Seething Cauldron of Pop Culture Talk

Irascible Analysis of Popular Culture

Ranking: 3D Western RPGs

1. Fallout 3 [9.5]
2. Mass Effect 2 [9.5]
3. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion [9.0]
4. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines [9.0]
5. Mass Effect 1 [8.5]
6. Borderlands [8.5]
7. Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind [8.5]
8. Dragon Age [8.5]
9. Knights of the Old Republic [8.5]
10. The Witcher [8.5]
11. Titan Quest [8.5]
12. King’s Bounty: The Legend/Armored Princess [8.5]
13. Neverwinter Nights 2 [8.0]
14. Alpha Protocol [8.0]
15. Dungeon Siege II [8.0]
16. Torchlight [8.0]
17. Spell Force 2: Shadow Wars [8.0]
18. Drakensang [8.0]
19. Jade Empire [8.0]
20. Sacred 2: Fallen Angel [7.5]
21. Two Worlds [7.5]
22. Mount & Blade [7.0]
23. Risen [7.0]
24. Dungeon Lords [5.0]
25. Gothic 3 [4.0]

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June 29, 2010 Posted by | Games | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retro Night: Deception III: Dark Delusion

Tecmo’s Deception series, which began with Tecmo’s Deception: Invitation to Darkness in July 1996, is a realtime strategy RPG series which focuses on more passive combat. The latest in the series Trapt, the fourth titles, was released in June 2005 for the PS2. In between the first and the fourth came the third: Deception III: Dark Delusion, the last for the original Playstation. Unfortunately, very little information is available online regarding who the top minds behind the series are or whatever else they’ve worked on.

What sets the Deception series apart from other action/strategy-RPGs is that main character is physically weak. To make up for this, the character has a magical ability that allows them to spawn various insidious traps to deal with invaders. The third game, starring a young girl named Reina who is pursued by the forces of a tyrannical king, is mission-based, with each mision providing different locations and different types of enemies to deal with. Variety comes through in the number of different traps and situations you can engineer, and in setting up and executing a perfect series of traps that Rube Goldberg would be proud of. It does get fairly repetitive after only a few missions as the game has just one gameplay idea which is continues from start to finish, but it doesn’t necessarily make the game boring as it does that idea fairly well. Controlling Reina in the level is a bit clunky, due to the tank-like movement, but setting up and setting off the various traps is easy and intuitive. Aside from the three trap types that Reine can summon [floor, wall, and ceiling], there are also a number of environmental hazards such as a candelabra that can be dropped on enemies, a collapsible bridge, and other death-dealing devices that can be set off.

The game does have a story, told through cutscenes in-between missions, but it’s kind of hard to get a feeling for what’s really going on. In part because it probably doesn’t make much sense anyway, but also because the translation is a very poor one riddled with grammatical errors and just being badly written overall. It’s not a major issue because story isn’t too important in a game like this, but it is annoying because of how many cutscenes there are in this game. They’re also fairly simple, mainly comprised of people standing around talking about this or that. You can probably just skip them and not feel as though you’ve really missed anything important.

The graphics are nicely detailed for a PS1 game and the character models have a somewhat Vagrant Story-look about them, although that’s about as far as the comparison between the two games goes. The game has music, but I honestly can’t remember much about it. It’s at least not annoying, so that’s something.

Deception III is a darkly fun game. Some of the traps you can string together are works of brutal beauty. On the other hand, the gameplay gets a bit repetitive after only a few missions and there’s not much on offer aside from setting up traps and killing people in ingenious manners. It’s $15 on Amazon, which is probably too much.

May 12, 2010 Posted by | Games, Retro Night | , , | Leave a comment

Nostalgia Challenge: Shadow Madness

Now here is a title that, by all rights, should have long since been consigned to the dustbin of history. The graphics are atrocious in every possible way, the story is well-worn at best, the characters paper-thin, the CG is ugly, the combat is dull and repetitive, and…so on. Most of the major aspects that people point to when speaking of the greats of the RPG genre are all, at best, sub-par here, so why bring it up again so long after its release and financial bomb? Well…there’s just something about it. Shadow Madness was born out of Square translator Ted Woolsey’s Craveyard studio, which was shuttered in 1999 after the release of its only title, which was also parent company Crave Entertainment’s first title. Also of note, Paul Reed, designed for Metroid Prime, was responsible for the game’s story.

