Archive for the 'Impressions' Category


Hotline Miami 2

Hotline Miami 2

There’s a lot that can be said about a game like Hotline Miami 2 and its predecessor, as well as the audiences that play them.  These are very violent games, but in such a low resolution as to merely suggest a more graphic depiction.  It’s a very clever method to broadening the vocabulary of the game by sacrificing visual fidelity, while ensuring that more squeamish audiences who would otherwise be interested the game aren’t turned off by graphic violence.  These games become a meta-discussion at points where its super-natural characters ask you, acting as the protagonist, if you “like hurting other people.”  Those are moments when you might stop to wonder if your avatar is the one being addressed, or yourself.  It’s another fascinating angle to the games, which can lean heavily on the fourth wall without actually breaking it.

What I found to be extremely interesting though about Hotline Miami 2 was its world-building, and the messages it delivers through it.  It’s world lingers on cold war fear that is taken to a mad extreme.  This is an alternative late 80s/early 90s world shaped by that madness, where Soviet Russia sphere of influence readily encompasses Hawaii, and exerts influence over the entire United States via a Russo-American coalition.  It’s a world where the over-the-top violence of the American, martial culture of the 80s and 90s is expressed in a way that simultaneously captures the over-the-top action movies of the time and contrasts it against the fragileness of life.  While completing a level and getting an S ranking can be very satisfying, the path along the way is littered by countless player deaths, and many more enemy deaths.  The message to take away may not necessarily be whether or not you “like to hurt people” but the acknowledgement that this is the logical conclusion of American fear and martial culture of the era.  In this same vein of thought, Hotline Miami and Hotline Miami 2 draws from a similar creative heritage as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

HM2 offers an array of different characters who are in some way entangled or aligned with the events of the original game.  These are people who are either driven by their own psychotic need for violence, or by those who feel compelled to coerce others into it to serve their own psychotic ends.  While the Russo-American conflict can be read literally as the struggle of a resistance group against oppressive forces, HM2’s non-linear storytelling provides an immersion into the world without getting preoccupied on the high concept.  This allows the game to focus more squarely on its character vignettes, which tell the player of the larger conflict indirectly.  While all of the player characters engage in extremely violent battles, they are characters that solicit your investment, and to varying degrees, even your sympathy.  For those who wish to engage the game on the merits of its gameplay alone, there’s nothing to get in your way.  But audiences who find themselves intrigued with the game’s world will be able to piece it together and take in the consequences of all of the involved parties.

It’s not the game I was expecting to play.  It is a great game in as far as it’s taken HM’s mechanics and design and expanded upon it.  It has a coherent and compelling presentation that stands on its own merits.  But it also delivers a world and plot that, while not immediately obvious, is engrossing and nuanced.  I enjoyed Hotline Miami quite a bit, but Hotline Miami 2 makes itself a very memorable experience as well in ways that most other games wouldn’t even attempt to achieve.  Yes, it captures an 80’s aesthetic, with pumping music, trippy graphics, and action that rivals anything that John Rambo has accomplished on screen.  But that’s icing on a cake of the world that Hotline Miami 2 has delivered.  And I’d love to dive into more of the reasons why that is, but I’ll reserve spoiler topics for another post.  Hotline Miami 2 is an early favorite of the year for me, and a game that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to other video game enthusiasts or fans of the original.



Terra Battle Continued

Terra Battle

With only one interruption, I’ve been firing up Terra Battle on a daily basis.  I’m certain I still have a great deal of battles to go, but I’ve been enjoying collecting and building a small army of characters in my “deck.”  The game offers you a drip feed of resources to do this: each day you login results in acquisition of money, “energy”, and items.  It’s been enough to continue farming for experience points and tinker with the game’s mechanics.  The core mechanics of clearing the game board of enemies by arranging your party with a single character each turn results in quick, snappy battles that let you quickly iterate on strategies.  It’s not an incredibly deep system; you won’t be building layered strategies as you would in a game like Final Fantasy VII.  But there’s enough here to keep you engaged.  There are options to quickly power-level your characters, farm items to expand your character’s jobs, and to continue growing your ranks.

Terra Battle compels you to simply try to turn over all of its stones.  What it lacks in depth, it makes up for in breadth.  And it continues to grow as Mistwalker adds cooperative play, battle items, and more which retains the game’s audience and helps to bring new players in.  I’ve still not invested any money in the game to purchase “energy.”  It does make me wonder how Mistwalker will make money from it, but it’s not difficult for me to envision other players who are ready to play the game for longer sessions, or wish to collect characters more quickly than the game’s daily offerings allow.  It’s certainly kept me coming back, and if I were playing this game 10 or 15 years ago, I’d want to get more out of it, more quickly.  But today, I’m perfectly happy playing the game in slow motion, and continue putting my money into games that are known quantities to me, right now.  But I’m not the target audience here.  Terra Battle, for a company with a heritage reaching back into some of the biggest jRPG franchises in gaming history, is an acknowledgement of how the video game industry and community has grown more diverse.  I hope the game continues to grow and lead to more interesting future projects from Mistwalker.




I’ve been playing LISA for around a month now.  I’ve been taking my time and soaking it in.  I’ve held off on writing up my impressions of it up until now, because it’s a tough game to nail down.  It’s a game where I’ll probably have more to say, and my comments today may be somewhat brief.  I’m making my way through the final third of it, and I’ve been consistently challenged the entire way.  This isn’t a game that you chew up and consume without thinking, or else you’re not getting the full experience. It’s a game that will linger in your mind and have you rolling over what you’ve done time and again.  It’s not a game that ends when you quit out of it.  It’s uniquely the message of Austin Jorgensen, and he’s not simply repeating back to you what other games have told him.

LISA’s strongest quality is its ability to leverage the vocabulary of jRPGs to deliver its message.  On its face, you could be forgiven if you thought this might be a parody of jRPGs past, given it’s outlandish and absurd qualities.  In reality, it asks you to participate in jRPG verbs, spaces, and impressions, and then squeezes your pressure points with them.  LISA will make you contort in gaming pain, and force you acknowledge the true value of what you invest in these games by weighing it against moral choices.  It is constantly asking you to compare and contrast the value of your inventory, your party, your abilities, and your own narrative of the game.  This is not an easy game to be a good guy in.  If you make it far enough to reach some of these harrowing choices then these will not feel like artificial, or trivial dilemmas.  It’s what makes the game interesting though – you are trying to figure out how to make the best of a bad situation. It offers a conciliatory and surreal sense of humor to take some of the dismal edge off of the atmosphere surrounding these challenges.  The world is well realized and begs to be explored, and it dares you to try and explain it.

LISA has been affective in ways I’ve not seen very often.  And really, the one example that comes to mind that it reminds me of is the immediate aftermath (spoilers?) of Final Fantasy VI’s world of ruin.  LISA knows despair, and conveys it well.  It can be challenging to consume the game’s message, yet rewarding in completing it.  This may not be a game for everyone, as it includes some rather sensitive themes, but it’s one worth taking note of in any case.  And it warrants a much deeper discussion within our community.




Happy holidays! Hopefully you’ve had a pleasant Christmas.  Seeing nice people, eating good food, and relaxing.  What have I been up to? Mainly, I’ve been playing an upsetting combination of Alien: Isolation, LISA, and PT.  It’s nice to have a current generation console again, but even just waiting a year after their release, I have a tidy backlog of games to play through.  PT almost fell off my radar entirely, being so limited in scope.  Since it’s release, it’s been revealed to be a teaser for a possible entry in the Silent Hill franchise, being headlined by Hideo Kojima, Guillermo del Toro, and Norman Reedus.  It’s an exciting line-up of talent, but it’s still worth lingering on what PT accomplished as a self-contained piece of work.

I’ve yet to complete the game myself.  I’ve reached the final “puzzle,” which appears to be open to debate in how it is solved.  PT is not a game that can be completed on one’s own.  There are too many hidden details that the player would have to spend an inordinate amount of time to solve. It’s not impossible, but I have a hard time picturing the person who would solve on their own.  And while you will need to collaborate with other players, this only ends up reinforcing how alone you are when you play it yourself.  There are still problems that have not been entirely solved – you cannot rest easy knowing that you can just look up a guide when things get to be too intense.  It’s quite a wonderful accomplishment for a game of this scope and scale.

