BioShock (360) – Mid-game Thoughts

I’ve gotten about 8 hours under my belt with BioShock, and while I posted some comments over at Shacknews, I think I’ve got a few more things nailed down about something that pokes me the wrong way about this game.

First, the game itself is visually stunning and beautiful.  Graphics are just fine, but the architecture and details of Rapture are just amazing.  The environmental immersion is excellently done.  From this standpoint, there’s no question about why this game works.

Now that I have opened up some more of the features (eg. the camera to do research to gain bonuses, the Gene Swap machines, buying extra slots for plasmids), the game play is very deep.  There is no one way to take down foes between physical weapons and your enhanced powers, alongside the security systems you can play with.  I’ve not hit the machines that allow you to use junk collected to make new things, but I am pretty sure that that only helpens to deepen the gameplay.  And it’s not too much stuff either: as the game has to be playable on a console, the number of input functions has to remain small, and to have too many deep gameplay features would have made this more difficult.  From this aspect, the game is super great.

However, here’s my list of nits that I haven’t seen too many others pick up on, if any:

– To this point, I feel like I’m playing a standard FPS “on a rail” game, in that while I’m open-ended in how I use my various powers and equipment to take down foes, at the end, I’m still getting the key from a boss to open the door to the next area.   I realize the game is trying to tell a story, and so railing the player is needed, but many of the reviews I read spoke of the game being more open-ended in the exploration.   Yes, I realize that I will be able to return to areas using the transit system later in the game, but I’m more speaking of having maybe two routes to a destination, one that may be filled with Splicers, another that requires dealing with security systsems, and allow me to pick which way I want to go.   There’s little beyond the rail that you ride on that if you did take away the deep gameplay provided by the various powers and equipment you get, you get a pretty but bland FPS.  I was hoping for a bit more in this aspect.

– I’m surprised there is no inventory limit.  While a bitch to deal with in System Shock 2, it was one of the more strategic elements of the game.  Now, here, I can button mash through boxes to pick up anything and everything they contain, and while a couple of items have a counterbalancing effect (liquid that improves EVE while nixing health, for example), the effects are so small that all I know is that I want to collect anything.  With SS2, you had to decide on weapons, ammo, and other details to carry around that made the gameplay much more tactile.  Now, I would argue also that this may have been omitted because dealing with inventory in this game on the 360 would have not been easy to do: all the buttons are already mapped, so it would have to be a screen accessed by the back button, and knowing how much fun dealing with that in Oblivion was, I can see where they omitted it.  But, it would have been nice to have some limitation.

– I would have liked stealth to be more useful and necessary to the game.  Yes, you can sneak around and do more damage to opponents if they are unaware, and there’s security cameras to avoid, but again, compared to System Shock 2, the need of stealth is very low.  Camera tripping is very forgiven (Medium difficulty, natch), you can make a lot of noise and Splicers won’t notice you until you are really close, and the like.   More specifically, I haven’t seen the rewards of being stealthy verses being brash beyond taking a little bit less damage (which the Vita-Chamber regeneration system nixes somewhat).   I don’t want something like Thief (all stealth), but something closer to both System Shock 2 and Deus Ex, a good mix of action and stealth.

– I guess what hits me the most is that there’s a shock value for this game: how to deal with Little Sisters, the results of the downfall of Rapture, and so forth.   I know I willing subjected myself to pre-press about the game, but I wonder how much the gaming magazines pushed this game because when I started playing, I didn’t feel the shock value that I was expecting.  Knowing the connection between Little Sisters and Big Daddies, and a few other such details, caused me to take the first sight of such a pairing for granted instead of being in awe, as the press seemed to suggest you would be.   I don’t know if the high praise for the game combined with this raised my expectations too high, or if I did ruin it for myself by reading too much, but I feel that something beyond the game’s control in the press did not help to keep the details of the game sufficiently quiet so that there would still be that shock value when playing.

I’m certainly not saying this is a bad game.  And while I know PC owners are fuming over the widescreen and activation issues, I’m not letting that cloud my judgment (note the 360 in the title of my comments here).  It’s definitely one of the better games I’ve played in a long time, but I wonder if the press is treating this game just a bit too special – of what I played, it’s not yet deserving of the near perfect grades, as there’s just enough “off” within the game that could have been added without changing too much else to really tighten the game up.

Persona 3 (PS2) – Midgame Thoughts

With a tad under 20 hrs under my belt for this game, I’ve got a better feel for it.

