battered vestige of civilization was the only thing he had left. He would almost certainly die without it.

But he was short on time. He had to find food. Fire. Collect resources. Repair the ship, if he could. And in the off chance he found any free time, familiarizing himself with the ship’s controls would never be a bad option. Luckily the last planet he had been on had lots of fresh water. He was well stocked in that regard, but every other resource was woefully lacking.

But, fate willing, he could survive. Perhaps if he found how to tame the wilds and the ship he could find a way to fix the warp drive. If he did that, he could return home. That was wishful thinking, of course.

But it wasn’t impossible.

Review — Starcraft: Legacy of the Void (430)

Starcraft has always had a special place in my heart. I know it’s not accurate, but I do consider it the beginning of Esports and gaming on a competitive level. I never was very good, though. I was probably only about twelve years old when the second true installment of the game, Wings of Liberty, came out. This game has had an enormous impact on the gaming community as a whole, and while I’ve talked about it before, let me give my thoughts on the latest version. Even though it’s already two years old at this point, I hadn’t played through the last chapter until this past month, so cut me some slack.

Protoss is my favorite race. Between the goopy, brooding, and infesting insectoid swarm of the Zerg, the mechanical, sturdy, and militaristic might of the Terran, and the advanced, noble hierarchy of the vengeful Protoss, I’ll take the latter. I don’t like the bug or the hardbitten war aesthetic much, but an ascended race of people who think they’re better than everyone else? Yes please.

So, I think it goes without saying that since Legacy of the Void was the Protoss chapter of Starcraft II, it was definitely my favorite. I have the strongest handle on what my capabilities are with that faction, so I can try a little bit harder and pay more attention to the story than I could before.

And man, Legacy of the Void has some awesome characters and stories. I won’t spoil anything here (though the statute of limitations is definitely over), but it definitely has a lot more character than anything I really felt in the other two campaigns. The previous two objectives were: “save my x-girlfriend”, followed by “figure out who I am then get vengeance”. This time it’s “unite your fractured people, then take down a god”. This campaign felt a lot more impactful than the previous two, even if it is because it’s the “final chapter” of Starcraft II. Obviously I can’t really give credit to the writers here. It’s pretty much comparing the climax to the beginning and middle of a book, which isn’t fair at all.

All that being said, my favorite part about the single player is that it’s totally okay to give the player incredibly powerful abilities because it doesn’t have to be balanced. You’re supposed to win. The way that Legacy of the Void achieves this, through giving your character choices of unique units as well as adjustable in-game abilities (like ‘giant_lazer.exe’). Being able to upgrade and customize the way your character(s) go into a fight is one of my favorite game mechanics, and the fact that the things I’m choosing are all incredibly powerful makes my decisions feel extremely rewarding.

And, of course I can’t talk about Legacy of the Void without mentioning Alarak. (Minor spoilers ahead, but nothing too pivotal to the actual plot.) As far as I know, this character didn’t even exist in the Starcraft universe before this campaign, but he quickly ascended (see what I did there) to one of my favorite characters. You don’t get a lot of ‘Lawful Evil’ characters in any franchise, and even the ones that are aren’t on the good side. Alarak is a good guy, but he would never be mistaken for a good guy, if you know what I mean. Plus, he’s amazing because he’s so condescending, and the way he does it is so funny it’s amazing.

So, is Legacy of the Void worth getting? If you’re a Starcraft player, absolutely, but if that’s the case then you’ve probably already bought it. If you’re new to the RTS genre and want to know where to start, it’s great for that, too. All the complicated strategy stuff is easily tossed aside for new players. It’s mostly there to give veterans a way to amplify their abilities even more.

But, as old as Starcraft II has gotten, I’d imagine the next major installment for the franchise is due somewhat soon. I’d be willing to bet that the next big game release will happen before 2020 ends. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if it was announced by the end of the year, but I don’t expect it to be. Whatever might be the case, this game is great and is very compelling for an eight/nine hour experience!

Learning! — Background Music

It goes without saying that lots of music that is attached to TV shows, movies, or video games is often meant to supplement the visual aspect to whatever media we are presented with in our daily lives. If we’re watching a movie, the things that we’re hearing occupy roughly half of our attention (if we are to base that entirely off of the common five senses), and we obviously won’t want to be hearing dialogue or clothes shuffling the whole time, so music plays a critical role in a lot of what we see and do.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as throwing in your favorite rap album to a sitcom, because music plays with our emotions and subconscious a lot–meaning any thing we’re watching would have to also have music that helps us get into the mood we’re meant to be feeling at that given moment. A sad song to help us feel sad when a character experiences the same emotion. An intense battle hymn to accompany the climax to our favorite action movie. Whatever will help bring out the emotion that scene is meant to give us.

With video games, soundtracks often do their best to supply a bold theme, as well. Many good soundtracks are capable of evoking the feeling of the game just by listening to that music. An action game will typically have much higher tempo music than a story driven game simply by virtue of how it is meant to be played. Journey, a short and extremely simple yet abstract game, focuses entirely on exploration and the beautiful landscapes and art style. It has lots of slow, drawn out melodies played by violins and soft woodwinds. As far as I can recall, there is very little percussion throughout the entire soundtrack (timpani, usually, which itself adds a soft beat of its own). This makes the audience relax as they view for the game for what it really is. Journey is not a game to be won, but a story to experience.

Contrast this with my favorite game ever, Dragon Quest VIII, and you’ve got the blaring brass in the overture that screams “buckle your pants, we’re going on an adventure!” You’ve got cymbals slamming and drums pounding. Basically, the common elements of this soundtrack involve all the instruments one would associate with a classic Arthurian knight’s tale. Everything is loud and big, but not fast. This game has plenty of action, but really it’s about the world and seeing loads of different monsters and places. Lots of the music in this game is very “open”, with ascending notes that give the impression that a door is opening into a different world. It has plenty of strings, but here the strings play a harmony, for often it’s the brass that gets the forefront in these pieces.

With music that isn’t meant to be actively listened to, there are two super important things that are necessary to help subliminally tell the audience what mood they should be in. Those things are tempo and instruments. The tempo translates directly to how fast you want your audience’s heart to be racing. With Journey, there isn’t a whole lot that will scare you. You might as well be reading a book on a quiet rainy evening. With Dragon Quest VIII, the tempo is often quick, but it gives the impression of a brisk walk down the country side or playing tag with some friends. With something more horror or action based, you want their heart to be pounding, as in “Oh no this demon is going to get me if I don’t run faster” sort of pace. If you set the tempo at that pace, your job is already halfway done.

The next time you’re binging Netflix or simply out at the movies, try to listen to the film score. Pick out the instruments being used. Think about how different that song would be if it was an electric guitar, or xylophone, or tuba playing that melody. It would feel out of place, sure, but chances are that sort of switch would work just fine in a different movie with a different theme.