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.

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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!

Dr. Mario Wii: My Occasional Addiction

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I recently started playing Dr. Mario again.  Every couple of years, I have a little stint of Dr. Mario and gorge myself, playing in half-hour increments, sometimes a few times a day.  Not on my NES; my cartridge is sadly unreliable.  On the Wii.  It’s an updated, downloadable game, and it’s amazing.  The gameplay is the same as in the original: drop bicoloured pills onto “viruses” to eliminate them, in a sort of amalgam of Tetris and Connect Four.  Perform combos to drop extraneous pieces onto your opponent’s game board.  The difference in the Wii version is that you now have the option of playing online against randomly-selected opponents.  The online arena is where shit gets real.

Well, sort of.  You certainly don’t get much information about your opponent.  Everyone is represented by their Mii (a custom, Wii-specific avatar), and their username.  I find it kind of fun to guess if people’s Miis are meant to be real likenesses (mine is) and to judge their username (“Lucy”; yeah I’m boring like that).  I’ve always been amused by the high frequencies of the names “Mom” and “Dad.”  Mostly Mom; if Miis are any indication, Dr. Mario seems to be played more by women than men.

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The only available communication between players occurs before and between games, and is limited to ten canned statements: “Hah!” “Ouch…” “You got me!” and so on.  The most contentious, to me, is “Good game!”  There are some players who say “Good game!” after every single match.  I know that there is some kind of sportsmanship thing going on here, but seriously.  We did not just play a sweaty, grunting, hour-long game of soccer on opposing teams; we spent 45 seconds pushing buttons without even laying eyes on each other.  I always feel obligated to echo the sentiment, lest I be seen as a poor sport.  (Why I do even care, in such an anonymous environment?  Human nature is fascinating.)  I don’t mind a “Good game!” after a particularly close or drawn-out game, but generally, I prefer to be the strong silent type.  However, and it’s kind of embarrassing to admit, I feel a tinge of genuine delight on the occasions when I decide to randomly throw in my favourite of the available statements: “Neener neener!”

You might think you’ve played games that are fast-paced, but have you played online Dr. Mario?  High-level players drop pills so fast that it’s almost impossible to imagine that a human being is on the other end of the connection.  I consider one of my special skills in life to be the ability to maintain a solid game of Call of Duty Zombies while simultaneously playing indoor fetch with my dog.  When I play Dr. Mario, dog toys pile up on my lap as I am forced to ignore Bieber’s hopeful prodding.

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The level of precision required to rotate, align, and drop a pill in fractions of a second, using muscle memory rather than conscious planning, is astronomical.  I used to think I had two perfectly functioning Wiimotes, but it only took one minute of Dr. Mario to realize that one of them is ever so slightly off, as it occasionally jumps my pills an extra space to the left.  I honestly believe that no other game would have revealed this minute misfunction.

I’m reasonably skilled (though this time around, after a few years away, pretty rusty), but some of these players are jaw-dropping.  I’m always intimidated when I see someone whose number of wins (one of two stats available, the other being a weirdly uninformative “rating”) has maxed out the four digits available at 9999.  (These players are often named Mom.)  I won’t reveal my win count, because I don’t even like to acknowledge to myself how many minute-long games of Dr. Mario I’ve played, but I will say it’s a four-digit number.

I’ve been playing for about a week, and I can already feel myself become sated.  It’s for the best.  Dr. Mario makes a good little snack between proper, full-length games, but the pace burns you out quickly.  I’m glad to say I won’t reach 9999 wins… at least not anytime soon.

What have been your experiences with Dr. Mario?

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.

Holidays Over; Back At It.

Ok, wow.  I really disappeared for a while there!  The holidays were, as usual, both wonderfully and painfully packed with parties with family fun.  For a semi-hermit like me, it takes a lot of downtime to balance out all the socializing.  End result: no blog posts for a few weeks.  But I’m back with lots of great content and ideas from the holidays: my vegan-friendly 30th birthday party (I’m a pre-Christmas baby), some awesome new kitchen gadgets to facilitate my never-ending vegetable prep, and (exciting!) a slew of photos of a friend’s RIDICULOUS vintage game collection.  I’ll be churning it all out over the next little while.

I’ll leave you for now with an au-natural photo of me on Christmas morning at my dad’s, with a new vegan cookbook and a cute NES controller-inspired clutch purse.  Brandishing symbols of my two loves… food and games.

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Everything Retro is New Again

I’ve been saying for years that Nintendo should rerelease the original Nintendo Entertainment System.  There are plenty of game cartridges floating around, but in my experience, fewer and fewer well-functioning consoles.  Well, it’s happened.  Sort of.

Shopping yesterday at a trendy store in downtown Toronto (Urban Outfitters), I came across a display of retro-inspired items: books on the history of video games, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pint glasses, and so on.  But what really caught my eye was a trio of gaming devices that are new products, but play old games.  I surreptitiously took a (blurry) photo of the display so that I could look up these items once I got home.

Retro stuff at UO

The first one I picked up to examine was almost the exact device I’ve been predicting.  It’s a console that looks like a hybrid of NES and Super NES, and plays both types of cartridges.  It comes bundled with one NES and one SNES controller, and is compatible with the decades-old controllers from the original consoles.  It’s not manufactured by Nintendo, but rather by some company called Hyperkin.  At around $70, the Retron Two-in-One Gaming System seemed like a great buy.  I already have reasonably-functional consoles of my own, so I didn’t get one, but I still felt a bit wowed by the fact that this things exists, and is being sold in a store aimed at people in their teen and early 20s.