Well, with that out of the way, let’s get down to why the game is being brought up some eleven years after its release. I bought it back when it first came out, during a phase where I was inclined to purchase anything from the RPG genre that was released for the PS1. That included a few that really weren’t very good. I recall playing it some back then, but I don’t think I ever go to the second disc. It was somewhat fun then, but it eventually got put away and I haven’t been back to it a good number of years.

On May 10, 2010, I played it again. When I stopped, I found that nearly two hours had passed, almost without me realizing that I’d spent that much time with the game. In part, I think I can attribute some of this to the graphics no longer really being a major factor. Yes, it still looks quite awful today, but all the other PS1 games I’ve been playing lately look rather dated themselves, even the graphics powerhouses of their day. FF7 has blocky characters and highly compressed CG, but it’s still a good game, you know? It’s the same concept, although you really have to take it a bit farther with Shadow Madness.

To make a long story short, Shadow Madness gets by on its quirky nature and humorous dialog, which works far better than when it tries to be serious and generally fails. While all other components of the game have failed it utterly, the game’s writing saves the day and somehow makes the whole thing worthwhile. It might simply be the contrast with the other PS1 RPGs, which have writing that often feels a bit stiff and overly formal. Shadow Madness plays things loose and isn’t afraid to get a bit silly at times. That’s actually kind of refreshing when you think about it. And…that’s what the game has going for it. That and nothing more, I’m afraid. But, oddly enough, that did me two hours in and I actually kind of want to play it some more tomorrow.

It’s currently being sold on Amazon for a little over $3, which is probably about what it’s worth.

May 10, 2010 Posted by | Games, Nostalgia Challenge | , , , , | Leave a comment

Retro Night: Planescape: Torment

There are people who will claim that Western RPGs peaked in the late 90’s and early 00’s, with BioWare, Black Isle, New World Computing, Sir-Tech, Origin, Sierra, and other’s putting out high quality entries in the genre with regularity. There’s no denying that many of those have been placed into the annals of videogame history as classic, but were games truly better then? Well, that’s a question for another blog entry, not for this one. Here we will focus on a single game from Interplay developer Black Isle. The title in question is one Planescape: Torment, based in the titular AD&D universe and headed by Chris Avellone [who went to Obsidian after Interplay folded and is currently working with fellow Black Isle-alum Josh Sawyer on Fallout: New Vegas].

The game begins with a man waking up in a strange mortuary, with no idea how he got there. Actually, he can’t remember a thing at all, not even his name. He quickly enlists the helping a talking skull named Morte who floats in the air. The two make their way out of the mortuary and into the city, where The Nameless One hopes to discover the reasons behind his lack of memories and his seeming immortality. Along the way, you’ll discovery some truly bizarre locations and equally bizarre characters. Much of the game is very heavily based on dialog, it’s even possible to talk your way out of many encounters, rather than resorting to violence. The game even goes so far as to have no penalty for being killed in combat. The Nameless One will simply respawn at a set location. You might be tempted to think that this makes for a very easy game, but that’s really not the case at all.

In a way, Planescape: Torment is almost more of an adventure game than it is an rpg [not of the point-and-click variety, of course], in that the game has a great focus on story and characters than it does on combat. Some will no doubt see this as a negative, but I see this as a positive. There are plenty of RPGs with great combat in them, if that’s what you’re truly looking for, but there are scant few RPGs with such amazing writing. The time it would have taken to put in a more complex combat system would have taken away from that writing, or at least placed less emphasis on it.

Unlike other RPGs, there are no traditional dungeons. The game takes place almost entirely in within populated areas, it’s just that some of those areas happen to have monsters or thugs in them. Sometimes you’ll even be attacked in broad daylight by thugs, right in front of dozens of people. It’s not all that common, but it happens. The plus side to this is that there’s virtually no dungeon crawling or pointless grinding to deal with, with I see as a plus.

The gameplay is real-time, point-and-click based combat seen in many other Black Isle titles like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. It’s possible to recruit seven different characters, but only five can accompany the main character. It’s clear from the outset that combat is not the main focus of this game, but that doesn’t mean that the combat is just thrown in with no regard. It works very well and there is some depth to it in terms of controlling a party of character in real-time and using their various talents to get through each battle you come across. The combat gets the job done and doesn’t get in the way.

