Tuesday, August 18, 2015

My Month(s) In Games: May/June/July/August 2015

Alright, time to get caught up. Life can be hectic sometimes, ya know?

Bloodborne - PS4

I've never played any of the games in From Software's -Souls series, for legends have told of their notoriously steep difficulty and a theory of game design that might be called aggressively vague. I don't usually play games to torture myself, and thusI've actively avoided them. But with triple A titles for Playstation 4 coming a bit few and far between, and given my long-dormant-yet-recently-rekindled penchant for these kind of third-person, hack 'n' slash style-RPGs, I thought I'd jump in and give Bloodborne a try. I'd heard it was more accessible than the -Souls games, and plus, whenever I hear someone younger than me going on about a game being difficult I tend to imagine myself as a drill sergeant shaking my head in disgust as I pace through the barracks of a particularly pathetic group of fresh recruits. I am a child of the '80s after all. I beat many a NES game that featured tough gameplay, limited continues, and/or a dim sense of purpose... so how hard could this shizz really be?

Pretty damn hard it turns out! Checkpoints are rare, combat can be unforgiving, and grinding only gets you so far. This is especially true early in the game when you're still trying to make sense of things, but even after you get a handle on your movement and learn a few advanced combat techniques the game continues to find ways to keep you on your heels. No joke, I must have retried the very first zone in the game 50 times before I was able to break through and make it to the first boss...and I'm pretty good at games! In addition to the difficulty, Bloodborne seems to also carry on the -Souls tradition of doing little to explain itself. The main character is basically mute, the story is buried in menus, and you can forget about any kind of mini-map or compass to guide you in the direction of your next objective. Thing is though, I sort of knew about all of these things going in, but I needed to see it for myself. I was sure that the stories about this game were exaggerated, but as it turns out, they're mostly spot on.

In the end, Bloodborne  is a well-made niche title. Perfect for people who like this sort of thing, but hard to recommend to everyone. Me? I rose to the challenge for awhile, but I lost my mojo in the weak narrative and gave up after about 20 hours. Oh, and it's pretty.

Grade: B-

Tomb Raider - PS3

I've never really been a fan of the Tomb Raider series. I tried playing the very first game for PSone way back in the day, but it just didn't grab me. I will say that, back then, Tomb Raider really felt like a big, early step forward from the 8 and 16-bit era of console gaming, but when it came to the actual gameplay I found it stark, lifeless, slow, and tedious. Points to the developers for casting a strong, independent (if somewhat oversexualized) woman in the title role, but in general, it just failed to hold my interest. Fast forward some 17 years later, and we got a wholesale series reboot in the form of..well..it's just called Tomb Raider...again. Fair enough.

To be completely honest, I was planning to skip this one as well until the reviews started rolling in. Critic after critic lauded the gritty plot, redesigned gameplay, and openness of the game world. It was free for Playstation Plus subscribers some time ago, so I downloaded it then and added it to my digital "pile of shame". Summer is a historically slow period for new releases, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to jump in and clear a few games off my to-do list. And let me just say -- and I know the point has mostly become moot since the release of the Playstation 4 and its requirement that you have a PS+ subscription in order to play online -- but Playstation Plus is more than worth it for the monthly free games. Seriously, I've enjoyed the hell out of a bunch of titles that I would have probably skipped had they not been free. But I digress...

Tomb Raider is a very nice game. If you've played Uncharted or The Last of Us then you already have the gist of it, gameplay wise. It's a third-person action platformer that emphasizes exploration, gunplay, and weapon upgrades. Puzzle solving, a hallmark of the original series of games, takes something of a backseat this time around. There are a few sections that require you to plan your moves in order to advance, but there aren't that many of them and they are mostly optional. In terms of the story, I think that Tomb Raider holds its own in that arena as well. Several of the reviews I read quibbled about the way that heroine Lara Croft seems to go from timid-academic-who's-never-held-a-gun to full-on-killing-machine in just a few scenes, but I had little problem with how that part of her character progression was handled. What were they supposed to do, have her wander around frightened and shivering for an additional 20-30 minutes of play time on top of the 15-20 that are already there at the start of the game? That would have been boring. It's called pacing, and I feel that the intro was handled well. And speaking of violence, another common gripe about this game is that it features far too many human enemies. I get the sense that there's a feeling among some fans that the killing of people in a Tomb Raider game represents a significant departure from the morality of the original series. I don't feel like I ever spent enough time with the early games to get any sense of the average number of human deaths in a given title, but I do think that Lara's character arc is fairly well written and that her use of violence (at least in terms of the story) is justified. Still, you can choose to kill your enemies in some gruesome ways, and by the endgame you'll have dispatched several hundred men. In truth, it DOES start to feel a little bit icky.

It's nice to see a classic series that's recently been in decline come back so strong. The graphics, music, and voice acting are all top-notch, and I understand that the game looks even better in its current gen Tomb Raider Definitive Edition version for PC, PS4, and XBOX ONE. Even with my limited exposure to the franchise over the years, I feel comfortable saying that this is a well realized update on the gameplay. Since I mentioned Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us, I suppose it's worth noting that since those games are PS4 exclusives, Tomb Raider and its upcoming sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider are likely your best choices for third-person action platformers if you're an XBOX player. And it's not by accident that I mention Tomb Raider in the same breath as Uncharted and TLoU. As far as I'm concerned, it belongs in their company. Good game.

Grade: B

Dillon's Rolling Western - 3DS

Y'know, I don't really think that I like tower defense games. This one is a mix of tower defense and action oriented elements, but yeah, no. I do like the main character, but the gameplay is tedious and repetitive, while at the same time nerve-wracking - or is it nerve-wracking? nerve-wreaking? I'm going to stop playing this game and look that up.

Grade: C

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