Monday, December 30, 2013

2014 Movies Preview: What I'm Seeing and Why

As I grow older there's one thing I keep noticing is happening. I'm going to the movies less and less. Part of it is time, another is money, but most importantly there's interest. I'm finding myself less and less interested in what's coming out each year. Still somehow 2014 is pulling together some great looking stuff, surprisingly. Much of it I plan on seeing whether it's in theatres or via Redbox. In the end here is my "new years resolution" of new movies for the coming year.
Also these are only going to be movies with a set date. Yes there are other titles that may be set for 2014 but are still in development so it's hard to guarantee. I just want to talk about what IS set. Then at the end of the year I can do a "review" of sorts.

-The Lego Movie: I don't really watch trailers anymore. Mainly because I pretty much know what I do and don't want to see based on other means like prior knowledge to the project, buzz, opinions from friends, etc. At first I thought this was going to be a disaster waiting to happen. Looked like a cash in project from a distance. But then I saw the trailer before a screening of Despicable Me 2 (I think it was) and I was proven wrong. This looks like an excellent, animated movie being done the way it should be, in stop motion with actual Lego pieces. I'm in.

-Noah: Darren Aronofsky is one of my favorite directors. So far I have liked all of his movies on one level or another. So when he comes out with something new I'm like a Star Wars fan when a new edition comes out. Regardless of how it looks I'm gonna check it out. This one I am a little hesitant about, though. Can't say I'm much of a Russel Crowe fan, so that's a bad sign. Also I heard rumors that test screenings, while leaving an overall positive response from Christian and Jewish audiences (aka the target audience), also seemed to present Noah as a mega environmentalist. As opposed to, you know, following through with the direct message he received from God to save all the creatures of the Earth. So here's hoping with a slight worry it may turn out bad. May just wait for Redbox on this one.

-Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Easy explanation. First Captain America was good fun as were all the other recent Marvel flicks. Didn't need to see the trailer but it was shown before Thor 2 and this looks bad ass. Looks like more of the same that we saw in Iron Man, The Avengers, Thor, etc, and that is just fine. Not everything has to blow our hair back with innovation. Sometimes more of the same is a good thing. Sometimes 'fun' is enough for 2+ hours in the theatre.

-Rio 2: I have a special fondness for Rio. Something I share with my wife. And while I love the first one I can't imagine it would have been the same if I didn't watch it with her. This will definitely be a date movie for the two of us (as weird as that may sound to some, going to see a kids movie). I just hope it has the quality of a sequel like Despicable Me 2. They should have plenty of new material to work with since Blu and Jewel got together in the last one and had kids. If anything the movie will be very cute to watch and enjoy.

-Godzilla: Holy fuck I am excited! I would say this is what I'm most excited for over the rest. We've been missing out on a lot of Godzilla theatrically for over a decade. The last one to be released here in theatres was Godzilla 2000 and was very poorly received. Before that was the Matthew Broderick American version that was so bad that most fans, and Toho themselves don't even consider it a real interpretation of Godzilla (I don't and it will never hold a place in my Godzilla collection). Then there was Godzilla 1985 but was was re-edited from the Japanese film, The Return of Godzilla. Same goes for Godzilla King of the Monsters from 1956 which was re-edited for American release. What I'm trying to say is that ALL theatrical releases of Godzilla here have either been re-cut, terrible remakes, or bad examples of what can be done in Japan. So for what I hope will be an amazing Godzilla movie to be finally making it's way here is a joy. This is definitely one I plan on seeing opening weekend. Not something I do very often anymore. But for this I will as with one more on this list.

-How to Train Your Dragon 2: Pretty much same reason I'll be seeing Rio 2. A movie I share a special connection with, with my wife. However I did like Rio more than HTTYD. And I feel this one has a slightly better chance (is that the right word to use?) of not being as good as the original. But the first one was far better than I read about so I'm ready for this one to potentially surprise me again.

-The Expendables 3: The last two were fucking awesome! Most of the original cast returns with some new, old faces like Wesley Snipes and Antonio Banderas. I can't get enough of these movies and their testosterone fueled action that makes me want to go home and lift weights or do anything generally manly. Opening weekend just like the last two entries in the franchise. I will be there, I guarantee it!

-Sin City: A Dame to Kill For: A sequel we've been waiting quite a while for. The first one came out almost a decade ago. It blew my hair back in it's general amazing-ness. I have never read the comics but I thought it was great none the less. Knowing there is a lot of source material left I know A Dame to Kill For won't be just a cash in. They'll use real material right from the comics. That and it's being done by Robert Rodriguez again with further collaboration with Frank Miller, the original creator of the comics. I haven't seen a second of footage but if it's half as good as the first one was, we're in for a great sequel.

-Interstellar: Dear Christopher Nolan. I loved Memento, I thought Insomnia was pretty good, and Batman Begins blew my hair back as did Inception. While I think your ego gets stroked just a little too much by your fans and by your own hand I do have one wish to request. Please deliver with Interstellar. All I've seen is your teaser trailer and you've already got my money. Give me some old school sci-fi. Something about real space travel. Not something with crazy aliens and intergalactic trade federations. Give me something in a similar tone as 2001 and Solaris. Something long, dull, boring, and immersive as hell just like (what I'm sure) real space travel is like. Give me a reason to care about every little discovery your astronauts make. Don't make this a big budget SyFy channel movie. Make this a space drama. A drama we haven't gotten in a long time. If you can do that I will promise to keep my faith in every project you do after this. With all my love...

-The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1: Seen the first one multiple times and I did see Catching fire. Both are very entertaining and very exciting movies. While to me the ultimate fight to the death for the sake of a sick sport movie goes to Battle Royale, I still like these. I'm curious what happens next so this is on my radar for sure. I know a lot of people complain that these movies among others are being split into multiple parts, but I think it's great and should continue to be a trend. Sure it costs more but we get more of the story instead of a compact, less exciting 2 hour movie. Not always a blessing, but HP7 was a lot more exciting because of it as I'm sure Mockingjay will be.

-The Hobbit: There and Back Again: Have seen the full Lord of the Rings Trilogy as well as the two movies that came before this one. If this is anything like the last two I'm sure I'll find it to be pretty entertaining. Not a big fan of this franchise, but enough to let my butt go numb from 3 hours in the movie theatre. That and I liked the cliffhanger the last one left us with, even though it doesn't take too much thinking to figure out what happens. But it's the ride that counts, not always the ending.

And of course some commentary on other titles coming out.

The first that comes to mind is Paranormal Activity: The Mark Ones. I am not surprised a once great, short series of horror movies went down the tube faster than a pop star flies off the handle. Paranormal Activity was an astounding masterpiece in modern horror, 2 was a step down but still acceptable, 3 raised it back to a great level, and 4 fell apart so hard it almost hurt. For The Marked Ones I knew I would have to watch the trailer to see if I would even consider considering spending my time and money on it. Words cannot describe how bad it looks. The trailer itself had so many cliches not just for horror and the franchise it is in, but in the genre of 'Hood' movies. Yes. The Marked Ones could be re-labeled Paranormal Activity In Da Hood and it would be more accurate. Not to say that's why it looks bad, it's all in execution and the execution of what's available looks terrible with no new ideas.

What has me really confused is that there's a listing less than a year later for a Paranormal Activity 5. 5? I thought Marked Ones was 5? Turns out Demons In Da Hood is a spin-off of the franchise. Which I was happy to find out because that gives me reason to disregard it if Paranormal Activity 5 turns out okay. And I hope 5 turns out okay. I hope they jump back from the many mistakes they made in 4, and to explain exactly what the hell happened at the end. Here's hoping Halloween 2014 can give us an okay sequel.

