Game Review – Alice: Madness Returns

R. and I downloaded this game through the Playstation store one recent evening, basing our purchase solely on distant memories of playing its predecessor, American McGee’s Alice, on a PC over ten years ago.  We enjoyed the first Alice game for its dark twist on the familiar (and already dark) tale of Alice in Wonderland, and for its beautifully psychedelic environments and characters; it even featured a blunderbuss well before the steampunk renaissance of recent years.  For $20, we figured we’d get some fun of out a new installment while waiting for some other titles to be released (cough cough… DARK SOULS 2).

This action-adventure title, developed by EA and Spicy Horse and released in 2011, was exactly what I expected: fun, full of easy puzzles and variably difficult battles with interesting and wacky enemies, rounded out by an engaging story.

The storyline, delivered largely in appealing 2-D cutscenes, revolves around Alice Liddell, a young woman who is haunted by the murky memory of her family perishing in a housefire for which Alice may or may not have been responsible.  She resides in a sort of minimum-security asylum, and I liked the way the story used themes of mental illness and psychosis (though admittedly in an entirely superficial way) to explore Alice’s forays into a warped and dangerous new version of Wonderland.  The familiar characters are present, albeit in forms altered and twisted from those depicted in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books: the Cheshire Cat; the Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Dormouse; the Caterpillar; the White Knight and Queen of Hearts; along with a truly despicable new adversary.  As the story of Alice and her quest to unravel her memories deepens, it enters some extremely dark and quite disturbing territory, especially in the final chapters.

Image from electricblueskies.com

The environments are predictably beautiful, ranging from lush and luminous forests, to card castles in the air, to labyrinthine caverns of pulsating flesh.  The art design is similar to the first Alice title and provides a lot of ambience that makes up for sometimes repetitive jump, lever, and platform puzzles.  The game is highly linear, and one significant complaint I had about the game progression is that the path taken regularly closes behind, meaning that backtracking to double-check for hidden items or optional challenge rooms isn’t possible.

The gameplay is simple, using a small repertoire of moves and weapons.  Using double- and triple-jumps, paired with a gliding ability, Alice precariously navigates a world of ledges, moving platforms, and easily-solved puzzles, collecting teeth to use as currency in weapon upgrades.  There are lots of secret areas to find and explore, and though most are pretty easy to spot, many have extra layers of “secretness;” you may find a hidden room containing a cache of teeth, but return to the main path too quickly and you might miss a false floor leading to yet another secret area with more collectables (the somewhat pointless “memories” and “bottles,” disappointingly serving only as collection achievements.)

Alice also has a fun “shrink” ability that allows her to temporarily see chalk markings indicating hidden items or upcoming enemies, otherwise-invisible platforms, and hidden miniature paths only accessible to a mouse-sized Alice.

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By the second of five chapters, Alice’s arsenal is fully stocked, with two melee and two projectile weapons, as well as a small explosive device that is useful mainly to distract enemies.  These weapons are upgraded using collected teeth, but the upgrades are global and don’t provide much noticeable difference other than a new colour and generally increased power.  Battles are fun and fast-paced, if repetitive, generally relying on a combination of projectiles to weaken or stun and melee attacks to do heavy damage.  When her health is almost depleted, Alice can go into “hysteria” mode (I love the nod to Victorian mental health terminology here) and fight invincibly for a few seconds in a last-ditch effort to finish the battle.

DLC content comes bundled with the game as currently available in the Playstation store.  Included are a range of alternative costumes, each of which comes with an overpowered ability or buff (except for the Cheshire outfit, which eliminates health drops from enemies), and alternative weapons, which are also overpowered.  I suppose these items are meant to facilitate play on the Nightmare difficulty setting (or perhaps for a second playthrough), but I wasn’t able to equip any of them on my first playthrough (on the Difficult setting) without resulting in a total lack of challenge in the game.  Which was a pity, because from an esthetic perspective the alternative dresses are fantastic, and I would have liked to be able to equip them without added abilities.

If you decide to play Alice: Madness Returns, know what to expect.  It is not a difficult nor wide-ranging game, but the visual appeal, new and very dark take on a familiar story, and well-paced gameplay make for a worthwhile foray.  If you need a game for a bad-weather weekend or some casual pick-up-and-play fun, it’s a good download for the money.

Image from electricblueskies.com

Post edited to add commentary on the DLC.

The Simpsons: Tapped Out – A Nostalgic, Delightful Simulator

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Back in November, R. downloaded a game onto to our iPad mini.  I hadn’t heard of The Simpsons: Tapped Out, and when he showed it to me after playing for a couple of days, I didn’t immediately get it.  Developed by EA, Tapped Out is a simulator featuring the Simpsons.   The game opens with a nuclear meltdown leveling Springfield.  The player’s task is to rebuild the town, unlocking characters by constructing their associated domiciles and buildings.  Delightfully, most of the characters are voiced, with new and true-to-character soundbites.

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Starting with only Homer and Lisa (a nice pair, as their odd-couple dialogue recalls the back-and-forth on the tv show), the player assigns tasks to characters that take a set amount of real time to complete, ranging from a few seconds to a full day.  Completion of tasks earns money and experience, gradually unlocking more buildings, characters, and decorations (everything from trees and plants to dumpsters and stop signs).  Gameplay therefore tends to happen in short (2-5 minute) bursts, every few hours or once a day or whatever you like.  The game is a free download with real-money microtransactions available to speed up completion of tasks or to get bonus goodies.  As a rule, I don’t do microtransactions (though I’d have been happy to pay a reasonable price for the full game) so I have played strictly the free game.

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It took only a few days of play for me to get hooked.  I’m told that Tapped Out has a very similar format to the once-ubiquitous Farmville, a game I haven’t played.  It’s clear to anyone that uses Facebook that Farmville was a highly addictive game, so it makes sense that Tapped Out is as well.  Plus, as a child/teen of the 90s, I am naturally a longtime Simpsons fan, so the chance to play a simulator featuring the beloved and familiar characters, town, animation style, and classic jokes is a real draw.  (For Valentine’s Day this year, one holiday-specific reward was a Choo-Choo-Choose You train.  I can’t pretend to be immune to such a delightful bit of nostalgia).

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Lots of games are loot-driven, or based on the general promise of unlocking new “things” that tempt the player ever forward.  Tapped Out combines this time-tested reward system with nostalgic familiarity, and that intersection is exactly where massive addictive potential is born.  If I was playing a game with similar gameplay but not based on anything familiar, I might be kind of looking forward to obtaining new characters (or whatever), but that drive would be based only on the desire to achieve (applicable to virtually every game) and perhaps some vague curiosity.

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Curiosity cannot compete with the feeling I get when I am assigned the task of building Springfield’s Buddhist Temple, which will unlock Lenny and Carl.  Lenny and Carl!  I love those guys, and their banter!  I can’t wait to see what their assignments, dialogue, and animations will be!  I gotta build that temple!  Or, I can build Burns Manor, and unlock Smithers.  He’s finally out of the closet!  He has some of the best animations!  (Some of his assignments: “Whip It” with his licorice whip, pictured below; “Become a Hideous Drunken Wreck”; “Exercise for Mr. Burns” by independently powering a two-person bike; etc.)  How delightful to hear Smithers finally exclaim “I’m experiencing a whole rainbow of gay feelings!” and more suggestively, “Mr. Burns has an enchanting musk…”  This is GOOD STUFF.

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Additionally, Tapped Out is constantly churning out seasonal updates.  For Valentine’s Day, there are lots of new missions and mini-plotlines.  (Players were gifted with the classic one-off character Mindy, Homer’s alluring coworker and near-mistress.)  There is also a heart currency introduced for a two-week period, which can be accrued a few different ways and traded for love-themed prizes and decorations.  The multiplayer component of Tapped Out, while generally minimal (you can visit other players’ Springfields and produce small amounts of cash for yourself and them by doing so), is more prominent as the main way to obtain hearts is to send Valentine cards to other players’ characters.  Christmas offered a similar selection of holiday-themed content, and even minor occasions like the Superbowl or (American) Presidents’ Day warrant mention and small gifts within the game.

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You never know what’s coming next in Tapped Out, but you can sure it’s going to be something you loved from the Simpsons, and that is what keeps you hooked.  For now, I’ll keep saving up money to build Rainier Wolfcastle’s mansion.  Up and at them!

Batman: Arkham Origins (PS3) – Quick Review

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My first impression of this game was a little shaky.  I thought the menu graphics looked dated, I hated the meathead look of Bruce Wayne, and I felt like Batman’s body was so broad and close to the camera that it was blocking my view of my surroundings.  A few minutes in, I was feeling pessimistic.

I didn’t feel that way for very long.  As I played into the first couple of missions, I was relieved and happy that Warner Brothers Games Montreal, having taken over the series from Rocksteady Studios, did not significantly change the gameplay or fight mechanics from previous installment Arkham City.  Gotham looked as moody and menacing as ever.  The game felt like a continuation of Arkham City, which was exactly what I had been hoping for.

I love the battle system in these games.  It’s wonderfully fluid, with Batman using a wide variety of cool-looking hand-to-hand moves to deal with large groups of baddies.   Although you can button-mash your way through the early fights, the game rewards precision using the combo meter.  Extra button presses will result in nontargeted strikes and a reset meter, and later on you need to be able to build that meter in order to use special moves.  The ability to quickfire various gadgets in battle, including batarangs to stun, glue grenades to immobilize, explosive gel to (surprise!) explode, and the grapnel hook to execute a Scorpion’s-“Get-Over-Here!”-style move, among others, provides Batman with a varied arsenal of combat moves.   It’s particularly satisfying to deploy a double-hooked cable, affixing one end to an enemy and the other to a propane tank, and watch as the cable contracts and smashes the two together.