Another area where the game truly shines is in the sound and music. Both of these elements are blended perfectly to create the feeling that you are actually in the places that you see on the screen. While walking through the city you can hear people talking and shouting to one another as their voices blend into a droning din, walk past a bar and you can hear the drunken patrons inside, and so on, all this is done to infuse the world with life. The music weaves through the sound in just the right way, fading when you’re just walking around and suddenly jumping to the forefront when battle is afoot. Although Black Isle was originally going to use a soundtrack by musician Lustmord, his soundtrack was pulled three weeks before the game was to be released so that Fallout-compose Mark Morgan could create an entirely new soundtrack that took the music of the game in a different direction.

The character, writing, and dialog are among the best that will find in any videogame, and the sound and music are no slouch either, Black Isle really went all out with this one and it shows. RPGs since Planescape: Torment have come out have attempted to recreate that depth and that degree of choice in the dialog trees, but most just haven’t even gotten close. Will companies like BioWare, Obsidian, and Bethesda bring RPGs back to this level of detail in the near future? Well, perhaps, but until they do, and even if they don’t, you can always keep playing the one that set the standard in the first place.

May 5, 2010 Posted by | Games, Retro Night | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SNES vs. Genesis: Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Hot of the heels of their roaring success with platformer Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega needed a follow-up that captured the appeal of the original but expanded upon the formula enough that it could still be just as fresh. This time around, members of Sonic Team [such as Yuji Naka and Hirokazu Yasuhara] traveled to the United States to work with a newly-formed development team known as Sega Technical Institute. The product of their labor, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, went on to sale six million copies and helped the Genesis catch up to the SNES in market share. It’s also been branded as one of the greatest videogames of all time, certainly no mean feat.

This time around, Sonic is joined by his pal Miles “Tails” Prower, a fox with two tails [hence the nickname], who aids Sonic by, mostly, providing moral support. However, Tails can, at times, accidentally attack the enemy. Usually he falls into a pit or walks directly into an enemy and dies, only to reappear a few moments later. He does prove his worth near the end, however, so I suppose he’s not entirely useless. Clever players will discover that Tails can be directly controller during singe player with the second player’s controller. There’s also a two-player race mode where Sonic and Tails race through various levels to see who can be the fastest, but everything gets really squashed during this mode and there’s a lot of slowdown, so I wouldn’t really recommend it.

This time around, the gameplay has been streamlined a bit and made a bit easier. Sonic can run much faster than before and there are various things that have been implemented to take advantage of this, such as more loops and twirls for Sonic to run through and less strategically placed enemies. In the first game, it was hard to get up a lot of sustained momentum because there was usually and enemy or a spike trap waiting just ahead, so you had to be very careful about how you used Sonic’s speed. That’s not the case with Sonic 2. But, that doesn’t mean that Sonic is just about running fast from one side of the level to the other, there’s still a great deal of platforming and quick-reflexes required. This is especially evident in levels like Oil Ocean Zone and Chemical Plant Zone which have large, sprawling levels and, in the case of the later, a number of insta-death pits places in the final third. Another addition is the ability to rev Sonic up by crouching and pressing the A button, allowing him to build up speed for a sudden burst. This is very useful for getting up steep inclines or powering through enemies. Much of the rest of the gameplay is very similar to the first title, you collect a lot of rings, jump on enemies, run really fast, and fight Dr. Robotnik at the end of every zone. That’s not a downside, of course, as the gameplay standard set by the original is one of the best in 2D platformers.

Both the graphics and the music have seen a considerable update for this sequel. The backgrounds and the foregrounds popout with detail, depth, and a vibrancy that many Genesis titles sorely lack. It wouldn’t be a stretch at all to say that this is one of the best looking Genesis games. As I stated before, Sonic moves even faster than before. For the most part, the Genesis has no trouble keeping up, although sometimes Sonic can get moving so fast that he actually starts to move ahead of the camera. This is usually the case most often when Sonic is going through a series of loops and doesn’t affect normal gameplay. The music, done again by Masato Nakamura, is absolutely one of best soundtracks ever made. Nearly every track is an all-time classic and each is highly memorable. On the technical front, it’s an absolute gem.

On a special note, one of the zones where the graphics, music, and gameplay gel the most is the Casino Night Zone. The two levels that comprise this zone is are just so absolutely brilliant. The way the skycrapers in the background shimmer in the night, the stars that pass by up in the sky, the sprawling, complex levels filled with bumpers, flippers, slot machines, and more. I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to say that the Casino Night Zone is one of my favorite levels in any platformer ever. Everything about it is just so good.