Speaking of horror sequels let's talk about another horror sequel... kinda. A Haunted House was a horror comedy in the spoof style of Scary Movie. I was personally surprised on how much I laughed at it despite having moments of trying way too hard. I even wrote a review on it if you want to check that out. But this year there's going to be a sequel, something that is almost guaranteed to be terrible. Don't get me wrong, sequels can be good. Hell, sequels can be great! Evil Dead 2 was way better than the first. But in more of the same vein there's The Naken Gun 2 1/2. Not as strong as the first but still a very funny movie. But A Haunted House seems pre-destined to go down the path of Scary Movie. A franchise that got worse and worse with every new attempt they did. At least they're doing it now and not trying to re-ignite an old fire that burned a decade or two earlier...

It's funny because it should be 'Too,' but they're dumb.

...oh, yeah... that's happening. On November 14th a sequel to Dumb and Dumber will be released, 20 years after the original. Before I continue I agree there's no way it could be as bad as Dumb and Dumberer, the prequel that somehow got made back in 2003. Also this one is being done by the original creators and will feature Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels again, reprising their roles. But I have so little faith this will be any good. Does it have to be the original? No of course not. Should it be funny? Well no shit it should be funny. It just blows my mind how many studios try and re-ignite the same fire that burned years earlier and sell it to the same core fanbase that has watched the original 100 million times over. There's a reason Christmas Vacation 2 was a straight to video release, because it was not gonna be any good from the start. Will I give this a try? Sure, eventually. At least my expectations are reduced a big deal so it leaves a lot of room to make me satisfied with something that's at least okay.

Other than that I have little to say on the rest of the movies. But for fun here's a quick rundown in the order they're being released:
-Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit: Will probably be to the Jack Ryan movies what The Bourne Legacy was the Bourne movies. Fine for what it is but doesn't have major impact on the franchise
-I, Frankenstein: Or as I like to call it, 'Underworld: The Frankenstein Years.' P.S. I can't stand the Underworld movies.
-RoboCop: Another remake that will piss off fans and will delight ignorant, mainstream audiences. Could have been re-labeled with an original IP and been fine.
-The Wind Rises: I'm a Ghibli Studios whore. I will definitely see this knowing they made it. That and it looks like a more mature story, which is a nice change of pace.
-Non-Stop: What could turn out to be a pretty bad ass action thriller. Would probably warrant a Redbox rental, not a full ticket price.
-Son of God: An outdated idea to re-edit a mini-series (The Bible) into a feature. Would have worked better in the 60s or 70s when the mini-series wouldn't be available on home video.
-300: Rise of an Empire: An unnecessary sequel that will probably be okay. Looks like the first one which I'm sure everyone will expect. Will probably wind up forgettable.
-The Grand Budapest Hotel: I'm sure it'll be great like all other Wes Anderson flicks. Just got a long list I'm more interested in. I'll get around to this eventually.
-Sabotage: Just try and be better than The Last Stand. That's all I ask.
-The Amazing Spider Man 2: Thought the first one was fine. No major affection for this new franchise so if I miss it I'll be okay with it.
-X-Men: Days of Future Past: See my last comment. Although I never saw First Class. Sure it's entertaining, just not interested in enough. Would rather watch other titles.
-Edge of Tomorrow: I like the concept. May Redbox if I get a rent one get one free coupon code.
-22 Jump Street: Liked the first one, we'll see what happens with this one.
-The Purge 2: The sequel to a horror movie with an amazing concept that I'm yet to see. Will have to see first one first before any real interest can go here.
-Transformers: Age of Extinction: No Shia this time? Probably because he was too busy making Lars Von Trier's new artsy erotic film, Nymphomaniac. We know what we'll see in T4. Just be more like 3 than 2.
-Planes 2: Fire and Rescue: I thought nobody liked the first one...
-Horrible Bosses 2: Never saw the first. Heard it was funny. This sequel will probably make some people laugh and others angry.
-Unbroken: Directed by Angelina Jolie, written by the Coen brothers, will probably be good objectively. Sounds more like Oscar bait to me.

More will be announced or set as the year goes on. If there's any you wanted me to comment on and I didn't then go ahead and mention it. I'd love to give an apathetic response to a movie you're looking forward to and I don't care about.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Ignorant American Gaming: Deadly Premonition: The Director's Cut

Availability/History: The game's availability coincides with its history so that's why I'm explaining it that way. The game was originally released in as Red Seeds Profile for the PS3 and XBox 360 in Japan and then as Deadly Premonition in the US but only on XBox 360, both regions in early 2010. In the US it was released as a budget title, meaning it was sold as of day one for only $20. It was after it gained a strong cult following that a Director's Cut would be released on PS3 in early 2013, no longer as a budget title, but still less expensive coming in at a $40 price tag now. That is the version I am playing. It was later released on Steam for PC in late October.

Review: I believe in a previous post somewhere I did mention how I almost imported this game before the re-release. I wanted it so badly I was almost willing to spend the extra cash. I don't have an XBox 360 so for nearly three years I was left with wanting to play but I wasn't willing to buy a 360 just for this. Well... okay I didn't know about it RIGHT away but it's similar to what happened with Tokyo Jungle. I had no reason to believe I would get an American copy and I'd have to pay out the ass for an import. I put it off and I put it off and boy am I happy I did. Not only was I able to finally get it at a cheaper price but with extra stuff, too! The director's cut is an up-res from the previous version and now supports the Playstation Move... but who the hell cares about that anyway? It also includes additional scenarios, an extended ending, and a new plot element to tell the story a bit differently than before. I never knew the previous version so this will just be what I know from the start. It's not a massive upgrade to the original game but it's still something. There's also a bunch of DLC available but it's all cosmetic and doesn't effect the overall game. Sadly no additional scenes on top of what was included in this new version or anything like that. Bummer. Wait... that's not a bummer. That's a modern game putting everything intended for the core experience on the disc. That's impressive. That the Lord this wasn't an EA game.
I was so happy I could finally play through this without importing it or buying a 360. They could have released it as it was and I would have been happy but let's move on. I have the cult following to thank for this re-release mind you. It's amazing the game survived the way it did. If you read up on the game's history you'll find that this game holds the world record for the most polarizing views on a survival horror game per Guinness. Seriously! It got reviews as low as 2/10 to a perfect 10/10. It even got game of the year awards from some sources as well as best worst game. So right off the bat it's next to impossible to tell someone if it really is any good unless you know their perspective already. To those who know me best would know I would love this game from the start. But telling you if you'll like it is really is hard to say. And now I can tell you're fascinated with this game so let's get to it.

The game opens with a pair of twin boys and an old man walking through tall grass in a forest. The old man watches over them as they race ahead and play. The two boys come up on the dead woman's body hanging from a tree with arms stretched out in a Christ-like pose. The blonde woman has nearly white skin with remnants of tears streaming down her face. Her stomach is torn open and below her torso she is covered by a long read cloth. Then as the old man catches up to the boys who are to everyone's surprise standing there not losing their shit a snake comes out from behind her and slithers up her chest. Basically she looks like this (NSFW). And that's how this game is introduced.
Shortly thereafter you are introduced to your character, an FBI agent, Francis York Morgan. It appears this is part of a series of murders or has some strange connection to some that have been happening across the country. So of course you need to handle it. He's an odd duck of a character, which is stories like this tend to be the best choice. He is constantly talking to himself... or someone named Zach I guess... but really he's all alone. It's like Zach is his imaginary friend, sub-conscious, or is it you? Hard to tell from the start. And it's usually about strange, random, unexpected topics. As a matter of fact the first time he comes on screen he is talking with "Zach" about the cartoon Tom & Jerry. So it lets you know right off the bat that not only is this game gonna be intense with the violence (from the murder victim in scene one) but also that this game is out there in tone. And let me tell you, it gets VERY out there. But I will say this... he's pretty cool in my book cause he gets his premonitions from pouring milk into his coffee.
The only other thing I'll say before I get into the game ITSELF is a comment on the plot. It is very clear this game was inspired by the TV show Twin Peaks. To those who don't know Twin Peaks was a short lived (2 seasons and a movie) show that ran in the early 90s. It was very bizarre, started with the murder of a young girl in a small town where a special investigator is sent in to aid the investigation. Go watch it cause it's a pretty amazing piece of television. Albeit it dates itself just a pinch because it was made nearly 20 years ago and TV has changed a lot since. So if you're familiar with the show and you're gonna play this game all I've got to say is try and get that out of your system as soon as possible. For the first couple hours all I could think about was how much the game felt like it. As the game progresses there will be enough to keep you from thinking about it too much.