The game is closer to a roguelike random dungeon crawl game (like Nethack or Angband) than your typical RPG – basically, you’re not wandering a large overworld, and there’s only one dungeon with about 200+ floors which you need to tackle progressively as your party gains levels, and the like.  A handful of levels have minibosses and special teleports to allow you to move to those levels quickly if needed (eg saving before the minibosses), but progression in the tower is limited by events that happen with the game timeline.  Specifically, each full moon within the game brings a major attack (larger boss battle) which plays more like a traditional RPG and once that’s cleared a barrier in the dungeon opens to allow further exploration.  Between that and the ability for your party to become tired and thus less effective in battle keeps the pacing of moving through the dungeon at a limited pace.  The major nit I have so far is that between these tiers (separated by these barriers) the difficulty of the monsters takes a noticable jump instead of the smoother change within a tier.  I had about 5 or 6 times where I was progressing past this tier for the first time and hit a stack of monsters that had insta-death spells or multiple opponent attacks and died (annoying, if your character dies, that’s Game Over, even though you can revive dead players).   I found that it’s necessary to delve about as far as you can feel comfortable, even if that doesn’t get you to one of the trigger points, and then go back, save, rest up, regroup, collect recovery items, and all the usual bookkeeping needed in the game before trying to delve again.  This approach, it took me 3 tries to get to the next teleport point, and I gained a good deal of leveling for it.

Then outside of the dungeon, you have to go around and make friendships with fellow classmates and other people in the town.  Each of them represent one of the major arcana in the tarot, and for each social link level, you gain access to another Persona of that arcana.  Thing is, you start to have the same problems you have with The Sims in balancing which relation you develop, but fortunately, at least as far as I can tell, these can’t go backwards, so it’s just a matter of finding the time do a bit of something with everyone.

The Personas ALMOST work like Materia from FF7 – the one active at the end of battle gains experience which can give them new powers, and a special room allows you to create new ones by fusing 2 or more together – though of course you need to be of sufficient level and have the right arcana to hold it.  These use up the existing personas but there’s a registry that you save Personas and then spend cash to pull them out after they’ve been exhausted by fusion.  You also are limited in the number of Personas you have equipped, so the game encourages you to keep making new ones as you go along.

The game mechanics are definitely interesting, but they do allow the game to fall into a bit of a rut as between dungeon diving and dealing with friends, it’s pretty much the same.  The overarcing plot isn’t very deep (as yet) which at least makes the game easy to digest in small chunks, so I’m not worried about rushing to finish this one  before some of the big games start coming out this week – it’s a title I’ll be able to step back to after I finish those.  (Normally, I like to finish an RPG all the way through, but I don’t believe I need to worry too much about this this time.)

Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm (PS2) – Mid-game Thoughts

So I’ve logged about 20hrs on the game now, more than the halfway point, and there’s definitely pluses and minuses for the game.

Pluses:

– The quest system is pretty good to fill in the game where the story can’t take  the game (that is, the main story to this point is not all-encompassing, yet).  Since you can take many quests at a time, you can be efficient in running between the Alterworlds (read: monster fields) and complete many quests at the same time.  Mind you, certain missions (which are at the culmination of each “chapter”) only start once you’ve either raised your Guild level by taking enough quests, or by increasing your alchemy level through items you gain by exploring specific Alterworlds and through recipes you learn as rewards for quests.  I’m sure that there’s a logical reason for how the quests are given such that the player can always achieve the levels that he or she needs.

– The combat system is actually pretty good.  The Burst mode, which you get by achieving lots of hits on your foes while avoiding hits from them, is usually necessary for strong monsters and bosses, and thus figuring out how to manage your party to get there as fast as possible is necessary.   You also need to take in the various resistances and weaknesses that the monsters have; I had one battle take me about 15 minutes of gameplay because I had to figure out the right order to hit one of three baddies with different resistances and their own healing powers.

Minuses:

– The alchemy side feels even more dumbed down compared to the first game.  You gain recipes through play, and then you are always given an option of switching ingredients with knowledge of creating a new recipe with certain ingredients.  (for example, a recipe that uses a fire stone to make a fire ring is obviously adjustable to make an ice ring by using an ice stone).    Basically, to expand the alchemy “cookbook”, you just need to see what ingredients are switchable and work from there.  In Atelier Iris 2, there was the ability to work with property reviews (inherent properties of items that contributed to certain stats or abilities, eg: HP+(S) gave a small gain to hit points) on base items to make even stronger more complex items.  An example would be making a healing charm that used a healing potion as it’s base: if you figured a way to combine a lot of high HP properties, you’d make an extremely powerful ring.  This sorta exists here, but the amount of materials and reviews available is so limited that it feels there’s only small changes that I can eventually make on the more complex items.   I though that the alchemy part of the Atelier Iris series was one of the better parts, but it’s very weak here.

– A lot of repetition in terms of getting around town and some of the Alterworlds.  The town does provide boats to get to certain points quickly but still, there’s time to get there.  Most of the Alterworlds have key points that are several screens into the level, and though a few provide shortcuts that you can use later in the game, it’s still rather boring to work through them; at least the wandering monsters that are visible have a color associated with them depending on their power relative to your parties, and blue monsters, the weakest, you can destroy without entering battle just by hitting them with a sword, so you don’t have to wade through endless battles to get to certain points.

The Darkness (360) – Mid-game Thoughts

I was worried before about this game not offering much, but there’s actually a pretty good bit of content here.  The game does a good job of keeping a story telling pace while keeping the action going at the same time.  It’s got a Max Payne head-warping feel to it, particularly with at least two sets of areas that are completely unexpected for the setting that you’re introduced to.  I also like how, while being an FPS, it had small but simple side quests that help give the game more depth.