As I stated earlier, Sonic 2 is a bit easier than the original. It’s possible to store up a bevy of extra lives and extra continues without much effort at all, although it’s still very possible to lose all of them fighting the final boss. I certainly have on more than one occasion, but getting that far is not the Herculean effort that it is in many other Genesis platformers.

Bottom line: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is an all-time classic in every way and one of the greatest games ever made.

May 5, 2010 Posted by | Console Wars, Games | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

SNES vs. Genesis: Super Bonk

The Bonk series, beginning on various systems back in 1990, was a mainstay of the Turbo-Grafx, it was published by Hudson Soft after all, system for a number of years. Finally, in 1994, after seven entries, the franchise finally landed on the SNES. It also proved to be one of the last entries in the series as, for reasons unknown, it had one more sequel [Super Bonk 2, Japan-only] and the pretty much died out after that. There was a compilation or two and a collection of minigames features Bonk, but nothing like what it once had been. There is, however, a move to resurrect the series with a downloadable title in the works for the three major systems. All that aside, let’s focus on A.I Company’s last, major effort on the series: Super Bonk.

At first the gameplay in Super Bonk seems very familiar. Like any good platformer, you move from one side of the level to the other while fighting or avoiding bad guys and picking items and other trinkets along the way. Super Bonk is no different in this regard, but it does have three different forms for the main protagonist, Bonk, and three different sizes that he can grow or shrink to depending in which type of candy he eats. These forms and sizes have different functions and serve to make the game more interesting. Just in terms of gameplay, this is about all the Super Bonk offers in terms of being unique from other platformers. However, that’s not the end of the story. The way the levels are made and how unique and wild they are is pretty impressive. Each one seems to flow into the next and there are often a number of different way to finish each level, including entirely different paths. There are also a number of special stages scattered around, which are accessed by finding an item that looks like a flower. The special stages are fairly short, but mix things up by offering something different from just the usual platforming. It’s easy to dismiss Super Bonk after a few minutes as just another derivative platformer, but if you spend enough time with it you’ll find yourself playing more and more. It’s very deceptive like that.

The graphics are decent enough, but lack the color and detail of many other SNES platformers. It’s not a huge concern, but it’s something worth noting. The music is likewise decent, but nothing that really stands out.

Difficult is fairly low, even for a SNES platformer. In all the time spent playing I died just once, during a boss fight, and I was able to pick up an extra life along the way to replace it around the same time. It’s a bit on the easy side, but still quite fun. Although I wouldn’t call this an all-time classic, it’s a platformer that has stood the test of time and remains a fun diversion.

May 4, 2010 Posted by | Console Wars, Games | , , , , | Leave a comment

Retro Night: Legend of Mana

Fourth in the Mana series, Legend of Mana takes a somewhat strange turn for the series by introducing elements and design choices that take it far from its roots and make it into something truly special. This is another of Square’s late-90’s efforts and it was directed by Koichi Ishii, who headed up the several entires in the Mana series and Final Fantasy XI as well as creating moogles and chocobos. The title was later retconned out of the main-line Mana series as Dawn of Mana was official dubbed Seiken Densetsu 4 in Japan. Well, politics aside, let’s get down to business.

One of the most obvious features of Legend of Mana is that it features not earth-shattering, apocalyptic storyline, like so many RPGs do. Here it’s a very thin thing, you choose from one of two characters and then set out in the world to meet people, go on quests, and help rebuild the world. The latter comes in the form of special items that you receive for accomplishing various things. Once the items are “planted” on the overworld map, a new location springs up for you to explore at your leisure. Leisure is a good word to use here because everything about Legend of Mana is very leisurely. There’s nothing pushing you forward with great speed, it’s all at your own pace.

Much of the “story” in the titles comes from standalone quests that you will go on with various companions. Generally you’ll find people in the various towns who need help with something and it’s up to you to help them. Some of these quests include a warrior is looking for a female friend of his who has gone missing, a merchant who is afraid of travelling the dangerous roads alone, and the many adventures of a band of pirates and their captain. There are also the three main storylines, which, upon the completion of one, the player will have the option to continue playing or to begin the final quest. It’s really up to each player to determine how much of the game they want to complete. Personally, I’d be more inclined to finish all of them first.

The gameplay is similar to other entries in the Mana series in that it’s realtime. You have direct control of the main character and the computer controls any companions you may have along with you. Any enemies that are defeated spew out money and experience crystals, grab the crystals as quickly as you can so that you can level up. And I say quickly because Legend of Mana supports two players and you don’t want your buddy snatching up those precious crystals instead. Think fast!

