We seem to be going through a revolutionary period in gaming where IP from other mediums is suddenly finding its feet, becoming on par with (and even surpassing) experiences that were born within the gaming genre. Many will agree that this started 5 years ago when Rocksteady Studios released their seminal title: Batman Arkham Asylum. Since then many other titles have followed in its wake, staying true to the original IP whilst creating an experience that you simply could not get in any other medium. The latest addition to this style of games is Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, set between J.R.R Tolkien’s novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which takes the source material and turns it into an experience that is among the best I’ve played this year.
You are Tailon, ranger captain stationed at the Black Gate in Mordor, sworn to keep watch over Mt Doom and all the horrors that dwell within it. The dark lord that dwelled within those lands had not been idle however, growing his vast army of grotesque orcs and uruk quietly, leaving the world of man to think they were safe once more. One fateful day he unleashed them upon the Black Gate, killing everyone within it. But your life wasn’t to be taken, instead you were bound to an unknown wraith spirit in a horrific blood sacrifice, unable to die and bound to the mortal plane. Now, with your new found wraith powers, you look for vengeance and the means with which to end this existence so you can be with your family once again.
Shadow of Mordor is quite the pretty game with scenes ranging from sprawling vistas to cramped caves and busy garrisons. The graphics still have that last-gen feel to them, mostly attributable to the choice of colour palette, however they’re certainly not bad on the eye. It’s also probably due to the choice of engine as well as Shadow of Mordor uses the LithTech Engine which hasn’t seen a game on it in the past 2 years. Still it manages a good level of graphical fidelity given its open world nature which manages to run smoothly even on my now aging rig. I’ll admit that I might be giving it a bit of an easy pass in this regard since I’m coming fresh off the horror that was Dead Rising 3 as by comparison Shadow of Mordor is liquid smooth.
In terms of game play Shadow of Mordor feels like it’s a cross between several different titles, taking aspects from each whilst integrating a new mechanic that binds and elevates the whole experience. At its core Shadow of Mordor is an open world game,. giving you dozens of missions to do any of which will help progress your character, the story or will help you get all those collectibles which so many people seem to lust after. The combat takes after the Arkham series of games in the classic beat ‘em up fashion. Then there’s the RPG elements in the character levels and talents alongside the gear upgrade path which takes the form of runes and a kind of currency that you’ll need to spend to unlock more slots. However the best part of the game is the Nemesis system, whereby members of enemy faction grow stronger, fight with each other for power and provide you with challenges to avenge your friends who’ve been cut down by them. Shadow of Mordor really does pack a lot of game into it’s (non-Australian taxed) asking price and I’m sure there’s double the amount of game play in it for dedicated fans.
Whilst the game wasn’t developed by either Rocksteady or Warner Brothers Studios the combat feels like they lifted the entire system right out of one of their Arkham series titles. As anyone who’s played those games can attest combat systems such as those are incredibly enjoyable to play, offering the right balance of challenge and reward, at least at the start anyway. You’ll start out struggling to deal with large crowds of orcs but you’ll soon morph yourself into an unstoppable killing machine, nigh on impervious to any attack the game might throw at you. It can get a little repetitive though as the ultimate abilities are simply unlimited versions of regular abilities but most of the time you’ll still feel like the ultimate badass when you come out on top of the two dozen orcs you happened across.
The upgrade system is well thought out in most respects, giving you the feeling of progression often enough that you won’t find yourself feeling like you’ve gone hours without the game rewarding you. There’s 2 stages of progression for your character namely your ability points and power level. The ability points are gained in the regular way, getting XP via missions and killing things, however power is only gained when you resolve power struggles, kill captains/warchiefs or do any of the other assorted red missions. It really doesn’t take long to unlock all tiers of abilities, enough so that I had access to the final tier about halfway through the game. If you’d prefer to keep the challenge up then all you need do is avoid the red missions however if you want to become ridiculously overpowered you’re no more than an hour or two away from doing so.
The loot and gear upgrades feels a little less polished as you’ll get runes from defeating captains but what you get is a little random. You can ensure a drop of a certain type by exploiting weaknesses and fears but unless you’ve deliberately died to a captain several times over you’re not likely to get a good drop from them. You can break down the runes into the currency to fuel the other upgrades however I feel like it would’ve been better to have a rudimentary crafting system in there to upgrade them. I usually had several runes of a type that I really liked but they weren’t powerful enough to use on their own. If I could combine say, three into one, to get an upgrade I feel like that would’ve been a lot better than praying to RNGesus every time I killed a captain or warchief.
I couldn’t publish this review without mention just how awesome the nemesis system is as it provides this kind of player driven narrative on top of the core story of Shadow of Mordor that’s just incredible. Essentially the uruks fight each other in order to gain power and you fight them to gain power as well. Should you die to one they’ll grow in power and, potentially, move up the ranks and get followers. If you’re so inclined you can even influence them to move up ranks, get them to usurp their own captains or turn on each other. Couple that with the wide variety of responses that the uruks have upon seeing you (knowing you’re using someone to betray them, how many times they’ve killed you and so on) and even facing the same enemy again doesn’t lose its lustre. It’s an incredibly deep system and one that’s sure to provide enjoyment to both story players like myself and those that just revel in open world games.
Whilst the story probably isn’t the strongest part of Shadow of Mordor it is most definitely above the average dreck that I’ve been making my way through this year. The main premise probably needed a bit more development in order to make that initial emotional moment a bit more impactful, and thus make me empathise with the main character a little more, but it didn’t take me long to get into it. Since this is drawing on the wider Tolkien IP it does manage to get away with not explaining a lot of things that would otherwise need some rigorous explaining which does aid the story quite a bit. I’ll also have to admit that the ending was so-so, missing that final climclimactictle that I was so looking forward to with my incredibly overpowered character at the ready. So overall I think it’s ok, although on the proviso that you’re already familiar with The Lord of The Rings IP.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a game where the sum of its parts is much greater than its whole. The combat is fast paced and satisfying, the progression well paced and the overall look and feel just feels a level above other similar games of recent memory. The nemesis system is really what pulls the whole game together, adding another layer on top of the game that really ramps up how engaged you’ll be with Shadow of Mordor. It’s not a perfect experience by any stretch of the imagine, with the middling story being the biggest mark against it, but the whole package helps to patch over the various minor faults. In all honesty I think most gamers will find something to like in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor as its wide variety of mechanics and styles ensures that it caters to an incredibly wide audience.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $39.95, $99.95, $89.95, $89.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on PC with 13 hours of total playtime with 61% of the achievements unlocked.
Of the numerous games that I’ve played that have come up through Steam’s Early Access program few have felt like they were actually finished games. The core gameplay is usually refined enough however they rarely feel like a cohesive whole, the rough edges of a just finished beta still rearing their ugly head. Sure they may have come a long way from where they were originally, and to those who’ve been involved with them for a long time they might feel a lot more polished, but all too often they feel like they still needed a bit more work before being unleashed on the world. Lichdom: Battlemage however is one of the rare examples where its Early Access stint was obviously well spent as the result title is just awesome.