Actually this would be fucking awesome!

Once in the game itself it's a bit of an odd one. Right from the start you feel something is a bit off. I wouldn't necessarily say the game looks cheap. I also wouldn't call it lazy. But as I continued to play not only did I spot what inspired the game in theme, but how dated the execution looked and felt.
First off, this being the updated version I only wonder how the original must have felt in reference to the things I'll mention. And of course I wouldn't expect all the problems from the first time around to be fixed with this one update. I realize with the game already being fully constructed there are some things that can't be fixed unless they started again from the ground up.
The biggest giveaway is in the visuals. While at first glance the game doesn't look terrible, a lot of what happens when in motion is what gives it away. You can see fairly ahead of you so the draw distance isn't bad. But when you see enemies coming toward you and they're far away their actions are very choppy. It's like they aren't fully rendered until they get much closer to you. Because of this you may not even realize an enemy is coming up to you until it is too late and they start to attack you. Also since your enemies appear to be leftover ghosts from The Grudge they have that slow to fast to slow movement thing going. One second they're ten feet away, but a giant leap in speed brings them up in your face in no time. If you don't know what I'm talking about just youtube the climax from The Ring when Samara crawls out of the TV (watching that clip reminds me how long it's been since I've watch that Ring).
As the story continues you run into a very wild bunch of characters kinda like that TV show I mentioned earlier. With these interactions you'll of course notice the mixed levels of voice acting. That's pretty par for the course anyway since voice acting has never been the strong suit in video games. What really caught my attention were the character designs. Again not terrible. And they're not off in the uncanny sense. They just reminded me of something. To me a lot of the characters outside of the main three (you and your cop buddies Emily and George) that this bizarre look like they were high res versions of pre-rendered characters from games of the mid-90s. To explain further cause that made them sound REALLY bad, there's a female character that has a hair style similar to Anna from the Tekken series. Go back and watch some of the pre-rendered videos that feature her from the first two games. Notice how her hair never really moves? Imagine that in a higher res, modern game while in gameplay, not a cut-scene. It looks a little off especially since the Tekken games first came out in the 90s while this game came out just a few years ago. Another good example of this would be Laura from D2 on the Dreamcast (except her hair moves a little bit more, but still not realistically). It's like they're trying to create models of real people but don't have the skills to do so to modern standards within the game. Like they got an outdated copy of video game development software. On the plus side the female lead Emily has an uncanny resemblance to Naomi Watts. That was nice to see!

I really like Naomi Watts...

Another poor visual that is simply unacceptable is some of the environmental design. So many pieces look flat and uninteresting. Unusable doors look like wallpaper and tree branches look like sticks with paper cutouts of branches hanging off. I'm not saying it has to be on the Crysis level of design but they could have at least tried a little harder to make the game look a little better. It's easy to get pulled out of the immersion when so much of the environment looks so poor and bland. Not to mention the amount of clipping and glitches that happen within that said environment. One prime example is when York uses his coffee to help him with his premotions on the case. He sits and stares as the coffee with the milk swirling around. A pre-set image that doesn't change except for the fact it spins. It is hard to believe how bad it looks when launch titles for the PS3 that had better visuals than this. I mean this looks like visuals that would have been considered cheap on the Dreamcast.
I was gonna comment on the controls but from what I've read I really shouldn't. Apparently the original version had terrible tank-like controls with a very unfriendly camera that does not lend itself to third person games. This time it has the proper third person game controls, that still work pretty sluggishly, but at least sound better than the original. Almost makes me want to play the original version just to see what it was like.

Really the game as a whole, with the exception of some of the high res visuals and open ended areas, feels like something that belongs on the Dreamcast. Specifically it made me think of Illbleed and Shenmue. Illbleed was a crazy horror game and I feel like the developers took ideas from it. The sound effects, some of the stylistic choices, even the ways the different "levels" are laid out feel similar. It could just be a coincidence but that's what it made me think of. Some of the resemblances being very uncanny. At least it is easier to fight back in this game than Illbleed. For how much I love Illbleed it had a terrible fighting system. But I have a completely separate argument for why horror games should have bad controls. It's a Catch-22 type argument.
For the Shenmue comparison it is the open world. Shenmue was very cramped while this is technically more open, but bear with me. In Shenmue there was an open world where you would have to walk to ride the bus everywhere and it was partially to make the experience more immersive as a whole. I could easily see that being the case here, and you then have the option of talking with suspects separately instead of when the story tells you to. That and buy new weapons when needed or health packs, do side missions, etc. However also like Shenmue most of the open world is next to useless to you. More so in this case. With this being a small north-western town you can expect to see a lot of nature. A lot of trees with a few fields here and there. It makes it interesting with exploring when you find an old abandoned train station or other things like that. But really it is easy to get lost in this small town especially when certain key spots are so far from each other. Sometimes down long, winding paths. And if your car runs out of gas and you don't have any flares for someone to pick you up you're gonna spend a lot of time walking to the nearest area you can find a car.
I'm all for innovation and immersion. Anything to pull me into the story more. But the gasoline thing is a huge pain. Your car's gas runs out so fast you'd think it was getting only a mile a gallon. Along with this gimmick you also need to make sure you eat, sleep, and even change clothes in order to maintain in this game. But none of them run out as fast as the gas. Even in the action sequences I never had to truly worry about having enough ammo, melee weapons, or health packs. But when it came to gas it was like it was going out of style. And the main problem I have with it is that there's only one gas station. So if you need to go to the other end of town, way out in the boondocks you better make sure your tank is full or else you may not make it there and back. It's a huge hindrance that caused me more frustration than actual mainline story missions.
Yet despite some of these unique ideas, whether they're pulled off well or not, their execution still feels dated. The open world, the design, the use of these "new" ideas, they all fall fairly flat for the most part. Like I said before this game feels like it belongs on another console. That or it feels like a launch title for a new console. It found out this new system has all these neat features, but since the developers weren't familiar with the new system they did the best they could which falls a bit short. A little like the Gundam game that came out on PS3 at launch. Looked like it would be awesome. But it was a steaming pile of poo poo. But unlike that Gundam game, Deadly Premonition is far from poo poo. It is a damn good game!

Agent Francis York Morgan and Swery agree.