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Next to this retro hybrid beast was a daintier offering: a Sega-branded handheld gaming device, preloaded with 37 Sega Genesis and 3 Capcom games, including heavy hitters like the Sonic the Hedgehog and Street Fighter series.  (Also featuring an SD slot for further downloadable games). If the screen hadn’t seemed a bit small (I can’t recall the exact spec), I might have bought this delightful little jewel.  I didn’t play a lot of Sega Genesis (other than Sonic games) and would probably enjoy discovering some new old favorites.

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The third and last console was the most surprising one: an honest-to-goodness branded Atari, with 75 preloaded games, two wireless old-timey-looking joysticks, and ports for genuinely old joysticks, in case you have some kicking around.  (Personally, I have a few that are a whisper away from nonfunctional.)  Seriously?  I feel like the Venn diagram of the target audience for this item is not very promising.

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I mean, let’s be honest here.  I’m at the very top of the age range of people who might shop at UO, and I’m too young to have played Atari when it was having its moment in the sun.  Who are these potential customers?  Maybe young people buying gifts for their parents?  Furthermore, I like vintage games as much as the next person, but have you actually played an Atari game in the last decade? (Or two?)  It’s fun for about three minutes.   I’m all for nostalgia, but when it comes to gaming, I’m also all for fun.

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It was certainly interesting to see these items for sale and to consider the implications.  I wrote a while back on my vague sadness about the fact that the generation of people exposed to early video games (NES specifically) are playing these games less and less.  Maybe the people manufacturing and selling these new-retro consoles know something I don’t… maybe younger people could get into these old games, and save them from disappearing out of collective gamer awareness.

Have you bought or played any of the these new-retro systems?

Duck Hunt & My Childhood Existential Crisis

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I was a sensitive child.  As I’ve disclosed previously, I was scared of my first Nintendo Entertainment System.  Which is entirely reasonable when you consider that it was inhabited by a ghost that took control of Mario whenever I turned my attention away for a few moments.  However, that NES console provoked more than terror in me; it also precipitated what was likely my first existential crisis.  What exactly was it that deformed my previously compact and self-contained mind into a warping tunnel extending infinitely in all directions into time and space?  It was Duck Hunt.

I was five years old.  Prior to my discovery of the Mario-demo-ghost, I spent some time playing Duck Hunt.  Undoubtedly sitting a mere few feet from the screen, clutching the futuristic NES Zapper gun*, shooting green and purple pixelated ducks and relishing triumph with my co-conspirator, the hound.  Soon I had gotten good enough to zap easily through the first few levels.

As I reached whatever I considered at the time to be a high level (was it five? ten? I don’t know), it seemed to me that the game should, at some point, reach its conclusion.  That was how games worked.  They had endpoints.  In the other NES game I played, Mario Bros., every level had a clear endpoint and I confidently believed that were I skilled enough, I could reach the end of the game.  For whatever reason, I did not have this sense with Duck Hunt.  Maybe it was the repetitiveness of the levels.  So although I lacked the vocabulary and theoretical reasoning to properly articulate this thought, I began to fear that Duck Hunt was infinite.  In the clearly-delineated world of a five-year-old, the concept of infinity may exist in some vague form (the sky never ends!).  However, the idea that I could keep shooting ducks for ever and ever, and the game would keep playing that bit of jaunty music and loading a new level, brought the concept of endlessness crashing down onto me with a force that shook me to my very core.

I asked my mother when the game would end.  She said that if I turned off the Nintendo, the game would be over.  She did not understand.

I had to put my theory to the test, and find out if Duck Hunt was, in fact, infinite.  To accomplish this, I could not trust my still-developing hand-eye coordination and risk a few missed shots resulting in game over and an aborted experiment.  I moved in and put that orange muzzle right against the screen.  I zapped through level after level, struggling against a crescendo of anxiety.  I reached higher levels than ever before, and by the time the erratically-flying ducks got fast enough to end my close-up game, I felt queasy with incomprehension.  It was clearly true: the game was infinite.

I tried to understand.  I liked things that I could understand.  I knew that if I understood, I would feel more comfortable.  But I just couldn’t.  I felt tiny and insignificant in the face of this eternal game.  I closed my eyes and imagined the ducks flying, falling, held as trophies by the hound.  More ducks, more music, the hound sniffing the ground and leaping into the grass to begin a new level, ducks flying, ducks falling, over and over and over.  I tried to come to terms with the idea that this process could go on forever.  What would happen to a person who just kept playing?  Would they stop eating and starve?  Would they actually die?  I believed that they might.  Who would create such a sinister game?  What were their motives?  And I wondered most desperately… what did forever actually mean?

I did not resolve these questions.  I stopped playing Duck Hunt.  I turned my attention to Super Mario Bros… and we know how that turned out.  My video game career was off to a rocky start, but in retrospect, I think it was ultimately a positive thing for me to be so truly affected by my early gaming experiences.

By the way, a quick Wiki search has finally put my mind at ease… Duck hunt glitches out at level one hundred.  Phew.

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(*It wasn’t until a brief resurgence of interest in Duck Hunt during my high school years that I ever considered the mechanics of the gun, and realized that it works by acting as an input – registering the area on the tv screen at which it is pointed in order to determine if a shot is a hit or miss.  This realization came in a flash of clarity, and once again, Duck Hunt had succeeded in making me question everything in the world I took for granted… for example, that a gun is fundamentally an output device.)