You were just a simple blacksmith, one who enjoyed his craft and was good to his loving wife. However your life took a dark turn when one of the local nobles took exception to your refusal to sell him your wares, slaughtering your wife in front of you before knocking you out cold. When you came to though you weren’t in your shop, instead you’re out in the streets with a strange robed man hovering above you. His name is Roth and he has bestowed upon you a great gift: a pair of magical bracers that grant you control over some great power. It seems that, at least for the moment, your goals align as Roth wants you to take out the noble who wrong you however not for the reasons you’d first expect.
Interestingly Lichdom: Battlemage is built on CryEngine 3, the same engine that brought us the visual masterpieces that were Crysis 2 and Crysis 3. Whilst it’s not exactly up to the same level as those titles (few games are) Lichdom is still quite impressive in its own right. There were numerous scenes that just made me stop and admire the scenery. Combine this with just how ridiculous the effects can get when you’re using different spells on the vast hoards of enemies you’ll face and you’ve got a recipe for a game that never feels visually dull. It did stress my rig to its limits, with the graphics fan roaring into life on many occasions, but to Xaviant’s credit everything ran pretty smooth for the most part. I would like to see how Lichdom goes on a more modern rig as I’m sure it’d be incredible.
Lichdom: Battlemage’s core gameplay is probably best described as a fantasy take on the modern corridor shooter however the mechanics backing it up, which take inspiration from your more traditional RPG style game, add an incredible amount of depth. You start off with a couple basic spells but as you blast your way through the levels you’ll acquire new components which you can then use to craft different kinds of spells. Initially these start off as just better versions of the spells you already have however as you unlock more components and more spell types the kinds of effects you can create increase exponentially. So what starts out as a relatively simple concept, a mage with unlimited spammy power, quickly evolves into a deep game of mechanics, one where the more you explore mechanics the more awesome combos you find.
The combat itself is always fast paced, filled with dozens of effects, projectiles and enemies throwing themselves in your general direction. For the most part you’ll likely be able to get by spamming a single ability however if you want to do things efficiently you’ll need to make use of every different weapon in your arsenal. There are some elements of strategy, like taking out enemies that summon other enemies first, but for the most part you’ll be focused on blocking/dodging attacks and spamming out whatever ability you’ve chosen as your primary damage dealer. Of course your mileage may vary on this considerably as depending on which sigils you choose the strategies you’ll need to use will change dramatically.
There is a distinct lack of variety in the enemies you’ll face however. There’s the cultists, undead and demons and they’ll will pretty much be the same kinds of enemies no matter where you go, just with more health. Sure you’ll get the occasional buffed enemy that has some special attribute (like reflection, grrrrr) however after about 4 hours in Lichdom you’ll have seen every enemy you’ll face from then on out. The boss fights are, to their credit, unique and challenging but they’re so far apart that their uniqueness is often lost between long bouts of repetitive encounters. The numerous different types of spells go a fair way to alleviating this however I don’t feel it should be up to the player to provide their own variety, even if there’s a lot of it to be had.
The main source of enjoyment in Lichdom comes from the crafting system which has an incredible amount of depth to it. You’ll collect spell types and augments throughout the game, all with quality levels derived from the traditional RPG style loot systems (common, uncommon, etc.). You can use these components directly or you can upgrade them to a higher tier of quality by sacrificing two other same quality level items. All of them also have a power level associated with them which determines how large the effect will be. Combine this with the 8 or so base sigils (fire, ice, lightning, etc.) and you have literally billions of possible combinations of different spells, effects and modifiers. Initially I found it mostly just a chore to sort through everything in order to get the spell I wanted but later on it became my main source of enjoyment.
I eventually settled on a combination of fire (damage dealer), ice (mastery application, basically a damage boost) and kinesis (because I got 2 unique spells for it). With this combination I was able to root large groups of enemies in place, cover them in mastery and then one shot enemies at my leisure. Before I switched to kinesis I was using lightning with a nova that had a 35% apocalyptical chance, enabling me to turn into a lightning god whenever I needed to and lay waste to large swaths of enemies. However the later build was much better for instagibbing enemies, something which you really need to do when 1 hit from them can take off a whole bar of your shield. I’m sure there’s hundreds of other viable combos out there though as I didn’t touch half of the sigils I unlocked.
The story is pretty rudimentary, giving your character enough motivation to go along with the plan that’s been laid out for him but lacking any kind of emotional connection. They did manage to get some top notch voice talent, Troy Baker (Joel, Last of Us) for the male dragon and Jennifer Hale (Femshep, Mass Effect), and whilst they do a great job it’s not their acting that’s the issue, it’s the incredibly light on story. Whilst it’s not exactly a huge flaw if you were looking for a good story then Lichdom will disappoint as it’s really only enough to keep the story moving forward.
Lichdom is pretty well polished with the only noticeable issues being things like the AI acting strange (often getting stuck on nothing or clipping through walls when they shouldn’t) or mechanics not working how you’d expect them to. I did have one major issue where my PC crashed during a longish session which corrupted my save game. However upon checking out the Steam forums I found that several people had the same issue and emailing my save game to Xaviant should get it fixed. 2 hours later I had an email back from them with my restored game files and recognition that they’re aware of the issue and working on a fix. Honestly I’ve never had that kind of response before so a big thumbs up to Xaviant for not only fixing my issue but also being incredibly responsive.
Lichdom: Battlemage is a game that, on first pass, appears to be a simple mindless game of spamming spells and collecting loot. However once you dig under the hood a little the incredible depth of the mechanics available to you becomes apparent and suddenly you’re playing a completely different game. There are a few issues that plague the experience, like the lack of variety of enemies and the so-so story, but otherwise Lichdom really does stand out as one of the better titles to play before the ramp up to bevy of titles that will be slamming us this holiday season.
Lichdom: Battlemage is available on PC right now for $39.99. Total play time was 12 hours with 23% of the achievements unlocked.
There are some games you just can’t avoid the hype for. Try as I might to distance myself from the fervor that surrounded Divinity: Original Sin it was hard not to notice the weeks it spent at Steams top sellers chart and the numerous glowing reviews that came from both professional outlets and players alike. My somewhat aggressive review schedule precluded me from giving it enough time to really judge it properly however, that was until I managed to churn through a game quickly in one weekend. So I’ve been playing Divinity: Original Sin on and off over the past 2 weeks, seeing if the game can live up to the hype it has generated.
You are a Source Hunter, duty bound to rid the world of all foul magic that plagues the world. You and your companion have been summoned to the town of Cyseal, a coastal province that’s been under siege by orcs and the undead for quite some time. However your quarry isn’t with them, no instead you’ve been summoned at the request of the town’s mayor in order to investigate the death of one of the town’s nobles. This routine investigate quickly escalates far beyond finding out who the killer is and you find yourself in the midst of nearly all the town’s affairs. Some of these are simple matters, others could have impacts on the very fabric of reality itself.
Graphically Divinity: Original Sin is very easy on the eyes with the environments brimming with detail and ambient effects galore. The developers have done a great job of making the world feel alive, especially in the main town of Cyseal where there’s a constant hubbub of people going about their daily business. Even the dungeons and outdoor areas have the same feel with creatures scurrying about and enemies never being too far from your path. Even with all the settings turned up to max my now 3 year old PC was able to keep up with it, even in busy combat scenes where there were effects flying everywhere. I do think that was a the limit of my system however as all the fans routinely spun up during some of my longer sessions.