Yes. Despite the many paragraphs of bashing this game it is still a brilliant game. Super under-rated and easy to see why it has a cult following. The big deciding factor in that is, you guessed it, the story. It works the same as a game or movie that mechanically works but has a shit story. In this case it has shit mechanics but a killer story. Personally I'm not huge into mysteries. I like to only get into them little by little instead of watching entire franchises based around them like Law and Order. This way it can stay rich and exciting for me. And not only is this a well constructed mystery, but it's unique and out there. It's one of those bizarre stories where there's a ton of bizarre, out of this world elements mixed in. Some may look at it and think it's just weird for the sake of being weird. But much like the work of David Lynch I can tell it is there for a reason. Whether it is an innovative way of telling the story or it is a visual representation into York's mind. I don't care, it's so great!
The out there stuff starts pretty much right away. In-between chapters you find yourself visiting a room that appears to exist in another dimension, York's mind, or even the after life. This is where he speaks to the angel representations of the two young boys that found the dead body at the beginning of our story. They'll give you cryptic clues and other bizarre anecdotes. This is also a spot where you can save the game or take care of other item organizing tasks. And that's before you even wind up meeting your co-cops on the case.
Once you're in the town you find yourself making friends and non-friends quickly. There's Emily and George who pretty much hate your guts and your methods right from the start. The owner of the hotel who is a friendly old lady. The gas station workers, one who wants to hump you and the other wants to punch you. A rocker who works at the local convenient store, a weapons salesman, the dining staff, and the list goes on. It's all very Lynchian if you've ever seen the source material... umm... I mean surprisingly similar TV show. But much like that show it is very easy to get caught up in everything despite being very left of center. I can't see a lot of people getting immersed into this game as much as I was, and those that do will need to take time for it to grow on them. Because this is definitely an acquired taste.
The way the game decides to tell the story is also very unique. It's much more than just questioning suspects and putting together the clues. What I liked was the profiling. What happens is in certain sections of the game you'll start out with York taking a large drag on his cigarette wherein he'll try and piece together what happened in the location he's investigating. Since you don't have the clues yet it comes across as a distorted image and sound slideshow. Then as you collect clues you can re-watch it and see what is now clear and where things need to be filled in. Granted you have basically no control over the results as how you find the clues are very linear. But the way it presents itself and allows you to re-watch the slideshow without it being complete adds to the immersion level of the game. It's like reading a book or watching a movie. You're trying to piece it all together without ever actually having control of what will or could happen or the way it happens.
Basically the story has enough variety and excitement to it not just in the actual plot but in the way it presents itself that you always want to see what's coming next. Even if things can drag a little at first before it gets REALLY interesting. And as with many games/movies I get really into... I want to comment on specific details of the story. Basically ruining the ending. So if you don't want to be spoiled then follow the caution signs accordingly.

I can't believe it either, York. Major spoilers ahead.

END OF GAME SPOILERS START NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

While building up to the climax of the story you learn a few things.
1. There are bizarre legends and folklore in the town. Including a huge genocide back in the 1950s by someone called The Raincoat Killer.
2. That genocide was also the results of the town (with the exception of RCK apparently) being hypnotized to be ruthless killers, killing each other.
3. There's a legend of a New Raincoat Killer and is believed to be the one who killed Anna, the girl found in the tree at the start.
4. Common clues have been red seeds, the victim has a torn out tongue, and a reversed peace symbol.
5. Once things really get rolling with the climax your main suspect is the most timid man on the police force. Thomas.

The beginning of the end starts with you, York, being kidnapped and tied up in an undisclosed location. At this point it is understood that Thomas appears to be the killer. While playing as Emily you find yourself at the clock tower above the theatre. There you fight and kill Thomas and York is rescued. However a new twist comes up that Thomas isn't the killer, and that it was George, the policeman you've been working with.
Before tracking down George, Emily is attacked by a victim of the serial murders just before their death. In this process Emily is badly hurt. York leaves her with Kaysen, a jolly plant salesman whose dog has been helping in the case with his keen scent, and tells him to take Emily to the hospital. York in the meantime tracks down George who confesses to the murders outright. His motives are for power and immortality which are obtained by following the ritual killings George, the "New Raincoat Killer" has been doing.
It appears to have worked because George was a beefy guy to begin with. Now he looks like a black metal fan whose into S&M and has a steroid problem. You fight him until he transforms into a creature even more powerful. Now he's a Dragonball Z character with his intensely glowing white hair, massive arms, and his ten foot tall stance. He is eventually defeated by his own axe, followed with being electrocuted. He dies right there in front of you burned to death. This is when York faints.
York wakes up a day later in the hospital only to find out Emily was never brought to the hospital. After some quick investigating you head to the theatre where Kaysen took Emily, who is now knocked out with her shirt open, suggesting gross happenings.
This is where the shit really hits the fan. Bear with me more than ever.
York has since fallen in love with Emily. He does what he can to save her but there's one major issue. Emily has a root sticking out of her stomach. Turns out the plants Kaysen sells are harvested by using live humans as fertilizer. It sucks the life out of them, literally. Emily begs for York to end her misery but he can't find the strength to do it. This is when flashbacks kick in. York flashes back to himself as a child to realize the same thing happened to his own mother. The image he re-experiences is his father pointing a gun at his mother much like this situation he's in now. But his father fails to end her misery and her life is given to the plant instead. Kaysen who is present, and somehow the same age, is pleased to see this as York's father shoots himself in the head.
This is also when we find out Zach IS York's split personality. York goes so far as transforming into Zach (York with white hair and a more sheepish personality) right before their eyes as he comes back to the present. Since York, now Zach, is unable to end Emily's misery she takes care of it herself. She pulls the root from her stomach killing her pretty much instantly. This saddens Zach (of course) and angers Kaysen because the root never got it's nourishment. This is when Kaysen transforms from the 350 pound man he already was into a fucking giant rubber beach ball of a man.
You fight him but he survives to transform into yet another creature. Still looking like himself but more so as a giant amphibian-like shape (I seriously tried looking for a pic but couldn't find one). You run from him to what looks like a completely different dimension on top of the clock tower. Kaysen re-emerges as a giant version of himself where you fight him to the death. In the end you kill him as he reveals himself as really being an alien-like creature. Never actually stated but he kept making comments like "You humans" and so forth. So I figured it was either an alien or a demon from hell. Leaning more toward alien.
Case is closed, you make your peace by saying goodbye to Emily, and there you go.

So.... pretty fucked up way to climax a mystery. Especially when so much of it (minus the Silent Hill/The Grudge style action sequences) felt based in reality. There was a lot of suggestion that it may have been a part of what's going on in York's head rather than what was REALLY happening. But in the end it turns out those creatures were very real and all the supernatural stuff was really there. In an even more fucked up way than you can imagine. Did I enjoy the ending? Holy crap it was exciting! I was not expecting something like that. And when you go that far out you may as well go the whole nine yards, which it did big time. I did like how the creator went out of the way to make his own thing instead of sticking with a more realistic style. Yet it could have been so good with more of a psychological perspective.
Yes the split personality thing was real. Zach held York inside, eventually becoming him in the real world as a coping mechanism to witnessing his mother's murder and father's suicide. How he became Zach again at the climax of the story worked so well. Even with his hair turning white works. It's a split personality transition that would have caused his body so much shock and stress it literally caused his hair to lose all color. Then having the fucked up shit be all in his head, like the rubber ball Kaysen for exaple. But since it was all credited as being very real I felt it hurt the story a little bit.
Another thing I didn't like was how York/Zach was connected to the events on a personal level the whole time. I wish it could have been a similar event, but not done in by the same person. When I saw that Kaysen was doing the exact same thing to Emily as he did to York/Zach's mother, I was disappointed. I felt it would have been far deeper an experience if there was the random chance element thrown in. Makes it more exciting that it could have happened to anyone but it happened to him. Something similar could have happened, but instead it was the exact same thing.
After everything I listed that happens at the climax you are treated to an epilogue. It gives you a chance to do some last minute stuff in town like side missions, which I did for the heck of it. I can go back and replay chapters to complete more of them (which I will because I want the platinum trophy), but some I was right at the end of so I figured I'd just go ahead and finish.
In the epilogue video after you do this it shows York/Zach leaving town. Then Zach is shown as an old man talking with his granddaughter (as he had been throughout the story technically). Once finished talking to her the video cuts to York (young with his dark hair and everything) with Emily sitting at the bar of the A&G diner. Anna is their waitress and the rest of the innocent victims are there, too. Becky, Carol, Diane, even Thomas (Technically innocent). Zach shows up still as an old man suggesting that he died in the REAL world and transported here. It was hammered into our head that Emily became the goddess of the forest but I can't tell if that's what the story was actually saying or if it was Zach's fondness for her that made him say that. Well this cutscene sorta suggests that, anyway.
The game end ends with York speaking with you about another case of bizarre occurrences down in New Orleans and that you and he should check it out. Teasing at a sequel, which has been rumored. How it would play out is hard to say since this game is sorta tightly knit with a conclusive ending. Unless it takes place in this other world that York, Emily, and all these other dead souls are living.