And yes, the latter powers that you get are pretty damn impressive.  “Black Hole” may be fireflower-cheap, but it’s got its drawbacks, and its quite fun to watch ragdoll physics at work.

.hack//G.U. Volume 2 (PS2) – Mid-game Thoughts (~17hr)

Not much to say on this right now beyond the fact that I’m burning through this – the gameplay is not hard at all except that you just need to make sure that you have a healer with a lot of spell point revival items along for the ride.

I’m also finding what is sort of annoying me about the story with this one.  Specifically, there’s basically three different plots with some intermeshing between them due to the AIDA infection: one is the two “bumbling idiots” that seem more oblivious to the overall problems with “The World R:2” and want to keep playing the game, another is the GU team with Kuhn and Pi to take care of the AIDA infection, and the third is the Atoli story which involves the player tournaments.  Basically, each ‘mission’ seems to switch between these, some forgotten for several missions, which makes the whole thing right now disjointed.   I’m expecting that there will be a tie-up of these by the third volume, but right now, it’s very soap-opera-ish.

I will also say that I think after all three volumes are said and done, this is a game that could have been shipped as a single 2-disc set (size for voice acting and CGI moives), because the gameplay doesn’t warrant the size.  The full set may end up being a 75hr game, but compared to other games boasting 80+ hrs of gameplay, that’s nothing.

But, if you’re going to play this without playing the first volume of the GU series, bad idea.  It also helps to have played the first series.  The anime series, at least, is optional.

Rogue Galaxy (PS2) – Mid-Game Thoughts (~20hr)

I’ve hit the point in Rogue Galaxy where I’ve gotten all the features of the game explained and/or unlocked, most which are pretty cool… however, the general structure of the game of the common gameplay and combat is starting to wear rather thin.

As mentioned, combat occurs in real time as you explore the level; when the undetectable random monster encounters occur, and you immediately switch to fighting mode, this is normally a plus since there’s no pause between exploring and combat.  However, the levels are very rectalinear, generally a number of long corridors with right turns even in natural settings (there are some levels that are much wider and open, but are still mostly linearly).  Add that there’s a lot of repeated textures and structural elements that make it hard, without the minimap, to determine where you are.

The combat also tends to get very repetitive.  Of all the foes, excluding bosses, there’s only maybe 6 different types of enemies, including those that require you to break their sheild in one of three possible ways.  Obviously, the monsters have different appearances, elemental resistances and weaknesses, and overall hit points, but…It’s basically not a huge amount of difference when you get in battle.

Maintaining your character is taking a lot of work; trying to keep track of your weapons and the “synthesis” feature to keep them up just takes time and while the game tries to show you the pertinent information  after each battle, but just the general organization of some of the inventory screens doesn’t make it easy.  The Revelations chart, which is also a great idea, takes just a notch too much work to keep up to date.  The concepts are nice, I think the UI handles badly for this.

It also feels like the overall story is going to be short, judging by where I am and how powerful my characters are.  I mean, I could get 40hrs out of the game, but compared to a 40hr Final Fantasy game or Tales of the Abyss which I just finished, I feel cheated on story.  There’s a balance that seems to be lacking here.

Super Paper Mario (Wii) – Mid-Game Thoughts (~50%)

Just completed the 4th world today, so I know I’m at 50% for the game.

First of all, this is a great game.  However…

I think this is a game that came with expectations, and while it’s meeting those in spades, there’s just something… different about the game.

It’s definitely not a pure platformer.  Those hoping for such will be disappointed.  There’s not a lot of challenging platforming elements in the form of jumps over bottomless pits, masses of foes, or the like.

It’s also not an RPG.  This isn’t “1000-yr door” either.

It truly is a .. “meeting” of both.  “Mix” isn’t the right word, as the resulting game is very hard to separate the line from platformer and RPG, and as such, I have a feeling people expecting one or the other are going to be disappointed, to some degree.  The resulting genre is still good, but basically has the problem of trying to be what seems to be a fast paced action game burdened with a lot of dialog-heavy scenes.  “1000-yr door” being more an RPG, worked fine as I expected that much.

If you can get over that, the game has some very nice mechanics.   The whole 2D/3D thing is both implemented well in terms of controls (basically which only use the remote as a classic NES controller with a few motion moves at times), and in terms of gameplay elements, with the need to switch dimension modes a lot to proceed.   Basically, if you think you’re stuck, you just switch to 3D and there’s usually a hint, at worst, of what to do next.  Mind you, a few areas are a bit mazelike, so switching back and forth to find the next place may take some time (4 worlds took me about 6 hrs, so you get an idea of that).  As you also can switch who you control in your party as well as what special power you get via companions called Pixls, there’s a lot of possible ways to approach some puzzles.  Of course, my biggest annoyance here is that you have to bring up the menu every time to switch, when it would have been nice to have at least one of these on a control if possible.

Dialog and other additions are pretty good (3rd world is a geek’s fantasy, for example), but again, it is very talk heavy for what’s really hard to call an RPG.

So it’s definitely a good game, but, I think it’s very different than I anticipated, and while I’m not disappointed, I know there were those hoping for a lot more platformer action than this game really allows.