Divinity: Original Sin takes its inspiration from the RPG games of old with it’s almost innumerable features and giant gobs of text to drive the narrative forward. Whilst your base character starts off with a class it’s not hard set, allowing you to customize your abilities as you see fit. This means that any piece of gear or skillbook is readily usable by any member of your party who has the required stats giving you an incredible amount of freedom in moulding yourself into the ultimate warrior.This also extends to your base character attributes, allowing you to further specialize down a specific tree. In all honesty there’s so much going on in Divinity: Original Sin that it’s really hard to give you a good overview of it in a single paragraph but those who are familiar with the RPGs of old will likely find it very familiar.
Now I’m not the biggest fan of turn based combat as I feel it more often pulls me out of the game rather than drawing me further in. Divinity: Original Sin does a decent job of making the combat feel a bit more interactive however the sometimes slow back and forth between you and your enemies can get tiresome. This is probably a function of the fact that you’ll likely be reloading the same encounter multiple times over as executing a combo wrong or forgetting to do something can often mean the end of your party. Indeed the whole of Divinity: Original Sin feels like it’s making a point of not holding your hand through the experience, instead expecting you to suck it up and keep on like the trooper you are.
Now I get that idea, and can’t fault the developers for creating an experience that caters towards players who are seeking that out, but I feel that there’s a difference between holding the players hand and removing things that are, put simply, frustrating as hell. For the first section everything seems to flow well, the game introduces mechanics and explains them to you. However after reaching Cyseal things start to get horrendously convoluted as you’re thrown half a dozen quests and then left to figure out what to do. If you do what I did and try to follow one quest to completion you quickly find out that it’s not really possible as many of them involve trudging past mobs that are several levels above you, preventing you from completing. Considering these quests are handed to you within the first couple hours you’d expect to be able to finish them shortly afterwards however that’s simply not the case.
Indeed the whole of Divinity: Original Sin seems to have some horrendous pacing issues, making levelling a rather irritating rather than enjoyable experience. The ramp up in difficulty often doesn’t come from giving you different enemies that you have to figure out, no instead they just throw more and more of them at you, forcing you into strategies that rely on exploiting the retarded AI. There was one battle where I was faced with no less than 10 undead where the only way to complete it was to hide behind a wall and wait for all of them to group up so I could put a puddle at their feet and stun them continuously. Whilst I applaud the mechanics being deep enough to support things like that it was, frankly, utterly boring and not something I enjoyed having to repeat dozens of times over just to be able to get one more level.
This is just made all the worse by the fact that Divinity: Original Sin is still suffering from crashes and glitches even 2 months after its release date. There’s one particular quest where you have to read pages of a book in order to pass a quiz from a ghost but if you go to read it the pages are blank. The text is in the game files so it’s there but the developers still haven’t fixed the display issue. I didn’t get far enough into the game to experience any of the other “beneficial” glitches which apparently make fights trivial but in all honesty I don’t think that would’ve improved my impression of Divinity: Original Sin at all.
I had high hopes for the story in the beginning, especially considering that it seemed like it was fully voiced acted. Instead I was disappointed to see that much of it was presented in the wall of text style that’s guaranteed to make me tune out, especially when every NPC in the world seems to have gobs of useless information to throw at you. The story itself is also pretty mediocre, starting off with strong roots but just failing to capitalize on it. Maybe it develops better as you manage to churn through some of the quests but honestly if a game isn’t grabbing me after 10 hours it won’t after any amount of time.
Divinity: Original Sin was a game I wanted to like as I had heard so many positive things about it from so many different sources. Unfortunately though its turn based combat, combined with horrendous pacing and lacklustre story, meant that I couldn’t find much to enjoy during my time with it. I fully admit that this is partly due to my bias away from games of this nature but I’ve proven in the past that I can look past genre if the game itself is good. Divinity: Original Sin unfortunately just doesn’t have anything in it that I feel I could point to and say “This is why you should play it”. I’m sure fans of the genre will find a lot to like within it however for this writer I can’t really recommend it.
Divinity: Original Sin is available on PC right now for $39.99. Total play time was 10 hours with 6% of the achievements unlocked.
SuperGiant games made a name for itself with its debut title Bastion, a breakout success that few companies are able to achieve with their first title. Indeed if you look deeper into the development team the success seems even more incredible considering that the team’s experience doesn’t have much of a pedigree in this genre. Still they’ve managed to win many fans, including myself, and when I first heard of Transistor last year I was already sold as it seemed like they took the core of Bastion and revamped it with an entirely new IP. The question on my mind was whether or not they could live up to the high standard that they set with Bastion as whilst I did my best to avoid the hype my expectations were already high for their next title. I’m glad to say that Transistor stands by itself as a great game with the ideas in Bastion taken as inspiration, not gospel.
Ah Cloudbank, the place where everyone has a voice. The city is shaped and sculpted by the will of the people, the seasons changing on the whim of popular opinion and the sunset painted a brilliant hue by visionary artists. Yes, for nearly everyone, this place is paradise where one person can truly make a difference and no one goes unheard. Something’s amiss though, people are starting to go missing, their voices seemingly snuffed out never to be heard from again. Even Cloudbanks most prolific and inspirational performer, Red, has gone silent leaving many to wonder what is going on. Little do they know that Red’s voice was stolen and her crusade to take it back will determine Cloudbank’s fate.
Supergiant’s trademark art style is back in Transistor, although this time it’s been reworked into a slick sci-fi theme. Transistor has a wonderful array of colour palettes, visual effects and scenery that makes it a visually exciting experience that’s dripping with detail. Despite the wildly different theme to Bastion it still has the same feel, employing the same isometric view with heavily stylized 3D elements that blend seamlessly with the non-3D backgrounds. This does mean that sometimes the visual experience gets a little overwhelming which is thankfully balanced off by the barren visuals of the Turn() mechanics, ensuring that the visuals don’t affect the core gameplay negatively.
Transistor takes nearly all of the core ideas of Bastion and reworks them all, leaving behind some of the more frustrating aspects and generally improving on them. You’ll still engage in the same style of brawler combat, with dozens of enemies throwing themselves at you, but it’s augmented by the Turn() mechanic that allows you to plan out your moves. You can also play the game completely in real time if you wish, something which can be advantageous depending on the encounter you find yourself in. The levelling and upgrade systems are quite intricate, allowing you to augment skills with other skills which can produce some truly outrageous combos. There’s also the famed “limiter” system which allows you to ratchet up the difficulty in exchange for more experience, giving power players the challenge they’ve been long desiring.
The combat system feels well thought out as nearly every combo I tried felt viable with the exception of some boss battles which ruled out certain strategies completely. Transistor encourages you to experiment with different build by making respecing free (you just need to find an access point) and giving you optional challenges with defined skillsets so you don’t have to figure everything out in the field. There are, of course, combinations that are far more powerful than others (like Breach + Get + Cull) and depending on what your play style is you’ll likely tend towards particular skills. I started off favouring controlling builds that gave me a lot of safety but after a while I switched up to a mega damage combo that could one shot nearly any enemy I came across. Funnily enough some of the limiters you can use can actually make some builds more viable (like having an army of bad cells), something which I thought was a rather cute idea, if intentional.