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However, on many occasions you’ll want or need to avoid direct confrontation using Batman’s stealth takedowns, which often make use of the environment: dangle enemies from ledges, smash them through weak walls, spring out of underground hidey holes, or just creep up behind them and choke them out.  Not that Batman would ever actually kill any of his adversaries; he is preternaturally skilled at using brutal attacks to render enemies peacefully unconscious.

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The story is reasonably engaging, though I would say that I was more invested in the storyline of previous game Arkham City.  In the current installment I especially enjoyed Alfred’s subplot, as he appears a more complex character than in some other film and game incarnations.  It was difficult to decide if I was pleased or disappointed to see the Joker return as the antagonist.  On one hand, it seems a bit lazy, considering that he was the villain and true star of Arkham City.  On the other, this joker is amazingly well-executed: gruesome, flailing, dangerous, mad, occasionally sympathetic.  In a particularly interesting segment, we get to delve into the Joker’s psyche and gain some appreciation of his perceived relationship with Batman.  Of the various other baddies who make appearances, my favourite was Copperhead, whose combat contortions are both painful and fascinating to watch.

In sum, Arkham Origins functions as a true continuation (if not chronologically) of Arkham City.  If you enjoyed that previous game, I suggest that you pick this one up for more cape-gliding, ass-kicking, brooding, Batman-style vigilantism.

Diablo 3 Review

I completed Diablo 3 (PS3) on Normal – Master I, as the wizard, with the Templar.  After initially playing on Normal, which was mind-numbingly easy, I restarted on Master I.  This was a good difficulty level for me, a moderately experienced player of action RPGs, in terms of enemy health and offensive power, and the dungeon-crawling was fun.  However, many other elements of the game design conspired to provide a game experience with virtually no sense of risk or danger, and therefore devoid of real excitement.

First and foremost, there are virtually no consequences for dying outside of boss battles.  Oh, my equipment suffered a 10% durability loss?  I’ll just instantly teleport back to town and fix it for mere pennies.  Phew, crisis avoided.  Seriously though, it’s as if the game developers thought that making you occasionally have to spend 45 seconds going to get your stuff fixed would provide enough of a death-deterrent to give the game some tension.  Umm…. no.  At least you have to complete boss battles in one life, providing the game with a bare minimum of challenging moments.

(I actually liked the boss battles for the most part, which is rare for me; I generally have a bit of a hate on for bosses in games.  But maybe I just liked them because they were the only exciting parts.)

Similarly, the socketing aspect of gear customization felt hollow.  The fact that you can install and remove gems as many times as you like means that you can just throw any old gem into any old weapon or piece of armour, see how it goes, take it out, stick it in something else, and so on, and so forth.  There is no commitment.  I would have liked to see a system that involves permanent gem installation, meaning that you’d have to put some real thought into gear planning.

The teleport-back-to-town option is unlimited and can be used anytime, anywhere (except, I’m assuming, in boss battles… I don’t think I ever tried it).  I remember in Champions of Norath, having to hoard precious gate scrolls to use sparingly for trips back home to the merchants.  Once again, Diablo 3 makes it all too easy by letting you zip around the world at a moment’s notice and as often as you please.

Mind you, it’s not like you’re going to town to buy anything from merchants (except maybe the odd health potion); they never seem to carry gear that’s comparable, let alone superior to what’s getting dropped in the field.  I appreciate games that stock merchants with really badass and expensive gear, so that you end up saving your cash to buy that one amazing piece of equipment.  It gives you something to work toward. This is not the case in Diablo 3.

While the full-motion cutscenes between acts were fantastic, the in-game dialogue was pretty boring.  As I mentioned in a previous article, I need to see characters’ faces while they’re talking, at least part of the time, to really feel engaged.  An ellipsis appearing in a speech bubble over a character’s head to show who’s talking is not what I consider enthralling storytelling.  The only really excellent moment of voice acting was by a woman trapped in the web of a giant spider (huge spiders… a real trope of dungeon crawlers).  Her brief scene of absolute terror stood out amidst the game’s mostly ignorable dialogue.  I also liked the female monk’s pseudo-Russian accent.

I had originally planned to play this game on couch co-op with R., but we quickly discovered that Diablo 3 has a serious flaw in this game mode: only one player at a time can access their menu.  For a game so heavy on looting and inventory/skill management, this was a deal-breaker.  We opted to play individually rather than spend copious amounts of time either waiting for the other player to use their menu or feeling rushed when using our own.

Although I obviously have a lot of complaints, the game wasn’t all bad.  Having played both the monk and wizard and having watched R. play the witch doctor, I got a good sense of the variety of character classes.  I appreciated the differences between the classes and the wide range of skills: the wizard with her wide variety of offensive, defensive, and support spells allowing for a high level of player choice in fighting style; the monk fighting fast and hard up close, zipping around the screen to instantly close distances between monsters; the witch doctor rolling around with a huge posse of zombie dogs, spiders, gargantuans, fetishes (tiny creatures with absurdly large knives), bats, and other creatures to do his bidding.

While it was a strange decision on the part of the developers to omit any player input into the skill development path (each level unlocks a few skills/skill-modifying runes, but these are predetermined), the lack of a customizable skill tree didn’t actually bother me very much.  I think this is because there was such a wide range of skills, and there were a few unlocked at each level; by choosing which skills and runes to equip, the player is able to customize the character’s abilities.

Ultimately, my overall feeling was that the game was designed to hold your hand in every area except maybe in direct battle with monsters.  I understand that higher difficulties like Nightmare and Inferno would provide very challenging battles, but the peripheral issues would still be problematic.  While I certainly enjoy the thrill of seeing that orange item heading indicating a legendary find, I’m not loot-driven enough to feel satisfied by this game.  For me, Diablo 3 missed the mark.

Diablo 3: Some Thoughts at the Midpoint

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Now that I’ve completed Act II (of four) in Diablo 3, I have a few thoughts to share.

I can’t avoid this topic so I’ll start with it.  This game, played on Normal mode, is way too easy.  As in, bizarrely easy.  I seriously don’t mean this in a humblebrag way (“I’m just too damn skilled!”).  I mean in a “most enemies take one hit to kill and my health never drops below about 80%” kind of way.  Skill is not a factor; I can just button-mash my way to victory.

I’m not over-leveled; I have not grinded (unless you consider full and thorough map exploration grinding) and I avoid wearing +exp items.  It really seems like there is some serious dissonance between the offensive/defensive power of available weapons/armor and the toughness of the enemies dropping them.

The first hour or two of Act II was the only time in the game thus far where I ever died (and this was really only because I’d become careless and complacent after the ridiculously easy Act I).  It’s gotten to the point by the end of Act II that for a while I wasn’t even using my best gear, in an attempt to make the game more challenging/fun.  Yikes.

Some might say that I should have started my game on Difficult, rather than Normal.  In hindsight, yes, absolutely, I should have.  That was my mistake.  In my defense, I haven’t played a ton of action-RPGs, and after giving it a few seconds of thought I figured Normal would make sense (after all, I virtually always do first-playthroughs on Normal, in any game genre).  But… I should have considered that after getting addicted to Dark Souls/Demon’s Souls, a crowd-pleaser like Diablo would be tame in comparison.

Some other notes:

I am playing as the Monk and loving it.  The Monk’s abilities are largely based on melee attacks, using magic to manipulate the distance between oneself and enemies.  It’s super fun to use Cyclone Strike to suck a group of enemies toward you and follow up with Lashing Tail Kick to knock them all away again.  The two similar skills Dashing Strike and Fists of Thunder (with Thunderclap rune) allow you to close distance between you and the target virtually instantly and administer punishing blows at the same time.  Both are great finishers for the Cyclone-Lashing Kick combo above, as you can finish off any tougher enemies that survived the first two strikes.

The story is ok.  I generally find it hard to get into the story in top-view RPGs like Diablo… maybe the emotional connection to characters is lost because I don’t see their faces.  The cutscene to finish Act I got my attention though; it was good enough to feel like a movie scene and I was definitely more engaged with the story after that.  The Act II finisher is also excellent.

I don’t have a favorite follower, probably because the game isn’t difficult enough for their contributions to matter.  I do enjoy the chit-chat between the protagonist and the followers as you move around the maps (the Scoundrel’s sleazy come-ons got old quickly though).  There are some funny exchanges.  Ultimately I decided to go with the Enchantress, so that her distance/magic attacks would complement my melee/physical moves.

My favorite enemies thus far are the tiny fly-babies (can’t remember the name) that are birthed by the bigger flies in the dessert area.  I love that they are so small and aimless but so deadly.  The first time I encountered some and used Cyclone Strike to suck them all toward me, it didn’t end well for the Monk.

That’s about it for my thoughts on the game so far.  I am currently trying to decide whether or not to start over on a higher level of difficulty.  The main obstacle to a start-over is deciding whether to choose the Monk again (I like this class and want to see the full set of abilities unlocked) or choose a difference class (probably the Wizard, as I’ve read it’s arguably the most challenging to use).  What should I do?

How are you enjoying the game?