END OF GAME SPOILERS END NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The game overall is just such an amazing experience. Despite the major design flaws I rambled on about earlier. Despite the issues I had with parts of the ending in the last section you did or didn't read. I totally get the polarizing reviews. I know where I stand with it. I loved this game and want to share it with the world. The story is awesome even if it is reminiscent of Twin Peaks. You will quickly forget because you're so into what makes THIS story unique. I also love it even though the tone shift is so jarring I needed a seat belt. Seriously, sometimes it would go from tense thriller, to terrifying horror, to cop drama, to goofy comedy all in the matter of a few minutes. For the most part it's not like that, but there are times. At least the music that plays during those parts are all amazing! The main theme done on the acoustic guitar is balls to the wall great! The Andy Griffith style whistling tune is charming. And the horror tunes are scary. It all works out so well.
Not only does this game excite me, it also scares me. Seriously, this is the first time in a long time a game has actually terrified me. Part of it is unintentional, but others are definitely intentional. Something about how some of the characters move, act, even look feels so off that I find them freaky. Kinda in the same way people may find early CGI scary. Something is very off about it all. But then there are some of the scenes and character designs from the final sections of the game. The tone, the visuals, the way it all plays out, it's all pretty terrifying. I'm sure a part of it had to do with the fact that I was playing the last couple hours of the game in the middle of the night with most of the lights out... all alone. Still it stuck with me. I'm just glad I did it that way so I could get the right experience.
Probably one of the most unique and scary experiences is later in the game when (not really spoiling anything major in terms of story) you play as the Raincoat Killer himself in the streets during a flashback. You're hacking and slashing innocent citizens of the town to a sweet, soft voice singing Amazing Grace softly under the screams. Really unsettling.

The hard part about selling this game is most of the elements. I want you to go and play this RIGHT NOW! Give it a chance. No it's not "play for 20 hours for it to get good" like Final Fantasy XIII. It will take a few hours of play to get it rolling. But if you give it a chance you just may like it. Can't guarantee because it is such an acquired taste. But I would say it is likely you'll like it.
One hard part of the sale is the version you'll play because that will change with price and how the mechanics play. If you're an XBox 360 owner you can always get the first version released. It is currently for sale on Amazon for under $20 used. However you won't get the full experience with the extended ending and updated in-game mechanics like controls. If you're a PS3 owner you could get the director's cut like I played with all the extra stuff. But you're looking at dropping minimum $30 or more used (how I found it for $20 was a once in a great while thing!) for a physical copy. It should still be available on PSN for digital download but I believe for around the same price. Depends on when you check. Otherwise there's always Steam. Personally I'm a fan of owning a physical copy and prefer console for most games. But like I said you could always do Steam. At the time of writing this it is $12.50 during their winter sale, originally $25. Regardless any of this is a pretty reasonable price for what could be one of the best and most unique experiences you'll experience in recent gaming years. Not like I'm telling you to pay $60-$100 for a super rare import that is so niche that almost no one knows about or seems to like the game. It's worth a shot.

With that I will leave you with this.

Monday, November 18, 2013

I Have A Dream(cast) Review Vol. #4: Shenmue

Availability: Released on the Sega Dreamcast on December 29th 1999 in Japan, November 6th in Europe, and November 8th in America. Japan would later get a re-release titled US Shenmue on July 5th 2001. US Shenmue was essentially the American version of the game released for the Japanese audience. It included all the English voice acting and any other changes done to the American copy while still retaining some Japanese text including subtitles. Shenmue has never been ported or re-released to other consoles.

Version I Played: American release.

Review: I wonder why I'm even talking about this since this is one of the most famous titles for the Dreamcast. Well seeing as I have a Sonic Adventure review waiting in the sidelines I think it's okay. That and despite it's popularity I wonder how many of you, my readers, are even aware of what this game is about, how it plays, or if it REALLY is any good. So with that in mind I will talk about it. So... yeah, screw you I guess?

And since this game has a lot of history I want to talk about that first.
When Shenmue was first in development it was planned to be a traditional role playing game based on the characters of the Virtua Fighter series (can't imagine that would have been very interesting) with the main character being Akira. When you look at Akira and then at Ryo you can see the resemblance easily. It was also originally planned to be on the Sega Saturn, but due to the failure of the console (everywhere BUT Japan) it was never completed for said console after two years of development. The project continued on the Sega Dreamcast where it founds it's home. Also as a little easter egg you'll find Katana brand cigarettes within the Shenmue world. This is a reference to the Dreamcast's original name, Katana, appropriately.

When the game was delayed (after setting a proper release date on Dreamcast) in Japan, anyone who pre-ordered the game got a special disc on the day of the intended release called "What's Shenmue?" Now kids, this was before we could download demos onto our home consoles so pay close attention. What's Shenmue? was a demo disc of sorts to introduce the player to the way and the world of Shenmue. You got to visit limited areas and do some interacting. It worked more as a tutorial to explain what the full game would be like. Four videos were also included to help expand beyond what the demo showed.
Shenmue is not only one of my favorite games on the Dreamcast but also one of the best. When it was released it got a lot of mixed reviews, all very polarized. Many critics praised it for being so innovative. On the other hand many criticized it for being very slow moving and the poor voice acting. Yes it is true the game has some pretty terrible voice acting, at least in the states. I cannot judge the Japanese version because I don't know Japanese and wouldn't be able to tell if they're screwing up. And yes the game is very slow but it is exactly as immersive as all the overwhelmingly positive reviews were giving it. It's a mind-blowing game and nothing like it came before or since. P.S. I haven't played Shenmue II but from what I can tell it's a similar yet pretty different experience.

The biggest disappointment from Sega's end was in regard to money. The game wound up with a substantial budget of $70 Million (or $95 Million in modern dollars) which accounts for the years of production and the plans for more games. Because of this budget it was stated that at the time of release every Dreamcast owner would have to purchase the game twice for Sega to turn a profit. So while it was successful in almost every other aspect it was technically a failure in sales. But if it was a success then that would be a big chapter in video game history! Despite this "disappointment" and "failure" (so weird to say all things considering) the game was the 4th best selling game on the Dreamcast selling over a million units. It was later stated by Yu Suzuki, the game's creator, that the $70 Million was an embellishment and that it only really cost $47 Million to develop and produce.

Lastly before I get moving there was a Shenmue movie released not long after the first game came out. Now it wasn't a live action or adaptation. Nothing like that. What it was, was a 90 minute compilation of major cutscenes from the game with key fights played out by experts of the game. I have not seen it so I cannot judge the quality. In Japan it was released theatrically and in the States as a bonus DVD with Shenmue II when it came out on XBox (ugh, more on that at the end of the review).