Where the titles truly shines is in the music and the graphics. The former, courtesy of Yoko Shimomura, is beautiful and filled with tracks that are perfectly designed to fit the mood of each situation they appear in. The town themes are particularly good and have a calm, soothing quality to them that’s a perfect match for the overall tone of the series. The graphics are sprite-based rather than the 3D prerendered backgrounds of many PS1 RPGs and I really think this choice compliments that game very well. The sprites are highly detailed and have a warm, inviting look to them. Many of the locations look absolutely breathtaking, in a way that the other techniques of the day simply couldn’t replicate.

Some people are going to be put off by the aimless plot and leisurely tone of this game, this certainly wasn’t an uncommon opinion when the game was first released in July 1999. While I won’t begrudge anyone their opinion and I can even understand where they might be coming from, I just don’t agree with it. I like it because of those things and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Somehow, everything about it seems so much more genuine, if that makes any sense.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | Games, Retro Night | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retro Night: Parasite Eve

I’ve been working my way through the PS1’s massive catalog of titles for the past few days and one titles that I landed on and have gotten hooked by is Parasite Eve. This action-RPG, headed up by Takashi Tokita [known for heading Chrono Trigger, Live A Live, and The Bouncer], is based on a book of the same name by Hideaki Sena. The game, released by Square in March 1998, takes some liberties with the story, liberties which also make it a bit unique among RPGs. In Parasite Eve, rookie cop Aya Brea goes to see a play at Carnegie Hall. While there, things take a turn for the worse when opera-goers suddenly burst into flame, everyone except Aya and the lead actress in the play, a woman named Melissa. A Japanese RPG set in modern-day New York? You heard right.

The plot is a bit ridiculous, even for science-fiction. Mitochondria are trying to take over the world, apparently, because they’re tired of being slaves to humans. See, they control every aspect of life, due to their being a source of energy and evolutions and so on, but they evolve faster than people, so now they’ve evolved to the point where they’re not just going to sit back and be our slaves. Their main weapons seem to be either lighting people are fire and burning them to goo or turning them into twisted caricatures of their former selves. Most of the characters are basically cop-drama stereotypes, like the veteran cop who’s black or the overweight chief and so on. It’s better than the animu-inspired hijinks seen in later RPGs, so I suppose I won’t bag on PE’s story too much.

The gameplay is similar to Vagrant Story, which came out two years later, but is considerably more basic. Battles are random, but are a combination of real-time and turn-based. There is an active time bar, like in Final Fantasy, but the player is free to move around the battlefield while the bar fills. Often it’s possible to avoid enemies attacks altogether. Aya’s main weapons are various pistols and machine guns, although she does have a back up club in case her ammo runs out. She also has very “magic spells” that she can cast during combat to heal or call up information about monsters. Keys are also important in Parasite Eve, as the place you need to go is often behind a locked door, but it’s nowhere near as bad as in games like Resident Evil. The keys usually aren’t difficult to find. All guns and armor can be upgraded by using tools, which are found in various locations, to take the stat boosts that have been put on one piece of equipment and then transferring them to another. The piece of equipment that the stat boost is transferred from is destroyed after the transfer, so be careful. Experience is gained through battles and levelling up boosts Aya’s stats and bestows bonus points. These bonus points can be used to boost the the stats on weapons and armor or increase the speed of the auto-time battle gauge.

Parasite Eve’s overworld is the entire city of New York, although only certain locations are available to travel to through the use of your partner’s police cruiser. The hub is the precinct station, where you can take a break from fighting, get new equipment, and store items that you don’t currently need. It’s also here that mission information is handed out, which gives you an idea of where you need to go next.

The graphics are similar to the PS1-era Final Fantasies, in that it features 3D characters against prerendered backgrounds. It also features a number of CG cutscenes scattered around to spice things up. Overall, it looks decent enough, about what you’d expect from a PS1 titles from 1998. The soundtrack, by Yoko Shimamura [best known for her work on Super Mario RPG, Legend of Mana, and the Kingdom Heart series], is very good, with a number of memorable tracks. There’s no voice acting and the sound effects get the job done, but aren’t anything special.

Parasite Eve isn’t particularly difficult and it’s fairly short, you could probably beat it in a day if you really set your mind to it. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting title and a unique entry into the JRPG genre. It’s worth checking out for the $20 that a used copy will warrant on Amazon.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | Games, Retro Night | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment