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.

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, Take 2: Wizarding in Fart Pants

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I decided to start over.  As noted in this previous post, I was finding Diablo 3 on “Normal” way too easy and therefore not fun, so after starting Act III, I decided to suck it up and restart the game on a higher difficulty.  After hearing from my sister that “Difficult” was still easy enough to button-mash your way through, I opted for “Master 1.”  And while I loved the Monk and would have liked to see her reach her full potential, I chose the Wizard for this playthrough, after reading that it’s one of the more challenging character classes.

I almost regretted my decision during my first few hours of play, as the game was way hard (and I knew how foolish I’d feel if I went from too easy to too hard by jumping two difficulty levels).  I actually had to grind out a couple of levels in order to beat the Skeleton King.  However, the game is definitely more interesting this way.  It actually matters which follower I choose (I’m sticking with the Templar for now), and I sometimes have to use the blacksmith in order to make stronger weapons and armor than what is getting dropped.

Speaking of dropped armor, toward the end of Act I a monster dropped a pair of legendary pants, the Pox Faulds.  In addition to a high armor rating, they provide boosts to intelligence and vitality, which makes them perfect for my wizard.  Intriguingly, the item description had an extra note that “These pants sometimes make you stink,” presumably because they are “made from the treated of skin of plague victims.”  I like when games include weird little humorous elements like this, so I was extra-pleased with the pants.

What I didn’t expect was that after wearing them for a few seconds, my character would emit a greenish cloud, and a buff labeled “Stinky” would appear over the HUD.  It disappeared after a few seconds, but returned with a puff of smoke/gas in regular intervals.  The best part?  The stinky cloud damages enemies who pass through it.  It’s pretty ridiculous, but I like it.  It’s nice when games don’t take themselves too seriously.

For now, I’ll keep working on my new playthrough with an additional skill of sorts… fart attack!

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?

Tomb Raider 2013 Review

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Back in my Playstation 1 days, I loved Tomb Raider and Lara Croft.  I even used to frequent a TR news site called the Croft Times (anyone else remember it?).  I’ve played almost all of the TR games over the years, and was curious about this new installment, given the hype about Lara’s redesign and the gorgeous environments.

Now that I’ve finished it, I can say that I really enjoyed this game.  Not because it’s challenging or groundbreaking, but because it’s fun.  Here are my thoughts on some aspects of the game.  (Note:  I’m only reviewing the main single-player gameplay mode.  Because really, who plays Tomb Raider for the multiplayer?)

Pacing

The story moves quickly throughout the game, and the gameplay is similarly fast-paced.  I never felt bogged down by difficult puzzles or boring stretches of play.  The alternating rhythm of exploration and battle was well-balanced and made me reluctant to end play sessions, always wondering what would happen next.  Lara’s “Killer Instincts” ability, which highlights interactive objects and quest items, ensures that you never get annoyed about having to walk up to every single item around in order to see if it’s “something.”  Everything you collect and find is instantly autosaved and geographic checkpoints are very frequent.

Story

To my delight, Tomb Raider has real character development and an interesting story.  I’ll admit I often play action-adventure games without paying much (if any) attention to story, spacing out during cut scenes, just in it for the gameplay.  However, I enjoyed the story in this game.  Not complicated or political (ahem… recent Final Fantasy games), laced with supernatural intrigue, and featuring an island that malevolently controls the weather to crash planes and ships and keep people from escaping (COOL!) and a religious fanatic for an antagonist (right up my alley).  Sad scenes were genuinely emotional and in general I really felt for Lara’s borderline-ridiculously-terrible predicament.

Lara

Obviously, Lara’s looks have evolved.  Her proportions, while still idealized, are at least grounded in reality.  She spends the whole game gritty, bloody, often limping or applying pressure to wounds, and is generally a far cry from her previously impervious and aloof incarnation.  I like her personality a lot, as she struggles in a relatable way with ethical decisions in a nearly hopeless situation.

Gone are the Cirque-du-Soleil-worthy acrobatic side- and back-jumps (and accurate shooting whilst performing these feats) of the older Tomb Raider games.  Lara jumps up or forward only, and lands hard, putting a knee and hand down (a nice touch). Sometimes when jumping to grab a ledge, Lara’s hand slips and you have to do a quick grab to keep her from falling.  Lara’s physics-defying ability to change direction mid-jump persists as a leftover from previous games, but since it’s sometimes handy, it’s hard for me really hate on it.

While she still possesses the upper-body strength of an Olympian weightlifter, the endurance of a Tour de France rider, and appears to have significant additional training as a gymnast and rock-climber, Lara is generally more realistic and relatable this time around.

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Cinematics

I have never seen smoother integration of cinematics than in this game.  The seamless transition between player-controlled segments, full-motion videos, and cutscenes that include player interaction is awesome.  For example, you are creeping Lara around an enemy camp when a guard spots you grabs Lara.  As the game cuts to a cinematic scene of struggle, indicators appear onscreen to guide you through timed button-presses to fight back.  If you time it right, Lara subdues the guy in an FMV and the game switches back to regular player-controlled mode as you dash back into your hiding spot.  If you miss the buttons or timing… the cutscene continues and it’s not so nice.

Visual and audio

As has been widely reported, the visuals are fantastic.  The ambient lighting, including from Lara’s torch, is realistic and moody and Lara’s shadow is perfect – no vague shadow-blob here.  The textures are for the most part very good; I almost never noticed any pixel-y weirdness, though I would have liked to see more movement in the plants and trees.  The explosions, and there are many, are seriously awesome.  The many action-packed sequences involving exploding and/or avalanching buildings and Lara’s frantic acrobatics to escape look especially good, as the camera is right there with you providing angles that are great visually and also allow you to see where you’re going.  I don’t think I ever felt a fatal fall or misstep was due to bad camera, and that scores big points with me.

The voice acting is excellent and the graphics are good enough that you can pick up on subtle expressions and gestures by characters that betray their feelings and intentions even when they’re lying through their teeth.  I particularly enjoyed listening to the conversations of baddies while creeping around to set up stealth kills; casual, random conversations giving way to frantic shouts when they realize they’re under attack.  (My favorite: a guard asking his friend to help him find Sprinkles, his pet rat).  The music is sparse and effective.

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Battle

The battle system in this game reminds me a bit of the Batman Arkham series. Enemy encounters occur in discrete battles, the beginning and end of which are indicated by Lara drawing or holstering her weapon.  Especially at the start of battle, stealth plays a significant role in the game.  I enjoyed the stealth aspect, which is saying a lot because normally I’m more of a guns-blazing type.

There is no health bar, and instead Lara can take a few hits, as the screen gets redder around the edges, before dying.  If she takes hits and manages to get cover for a short time, she’ll shed the damage and be back at baseline.  This means there is a lot of use of cover in the game, the mechanics of which are intuitive and easy to use.  Lara has a variety of long- and close-range attacks, as do the baddies, and there are lots of sticks of dynamite flying around to ensure that you can’t take cover in the same spot for long.  My only complaint here is that almost all of the battles are pretty easy, especially in the first two thirds of the game.

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Customization and skill development

Disappointingly, this is definitely the weak aspect of the game.  Lara has four weapons (the bow was my favorite throughout the game) and a pickaxe as her “gear,” and three categories of skills: survivor, hunter, and brawler.  Skills upgrades are purchased using skill points gained from XP, and include things like keener “Killer Instincts,” improved weapon use and different hand-to-hand combat moves.  The weapons are upgraded using “salvage,” the game’s currency, and found weapon parts.  The problem with this system is that given the abundance of salvage available and the relatively quick XP gains, it’s pretty easy to get all of the skills and upgrades available at a given time.  This means that there is no developmental path for Lara; the player does not need to choose between specializing in long-range versus close-range combat, or between a defensive or offensive skill emphasis.  Overall, it amounts to a system of character development that theoretically involves customization, but in practice is just a steady increase in power in all areas.

Verdict

Tomb Raider is a quick, engaging, and fun game.  So fun that I have forgiven the fact that it’s very easy.  There is little-to-no replay value in this type of game, but that’s alright.  Pick it up for a week or so of intuitive, exciting gameplay with a cool story, and bask in the return of a new and improved Lara Croft.

Grieving for the Nintendo Entertainment System

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Nintendo Entertainment System is fading away.  It’s been going on for a couple of decades and it’s easy to overlook, as newer flashy consoles like PS3 and Wii/U vie for our attention with all manner of bells and whistles that the stalwart 8-bit pioneer could never have imagined.  For gamers (and former gamers) of my generation, the NES-era games and hardware continue to have an iconic, nostalgic appeal, as evidenced by toys, apparel, tattoos, memes, and imagery all over the net.  But what about the actual, physical, playable console?  What place does it have in today’s gaming world?

We pay our respects by consuming commercial items churned out to appeal to our inner children, or sometimes through art (or photos).  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with all this, but it sometimes makes me wonder how many people are still blowing into cartridges and gently pressing in the old gray power button, clutching the wired, rectangular controllers that do not fit the contours of our hands, and grinding it out through games much more challenging (no saving!) than today’s offerings.

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I have an NES, and it is hooked up and ready to go along with my other consoles.  I rarely use it.  The siren songs of modern RPGs, shooters, of MarioKart Wii and World of Goo, of dark beautiful stories and seemingly limitless character customization, of my hard-won save files waiting impatiently for my attention, win out over my old gray friend quite consistently.  The NES somehow appears both dignified and forlorn on the shelf above the PS3.  I feel guilt, happiness, nostalgia, contentment, the pain of adulthood, and a million other feelings when I contemplate it.

A couple of years ago, I asked my then-10-year-old nephew if he knew anything about “the original Nintendo.”  He has a Wii, plays MarioParty and MarioKart, and knows the beloved characters.  He doubtless recognizes from imagery the older, pixelated Mario.  “You mean N64?”  “No, before that.  Two consoles earlier.”  He shook his head.

On the occasions, usually with friends over, that I do fire up the NES for some Mario 3, 31-in-1, or Paperboy, it really does transport me.  Your muscle memory might get rusty, but you never forget how to get the whistles in Mario 3 or the frantic pre-techno music from Wiley’s Castle in Megaman 3.

These things were a part of my childhood and probably yours too.  Letting go is painless, and the awareness of that fact is agonizing.  As I gaze, in this moment, at the NES console, I can almost see it get blurry around the edges as it fades into obscurity.  The icons will endure, but the circuits-and-plastic original is bound for extinction.

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(The photos in this post are of me, and taken by Nick Rudnicki)

The Conflicted Existence of a Female Zombie-Killer

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Call of Duty: Black Ops II is my first time playing this series.  I only play the zombies mode; I’ve never been into war games, because killing middle-eastern rebels or foreign armies really doesn’t appeal to me.  But zombies?  Bust out the semi-automatic weaponry, I’m there.

Once I started playing public online mode, it didn’t take me long to learn that if I didn’t mute everyone else’s microphone while playing, I’d hear some shit I didn’t wanna hear.  The first time I played online, some dude was dropping n-bombs (from the context in which he used them, it was pretty obvious he was using them as a slur and was not a person of colour himself).  I quit the game and henceforth was a quick-draw on the ‘mute all’ button before starting a match.

Not long after I started playing Black Ops, Hubby gifted me a PS3 headset.  I think both of us anticipated this being used in the context of him needing quiet to study and me still being able to play PS3 or watch Netflix.  I really never intended to get into mic’d online play.  When I’d sign in to Black Ops, I’d mute my mic along with everyone else’s.

Once I got into playing more complex DLC maps (Mob of the Dead, anyone?), though, I could really see the appeal of being able to communicate with other players.  I started leaving people’s mic’s unmuted in the lobby while I listened to players chat.  If they sounded like reasonable people, I’d leave them unmuted.  Soon after, I kept my mic on the first time, and was lucky enough to have an awesome team.  No offensive remarks (just a lot of f-bombs directed at zombies), cohesive teamwork, and it was instantly clear to me what I’d been missing by playing without audio communication.

It didn’t take long before I stopped my lurking-vetting process of deciding which team’s I’d mic with.  And it didn’t take long after that for the sexist bullshit to start.

The first remark, while annoying, wasn’t too major.  I told the team I’d grab a quest item located in the map’s laundry room.  “Oh yeah, perfect, the girl’s doing the laundry.”  If I let myself get upset over that kind of stuff, I wouldn’t be able to exist in the world, so I let it go.  But it got worse. A few days later, playing with a team that had seemed pretty cool at first, I got taken down by a huge horde of zombies who cornered me.  As I asked the team if anyone could make it over to revive me, a player who had witnessed the takedown said “yeah, the chick totally got raped by those zombies.”  My heart dropped into my stomach and I actually felt ill.  I don’t feel the need to get into a rant about rape culture or rape jokes, but needless to say, I was not happy.

The truth is, overall, my experiences playing on headset have been better than I initially feared they would be.  Aside from the relatively common “are you really a girl?” questions, most teams I play with have treated me with respect.  I’m sure this is partly because I’m back to pre-emptively muting teams that sound too rowdy in the lobby.  But those times that someone does casually toss out a sexist remark, it takes the wind right out of me.  It breaks the illusion that everyone is there for the same reason as me: some good, clean, respectful, zombie-killing teamwork.  I play video games to escape all the bullshit in the world, so this is not part of the plan for me.

I’ll continue playing Black Ops, and I’ll continue feeling conflicted about mic’d play. Maybe I’ll see you there.