Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Game On! - Spring 2017

'Sup, kitties? I'm back in school once again and opportunities to write come few and far between, but since I am a hopeless video game addict I'm still gonna make my best effort to check in periodically and let you know what I'm playing. With that in mind, I thought it would be silly to keep calling this feature "My Month In Games". There's no way in Hell I'm going to have the mojo to post once per month (have I ever been consistent about that?), and let's be honest, "My Month In Games" has got to be one of the all-time laziest names for a column. With that said, let me unveil the successor to my monthly check-in....Game On! Only slightly less lazy of a title than "My Month In Games", but unless someone starts paying me for this shit (send cash) I reserve the right to bask in the glory of minimal effort and an undying devotion to slack. Okay, first up in the hopper...

Resident Evil 7 - PS4

Regular readers likely know the drill when it comes to me and Resident Evil, but for the uninitiated I'll break it down like this: I HATED the original PSOne-era RE games because tank controls, bad acting, and heavy doses of obtuse puzzles and inventory management just aren't my jam. Resident Evil 4 is a goddamn masterpiece, RE5 is right up there with it when you factor in the refinement of the RE4 gameplay formula and it's transcendentally addictive multiplayer mode "The Mercenaries", and RE6 isn't nearly as bad as everyone thinks it is.

In much the same way that Resident Evil 4 signified a change in the gameplay formula from the original, PSOne era entries in the series, Resident Evil 7 shakes up the series by shifting the perspective to first-person. I was very skeptical about this when I first began hearing about it, but it actually works pretty well for this game...with a few caveats.

I've long maintained that the divide between folks who prefer the original trilogy to REs 4, 5, and 6 is the latter's shift away from puzzles, exploration, and general creepiness to more straightforward action and shooting. I think that developer/publisher Capcom actually tried to bridge this gap in Resident Evil 6 by featuring multiple storylines, each with varying ratios of shooting to ...puzzling (?), but this didn't seem to satisfy anyone except maybe me. So back to the drawing board they went with the result being RE7's emphasis on exploration, stealth, and the return of everyone's favorite fucking thing...resource management!!

Honestly though, for as much as I like to rag on the concepts of resource management and limited inventory, I will say that they're well implemented in RE7. The game does a good job of rewarding those who take the time to explore with plenty of ammo and healing items, and the game's environments are so well constructed that I actually found myself wanting to explore every nook and cranny. I liked the larger, "set-piece" locations of 4, 5, and 6, but I think it was wise of the developers to return to the series' roots and bring it back to a single terrified character roaming the dilapidated halls and overgrown grounds of a crumbling estate. The moment to moment tension is heightened greatly by the creepy rooms and dimly lit corridors of the Baker house, and the outdoor areas are filled with foreboding signs that the people and things you'll encounter inside just 'aint right.

Sadly, the well-tuned gunplay of 4-6 doesn't really make the leap to the first-person perspective all that well. You've still got guns, and you're still using them to blast away at weird ass shit, but the aiming is slow, your ammo is weak, and there's no satisfaction of nailing a well placed headshot before moving in to deliver a coup-de-grace melee attack while the enemy is reeling. As a matter of fact, if the melee attacks of 4-6 were something you enjoyed you should know that they're nowhere to be found here. You've got a knife that you can use to slash away at weakened enemies in an effort to finish them off without wasting ammunition, but there's nothing in here that's reminiscent of the limb stuns and melee finishers that were such an integral part of the combat in last few games in the series. Put simply, the combat system succeeds at feeding into the overall vibe of the game and making you feel like an average terrified dude exploring a house of horrors, but it's nowhere near as fun as it has been in the last few numbered entries in the series.

Speaking of the game's "vibe" and story, I can definitely say that I enjoyed those elements quite a bit. Everyman protagonist Ethan Winters is nothing to write home about in the personality department, but he works as a stand-in for the player, and since you rarely see him (again, the game is in first-person), that's just fine. In fact, it's all the better because he's not some 'roided out, wisecracking superhuman distracting you from the truly creepy Baker family as they stalk and taunt you on their home turf. As creepy and powerful as the Baker family are, it's worth noting that the rest of the enemies in this game do leave something to be desired. There's just very little variety in the enemy design as compared to the rest of the games in the series, and it's kind of a bummer. The shorter length of the game overall does help to soften the blow of the lame enemy designs, but there it is. It took me just a bit over 10 hours to complete the game, which felt like just the right length for this style of game. Any longer and the scenario, gameplay, and characters would have really started to wear thin.