The biggest differentiator though is the inclusion of the Turn() mechanic which allows you to plan out a set of moves without the enemy being able to interrupt you. Essentially you can pause the game, plan out a series of moves up to a point and then execute them all in one go. Afterwards though you’ll have to wait for the ability to cool down again before you can use it and, unless you’ve skilled for it, all your regular abilities will be unavailable. It adds a deep level of strategy to the otherwise mindless brawling that you’ll constantly be engaged in, something that you have to respect lest you want to feel like you’re repeating the same content endlessly. One caveat about it though is that you’d better be clear on what each of your functions do as whilst Turn() might tell you that enemy will be dead you might end up doing something that puts them out of reach of your abilities. This is especially true with Cull() as enemies are effectively invulnerable after the first hit.
The levelling system maintains a good pace throughout the game, meaning that should you really want to level up (for whatever reason) you can likely do so by spending some time in the various tests in the back door area (similar to the challenges in Bastion). Whilst you won’t be penalized for choosing one upgrade path over the other, they will all be made available to you eventually, the choice is most certainly meaningful. Sometimes it can feel like you’re getting yourself into a chicken and egg scenario however the game appears to adjust itself to your current level and skillset. Early on this seems to be a bit hit and miss, as some of my more broken builds can attest to, but after that the pacing is quite smooth with the difficulty ramping up nicely.
However where Transistor really shines through is in the deep narrative and character development which stands out as one of the better titles of this year so far. Transistor, like its predecessor, starts out a little confusing due to the lack of information given but it does a good job of filling in the games, keeping the player informed and fleshing out all the ancillary character’s backstory. The return of Logan Cunningham as The Transistor for the running narration in the background is also very welcome and Supergiant did a great job of incorporating him into the game whilst also not relying on him to carry the game through as the other voice actors are just as exceptional.
What I liked most about Transistor’s story was the organic way in which story background elements were revealed to you. Whilst the bulk of it is delivered by the rather unimaginative walls of text buried in the levelling system it’s at least consistent and bite sized, meaning that you’ll never feel overwhelmed by the amount of reading Transistor wants you to do. The way in which Red’s relationship with the mysterious man develops is by far one of the better aspects of the story. The ending left me with some mixed feelings as it really is quite bittersweet but that does mean it’s by far one of the more memorable endings of recent times.
Transistor is another exceptional title from Supergiant games, taking all the elements that made Bastion successful and molding them into another game that stands on its own. The combat is engaging, deep and fluid, encouraging the player to experiment with all sorts of wild combinations that only get more complex as the game progresses. Level progression is smooth, providing a challenge at all stages of the game, even when you think you’ve unlocked the broken combo. Transistor’s story, along with it’s brilliant voice acting and gorgeous presentation, Truly Supergiant games are going from strength to strength with their releases and I simply can not wait to see what they produce next.
Transistor is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $19.95 and $19.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with approximately 6 hours of total play time and 36% of the achievements unlocked.
The last couple months have been a little barren in terms of releases which, whilst it gives me some time to plunder the vast depths of the numerous indie releases, does leave me hungering for a more traditional type of experience. During my usual stumble through the new releases on Steam I happened to come across Bound by Flame, an action RPG that managed to impress me on its trailers alone. However it was hard to miss the rather damning Metacritic review score on the store page that indicated that this title was probably less than stellar. Still the short bits I had seen seemed to indicate that it was worth playing and so I sat myself down to see if I was right.
The world is under siege, a massive army of the undead shambling its way across the land and devastating everything in its path. Each battle with this terrible army, under the command of powerful magic wielders called Ice Lords, only serves to swell their ranks even further. There is not much hope for humanity however a group of scholars called the Red Scribes believes they have a way to turn the tide of the war. You are Vulcan, member of the Free Born Blades, a mercenary group who has been hired by the Red Scribes to protect them while they attempt to complete the ritual. However not everything goes as planned and suddenly you find yourself being far more involved in this conflict than you’d first anticipated.
Visually Bound by Flame has the look that many similar previous gen RPGs did with an extremely muted colour palette and somewhat simplistic looking graphics. The screenshots are a little misleading as on their own they look quite good but once you see everything in motion it becomes apparent what the limitations are. Indeed the whole thing feels like a fantasy version of Mars: War Logs, which shouldn’t be surprising considering it’s from the same developer, but this means that all the issues that plagued that game are present in Bound by Flame as well. Considering their close release dates I’m assuming that they didn’t have much time to take the lessons learned from their previous title and apply it to this one, which is rather unfortunate considering they seem like a studio who wants to make a decent game.
Bound by Flame is an action RPG at heart, taking the majority of the traditional mechanics and wrapping them up in a real time combat system in order to keep the pace up. All the usual elements you’d expect are there: levels, a skill tree system that you use to get new skills and improve old ones, various perks that can be unlocked, loot galore and a crafting system to augment items you’ll find. There’s a main story quest that will be your main way of progressing forward but there’s also a handful of side quests to do should you feel the need. You’ll also have a variety of party members to choose from, each with their own set of skills and story lines which you can pursue at your leisure.
The combat is reminiscent of Mars: War Logs as you’re just whacking on an enemy until they try to attack, at which point you’ve got to block or somehow get out of the way. Bound by Flame differs through the use of “stances” which are essentially different ways of doing combat. The warrior stance lets you use your 2 handed sword but stops you from being able to quickly dodge attacks. The ranger stance on the other hand is focused on quick attacks but the ability to parry incoming attacks is greatly reduced. Just like any RPG you’d better focus on one or the other as trying to mix the two will likely lead to a sub-par experience. There’s also the pyromancer abilities which are essentially augments to the other two as the game doesn’t seem to have the itemization to support someone being a full time mage.
Unfortunately the wild flails in difficulty that plagued Mars: War Logs remains in Bound by Flame meaning that you’ll likely struggle at the start of a section until you find an upgrade or two at which point the game becomes a breeze again. The bosses are also on a completely different difficulty scale to the rest of the encounters you’ll have meaning you’ll likely blow through most of your stash just to get past them. I understand the need for challenging the player, hell I’ve criticised games for not being able to do this, but the disjoint in difficulty isn’t a challenge to overcome, it’s poor game design. This is made all the more obvious by the final boss fight which is, in all honesty, an absolute travesty as unless you’ve built your character specifically for that fight you’ll likely be unable to do it without sinking an disproportional amount of time into it.
The crafting system seems well thought out on the surface however it only serves to highlight just how little differentiation there is between most items in Bound by Flame. In the beginning you’ll have to carefully choose your upgrades in order to get the maximum benefit however about half way through you’ll be drowning in materials, allowing you to get the best upgrade for each of your items. The game seems to hint at the idea that you should change your gear constantly to fit the situation but even if you do that you’ll still find yourself with more materials than you know what to do with. Honestly if they had a crafting system that let you make weapons and armour I think the amount of materials that drop would be justified. Maybe then I could craft myself a pair of boots (seriously, I had to buy an upgraded pair of boots in the second to last chapter because I never found any).
Bound by Flame is also riddled with bugs and strange quirks that mar the whole experience. I had several occasions where, if I dragged a NPC out of their normal roaming area, the enemies would flit between being invisible and invulnerable to being visible but disinterested in me. Other NPCs would sometimes inexplicably face the walls or get stuck on things which would incapacitate them. This is not to mention your party members AI which is beyond useless most of the time, even when you use the order commands to try and modify their behaviour. Reading over my Mars: War Logs review reveals that many of these issues were present in that game as well, something that Spiders needs to fix lest they be forever labelled as a B grade RPG developer.