So, this game has mega history behind it and has left quite a legacy. So what are my thoughts? Fantastic thoughts. I have so many things to say about this game I don't even know where to begin. But I think I will start with my memories of the game.
I've been a big supporter of the Dreamcast since the beginning. I even got one within two weeks of it's original release. Sadly at the time I was only 12 and was still going through a big buy/sell/trade phase with video games. So I don't have my original Dreamcast, but I have one again none the less and have been rebuilding my collection. So I was present during the Dreamcast's entire lifespan. I remember anticipating this game and I remember playing it when it was new. This is a time when I definitely was happy I subscribed to the VERY short lived Dreamcast magazine. When Shenmue came out they gave it a glowing review hitting on all the big aspects of what makes the game great. I read every word and was fascinated knowing I had to get the game as soon as possible for this incredible looking experience.
Eventually I picked it up. Keep in mind I was getting into this game in the late 90s/early 2000s. This was when the idea of a game coming on multiple discs meant you were in for one massive experience. It was true for many RPGs back on the Playstation so when I got this game and it was on three discs, I was psyched. Right away I was immersed. It was and still remains to be one of the most unique games I had ever played. This was also in a time where my interest in Anime and Japan in general was at it's peak. This was at a time when many gamers still looked to Japan as this wonderland of gaming where all the REALLY good stuff was still there while we got crap instead. So playing this ticked my fancy on a billion levels. It felt like nothing i had played made by Americans. It felt so Japanese in so many wonderful ways. Little did I realize how much of a game changer it was in Japan as well. But until I realized that this was truly a dream come true for me.
I must have played through the game many times. I even played around with the fourth disc, Shenmue Passport. The Passport was like a bonus feature for the game. It didn't include making of videos or anything like that. But you could re-watch videos and re-listen to music you've unlocked throughout the game as well as delve into further details of the game. Not only that but you could also toy around with the game's mechanics in different cutscenes but messing with the camera, weather, etc, all pretty much as a showoff of the engine Sega developed. The only thing I didn't and wasn't able to play around with were the extras available via online capabilities. I never had my Dreamcast hooked up to the internet because I didn't have much use for it and I was barely a teenager so I wouldn't be able to talk my parents into it anyway. So I don't know what that experience was like but according to resources it states there was an online manual, rankings for different sections in-game, and bonus downloadable VMU related items.
I cherished these memories so much. It's been over ten years since I first played the game. I was bummed when I found out the sequel was going to be released on XBox in the States with it being on Dreamcast EVERYWHERE ELSE! But again more on that later. So I still haven't played the sequel so I don't know what happens next. But does the experience hold up? You bet your ass it does!

The story of Shenmue goes like this. In a way it's a pretty straight up revenge tale. You play as Ryo Hazuki and live in a small Japanese town in the mid-80s. One night you run home and in your family's dojo you see your father confronted by a mysterious looking man who looks like he could be part of Yakuza or something similar. This mysterious man is demanding something known as a "Dragon Mirror," but your father keeps refusing. Giving the impression it's a very important and powerful item. Your father takes a deadly blow from this mysterious man and it winds up killing him. Sadly in the process the mirror is given up under the threat of killing Ryo. So the game starts out with you mourning the death of your father with the intent of chasing down dangerous men and uncovering the mystery of why they needed this Dragon Mirror. Pretty heavy stuff for someone who doesn't look a day over 18 at best. It is suggested he is at the end of high school so this isn't an illogical conclusion. From here you go on your investigation talking with whoever you can getting them to know whatever they know.

Okay let's talk gameplay. The game uses a gameplay approach called FREE, which stands for Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment. And let me tell you, when they say FREE they really mean it. You can go damn near anywhere in this game and it's brilliant. Obviously you can't go INTO any building but that's still true for most games today. Simply put this game did free roaming, sandbox-esque style gameplay in a 3D environment before games like Grand Theft Auto III. And it does it much more realistically. But that's not what GTAIII is all about and that's not what I want to talk about here. This review is about Shenmue, DAMMIT!
So what FREE entails is you can freely move and look around in the environment around you. You can walk through your home and dojo, searching through cabinets and drawers. In those you may find some fun extras like cassette tapes or photos of family and friends. Not everything you find is essential to the story but there will be some items so don't go ignoring exploration completely. And I think a lot of the people who would play and enjoy this game would be all over the exploration aspect. Just knowing what all you can do and in such great detail is so unique to this game. Seriously, while there may be exploration of the tiniest of spaces in modern games none of them do it as well as Shenmue does. This FREE movement does such a fantastic job at adding a sense of realism to the game. This game realizes the realism in the gameplay by deciding to own it. And you have to work around your schedule in order to make sure you're getting to the right places at the right time.
That's another thing. This game has a calendar with key scheduled events and you have to make sure you keep an eye on the time. Ryo has a notebook with important phone numbers and will make notes throughout the game to remind you what you need to do next. It is super handy and... you guessed it... adds a sense of realism. It doesn't just flash up to you all the time, either. Usually if you need a reminder on a phone number or an event that wasn't in the most recent entry you'll need to flip through the pages to find said information. Then the clock. The time goes faster than real time of course to keep the pace moving. That way you're not sitting around waiting for literally hours waiting for the next timeframe where you can do things. But this will work against you. For example if you're out late you will be scolded by your... um... mom? aunt? guardian?... I'm never really sure what role that lady plays but I'm assuming mother. That or you could be late for an appointment you made, therefore working against you again. But at least there are ways to kill time if needed.

Now this is one of my favorite parts of the game. If you need to pass some time in the game there are definite time killers. One that is obvious would be to train. You can do that in the dojo where it works like the practice mode of a regular fighting game like Tekken. You can get a list of moves and practice pulling them off. But fuck that because there are arcades in this game! Now remember that this game is already loaded with so much story and high production value. On top of that you get to play through some games in the arcades. There's a couple different darts (not sure what's different besides HOW you throw and what the board looks like), there's a boxing game, and, oh yeah, FULL! ARCADE! VERSIONS! OF! FUCKING! SPACE HARRIER AND HANG ON! This blew my mind when I got this game back at the turn of the century. Here you're already playing a fantastic Dreamcast game, and then it comes up to you and says, "Oh yeah, want to play some classic Sega arcade games, too?" It's fantastic how those games are included. You just need to make sure you watch your wallet because you will need money for this game. And until you get a job at the harbor you will only get so much money per day. But you can always win copies of Space Harrier and Hang On in the convenience store raffle drawings. Then you can go home and play them on your Sega Saturn. The most unrealistic part of the game. How does he own one nearly 10 years before it came out? That's gaming magic I guess...

And I've got to say, with all the things it crams in here it all works very well, adding to the experience many times over. You really get a sense that you're a part of the life of the character. No it doesn't have interactive speech like in Dragon Age or Mass Effect, but there's a clear story being told. Ryo is a very specific character with a very specific character arc. He's not a blank slate for you to put your face on. As fun as morality and interactivity in more modern RPGs can be I think I prefer this. I'd rather have a clear and consistent story that is solid instead of one I interact with. Because then that'll just poke holes in the story, lessening the experience. One of the very few problems I had with Persona 4. And speaking of problems... this game has them... despite being considered one of the best games ever made.

Again I cannot give Sega enough props for making every single character you encounter unique. Heck, they all have their own voice and the game never resorts to using just text. It's all spoken and everyone has a uniquely designed face as well. However the biggest problem is that you can tell some were much more inspired and thought out than others. Ryo looks great, Tom is very unique, and even the hobo at the harbor has a unique personality. But once you start to get down to the Joe Nobody you talk to off the street they all start to look similar and sound alike. Not to mention that some of the voice acting is pretty terrible. Some of these actors had no idea what they were doing. Again, the lead characters all look and sound great... for the most part... but when it comes down to it this game has aged about as well as any game with high levels of voice acting. At least it isn't Resident Evil bad. No "Jill Sandwiches" here.