PT succeeds in creating tension between anticipation and confrontation.  Here, it is polished to a mirror sheen.  In much of survival horror, you have plenty of confrontation, which is amplified through use of spectacle (see Resident Evil 6.)  Anticipation is built in knowing something is coming, but not know what it is and when it will happen.  Your mind will be sent into overdrive in trying to prepare for the possibilities.  But when it’s left ambiguous enough, your mind will race ceaselessly, leaving you as a human pile of anxiety waiting to spill over into panic.  A game like Resident Evil 6 conditions you to always expect the confrontation, and leaves little room for your mind to race.  Instead, it tries to make the confrontations bigger, in the hopes that maybe doubling down on what might have once been a frightening idea will somehow make it more overwhelming.  But if you understand the trick that’s being used, then it doesn’t matter how big you make the confrontation.

PT offers you a drip feed of awful things to contemplate and leaves your origin and motivation entirely open-ended.  You will spin your mind trying to figure out exactly what it is and what you’re doing.  When PT does decide to pull the trigger on confrontation, it is incredibly effective.  And being such a small-scale game, it did not have to justify its existence with a great deal of marketing, signaling what you should expect so that you know what you’re buying (PT is free after all.)  It’s difficult to speculate as to whether or not PT translates to a full-fledged game – which will require a great deal of marketing and signaling.  But PT does tell us that those at the creative helm of the game have an aptitude for creating frightening experiences, and may have what it takes to put the Silent Hill series back on the same level as its earlier entries.


First Impressions of Guilty Gear Xrd: Sign

Guilty Gear Xrd: Sign

The fighting game genre is not one I typically find myself getting invested in, but I make an exception for the Guilty Gear series.  Over the years, I’ve tried to learn the game’s systems and characters.  The mechanics are deep, and the game is fast.  I’ve found it interesting for the intersection between speed and choice that it offers.  Having to invest a great deal of time and effort into knowing and memorizing move-sets and how they stack up against other characters is an aspect of fighting games that I’ve always found discouraging.  I know for others, it’s what makes a game like Street Fighter a classic.  But what I admire in the Guilty Gear series is that it’s fundamentals allow for interesting gameplay without having to invest a lot of effort in learning first.  It’s speed allows players to rely on being able to out-maneuver more-skilled opponents or force them to make moves without committing to being vulnerable.  It’s a less punishing experience for new-comers that still provides deep systems that reward you for whatever you invest in it.

Xrd: Sign convinced me to commit to the current generation of consoles.  I had always enjoyed it’s 2D presentation and style.  It was exciting to see that after years of iterating on Guilty Gear XX, there would be a true sequel to the fighting game series.  I was elated to see that Arc System Works managed to bring the series to three dimensions while maintaining its original look and feel.  While the gameplay remains on a two-dimensional plane,  it adds three dimensional flourishes to different points in battles.  It reinvigorates the gameplay and provides a great looking foundation on which to continue building the series.  I’ve also had the opportunity to try out the online multiplayer component, which worked seamlessly for playing with other folks on the west coast.  I’ve not yet delved deeply into the game’s other features, but am finding it to be a terrific entry in the series, which may yet convince me to become a bigger fan of other fighting games.


First Impressions of Alien Isolation

Alien Isolation

I think I’ve inadvertently spent the past several months preparing to play this game.  I started by reading through every volume of the Aliens Omnibus, picked up any singular comics that weren’t included, started reading one of the more recent novels, and watched through the 35th Anniversary of Alien.  Alien was one of the earliest Sci-Fi franchises I had ever become invested in (thanks to a ridiculous series of Kenner toys.)  I was ready.  And 15 years of experience playing survival horror games made Alien Isolation a prime candidate for me on the latest generation of gaming consoles.

At the same time though, I’m one of many beleaguered fans who have suffered through a series of underwhelming or flat out terrible Alien games and movies.  Creatively Assembly has tried to state that this was going to be different, and I was hopeful after seeing the initial media and press accounts of the game.  And now I’ve had the chance to sink a couple hours into the game, and what I can tell you is: so far so good.  I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself here, or be hyperbolic.  At least initially, Creative Assembly nails it.  The aesthetic and tone are as close to that of the original Alien film as could be without bringing on the original creative team.  And it’s accomplished without just making the same handful of callbacks to the film.  From the loading screens, to the game’s puzzles, everything inspires an ominous dread and otherworldly quality.

Alien Isolation, so far, is also one of the most frightening games I’ve played in a long, long time.  This could easily change if I find “the man behind the curtain” and identify the game’s patterns and behaviors.  But right now, it’s a game that garners a physiological response from me telling me to turn it off.  Having immersed myself in the world of Alien recently has primed me for this.  Or is that even the right term?  It’s probably left me vulnerable to any and all of Isolation’s strategies to terrify me.


Terra Battle


I’ve spent the past few weeks playing Terra Battle, a free-to-play game from Mistwalker.  Aside from Mistwalker’s previous games, Terra Battle caught my interest because of the involvement of contributors from some of my favorite game series, including Final Fantasy and Drakengard.  Even with the caveats of free-to-play game design, there was little to lose in loading this on to my phone and trying it out.

To my knowledge, this is the studio’s first attempt at a mobile game of this scale.  While many of those on the project have considerable experience designing games for consoles, I wondered how such an experience would translate to a touch-based system, or if this would be something entirely different from what I might be expecting.  From what I’ve seen so far, Terra Battle mixes elements from console RPG titles that have come before it with mobile puzzle games.  Let’s take a closer look.

Terra Battle’s gameplay takes place on a 6 x 8 board where your party, enemies, hazards, and power-ups can be placed.  Every turn has you moving a character around the board, and then any enemy with a turn counter of 0 can take a turn.  You move the character by dragging them across the board.  Enemies will block your character from moving through the board, but enemies and power ups will swap places with your character as they proceed through the square.  In this way, you can arrange multiple characters in the same turn.

Once you have arranged characters such that two have been placed side-by-side with one or more enemies in between them, you can execute an attack with those characters.  At the same time, any allies that are adjacent to the characters performing the attack (without an enemy in between them) will be activated and will execute certain skills (heal, buff) or add strength to the attack.  Similar rules apply to enemy turns, but there are options for them to execute attacks without lining up allies in the same way that you are required to.

So here, we find one of the tried and true role playing game mechanics: min/maxing.  You have a timer that depletes as you move your character.  They can move as far as you can drag them, but as soon as the timer ends, the character is placed and attacks are executed.  Your job is to arrange as many characters as you can in as little time as possible to maximize the number and potency of attacks in a turn.  It can be a bit of a mind-twister, but pulling off attacks that dispatch many enemies at once can be very satisfying, even if sometimes it’s not entirely clear why you have.

Outside of the core gameplay system, you are given a series of zones to clear on a map.  Each zone contains a set of 5 to 10 battles, and each battle has about 4 or 5 sets of enemies that have to be dispatched.  You can recruit generic characters using coins you’ve collected in battle, or rarer unique characters using “energy” which is given out sparingly in the game, usually when you’ve completed a zone.

Energy can also be purchased.  And here’s where the paywall comes into effect.  Each battle requires use of stamina in order to initiate it.  If you run out of stamina, you must wait to proceed, or use energy to replenish stamina.  I’ve only found myself running out of stamina on rare occasions, as I only play for short sessions.  More often, I find myself burning through energy to collect rare characters. Terra Battle does offer qualities similar to a collectible card game, though it does not lend itself to impulse purchases to serve that end (speaking for myself anyway.)

If it’s not clear yet, Terra Battle is a complex game that’s almost forced through a simple interface.  There’s a lot to dig in to, but given its complexity and chance in recruiting characters, the level design is not steep or uniform.  It offers a consistently low bar for quite a while that does not challenge you to form unique or novel strategies.  You can certainly still do this, and it is rewarding, but you’re not going to be stopping very often and racking your brain for strategies to complete battles.  This may something that becomes more important further along in the game, but I can say that it’s not a large part of the experience for the first half-dozen zones – a time where the game should be carefully teaching and reinforcing its vocabulary.  There’s plenty to do and learn, but not a whole lot to motivate you to do so.

Ultimately, the game offers some great music, art, and interesting ideas.  And initially, at the price of free, there’s little to stop you from trying it out, but there’s not a whole lot that’s going to keep you around either.  I’m eager to unlock more challenging zones, and collect more characters, but I think Terra Battle would be a better game if it had a more focused experience.  This may be a trade-off for its business model, which would be unfortunate.  I’ve enjoyed my time with the game though, and I hope that continuing development on the title only improves its value.

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