I could forgive pretty much all of this if the story was passable however it’s not. The core idea is solid, you’ve got to choose between your humanity and power, but the execution is sorely lacking in character depth, motivation and just general coherency. Hell even the developers themselves can’t get it completely straight as I note several differences between the story on their main site and the one in the game. Worst still are the romances, if you can call them that, as many of them come down to just choosing one right dialog option at one point, rather than actually cultivating any kind of meaningful depth between the characters.
Bound by Flame continues Spiders’ unfortunate history of producing B grade RPGs, seemingly being unable to learn their past mistakes to make their future releases better. It has all the makings of a good RPG, the combat system works most of the time (despite it’s wild changes in difficulty), the levels are meaningful and the crafting system is halfway to being worthwhile. Still the story is well below mediocre and Bound by Flame has numerous glitches and behaviours that do nothing but ruin the experience. I’d love to say I’m looking forward to what they’re doing next but it seems that they have no interest in learning from their mistakes.
Go on Spiders, prove me wrong.
Bound by Flame is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4 and Xbox360 right now for $39.99, $79.95, $89.95 and $79.95 respectively. Total play time was 10 hours with 54% of the achievements unlocked.
Reviewing a game every week has been a great way to discover my internal set of negative biases towards certain types of games. Indeed I wouldn’t have known that survival horror games just aren’t my thing had I not attempted to slog through several of them, something which is contrary to the fact that I played through many of the original Resident Evil series. Turn based combat is another mechanic that I’ve found myself avoiding but recent examples of how it can be done well, like for South Park: The Stick of Truth, have started to break down that barrier. It was the main reason I didn’t jump on Child of Light right away and whilst I might still not be a convert to the turn based combat system I can at least begin to see its merits when applied properly.
You play as Aurora, daughter of the king and heiress to the kingdom of Austria. One night though you are struck down with a terrible illness that, strangely, sends you into a mystical world quite unlike your own. This new land you find yourself in has had its moon and sun taken from it by the evil queen Umbra, plunging the world into darkness and enslaving its population. You soon find out that there’s only one way home: you must restore the moon and the sun back to its people so that the way between your worlds can be opened once again. Time is of the essence too as the visions of your world that leak through show that it is in danger, and needs your help just as much as this strange new one you find yourself in.
Child of Light has a delightfully well done art scheme, with everything for the characters to the environments having that whimsical feeling about them. The art style is done as if everything was painted with watercolours with the wide and varied palette bleeding and fading into each other. It’s also done in a 2.5D style with the backgrounds being largely static and the characters being cel shaded 3D models. This allows Child of Light to have some pretty impressive effects as well as some nice little touches (like Aurora’s hair) that really help to build up the whimsical feeling. Ubisoft Montreal has definitely taken a page from the Blizzard book here the visuals are rarely boring, especially with the large amount of variety in the environments.
From a core game perspective Child of Light is a best described as a side-scrolling RPG with turn based combat that uses a system similar to the Final Fantasy time active combat system. All the classic RPG elements that you’d expect to find are there including an experience system, talent trees with multiple arms and specializations, item progression and, of course, numerous party members to manage. Whilst the systems that have been implemented are probably more on the simplistic side (at least from a veteran RPGer’s perspective) there’s still enough depth in all of them that 2 playthroughs are unlikely to unfold in the same way. Finally there’s a crafting system for augmenting your character in certain ways, something you’ll need if you don’t want to spend hours fighting battles.
The combat system works well as it encourages you to think strategically about what actions to take when and whether or not you’ll be able to complete them. Once you’re in the “cast” section of the bar you get to choose a skill to use which all have a varying amount of time associated with them. Should someone attack you during the cast you’ll be interrupted and sent back to halfway through the “wait” bar. There are ways to speed yourself up and slow your enemies down but you can also judge how long their abilities are going to take to cast and react accordingly. The AI, for the most part, is predictable enough (it will most likely attack whichever of your party can attack the next) but working around the various abilities that they have is what provides most of the challenge.
Like most games that use elemental damage types every enemy has strengths and weaknesses meaning that it’s nigh on impossible to build Aurora, or any of your characters, as a jack of all trades. This is made even more complicated by the fact that some enemies are weak to magic and not physical attacks (or vice versa) something which isn’t readily apparent from just looking at the enemies. Indeed whilst you can kind of work out what they’re likely to be weak to given their appearance (things on fire probably don’t like water) there’s no way to inspect the enemies and have that information presented to you. Worse still there’s no health bars for you to look at and the only indication that you’re close to finishing an enemy off is when they slump down. Considering you can be having an encounter every minute or two small things like these start to wear a bit as you’re never quite sure of just how powerful you are (or aren’t).
The levelling system feels like it needed a little more attention as whilst it’s always nice to have a sense of progression Child of Light is light a desperate friend trying to impress their new date, constantly begging for your attention. At least one of your characters will level up after each fight, normally multiple ones of them, necessitating that you switch over to the character screen in order to allocate their talent points. Sometimes this leads to a meaningful upgrade, like a new version of a spell, however most of the time it’s just more stat building. Honestly it would’ve been far better to have fewer levels with those stat upgrades built into the levels themselves. That way I wouldn’t have spent a good 20% of the game simply managing my party, making sure I’d spent all their points.
The Oculi crafting system is a pretty neat idea as it allows an alternative means of progression which is totally under your control. Whilst there seems to be some obvious choices for certain slots (the extra XP from the diamonds seems like a no brainer) some of the more advanced gems, weapon slots seem to be a lot harder. Whilst you can chop and change as many times as you like it can be somewhat annoying to have say a fire gem equipped and then end up facing water enemies. Essentially this means that you’ll often find yourself pushed into sub-par fights which, whilst not impossible, are usually quite tedious. Being able to change Oculi as an action during combat would be a happy medium and would go a long way to removing a lot of the repetition present in Child of Light.
If I’m honest the rhyming couplets style of dialog really annoyed me as whilst some of it was done to great effect much of it just made comprehending them that little bit harder. I feel that the story would stand on its own quite well however the method of its delivery ultimately detracted from it. It’s a shame really as the rest of the things that go into building that story (like the music, foley and art style) are really top notch. Perhaps this is the more cynical side of me coming out as I’m typically not a fan of whimsically styled things, such as the Studio Ghibli animation which this is apparently inspired by, but honestly try sitting through 8+ hours of people rhyming incessantly and let me know if you feel any different.
Child of Light is a beautiful game that, despite its simplistic approach mechanically, provides a very satisfying experience. The art style is unique and gorgeous, bringing to life the whimsical world that lives in many a child’s minds. It’s not without fault however as the simplistic nature has been taken too far in some respects making some parts of the game laborious, confusing and repetitive. These are not things without fixes however and I’m sure Ubisoft Montreal will be able to rectify this in subsequent titles released in this genre. There’s a lot to like in Child of Light, something that I’m sure will delight RPG fans out there, and I definitely count it as time well spent.
Child of Light is available on PC, Xbox360, XboxOne, PlayStation3, PlayStaion4 and the WiiU right now for an average price of $14.99. Game was played on the PC with around 9 hours of total play time.