Another problem with the game is a section I am glad there isn't a lot of. Combat. I do not like the combat in this game. The game was originally inspired by Virtua Fighter but something must have gotten lost along the way. The combat is terribly clunky with unresponsive controls. Chances are all the fights you go through will be cumbersome, maybe even won out of luck. I dread these sections when they come up. I didn't even like then when I first played it as a young teen. They're not fun if you ask me.
Come to think of it, in many ways the controls can hinder your experience. Generally speaking I think the controls are just fine. However you will run into plenty of moments where you're just trying to navigate around someone and you find yourself stuck in a spot that feels like you had to try and get stuck there. But one spot in particular that really pisses me off is the one stealth section of the game. Early in the game you find yourself needing to sneak into a restricted area of the harbor. You have to do it at night Metal Gear Solid style by avoiding guards. However you don't have a Metal Gear Solid style radar (as you wouldn't expect) so navigating around them is a pain in the ass. And if they spot you, you can attempt to get away but it's hardly worth it. You're pretty much caught. It's in this section when the clunky tank-like controls work against you. I must have done that spot over and over and over... at least 10 times before I got it this last playthrough.

But really those are the few complaints I have. The acting is rough around the edges, the controls can be a pain, and I hate the fighting system. Other than that... I really don't have much of any complaints. Maybe the harsh randomness of the raffle ticket drawings making me buy merch over and over again just to get the littlest of prizes but that hardly detracts from the actual game. Just the bonus stuff. Otherwise this game is so supreme, immersive, and fun! Even if it was one of the grand-daddy's of quick time events. Back then some of us thought that was pretty cool because it got us more involved in the cutscenes.

The only other thing I really want to talk about is the game's legacy. It's hard to place the game's legacy. It was well received and sold in fantastic numbers back in the day. However it doesn't seem like a mega ton of people played it. It's been considered one of the best games ever made, but if you talk to your other gamer friends about the Dreamcast they may talk more about Sonic Adventure or Soul Calibur than Shenmue. It's like it was a sleeper hit without actually being a sleeper hit. In any regard I believe this game was far more successful in Japan than it was in the states.

A part of that could be that they have so much more variety and avant garde choices, leaving them more open to new things than Americans. Shenmue came out at the turn of the century, shortly before every other AAA game was a first person shooter. Come to think of it this was released in America a year before Halo, effectively changing the entire gaming market for the worse. But going back to the success in Japan. The game was not only released over there in open arms but even a re-release happened (that I talked about in the "Availability" section of my review) called "US Shenmue" that contained all the stuff from the U.S. version of the game with some small spots still containing Japanese such as sub-titles and text in Ryo's notebook. On top of it all the Shenmue movie, which was simply a compilation of cutscenes from the game, was fucking released theatrically in Japan. That would NEVER happen here. Only a movie adaptation of a video game with at least a budget of a million-bajillion-kajillion dollars and starts whoever the hell the big action star is at the time.

Of course a sequel was made as was the intention from the start. This Shenmue ends with a cliffhanger where Ryo is finally on his way to Hong Kong to hunt down his father's killer and unlock more on the mystery he's discovered. The sequel was released on the Dreamcast in Japan and Europe but somehow missed the boat here in the states. By the time Shenmue II got released in America the Dreamcast was done for. So the game was released on XBox for some reason... you got me... didn't seem like a logical choice then and it still doesn't. Would have had a better home on the PS2, heck even the Gamecube. That's when we got the Shenmue movie on DVD as a bonus with the XBox version of the game. Cause chances are XBox owners didn't previously have a Dreamcast so they needed to get caught up on the game.

Shenmue II sold relatively well in Japan but poorly in America. No one wanted to play it on XBox, they wanted to play it on the Dreamcast. So instead many American Dreamcast owners imported the European version so they could play it the way it was intended. Causing the European version to sell in fantastic numbers. Also reviews show Shenmue II improved in many ways based on complaints of the first game. A third game was always intended but is likely never to see the light of day.

Since then there has been two other Shenmue related games, both only released in the land of the rising sun. Okay I should be technical because the first one I'll mention was actually cancelled. Shenmue Online was set to be an MMORPG set in the world of Shenmue II (so in Hong Kong instead of small town Japan). It started development in 2004 with beta testings popping up in Korea and China in 2005. After many complications the game quickly declined and has long since been considered cancelled. Really not much to report on. The other Shenmue game was similar, called Shenmue City. This was actually released in Japan but only for Smart Phones and was based entirely online. You would play as a side character of the original Shenmue and would follow along Ryo in quests and other such shit. A PC version was announced but never released. Much like Shenmue Online there's not much on the subject. Also the game had a very short life. Originally released in December 2010, but was formally shut down on December 26th 2011. I'm sure for some Japanese gamers that was the worst Christmas present they could get.

Shenmue is a pretty big deal in the gaming community that hardly gets the respect it deserves. It's a strong contender that can stand up today if modern gamers can get around the less than stellar acting and dated graphics. It's well written, well respected, and if there was a Criterion Collection for games I can guaran-damn-tee that this would be one of the first games to be a part of it. The game obviously means a lot to me, too. I look at some games as landmarks in my time as a gamer. Obviously Super Mario Brothers marks the beginning. Sonic the Hedgehog is me growing up. And so forth and so forth. But Shenmue does mark a special chapter when I was starting to expand my horizons farther than just what's familiar. It was when I first started getting interested in imports. It was when I finally saw what gaming could be, even as an art form. And that's the biggest thing. Shenmue is a fucking beautiful work of art that remains incomplete to this day.

In a dream world the entire trilogy would have been released, all of which would have been on the Dreamcast. That time has sadly come and gone and we're likely to never see Shenmue III. Honestly I don't even want there to be a new game, at least not for modern consoles. If I could have it my way there would be a special Dreamcast release. That'll never happen. Not even in a kickstarter type thing. It would cost far too much or wouldn't be of the same quality as the previous games. If there were a Shenmue III for Playstation 4 or something it wouldn't really be Shenmue III, it would be something different, if you know what I mean.
One of these days I'll be able to get around to playing Shenmue II (The European Dreamcast version. I'll never touch the XBox one). I already know it has a cliffhanger ending. Leading up to an ending that will never be seen the way it was intended. I'm not being a negative nancy here, I mean it. Even in a world where Duke Nukem Forever can finally be released and there still being some thought of Half Life 3 being made, there's no chance in hell that Shenmue III will be released. I still want to know what happens. I would love to read a script, book adaptation, whatever Yu Suzuki has in mind. But sadly I know it'll never come out the way it was intended. I've accepted that. And you know what, maybe it's better not knowing. In a way it makes it more of a magical experience.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I'm Going On An Adventure! - Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh

Back again so soon to familiar territory. As I stated in my Phantasmagoria review I started the sequel up immediately after playing through the first. I also gave a bit of a brief overview of what I was experiencing but didn't talk much about it then. But I found more to talk about than I really thought I would so I decided to make it a full on review.

A Puzzle of Flesh, while under the Phantasmagoria name has no connection to the first whatsoever. Instead the creators took an anthology sort of approach. Where each entry is different in story, character, etc, but all with connecting themes and style. It's what John Carpenter wanted to do when Halloween III: Season of the Witch was made with no Michael Myers and in a sense it's what Final Fantasy has been doing for over two decades with some exceptions. Upon first impressions, especially after spending a bunch of time with the first game, you'll find that this is definitely true in some respects. The point and click style is essentially the same. Not much if nothing has been changed from that. Everything that was changed was cosmetic and in story. Some were changed for the better... and others...