All in all, I'm fairly cool with the new direction of Resident Evil. I didn't find the moment to moment gameplay nearly as fun as is it is in REs 4-6, but the game succeeds at presenting a compact, compelling tale and serviceable gameplay that mostly feel worthy of the Resident Evil name. In all honesty, I'm not entirely sure that I would have been motivated to play this game at all if it wasn't a RE title, but I'm glad I gave it a shot. It does what it does fairly well, and it wrapped up before I had a chance to get bored!

Grade: B

Nier: Automata - PS4

I never did play the original Nier (or its antecedents, the Drakengard series), but I was motivated to check this out after I heard it favorably compared to Furi, my game of the year in 2016. This game doesn't really have much in common with Furi, but it is an open world RPG/action/shooter hybrid with some interesting elements, so I stuck with it through the end.

The stylish combat sequences look great, even if they are a little too easy.

In terms of gameplay, Nier: Automata plays a lot like GTA meets Dynasty Warriors meets Raiden. It's a 3rd person open world experience featuring simplistic button mashing combat and some twin-stick shooter sequences thrown in for flavor. There are weapons to collect and upgrade, skills and buffs that can be equipped, and dozens of sidequests to tackle, but the meat of the game lies in its hack n' slash combat....and boy howdy do I wish that aspect of the game were better. The game carries a veneer of genuine depth and strategy to the combat, but no matter which weapons you use or which skills you equip, combat always seems to boil down to equipping the strongest weapon at your disposal and mashing away on the attack button. Defense is a little too forgiving as well. Your playable characters have a few too many evasive options during the heat of battle, and most enemy attacks can easily be dodged, regardless of the size or strength of the foe. In other words, it's an easy game.

A memorable boss encounter.

The sci-fi story about androids and robots battling it out over the future of Earth was intriguing at the outset, but by the third act it falls apart into a mess of cliches and somewhat inscrutable plot twists. I genuinely cared about the characters and what was happening to them during the first 20-30 hours of the game, but the endgame really loses the thread and wraps up in a most unsatisfying way.

The game does some interesting things with regard to the color palette.

The visuals and music are genuine high points, and there are some intriguing nuggets in the story and gameplay, but Nier: Automata feels underwhelming overall. Makes me wish that I would have picked up something meatier like Horizon: Zero Dawn instead.

Grade: B-/C+

Blaster Master Zero - 3DS

The original Blaster Master is one of my all-time favorite games and easily one of the best games to grace the NES. The series continued on throughout the 16- and 32-bit console generations and most recently saw a serviceable sequel as a downloadable title for WiiWare, but the general consensus is that none of the games released after the original were ever quite able to deliver on its tremendous promise.

The story and dialogue are far more fleshed out. 

Here now is Blaster Master Zero, a pseudo-reboot/remaster of the original game released for the 3DS and Nintendo Switch consoles. Zero does a fine job of recapturing the spirit of the original; even expanding on the source material by adding loads of additional items, weapons, sub-bosses, and even a few new characters. The original's bizarre story about a boy who chases his mutated pet frog into a massive hole in his backyard that leads to a vast underground landscape is left intact, but it's fleshed out in a way that gives it a fun, anime inspired vibe.

Overhead perspective dungeons and giant bosses make a comeback.

As a fan of the original and its Metroidvania-style mashup of platforming and exploration, I had fun with this title. It's fairly short (I beat it in around 7 hours of total play time) and relatively easy - especially when compared to the original - but it's a good time. With so many other retro-styled Metroidvania platformers out there these days, I might have a hard time recommending this to all but the retro gaming and Blaster Master faithful, but it's not a bad effort. I certainly enjoyed it more than Axiom Verge, and everybody was all over that game's dick. It's somewhat slight and it doesn't do anything to push the series forward, but I enjoyed my time with it, and it truly is a love letter to fans of the series.

Grade: B-

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