I’ve been aware of the many games that have bore the South Park name and nearly always they’ve looked like half-assed attempts to cash in on the brand. Couple this with the game being censored in Australia and media tie in games almost always being tragic meant I wasn’t in a real hurry to play it. However after weeks of cajoling from my friends who said The Stick of Truth was genuinely good eventually broke me down and I secured myself an uncensored copy from good old DLCompare. I can say that rarely do I go into a game with such low expectations only to have them completely blown away as South Park: The Stick of Truth is a genuinely fun and captivating game.
Your family has just moved to the quiet mountain town that is South Park , Colorado. The reasons as to why you’ve come there are something of a mystery that neither of parents will let on about and before long they’ve sent you out into the streets to make new friends. The second you stumble outside you cross paths with Butters Stotch who recruits you into their fantasy game of humans vs elves. What starts out as an innocent game however quickly turns into a larger battle between two factions that divides the town’s children as they all clamour to secure the most priceless relic in all the land: The Stick of Truth.
South Park: The Stick of Truth is done in the exact same art style as all the episodes using simple, flash-like graphics with a few embellishments like simple lighting effects here and there. This is in stark contrast to the snippets of the other South Park games that I’ve seen which tended to have their own take on the art style which made them feel like they were set in a universe apart from that of the show. In the Stick of Truth however it feels like you’re playing through an incredibly long episode and this is in no small part due to the religiously faithful art style. I believe this is also the first game where Trey Parker and Matt Stone were directly involved in its creation which definitely comes through in the end product.
The Stick of Truth takes its inspiration from the classic turn based RPG format including a wide variety of mechanics that will be familiar but with the South Park twist applied to them. In the beginning you’ll choose between 1 of 4 different classes which will determine the primary way in which you’ll do combat. Along the way you’ll defeat enemies, pick up loot and level up your character using 2 different talent systems that unlock different abilities and perks. You’ll also engage in the tried and true puzzle sequences that will require you to use a range of different abilities, some of which you won’t have right away. As someone who’s not usually a fan of this style of game I have to say that The Stick of Truth does an excellent job of bringing all of this together, especially with the excellent writing that South Park is known for.
Your choice of class is from one of the 3 typical archetypes (fighter, mage, thief) and the additional Jew class which appears to be a monk/ranger kind of deal. Which one you choose will greatly vary the way combat usually goes however since all items aren’t class specific it’s completely possible to build a mage as a fighter, a thief as a mage and so on. Of course playing to the class’ strengths will make your job a lot easier but the flexibility is there should you want it. If you’re a min/maxer like myself you will not be disappointed with The Stick of Truth’s progression system as you can create characters that are well broken should you have an eye for which stats stack with which.
Your character will progress in several different ways all of which take inspiration from traditional RPG titles. You’ll gain experience through finishing quests and defeating mobs of enemies, eventually levelling up and giving you access to new abilities and additional points to upgrade them. Making friends, which can be done in numerous ways, gives you access to permanent perks which give subtle but useful buffs to your character. Lastly there’s the loot which, whilst not being completely traditional in the RPG sense (I believe it’s pretty much all pre-determined), provides some of the biggest upgrades to your skills and damage. Your weapons and armor can also be upgraded through the use of patches which can add damage or grant you abilities that aren’t available anywhere else.
As someone who isn’t the biggest fan of turn based games I was surprised at how solid The Stick of Truth’s combat felt. Initially I started off by building my character around the use of a weapon with gross damage (makes your enemies throw up and stops them healing) and a patch that granted me PP whenever I dealt said damage. This allowed me to stunlock pretty much any enemy through the use of roshambo, something which was definitely required when I was facing off enemies that were a lot harder than I’d first anticipated. That strategy stopped working towards the end however as many enemies start becoming immune to tactics like that which is when I switched to a high damage build that allowed me to attack again after killing an enemy. In the end I could hit for 8000+ damage repeatedly, clearing out an entire encounter without the enemy being able to get a single turn.
The Stick of Truth does have some technical and usability issues however, although a lot fewer than I first expected. I had a couple crashes that sent me straight back to the desktop for some inexplicable reason. This wasn’t a massive drama however the checkpointing system is a little weird, seemingly transporting you back to the last save point but not completing resetting the world to that point. So essentially you can be transported back but still have all the loot, even if the enemies are still there. It’s not game breaking, you never get double ups of anything but trash items, but it does make the first 5 minutes after the crash a little confusing. Additionally the junk item screen needs to be reworked with a “Sell All” button or at least made spammable as you’ll have hundreds of dollars worth of trash to sell which will likely take you a couple minutes just to get through.
The story is done true South Park fashion with pretty much every character from the TV show making an appearance throughout the course of the story. Most of the quests are based around the relationships that were developed in the show like City Wok and the Mongolians or Al Gore and ManBearPig. Playing the uncensored version was worth it as well as whilst I struggled to explain what was happening on screen to my wife and her friend who saw me play (yeah Randy is getting violated by aliens, no I don’t think I can explain why) it did make for some funny moments that made me question what kind of human being I am. Still in the end the story is very satisfying both in terms of comedic value and story content, something which few games manage to pull off successfully.
South Park: The Stick of Truth is a prime example of how games that are based around a non-game IP should be done as it accurately captures the essence of the show whilst remaining a solid experience in its own right. The RPG gameplay is fantastic, taking the tried and true styles that were made famous by the Final Fantasy series and reworking them into the South Park world. The story is witty, funny and satisfying, a true testament to the writing talents of the South Park studios. Honestly I went into this game with the lowest of expectations only to have them completely blown away, something that rarely happens these days. For anyone who’s a fan of this show and feels like an 11 hour, self directed episode would be up their alley then South Park; The Stick of Truth is for you.
South Park: The Stick of Truth is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation3 right now for $54.95, $79.95 and $79.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 11 hours total play time and 38% of the achievements unlocked.
There were a lot of games I wanted to check out after doing several tours of the indie area at PAX. Unfortunately most of them aren’t available yet, at least the ones I wanted to play anyway, and so after I got home I did the usual scroll through Steam looking for something that caught my interest for this week’s review. Thankfully the Steam Summer Sale was in full effect and many titles that I had passed over (mostly due to price) were on sale and so I quickly filled my library with several games I had been meaning to play. Dust: An Elysian Tale was one of these titles and I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.
You, playing as Dust, awaken in a meadow in the middle of a forest. You’re then approached by a strange floating sword who calls itself Ahrah, followed closely by a small flying creature called Fidget who claims to be the sword’s guardian. Whilst they don’t provide you any clue as to who you are or how you got to here they direct you to the local town of Aurora in the search for answers. The town is overrun with monsters however and after dealing with them the town’s mayor asks that you track down their leader in order to get the attacks to stop. This begins your journey to find out who you are and what your real purpose is.
The art style of Dust is quite spectacular as it manages to feel like you’re playing inside an epic Disney animated movie. I’ll admit that it was a little off-putting at first, mostly because I felt like it was going to be skewed towards being a kids game, however I found myself becoming more and more impressed with it as I progressed through the game. Mostly this was due to the added environmental effects like snowstorms on high peaks but there were also very atmospheric set pieces like the haunted mansions. Overall though being able to capture that Disney like feeling, both in terms of visual style and storytelling, is something the developer behind Dust should be commended for.