As a recap in the last game you played a woman who just moved into a fucking mansion with your photographer husband. Blah-de-blah-de-blah scary shit happens, your husband goes crazy trying to kill you and you find out it all started when the previous owner who was a magician summoned a demon to give himself more powers. It's a good example of a classic, over the top horror that had some pretty awesome bits. A Puzzle of Flesh is a bit more low key. You start the game playing as a young man living in a one bedroom apartment with his rat. He works in a cubicle at a big pharmaceutical company (at least that's what I was able to figure. They have labs and other medical-like stuff in their building.) and most of the interactions you'll have in the game are with your co-workers. From the start there are strong suggestions at insanity and that at one point your character, Curtis, had been hospitalized at one point. At least that's what the opening cutscene suggested to me.
I will say I like the change to the user interface along with the overall look of the game. You could tell they wanted to be somewhat more professional with their approach by making it much more cinematic. The entire game has a widescreen presentation with the black bars hiding the buttons for inventory and options until you hover over them. It gives a much better sense of atmosphere and depth than the last game due to the fact the last game had a huge border and buttons placed in front of you the whole game. On top of that the production value has definitely gone up. As much as I love pre-rendered backgrounds from the first game this definitely looks better having all real sets. That and the game has more characters to interact with than before. Granted they all still are on the D-level with acting but that's beside the point. Even with the bad acting you can find yourself grossly invested in the game and it is a great experience.

Now with that engrossing atmosphere I do have some problems with the story. The last game was really over the top and classical in it's horror approach. A Puzzle of Flesh feels like a psychological thriller from it's era (the 90s) with some horror elements thrown in. Not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of great movies came from the 90s. Frankly it was an awesome period for movies especially with organic special effects. It was after years of training but before CG was the norm meaning some of the most "realistic" movies came from that era. So that elements I don't have a problem with. I'll even accept that it's a departure from the original theme because the idea is for this to be an anthology. What I do have a problem with is the content.
I'm not squeemish. I don't know how much more I'll have to point that out but it's true. So when there's blood, guts, gore, suggestive content, and the list goes on I'm pretty okay with it. It's hard to gross me out or offend me. What actually bothers me when it does come to content is the appropriateness of the content. Is it there for a good reason or just there for shock value? Well as over the top the first game's violence was it fit the bill. It had that vibe and feeling that called for it. But for Puzzle of Flesh the content seems more like the writer needed to top the last game.
"Okay, let's see. We've got a guy on the brink of a mental breakdown. How did he get there. I know! His dad was killed and his mom committed suicide. But before that his mom was very abusive. Ummm... mentally and physically. Oh yeah, taboo topics. Let's make the character bisexual. But how did he get that way? I KNOW His abusive mother used to dress him up like a girl when he was a kid. Fantastic! We need something else, though, something even more shocking. Well he's got that straight laced girlfriend in the office. Maybe we could make his other female co-worker a total horndog whose into... um, into... S&M! YEAH! That'll blow the socks off the players!... now let's see, what else could I do?"
It all feels really forced for the sake of shock value. But for all the mature material that was in this game there wasn't as much violence as I was expecting. Sure there are a couple murders in the first half with lots of blood splatter. But you have to keep in mind this is the sequel to a game where a person's face is split in half with a pendulum blade and another is by being forced fed flesh causing suffocation. A Puzzle of Flesh is definitely on the shock value route but more in terms of psychological shock.

Then in the final chapter of the game everything goes in a bizarre direction that I don't think anyone was expecting.

So as I stated, the whole time you feel your character has been going insane. He has a history with mental problems so it makes sense. Something that bummed me out. Making it feel like all the fucked up stuff (minus the murders obviously) wasn't really happening. Like when demonic-looking creatures some to haunt you throughout the game. It all felt mental instead of like it was really happening. Well in the final section of the game a lot of that stuff was answered. I think it's safe to say I'm going to spoil this game big time from here on out.
So by the final chapter of the game three of your co-workers are dead, presumably by your hand. Something that is clearly not a mystery. Also you discover your father didn't die by accident, but intentionally by the company you work for while they were working on a secret project called Threshold. Lastly, you're under the impression that this Threshold project is up and running again. So after some work with getting around high clearance levels you make your way into the basement of said company. And this is where things are explained and everything... makes sense?
I think this is where I realized the writer took big inspiration from Stephen King. Don't get me wrong, I love the guy and I have most of his books. But he has this tendency to write great stories filled with deep, interesting characters who are dealing with very real problems in a realistic world. But then in the final act the story goes "Fuck it. Aliens." And that's what this game did.
Threshold is a portal into another dimension. You find out you were involved in said project as your memory slowly comes back to you while exploring the basement. But the twist is that you're actually a duplicate created as an aftermath of said project. The original you is still very much alive in this alien world. So to make a unnecessarily convoluted, long final chapter short you make your way through the portal into this other dimension where you conquer your demons and destroy your original self. It's unlike anything that came before in this game and was a nice change of pace. I must say I did enjoy this last part and I wish more of the game was like this. Crazy insane alien shit. But I don't think it would have held up throughout. One thing I will definitely point out is both my favorite and least favorite part of the game. In a game that didn't really have any puzzles outside of "which item in my inventory should I use next to progress the story" suddenly at the very end throws you THIS!

This baffled me when it came on screen. There was nothing anywhere close to this kind of puzzle earlier in the game and no indication to what I would have to do to make it work. I mean look at it! What the hell? But I was happy to see this. It meant something of a real challenge has come up instead of the same old same old just to keep the videos coming. Also there was one key thing that happens here that both frustrated me, but made me happy to see. I read about this game being really buggy back in the day so I don't know if this was intentional or not. There come a point in the puzzle where after you have the key components charged and ready to be fully powered via LASERS!... it is still possible to make a mistake and inevitably lose. However the game pulls something that hasn't been pulled yet. If I click on one key spot after a certain point the entire game crashes and returns you to Windows. Now if this was meta or bad programming I don't know. And as frustrated as I was I liked how the game was as no-bullshit as it was at the end like that. And it's easy to run across because the spot you click at that point is a logical jump. It's not hard to come across. The first time I thought there was something random and wrong. But after it kept happening I definitely knew it was happening only in that one spot damn near intentionally.
And that's really my last complaint. I wish this game had more puzzles like this throughout. The game moves at a very standard, only slightly escalated difficulty throughout. Then at the very, VERY end of the game you run into a difficulty curve so drastic you begin to wonder how it got in. It's like the programmers came up with a really intense puzzle and based a game around it. That or it was something separate that was worked into A Puzzle of Flesh for the sake of an end of game challenge.
After you solve the puzzle you have the option of two endings. The shitty one and the less shitty one that makes more sense. You can either choose to stay in the human world with a teaser that you're slowly transforming into one of the aliens. Or you can enter the alien world where you technically belong. Either way the endings are not good and do not tie up all the loose ends of the story. At least the experience was decent enough throughout to make it a brief yet enjoyable experience.

Still... I wouldn't necessarily say this is one you should go out of your way to get. If it's on sale at Good Old Games then go for it. Otherwise it's nowhere near as good of an experience as the first game or other point and click horror games. At the time of writing this I am starting The 7th Guest and I'm already enjoying the first hour more than this entire game. Another thing I don't understand is why it's a Phantasmagoria game. It didn't have to be connected, but it could have been more in line with what the first game started. Phantasmagoria is literally a theatrical term, giving it plenty of sense in the first game. But the sequel should have just been called A Puzzle of Flesh. I know, I know, Phantasmagoria was put in there for brand name recognition and I know the intentions of the creator. Still even A Puzzle of Flesh doesn't make any sense as a title. So much is wrong with this entry. Still parts of it are worth experiencing. You just may come out a bit disappointed like I did if you play it immediately after the first. A judgement I feel is justified since this is from the same people in the same... franchise? (only two were made)
...but the game does make reference to laserdiscs at one point so I can't knock it for that.