Dust is a 2D hack ‘n’ slash platformer where you’ll be put up against massive hordes of enemies which you’ll be able to dispatch readily. I’m not usually a fan of these kinds of games, I usually get bored with them as the combat starts to feel repetitive, but Dust manages to keep things fresh by gradually introducing new abilities to you as the game progresses. There’s also some rudimentary RPG elements included as you’ll gain experience and levels by defeating enemies and completing quests. There’s also an inventory system, which thankfully needs no management whatsoever, and a crafting system that will allow you to create some of the most powerful gear in the game. All of these elements bind together quite well providing a game experience that’s very different from anything else I’ve played in recent times.
The combat frustrated me at first since the tools I had at my disposal were quite limited. However after the introduction of the Dust Storm ability, essentially projectile based attacks that your companion Fidget shoots which you then amplify, made it far more enjoyable. At the same time though it felt like it trivialized the encounters somewhat, even playing on the Tough difficulty level, although this is countered by the fact that anything can drop your health to almost zero (but not zero if you’re above say 40HP, giving you a chance to heal). In fact you can play Dust as a button masher for the majority of the game, it’s only later when enemies start requiring certain abilities, like parrying or using special abilities to kill them, that some form of strategy starts to enter in the equation.
Although this seems to go to the extreme towards the end of the game where (seemingly) every enemy gets the ability to parry you making continuing combos and using your special abilities (which has an energy bar) very frustrating. Indeed it gets even worse when I started to notice that they could parry whilst seemingly incapacitated and, randomly, my attacks would simply fail to connect with them for no reason in particular. It’s a drastic uptick in challenge, I’ll give them that, however it feels more like a hacked in solution to ramping up the difficulty than anything else. Perhaps utilizing some of the non-combat platforming abilities as augments to the combat would’ve been a better way to do it as there are several of those introduced after you get all your combat abilities.
The platforming is relatively easy as all the jumps you’ll be required to make can be done without the use of your Dust Storm (which allows you to move a little further in the air than you would be able to otherwise) and the use of randomly moving/disappearing platforms is kept at a minimum until towards the end. It’s to your advantage to explore everywhere you possibly can as well since there’s treasure chests and keys scattered everywhere which usually contain a bunch of gold and health items. You’ll be struggling for keys initially as they’re just as hard to find as the chests themselves but I found that towards the end I had more than enough to open every chest I came across, even without purchasing them.
One thing that did irritate me about the platforming in Dust was the fact that early on you’ll be shown areas that look like there’s a route to get to them but you have no way of getting to them. Of course later on in the game you’ll unlock the required ability to traverse the obstacle and, should you want to return to that area, you’ll be able to make your way through there. I really don’t like it when games do this as I’m not someone who likes going back to retrace their steps every time I get a new ability. It just doesn’t feel like progress to me and instead makes me feel like I’m missing out on something whenever I see an obstacle I can’t yet tackle. It might increase the play time for some but, honestly, I don’t believe that most gamers are judging games by the number of hours it takes to complete anymore.
The RPG elements serve their purpose, giving you that lovely thrill of leveling up every so often that brings with it new levels of power. Since you only have control over 4 of your stats, and can only level up one of them at a time, the progress granted to you through levels doesn’t feel anywhere near as impactful as the upgrades you get from gear. I can remember getting a really good piece of armor before I was probably supposed to have it which made me near invincible against the enemies I was facing but up until that point I still felt like a glass cannon in battle. In fact the only upgrades that feel like they’re making any difference are the ones to defense. Even the 2x attack ring I got towards the end seemed to make little difference to the time it took ti dispatch enemies which was a little disappointing.
The crafting however feels rather well done as instead of forcing you to constantly reload sections to farm up the required materials you can instead sell one of them to a vendor who will then proceed to sell them back to you and restock them periodically. This means its advantageous to sell one of your materials to them whenever you pick it up as the vendor will stock up on it over time so when you need it, to craft that amazing item blueprint you just picked up, it’ll be there for you. This was my primary source of items as whilst I got a couple good drops most of them came from crafting and whilst I didn’t manage to catalog all the materials (some of the earlier ones just didn’t drop for me at all) I had more than enough to craft most of the things I wanted to.
I was honestly surprised by the story of Dust as whilst it’s rated at E (Everyone 10+) and starts off with some rather shaky premises the characters undergo some serious development, to the point where you really start to care for them. Dust also pulls no punches when it comes to dealing with real topics like death and betrayal, something that I did not expect given its very Disney like qualities. Dust does lose a little sheen by doing the cliched screaming for a sequel at the end but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to another installment of this game and the stories it contains.
Dust: An Elysian Tale goes down as one of the bigger surprises for me of this year, seamlessly combining beautifully evocative artwork with a hack ‘n; slash 2D RPG. It has its flaws, although they’re surprisingly few for a first time game developer, and could deal with difficulty ramping better. That being said however the issues melt into the background as you blast your way through hordes of enemies and revel in the deep story line. I’d highly recommend a playthrough, especially for those who love the Disney art style.
Dust: An Elysian Tale is available on Xbox and PC right now for $15. Game was played on the PC on the Tough difficulty with 8.6 hours played and 50% of the achievements unlocked.
I’ve had a few people ask me how I come across some of the games that I review here and the answer is pretty simple. If I haven’t seen something that’s been on a lot of review sites (I don’t read the reviews, but if a game keeps popping up that’s a sign it might be worth a look in) then they usually come from me trawling through the new releases section on Steam. From there I work my way through the titles, looking for something that can capture my attention with just a few screenshots and possibly a short video. Mars: War Logs was one of these although it was more for the dev story behind it as Spiders isn’t a particularly large studio but they seemed really dedicated to creating a good game.
Mars: War Logs takes place in the distant future where humans have successfully colonized Mars. A hundred years ago however there was a great upheaval which devastated the colonies and lead to the rise of two opposing factions: Aurora and Abundance. Ever since then they’ve been locked in an ongoing battle for control of the world’s water supply, by far the most valuable resource. You play as Roy Temperance, a prisoner of war who’s caught between the two factions, trying to hide from his past that continues to haunt him.
The aesthetic of Mars: War Logs is reminiscent of many current gen third person titles with infinite shades of brown and grey colouring the world. Although this time around it kind of fits thanks to the world that it’s built in even though it has the unfortunate effect of making every place you go feel a little samey. The graphics are good but not great, which becomes quite noticeable when they’re combined with the rudimentary lip synching and low resolution motion capture. Honestly I’ve seen worse from other recently released titles so I won’t be too harsh on it for that but it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the many other, astoundingly better looking games.
Surprisingly though there’s quite a lot under the hood of Mars: War Logs in terms of gameplay, something you don’t usually expect from smaller RPG titles. The combat is mostly whacking other people with metal poles until they fall down with the added strategy element of blocking/dodging incoming attacks. There’s also a stealth system which allows you to sneak up on unsuspecting enemies, although how crouching down counts as stealth is beyond me. They’ve even incorporated a talent tree, crafting system and character perks allowing you a pretty decent amount of customization to how you play Mars: War Logs. This is a lot for a small dev studio to cram into a game and that unfortunately means that there’s a lot of depth lacking from many of these mechanics and some of them are still plagued by bugs that should have been picked up in QA.
For starters the combat, whilst somewhat engaging and enjoyable at certain points, varies wildly between being so easy that its almost pointless to being so hard that you’ll spend the majority of your time rolling around just so can whittle enemies down a couple hits at a time. This is because there’s no dynamic scaling of enemy difficulty and it only increases at certain points, usually at the start of a new section. The pacing of the game then becomes highly disjointed as you can be breezing through the last half of a particular section only to hit a brick wall at the beginning of the next, rather than having a gradual ramp up in the challenge. Some would argue that this is part of the strategy but in all honesty it’s just sloppy design, especially when “challenging” means that you lose the majority of your health in a couple hits.
The stealth system is a complete joke as whilst you can sneak around the benefits of doing so are minimal at best. When you’re first introduced to it stealthing up to an enemy and hitting them doesn’t take them out, it just takes away a good portion of their health. Of course that means that after doing that all the enemies close by will aggro forcing you to go toe to toe with them anyway. Now I didn’t invest any points in the stealth abilities so this could be somewhat improved by that but that tree is also the weakest out of the 3 when you consider that, no matter how well you stealth, you will eventually have to fight everything. I think Spiders would’ve been much better off skipping this feature altogether to focus more on the core of the game as it really adds nothing in its current form.
Although there’s a talent tree with 3 different styles to choose from only 2 of them are available to you from the start, with one of them being the aforementioned weakest of them all stealth one. This means that you’re kind of shoe horned into spending points into one specific tree (melee combat) and thus can’t take full advantage of the third tree (technomancy) until much later in the game. However even if you wanted to I don’t think it’d be very viable as the amount of damage output you need later in the game can really only come from charged melee weapons, unless you want to spend 20 minutes running around waiting for your fluid (mana) levels to regen.
The crafting system is equal parts good and complete crap thanks to the massive overabundance of materials that you’ll find in every area. Essentially you can craft a couple things like health packs and ammunition but the real power of the crafting system comes from upgrading your armor and weapons. Now not all weapons and armor can be upgraded so that really expensive top tier armor might look great but it’s in fact completely inferior to anything that comes with upgrade slots. This has the unfortunate consequence of making the vast majority of items irrelevant as anything that lacks upgrades is most certainly not worth it.
After the first section you’ll almost never be out of materials for crafting things you need, especially if you’re a veteran RPGer and seek out all the free stuff like I did. What this meant was that whenever upgrades became available (usually after having to run the gauntlet at the start where everything is stupid hard again) I was able to purchase them and then instantly upgrade them to their maximum. There are no rare items to be found or obtained from quests so literally the highest damage/armor item you can buy from the vendor is the best item you will ever see. If you’re low on serum there’s a good chance you have a ton of materials that you can pilfer for serum in order to get the upgrade and in fact you’re probably better off doing that then trying to convert resources as typically you’ll get more if you sell said items to the vendor then buy back the ones you need.
Most of this would be forgivable however these are just some of the more obvious structural flaws that Mars: War Logs has. The interface is confused and doesn’t operate as you’d expect with fun quirks like: doors mostly requiring left click but sometimes pressing R, the attack button (left click, again) is also the loot button, pressing quick buttons for things like menus twice doesn’t minimize them and whilst you can assign 0~9 for powers you can only ever see the first 4 unless you go into the power wheel again. This is not to mention the issues with the incredibly stupid AI, both for your companion and the enemy, which routinely gets stuck on all sorts of terrain. Not only that many of their abilities are capable of friendly fire, leading to some incredibly frustrating moments where they inadvertently kill you. I’m hoping that it was intentional otherwise it’s yet another point where Mars: War Logs differs from the norm and not in a good way.
As always I could forgive nearly all of this if the story was worth anything but sadly, it’s not. Most of the lines are delivered completely flat in rapid fire fashion which, combined with the poor lip synching, makes for a jarring experience. It also doesn’t help that the characters have as much depth as a children’s pool with many of them changing their motivations on a whim. My particular love interest, Mary, went from murderous rage to sympathetic follower in less than 4 sentences and the resulting relationship could not have been anymore shallow. Indeed the game’s one attempt at invoking emotion feels incredibly cheap and only serves to anger the player.
Objectively Mars: War Logs is a decidedly B grade game with fundamental flaws riddling the core mechanics which, combined with the many other problems can make for a frustrating experience. There were times I had fun with it, especially when I got my build up to the seriously broken level, but unfortunately that wasn’t enough to make up for the numerous flaws. I commend Spiders for trying, I really do, but it just goes to show that sometimes you need to cut back on your ambitions a bit in order to solidify the core aspects of the game. I totally understand where they wanted to go with this but unfortunately it falls short of that goal, leaving us with a game that feels like it was halfway towards something great.
Mars: War Logs is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation3 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the Hard difficulty setting with 9 hours total play time and 71% of the achievements unlocked.
If we spin back the clock a couple decades we find ourselves in a time when games fit quite easily into all of their genres. If you were told that a game was a Real Time Strategy you could be pretty sure it’d contain units, resources and buildings that you needed to build up in a strategic way in order to win. First Person Shooters were just that, you holding a gun and running from one end of a level to another ensuring that anything that got in your way didn’t stay that way for very long. Role playing games would have multiple character classes, pages of statistics and long running stories that would carry you through from the start right up until the end. Today however those kinds of boundaries aren’t so well defined with many games blending elements from several different genres which calls into question the use of these broad genres when classifying current generation titles.
Jonathan Holmes of Destructoid fame then asks if its time for us to retire the term RPG as it no longer seems to be a good fit for the games that fall under that genre. He makes a good point too, many games that include rudimentary aspects of RPG titles like levels, classes or statistics often get categorized as RPGs alongside other titles that seem far more deserving of the classification. Now that games are garnering bigger budgets and technology has advanced exponentially since the term was first used in the video games industry I’d have to agree with him that the use of the general RPG term is probably outmoded but we’re a long way away from retiring it completely.
For me personally if a game is to have the RPG moniker applied to it there has to be a couple attributes for it to qualify. Primarily it comes from being able to customize your playstyle to a fairly high level which is usually achieved through the use of classes or talent tree specializations. This, in effect, is what allows you to define your role in the game whether it be from a fire slinging mage to a half cyborg engineer who uses all manner of machines to do his bidding. Stat building, levels and all the other means to this end are really ancillary to the goal of being able to craft a role that you want to play within that game universe and that, in my mind, is the loophole that allows other games to have aspects of a RPG yet not fall into that genre.
However I feel that the term RPG is too broad to encompass everything that now fits under its original definition and that’s where the liberal use of prefixes is warranted. Whilst saying a game is a RPG might conjure a particular image for some and not others you’d be hard pressed to misunderstand what I mean when I said a game was a FPS RPG, action RPG or MMORPG. Each of these sub-genres each has a much more distinct set of guidelines for a game to fall under its umbrella and I feel is the proper way to identify games that blur the traditional definition of a RPG. In essence this means that the term RPG becomes a broad category that encompasses all of these sub-genres and can no longer be used to refer to a single category of games based on its original definition.
The redefinition of the RPG term is a sign that the games industry has grown beyond its traditional roots where everything fell neatly into the categories as we had defined them. I think that’s a wonderful thing as it shows that game developers are experimenting with game ideas that cross genres, blending elements from both in order to create game experiences that are truly unique. Indeed with all my reviews there have been many times when I’ve struggle to pin games down to one genre and that’s not just limited to RPGs. We may no longer be able to use the term to refer to a specific type of game but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the term entirely as the RPG ideals are still valid in today’s gaming industry.